The dogs of war

29 December 2008

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Almost eight years ago, George W. Bush entered office in the early months of the second Palestinian intifada. Rather than resuming the negotiations facilitated by the Clinton Administration, he chose instead to “pull out” and allow Ariel Sharon, who was favored to win the upcoming Israeli elections, a free hand to end the intifada. According to former US Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, Bush asserted that “sometimes a show of strength by one side can really clarify things.” [1] President Bush now leaves office with historically low approval ratings and an economy in shambles. As a consequence of his foreign policy misadventures, Bush also leaves the Middle East in flames and America’s reputation in tatters. Yet, one thing has remained constant for the aloof president: deference to an Israeli “show of strength” rather than diplomacy. Only a year ago, Bush hosted the Annapolis conference that “relaunched” the “peace process” and then predictably stood by as it stalled out. Unable to launch a war against Iran, capture Osama bin Laden, pacify Afghanistan or Iraq, or broker a Palestinian-Israeli peace, rather than ride into the sunset in the waning days of his presidency, Bush is determined to leave in a final blaze of malicious incompetence. As it has been so often over the past eight years, the site of his enmity is Gaza.

Similarly, in September 2000 then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, smarting from the failed Camp David negotiations and behind Sharon in the polls, determined that a disproportionate show of force, including deploying Apache helicopters to fire on residential areas, would squelch the fledgling second Palestinian intifada. Known as Israel’s most decorated soldier, Barak’s ego far outstretches his diminutive stature, and his ambitions were similarly oversized. He believed that he could force concessions on the late Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat at the negotiating table and ensure his victory in the upcoming election. Instead, the intifada increased in intensity and Barak and the Labor Party were left to wander the wilderness of Israeli politics. Now hoping to return to political relevance, Barak has masterminded a massive assault on Gaza that builds upon a crippling 18-month-long siege and is designed to dramatically weaken Hamas and reassert Israel’s “deterrence factor” in the region. [2]

His counterpart in this effort is Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who has political ambitions of her own, namely to be elected prime minister in the upcoming Israeli elections. Like Condoleezza Rice, her American counterpart and friend, Livni likes to claim that Hamas has prevented the achievement of Palestinian rights, while at the same time pursuing and implementing policies which are designed to ensure precisely that result. Like a number of her predecessors, Livni believes that a high Palestinian body count translates into victory at the Israeli polls.

For over a year Israeli politicians and generals have been threatening a massive bombing strike against Iran in attempt to reverse its nuclear program. They have also been saber rattling toward Hizballah in Lebanon, stating that should the militia attack Israel in response to the assassination of its military commander Imad Mughniyah (who was killed by a car bomb in Damascus in February), it would unleash “immense damage and destruction” across the country similar to its bombing of the Dahiya suburb of Beirut and infrastructure all over the country during the July 2006 War. [3] After all of the ominous threats in the international press, overt “military exercises” and an actual strike on a Syrian “nuclear installation,” Israel chose a much easier and softer target in Gaza — a densely packed but well mapped territory thoroughly infiltrated by informers and collaborators with no air force or anti-aircraft defenses and limited offensive weaponry that can be attacked around the clock by air with impunity.

Yet, the US and Israel would be unable to achieve their goals in the region without the complicity of corrupt and feckless Arab leaders, of which there is no dearth. The shocking images from Gaza the past 48 hours would be enough to spur action from most quarters, except apparently from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Since Hamas’ election victory in 2006, Abbas has never missed an opportunity to insult his own people in Gaza. Last year after Hamas breached the Rafah border wall and Gazans poured into neighboring Egyptian towns for supplies and a break from Israel’s siege, he referred to it as a “Palestinian occupation” of Sinai. As Israel tightened its siege of the Strip, Abbas has either refused to meet with his counterparts from Hamas or has constantly delayed and undermined negotiations by his representatives. When boats from the Free Gaza Movement attempted to breach the Israeli blockade, he referred to it is a “ridiculous game.” Now that Israel is pounding Gaza, Abbas has not cut short his travels abroad and predictably has blamed Hamas for the violence. [4]

Meanwhile, unnamed sources close to Abbas have been leaking to The Jerusalem Post that if the Hamas government in Gaza falls, PA forces could step into the breach. [5] These are the same forces which the Post revealed earlier this month were “taught over and over again” that they were not being trained to “learn to fight against the Israeli occupation.” Rather, according to US Lieutenant General Keith Dayton, who is overseeing the training of the new PA security forces, it was to focus on “the lawless elements within Palestinian society” (i.e., Hamas). [6] This revelation is hardly surprising and confirms reports over the past year in the US, Israeli, and Arab press of complicity between PA forces with Israel, the US, and the governments of Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia to topple the Hamas government and destroy its militia. It is also consistent with the actions of these forces in the PA-ruled West Bank, where Hamas members have been rounded up and arrested with frequent accusations of torture and at least one reported death in custody.

Abbas’s decisions, like those of Bush, Livni, and Barak, are also driven by a political calendar. His term as President of the Palestinian Authority expires on 9 January 2009. Hamas representatives have made it clear that they will not recognize Abbas’s legitimacy after that date. Since Hamas seized control of Gaza in June 2007 from forces loyal to Abbas’s Fatah party, the PA President and his “emergency government,” led by appointed Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, have systematically been rewriting Palestinian laws through presidential decrees. [7] In an absurd attempt to validate the extension of his rule beyond next month, the Palestine Liberation Organization, the remnants of which exist largely on paper and in decrepit offices scattered around the world and populated by hacks and sycophants loyal to Abbas, recently declared him “President of the state of Palestine,” a title formerly held by Arafat. [8] Yet, Abbas has clearly not stopped to consider exactly what the “state of Palestine” will look like should it require Israeli force to overthrow Hamas and impose a Fatah government in Gaza and ensure its rule in the West Bank.

Or perhaps he already has, and seeks to emulate his allies and patrons in Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf states. Egypt has not only been complicit in the siege of Gaza, it has benefited from the economic distress and shortages of the imprisoned and impoverished 1.5 million Palestinians in the territory. Egyptian goods, typically of poor quality, are smuggled into Gaza and sold at inflated prices through an extensive tunnel network situated near the southern city of Rafah. The tunnel trade is well documented and clearly exists with the approval of the highest Egyptian government and military authorities, who benefit financially from its existence while they threaten, ridicule and blame the Palestinians in Gaza for their plight. At the same time, Egypt actively colludes with Israel, the US and the PA to ensure that the situation in Gaza does not and will not improve. Meanwhile, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak cynically uses the issue of Palestine and the siege of Gaza to distract his people from his incompetent rule and disastrous economic policies.

While Gaza has teetered on the brink of societal collapse and a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe for more than 18 months, it was revealed last week that Jordan and Saudi Arabia had showered lavish gifts on Secretary of State Rice. [9] Coming soon after Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zeidi threw his shoes at Bush, becoming an instant hero, this stark disparity of responses to American political leaders was further evidence that while US policies may not be popular on the proverbial “Arab street,” there will always be Arab rulers willing to lick the boots of successive US administrations that help sustain their unpopular regimes.

In the wake of Saturday’s bombing of Gaza, the Arab League led by Qatar announced an emergency session would convene … at the end of the week! Qatar, which has emerged as a power broker in the region after resolving fighting in Lebanon between the government and opposition parties in May, clearly does not believe that more than 300 dead and at least 1,400 wounded requires immediate action. Or perhaps they recognize what everyone else does: that the Arab League is an empty vessel whose emergency meetings and pronouncements are utterly worthless. This is the company that Abbas keeps and this will be the future of Palestine unless Palestinians take steps to reclaim their national movement and adopt a leadership worthy of their cause and their sacrifices.

Nor has Hamas offered a viable alternative for most Palestinians and they are not blameless in this murderous assault. Their rule of Gaza bears all the hallmarks of their Fatah predecessors: long on rhetoric and short on achievement. Moreover, Hamas has behaved precisely as Fatah did in Gaza during the Oslo period and as it currently does in the West Bank, including arresting and torturing political opponents. Indeed, Hamas has been saved from its own myopia by the ruthlessness of those aligned against it, as the siege has provided the movement with a convenient excuse for its shortcomings. In an interview with Al Jazeera on Saturday, Hamas’ exiled leader Khaled Meshaal called for a “third intifada.” As has been demonstrated repeatedly in Palestinian history an intifada without a unified leadership or a strategy is doomed to fail with dire consequences for the future. Merely calling for an intifada is not the same as planning and preparing for one. If Hamas is to be a viable alternative to Abbas, it must decide if it will continue to adopt the policies and rhetoric of past Palestinian leaders where every failure is an achievement and every disastrous defeat a victory. Otherwise, they have similarly sacrificed their people on the rocks and shoals of tired slogans and empty promises.

Caught between this collection of madmen, criminals and fools are the people of Gaza, who have suffered for far too long and have paid an unbelievable price for simply being Palestinian. After more then 30 months of sanctions and siege, many have become desperately poor, living a daily reality of constant terror and deprivation that few can imagine. Yet, in the face of overwhelming cruelty and a conspiracy of silence and indifference they persevere. That they must do so is an indictment of us all.

Osamah Khalil is a doctoral candidate in US and Middle East History at the University of California, Berkeley. He can be reached at ofkhalil A T gmail D O T com.

Endnotes
[1] Ron Suskind, The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O’Neill. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.
[2] Richard Boudreaux, “Israel has learned from its failure in Lebanon,” The Los Angeles Times 29 December 2008; Ethan Bronner, “With Strikes, Israel Reminds Foes It Has Teeth.” The New York Times 29 December 2008.
[3] Amos Harel, “IDF plans to use disproportionate force in next war,” Haaretz. 5 October 2008.
[4] The Jerusalem Post, “ ‘Hamas could have prevented massacre,’” 28 December 2008.
[5] Khaled Abu Toameh, “PA ‘ready’ to take Gaza if Hamas ousted,” The Jerusalem Post, 28 December 2008.
[6] David Horovitz, “Dayton: New PA forces are the most capable ever,” The Jerusalem Post,, 11 December 2008.
[7] Reuters, “Palestinian laws get overhaul with little oversight, says the West,” 29 August 2008.
[8] Khaled Abu Toameh, “PLO declares Abbas ‘president of State of Palestine,’” The Jerusalem Post, 24 November 2008.
[9] Matthew Lee, “Arabs lavish jewels on Secretary of State Rice,” Associated Press, 23 December, 2008.

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