January 8, 2009

The Liberation of Palestine

And other Western fairy tales.

“Imagine that it’s 1964,” writes Deroy Murdock of National Review. “President Lyndon Baines Johnson just signed the landmark Civil Rights Act. Martin Luther King Jr. celebrates by ordering his supporters to launch missiles from black neighborhoods into white communities. Picture the rockets’ red glare as they rise from Watts and land in Beverly Hills. Up they soar in Harlem, and down they rain on the Upper West Side.”

While conceding that this is an imperfect analogy, Murdock claims that it roughly approximates the current conflict in the Gaza Strip. Just replace President Johnson with Ariel Sharon, Martin Luther King with current Hamas leaders, and the Civil Rights Act with Israel’s 2005 disengagement from Gaza—and there you have it. After the disengagement, avers Murdock, Palestinians had the “opportunity of a millennium”—a Palestinian MLK would have proclaimed, “Free at last, free at last”—and yet they repaid Israel’s generosity with a three-year-long torrent of Qassam rockets.

Murdock is just one of many court intellectuals who would have us view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in simplistic black-and-white terms, with Israel cast as the good guy and Hamas the villain, with Israel offering an olive branch in 2005 and Hamas deciding to continue its jihad.

The truth of the matter, however, is that the Palestinians were hardly liberated in 2005. Israel retained complete veto power over all Palestinian legislation, as well as control over Gaza’s borders, airspace, and territorial waters. Moreover, Gaza remained all but severed from the West Bank, with the West Bank itself divided into what Israeli writer Meron Benvenisti refers to as three bantustans.

These facts, along with the continual flux of new settlers to the West Bank,[1] sent a very clear message to the Palestinian people that the Oslo process was dead, that Israel had no intention of returning to its pre-1967 borders. It seemed, as Harvard's Sara Roy writes, that Israel’s disengagement from Gaza was merely an attempt to rid itself of “occupier status” and, as a result, obtain “international acceptance (however tacit) of Israel’s full control over the West Bank—and eventually Jerusalem—while retaining control over the Strip in a different form.”

Dov Weisglass, senior advisor to Ariel Sharon, confirmed that these were Sharon’s intentions. Speaking to Ha’aretz in 2004, Weisglass explained that the disengagement “supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.” He continued: “Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda. And all this with authority and permission. All with a [US] presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress.”

It was under these conditions that Palestinians gave Hamas an overwhelming victory in the January 2006 parliamentary elections. This has been the pattern for twenty years now: Palestinians turning to Hamas when the peace process has seemed dead but looking elsewhere when progress seemed possible.[2]

Despite all this, Charles Krauthammer recently claimed that that the only legitimate grievance the Palestinians could have had after 2005 was the existence of Israel.

The truth, however, is that the vast majority of Palestinians—72% according to a 2002 PIPA poll—are willing to accept a two-state solution. Even Hamas has expressed a willingness to peacefully co-exist with Israel. In January 2006, for instance, Hamas’ Gaza leader, Mahmoud al-Zahar, declared on CNN that Hamas would be willing to make a long-term truce with Israel if Israel withdrew to its pre-1967 borders.[3]

Though there’s no way of knowing if Hamas would have kept its word, the demand itself was reasonable. (And is, by the way, demanded by international law.) But Israel’s response to Hamas’ democratic victory was to punish the Palestinian people. First, Israel, along with the US and EU, suspended aid to the Palestinians. And second, it closed the Karni crossing, a cargo terminal in northern Gaza that Ynetnews describes as an “oxygen tube” for the Palestinian Authority, noting that “food, medicine, textile and various essential products enter Gaza through the crossing, while goods for sale or for transfer to the West Bank also pass through it.”

All this, it should be noted, occurred when Palestinians were undergoing what the World Bank considered the worst depression in modern history, a depression, Roy writes, which was “caused primarily by the long-standing Israeli restrictions that have dramatically reduced Gaza’s levels of trade and virtually cut off its labour force from their jobs inside Israel.”

It should also be noted that Israel did not implement these actions in response to ongoing violence, as Hamas had called a ceasefire at the time. Rather, Israel’s purpose was to force Hamas to (1) recognize Israel’s right to exist, (2) renounce violence, and (3) honor international agreements—all unfair, even laughable demands, given that Israel itself is unwilling to abide by them. “The idea,” Weisglass explained at the time, “is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.”

None of this, of course, justifies the Gazan militants who finally resumed firing rockets into Israel. (To show that one side of a conflict is guilty does not necessarily mean that the other side is innocent.) In the situation at hand, both IDF forces and Palestinian militants have committed atrocities and both Israeli and Palestinian civilians have suffered.

Nonetheless, most Americans believe the fairy tales told by the likes of Murdock and Krauthammer. As a result, very few are outraged that the US government continues ignoring the suffering of 1.5 million Gazans and instead places blame for the recent war entirely on Hamas. As usual, widespread ignorance and apathy have allowed all kinds of evil.


[1] Roy notes that in 2005 nearly twice as many Israelis settled in the West Bank (15,800) as left Gaza (8,475) (Roy, Failing Peace: Gaza and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict, 327).

[2] Support for Hamas, for instance, grew in 1991 when it appeared that the Madrid peace talks were failing. However, when optimism grew upon the signing of the Oslo Accord, Hamas’ popularity quickly fell (Ibid., 168).

[3] Hamas again proposed a truce in April 2008, when Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal offered a ten-year truce if Israel agreed to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders.

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