March 5, 2009

Israel Doesn't Want Peace

Israel claims that its recent assault on the Gaza Strip was meant to deter Palestinian rocket fire. But now, over a month since the assault has ended, the rockets continue falling. Which most people would take as evidence that the war didn’t work and that maybe, just maybe, Israel should look for another, non-military solution.

Not surprisingly, Israeli politicians don’t see things this way. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently announced that if the rockets continue he will order a “painful, harsh, strong and uncompromising” military response. Similarly, Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu tends to see military might as the answer to every problem involving the Palestinians. These individuals, it seems, just don’t want peace.

They would say that I’m wrong, of course. They would say that they in fact made an earnest attempt to achieve peace back in 2005 when they decided to “disengage” from the Gaza Strip. Speaking before the United Nations in September of that year, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared: “Now it is the Palestinians’ turn to prove their desire for peace. The end of Israeli control over and responsibility for the Gaza Strip allows the Palestinians, if they so wish, to develop their economy and build a peace-seeking society, which is developed, free, law-abiding, transparent, and which adheres to democratic principles.”

The disengagement, however, was anything but a cause for Palestinian celebration. Israel retained control over Gaza’s borders, territorial waters, and air space. Israel reserved the right to freely enter Gaza for military purposes. Israel continued restricting access to all but a small number of individuals wishing to travel between Gaza and the West Bank. And Israel continued violating Palestinian rights in the West Bank—seizing property, building new settlements, demolishing homes, and restricting the population’s freedom of movement.

In other words, the disengagement effectively changed nothing, as Israel continued trampling on the basic human rights of millions of Palestinians. The occupation was merely given a minor facelift. As Dov Weisglass, senior advisor to Ariel Sharon, admitted, 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 [U.S.] presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress.”

So it was no surprise that militants continued firing rockets into Israel. The occupation, with all its pernicious manifestations, raged on. And many Palestinians, just as they repeatedly had over the past several decades, felt that anything less than an armed response would be useless. In January 2006, these same Palestinians, fed up with the occupation and fed up with the corrupt Fatah leadership, gave an impressive parliamentary victory to Hamas.

But it turned out that Hamas—yes, even Hamas—was now willing to talk peace. Speaking to Wolf Blitzer on January 29, Hamas co-founder Mahmoud al-Zahar offered a long-term truce if Israel, in accordance with international law, would withdraw to its pre-1967 borders. This promise was echoed by other Hamas officials, including party leader Khaled Meshal. Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh went so far as to say that Hamas would be prepared to recognize Israel.

Olmert responded to these offers, not by testing Hamas’ sincerity, but by announcing that Israel was determined to maintain a permanent presence in various parts of the West Bank. Shortly after this announcement, he declared that Israel would be withholding around $50 million in Palestinian Authority tax revenues. IDF raids in the Occupied Territories continued, and Palestinian militants continued firing rockets in retaliation.

Then in June of last year, Egypt brokered a six-month ceasefire in which both Israel and Hamas agreed to end all hostilities; Israel additionally agreed to end its blockade on all but weapons-related goods going into Gaza. To many people’s surprise, Hamas kept its end of the bargain. According to the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, a decidedly right-wing organization with close ties to the Israeli government, once the ceasefire went into effect, Hamas did not fire any rockets into Israel and even tried to stop various militant groups from doing so. Consequently, rocket fire came to a virtual halt.

Now you’d think that Israel’s leaders would have been pleased by this. You’d think that, for the sake of their citizens’ safety, they would have made sure to keep their end of the agreement. They chose not to, however. First of all, they only slightly eased the blockade. And then on November 4, IDF forces entered Gaza, purportedly to blow up a tunnel, and ended up killing six Hamas gunmen.

Predictably, intermittent fighting between the two sides resumed, and Israel again tightened the blockade. In mid-December, Hams attempted to renew the ceasefire. But Israel was not interested. (The IDF, it’s now known, had spent the previous six months preparing for war.)

And that pretty much brings us up to date. Today, after three years of half-starving the Gazan people, after Operations Summer Rains and Autumn Clouds, after making and then breaking a ceasefire with Hamas, after Operation Cast Lead, Israeli citizens find themselves no better off than before, with rockets continuing to fall in southern Israel. Yet its leaders insist on staying the course, dropping more bombs and preventing things like pasta, school notebooks, and hearing aids from entering Gaza.

It doesn’t take a genius to realize what the outcome of this militaristic policy will be; it will be exactly the same as it has been for the past sixty years. Violence only begets more violence. The more the IDF brutalizes the Palestinians, the more eager Palestinian militants will be to murder Israeli civilians.

So why do Israeli politicians continue to reject peace? As Norman Finkelstein suggests, the answer can only be that they don’t want peace. Or to be more precise, they don’t want some of the consequences of having peace, one of which would be increased international pressure to withdraw from the West Bank.

Now I’m not accusing Israeli politicians of being especially malicious. I’m simply suggesting that, like all people, they’re guided by the principle of self-interest. Therefore, it’s no surprise that they want to keep the West Bank, which affords all kinds of material benefits. As long as Palestinian terrorism continues, Israel can keep convincing the international community that it’s entitled to continue the occupation. After all, Israeli politicians claim, they can’t be expected to hand over all this land to a group of terrorists. So, provided that this terrorism doesn’t result in too many Israeli deaths, Israel’s leaders have no incentive for ending it.

So what’s the answer? What can we do to help end this disaster? I wish I had a brilliant, foolproof plan. But I don’t. I can only suggest that we pray. And we need to educate ourselves and others. And we need to petition our representatives in the Congress to stop funding the Israeli war machine. And then we need to pray some more.

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