As fragile ceasefires are announced by both Israel and Hamas, James Foley reports upon the history and geopolitical dynamics of the Middle East conflict
Tony Blair asked a disgruntled electorate to let history judge the value of the War on Terror. Already, history’s verdict is damning.
Barack Obama assumes office on January 20th on a wave of popular acclaim, but he inherits an America whose international legitimacy has never been lower. After eight years of Bush’s failed presidential policy, Obama will need to prioritise emergency repairs to America’s sinking economic foundations — bombarding “damn terrorist” villagers from 5,000 feet is a luxury America can’t afford in lean times. Despite sabre rattling on the Iranian front, the exposed masses of the Middle East might expect to rest easier for the next four years.
British diplomats quietly expelled the “War on Terror” from their vocabulary in 2006. Now, the worm truly has turned. Cabinet “boffin” David Miliband – allegedly, Blair’s real successor — admitted last week that the concept was “misleading and mistaken” and may have “done more harm than good”. “Terrorism,” Miliband has conceded, “is a deadly tactic, not an institution or an ideology.”
It might have taken eight years but finally – finally! – our rulers have reached a truly Dickensian moment of realisation. We cannot kill our way out of our many occupations in the Middle East. Or so you might have thought. Except that every night more Palestinians are killed by Israel in its relentless attempt to kill its way out of its own contradictions. Even the dead are not safe from Israel’s “War on Terror”.
As I write, Israel has unleashed its bombardment on the Sheikh Radwan cemetery in Gaza City, sending body parts and entrails from the recently deceased into surrounding Palestinian homes. Palestinians are collecting the arms, legs, and severed heads of their loved ones — in part, the remains of more than 350 children killed in the Gaza assault — and returning them to a smouldering crater in the ground. “Gaza is all a graveyard”, observed the local gravedigger. It is a graveyard that our rulers created.
The Middle East crisis is a war between two nationalisms. The Palestinians are the indigenous inhabitants of both Israel and Palestine. Most of the Arab inhabitants of Israel were expelled in 1948 and they have never been allowed to return to their homes. Palestinians are now the largest refugee population in the world, numbering over six million.
The Israelis are recent immigrants to the area. Many are the descendents of European Jews fleeing persecution; the paradoxical consequence of Jewish Emancipation in the 19th century was that the ruling classes used anti-Semitism as a diversion from the social malaise caused by early capitalist development.
The leaders of the Jewish émigré population signed a covert deal with the British to allow gradual colonisation of Palestine with the intention of creating a Jewish state of Israel in that territory. Ronald Storrs, the British governor of Jerusalem, spoke for many in the British Colonial Office when he said Israel would be “a little Jewish Ulster in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism”. To put it another way, an Israeli state would help the British Empire control the oil rich Middle East against the wishes of the native population.
Eventually, Britain succumbed to imperial overstretch, and was forced to abandon the role of colonial overlord in the Middle East to America. At the same time, it quietly dropped its overt support for Israeli domination in Palestine; the issue had become something of a nuisance. Britain had sponsored one nationalism (Jewish) in Palestine, and in the process awakened another (Arab). The result was a civil war, in which the Israelis used vicious terrorist tactics (bombing hotels, civilian homes, etc) to drive out British colonialism and, incidentally, upwards of 750,000 Palestinian civilians.
Israel, like many countries subject to European colonial domination, was founded on terrorism. To maintain its rule in a hostile environment, it has become the servant of one colonial master after another: Britain, then France, then America after 1967. The ideology that established Israel treats every Arab as a potential toxin. This establishes the true parameters of the crisis: a terrorist nationalism with quasi-messianic tendencies that will not rest until it expels every last racial poison from its territory … versus Hamas.
In the latest phase of fighting, Israel has killed more than 1,000 Palestinians, while thirteen Israelis have perished. Hospitals, schools, the United Nations, and, yes, now even graveyards are legitimate targets for Israel, because they can be used to shield Hamas’s “terrorist apparatus”. This logic really has no limit; all of Gaza supports Hamas against Israel, and thus everything is a target.
Still, many find it hard to stomach support for the Palestinian resistance, partly due to its Islamic ideology, partly due to its terrorist methods. The former objection is painfully absurd and yet repeated so often as to become a mantra. Yes, Hamas — the democratically elected government of Palestine — is a Muslim organisation. The liberators of Greece from Nazi rule were, ideologically speaking, soft Stalinists. The same can be said of the NLF/Vietcong; the FLN in Algeria; part of the Spanish resistance to Franco; Che Guevara and Fidel Castro; and the liberators of much of the African continent (FRELIMO, PAIGC, etc).
Does anyone today wish to reverse the liberation of these countries and return them to their former fascist/colonial masters so the deluded masses can have another go at establishing their liberation by the “way of Gandhi”?
Hamas’s Islamic ideology found fertile soil in Gaza because the project of secular nationalism, associated with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), failed to bring political and social advancement to the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. If limiting their tactics to botched airplane hijackings was not proof enough of the PLO’s bankruptcy, it must have been abundantly clear by the First Intifada (1987-92) when millions of ordinary Palestinians engaged the Israeli army in an open-ended, largely non-violent rebellion.
The Intifada was led by grassroots popular committees; the entire PLO leadership looked on, exiled in Tunisia, playing no discernable role. Sensing an opportunity, they used the international legitimacy created by the non-violent Intifada to negotiate, for the first time, directly with Israel.
The subsequent Treaty of Oslo was described by the late Professor Edward Said as a “Palestinian Versailles”. PLO leaders agreed to concessions that enriched themselves and their families but did nothing to ease the suffering of the Palestinians who had fought in the Intifada. Not surprisingly, the first suicide bombers arrived soon after the Oslo agreement.
It should be emphasised over and over again that the Islamic committees that formed Hamas were clandestinely sponsored by Israel in an effort to break Palestinian support for the PLO. Israel did not create Hamas, but they did feed them all the nourishment they required to grow. Another key factor, which is rarely considered, is that Palestinians were under Israeli occupation for 26 years before the first suicide bomber emerged.
Hamas, like the founders of almost every post-colonial state including Israel, uses terrorist tactics to achieve its aim. The effect of these attacks on ordinary families in Israel is doubtless severe. However, the impact should not be overemphasised. More Israelis die in road traffic accidents each year than the combined total fatalities of all suicide bombings in Israeli history. Hamas rockets have killed fifteen people since 2000; by contrast, more than 1,000 Palestinians have died in a month of this latest siege.
The Palestinians have very limited means of self-defence. Qassam rockets, their primary artillery, have a mortality rate of less than 0.4%. They are regarded by the Israeli Defence Ministry as “more of a psychological than a physical threat”. By contrast, Israel’s arsenal, buttressed by billions in military aid from America, is among the most sophisticated in the world.
Israel spends $13.3 billion per year on the military; over the past few decades, America has provided $53.3 billion to support the occupation. Hamas and the Israeli military are not comparable foes. The former is a guerrilla organisation with a negligible military budget whose strength resides in the faithful support of the Palestinian people. The latter is the fifth largest military power in the world.
In the classic 1966 film Battle of Algiers, an insurgent leader is asked, “Isn’t it a bit cowardly to use women’s baskets and handbags to carry explosive devices that kill so many innocent people?” He responds, “Doesn’t it seem to you even more cowardly to drop napalm bombs on defenceless villages, so that there are a thousand times more innocent victims? Of course, if we had your airplanes it would be a lot easier for us. Give us your bombers, and you can have our baskets.”
The message of this scene is that terrorism is a tactic of the weak against the strong. Terrorism is not, as David Miliband correctly points out, an institution or an ideology. It cannot be “attacked” any more than you can “attack” kamikaze warfare. Palestinians use terrorist methods because they have no state, no sovereignty, and no regular army. All they have to resist the Israeli occupation is their own ingenuity.
Israel was one of the first countries to jump aboard the “War on Terror” bandwagon in 2001. They argued that they faced a terrorist foe who commanded a legion of hysterical fanatics hellbent on driving the Jews into the sea. That foe was Yasser Arafat, leader of Fatah, the largest party in the PLO. Fast forward eight years, and Arafat’s successor as Commander of the Legion of Terror, Mahmoud Abbas, is a key Israeli and American ally. He also rules the West Bank as an effective dictator, excluding Hamas, the elected government, from influence.
With even David Miliband signalling the end of the “War on Terror”, it is time we talked about accountability. Open support for the Palestinian resistance is now socially acceptable: hundreds of leading academics and intellectuals signed a Guardian petition stating “Israel must lose…We must do what we can to stop Israel from winning its war”. It is increasingly recognised that opposing the atrocities in Gaza means supporting a Palestinian victory.
The Labour Party has backed and facilitated two occupations in the Middle East. To draw a line under this noxious legacy, it must be forced to take action to prevent Israel’s free reign in Gaza. Students at SOAS in London have occupied their university in support of the Palestinians.
We should back their campaign. But we need to link this to a broader campaign: to follow Venezuela in expelling the Israeli ambassador and to promote a campaign of boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel to prevent new rounds of ethnic cleansing. These are the demands we should unite around to restore Britain’s shattered international legitimacy.