Juan Cole: What's Israel's game plan?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Juan Cole teaches Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan. His most recent book Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) has just been published. He has appeared widely on television, radio and on op-ed pages as a commentator on Middle East affairs, and has a regular column at Salon.com. He has written, edited, or translated 14 books and has authored 60 journal articles. His weblog on the contemporary Middle East is Informed Comment.]

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani of Iraq has called upon Arab and Muslim nations to support the Palestinians in Gaza with more than lip service. Iran's PressTv translated the statement this way:

'"Condemning what is going on in Gaza and supporting our brothers only with words is meaningless, considering the big tragedy they are facing . . . Arab and Islamic nations need to take a decisive stance, now more than ever, to end these ongoing aggressions and to break the unjust siege imposed on the brave people of Gaza . . ."

The relatively secular governments of Egypt and Jordan do not like fundamentalist Hamas, and they are implicitly or in Egypt's case actively cooperating with Israel to weaken Hamas. Iran, which supports Hamas, is seeking a propaganda coup in the Middle East over this issue. That is to be expected. Sistani's forceful call for practical action, on the other, shows an increased militancy and self-assuredness on the part of the Shiite authorities in Iraq. The prospect of a quick US withdrawal may be helping fuel this confidence.

Aswat al-Iraq reports in Arabic that Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the leading Shiite party in parliament, also came out strongly on behalf of the Gazans.

The Israeli bombardment of Gaza entered its third day on Monday, as the prospect of a possible land invasion loomed, with Israel massing tanks on the border.

What I can't understand is the end game here. The Israelis have pledged to continue their siege of the civilians of Gaza, and have threatened to resume assassinating Hamas political leaders, along with the bombardment. The campaign of brutal assassinations launched by Ariel Sharon earlier in this decade were, Sharon, promised us, guaranteed to wipe out Hamas altogether. Do the Israelis expect the population at some point to turn against Hamas, blaming it for the blockade and the bombardment? But by destroying what was left of the Gaza middle class, surely they a throwing people into the arms of Hamas. The US experience of bombing North Vietnam and mining Haiphong Harbor, etc., was that it only stiffened Hanoi's resolve. The massive Israeli bombardment of Lebanon in 2006 did not achieve any significant objectives. In fact, Hezbollah was politically strengthened; it now sits in the Lebanese cabinet and has been recognized as a formal national guard for the south of the country. Its stock of rockets has been replenished. There is a UN buffer now, but in the past such buffers have been removed when hostilities threaten.

If the Gaza population doesn't turn on Hamas, and Israeli measures don't destroy the organization (which they helped create and fund back in the late 1980s when they wanted a foil to the secular PLO), then what? They'll just go on half-starving Gaza's children for decades? Malnourished children have diminished IQ and poor impulse control. That would make them ideal suicide bombers. Plus, sooner or later there will start to be effective boycotts of Israel in Europe and elsewhere over these war crimes. The Israeli economy would be vulnerable to such moves.

Of course, there are only 1.5 million Gazans, and they increasingly are being forced to live in Haiti-like conditions, so in the short term the Israelis can do whatever they want to them. But I can't see this ending well for the Israelis in the long term. Very few insurgencies end because one side achieves a complete military victory (I think it is about 20%). But by refusing to negotiate with Hamas, Israel and the United States leave only a military option on the table. The military option isn't going to resolve the problem by itself. Gaza is a labyrinth. Those Qassam rockets are easy to make. There is so much money sloshing around the Middle East and so many sympathetic Muslims that Gaza will be kept just barely afloat economically, making Hamas hard to dislodge. And the Israeli blockade of Gaza is so distasteful to the world that eventually there is likely to be a painful price to pay for it by the Israelis.

Among the 210 targets hit by Israeli airstrikes this weekend was the campus of the Islamic University. Israel also bombed the Interior Ministry.

The Washington Post reports a growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza, where the death toll from Israeli air strikes has reached 300 with 1300 wounded, 235 of them wounded. WaPo writes:

'Humanitarian aid groups sounded the alarm Sunday about what they described as a deteriorating medical situation in the strip and urged the opening of Gaza's borders to allow supplies to flow to hospitals. There are growing shortages of vital medicines and equipment, the aid workers said."There are hundreds of wounded in the hospitals in the Gaza Strip, and what we have received so far has only been a fraction of our need. Our supplies have been depleted, and we are in desperate need for supplies," said Iyad Nasr, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Gaza."We ask the parties to avoid striking the civilian population on both sides." '

Aljazeera English gives video on Gaza hospitals struggling to treat civilians wounded by Israeli airstrikes. The hospitals' ability to treat had already been degraded by the long Israeli blockade of Gaza.

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

230 Killed, 388 Wounded in 100 Israeli Air strikes on Gaza;
Challenge for US, Obama

Aljazeera English reports on the Israeli air strikes on Gaza, which have killed 230 persons, a third of them civilians and wounded 388. The other 2/3s were largely Palestinian policemen, as Israeli warplanes targeted 32 police stations, maintaining that they are essentially Hamas foot soldiers. The 100 air sorties killed the Gaza chief of police and other officials, including individuals Israeli intelligence had fingered as masterminds of the rocket attacks on Israel.

The outbreak of hostilities affects Americans, since al-Qaeda hit New York and the Pentagon in some important part over the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians. The airstrikes and large death toll also present a challenge to the incoming Obama administration, which may find peace-making more difficult now.

The UN Security Council held a special evening session on Saturday and issued a call for an immediate ceasefire. The attacks drew a furious response from the Arab world. Egypt, which has collaborated with Israel in blockading the Gazans, branded its partner's air strikes"murder." The US, which for some odd reason holds an irrational hatred of the Palestinians, branded the dead Gaza policemen"thugs" and blamed the massive aerial strikes solely on Hamas, the fundamentalist Muslim party that controls Gaza.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, outgoing president of the European Union, issued among the more measured responses:"The President of the Republic expresses his lively concern at the escalation of violence in the south of Israel and in the Gaza Strip. He firmly condemns the irresponsible provocations that have led to this situation as well as the use of disproportionate force. The president of the republic deplores the significant loss of civilian life and expresses his condolences to the innocent victims and their families."

Sarkozy"requests an immediate cessation of rocket fire directed at Israel as well as of Israeli bombardment of Gaza, and he calls on the parties to exercise self-restraint. He reminds everyone that there is no military solution to Gaza, and demands the implementation of a durable truce."

This statement, which I seem to be the only news source to present in full in English, seems to me to be the best issued by any head of state on this particular incident, and shames the insensitive and one-sided statement issued on behalf of the US by Gordon Johndroe.

Israel blames Hamas for primitive homemade rocket attacks on the nearby Israeli city of Sederot. In 2001-2008, these rockets killed about 15 Israelis and injured 433, and they have damaged property. In the same period, Gazan mortar attacks on Israel have killed 8 Israelis.

Since the Second Intifada broke out in 2000, Israelis have killed nearly 5000 Palestinians, nearly a thousand of them minors. Since fall of 2007, Israel has kept the 1.5 million Gazans under a blockade, interdicting food, fuel and medical supplies to one degree or another. Wreaking collective punishment on civilian populations such as hospital patients denied needed electricity is a crime of war.

The Israelis on Saturday killed 5% of all the Palestinians they have killed since the beginning of 2001! 230 people were slaughtered in a day, over 70 of them innocent civilians. In contrast, from the ceasefire Hamas announced in June, 2008 until Saturday, no Israelis had been killed by Hamas. The infliction of this sort of death toll is known in the law of war as a disproportionate response, and it is a war crime.

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Randll Reese Besch - 1/3/2009

First Bush wanted 'democracy' in Gaza despite what most everyone else said is wrong at that time. Fata wasn't ready and Hamas had a good base and was ready to expand their Da'wah to all of Gaza. When Fata lost the USA noting the blunder they were warned about so they funded and armed Fata strongman Ashmmad Dahla and his people to create a bloody coup but that failed. So the blockade and vilification so the Palestinians can't set up a free and prosperous country of their own. They are hemmed in by Israel which makes them a bantustand or a ghetto depending on how you wish to look at it.

By labeling Hamas a 'terrorist' organization they have closed the door to diplomacy and let slip the dogs of war unleashed. Now they have been starving the people in what is an open air prison with little electricity and sewer backing up into their water supplies and nearly no food and pushing them to the brink of mass death through starvation and disease. Just the kind of pressure cooker that starts spitting out the kind of 'terrorists' that Israel and the USA say they want less of. I think the Zionists (who are in power, a minority) want to extirpate or kill the Palestinians & to haul them out of Israel altogether as their long term plan to create a Greater Israel just for themselves. A one state solution.

If war should break out it could give them the time they need to strike more forcefully while the people's of the earth have their eyes elsewhere. It has happened before and can certainly happen again.

Jeff Shear - 1/3/2009

It's amazing to me that when the Palestinians in Gaza finally got their wish -- an end to the occupation -- that they purchased weapons and prepared for war. Instead of turning what may be some of the finest Mediterranean beach-side real estate in the world into a prosperous haven and tourist destination, they chose a militant Hamas government. Where's the logic? Gaza fronts an ocean paradise, but instead of creating a Miami Beach, Hamas chose to establish hell on Earth. What's the bumper sticker: "Better to Fight Than Farm"? Yes, Gaza needs security, but does that mean they must be aggressive? Does Hamas oppose peaceful prosperity for Gazans? One wonders. Is it more important for Hamas to oppose the existence of Israel than it is to create a future for the people they were elected to govern? I don't believe that Islam opposes liberal progressive thinking, or the betterment of all humanity, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. After all, the very stars above in the heavens are named by great Islamic scholars: Altair, Aldebaran, etc. So why when the chance to live in peace finally arrived did Hamas decide to maintain Gaza as a war zone? What incentive does that provide to Israel to leave the other occupied territories? What does Hamas tell the world about its values, its dreams of the future, when it chooses rockets over rebuilding? Everyone in the Middle East has blood on their hands, but Hamas has had two years to clean up and take care of its own. Instead it pursued the nonsensical idea of destroying Israel. Hamas should realize that the answer is in the stars, which their pathetic rockets can never reach.

Nicholas Clifford - 1/2/2009

I wonder whether the current outrages taking place in Gaza have anything to do with the forthcoming change of administration in the US? Do either Israel or Hamas have some reason to believe that they can strengthen their positions before the advent of a new president who might be at least a little bit closer to becoming the "honest broker" that the US has always claimed itself to be? (revealing, isn't it, that we stole that phrase from Bismarck -- at the Congress of Berlin in 1878, if memory serves).