London Review of Books
    * 29 January 2009

Israel¹s Lies
Henry Siegman

Western governments and most of the Western media have accepted a number
of Israeli claims justifying the military assault on Gaza: that Hamas
consistently violated the six-month truce that Israel observed and then
refused to extend it; that Israel therefore had no choice but to destroy
Hamas¹s capacity to launch missiles into Israeli towns; that Hamas is a
terrorist organisation, part of a global jihadi network; and that Israel
has acted not only in its own defence but on behalf of an international
struggle by Western democracies against this network.

I am not aware of a single major American newspaper, radio station or TV
channel whose coverage of the assault on Gaza questions this version of
events. Criticism of Israel¹s actions, if any (and there has been none
from the Bush administration) , has focused instead on whether the IDF¹s
carnage is proportional to the threat it sought to counter, and whether it
is taking adequate measures to prevent civilian casualties.

Middle East peacemaking has been smothered in deceptive euphemisms, so let
me state bluntly that each of these claims is a lie. Israel, not Hamas,
violated the truce: Hamas undertook to stop firing rockets into Israel; in
return, Israel was to ease its throttlehold on Gaza. In fact, during the
truce, it tightened it further. This was confirmed not only by every
neutral international observer and NGO on the scene but by Brigadier
General (Res.) Shmuel Zakai, a former commander of the IDF¹s Gaza
Division. In an interview in Ha¹aretz on 22 December, he accused Israel¹s
government of having made a Œcentral error¹ during the tahdiyeh, the
six-month period of relative truce, by failing Œto take advantage of the
calm to improve, rather than markedly worsen, the economic plight of the
Palestinians of the Strip . . . When you create a tahdiyeh, and the
economic pressure on the Strip continues,¹ General Zakai said, Œit is
obvious that Hamas will try to reach an improved tahdiyeh, and that their
way to achieve this is resumed Qassam fire . . . You cannot just land
blows, leave the Palestinians in Gaza in the economic distress they¹re in,
and expect that Hamas will just sit around and do nothing.¹

The truce, which began in June last year and was due for renewal in
December, required both parties to refrain from violent action against the
other. Hamas had to cease its rocket assaults and prevent the firing of
rockets by other groups such as Islamic Jihad (even Israel¹s intelligence
agencies acknowledged this had been implemented with surprising
effectiveness) , and Israel had to put a stop to its targeted
assassinations and military incursions. This understanding was seriously
violated on 4 November, when the IDF entered Gaza and killed six members
of Hamas. Hamas responded by launching Qassam rockets and Grad missiles.
Even so, it offered to extend the truce, but only on condition that Israel
ended its blockade. Israel refused. It could have met its obligation to
protect its citizens by agreeing to ease the blockade, but it didn¹t even
try. It cannot be said that Israel launched its assault to protect its
citizens from rockets. It did so to protect its right to continue the
strangulation of Gaza¹s population.

Everyone seems to have forgotten that Hamas declared an end to suicide
bombings and rocket fire when it decided to join the Palestinian political
process, and largely stuck to it for more than a year. Bush publicly
welcomed that decision, citing it as an example of the success of his
campaign for democracy in the Middle East. (He had no other success to
point to.) When Hamas unexpectedly won the election, Israel and the US
immediately sought to delegitimise the result and embraced Mahmoud Abbas,
the head of Fatah, who until then had been dismissed by Israel¹s leaders
as a Œplucked chicken¹. They armed and trained his security forces to
overthrow Hamas; and when Hamas ­ brutally, to be sure ­ pre-empted this
violent attempt to reverse the result of the first honest democratic
election in the modern Middle East, Israel and the Bush administration
imposed the blockade.

Israel seeks to counter these indisputable facts by maintaining that in
withdrawing Israeli settlements from Gaza in 2005, Ariel Sharon gave Hamas
the chance to set out on the path to statehood, a chance it refused to
take; instead, it transformed Gaza into a launching-pad for firing
missiles at Israel¹s civilian population. The charge is a lie twice over.
First, for all its failings, Hamas brought to Gaza a level of law and
order unknown in recent years, and did so without the large sums of money
that donors showered on the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. It eliminated
the violent gangs and warlords who terrorised Gaza under Fatah¹s rule.
Non-observant Muslims, Christians and other minorities have more religious
freedom under Hamas rule than they would have in Saudi Arabia, for
example, or under many other Arab regimes.

The greater lie is that Sharon¹s withdrawal from Gaza was intended as a
prelude to further withdrawals and a peace agreement. This is how Sharon¹s
senior adviser Dov Weisglass, who was also his chief negotiator with the
Americans, described the withdrawal from Gaza, in an interview with
Ha¹aretz in August 2004:

    What I effectively agreed to with the Americans was that part of the
    settlements [i.e. the major settlement blocks on the West Bank] would
    not be dealt with at all, and the rest will not be dealt with until the
    Palestinians turn into Finns .  . .  The significance [of the agreement
    with the US] is the freezing of the political process.  And when you
    freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian
    state and you prevent a discussion about the refugees, the borders and
    Jerusalem.  Effectively, this whole package that is called the
    Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed from our
    agenda indefinitely.  And all this with [President Bush¹s] authority
    and permission .  . .  and the ratification of both houses of Congress.

Do the Israelis and Americans think that Palestinians don¹t read the
Israeli papers, or that when they saw what was happening on the West Bank
they couldn¹t figure out for themselves what Sharon was up to?

Israel¹s government would like the world to believe that Hamas launched
its Qassam rockets because that is what terrorists do and Hamas is a
generic terrorist group. In fact, Hamas is no more a Œterror organisation¹
(Israel¹s preferred term) than the Zionist movement was during its
struggle for a Jewish homeland. In the late 1930s and 1940s, parties
within the Zionist movement resorted to terrorist activities for strategic
reasons. According to Benny Morris, it was the Irgun that first targeted
civilians. He writes in Righteous Victims that an upsurge of Arab
terrorism in 1937 Œtriggered a wave of Irgun bombings against Arab crowds
and buses, introducing a new dimension to the conflict¹. He also documents
atrocities committed during the 1948-49 war by the IDF, admitting in a
2004 interview, published in Ha¹aretz, that material released by Israel¹s
Ministry of Defence showed that Œthere were far more Israeli acts of
massacre than I had previously thought . . . In the months of April-May
1948, units of the Haganah were given operational orders that stated
explicitly that they were to uproot the villagers, expel them, and destroy
the villages themselves.¹ In a number of Palestinian villages and towns
the IDF carried out organised executions of civilians. Asked by Ha¹aretz
whether he condemned the ethnic cleansing, Morris replied that he did not:

    A Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of
    700,000 Palestinians.  Therefore it was necessary to uproot them.
    There was no choice but to expel that population.  It was necessary to
    cleanse the hinterland and cleanse the border areas and cleanse the
    main roads.  It was necessary to cleanse the villages from which our
    convoys and our settlements were fired on.

In other words, when Jews target and kill innocent civilians to advance
their national struggle, they are patriots. When their adversaries do so,
they are terrorists.

It is too easy to describe Hamas simply as a Œterror organisation¹ . It is
a religious nationalist movement that resorts to terrorism, as the Zionist
movement did during its struggle for statehood, in the mistaken belief
that it is the only way to end an oppressive occupation and bring about a
Palestinian state. While Hamas¹s ideology formally calls for that state to
be established on the ruins of the state of Israel, this doesn¹t determine
Hamas¹s actual policies today any more than the same declaration in the
PLO charter determined Fatah¹s actions.

These are not the conclusions of an apologist for Hamas but the opinions
of the former head of Mossad and Sharon¹s national security adviser,
Ephraim Halevy. The Hamas leadership has undergone a change Œright under
our very noses¹, Halevy wrote recently in Yedioth Ahronoth, by recognising
that Œits ideological goal is not attainable and will not be in the
foreseeable future.¹ It is now ready and willing to see the establishment
of a Palestinian state within the temporary borders of 1967. Halevy noted
that while Hamas has not said how Œtemporary¹ those borders would be,
Œthey know that the moment a Palestinian state is established with their
co-operation, they will be obligated to change the rules of the game: they
will have to adopt a path that could lead them far from their original
ideological goals.¹ In an earlier article, Halevy also pointed out the
absurdity of linking Hamas to al-Qaida.

    In the eyes of al-Qaida, the members of Hamas are perceived as heretics
    due to their stated desire to participate, even indirectly, in
    processes of any understandings or agreements with Israel.  [The Hamas
    political bureau chief, Khaled] Mashal¹s declaration diametrically
    contradicts al-Qaida¹s approach, and provides Israel with an
    opportunity, perhaps a historic one, to leverage it for the better.

Why then are Israel¹s leaders so determined to destroy Hamas? Because they
believe that its leadership, unlike that of Fatah, cannot be intimidated
into accepting a peace accord that establishes a Palestinian Œstate¹ made
up of territorially disconnected entities over which Israel would be able
to retain permanent control. Control of the West Bank has been the
unwavering objective of Israel¹s military, intelligence and political
elites since the end of the Six-Day War.[*] They believe that Hamas would
not permit such a cantonisation of Palestinian territory, no matter how
long the occupation continues. They may be wrong about Abbas and his
superannuated cohorts, but they are entirely right about Hamas.

Middle East observers wonder whether Israel¹s assault on Hamas will
succeed in destroying the organisation or expelling it from Gaza. This is
an irrelevant question. If Israel plans to keep control over any future
Palestinian entity, it will never find a Palestinian partner, and even if
it succeeds in dismantling Hamas, the movement will in time be replaced by
a far more radical Palestinian opposition.

If Barack Obama picks a seasoned Middle East envoy who clings to the idea
that outsiders should not present their own proposals for a just and
sustainable peace agreement, much less press the parties to accept it, but
instead leave them to work out their differences, he will assure a future
Palestinian resistance far more extreme than Hamas ­ one likely to be
allied with al-Qaida. For the US, Europe and most of the rest of the
world, this would be the worst possible outcome. Perhaps some Israelis,
including the settler leadership, believe it would serve their purposes,
since it would provide the government with a compelling pretext to hold on
to all of Palestine. But this is a delusion that would bring about the end
of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Anthony Cordesman, one of the most reliable military analysts of the
Middle East, and a friend of Israel, argued in a 9 January report for the
Center for Strategic and International Studies that the tactical
advantages of continuing the operation in Gaza were outweighed by the
strategic cost ­ and were probably no greater than any gains Israel may
have made early in the war in selective strikes on key Hamas facilities.
ŒHas Israel somehow blundered into a steadily escalating war without a
clear strategic goal, or at least one it can credibly achieve?¹ he asks.
ŒWill Israel end in empowering an enemy in political terms that it
defeated in tactical terms? Will Israel¹s actions seriously damage the US
position in the region, any hope of peace, as well as moderate Arab
regimes and voices in the process? To be blunt, the answer so far seems to
be yes.¹ Cordesman concludes that Œany leader can take a tough stand and
claim that tactical gains are a meaningful victory. If this is all that
Olmert, Livni and Barak have for an answer, then they have disgraced
themselves and damaged their country and their friends.¹