Estelle Cooch takes a brief look at the origins of Israel’s latest assault on Gaza and argues there is more to it than humanitarian crisis
Amidst the flood of Israeli propaganda that has polluted the papers and news channels this week, few comments have been more revealing than that by the chief spokesperson for the Israeli military, Brigadier Moti Almoz, speaking on 8 July. Almoz said “We have been instructed by the political echelon to hit Hamas hard.”
Now that in itself isn’t particularly shocking. Of course Israel will “hit Hamas hard”. When have they ever said “Actually we have decided to stroke Hamas really softly and try our very best not to overthrow the Palestinians’ democratically elected government”.
But what is significant is Almoz’s entirely unsubtle passing of the buck. He is explicit – this isn’t the military’s idea – it is the politicians. They are, he implies, “just following orders”.
That there is a renewed assault on Gaza is not, in and of itself, surprising. As the apartheid regime continues to get more extreme, instances of Israel losing control and lashing out in a nationalistic frenzy are to be expected. This has been obvious since the 2008-9 Operation Cast Lead, the massacre on the Mavi Marmara ship in 2010 and the second Gaza war in November 2012. In each of these cases the Israeli media machine rolled into action, along with its military tanks, and the ruling class seemed relatively united.
But there are two slightly new features of this situation – the first is the level of crisis within the Israeli ruling class. The second is the size and speed of the reaction across the world, testimony to the growth of the BDS movement in the past few years.
To deal with the first of these the current Israeli government is a coalition between Netanyahu’s Likud party and the far-right racist Avigdor Lieberman’s Beiteinu party. Last week Lieberman threatened to dissolve the alliance because Netanyahu was being “too restrained” on Gaza.
The current crisis emerged after three Israeli settlers were found dead on 30 June. In the weeks previous to their discovery Israeli students at the University of Haifa had launched the campaign #BringBackOurBoys which helped whip up a whirlwind of nationalism.
But in an odd turn of events it has now emerged that Netanyahu had known from the start that the men were most likely dead; one of the reasons that the military and Moti Almoz had been so reticent to take responsibility for the new Gaza campaign.
As Netanyahu’s rhetoric became ever more extreme, the inevitability of an attack on Gaza became ever more likely. By the time the teenage settlers were found the facts didn’t matter anymore. It didn’t matter that the past seven years have been the quietest in Israel’s history in terms of rocket attacks. It didn’t matter that rocket firings that averaged 240 a month in 2007 had plummeted to five a month by 2013. And it certainly didn’t matter that Hamas probably weren’t even behind the kidnappings in the first place. The myth that the teenagers could still be alive, that Netanyahu himself had fostered, ultimately left Lieberman able to portray him as too soft.
There are several reasons why Netanyahu could have chosen to act now. It could be that Israel is taking advantage of General El-Sisi’s repression of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. By attacking Hamas in Gaza, Israel hopes to land a blow to the Islamist movement regionally.
It could also be that he hopes to marginalise or split the Palestinian national unity government between Hamas and Fatah which, to Netanyahu’s disgust, received diplomatic backing from Israel’s sponsors after its formation on the 2 June.
The one aspect that Netanyahu has possibly misjudged is that the attack could have been an attempt to bolster his own coalition and bring the far-right back into the fold. However, it increasingly seems that he has overplayed his hand leaving Lieberman in the stronger, more popular position, able to criticise him from the sidelines.
A final reason could be that Israel hope to break out of diplomatic isolation by a dramatic show of military strength. Their attacks on Gaza usually follow a pattern of around one-week bombardment, during which they tell the NGO’s to leave, followed by a ceasefire. There has been a major and unprecedented number of arrests of Palestinian activists within the West Bank in the past year leaving the movement within Palestine itself considerably weaker. If there is no viable negotiating partner (however unrepresentative of the Palestinians they may be) Israel can argue that the West should give up on any two-state solution.
The irresistable rise of BDS
All of this could work were it not for the dramatic growth of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. The BDS movement has come to monopolise much of the Palestine solidarity work across the globe and has given it an impetus and direction that has, at times, been lacking.
In the past year alone we have seen some quite incredible BDS victories, particularly in the US, with those bastions of radicalism, the Presbyterian church and the Bill Gates foundation, voting to divest.
Several years ago BDS victories tended to be based around solidarity with universities or campaigns against individual shops. Now, however, these victories are reaching further into the echelons of government. The French foreign ministry recently warned against French businesses doing trade with settlements and the EU banned poultry exports from the settlements in their entirety.
This has not gone unnoticed by those at the top. In a speech that led to marvel and outrage among the press, Philip Gordon, a White House adviser, admitted on 8 July that Israel’s ongoing occupation was leading to a “tsunami” of boycotts and isolation.
Media and humanitarian crisis
While the media coverage of Israel’s bombardment and the ensuing pro-Palestine protests has been lacking to say the least, some more surprising commentators have been prepared to show the horrors of what is going on. The New York Times ran a graphic photo of assaulted Palestinian American teenager Tarek Abu Khdeir on its front page last week, shocking many of its readers.
While the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen, who is far from being a spokesperson for Hamas, has described in vivid detail what he has been seen in Gaza on his twitter account.
But as those in the mainstream media are slowly forced to describe the horrors, as socialists it is worth coming back to a simple, but important, point. In the current crisis, at the time of writing, 159 Palestinians have been killed. We should, of course, fight for every one of those deaths to be treated with the same palpable outrage that one Israeli death receives. But in one sense it wouldn’t matter if half that number had been killed, or indeed if many more Israelis were dead.
What actually matters is that what has happened in the past week isn’t just one massacre within a political vacuum. What is happening in Gaza isn’t a humanitarian catastrophe, but part of the political process that began in 1948 with the founding of the state of Israel.
Massacres and nationalism aren’t incidental to Israeli politics – they are its lifeblood. And, as long as that lifeblood continues, so will the massacres.
But the last word should go to J.J. Goldberg, editor of Israeli paper The Forward, who broke the story this week that Netanyahu had known that the three teenagers were dead from the start.
If we truly aim to push Israel off the cliff that Goldberg speaks about, we need to keep up the momentum that we have seen in the past few weeks:
“Later that morning, Israel’s internal security minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch told reporters that the “political echelon has given the army a free hand.” Almoz returned to Army Radio that afternoon and confirmed that the army had “received an absolutely free hand” to act.
And how far, the interviewer asked, will the army go? “To the extent that it’s up to the army,” Almoz said, “the army is determined to restore quiet.” Will simply restoring quiet be enough? “That’s not up to us,” he said. The army will continue the operation as long as it’s told.
The operation’s army code-name, incidentally, is “Protective Edge” in English, but the original Hebrew is more revealing: Tzuk Eitan, or “solid cliff.” That, the army seems to feel, is where Israel is headed.”
For more reports on the current protests see: