Tuesday, August 29, 2006

From JEWISH VOICES for PEACE...A view we Americans never hear on U.S. media

JVP In-Depth: Israel's Attacks on Gaza and Lebanon
Email this article Printer friendly pageFrom Gaza to Lebanon, the conflict over Israel has once again flared up into major violence, with civilians being the overwhelming majority of the victims. And, true to form, the blame game is in full swing. Cries of “they started it” can be heard loudly from all sides, and the voices talking about reasonable ways to end “it” are once again muted.
It looks very much like we are at the beginning of a long period of renewed and intensified conflict in the Middle East. It is important to understand how these events came about, and to at least try to understand the motivations of the players involved. Jewish Voice for Peace brings you this extensive in-depth analysis. There's a lot of information here, so you can use the Table of Contents below to get to the subjects you want to learn more about.
Background Palestinians Infiltrate an IDF Outpost Devastating Gaza Hizbullah Enters the Fray Israel Bombard Lebanon What Are They Thinking: Israel What Are They Thinking: Hamas What Are They Thinking: Hizbullah and Lebanon What Are They Thinking: Iran What Are They Thinking: Syria What Are They Thinking: US What You Can Do Talking Points
BackgroundThe latest chapter in this seemingly endless tragedy begins last year with the Israeli “withdrawal” from the Gaza Strip. That plan, which was more accurately called redeployment than withdrawal, was born of the new-found love affair between Israel and the idea of unilateral withdrawal. Because it was carried out unilaterally, the "withdrawal" served to undermine the existing Palestinian government, and Gaza, while left without settlements or Israeli soldiers inside it, was also left in chaos. Worse, Israel maintained full control of the borders and border crossings as well as the air and sea spaces. By closing off all routes in and out of the Strip, Israel prevented any recovery of the devastated Gazan economy. With regular shellings (which caused numerous civilian deaths and extensive damage) and fly-overs causing sonic booms, Israel also kept the population terrorized. Very little of this was reported in the media. In January, Hamas’ election upped the ante. Now, Israel and the United States had their public justification to refuse to talk with the Palestinians, even though there had been no talking even with the previous regime for years. Hamas, for their part, had to struggle with their own ideology and rhetoric. They had to find a way to be responsible leaders and represent the Palestinian people but, even though Palestinian polls all reflected a desire for Hamas to negotiate with Israel, Hamas’ own charter precluded recognizing Israel. They struggled with this, and several ideas were floated about, but Hamas was not able to resolve this dilemma before the conflict with Israel turned to still greater violence. With Israel increasing its belligerency, Hamas, like its predecessor, had neither the political motivation nor the political space to do anything to stop the regular launching of Qassam missiles at the Israeli town of Sderot. Although the overwhelming majority of these missiles landed harmlessly in the Negev desert, they did serve to unnerve the Israeli populace and cause them to demand that their government act to stop them, increasing the Israeli government’s impetus to escalate the boiling conflict with the Palestinians.In Lebanon, despite the fact that the United Nations certified a full Israeli withdrawal in 2000, Israel maintained control of the disputed Sheba'a Farms area. Interestingly, while Lebanon claims this area as its own, Israel's claim is that it is actually occupying Syrian territory. No one claims the area legitimately belongs to Israel, not even Israel. Israel's ongoing presence there has led to periodic clashes with Hezbollah since 2000. These grew more intense in May, after a car bomb killed a leader of Islamic Jihad in Lebanon. Israel is generally believed to have been behind this act, and the man arrested for it claimed to have been working for the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad. An exchange of fire followed, greatly raising tensions between Hezbollah and Israel leading up to the July 12 Hezbollah attack.
Palestinians infiltrate IDF outpost inside IsraelOn June 25, a group of Palestinian guerrillas from Hamas’ armed wing, the Popular Resistance Committees and a new group called the Islamic Army entered an Israeli army outpost on the Israeli side of the border, killing two soldiers and taking one prisoner. The day before, Israel had taken two Palestinian brothers, on charges that they were members of Hamas, but with no charges of any other wrongdoing. Israel holds 9000 Palestinian political prisoners, including hundreds of women and minors. Of these, some 1000 are held as "administrative detainees", meaning they are held without charge or trial. It was clear that the Palestinian attack the next day was, at least in part, a response to Israel's imprisonment of these two brothers, the first such Israeli action since the withdrawal the year before. From initial responses, it was also clear that the Palestinians operation was executed without the knowledge or consent of the Hamas political leadership, the leadership of the Palestinian Authority. It was orchestrated by Khaled Meshal, the most prominent leader of Hamas’ armed wing, who resides in Damascus. Meshal was being increasingly marginalized as the elected Hamas leadership became more prominent. The attack on the IDF not only restored and even increased Meshal’s prestige, but also overshadowed and undermined the agreement, announced almost simultaneously, between Fatah and Hamas on the “prisoners’ document”, a blueprint for national Palestinian unity that included an agreement to limit military activity to the Occupied Territories.But whatever one might believe about the legitimacy or wisdom of the Palestinians’ attack, the Israeli response was illegitimate. Israeli leaders themselves conceded that the attacks, initially almost exclusively against civilian targets and infrastructure, had no chance of freeing their soldier or of stopping the firing of Qassam rockets, whose range had been improved and could now reach the town of Ashkelon, which is a bit further inside Israel than Sderot.
Devastating Gaza
Israel’s assault began with bombing Gaza’s main electrical plant, leaving the majority of the Strip without electricity or running water, and crippling the ability of medical facilities to treat their patients. Israel devastated roads inside Gaza and, while the majority of the initial casualties were combatants, as the bombardment went on, the ratio of civilian casualties to combatant ones rose quickly.
Israel detained without charge dozens of Palestinian legislators, many not even affiliated with Hamas, despite the fact that Israel was well aware that the Hamas political leadership was not involved in the attack.
As of this writing (July 31) the assault on Gaza has tapered off, but is by no means ended. Israel is launcing air strikes at Gaza numerous times per week, and occasionally carrying out operatins with ground troops. The most recent casualties have been overwhelmingly civilian and it has been virtually impossible for aid or aid workers to reach the Palestinians in Gaza.
Israel has also escalated operations in the West Bank, though not nearly to the same degree as Gaza. The escalation with Lebanon means that attention is drawn away from the ongoing bombardment of Gaza, and that has allowed Israel to continue or even escalate their assault with impunity.
Hezbollah enters the frayOn July 12, Hezbollah crossed the southern Lebanese border into Israel, and attacked an IDF post. They killed three soldiers and took two. It is crucial to point out that the conditions between Israel and the Palestinians, on the one hand, and Israel and Lebanon on the other are not the same, even though the similarity of the two actions against IDF outposts draws comparisons. The Palestinians are a people under occupation and they have the right to resist that occupation, even with force. One may argue over the advisability of their action, but it was permitted under international law. This is not the case with Hezbollah. Their act was a clear violation of international law, as was their subsequent attack on civilian targets within Israel. The Israeli occupation of Sheba'a farms doesn't justify Hezbollah's incursion into Israel in this manner. Hezbollah, like Hamas, had internal reasons as well as external ones for launching its attack. Hezbollah had come under significant pressure to disarm and allow the Lebanese to deploy in the south of the country. A UN Security Council resolution did demand this, and the new, more pro-Western government was also desirous of this. While Hezbollah had attained a heroic status for having fought Israel until it ended its 18-year occupation of Southern Lebanon, that was six years ago. It was a permanent fixture in Lebanon politically, but it was beginning to look like Hezbollah's days of being able to independently run its own military affairs in Lebanon were drawing to an end. Ironically, this is what Israel claims it wants, yet its invasion has united much more of Lebanon behind Hezbollah.The Hezbollah attack precipitated a major escalation in the already dangerous situation in the Middle East. It gave Israel the excuse it needed to launch a major attack on Lebanon. It has to be unequivocally stated that, having said that Hezbollah violated international law, Israel’s immediate targeting of civilians and use of disproportionate and overwhelming force is a much greater crime. Israel completely decimated much of Lebanon's infrastructure, internally displaced some 750,000 Lebanese and the death toll at this writing is over 800, the vast majority of them civilians. In Qana, where ten years earlier Israel had bombed a refugee camp run by the UN, killing over 100 civilians, most of them women and children, Israel again caused heavy loss of life of innocents, this time killing dozens of children. In fact, Israel's invasion of Lebanon has drawn nearly universal scorn, has caused many people who are generally supportive of Israel to criticize its behavior and has severely eroded global good will to Israel. Only the fact that the United States' current government is even more fanatical than the Israeli has prevented action geared to stopping the Israeli invasion.
Israel bombards LebanonIsrael declared that the Hezbollah action constituted an act of war. As in Gaza, Israel immediately targeted the Lebanese civilian infrastructure, bombing the major Lebanese airport as well as many roads and bridges. Unlike Gaza, the death toll in Lebanon quickly rose and was almost entirely civilian. Hezbollah responded with missile attacks on Israeli cities, killing several civilians. Israel then put the Lebanese shoreline under siege and has continued its bombardment and invasion of the country. And that is where we are today. Israel is continuing its completely illegal collective punishment in Gaza, now with the eyes of the world diverted to Lebanon. Hamas’ repeated calls for negotiations have been completely ignored. The Lebanese government, a weak leadership body, has called for an immediate cease-fire between Hezbollah and Israel, but is not capable of stopping Hezbollah’s actions. Their calls for mediation and international intervention have been taken more seriously but, as usual, the United States vetoed a UN Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire.The US is not the only foreign player in these events. It’s time to look at what might be the goals and thinking of Israel, Hamas and Hezbollah as well as the US, Syria and Iran, all countries that are also involved, albeit in less visible ways.
IsraelOne thing that must be understood is just how weak Israel’s political leadership is right now. It is the military, to an extent even greater than usual, which is making the decisions regarding Gaza and Lebanon. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz are following, not leading. And they appear more than content to do so. Their own lack of military experience, itself unprecedented among Israel’s major leaders historically, leads to a lack of confidence, both on their parts and on the part of the Israeli public, in their ability to act. It certainly precludes any possibility of reason entering into the thought process. When the Palestinians successfully launched their June attack, the military was humiliated. They lashed out, determined to punish the Palestinian people for their own embarrassment. The operation in Gaza seemed to have little more rationale than that, other than to simply continue a program of trying, futilely, to beat the Palestinians into submission. While the United States and many Arab leaders might wish to see Israel destroy the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, Israel needs to concern itself with what would follow. One thing that would surely come about would be the expectation that Israel take back responsibility for administering the Palestinian territories, something they do not want (how much of that responsibility they would take is a different question). Israel has nothing to show for their attack on Gaza. Their soldier is still being held, and Qassam rockets continue to be fired at their towns. At this point, it would seem that Israel is desperately trying to show that they can force the Palestinians to surrender the soldier and their rockets. In Lebanon, the situation is different. Humiliation is not outside of this equation either. Not just the humiliation of the Hezbollah attack this week, but also the open wound from the withdrawal from Lebanon six years ago, a move the military never supported, and which the current military leadership, especially Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, sees as an embarrassment. The Hezbollah attack provided the excuse Halutz has wanted for some time to attempt to wipe out HezbollahSome have suggested that this is an attempt at regime change in Lebanon. That’s only true to a certain extent. The Lebanese Prime Minister is backed by the US. It is not a full change in government that Israel wants, but the removal of Hezbollah from that government. This would also have the effect of further diminishing Syria’s role in Lebanon (which is still considerable, even though it was diminished by the forced withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon) as well as Iran’s influence. Both countries are closely tied to Hezbollah.The trouble is that this was never a realistic possibility and that Israel has pursued only demonstrates, again, their lack of understanding of Lebanese politics and society. Hezbollah as a political party is deeply woven into Lebanese politics. As a militia, Hezbollah was losing its grip before the Israeli attack. But Israel's actions have reversed this. Now, the pro-Western Prime Minister of Lebanon tells the American Secretary of State that she is not welcome in Lebanon unless she brings a cease-fire with her and he openly thank Hezbollah, heretofore his bitter rival, for defending Lebanon. While Israel waves its flag and says it is acting for the security of its citizens, its foolhardiness and adventurism has already cost Israeli lives, on top of hundreds of Lebanese lives. And their actions are only making Israel less secure going forward.
In the days since the Palestinian attack on the IDF outpost, the military and political wings of Hamas have very much come together on their plans and actions. There has been real unity in Hamas and the message has been very clear: if Israel refuses to talk, Hamas will pursue other options. But Hamas has been equally clear about its willingness to negotiate with Israel.
Israel’s great assault on both the Palestinian infrastructure and Palestinian Authority buildings and officials have forced Hamas and the entire PA to simply hunker down and try to survive this assault. The fact that less and less attention is being paid to Gaza and the West Bank with each passing day will make that even more difficult. Still, while many parties are eager to see Hamas fall (including, but far from limited to, the US—many Arab states are eager for this as well), Israel is the only one that needs to be concerned about the repercussions of such an event. Though the bombardment of Gaza continues, including most recently the Palestinian Foreign Ministry, it has remained largely directionless. For now, the Hamas government is not in immediate danger of collapse. That could change very quickly, though.
Hezbollah and LebanonWhile Israel, as well as a great many others on all sides of this debate, is not drawing a distinction between Hezbollah and Lebanon more broadly, the two are far from the same and their interests are not identical, just as any specific political party's interests are not necessarily identical to those of the country as a whole. Many Lebanese are very supportive of what Hezbollah has done, but many are not. What is much closer to a consensus position is that Israel has no right to kill civilians and devastate Lebanon as a result. Even those opposed to what Hezbollah did are currently, and appropriately, directing their anger at Israel.The Lebanese Prime Minister is trying hard to secure a cease-fire, but divisions within the country and the huge obstacles the United States has put up to any international involvement have made that exceedingly difficult. In essence the government has been largely impotent in all of this, and, while they have not brought the national military into this conflict, continuing Israeli aggression may well force them to do so.Over the coming weeks, we may learn with much more certainty what exactly motivated Hezbollah to act now as it has. But we can explore a few different possibilities.One that has been suggested is that the Hezbollah action was motivated purely by a wish to help the besieged Palestinians in Gaza. There’s no doubt this was a factor on several levels—including many in Hezbollah who wanted to help the Palestinians, and the fact that Hezbollah is now the one Arab group that has come to the Palestinians’ side in all of this, increasing their popularity. But there have been many such opportunities in the past six years, and Hezbollah has never acted like this before, implying that there is much more to it.Hezbollah’s own position in Lebanon has been a bit more tenuous since the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling for the disbanding of all militias in Lebanon. Though Hezbollah was not named in the resolution, everyone understood that they were its prime target. With the departure of the Syrian forces that supported Hezbollah and the election of a government that was much more pro-Western than the previous, Hezbollah may well have felt even more threatened. Hezbollah still enjoys tremendous support because it is perceived (in many ways, correctly) as having driven Israel out of southern Lebanon after 18 years of Israeli occupation of that area, that was six years ago. They may have felt a need to boost their prestige and support back up.It is certain that Hezbollah would not have done this without at least the approval of Iran. Some believe, in fact, that Hezbollah did this at Iran’s behest. Hezbollah is not simply an arm of Iran, of course, but it would also be incorrect to believe that Hezbollah would take such a bold step, with so many regional implications, without at least Iran’s permission. The extent of Iran’s involvement may become clearer in the coming weeks, but in any case, it is important to examine why they might have wanted this escalation.
Iran’s role in all of this is not extremely clear, but we can be certain that they are somehow involved. On one level, the escalating tensions between Iran and Israel certainly made it much more desirable for Israel to try to cut off Iran’s agents in Lebanon, Hizbullah.
Aside from Israel, Iran is the most economically and politically stable and most powerful military in the Middle East region. Iran most certainly has ambitions of much greater regional influence, and certainly sees opposition to Israel as the best way for them to increase that influence.
With Iran under increasing US pressure for its nuclear program and knowing that the US and Israel would like nothing more than regime change in the Islamic Republic, Iran has every reason to want to act against the US and its ally, Israel. But none of those parties are eager for open warfare between Iran and Israel, let alone the US. Having Hizbullah fight Israel instead is a way to assert Iran’s influence by demonstrating that there were forces capable of opposing US-Israeli aims in the region. It is this consideration that led Saudi Arabia to bitterly condemn Hizbullah’s attack on Israel.
It is a particularly opportune moment for Iran to make such a move because of the US’ continuing stagnation in the mire of Iraq and Israel’s absorption with battling Hamas. These conditions lessen the already moderate risk of the fighting spreading to include Iran.
The same cannot be said for Syria. Israel has been increasing its antagonistic stance toward Syria for some time. In part, this is in support of US anti-terror rhetoric, and in part it is due to Bashar al-Asad’s uncertain strategy regarding Israel. This stands in contrast to his father, Hafez al-Asad, who was a stronger leader and whose agenda was much clearer. Still, Israel has also objected to American notions of de-stabilizing the Syrian regime, believing that deposing Asad would lead to a regime that was much more threatening to Israeli interests.
Since Syria’s departure from Lebanon, and despite their continuing influence in Lebanon, they have had much less influence over Hizbullah. This likely explains why Syria has made some efforts to defuse the situation. They have been engaging with both Hamas and Hizbullah to secure the release of Israeli soldiers, although these efforts have not exactly been maximal.
Israel is already beginning to threaten Syria with attack. As of now, there is no evidence that they are sending any material support to Hizbullah, but if Hizbullah is routed from Lebanon as the Israelis hope, Syria is where they will flee.
Syria is largely caught in the middle now. They are outside the world of Arab states friendly to the US. They are the only Arab country that has offered anything like significant support to Palestinian militant groups, although even that support is often vastly overstated. Yet they have also tried to mend their relations with the West, although certainly not with Israel, a reconciliation that will remain impossible as long as Israel holds the Golan Heights. They’re trying very hard to stay out of the current violence. Whether they can do so or not will probably be up to Israel.
United States
No party could have been done as much to change this entire scenario as the US. The escalation in Gaza is directly attributable to the Bush Administration’s decision to abandon the entire Israel-Palestine issue with the lone exception being efforts to undermine the legitimately elected Hamas government. Nothing dramatic would have been necessary, just keeping some slight restraint on Israeli actions and maintaining the material support on which the Palestinian people are dependent. Instead, the US acted to increase the tensions until they blew up.
That the US is fully supportive of Israel’s targeting of civilians is not a surprise. Still, the veto at the UN earlier this week of a remarkably balanced resolution that would have called not only for Israeli withdrawal from both Lebanon and Gaza, but also the return of Israel’s soldiers and the cessation of rocket fire at Israel meant that there would be no international constraints on Israel whatsoever.
The Bush Administration’s lack of any informed or clear thinking on the Middle East is bearing its poisonous fruit. Policy, such as it is, is even turned against itself. Israel’s attacks are harming the long-term stability of the Lebanese government, a government the US supports. The US’ main concern in the region is Iran, and, while Israel certainly uses Iran for rhetorical and propaganda purposes, and is definitely concerned about Iran’s nuclear potential, Israel is far more concerned about the actions of Hamas and Hizbullah. Whether this obvious fracture in US policy will have any impact on the situation remains to be seen.
As always, it is the US that has the most power to change things.
What you can do

Be a part of one of the many demonstrations that are being called
Use the talking points below for letters to the editor and to call in on radio shows discussing the current situation in the Middle East
Call your congressional representatives, the State Department and the White House with the same points
Do everything you can to educate your friends, co-workers and neighbors about what’s really happening in the Middle East
Support Jewish Voice for Peace and other groups like us so we can build the political force necessary to change US policy and make sure that things never get this bad again
Talking points

The Israeli attacks constitute collective punishment of the entire Gazan and Lebanese populations, and have created a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented proportions in Gaza.
Israel’s own leadership has admitted that the operations in both Gaza and Lebanon have virtually no hope of freeing the Israeli soldiers or stopping rocket attacks.
Gaza must not be forgotten while attention is being diverted to Lebanon.
Hizbullah’s attack on the Israeli army and its subsequent missile attacks on Israeli cities are also violations of international law. These need to be condemned, but they do not justify Israel’s subsequent actions.
Israel's assault on Gaza does not constitute a re-occupation, because Israel's occupation of Gaza never ended.
The ongoing crisis reflects the failure of Israeli unilateralism, the failure of the "Roadmap," the failure of the U.S.-orchestrated exclusion of the UN, and failure of the international community and the UN to intervene.
The Gaza escalation demonstrates once again the need for an entirely new, international (not U.S.-sponsored) diplomatic process based on international law and human rights, aimed at ending the occupation and establishing equal rights for all, the only basis for a just, lasting and comprehensive peace in the region.