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Understanding the International Context to the Attack on Gaza

SAMAR , Commentary, Magid Shihade Posted: Jan 09, 2009

Over twenty years ago, the poet Mahmood Darwish described the state of the Palestinians besieged and slaughtered by the Israeli military in the refugee camps in Lebanon. Darwish asked:

Where should we go after the last frontiers,
where should the birds fly after the last sky?

The earth is constantly closing in on us, he wrote further--we seem at the moment to be experiencing a replay of over-a-century of the same history of Western and Israeli policies of divide and rule, isolating, targeting, suffocating, and killing when desired. This has been the history of Palestinian suffering since before the creation of the state of Israel, that was built as part of a double colonization process with the support of Britain, initially, and later the West at large.

This round of Israeli assaults on Palestinians encamped in Gaza began more than a week ago through aerial, sea, and land bombardments killing over 500 Palestinians so far, with the numbers increasing daily, and over 2500 injured. The numbers might not seem large in themselves. Yet given that there are 1.5 million Palestinians who live in Gaza, it is much like the killing of tens of thousands of Americans, and more so, given the context of earlier Israeli rounds of attacks and killing sprees against the Palestinian people since 1948. Yet, conservative media, as well as liberal ones, continue to differ only on how much they support Israel and the relative use of the rhetoric of "self defense and security for the people of Israel..." and other cliches that parrot the official Israeli and American rhetoric.

What is the context for the current assault? Israel claims to have launched the invasion, with attacks by airplanes, as well as boat and land bombardment of the Gaza strip, because of the violation by Hamas of the ceasefire agreement. True lies (echoing the movie) Israel and its supporters believe that by repeating them, like so many other lies, will make them facts.

In the context of such "true lies," one ought to understand Israel's claim to have left Gaza in the so-called withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. To withdraw in Israeli terms, similar to the U.S. colonial and imperialist worldview, means to continue to control the borders of the Gaza Strip, including its airspace and sea borders. However, an Israeli withdrawal, in a logic that is untwisted, is in fact another step in the creation of a concentration camp, a reservation. The Israeli government continues to block the movement of Palestinians in Gaza as well as supplies of food and medicine. People cannot go anywhere, they cannot live a real life, cannot study, or just be. For this, the Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere must be thankful for the Israeli/Western modern method of control and suffocation.

Excuses are easy to make, and the Israeli state and its supporters are good at confusing lies and reality. They forget to mention that before the Palestinians were able to send rockets into southern Israel (which hardly killed anyone), before Hamas, before Fatah, before Arafat, there was occupation. The occupation and colonization of Palestine is the root of the conflict, and with it was the creation of a settler colonial state that by its very nature exists on a conflictual relationship with the native Palestinians. Its existence as such leads automatically to the continued disposession of Palestinians, continued displacement, and continued cleansing of natives. The only solution to this has nothing to do with Arafat, PLO, Fatah, or Hamas, but rather with at least an Israeli commitment to acknowledging the original sin and finding a way for Jews to live equally side by side with the Palestinians. One cannot keep killing and at the same time keep blaming his victims.

If the Palestinian responds to and challenges the continued Israeli blockade and incursions, than he/she must be a terrorist at worst, and naive, ungrateful, or savage at best. This is the twisted reality that the Palestinians and Arabs have been living. What can the Arab say to explain this? Or can the Arab speak, to use Gayatri Spivak's question? When an Arab speaks, he/she is described as rude, ungrateful, aggressive, barbaric, or, alternatively, naive and primitive, according to a Western colonial logic and discourse of modernity and civilization (read: barbarism).

The declared Israeli rationale for the war on Gaza, which is "to protect Israeli citizens," does not correspond to the facts. Since the so-called ceasefire declared months ago, hardly any Israelis were killed, while caged Palestinians in Gaza are killed in the hundreds; although, this seems to be not enough for Israeli leaders and the public's taste. This recent round of Israeli onslaughts on Gaza is just an intensification of the earlier blockade of food and medicine, as well as constant attacks on the Palestinian territories. The Israeli officials and public want the Palestinians to be thankful for these gifts of Israeli/Western modern civilization. If they cannot express their thanks, then they must remain silent, at least.

Israelis cannot hear about what they are doing to the Palestinians, and hence they constantly block international organizations, including international media, from entering the Palestinian territories. The UN human rights envoy, Richard Falk, was the last victim of such Israeli practices. Just weeks ago, he was held by Israelis in detention at the airport for 20 hours and then deported on the next plane out of the country. He should not see and report on what is happening in Gaza. Otherwise, it will be another embarrassing report that Israeli propaganda efforts will need to manage. It is also a bold attempt by Israel to send a message to the international community that they can do what other states cannot do. It is a statement of Israeli and Jewish power, one that cannot last without U.S. support.

The real causes for the recent Israeli war are many. One is the upcoming elections in Israel where the more Palestinians killed by the order of Israeli politicians, the more votes these leaders get, as recent polls in Israel after the attack show. The war is also, at least in part, a way to refurbish the Israeli image after their defeat, or more accurately non-success, in Lebanon in 2006.

A war to fix the image and damage of the previous one is something that Israel has been doing for a long time; every round of aggression is a tool to present and shape the mythical image of a powerful modern military state that should be an example for the rest of the "western world" to follow. While in fact, Israel ought to be an example not to follow; for such a state is in constant war, has no security, and no success, and without American military, political, and financial support, it would not have lasted as long. It is an example of a new form of colonialism that claims to offer liberation. It is an example of a racist military state that sustains itself only through its arms trade and foreign aid. And, it is an example of a state that wants to dictate to its neighbors without caring to live in peace with them. Israel is a state that sooner or later will destroy itself through excessive aggression, racism, and paranoia, which cannot be healthy for anyone. It is the only state that is a self-declared racist one, since it is a state of the Jewish people, not of all its citizens, of whom 20 percent are Arab Palestinians. These Palestinians in Israel live as third-class citizens in a hierarchy of racial supremacy, below the Jews coming from Asian and African countries. Israel's laws openly discriminate against Arabs and non-Jews. In addition, it is the only country that officially sanctioned torture, before the U.S. followed suit.

The Israeli strategy and the actual goals of the attack are not new, and have nothing to do with which political party leads the Palestinians. Israel's is an old strategy of hegemony, of bullying and pressuring Palestinians to accept Israeli dictates, creating facts on the ground, helping to produce and taking advantage of internal frictions and divisions, and continuing the process of ethnic cleansing of Palestine, as documented by Ilan Pappe and Nur Masalha, among others. This is a process that began with the double colonization of Palestine by Britain and by the Zionist Movement since the early 20th century, as Jeremy Salt has described, and it continues the destruction of the Palestinian society. Yet at the same time, Israel continues to play victim, a pathological pattern of "shoot and cry," to use Joseph Massad's analysis. Like the constant foreign aggressions of the U.S., Israeli aggressions are part a copycat pattern embedded in the original sin of a settler colonial state that never repented and aims at the destructions of the natives, existing in a state of constant, manufactured fear and aggression. It is like a thief or a mafia gangster who can never sleep peacefully, since the world is seen as full of enemies within and enemies without. As Israel Shahak has argued, the concept of the Goy--the Other or the non-Jew--frames Jewish, Zionist, and Israeli views of the Palestinians. The Goy is held in contempt and suspicion; his/her destruction is legitimated.

There is also the other tool that Israel uses in its assault on the Palestinian existence, otherwise termed the "peace process." This has nothing to do with real and just peace or coexistence based on equality but more with buying time, a public relations tool used as a shield against occasional external pressure and a tool for creating facts on ground (i.e. more theft of Palestinian land, more building and expansion of colonial outposts and more dispossession and displacement of Palestinians). And, hoping that with time the Palestinians might vanish from existence or at best be like Native Americans, disseminated and encamped within reservations. As Palestinians do not vanish and constantly resist, the treaties are used to claim that the Palestinians are not holding to their agreement in the peace process, which is a fabrication to postpone implementing steps that Israel must take, by claiming that there is no partner on the other side that wants peace.

In fact, Israel and other Western governments have worked to empower religious and conservative forces in the Middle East and to weaken and suppress the secular leftist and progressive nationalist Palestinian movement. Israel and its supporters claim that "what we are dealing with here is an ideology of death," never recognizing how much they contributed to the political formations they condemn, they have turned around and used it as an excuse for not negotiating with Palestinians and not solving the Palestine problem, and continue policies of oppression and aggression. They have said the same thing about Yasser Arafat, and because this is the only excuse they can use to prevent ending the colonization of Palestine, they have to manufacture, create, and invent the figure of the "absent partner, authoritarian leader, terrorist"

As Norman Finkelstein has argued after the start of the Oslo process, Israeli strategies of peace treaties are similar to American treaties historically used by U.S. governments with Native Americans as an excuse to expand their territorial acquisition and domination, and are not meant for peace at all. Yet, Palestinians understand well what happened to the Native Americans, and as Mahmood Darwish so powerfully suggests in his poem--"The Speech of the Red Indian"--the Palestinians will not be the modern replica of Native Americans, they won't be the contemporary "Red Indians."

In other words, the Israeli strategy since the "peace process," as before, is a policy of constant land theft, constant collective punishment of Palestinians, and constant encampment of Palestinians under different rubrics such as the "withdrawal from Gaza," which turned Gaza in an official prison camp, and where Israeli remains in control of borders, air and sea. When it becomes difficult for Israel to keep playing such games, it creates a governmental crisis -- a new scandal of corruption of a government official, in a long history of the most corrupt state in the world, where new elections are called for, which helps Israel to call off all its negotiations and commitments. In the process of these elections, old corrupt and criminal leaders are refurbished and introduced as the new saviors of a corrupt system. Criminals, certified as such even by Israeli courts, come to hold new posts in the new governments, and even become prime ministers, as was the case with Ariel Sharon who was found responsible for many crimes against the Palestinians, including the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Yet he was introduced as the man of peace by another American president/war criminal -- George Bush (father and son), making a mockery of world history and basic moral decency -- criminals awarding each other noble adjectives and titles.

The current Israeli criminal attack on Gaza ought to be also understood in its international context, as we live in the last stage of U.S. empire; their attacks tend to be more aggressive than ever in the post 9/11 period -- the War of Terror rather than the War on Terror. Israel is just using the same language and rhetoric to justify its actions, packaged in the nonsense of the global "war on terror," and the many special 9/11s occurring around the world. Adjusting to the historical moment and international political context, and even helping to shape them, Israel first used an old-fashioned colonial rhetoric to fit with western colonial aggressions that were sanctioned until mid-20th century, then drew on the Cold War rhetoric, and now uses the post-Cold War rhetoric of the "clash of civilizations," which Israel helped to engineer, as Jonathan Cook has argued. In this new global rhetoric of the War on Terror, and the policies implemented to fight that new/old war, every terrorist is Osama, and every Osama is a terrorist. Israeli leaders constantly claim in their public relation campaigns in the U.S.: "We are fighting what you are fighting in Afghanistan." It is supposedly the same war of "civilization against barbarism," while in reality it is the other way around.

The Israeli assault on Gaza comes also at a time when there is a favorable U.S. context, something that is important to account for when speaking about Israel because of the self-declared "special relationship" between the two countries. Support for Israel is the topic on which no party, nor any candidate or official in the U.S. seem to differ: "we are all Israel," testifying to Jewish power in the U.S. Thus, even the president with a black face, who was packaged with a liberal mantle as a community organizer, and who made sure to take Hussein out of his name, went even further than McCain in his rhetoric of support for Israeli colonialism and aggression, and in his hawkish statements about Pakistan and Afghanistan. A strange world indeed in which McCain, the hawk, sounded more sane and moderate than the dove, Obama. Yet, this is not really strange, for as Azmi Bishara wrote, Obama is the man that fits into every system, is very flexible morally, and will do anything to please the Jewish and conservative powers in this country who get into a state of ecstasy by seeing Arab and Muslim blood. This is an era where American masculinity, like Israeli masculinity, has to be proven over and over again by aggression against Muslim and Arab bodies. In this context, Israeli actions at the moment are a way to shape the future U.S. administration and make sure that the rhetoric of aggression against Pakistan, should include calculated Israeli aggression against Palestine. It is an era of overt and covert racism against Arabs and Muslims sanctioned officially and unofficially and practiced by conservatives and liberals alike.

If there is an age of indignity, where a twisted logic of the powerful presents to us death, crimes, destruction of societies and their struggling economies, and suffocation of a whole people as the contributions of modernity, civility, democracy, freedom, and liberation, than we live in that now. It is a world of camps and death that have been the legacy of Western modernity, where the victims have been the "primitive" and "savage" outsiders in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, as well as the "suspicious" and possibly "dangerous" insiders to the Western world itself.

Yet, what such power ignore is that the legacy of oppression only enforces peoples' dignity in the slums of the rich countries and the dignity of children in Latin America, Africa, Asia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine. These are those who through history, and the power to remake history, will be in the end the ones that will continue to frustrate the powerful and not let them sleep, and not allow humanity to succumb to power and force. To return once again to Darwish in his poem, "The Speech of the Red Indian":

Take my motherland by the sword!

I refuse to sign a treaty between victim and killer.

I refuse to sign a bill of sale
that takes possession
of so much as one inch of my weed patch,
of so much as one inch of my cornfield
even if it's my last salutation to the sun!

As I wade into the river wrapped in my name only
I know I'm returning to my mother's bosom
so that you, white master, can enter your Age.

Enter your brutal statues of liberty over my corpse.
Engrave your iron crosses on my stony shadow,
for soon I will rise to the height of the song
sung by those multitudes suicided by their
dispersion through history
at a mass where our voices will soar like birds:

Here strangers won
over salt and sea mixed with clouds.
Here strangers won
over corn husks within us
as they laid down their cables for
lightning and electicity.

Here's where the grieving eagle
dived to his death.
Here's where strangers won over us
leaving us nothing for the New Age.

Here our bodies evaporate, cloud by cloud, into space.
Here our spirits glow, star by star, in the sky of song.

Magid Shihade is a Visiting Professor of Contemporary Global Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. His research interests are modernity, racism, violence, and colonialism. He is a member of the Resistance Studies Network and serves on the editorial board of Resistance Studies Magazine.

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