I have referred to the Gaza ‘war’ in my title but we might question whether it really deserves this label. Hamas have managed to kill only 6 Israeli soldiers, only 2 more than the Israelis themselves with ‘friendly fire’. Their rockets have killed 3 more Israeli civilians: this side of their activity is militarily completely pointness, although naturally it brings real fear to civilians in those parts of Israel within range, and so provides the Israeli government with its casus belli. The real story therefore is an almost one-sided assault on Gaza with a death toll of almost 1000 at the time of writing, several thousand wounded, huge damage to the civilian infrastructure and society and a state of terror in which a million and a half civilians, including hundreds of thousands of children, are trapped without even the possibility of flight. To conclude the commentary on Hamas: these consequences of their pathetic rocket fire demonstrate their huge irresponsibility and underlying indifference to the fate of their people.
But the real questions concern Israel’s campaign. Clearly Israel had to do something about the rockets, but as Avi Shlaim argues it did not have to do this. For a start it shouldn’t have broken the ceasefire by attacking Hamas militants, which precipitated new rocket attacks. And before that it should have recognised the Hamas administration in Gaza when it was elected, and talked to it as well as to the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. The idea that you can’t talk to Hamas because they are ‘terrorists’ is as absurd as the idea that you can’t talk to Israel because it practices (much greater) violence against Palestinian civilians. Of course talking would have meant that Israel would have had, sooner or later, to address justified Palestinian claims for concessions on the underlying injustices of the the Palestine situation – but there is no other way to peace.
What Israel has done instead is to assault Gaza, one of the most densely populated places on earth, from the air and sea and on the ground. Israel claims to be pursuing Hamas, to have killed hundreds of its militants and to be doing its utmost to avoid civilian harm. However we know (despite Israel’s restrictions on international media access) that there have been enormous civilian casualties. Several high-profile incidents suggest that in reality care for civilians has been minimal, and both the Red Cross and United Nations agencies have called for investigations with a view to charges of war crimes. Even if Israel has attempted to discriminate in its massive violence, the simple fact that Hamas militants live within dense urban populations means that it is not possible to attack Hamas without also causing massive civilian harm.
Jonathan Freedland argues that ‘Britons and Americans have no cause for self-righteousness. The scale of the Israeli offensive is shocking, and yet the killing is not of a greater order than that of the two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which our very own British troops are taking part. I spoke yesterday with one foreign diplomat based in Jerusalem who recalled how, during an earlier posting in Afghanistan, he had seen the remains of an entire village razed to the ground by American fighter jets in pursuit of a couple of Taliban commanders. “All that was left was rubble and body parts,” he says now. Seen in the context of the last seven years, the grim truth is that Israelis are not guilty of a unique crime in Gaza.’
There is much to what Freedland says. But Israel’s violence goes beyond the hypocritical risk-transfers of the ‘new western way of war’ practiced by the USA and UK. Whereas the West certainly attacks its armed enemies in such a way as to cause ‘accidental’ civilian harm, exposing civilians to greater risk than soldiers, Israel now has a substantial record of targeting civilian populations as such, both by economic and military means. In 2006, it was clear that the huge damage Israel caused to Lebanon’s infrastructure, and the massive population movements caused, were intended to pressurise the population into marginalising if not punishing Hizbollah. Likewise in Gaza: Israel imposed a harsh blockade as punishment for Gaza’s election of Hamas, restricting the entry and exit of Gaza residents as well as of food, medical supplies and other goods essential for economic and social life of the territory. As Richard Falk, the UN Rapporteur for the Palestinian territories, says, ‘There is a consensus among independent legal experts that Israel is an occupying power and is therefore bound by the duties set out in the fourth Geneva convention. The arguments that Israel’s blockade is a form of prohibited collective punishment, and that it is in breach of its duty to ensure the population has sufficient food and healthcare as the occupying power, are very strong.’
What seems incontestable is that the war is a continuation of this policy of collective punishment. Israel says it wants to destroy Hamas’s capacity to deliver its rockets: while certainly it is attempting to weaken Hamas militarily, Israel knows that it is impossible to prevent it ever launching rockets, by this type of action. No: Israel’s extensive harm to civilians is not just the accidental fall-out from its attack on Hamas. It has been so integral to its campaign that it is impossible not to see it in the same light as the blockade: Israel has decided that since economic punishment did not stop many Gazans from supporting Hamas, military punishment is necessary to complete the job. The rows of dead children, the terrorised populations, the overflowing hospitals, all are part of Israel’s strategy to subdue the Palestinians of Gaza and compel them to withdraw their consent from Hamas.
Moreover within this campaign, there seems to be an ominous element of targeted mass killing of anyone associated with Hamas as a political organisation. Israel’s violence has been directed not just at armed militants but all who are linked to the local state apparatus that Hamas controls – hence the massacre of policemen. This almost seems to be moving in the direction of a kind of ‘politicide’, or genocide of a political group, within the larger violence against the whole civilian population, summed up in Binyamin Netanyahu‘s idea of ‘removing’ Hamas from Gaza altogether.
Taken as a whole, this kind of war is even worse than what the West is doing in Afghanistan. It is of a kind, rather, with the degenerate war practiced by the UK and USA in the Second World War, bombing to bits the cities of Germany and Japan to shatter the morale of the civilian population and destroy the political basis of the regime. However the lessons of those campaigns were that this kind of violence – utterly immoral and outside the laws of war – only works in its most extreme forms, without limit and with a view to unconditional surrender. Before that, in more limited bombing, it mainly reinforces resistance. But Israel, although given far too much leeway by the discredited Bush regime, is subject to global surveillance in a way that the Allies were not. Israel cannot turn Gaza into Hiroshima or Dresden. This bloody campaign will only have the most limited, short-term successes, perhaps not even enough for Kadima and Labour to save their electoral skins, and certainly not enough to give Israel security. Security cannot come by military means.
For an expanded version of this post, see ‘Israel’s Politics of War‘ on opendemocracy.net