COMMENTARY
 
Palestinian Tragedy
Weekly Pulse
January 2-8, 2009
Israel’s attack on Gaza has killed hundreds of Palestinians. On TV screens, graphic images of Palestinian children dead and injured have enraged masses across the Muslim world, including Pakistan. In the rest of the world, public reaction to Israeli aggression and brutality is equally intense. From London to Paris, people have come out in the street to protest Israeli aggression. There is hardly any international humanitarian organization that has not condemned it. Such disproportionate use of military force by Israeli has no moral or legal justification.

The Muslim anger is not only targeted at Israel, with expressions of solidarity with the suffering Palestinians of Gaza, it is equally critical of most Muslim regimes’ rather muted reaction to the horrific events in Gaza. The UN Security Council and Western capitals have likewise reacted to this tragedy, with expressions of “deep” concern at the escalating violence and appeals to Israel and Hamas to de-escalate the situation.

International Uproar

However, the United Nation’s General Assembly President Miguel D’Escoto, UN Commissioner of Human Rights Navi Pillay and UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory Prof Richard Falk, whom I have known for years, are an exception in this regard. They have singled out Israel for committing the aggression, especially underlining the “disproportionate” use of military force on the part of Israel.

Prof Falk has said that Israeli air strikes on the Gaza Strip represent “severe and massive violations of international humanitarian law as defined in the Geneva Conventions, both in regard to the obligations of an Occupying Power and in the requirements of the laws of war.” In his statement, Prof Falk said that Israeli has committed multiple violations which include collective punishment; the entire 1.5 million people who live in the crowded Gaza Strip are being punished for the illegal actions of a few militants. “Israel is targeting civilians; the air strikes were aimed at civilian areas in one of the most crowded stretches of land in the world, certainly the most densely populated area of the Middle East…Israeli military action in the strip is ‘disproportionate,’ the air strikes have not only destroyed security compounds, but have killed and injured hundreds of civilians,” Prof Falk said.

Illegal, Immoral

International Humanitarian Law is an integral part of the Geneva Conventions, which lay down state obligations in the conduct of war or the use of force. This body of International Law clearly specifies the limits of military response by a country, which has to be “proportional” to the level of threat, and which has to avoid “civilian casualties” as well as “collective punishment” of a whole population for the acts of militancy by a few. Israel has violated Geneva Conventions, as clear from Prof Falk’s statement, through disproportionate use of force, by killing civilians and collectively punishing the people of Gaza. This can be substantiated simply by comparing hundreds of Palestinians killed in Gaza and only a handful of Israelis killed through Hamas rocket attacks.

As for the killing of Palestinian civilians, especially women and children, a couple of reported facts are sufficient to establish this fact. First, Prof Falk has himself specified that at least one Israeli strike on December 27 hit groups of students attempting to find transportation home from the university. Then, on the night of December 29th, two Palestinian girls Lama and Haya Hamdan, aged 4 and 11 years, were killed when an Israeli warplane hit a cart pulled by a donkey when they were riding in a village in northern Gaza.

Thus, the Israeli air operation in Gaza is not only a clear-cut violation of international humanitarian law, it has also this utterly inhuman and immoral dimension. When Muslim people—or, for that matter, people across the world—view such scenes of horror, they wonder as to what kind of people live in Israel? Have they shut their eyes and ears? This is hardly the sort of behaviour that can be expected from a nation that has experienced holocaust at the hands of the Nazis.

Rocket Attacks

Surely, every issue, no matter how tragic it may be, has two sides to it. The wanton killing of Palestinians is only part of the Palestinian tragedy. The rocket attacks against Israel by Hamas are as morally and legally unjustifiable as the same by Hizbullah in 2006 that triggered Israel’s bloody war with the Shiite militia in Lebanon.

Even rationally speaking, attacking Israel with home-made rockets does not make any sense. First, the military value of these attacks is negligible. If the aim is to kill Israelis, then killing only a handful of Israeli civilians does not constitute a big military success. If the purpose is to terrorize Israel, then it is also not achieved. For any politically motivated violence that targets civilians, which we describe as terrorism, is inherently counter-productive.

Second, if the aim is to provoke Israel to respond militarily at a massive scale—as Israel did in 2006 and is doing now—even then at the end of the day the principal sufferer are the hapless Palestinians. In a massive military response, especially when the Hamas military assets are allegedly located in civilian areas, civilian casualties cannot be avoided. Here I am not trying to justify Israeli aggression, but only making a point as to how irresponsible militaristic acts of a few hundred Hizbullah or Hamas rocket firers eventually claim the lives of hundreds of innocent civilians, as it happened in the case of southern Lebanon two years ago and currently in Gaza.

Yet people, organizations and nations with violent aptitude in the Muslim world celebrate whenever any instance of seeking militant solution to a political issue occurs. Israel’s quick withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000 was, for instance, celebrated as an important event, confirming that only the use of force can defeat the “Zionist” entity. Suicide bombings and rocket attacks against Israel are likewise justified on similar grounds. The consequence in each case has been the decimation of south Lebanon and Gaza strip by Israel.

When you know that you are at an extremely disadvantageous position vis-à-vis Israel, as Hizbullah was before and Hamas is now, is it not self-suicidal then to provoke the Jewish entity? By supplying arms to Hizbullah and Hamas, and giving refuge to their leadership, Iran and Syria have respectively and in an indirect manner also contributed to the Palestinian tragedy.

Counter-Productive

Having said that, however, what Israel is presently doing with the people in Gaza—or how it has put them under siege for the past few years—is equally maddening and will prove counter-productive. Just as Hizbullah or Hamas are wrong in seeking a military solution to the conflict in Palestine, Israel is also wrong in undertaking disproportionate military response to rocket attacks by Hamas.

The problem is that neither of the two warring factions has learned any lesson from the past. Israel has not learned any lesson from its 2006 failure in Lebanon to achieve the broader strategic-political goal of the war. Nor has Hizbullal or Hamas have learned any lesson from the unaffordable consequences of their past militant behaviour.

As for the ongoing Palestinian tragedy, I fail to understand as to why Israel responded in such a disproportionate manner. It is true that Hamas started firing rockets in November, a month before the expiry of their ceasefire with Israel. It is also true that Hamas, not Israel, renounced the ceasefire unilaterally in December. However, it is also a fact that Israel’s attacks in the occupied Palestinian territory, the severest yet since 1967, has occurred when the elections in Israel are just six weeks’ away.

At a time when public opinion surveys in Israel suggest a clear lead for Likud, the rival of the ruling Kadima Party, it is but natural to wonder whether Israel’s domestic political competition has a role to play in Israel’s bloodiest assault on Gaza. Then, Israel’s own media has reported a competition for gaining political mileage within Kadima between Prime Minister Edhud Olmert and Defense Minister Edhud Barak. If this is the case, then the immorality and inhumanity of Israeli action in Gaza proves the reckless nature of the mindset of current Israeli leadership, which is in sharp contrast to the great Jewish tragedy at the hands of the Nazis.

Politics also plays a part in the context of Israel’s arch rivals in the region. Hizbullah’s 2006 rocket attacks against Israel were partly motivated by the fact that the Shiite militia, which was born in response to 1982 Israeli invasion of south Lebanon, was losing political legitimacy or military currency in the aftermath of the 2000 withdrawal of Israeli forces from south Lebanon.

As my friend Shawn Launders wrote on January 1 in our Fulbright alumni email group, one of the most troubling elements of this episode is that it involves governments at the end of their political legitimacy: Israeli Prime Minister Edud Olmert resigned and Israeli elections are next month; Palestinian Authority President Mahmood Abbas is coming to the end of his term of office in January; and President George Bush has fewer than 20 days left in the White House. So if you look at this from a very cynical perspective, it is quite convenient for Israel, the Palestinian Authority (Fatah), and the US that this operation should take place precisely now.

Grave Implications

Whether politics plays a part in each case or not, the fact is that a militant-terrorist approach to solve a political issue always backfires and proves counter-productive in the end. By killing hundreds of 400 Palestinians in the armed attack on Gaza, Israelis may have un-intentionally created hundreds of suicide bombers of Hamas, Al-Aqsa Brigade or Palestinian Islamic Jihad. At the end of the day, Israel has to live in the Middle East, the heart of the Muslim world, and it will always be surrounded by Arab neighbours. If the people of this region and the world are enraged at the Israeli behaviour, then how can Israel think of safeguarding its security in the future?

Broadly speaking, in recent years, many countries of the Muslim world had started to pragmatically deal with Is0rael. Except for Iran and, to some extent Syria, which had begun secret parleys with the Jewish entity with Turkish mediation, the entire Muslim governments, including Saudi Arabia, were supportive of a negotiated political settlement of the issue.

We, in Pakistan, made our first public contact with Israel three years ago, in September 2005, again through Turkey. So, just as former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat did way back in 1988, countries after countries in the Muslim world were coming around this pragmatic idea that a Palestinian state cannot be established until the existence of the other legitimate party to the dispute, the state of Israel, is acknowledged. Now, by doing what it is doing in Gaza, Israel has principally closed the scope of such pragmatic initiatives on the part of a host of Muslim countries for the foreseeable future. This will be Israel’s major diplomatic reversal in the international arena if it does not immediately halt its violent spree in Gaza.

Finally, there is this broader implication of the ongoing Palestinian tragedy for the War on Terror. It is widely perceived in the Muslim world that the main player behind Israel’s brutality in Gaza is the United States. Even otherwise, there cannot be two opinions about the fact that Israel’s main supporter in the Middle East is no one but America. If this is the case, and the Muslim perception of it is also right, then how can Washington expect Islamabad, Cairo or Riyadh to deliver on the War on Terror when the governments sitting in these capitals cannot but take into account what people desire, especially when it comes to unresolved Muslim world disputes such as Palestine?

American Factor

It is a fact that much of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world is grounded on misperceptions and myths about America. For instance, I have seen hardly anyone in my part of the world appreciating former US President Bill Clinton for spending the last day of his lame-duck presidency trying to mediate a peace accord between Arafat and Edud Barak. On the other hand, everyone is out there now criticizing President George Bush for leaving a huge mess for President-elect Barack Obama to handle. This argument may be true but it does not tell us the whole story about the complex and sometime unpredictable nature of US foreign policy in general and the Middle East policy in practice.

Obviously, after entering the White House, President-elect Obama will attempt to reshape America’s conduct in the world, to renounce unilateralism, to resolve wars and conflicts politically and by taking the wider world into confidence. Taking clue fromThe Israel Lobby, the most popular recent book co-authored by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, Obama may do something to marginalize the role of this monstrous interest group in American politics, the implications of which, according to these authors, are not in US strategic interest in the Middle East.

President-elect Obama might be interested in picking the Middle East peace process from where Mr. Clinton had left. He might also learn from Palestine not Apartheid, the recent book authored by former Democratic President Jimmy Carter about the essentially humanitarian nature of the issue of Palestine and Israel’s racist approach to it.

There might also be strategic re-thinking of the entire US approach to handling Hamas, especially the wider issue whether the electoral success of a potentially violent group should be tolerated, as being in power may have a moderating impact even on the most fundamentalist of religiously-rooted organizations. The Islamic Salvation Front was denied power in Algeria on similar grounds. Only the Taliban in Afghanistan defied this argument. Still there was no harm in trying this option when Hamas won the election a few years.

Hamas itself is to be blamed in this regard, as it failed to moderate its approach after the political victory. The Europeans, the Russians and the Palestinians’ own National Authority wanted Hamas to amend its Charter that does not recognize the state of Israel and mentions the destruction of Israel as its principal founding goal. So, one of the primary reasons behind Gaza’s economic and political isolation since the victory of Hamas in 2006 was Hama’s rigidity in maintaining its destructive and confrontational ambitions vis-à-vis Israel despite repeated international calls and growing suffering of Palestinians in Gaza.

But we cannot single our Hamas for criticism. Since 2006, what has been practiced by Israel and supported by the United States and even Europe was the siege of Gaza. A policy of appeasement may have won over moderates among the Hamas, eventually leading to its recognition of Israel. After all, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, after practicing terrorism for two decades, eventually did the same in 1988.

Whether it is Israel or Hamas, no one can justify the use of religion as a pretext to kill and terrify civilians. We must tackle the root-causes of the crisis and Israel must change its policies and its behavior. The reason we are seeing this tragedy in Gaza Strip today is because of the continuing occupation of Palestine by Israel and because the Middle East peace process to achieve a two-state solution in the region has not succeeded.

At the end of the day, some pragmatic and workable way has to be found to ensure Israeli security and Palestinian freedom. Violence by either side is no solution. The principal problem in Palestine is its occupation by Israel in violation of UN Security Council, and the tendency of a handful of Muslim groups and countries to seek militant solution to Palestine. The world community as a whole and the United States in particular have moral and legal obligation to secure a two-state solution in the region. Otherwise, the spiral of terrorist violence will lead to the continuing Palestinian tragedy and the consequent Israeli insecurity.

Access column at weeklypulse.org