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Eyeless in Gaza*

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by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“World war two was fought for near holy motives. But I stand convinced that the brand of justice in which we dealt, wholesale bombings of civilian populations, was blasphemous. That the enemy did it first has nothing to do with the moral problem. - Kurt Vonnegut Jr (Armageddon in Retrospect)

(January 01, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) International community’s indifference to the carnage unleashed by Israel in Gaza is best described in the memorable words of Harold Pinter: “It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening” (Arts, Theatre and Politics – 2005 Nobel Lecture). For the last several days death and destruction had rained on Gaza, already pulverised by the brutal blockade imposed on it by Tel Aviv. In a small, tightly packed city, large scale and repeated aerial bombardment cannot but kill and injure civilians; and as experiences from other battlefields (from Iraq and Afghanistan to Serbia and Sri Lanka) prove there are no smart bombs which kill ‘terrorists’ and spare civilians. But for those who defend Israeli’s Blitzkreig as an unavoidable act of self defence against a recalcitrant terrorist outfit, these civilian dead, murdered in their homes and workplaces, mosques and universities, are inconsequential, almost invisible.

Given Israel’s determination to ‘defeat’ Hamas, at whatever cost to any number of ordinary Palestinians, the situation in Gaza will deteriorate even further. The expected ground offensive is bound to cause an exponential increase in civilian deaths. And each bomb, each shell, each death will become a seed of hatred sown in soil made fertile by the blood, tears and curses of the innocent. Irrespective of the degree of real damage Israel manages to inflict on the Hamas, the invasion will not bring about peace or stability but fury and hatred sufficient to keep Middle East bloody for several more decades. Already in the West Bank, there is talk of a Third Intifada. And the ranks of organisations such as Al Qaeda and Hezbollah will be filled by the young and the frustrated from all over the Islamic world thirsting for revenge from Israel and its US ally. Inside Israel the right wing intransigents, who are opposed to any form of peace, reconciliation or modus vivendi with the Palestinians and the Arabs, will feel vindicated and strengthened. The only lasting achievement of Israel’s invasion will be a decisive shift in favour of contending fundamentalisms throughout the Middle East and beyond. Gaza will rejuvenate the forces of religious and racial extremism which seemed to be in retreat after the historic triumph of Barack Hussein Obama.

POLITICS OF POLARISATION

Israeli newspaper Haaretz has revealed that Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barack ordered the planning of the Gaza offensive six months ago, even as a ceasefire was being negotiated with the Hamas. This invasion was thus no sudden impulse, but a well thought out action. The question then is: why did Israel opt for this path, particularly after the salutary lesson she learnt in Lebanon?

According to an opinion poll by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research published on December 11th, 42% of Palestinians support Fatah while only 28% back Hamas. That was before Israel began its Blitzkrieg in Gaza. Given the declining support for Hamas and the possibility of a Fatah victory at the next election, Israel’s decision to undertake an action which is bound enable Hamas regain its lost popularity is puzzling, to say the least. Was it because the Israeli government wanted to improve its chances at the February elections? Was it also because Israel does not want Palestinians to be led by a leader who is not just secular and moderate but is also hugely popular? According to the pre-invasion opinion poll 64% of Palestinians believe that President Mahamoud Abbas’ term should end on January 9th, as Hamas demands. But the leader most of them want in Abbas’ stead is not the Hamas candidate for Presidency, Ismail Haniyeh, but the Secretary General of Fatah, Marwan Barghouti (the charismatic leader of the Second Intifada) currently serving five life terms in an Israel jail. Barghouti, a radical moderate (he has a Masters in international relations and speaks fluent English and Hebrew) would be the ideal Palestinian partner for any new peace process undertaken by an Obama administration. Did Israel want to prevent the transfer of Palestinian leadership to such an acceptable alternative? Is the attack on Gaza aimed at military weakening Hamas vis-à-vis Israel while politically strengthening it vis-à-vis Fatah, thereby keeping the Palestinians under the leadership of an organisation branded as a terrorist group in most Western capitals?

Extremism and maximalism are mutually sustaining. Israel enabled the creation of the Hamas because it wanted to facilitate a religious challenge to the secular PLO, to weaken Palestinian resistance by dividing it along religious lines. Arafat’s PLO with its consciously and uncompromisingly secular ideology was a home for all Palestinians, to those of the Islamic as well as Christian faiths. The high level presence of people such as Hanan Ashrawi (a Christian and a John Donne scholar) embodied Arafat’s success at nation building for his stateless people. In response, the rightwing Likud party came up with a strategy of encouraging a religious alternative to the PLO. When in 1978 Sheik Ahmed Yassin, a religious leader in Gaza, applied for a license for his humanitarian organisation, Islamic Association, the government of Menacham Begin responded positively. Not only was Sheik Yassin permitted to publish a newspaper and raise funds; Israeli authorities aided the new organisation (including monetarily) through its system of Village Councils, manned by tamed Palestinians. The Hamas was born from this Israeli assisted Islamic Association. It was a classic case of the unity of the anti-thesis, of contending extremisms working in tandem to undermine the moderate alternative.

Politics of Salvation results in government of, by and for the ‘chosen people’, chosen on the basis of a primordial identity - either ethnicity or religion. And like all political movements based on an ideology of exclusion/suspicion towards the ethnic/religious ‘other’, the ideal of the adherents of this ‘politics of salvation’ is a land which is pure, a land purified of alien/heretical presence, a land which is the exclusive preserve of their own ethnic or religious community. This is the way of all fundamentalisms, including the Israeli right and the Hamas. What most fundamentalists forget (and what Samuel Huntington left out of his ‘Clash of Civilisations’ thesis) is that this was not the way of Islam at the zenith of its power and glory. In its golden age Islamic civilisation was more tolerant, more open than its Catholic counterparts in Europe. The ancient wisdom of the Greeks, turned into a heresy by the newly Christianised Rome, survived first in Zoroastrian Persia and then in the two Islamic Caliphates in Syria and Baghdad. The Umayyad Caliphate in Spain functioned as a key transmission belt for this knowledge to enter Christian Europe. At the height of Islam’s power and glory, the clash of civilisations had different battle lines - tolerance and openness then were Islamic virtues while the West prided itself on its closed mind. Hamas and every other Islamic fundamentalist organisation represent the antithesis of these values and characteristics which distinguished and illuminated Islamic civilisation in its hour of hegemony.

WHICH DESTINY?

According to the pre-invasion opinion poll, 74% of Palestinians wanted the de facto ceasefire between Israel and Hamas to be renewed. If Israel had responded with restraint to Hamas’ refusal to extend the ceasefire (limiting its response to occasional surgical strikes rather than a full scale attack), Palestinian anger would have targeted Hamas and its intransigence. But by launching a frontal assault on Gaza Israel vindicated the worst fears and feelings about the Jewish state in the Arab World. To use large scale aerial bombing on a small and a populous city, without warning, is a crime by any standards, legal or moral. It is as if a giant is using a siege engine, repeatedly, against an anthill - the powerful against the powerless; Goliath against David. Hamas’ terror attacks cannot justify Israel’s hugely disproportionate response. What is at issue is not Israel’s right to self-defence but ‘proportion’. There is no comparison between Israel and Hamas, in terms of military prowess or wealth. Hamas cannot destroy Israel and to say it is a threat to Israel’s survival is a lie of Gobbelsian proportions and ingenuity.

How will this tragedy play out? It is still possible for Israel to halt the offensive, release Barghouti from jail and push for early Presidential and General elections in the Palestinian territories. But if the invasion continues and a ground offensive follows, and Barghouti is not released from jail, Hamas is likely to win the next election, on a wave of popular anger and hatred. It is noteworthy that according to the pre-invasion Palestinian opinion poll, 20% remained undecided and 10% said they will back small third parties. If this 30%, in their just anger against the invasion and President Abbas’ cravenly conduct, back Hamas, Hamas will be the victor. Is this what Israel wants to achieve?

The Israel we know today may not have been possible without Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust. Without Slobodan Milosevic not only the separation of Kosovo but even the disintegration of Yugoslavia could have been prevented. Israel should know that even millennia of oppression and persecution cannot break the will of a people to survive. Perhaps Israel believes that the best way to prevent (or pushback) the birth of a Palestinian state is to keep the leadership of the Palestine people in the hands of those who are manifestly anti-civilisational. This would explain Israel’s original support for Sheik Yassin; it would also mean that Israel would do whatever it takes to prevent the re-emergence of a militantly moderate and secular Palestinian leadership, in the tradition of Yasser Arafat.

Former US Secretary of State George Schultz famously complained that Arafat was willing to say ‘unc’ and ‘cle’ but never ‘uncle’. In June 1976 the United States vetoed a new UN Security Council resolution on the Middle East based on the acceptance of the right of existence of both the state of Israel and of a new independent state of Palestine in the Occupied Territories (in this sense it was both a precursor of and a far more just version of the Oslo Agreement). Noam Chomsky quoting Chaim Herzog (the then Israel Ambassador to the UN and later the President of Israel) states that this resolution not only had the backing of the PLO but that it was actually prepared by the PLO (The Chomsky Reader). Arafat was thus willing to compromise (unlike Hamas) but unwilling to capitulate (unlike Abbas). A moderate Israel would have welcomed such a partner; but an Israel, subsumed by fear and in thrall to extremism, had to discredit and destroy him and help enthrone in his place an alternative which is the mirror image of its own intransigent hard right.

Palestine will have a future, Israel will know normalcy, and Middle East achieve peace only if the leadership of the Palestinian people passes back into the hands of a moderately militant leader and the West, this time around, has the sense to back him. However given the blinding malice of Israel and the blinding indifference of the West, the opposite outcome is likely to happen. Palestinians, angered by Israel’s barbarism and the world’s inconsideration, will back Hamas (particularly if Barghouti remains in jail and Abbas re-contests the Presidency). The Israel elections will produce a government which believes it has a mandate not to work for peace but to wage war. Thus in the Palestinian territories and in Israel, religio-racial fundamentalists will become dominant, making the necessary peace process impossible. Caught between these contending and colluding extremisms, Palestinian and Israeli people will be compelled to rut in their mutually destructive embrace for many more years to come.

* Eyeless in Gaza is the title of a novel by Aldous Huxley
- Sri Lanka Guardian

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