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by Seth J. Frantzman


The Background and Israel's Operation

In January of 2005, Hamas, a religious Muslim political party generally considered to be modeled on the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and which had used terrorism as a weapon against Israeli civilians and soldiers since the mid 1990s, won Gaza's municipal elections in a landslide, sweeping away the traditional, internationally respected and more secular movement of Fatah (a party founded by Yasser Arafat and which was modeled on Arab nationalism as opposed to Islamism. It too had practiced terrorism against Israeli and Jewish civilians numerous times and had its own 'armed wings'. Arafat died in 2004 and the ineffectual, peace process adhering Mahmud Abbas took over Fatah).

In August of 2005 Israel enacted its disengagement from Gaza, removing 7,000 settlers from the Strip and dismantling its civilian and military infrastructure there. It ceremoniously closed the gate to Gaza in September, ending 38 years of occupation. Greenhouses were left behind along with an EU and World Bank plan to aid Gaza in its economic development. Israel removed its troops from the Gaza-Egypt border and Egyptian troops were deployed there.

In January of 2006 Hamas was on the general Palestinian elections with the help of extremely strong support from Gazans, who number more than 1.5 million people (as opposed to the West Bank's 2.4 million). Negotiations between the rival Palestinian factions led to increased clashes between them. The EU and other international monitors refused to accept a Hamas led Palestinian government until Hamas would renounce violence and recognize the existence of Israel. At the Gaza-Egypt Rafah border crossing (Gaza's only land-border crossing that does not lead to Israel), which had been opened in November of 2005 and was monitored by EU representatives, clashes and lawlessness by Palestinians, connected perhaps to internal Palestinian divisions and the general lawlessness pervasive in Gaza, drove the EU monitors away in the spring of 2006 and the crossing was closed.

With the EU monitors gone from the Gaza-Egypt border crossing the Egyptian government, whose historical inspiration of Arab nationalism and moderate Sunni Islam is close to Fatah's and Abbas's versions, closed the border. Egypt feared the Hamas operatives, connected with Egypt's own troublesome Muslim Brotherhood party, would pour into Sinai and use it as a base for terror or other activities.

In June of 2006 Gilad Schalit, an Israeli solder serving on the Gaza-Israel border, was abducted by Hamas. This, along with the continued firing of Kassam rockets at Israeli border towns such as Sderot, led to an Israeli military incursion and bombing of Hamas targets (Operation Autumn Clouds). With the outbreak of the Israel-Lebanon war soon after, perhaps launched by Hizbullah to show support for Hamas, the conflict in Gaza became quieter until a cease fire was agreed to between Israel and Hamas in November of 2006.

From December of 2006 until June 14th of 2007 there was a low level Civil War in the Gaza strip between Hamas and Fatah in which some 300 Palestinians died. It ended in June with the complete seizure of Gaza by Hamas, the ejection of the Hamas leadership from the West Bank, the flight of Fatah leaders from Gaza and a seeming partition of the Palestinian territories into the Fatah's West Bank and Hamas's Gaza.

From June of 2007 until June of 2008 there was continued Kassam rocket fire by Hamas into Israel, culminating sometimes in more than 30 rockets fired per day. During the period relatively few Israeli civilians died, around 18, but thousands of rockets terrorized the population of the Israeli towns borering the strip. A total of some 8,000 rockets fell on Israel between the disengagement and December of 2008.

Between June and December of 2008 there was a cease fire or Hudna (temporary truce or calm) between Israel and Hamas. According to Hamas this was supposed to include the opening of border crossings. However Egypt, angry over Hamas's brutalization of Fatah (in which Fatah Palestinians had been thrown of roof tops and tortured), did not open the Rafah crossing. Israel allowed only minimal supplies to enter Gaza. It did not help encourage Egypt that in January of 2008 Hamas and civilian Palestinians had overrun the Rafah border, destroying the border fence and pouring in Egypt. Clashes resulted and some Palestinians were killed in Egypt's assertion of renewed control of the border.

On December 13th, with the end of the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas imminent, Israel said it was willing to renew the 'calm'. Hamas disagreed, claiming that with the border closed it was not getting its end of the bargain. During the ceasefire rocket fire by Hamas had been sporadic and after December 13th became more general, with dozens of rockets being fired, culminating in a December 24th barrage of 60 rockets.

On the 25th of December Ehud Olmert, Israel's beleagured and scandal plagued Prime Minister, who was to leave office in February of 2009, went on Arab television. With the full knowledge that a plan had been prepared by his generals, including chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Ehud Barak, the former Israeli commando turned Labour leader and Defense minister, Olmert warned Hamas to "stop it." He declared "we want to live as good neighbours." The rocket fire did not stop.

On December 27th some fifty Israeli warplanes struck targets inside Gaza. The day before Israel had re-opened the Gaza crossings to fuel and aid and prominent Israeli politicians had declared they had no interest in invading Gaza. Hamas, apparently thinking that an Israeli attack was being postponed, had brought its men out for several parades and military graduation ceremonies. The Israeli planes killed some 200 Hamas militants on the first day of the bombing, destroying Hamas headquarters and infrastructure. In subsequent days Hamas-built tunnels between Gaza and Egypt, used to smuggle weapons, food and people, were struck as well as the Islamic university. By January Israel had begun targeting senior Hamas leaders and on the 3d of January the Israeli army entered Gaza with the intention of ending the continued Hamas rocket fire (which had killed some three Israelis) and destroying the organization's 15,000-man 'army'.

The International View

There is a general sense among the international community that 'peace' is the preference of humanity. This is primarily a European view gained after some 1,000 years of bloody fighting among Europeans and the aftermath of the Horrors of the Holocaust and colonialism led Europeans to believe in peace. Therefore war is perceived by Europeans and in the west as something out of the ordinary, to be stopped as soon as possible. Needless to say, other cultures do not necessarily view war this way. Some believe, especially in a strictly Islamist view, that war (i.e., the lesser Jihad) is the natural order of things (with the world viewed as Dar al Harb and Dar al Islam, the world of war and the world of peace/Islam), especially when enemies, such as infidels, are vanquished or until a 'defensive war' to 'protect Muslims' is waged to victory.

The international community and the culture of students and the media in the West has been conditioned increasingly over the years to see Israel as an unrestrained bully, a 'superpower' which abuses its neighbours and which has an archaic belief in nationalism, an extremist patriotism, a negative religiousness (as opposed to a secular state where religion is separated from the state), and practices a form of colonialism or 'Aparthied' in the occupied Palestinian territories. This has been the prevailing viewpoint even since the 1970s when the UN declared that 'Zionism is Racism'. With the outbreak of the first Intifada, which mostly pitted stone throwing Palestinians against Israeli soldiers, this idea of the Palestinian David confronting the Israeli Goliath was cemented among a western view that believes that the underdog is usually right (i.e Tibet is morally superior to China at least in part because it is weaker).

The Second Intifada which lasted from 2000-2004 in which some 800 Israelis and 3000 Palestinians died cemented this view even more. Palestinians were heroic victims, perhaps not when blowing up buses or nightclubs, but at least when they could be seen as women and children passing through Israeli checkpoints. After Sept. 11th, 2001 the West also came to the view that the Middle East 'conflict' was fueling 'Islamic rage' that was 'spilling over' and threatening the peaceful coexistence of Muslims in Europe and causing terror throughout the world.

The EU has wanted an increased role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the UK especially sees itself as a natural broker of 'peace' because it was the UK which originally colonized Palestine (1917-1948) and helped it become the mess that it is through an ill-conceived and planned 1947 partition and war that the British fled from at the time.

There is also a concept often repeated by the media and politicians that claims that 'disproportionate force' is unacceptable. From this viewpoint the Israeli use of F-16s against men firing small rockets is perceived as both unfair and disproportionate. However those that claim disproportion have ironically usually been countries that had their own disproportionate wars. The UK invaded Iraq along with the U.S in 2003, using disproportionate force. NATO and the EU bombed the Serbs twice, using disproportionate force.

There is a general feeling that 'not enough' Israelis die in wars with the Palestinians. The media makes this clear through using such words as "only three Israelis have been killed." The insinuation is that if only the body counts on both sides were equal then things would be better.

There is a general obsession with Israel by people in the world who tend to see it as a unique conflict even when other, more bloody conflicts, rage elsewhere in places such as Kashmir, Sri Lanka and Sudan. The reason for the interest in Israel may be merely the fact that the West is primarily Christians and the Muslim world is Muslim and Israel contains holy sites for both these religions. It may be part of the 'Clash of Civilizations' whereby people see it as a civilizational dispute. It may be also because Jews take a great interest, both critical and supportive, in the conflict and Jews are an influential, if small, group in some western countries. Whatever the logic the media's coverage of conflict is disproportionate. Some 300,000 have died in Darfur and there has never been a 'breaking news' bulletin for those people (who are Muslims like the Palestinians), perhaps because they have black skin (unlike the Palestinians) and are not as important to a Western audience which finds it hard to identify with black people. Perhaps it is because the West has some sort of strange need after the Holocaust to feel it is saying 'never again' and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict involves Jews and the West feels that even though in this case it is supporting those who harm Jews that in some twisted fashion it is doing its duty to stop massacres. Perhaps it is due to the increased role and population of Muslims in western countries. Muslims who have convinced many westerners that Muslims are the new romantic minority group who need to be supported and that their causes, foremost among them the Palestinians, are thus romantic, just as the previous generation of westerners fought apartheid or 'civil rights' or protested Vietnam. The Palestinians are a cause-celebre, as evidenced by the fact that many students where the Palestinian khaffiya or checkered scarf (yet western students where either the black one without knowing it is a Fatah khaffiya and they wear the red one without realizing it is connected to the PFLP or communist Palestinian party. Hamas looks disdainfully on these symbols which it connects with its secular enemies).

The international community must be seen to do something and it has come to the point where it believes all conflicts can be solved and that ceasefires and European monitors are the way to solve them. It has learned this from the Balkans where the EU carved out new statelets (Kosovo, Bosnia and Republika Serbska) and believes it successfully ended the conflict.

The key word 'disproportionate' force is a new part of the lingo of western discourse. It is used without thought to its logic. Wars are not fought with proportionate force just as criminals are not arrested with proportionate force. When a criminal robs a bank the police don't send one officer, they send dozens. When a man stabs a police officer they don't stab him back in order to show him 'proportion'. Those who argue for proportionate force by Israel don't seem to think about the end result of that force. Does it mean firing Kassams back at the Palestinians? The Europeans fought several wars in a proportionate manner, such as the 30 years or the 100 years war. Proportion helped them go on forever and cost numerous lives. Proportionate force was not used in the Second World war or by the U.S during the Civil Rights movement, in fact disproportion was the way in which these two great struggles were finally ended.

In general western people have a black and white view of Israel where Israel is the powerful 'white' aggressor and Palestinians are the weak 'black' victim. This makes it easy to see the conflict in racial or colonialistic terms. It is perhaps surprising for people to know then that some of the casualties of the Hamas rocket fire have been Ethiopian black children who were born to black Jewish Ethiopians who fled their country, with no help of the west, in the 1980s. It may surprise some to learn that those IDF soldiers going into Gaza are made up of people of all colors, religious belief (westerners forget that Arab Druze and Bedouins serve in the Israeli armies) and sexual orientations (Israel has no 'don't ask don't tell' policy) and include numerous women soldiers.

The Israeli Palestinian conflict is, on the one hand a conflict that has a very real and genuine history, a process to it that includes numerous developments and that grows and matures and changes with time. It is, on the other hand, a myth, a myth of the west, a myth of right and wrong, of black and white, of victim and aggressor, of good and bad. It serves the western need to causes, the 'Palestinian cause', the need to wear some clothing that shows support for the downtrodden, the need to attend protests, the need to feel that one is 'helping others', the need to 'believe in peace' and the need to 'oppose conflict'. In this sense the conflict does not involve real people. It is an imagination of the West, a 'conflict' that is needed so the politicians have somewhere to travel and something to 'solve'. For that reason anything can be possible; body counts are reported without sources and the Israeli assault is described as a 'Holocaust' by upper class Khaffiya clad blond haired protestors. It is apparent to merely recall the disproportionate protests that erupted in western countries, primarily by white people, against Israel in the first day of the war when 200 Palestinians were killed. No such protests graced the streets of Europe when 200 Indians died in the recent Mumbai attacks. No such protests erupted when a similar number of Palestinians died at the hands of other Palestinians in the Fatah-Hamas civil war. No similar protests were held during the Rwandan genocide or the Sudanese genocide.

The question should not be why the international community, which is to say western people, care so much about what happens in Gaza, but why they have so rarely cared about what happens to other people in the world. The question should be, if the Hamas rockets are so useless and are "home made and inaccurate" then why does Hamas fire them, before the cease fires, during the cease fires, after the cease fires and in the midst of this new war? If the Europeans and the UK are fond of 'proportionate' force then why are they still occupying Kosovo and Bosnia and Iraq in a decidedly disproportionate manner? If Europeans believe in proportion then why do their humanitarians drive SUVs in the midst of poor starving people in Haiti, lording over those people like colonialists, their white skin standing out among the myriad African faces. Should not the humanitarian drive a proportionate vehicle, say an ox-cart, like the locals? Why does the Free Gaza Movement own a yacht that it uses to transport 'humanitarian' supplies and celebrities to Gaza. Shouldn't it use its money more frugally and purchase utilitarian boats if it genuinely wants to help Palestinians rather than just get the white faces and blond hair of its members photographed in the paper wearing the 'traditional' Khaffiya. When a westerner dons his 'Palestinian Khafiya' does he do so truly to support the Palestinian or to fit in, to seem to be part of what is 'cool', to show his and her friends that he is 'helping'?

Those are the real questions.

Seth J. Frantzman is a graduate student in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His master's thesis was on the 1948 war. Contact him at This essay was published January 7, 2009 in the Terra Incognita Journal


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