New Internationalist

Gaza: invisible no longer

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Israel’s recent outrage may prove a step too far, argues Richard Swift.

The Gaza siege is coming under increasing international pressure as the rightwing Israeli government’s attempt to shift attention away from the plight of Gazans and towards Israeli security is becoming ever more threadbare. The aggressiveness of the Israeli response to a flotilla of four Turkish relief ships trying to run the blockade in the early hours of 31 May resulted in the deaths of nine unarmed relief workers. It also released a storm of international condemnation of the Netanyahu government’s commitment to disproportionate response. Only the most slavish of Israel’s supporters – such as Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper – could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Jewish State in the face of the most recent outrage.

A doctrine of disproportionality

It has long been an Israeli view that anything that the state regards as a provocation is met by overwhelming force. Thus the doctrine of ‘disproportionality’. If five or six Israelis are killed by rockets from Gaza then 1,500 Palestinians need to die to ‘teach them a lesson’. It matters little if those 1,500 people had any say over the rockets or not. Former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni responded to criticism of the Israel’s brutal intervention into Gaza in 2008 by reciting the doctrine of disproportionality in the purest of terms: ‘Israel is… a country that when you fire on its citizens it responds by going wild – and this is a good thing.’

Only the most slavish of Israel’s supporters – such as Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper – could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Jewish State in the face of the most recent outrage

The very balanced and moderate UN report by the South African Jewish jurist Richard Goldstone created further problems for Israel. The report, while not letting Hamas off the hook, characterized much of Israel’s assault on the largely defenceless citizens of Gaza as war crimes bordering on ‘crimes against humanity’. A full-scale propaganda assault quickly followed, denouncing this ‘self-hating Jew’ for endangering the very existence of the Jewish state. Again, disproportionality.

Similarly, when desperate Gazans elected the Islamic Hamas Party (in what international observers described as a free and fair election) Israel imposed a blockade, allowing only ‘the humanitarian minimum’ of goods into the beleaguered strip. The idea, according to Dov Weisglass (adviser to the former President Olmert at the time) is ‘to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger’. It’s a thin line made thinner by the desperate needs for reconstruction and relief following the Israeli Defense Force’s efforts to destroy the territory’s meagre infrastructure. Israeli control is always cloaked in hypocritical legalisms on the one hand and legal judgments designed to drive Palestinians mad with checkpoints, exclusions and other apartheid-based policies on the other. It is similar with the blockade, where the amount of food allowed into Gaza is measured in the bare minimum of calories needed per population. Cement for rebuilding is not allowed, as that might be used for purposes that threaten Israel’s security. So are chocolate and jam. Go figure.

Politics of resistance

But Israel is becoming increasingly an international pariah. This is to some extent due to the extreme racist character of its current government, playing to a base among the fundamentalist West Bank settlers and in Israel itself. But it is also due to a change in political tactics by the Palestinian resistance. Today, the politics of resistance is characterized much more by civil disobedience and disruption of Israeli expansion than by suicide bombers and armed assaults. Israel’s territory grab by building its separation wall largely on Palestinian territory in the West Bank has been fiercely combated every step of the way. The village of Budrus acted as a template of resistance as town after town stood up to the Israeli land grab of olive orchards and village land. This has created a serious public relations problem for Israel. They have been forced to expand their definitions of terrorism and ‘Iranian agents’ to include those who resist by more peaceful means.

Today, the politics of resistance is characterized much more by civil disobedience and disruption of Israeli expansion than by suicide bombers and armed assaults

To do this they have launched an assault on international NGOs who work with Palestinian communities. A main target has been the activists of the International Solidarity Movement, who have sent many activists to support Palestinian non-violence tactics. To combat them Israeli security forces either expel them from the country or stop them from entering. A detention facility has been established at Tel Aviv Airport just for this purpose. Over the past few years, Israel and its international supporters have launched a propaganda campaign against NGOs and other civil society organizations sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians. A good example is the characterization of the Mavi Marmara lead relief flotilla by deputy Israeli PM Danny Ayalon as ‘an armada of hate and violence in support of the Hamas terror organization’.

Whipping up hysteria

But it doesn’t stop there. In February a law was passed by the Knesset that in effect outlawed Israeli peace groups from receiving funds from abroad. More restrictive laws are in the pipeline. Internal Israeli critics are becoming targets of the Zionist Right. Peace Now was recently characterized as ‘a virus’ by former Israeli army chief-of-staff Moshe Ya’alon. Increasingly, government spokespeople refer to their critics as pawns of the terrorists endangering the very existence of Israel. This kind of whipping up of patriotic hysteria is similar to the mood created in 1995 that led up to the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish fundamentalist fanatic for daring to try and make peace with the Palestinians. Already, the assaults have begun – 10 rightist thugs tried to drag 86-year-old Uri Avnery from a car following a large demonstration against Israel’s flotilla outrage on 5 June. Avnery (and his organization, Gush Shalom) has been one of the most consistent and effective critics of the occupation of Palestinian land. A smoke grenade was earlier tossed into the middle of the 10,000-person demonstration in Tel Aviv’s Museum Square.

The assault on both domestic and international opponents endangers one of Official Israel’s proudest boasts as being ’the only democracy in the Middle East’ (curiously ignoring elections in Lebanon and now Iraq). But the major impact of the assault on the Turkish relief convoy has been to push the fate of Gazans into the international spotlight. It seems that it will no longer be sufficient to raise the spectre of Hamas terror to justify the maintaining of the Gaza siege and the brutalization of 1.5 million people. International pressure is beginning to build. Already the Hosni Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt has announced that they will no longer support the boycott – lifting the closure of its border with Gaza. Even this US client state could not seem to resist the tide of international outrage. It may be that those nine brave Turkish relief workers on the deck of the Mavi Marmara did not die in vain.

Richard Swift was a New Internationalist co-editor, based in Toronto, from 1984 - 2007. He is now retired.

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