Gaza Plunges Deeper into Misery

This month, the Shurat HaDin Law Center is taking foreign tourists on an eight-day “exploration of Israel’s struggle for survival and security” that includes briefings by intelligence officers and demonstrations by masked commandoes, as well as visits to military trials of Hamas members.

Make no mistake, the region certainly is witnessing a struggle for survival and security that involves tremendous human suffering. However, this struggle is not exactly as the Shurat HaDin Law Center would like to imagine it because the primary victims are the inhabitants of the Occupied Territories, people for whom bare survival is now more important than security–to say nothing of statehood. The long ordeal of Gaza under Israeli occupation–which is still continuing, even though Israeli troops and settlers officially “withdrew” a year ago–exemplifies the Palestinian struggle for survival and security.

Ever since the establishment of a Hamas-led government last spring, the United States and the European Union have been waging economic warfare against the Palestinian Authority. As Israel’s summer “incursion” in the Palestinian Authority has plunged Gaza’s population deeper into misery, the European Union now states that it will not restore aid until the Palestinian Authority “commits” to peaceful relations with Israel, renounces violence, and respects all agreements made between the PLO and Israel.

On September 20, Deputy National Security Advisor for Global Democracy Strategy Elliott Abrams said that U.S. direct aid will not resume until Hamas fulfills similar conditions as specified in the Palestinian anti-terrorism Act of 2006, the legal mainstay of the U.S. blockade. However, the record shows that Western powers are notorious for changing their definitions of specific peace terms, which always makes weak adversaries like the Palestinians appear to be intractable.

A week before the beginning of Operation Summer Rains on June 28, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that from January to mid-June Israeli forces fired 8,380 artillery shells into the tiny Gaza Strip and armed Palestinian factions fired 896 home-made Qassam rockets into Israel.

Two-Front War

Operation Summer Rains began when tanks of the Israel Defense Forces “entered” the Gaza Strip in force ostensibly to rescue a member of a raiding party taken in reprisal for the capture of two Palestinians by Israeli commandoes three days earlier. Few Americans are aware of the details about the campaign and its aftermath but they are plain enough: Shootings of civilians of all ages, fire fights with various groups besides Hamas, assaults on ministries, mass detentions of Hamas legislators, house demolitions, concentrated artillery barrages, airstrikes on the infrastructure, and a naval blockade (Israel’s mainstream press has openly called Israeli military operations in both Gaza and Lebanon a “two-front war”).

In early August, over a month after the start of the Israeli offensive, the UN reported that there was $15.5 million in infrastructure damage, at least 3,400 Palestinians made refugees, and that over 70% of the Gaza Strip’s 1.4 million inhabitants had become dependant on food aid. The UN also said that a total of 25 Israelis had been injured in the conflict.

Palestinian and European doctors have also reported treating Gazans with wounds caused by a range of illegal weapons, including flammable phosphorous munitions and perhaps experimental weapons modeled after the U.S. Dense Inert Metal Explosive, or DIME. In early September, coinciding with the first anniversary of the withdrawal of Jewish settlements from Gaza, the Palestinian Centre on Human Rights released a report claiming that 228 Palestinians were killed during the military campaign, nearly half of whom were “civilians” and 48 were children. The PCHR also reported 813 wounded, including 216 children, 30 women, four paramedics, and four journalists.

Although Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert indicated willingness in September to wind down military operations and open talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the Israel Defense Forces continue to commit violent acts every day in Gaza and the West Bank. Operation Autumn Clouds began in Gaza on November 1, its stated goal being to stop Palestinian militants from firing rockets into Israel.

Moreover, talks among Palestinian factions about forming a governing coalition are inconclusive and a civil war is in the offing. Armed confrontations and casualties between Fatah and Hamas militants have been on the rise since the beginning of the year.

West Bank Construction

Meanwhile, the expansion of West Bank settlements–essentially real estate schemes backed by direct state subsidies, military-spending programs, racist legislation, and financial irregularities–is proceeding apace. The Construction and Housing Ministry put notices in Israeli newspapers in September asking for bids on hundreds of new settlement houses in the West Bank near Jerusalem.

This settlement activity violates the Fourth Geneva Convention on the treatment of civilians during wartime, to which Israel is a signatory. However, Israeli diplomats have been arguing for years that the Convention does not apply to the Occupied Territories. Article 49 nevertheless stipulates that a government “shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” Moreover, this position has been affirmed by numerous UN Security Council Resolutions and the International Court of Justice.

On August 29, the U.S. State Department issued a public notice warning U.S. citizens not to travel in the Gaza Strip due to the “conditions of lawlessness” and “[v]iolence between the Israeli Defense Forces…and militant groups.” While the Bush administration took no pains to conceal its role in the Israeli attack on Lebanon, many Americans see their government as an innocent bystander in the Occupied Territories, particularly in the long and bloody siege of the Gaza Strip.

Not so. When President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discussed the matter with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on the side-lines of the 61st Session of the United Nations General Assembly in September, it was not democratic reform or even the welfare of the Palestinians that concerned them.

Clean Break

What did concern them? This is best understood in the context of a report prepared 10 years ago for then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by several neoconservatives in the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Much of the advice in A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm has been born out by subsequent action–notably attacks on Lebanon and exercising “the right of hot pursuit” in the Occupied Territories. An otherwise disparate number of political analysts see institutional links between the Clean Break “study group” and current trends in Israeli and U.S. foreign policies.

These links are more than suggestive. On July 13, a day after Israel attacked Lebanon, Rice told reporters while en route to the G8 summit in Russia that “Israel, of course has the right to defend itself” in response to the “abduction” of IDF soldiers in Gaza and Lebanon. She added that “our Israeli colleagues” were nevertheless showing “restraint.”

Speaking in New York later that day, UN Ambassador John R. Bolton explained why he vetoed a watered-down draft resolution critical of Israel’s “disproportionate use of force” in Gaza. Bolton said that the “unacceptable” and “unbalanced” draft sponsored by Qatar demanded too much of Israel and “would also have undermined the credibility of the Security Council, which itself must be seen by both sides as an honest broker in the Middle East conflict.” Without bothering to elaborate, Bolton added that events in Lebanon made the draft superfluous.

U.S. Military Aid

As usually happens, the U.S. public paid little, if any, attention when Congress passed the $447.6 billion defense budget for the 2007 fiscal year at the end of September. But Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot did note that a “military aid package” for Israel worth $500 million is buried inside the bill (this is in addition to the more than $3 billion in all forms of U.S. aid that Jerusalem receives every year). The U.S. will subsidize a project of Raytheon Co. and Israel-based Rafael Armament Development Authority to build short- and medium-range missiles used by U.S. and Israeli forces, the improvement of Rafael’s airborne “targeting pod” carried on U.S. warplanes in Iraq, and the development of two unmanned aerial vehicles by Israeli Aircraft Industries. The largest items are this company’s co-production agreement with Boeing to develop the Arrow II anti-ballistic missile and Rafael’s upgrade of the U.S. Bradley Armored Fighting Vehicle. U.S. industrial and financial interests stand to profit handsomely.

Astonishingly, Congress voted on versions of this bill throughout the summer as Gaza and Lebanon burned. This and other deliberations should put to rest claims that Washington is helpless in the face of events in the Occupied Territories.

U.S. Policy Alternatives

On October 11, Rice gave a speech at the inaugural gala of the American Task Force on Palestine. In attendance were Saudi Ambassador Prince Turki al-Faisal and former White House Chief of Staff John Sununu. Rice acknowledged “the great contribution that Palestinian-Americans are making to our nation” and the need to “lay the economic foundations of a successful state” in Palestine. This message is in sharp contrast to the actions of the Bush administration and its allies in Congress and Tel Aviv.

But critics across the political spectrum argue that these actions will lead to catastrophe for all parties involved. Therefore, if Rice is the least bit serious about the platitudes she made before “distinguished Palestinian-Americans,” she is well positioned to help the Palestinians by exploiting legislation already passed into law. Even the Palestinian Anti-terrorism Act falls into this category because it mandates the release of direct aid to the Palestinian government if the President declares that it is not under the sway of “foreign “terrorist organizations.” Thus, if the White House makes such a declaration and Congress earmarks funds in good faith, a truly functional and self-sufficient Palestinian economy might become a reality.

But that is not all that needs to be done. According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, U.S. “direct” aid to the Palestinian Authority has totaled over $80 million since 1993. This and the “pledged” $300 million in “humanitarian relief” as of mid-summer is a pittance in comparison with the military outlays for Tel Aviv in the current defense budget. Congress must drastically reduce all Israeli aid (interestingly, the Clean Break group had a similar proposal). While such changes are easier said than done, the Palestinian struggle for survival and security–indeed Israel’s–can never become reality without them.

Anthony Newkirk received his PhD in American history from Temple University. He currently teaches social studies at Al-Bayan Bilingual School in Kuwait. He is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org).