Thoughts on the Attempted Murder of Palestine
The Siren Song of Elliott Abrams
By KATHLEEN CHRISTISON
Former CIA analyst
"Coup" is the word being widely used to describe what happened in Gaza in June when Hamas militias defeated the armed security forces of Fatah and chased them out of Gaza. But, as so often with the manipulative language used in the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel, the terminology here is backward. Hamas was the legally constituted, democratically elected government of the Palestinians, so in the first place Hamas did not stage a coup but rather was the target of a coup planned against it. Furthermore, the coup -- which failed in Gaza but succeeded overall when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, acting in violation of Palestinian law, cut Gaza adrift, unseated the Palestinian unity government headed by Hamas, and named a new prime minister and cabinet -- was the handiwork of the United States and Israel.
The Fatah attacks against Hamas in Gaza were initiated at the whim of, and with arms and training provided by, the United States and Israel. No one seems to be making any secret of this. Immediately after Hamas won legislative elections in January 2006, Elliott Abrams, who runs U.S. policy toward Israel from his senior position on the National Security Council staff, met with a group of Palestinian businessmen and spoke openly of the need for a "hard coup" against Hamas. According to Palestinians who were there, Abrams was "unshakable" in his determination to oust Hamas. When the Palestinians, urging engagement with Hamas instead of confrontation, observed that Abrams' scheme would bring more suffering and even starvation to Gaza's already impoverished population, Abrams dismissed their concerns by claiming that it wouldn't be the fault of the U.S. if that happened.
Abrams has been working on his coup plan ever since with his friends in Israel. As part of this scheme, the U.S. also urged Abbas -- again making no secret of this -- to dissolve the Fatah-Hamas unity government formed in March this year, form a new government, and call for new elections. Abbas acceded to U.S. demands with embarrassing alacrity after Hamas took Gaza. In a further gratuitous turn of the screw, he has appealed to Israel to turn up the heat on Hamas in Gaza by stopping delivery of fuel to Gaza's power plant and keeping the Rafah border crossing point from Egypt closed so that none of the thousands of Palestinian waiting at the border to return home will be able to enter.
The UN's outgoing Middle East envoy, Alvaro de Soto, whose final report on his two years in Palestine-Israel was recently leaked to the press, describes Abrams and a State Department colleague, Assistant Secretary David Welch, threatening immediately after the Hamas election victory to cut off U.S. contributions to the UN if it did not agree to a cutback in aid to the Palestinian Authority by the Quartet (of which the UN is a member, along with the U.S., the EU, and Russia). De Soto also describes a gleeful U.S. response to Hamas-Fatah fighting earlier this year. The U.S., he says, clearly pushed for this confrontation, and at a meeting of Quartet envoys, the U.S. delegate crowed that "I like this violence" because "it means that other Palestinians are resisting Hamas."
The Israeli-U.S. strategy for Palestine is now crystal clear: overturn the will of the people (in this case as expressed through democratic elections), kill off any resistance (Hamas in this case, along with any civilians who might get in the way), co-opt a quisling leadership (Fatah and Mahmoud Abbas), push out and kill if necessary as many people as international opinion will allow, ultimately rid Palestine of most Palestinians. The cast of characters and organizations has changed from earlier times, but this has essentially been Israel's strategy from the beginning.
The Bush administration is putting a beautiful face on this strategy in the aftermath of the Hamas takeover of Gaza, trying to lure the Palestinians with empty favors to Abbas and Fatah -- a three-month amnesty for 178 so-called militants in the West Bank, release of 250 prisoners (out of 11,000), $190 million in aid (most of it recycled from previous undisbursed allocations, and amounting in any case to a mere seven percent of Israel's annual subsidy from the U.S.), release of customs duties withheld for the last year by Israel (monies stolen by Israel in the first place). The U.S. is also holding out the promise to Abbas, if he behaves, to be allowed to play with the big boys in the Middle East and be included among the favored "moderates." In a speech on July 16, Bush offered the Palestinian people a choice. They can follow Hamas, he said, and thus "guarantee chaos," give up their future to "Hamas' foreign sponsors in Syria and Iran," and forfeit any possibility of a Palestinian state. Or they can follow the "vision" of Abbas and his Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, "reclaim their dignity and their future," and build "a peaceful state called Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people." The prerequisites imposed on Abbas are, as before, to recognize Israel's right to exist, reject violence, and adhere to all previous agreements between the parties.
The promises of Bush and his neocon hucksters, led by Elliott Abrams, are a siren song, holding out a false hope that Abbas' surrender to U.S. and Israeli enticements will bring a just peace and a just resolution of the issues most important to the Palestinians. The vision of a "peaceful state called Palestine" that the U.S. holds out is a sham, constituting perhaps 50 percent of the West Bank (but only ten percent of original Palestine) in disconnected segments, with no true sovereignty or independence, no capital, and no justice for Palestinian refugees. In these circumstances, Bush's vision of a "reclaimed dignity" and a decent future for Palestinians is also a sham. Although Abbas and his Fatah colleagues are going along thus far, most Palestinians have not fallen for these blandishments, which offer nothing in return for their abject surrender to Israel.
The election of Hamas in the first instance sent a political message -- of resistance to Israeli occupation and extreme dissatisfaction with Fatah's failure to end it or even to protest it adequately and the international community's failure to help -- and nothing in recent developments gives the Palestinians any hope that their message has been heard. Quite the contrary, in fact. But any expectation that this fact will lead them now to surrender is premature. As Israeli activist and commentator Jeff Halper wrote soon after the Hamas election, the Palestinians gave notice in that election that they would not submit or cooperate, that they were resurrecting a tactic from the 1970s and '80s, of remaining sumud, steadfast -- not engaging in armed struggle but not caving in to Israel's desire that they disappear. The race now is to see whose strategy prevails and whether the Palestinians in their steadfastness can hold out against Israel's long-term strategy of apartheid, ethnic cleaning, and even, as honest commentators have increasingly begun to label it, genocide.
Last fall, in the aftermath of a summer of daily Israeli bombardment of Gaza, Israeli historian Ilan Pappe characterized as a deliberate genocide what was then an average daily death toll of eight Palestinians in Israeli artillery and air strikes. Following Israel's disengagement from Gaza in 2005, the Israeli political and military leadership, recognizing that Gaza's almost 1.5 million Palestinians were hermetically sealed into a tiny geographical prison, had come to view them as an extremely dangerous community of inmates, which, in Pappe's words, had "to be eliminated one way or another." With no way to escape, Gaza's Palestinians could not be subjected to the gradual ethnic cleansing occurring in the West Bank, and so, at a loss as to how to deal with this massive problem, Israel was simply implementing a "daily business of slaying Palestinians, mainly children," always using Palestinian resistance as its excuse on security grounds for inexorably escalating its attacks.
Palestinian resistance, Pappe noted, has always provided Israel with the security rationale for its assaults on the Palestinians -- in 1948, in the late 1980s when the Palestinians belatedly began resisting the occupation, during the second intifada, and following the 2005 disengagement from Gaza. When Israel ultimately escaped international accountability for ethnically cleansing over half of Palestine's native population in 1948, it was given license to incorporate this policy as a legitimate part of its national security agenda. Pappe predicted in 2006 that, if Israel continued to avoid any censure from the international community for its genocidal policy in Gaza, it would inevitably expand the policy. Only international censure, and he believed only the external pressure of boycott, divestment, and sanctions, could stop "the murdering of innocent civilians in the Gaza Strip."
Writing again about Gaza only a few weeks ago in the wake of Hamas' defeat of Fatah forces there, Pappe notes that he received many uneasy reactions to his earlier use of the charged term "genocide" and had himself initially rethought the term, but ultimately "concluded with even stronger conviction" that genocide is the only appropriate way to describe what Israel is doing in Gaza. Again noting the different realities in the West Bank, where ethnic cleansing is proceeding, and Gaza, where this option is not possible and where ghettoization is also not working because the Palestinians refuse to accept their imprisonment docilely, Pappe says that Jews, of all people, know from their own history that when ethnic cleansing and ghettoization fail, the next stage is "even more barbaric." Israel has been experimenting, he says, with gradually escalating killing operations against Gazans. At each stage, Israel uses more firepower, and as the distinction between civilian and non-civilian targets has gradually been erased, casualties and collateral damage have risen. In response, Palestinians fire more rockets, thus providing Israel with a rationale for further escalation. So-called "punitive" actions, undertaken on the grounds of enhancing Israeli security, have now become a strategy, Pappe observes.
The experimental aspect has been in gauging international reaction. Israel's military leaders wanted to know "how such operations would be received at home, in the region and in the world. And it seems the answer was 'very well'; no one took interest in the scores of dead and hundreds of wounded Palestinians." Each Palestinian response, and each Israeli killing operation ignored by the world at large, enables Israel "to initiate larger genocidal operations in the future," Pappe says. For now, internal Palestinian fighting, itself fomented by Israel and the U.S., has given the Israelis a respite, essentially doing Israel's job for it. But Israel stands ready to wreak more havoc and death whenever it pleases. Again, Pappe asserts that the only way to stop Israel is through a campaign of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions -- the only way of cutting off the "oxygen lines to 'western' civilization and public opinion" on which Israel depends. Only such external pressure, he believes, can possibly thwart Israel's implementation of its "future strategy of eliminating the Palestinian people."
Other critical observers have begun to see a similar murderous intent in Israel's handling of the Palestinian issue. Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton, in a recent ZNet article entitled "Slouching Toward a Palestinian Holocaust," also spoke forcefully of a possible coming genocide:
"[I]t is especially painful for me, as an American Jew, to feel compelled to portray the ongoing and intensifying abuse of the Palestinian people by Israel through a reliance on such an inflammatory metaphor as 'holocaust.'. . .
"Is it an irresponsible overstatement to associate the treatment of Palestinians with this criminalized Nazi record of collective atrocity? I think not. The recent developments in Gaza are especially disturbing because they express so vividly a deliberate intention on the part of Israel and its allies to subject an entire human community to life-endangering conditions of utmost cruelty. The suggestion that this pattern of conduct is a holocaust-in-the-making represents a rather desperate appeal to the governments of the world and to international public opinion to act urgently to prevent these current genocidal tendencies from culminating in a collective tragedy. . . .
"Gaza is morally far worse [than Darfur], although mass death has not yet resulted. It is far worse because the international community is watching the ugly spectacle unfold while some of its most influential members actively encourage and assist Israel in its approach to Gaza."
Israel's strategy of "eliminating the Palestinian people," is not new, as Ilan Pappe has long made clear in his several histories of the conflict, most notably the newest, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, on the deliberate expulsion and dispossession of Palestinians in 1948. But the methods and the tactics change from time to time, and it is clear that now that Israel is enjoying the full, open, and conscious backing of the United States in this endeavor, thanks to the neocons' hijacking of Middle East policymaking in the Bush administration, it is proceeding really quite brazenly, making little secret of its essential hostility to all Palestinians and of its ultimate intent to eliminate, by whatever means necessary, the entire Palestinian presence in Palestine.
At the same time, there is growing recognition in many quarters of what exactly Israel's agenda entails, as well as growing willingness to speak about it publicly and to label genocide and apartheid as the realities that they are. This recognition is growing not only among humanists like Pappe and Falk, but also among realists like John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, who startled the world in 2006 with a forthright critique of the extensive power of the Israel lobby over U.S. policymaking; among outspoken former policymakers like Jimmy Carter, who had the temerity last year to write a book about Israeli policy with the word "apartheid" in the title; among some activists who are ready to put forth and stand by a campaign of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel; and even among many thoughtful Jewish and Zionist commentators who have begun to challenge their assumptions about Israel's innocence and the benign nature of Zionism.
Indeed, in ways not yet fully understood or fully played out, the years 2006 and 2007 have been a seminal period in the conflict. Developments on the ground, where the genocidal policies described are being pursued with increasing openness, along with new trends in the public discourse that swirls (or pointedly does not swirl) around the conflict in the world outside have forced new ways of thinking, new pressures, new ways of dealing with the long-running tragedy that is Palestine. Two distinctly opposite trends have emerged: one is the new and revolutionary push to examine Israeli and U.S. policies toward the conflict openly and without artifice; the other, in large part a reaction to the first, is a continuation and magnification of the longstanding impulse to deny the realities of the situation, suppress knowledge, suppress debate, close discourse. The future will be determined by which trend gains ascendancy. For the moment, the second is ascendant, as always, but the undercurrents created by the first trend simmer strongly.
The fundamental question is whether the Palestinians will be able to survive an intensifying assault on their very existence by the most powerful nation in the region, supported and actively assisted by the most powerful nation in the world, until the new voices opposing this assault grow strong enough to be heard around the world. For Palestine will not be saved without a total change in the public discourse surrounding every aspect of the conflict -- without a far more widespread awakening, of the kind Richard Falk has come to, to the horrific oppression Israel is visiting on the Palestinians, and probably without the kind of serious pressure on Israel, from the outside, that Ilan Pappe advocates.
The Palestinians' own will and steadfastness are obviously of great importance. The key question is whether they can, despite the forces working against them, remain sumud, and regain the basic loose unity that had until recently kept them more or less together as a people through 60 years of being scattered. Or will they simply be willed away by the world community, left to molder and disintegrate in their small, confined enclaves -- including not merely in Gaza but in various disconnected reservations in the West Bank, in small pockets inside Israel, in poverty-stricken refugee camps in neighboring Arab states, and in isolated exile communities throughout the world? Will they have the strength of purpose to continue pursuing justice and independence, or will they merely go along with their assigned fate, succumbing to the classic colonial strategy, which Israel is pursuing, of emasculating any resistance by co-opting its leaders, inducing one segment of the native population to police and suppress the rest?
Over the 60 years since the Palestinian naqba, or catastrophe, which saw the Palestinians dispossessed and ethnically cleansed to make room for the establishment of Israel as a Jewish state, Palestinian history has evolved in roughly 20-year phases. The first, from 1948 to the late 1960s, was a period of nearly helpless quiescence during which the Palestinians were almost extinguished as a people -- first dispossessed and dispersed, then totally forgotten by their Arab brethren and by the rest of the world. Israel and Israeli propagandists willed any memory of Palestinians out of the public consciousness and erased most remaining physical traces of the Palestinians' presence on the land. Palestinians themselves existed in a state of shock, trying to regroup but unable to devise a strategy for resisting and bringing their case to international public attention.
The second phase was an era of Palestinian resistance. Running from the late 1960s and spurred in great part by Israel's 1967 capture of the West Bank and Gaza, the remaining parts of Palestine, this period saw the PLO unify the geographically and politically disparate Palestinians around the goal of liberating Palestine and saw Palestinian factions employ terrorism and armed struggle in response to Israeli terrorism and oppression. This is the period when Palestinians in the occupied territories, unable to use armed struggle against Israel's overwhelming strength, used the strategy of sumud, remaining steadfastly on the land to thwart Israel's attempts to force them out. In 1988, a year into the first intifada, a popular and largely non-violent uprising that brought the Palestinians considerable international sympathy and gave them the confidence of political success, the PLO accepted the two-state formula, thus waiving claim to three-quarters of original Palestine by recognizing Israel's existence inside its pre-1967 borders and agreeing to accept a small Palestinian state in the remaining one-quarter. During this phase, the world was finally made aware, although not always necessarily in favorable terms, of the Palestinians' existence and their plight.
The third two-decade period, up to the present, began as a period of accommodation but, as this unreciprocated accommodation has increasingly been exposed as bankrupt, is ending with a renewal of resistance. Yasir Arafat formalized the PLO's huge 1988 concession by signing the Oslo accord in 1993 and agreeing to the several implementing stages that followed -- stages that, far from moving toward Israel's withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza and toward establishment of a sovereign, contiguous Palestinian state there, actually consolidated Israel's control, facilitated a massive influx of Israeli settlers into the very territories slated for Israeli withdrawal, forced the Palestinian leadership into the collaborationist role of enforcer of Israeli security, and isolated the Palestinian population and Palestinian authority in the territories into literally hundreds of disconnected land segments.
When at the Camp David peace summit in 2000 it became clear that, as far as Israel and the U.S. were concerned, a limited Palestinian independence could be achieved only through still more concessions to Israel, and on such critical issues as the disposition of Arab East Jerusalem and the fate of approximately 4,000,000 Palestinian refugees scattered throughout the Arab world, Palestinian eyes were opened to Israel's endgame, and resistance began anew. The Palestinian leadership still formally supports the two-state solution, and even Hamas has consistently indicated a readiness to give Israel a long-term truce and accept Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza if Israel withdraws from these territories completely. But, as it has become increasingly obvious that Israel has no intention of ever making meaningful concessions to the Palestinians, more and more Palestinians, including the 1.3 million who live inside Israel as (second-class) citizens, have abandoned accommodation and are returning to maximum demands such as full implementation of the right of return for 1948 refugees and equal citizenship for Palestinians and Jews in a single state in all of Palestine.
After a period of armed resistance and terrorism during the second intifada following the peace process collapse in 2000, resistance has turned primarily to political means. Hamas refuses, despite major economic deprivation resulting from international political and economic sanctions, to capitulate to demands for recognition of Israel's right to exist unless Israel recognizes a Palestinian right to exist and defines where its borders and the limits of its expansion lie. Inside Israel, Palestinian citizens have begun to demand an Israeli constitution (there has never been one) that would mandate equal rights for Palestinians and Jews, making Israel a state of all its citizens rather than a state of Jews everywhere. There have also been increasing calls, by some few Israelis and large numbers of Palestinians, for establishment of a single state for Palestinians and Jews in all of Palestine, in which all citizens would have equal rights, equal dignity, and equal claims to national fulfillment. Finally, new calls have arisen for international boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel until it demonstrates that it is prepared to end its racist oppression of Palestinians.
Each of these phases has been marked by two principal features: Israel's consistent efforts over 60 years to eliminate the Palestinian presence in Palestine, and the Palestinians' determined and to this point successful effort to defeat this attempt to erase them from the landscape. Israel has varied its tactics but ultimately has never given up its goal of establishing "Greater Israel" as an exclusively Jewish state. Its methods have involved bald-faced ethnic cleansing as in 1948; a continual propaganda campaign attempting to demonstrate that Palestinians do not exist and, if they do, have no rights in any case; a steady expansion into more and more Palestinian territory; and a gradually escalating effort to make life so unbearable for that persistent remnant of Palestinians inside Israel and in the occupied territories that they will leave voluntarily. Most recently, Israel and the U.S. have been making a concerted effort to undermine Hamas, for the very reason that it represents the political if not the religious will of the people, and to force the split between Hamas and Fatah that culminated in last month's fighting in Gaza