Dear Friends,

Yes. I am back. After a planned absence in order to write a book manuscript (almost done), I am resuming my weekly “Dear Friends” letter. The letter goes out from me to a small group of friends who have agreed to be on this list and who are free to distribute these letters as they see fit.

Gaza is burning. Two days of Israeli air strikes into the most densely populated piece of real estate on earth have killed over 300 people, terminally wounded 200 hundred, and injured 800 more. The death toll mounts as I write and Israeli tanks and armored vehicles are massing around Gaza in what promises to be a prolonged military campaign. By any measure, this campaign is an atrocity and a war crime as it takes place against a largely defenseless civilian population that has been living under foreign military occupation for over forty years. For the past two years, the 1.5 million people of Gaza have been subjected to silent but no no less brutal and cold-blooded Israeli campaign: A siege that has caused scores of deaths (like those of the 500,000 children who died as a direct result of the 13 years of sanctions on Iraq), malnutrition and poverty. Already at the edge of starvation and despair as a result of this collective punishment –a fact amply documented by the United Nations and all the major human rights organizations– they are now being deeply traumatized by what is being billed by the Israeli media as a “shock and awe” military offensive. How long can the world sit back and watch an ongoing act that, by any measure, qualifies as state terrorism? Hundreds of air strikes into densely populated areas –waged for political reasons –inevitably kill civilians, in this case scores of school children killed and wounded for the strikes began just as schools let out.

The U.S. government, predictably, blaming the Palestinians, and the mainstream media is presenting the atrocity as a reaction to Palestinian rocket attacks. The European Union, which recently upgraded its relations with Israel despite its dismal human rights record and systematic violations of international law, has followed suit. Most of the Arab regimes, especially Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian authority, have issued tough statements condemning the Israeli attacks in order to cover up their participation in the siege and their fervent hope that Hamas will finally be destroyed. I suspect that the silence of President-elect Obama will continue. If he makes a statement, it will no doubt adopt the explanatory framework presented by the Israeli and US governments.

The fact is, the bombings and the siege are not about the rocket attacks. The Israeli military campaign is taking place in the context of a long and largely successful ceasefire with Hamas (at least on Hamas’ part). This reminds me of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which also took place in the context of a long and successful ceasefire with the PLO at the time. Both, like every other military aggressions by Israel, were justified as responses to Palestinian terrorism. However, both 1982 and 2008 were long planned in order to achieve much larger goals having to do with internal Israeli politics, regional ambitions, and the shaping of US policy in the region. The 1982 campaign had its primary goal the destruction of the PLO. The 2008 campaign aims to destroy Hamas. The PLO then and Hamas now were seen as obstacles to Israeli plans for de-facto annexation of parts of the territories it occupied in 1967.

The Israeli elections are coming up in February and the Gaza strikes are being deployed politically for that purpose. It is revealing of Israeli political culture that both in 1982 and 2008 Israeli politicians assume that their election prospects rise in direct proportion to the number of Palestinians their military kills. The attacks on Gaza also have in mind that the Obama administration will take office just prior to the Israeli elections. Instead of taking the initiative, Obama will have to respond to Israeli-made realities, an all too common tactic over the past generation.

The campaign also seeks to change regional realities by literally foisting Gaza onto Egypt. U.S. trained Egyptian soldiers will then have to take over the occupation from Israeli forces, just as U.S. trained Palestinian soldiers are being readied to do the same in the West Bank. The Egyptian administration does not want to take on the responsibility of Gaza, so the attacks are a big push to make that the only possible option. Ironically, the street demonstrations that are targeting Egyptian embassies in Beirut, Jordan, and elsewhere in protest against Egypt’s active complicity in the siege, play into Israel’s strategic goals.

The only counterforce, then as now, is what the Palestinians and their grass roots supporters do. The instantaneous, large, and ongoing street demonstrations all over historic Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and most Arab and European capitals clearly show that this invasion has touched a raw nerve in a way that the silent killing of the siege has not. That support will dwindle if Palestinians armed factions are successful in carrying out strikes against Israeli military and civilian targets deep inside Israel in response to the invasion of Gaza.

One thing is clear, there is no military solution and Israel’s use of force has yielded diminishing returns over time, especially after the 2006 defeat in Lebanon. So what will become of Gaza and its people? What will this experiment of locking up 1.5 million in a space outside the state system, the international law system, and the human rights system, lead to? Don’t just stay tuned. Tune in!

Prof Beshara Doumani,
UC Berkeley

December 28, 2008