A Personal Statement on the War in Gaza

•January 8, 2009 • 1 Comment

In any conflict between peoples, there is a time for balancing the books, for placing facts neatly in the debit and credit columns, for issuing measured statements about the rights and wrongs on both sides. But not in the midst of one-sided carnage. The only decent thing to feel at the present time is outrage. The only thing for decent people to do right now is to condemn, without reserve or qualification, the brutal campaign that the Israeli military is waging against the population of Gaza. Every ‘if’ and ‘but’ derogates from decency.

Yesterday, 7 January 2009, my synagogue sent its members an email containing details of two rallies in support of Israel “which we would urge you to support”. No ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ here, just solid support for the perpetrator in the midst of the horror it is perpetrating. Is it possible to go further in the opposite direction to decency?

Attached was a flyer for a “Mass Rally in Support of Israel” organised by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council, with “the support of the major organisations of UK Jewry”, for the morning of Sunday 11 January in Trafalgar Square. The flyer proclaims “End Hamas terror!” No ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ here either. No hint at the unspeakable state terror being unleashed, day after day, by the Israeli military. It defies belief.

So, let me place on record the following fact: The Board does not speak for all British Jews and certainly not for this one. Nor does the so-called Leadership Council, nor any of the organisations associated with this misbegotten event. None of them represents me or the Judaism that I cherish and which leads me to say as follows: I condemn utterly the military offensive by the government of Israel against the people of Gaza. The loss of any human life, on whatever side of this conflict, is a terrible thing. At this juncture, though, my heart is with the Palestinians on the ground in the midst of their misery. And I extend my hand to those Israelis who are speaking out against their own government.

Brian Klug
Co-founder, Independent Jewish Voices

London
8 January 2009

Israel in Gaza: beyond disproportionate

•January 7, 2009 • 2 Comments

By Mike Marqusee

NB. This is a slightly edited version of an article to be published on Sunday 11 January in The Hindu, One of India’s leading English language newspapers.

Marching amid the 50,000 protesters in London bearing witness against the Israeli offensive on Gaza, I spotted a hand-made placard inscribed with the words of the radical Brazilian educator Paolo Freire: “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”

It was meant as a rebuke to the British government and others who have stood aside as Israel has assaulted a captive civilian population. Beyond that, it pointed to an underlying reality that Israel and its champions work over-time to obfuscate.

From its inception, Israel has promoted the myth of its own isolation and vulnerability; it has claimed the mantle of the surrounded underdog. The realities, as Israeli military power created facts on the ground, have always been otherwise. Today, Jordan and Egypt are US-Israeli dependencies, with the latter playing a critical role in bottling up the Gaza strip. Other Arab regimes, hostile to HAMAS and radicalism in general, have offered nothing but words, and feeble ones at that. The US, Britain, the EU (which plans to strengthen preferential ties with Israel), India, China and of course the UN Security Council, fettered with the inevitable US veto – all have made it clear that Israel will be allowed to take this action with impunity. It’s the Palestinians, not the Israelis, who are besieged, isolated and vulnerable.

Defenders of Israel speak often of the “existential threat” under which the country labours. Evidence for this usually consists of quotations from HAMAS leaders threatening Israel with extinction. Unconsidered are the numerous statements over many years from Israeli political leaders threatening the Palestinians, treating them as sub-human and their rights and lives as expendable. In February 2008, Israel’s Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai threatened Gaza with a “bigger shoah” – “shoah” being the Hebrew word for holocaust. As we’ve seen in recent weeks in Gaza, this was no idle threat, and it is “existential” in an immediate and material sense.

Beyond the jaded circles of professional statecraft, people around the world have been appalled by the disproportionate nature of the Israeli punishment of the alleged Palestinian offence. There are many ways to present the calculation. In the years between Israel’s heavily qualified withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and the beginning of the current offensive, some 18 Israelis were killed by rocket-fire from Gaza; during the same period some 2000 Palestinians were killed by Israeli military action. In the first week of the offensive, 400 rockets were fired from Gaza, taking four Israeli lives; it took only a few minutes for Israel to hit Gaza with four hundred much more lethal bombs and missiles, and within a week 400 perished.

Thanks mainly to the US, but with help from Britain and others, Israel is one of the world’s great military powers. Even before they sent tanks and armoured vehicles into Gaza’s densely-populated territory, the Israelis had struck from the air with wave after wave of F16 fighter jets, Apache attack helicopters and pilotless aerial drones. Against that formidable arsenal, the Palestinians have no aircraft, no defence against air attack, no tanks, no heavy artillery, and no regular army.

On this scale, disproportionality is not merely a matter of arithmetic; it reflects the relationship between perpetrator and victim, dispossessor and dispossessed.

The Israeli “all out war on HAMAS” is in practise an indiscriminate assault on the people of Gaza and their society. Their early targets included government and residential buildings, television stations, universities, mosques and marketplaces. An Israeli officer explained the strategy to a Washington Post reporter: “We are trying to hit the whole spectrum, because everything is connected and everything supports terrorism against Israel.”

The officer was giving expression to the inexorable logic of collective punishment, which underpins both the current offensive and the blockade which preceded it. Like it or not, HAMAS is a social force in Gaza, and as the Israeli officer explained, its agents and supporters cannot be targeted in isolation. The use of indisciminate violence against a civilian population in pursuit of political aims is as clear a definition of terrorism as we possess, and the Israeli attack on Gaza is as much an example of this as the HAMAS rocket fire on southern Israel. But because this act of terror is committed by a powerful state, it is not described as such. Once again, the “war on terror,” whose mantle Israeli officials have wrapped themselves in, has been used to license state terror.

The Israelis ask what else they could have done in response to the rocket attacks on their citizens. The answer is painfully obvious: end the blockade of Gaza (which has been HAMAS’s key condition for a ceasefire), and then begin to redress the litany of just Palestinian demands. Do what the rest of the world has urged for decades, end the occupation and accept a genuinely independent Palestinian state.

But the offensive suggests that Israel is not prepared to countenance that solution. The concessions required are too great: the abandonment of settler expansion on the West Bank and a curtailment of Israeli regional supremacy, believed to be essential for the survival of the Jewish state.

Surely no member of the Israeli cabinet actually believes that this onslaught will reduce attacks on Israel, either in the short or long term. What then is aim of the war? The idea seems to be to grind down the Palestinians until, bereft of necessities, infrastructure, leaders, and hope, they are compelled to accept a solution on Israel’s terms. In a sense, then, what Israel is fighting for in Gaza is the West Bank, much of which it hopes to annexe if and when Gaza is finally subdued.

Certainly a core motive of the war is to reaffirm Israeli military supremacy, embarrassingly compromised by its reversals in Lebanon in 2006. Perhaps they hope that in stripping HAMAS bare, they will weaken and discredit Islamist radicalism across the region, just as the six day war of 1967 crippled Nasser-style Arab nationalism.

In a coarse reversal of historical responsibility, the Israelis insist that the Palestinians are the sole authors of their own suffering. Written out of the script are: the origins of the Gaza population, 80% of whom belong to families forced from their homes in Israel in 1948; four decades of direct military occupation, during which Gaza was made an economic dependency of Israel; the blockade, which has cut off essential supplies of food, fuel and medicine, and which was initiated because Gazans had voted for HAMAS in a democratic election.

Worldwide, there is a growing fissure between governments and people on this matter. Those 50,000 in London were joined by thousands more in 25 cities across the UK; there were demonstrations in New York (a reported 25,000), Paris, Sydney, Johannesburg, Rome, Jakarta, and across the Arab world. Despite the best efforts of the Israeli publicity machine, this latest crime has only given more people yet more reason to protest.

How should we feel about Obama?

•December 16, 2008 • 1 Comment

By Antony Loewenstein:

As one of the contributors to this important new book, currently in Sydney, Australia, the issue of Jewish identity in the 21st century is a key concern. Down here, like in many other Western societies, the dominant Zionist narrative is being challenged like never before. The reasons for this are varied, but not least because the policies that have continued for decades are simply failing to solve the conflict. For example, how do Zionists feel about the fact that their homeland uses and abuses torture against Palestinians?

The incoming Obama administration is a perfect opportunity to assess the state of play. Personally speaking, I’m not very optimistic. I wrote the following last week on New Matilda, Australia’s online magazine:

Obama has major challenges to even address any of these issues yet seems determined, at this early stage, to ignore the more uncomfortable facts in front of him. With the appointment by of a hawkish national security team, including hardline Zionist Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, it’s become clear that no strong anti-war voices will have the ear of the new leader. Neo-conservatism is not dead as a movement; it has merely changed its political stripes. A military strike against Iran, as just one example, remains firmly on the table. Wishful thinking will not change this brutal reality.

Can a Democrat truly bring peace to the Middle East? With Afghanistan in flames and Iraq still suffering terribly, how important will Israel/Palestine be to the new President? More ominously, the stars of Dennis Ross and Colin Powell, the failed Clinton and Bush-era negotiators respectively, are seemingly rising.

As progressive Jews, I believe the most we can do is articulate alternative ways of seeing the conflict and generate support from the wider community. Moderate Jews must find their voice and challenge the neo-conservative worldview. In many countries, especially the US, this is a long struggle that is only beginning.

Otherwise, we are facing years of continued bloodshed.

Winds of Change in U.S. Mideast Policy Are Blowing

•December 11, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Welcome–Bruchim Ha-baim

On behalf of myself and the other contributors to A Time to Speak Out, I welcome you to this blog promoting our new book. When we first wrote the essays here towards the end of 2006, it was in the aftermath of the Lebanon War. There was great consternation in Israel and the Diaspora about the failure of the war and what this meant both for the nation, its relationship with its Arab neighbors, and Diaspora Jews’ relations with Israel. We knew change was in the air and we thought we knew where those changes would take us, but no one could be sure.

As time has passed, I think future events vindicated the dissenting approach many of us took to Israeli policy. Our calls for more democracy both within Israel and within Diaspora communities have also borne fruit. In the U.S., where I live new groups like J Street have arisen to give Aipac a run for its money. The former’s election victories in many races point the way to a softening of Jewish politics when it comes to promoting a tough pro-Israel approach.

Barack Obama’s election also brings hope to many Jewish progressives that the current logjam blocking the Israeli-Arab conflict may be broken. His announcement of a major initiative among Muslim nations including an address in an Arab capital in his first 100 days in office, promises serious, perhaps even a radical break with the current administration.

I’d like to see Obama reinvent Tedd Roosevelt’s old saying: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Instead I’d like the new president to affirm: “Speak softly, listen humbly and drop the stick.” Forget about attacking Iran or giving Israel the green light to do so. Embrace the Syria-Israel negotiating track currently mediated by Turkey. Begin at least indirect talks with Hamas in hopes of reuniting the Palestinian factions into some semblance of a governing entity. Endorse the Saudi peace initiative.

It may seem like it, but this doesn’t have to be diplomatic rocket science. A return to 67 borders, sharing Jerusalem, and Arab recognition of Israel. All this can be done.

Welcome, Readers!

•December 10, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Between changes in the US administration and the upcoming Israeli election, the potential for change in the Israel/Palestine conflict is very much alive! In A Time to Speak Out (Verso, 2008), the contributors to this blog voiced their multiple and independent opinions on the conflict and Jewish identity in general, and here they continue their discussions in interactive form.

These debates are as urgent now as ever; the need to form opinions outside of national and factional lines remains ever potent. Welcome!

– Verso (New York) – http://www.versobooks.com

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