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Gaza Strip

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How to Break the Gaza Blockade

7 June 2010

How to Break the Gaza Blockade

By Gwynne Dyer

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called for an end to the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. Britain, France, Germany and Russia have done the same. After Israeli commandos killed nine peace activists last week aboard a ship that was trying to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza, even US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the blockade “unsustainable and unacceptable.” But how can it be ended?

Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, predictably, is brazening it out. He blames the victims for their own deaths. They were “violent Turkish terror extremists” on a “ship of hate”: people so violent and Turkish and terroristic and extremist that the poor Israeli commandos had no choice but to fire thirty bullets into the nine who were killed, and wound 30-odd others for good measure.

It’s a striking example of how Netanyahu bludgeons reality with words until it conforms to his purposes. Why does he need all those extra words? Could there conceivably be “non-violent Turkish terror extremists”? Or “violent Turkish terror moderates”? Presumably he believes that if you pile on enough synonyms, some people will conclude that there must have been something bad about the victims.

Anybody with the slightest experience of the real world knows what must have happened on the deck of Mavi Marmara, the aid ship in question. A bunch of over-confident, under-trained Israeli commandos ran into unexpected resistance from activists, a few of whom had improvised but serious weapons like iron bars. Maybe one or two had knives. And one or two of the commandos panicked and opened fire.

Then the rest of the commandos joined in, presumably thinking that the shooters were responding to a real threat. They all blasted away for twenty or thirty seconds, and when their magazines were empty there were forty bodies on the deck, some writhing in pain and others lying very still. After that, there was nothing the commandos could do but come up with a story that excused their actions.

This atrocious event has put the Israeli policy of blocking supplies to the Gaza Strip in the spotlight and raises two questions. Does it really give Israel added security at a reasonable cost to Palestinians? And if it is doesn’t, then how can it be ended?

The blockade of Gaza began in 2007, after Hamas, which does not recognise the legitimacy of the Israeli state, won a brief civil war and took control of the densely populated territory. It launched thousands of crude, home-made rockets against towns in southern Israel, killing 10 Israelis, so in early 2009 Israel attacked the Gaza Strip.

At least 1,300 Palestinians died, and only 13 Israelis. Since then Hamas has observed a cease-fire. Other Palestinian militants still launch sporadic rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip, but only one person in Israel has been killed in the past 18 months. Yet the blockade continues unabated.

Only one-quarter of the normal volume of supplies makes it through the sole Israeli checkpoint. The 1.5 million people in the Strip have been reduced to abject poverty, and Israel seems determined to keep up the pressure until they reject Hamas (which they backed in free elections in 2007) and overthrow it. Just how they are to do that, however, is not clear.

Israel has the right to prevent weapons from entering the Gaza Strip, but it is hard to see how cement, macaroni, footballs, tomato paste and fruit juices (all banned) fit that description. In any case, the material to make the rockets has always come in through tunnels under the frontier with Egypt, and is unaffected by Israel’s blockade.

The blockade is simply collective punishment, which is illegal under international law. It has not overthrown Hamas, but instead has strengthened its control over the population. It should be ended, but how?

The Israeli government is now on the defensive on this issue, and a cheap and effective tactic would be to send another aid ship or flotilla to run the blockade every week or so. The cargo should be inspected and certified as weapons-free by the port authorities in Greece, Italy, France or wherever they sail from.

The blockade-runners should not agree to go to an Israeli port, because then their cargo would fall victim to Israel’s blockade rules. (Almost all of Mavi Marmara’s 10,000 tonnes of cargo was construction materials, and would have been blocked by the Israelis.) The ships should not surrender at the first challenge, but sail on towards Gaza and compel the Israelis to conduct hostile boarding operations against them.

The crews should not physically resist the Israeli troops, but some of them would probably be hurt. Would some be killed? Possibly, though Israel will try to avoid another public relations disaster like last week’s. Might they end up serving jail sentences in Israel? Maybe, if Netanyahu’s government is in a particularly self-destructive mood.

Volunteers can easily be found for these aid missions, and so can the money to pay for them. Carry out one operation a week for the next couple of months, and the blockade would almost certainly crumble. Netanyahu’s government would either change its policy or fall. Either outcome would be greeted with pleasure in almost every capital in the world, including Washington.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 3. (“Israeli…victims”)

Israel and the Aid Flotilla: Worse than a Crime

1 June 2010

Israel and the Aid Flotilla: Worse than a Crime

By Gwynne Dyer

The remark was originally made about Napoleon’s decision to kidnap the Duc d’Enghien and have him judicially murdered more than two centuries ago: “It was worse than a crime; it was a blunder.” It is often quoted when a government makes a decision, usually involving violence, that obviously harms its own cause. Like, for example, Israel’s decision to seize the flotilla of ships bringing aid to the besieged Palestinians of the Gaza Strip.

Imagine that you are the Israeli official charged with recommending the best course of action for dealing with that flotilla. Exactly what position you hold in the government doesn’t matter: somebody will have been given that job. So what things will you consider while you ponder your recommendation?

You are well aware that the purpose of the flotilla is mainly propaganda: to highlight the suffering of ordinary Palestinians as a result of Israel’s three-year blockade of the Gaza Strip. Some of the organisers doubtless hope that Israel will use violence against the aid ships, as that would give them even more publicity, but they’ll settle for just delivering the aid.

Israeli intelligence has its agents among the people organising the flotilla, of course, so you know that there is nothing dangerous in the 10,000 tonnes of cargo. Most of it is concrete and steel to help in the reconstruction of homes and schools destroyed during Israel’s “Cast Lead” operation against Hamas militants in the Strip early last year.

The Cypriot authorities have checked all the ships meticulously before they sailed for Gaza and certified that they are not carrying weapons or other dangerous cargo. The actual amount of aid is not big enough to take the pressure off the Palestinians. Israel is allowing about 15,000 tonnes in a week by land, which the United Nations says is about a quarter of what is needed. A once-only delivery of an extra 10,000 tonnes won’t change anything.

Anyway, be realistic: there’s all sorts of contraband coming into the Gaza Strip all the time through the tunnels on the Egyptian border. Why don’t we just wave these ships through as a “humanitarian gesture”? That will spoil their little propaganda game, and they haven’t the resources to do it twice.

True, our military guys say that they can just arrest all the ships en route and take them to one of our own ports in Israel: no muss, no fuss. But what if it goes wrong? We’ve had one propaganda disaster after another recently, and it’s starting to do real damage.

Operation “Cast Lead” itself was not exactly a propaganda success: even our own official figures say we killed over four hundred Palestinian civilians, and most people outside Israel think the number was closer to a thousand. Then there was that unfortunate announcement about building more Jewish homes in East Jerusalem while US Vice-President Joe Biden was in the country: President Obama hasn’t really been speaking to us much since that.

Just last week we had a really damaging revelation about how Israel offered to sell nuclear weapons to South Africa back in the apartheid days. And now we have this flotilla thing, just as Obama has finally invited Prime Minister Netanyahu to Washington for a kiss-and-make-up session. Oh, and most of the people on the flotilla come from Turkey, the one Muslim country that sees Israel as an ally.

Do we really want to risk screwing all that up just to starve the Palestinians of an extra 10,000 tonnes of supplies? Let’s just allow the flotilla through, and get the credit for being reasonable and even magnanimous.

I presume that the above is a fair representation of what went through the Israeli official’s head as he or she considered what to do about the aid flotilla. But in the end, the decision went the other way. Why? Probably just because Israeli reflexes kicked in: an early resort to force has become the government’s default mode of problem-solving in recent years.

So people said things like “We mustn’t look weak” and “What could possibly go wrong?”, and Israel launched the military operation we saw on Monday, with the results we know: at least ten dead civilians, another propaganda disaster, and its alliance with Turkey in ruins.

Israeli spin-doctors try to shift the blame to the victims, but they cannot get around the fact that their heavily armed troops illegally boarded a foreign ship in international waters, and that those troops then killed at least nine foreign civilians and wounded about thirty others. Just one Israeli soldier was seriously injured, though nine others apparently suffered scraped knuckles and bloody noses.

The gradual decline of the Israel Defence Forces from a disciplined military force to an armed rabble is the result of decades of occupation duties, which ultimately rot the soldierly qualities of any army. In the occupied Palestinian territories the IDF has the right, in practice, to beat or kill practically anybody it wants, but it has not fought a battle against a first-class army for a generation.

Do the Israeli spokespersons even understand that any professional army in the West that carried out such a botched and bloody operation would immediately suspend the commanders responsible and launch a major investigation? No, probably not. They have lost all perspective on themselves.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 14. (“The Cypriot…anything”; and “The gradual…generation”)

Obama’s Middle Eastern Adventure

27 January 2010

Obama’s Middle Eastern Adventure

By Gwynne Dyer

Barack Obama had worse failures to address in his State of the Union message on Wednesday (January 27), but a few days before he owned up to the most foolish miscalculation that his administration had made in its first year in power. In an interview with Joe Klein of Time magazine, he confessed that he had not understood the obstacles to an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement.

“The Middle East peace process has not moved forward….For all our efforts at early engagement, (it) is not where I want it to be,” Obama said. “If we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high.”

But why didn’t he anticipate them? Is there really nobody in Washington who could have told Obama the truth about the Middle East? Every non-American commentator who knows anything about the region has been saying for the past year that there is absolutely no chance of a breakthrough in the “peace process” at the present time. In fact, it is probably dead for a generation.

The answer, I fear, is that there really is nobody in Washington who can tell President Obama the truth about the region. Nobody, that is, who would be allowed through the cordon of academic “experts”, think-tank pundits and State Department and Pentagon officials who devoutly believe in an orthodoxy that sounds quite reasonable on the Potomac, even if it makes no sense whatever in terms of Middle Eastern reality.

For example, Obama wanted the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to enter direct peace talks with the Israeli government, even though he knew that Abbas only ruled around 60 percent of the Arab population of the occupied territories. The other 40 percent, in the Gaza Strip, have for the past several years been under the control of the radical Islamist movement Hamas, which rejects a permanent peace settlement with Israel.

So what was Abbas going to do? Sign a peace treaty with Israel, and get the Israeli army to impose it on the Gaza Strip? He certainly hasn’t the military forces to do it himself. And why would he sign a “separate peace” with Israel—and turn himself into an eternally reviled traitor to the Palestinian cause—just to serve Obama’s agenda? No wonder he has been saying he wants to resign for the past year.

Similarly, why would even the most pro-peace Israeli government make a deal with Abbas, who cannot deliver the assent of all, or at least most, of the Palestinians? Yitzhak Rabin himself would not have signed a peace treaty with Abbas under current circumstances, because he would have understood that it could not last.

Binyamin Netanyahu, the current Israeli prime minister, does not bear even a passing resemblance to the martyred Rabin, and the coalition he leads is not particularly “pro-peace.” It depends on the hard right and the settler parties for its majority in the Knesset (parliament), and it is not going to sacrifice its vision of a greater Israel to the whim of some passing American president.

Netanyahu spent his last term as prime minister in 1996-99 sabotaging the Oslo accords that promised Israeli recognition of an independent Palestinian state. He is an adroit politician who knows how to modify his rhetoric in English to mollify Washington, but he has not changed his basic position. Why should he? Washington cannot compel Israel to do anything it doesn’t want to.

It is Israel, not the White House, that controls U.S. policy on Arab-Israeli issues, due to its huge influence in Congress. Only one U.S. president in the past generation, George Bush Sr., has successfully defied Israel. His threat of sanctions brought the Israelis to the negotiating table after the Gulf War of 1990-91—but he is convinced that that is why he lost the 1992 election.

Obama has had to re-learn that lesson over the past year. He began by backing the Palestinian demand that Israel halt new settlement building in the occupied territories before the start of peace talks. After all, the peace talks would be about granting Palestinians sovereignty over those territories, among other things. For 40 years they have watched more and more of their land disappear under Israeli settlements, and they are a bit sensitive on the subject.

Netanyahu simply said no. Then, after six months had passed, he made a tiny concession. Israel would not start any new building projects in the more rural parts of the West Bank for 10 months, although it would continue work on all current projects to expand the settlements. It would not accept any limitations on its freedom to build new Jewish neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem.

It was virtually meaningless: I promise not to steal from you on Thursday afternoons. But Obama had learned his lesson by then. It gave him an excuse to switch his position and demand that Abbas drop his preconditions for entering peace talks too, as if Netanyahu had dropped his. Blame the Arabs for intransigence, and move on.

The question is: what deluded adviser told Obama that there was any point in embarking on this foredoomed enterprise? The answer, unfortunately, is that it could be almost any of the recognised “experts” on the Middle East in Washington. They have been spouting nonsense for so long that it sounds like sense to them.

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No Peace, Just Prizes

10 October 2009

 No Peace, Just Prizes

By Gwynne Dyer

“Anyone who says that within the next few years an agreement can be reached ending the conflict (between Israel and the Palestinians) simply doesn’t understand the situation and spreads delusions,” said Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman last week. But Barack Obama does say that. In fact, they gave him the Nobel Prize for saying it, didn’t they?

Speaking in a radio interview, Lieberman added: “There are conflicts that have not been completely solved and people have learned to live with it, like Cyprus….We have to be realistic. We will not be able to reach agreement on core and emotional subjects like Jerusalem and the right of return of Palestinian refugees.” And he said all this just as Obama’s point man for what we used to call the “peace process”, George Mitchell, arrived in Israel.

Undaunted by Lieberman’s comments, Mitchell gabbled the usual nonsense about how “we’re going to continue our efforts to achieve an early relaunch of negotiations…because we believe that is an essential step toward achieving a comprehensive peace.” Doesn’t he understand that the “peace process” has been dead for years? It is no more. It has expired. It is an ex-peace process.

Yes, of course he knows, but it was Lieberman who went off-script, not Mitchell. Every Israeli government since 2000 has believed what Lieberman said and acted accordingly, but has colluded with the United States and various well-meaning Europeans in pretending otherwise.

The Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas also pretends that the peace process is still alive. Indeed, it did so even in the last years of Yasser Arafat’s life. It has to go on pretending, because if the PA admits that the peace process is dead, then it becomes no more than an Israeli instrument for indirect control of the Palestinians. As it often is, in practice.

We had a vivid demonstration of this recently, when Judge Richard Goldstone submitted his report on last winter’s three-week war in the Gaza Strip to the United Nations Human Rights Council. The 575-page document reported that both Israeli forces and Palestinian militants had committed war crimes and possible crimes against humanity, and a resolution was put before the Council that could ultimately have led to prosecutions at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Israel launched a propaganda blitz to discredit Goldstone’s report, and together with the United States it mounted a diplomatic campaign to postpone any formal consideration of the report until next March. By then, it would be old news. Standard tactics, but here’s the bizarre bit: the Palestinian Authority also supported delaying the vote by six months.

What possible reason could the PA have for doing such a thing? Well over a thousand Palestinians had been killed in the conflict, and only 13 Israelis. The only Palestinians accused of war crimes were the militants of Hamas, who rule the Gaza Strip, and they are the sworn enemies of Abbas, his Fatah movement, and the Palestinian Authority. It was a no-brainer, and yet the PA went along with the Americans and the Israelis.

Unsurprisingly, this public evidence of the PA’s subjugation to American and Israeli policy caused a great outcry among Palestinians e ven in the West Bank, and Mahmoud Abbas ordered a “probe” into who had made such a wicked decision. (Hint: his initials are MA.) The truth is that the Palestinian Authority is just as complicit in the charade of a continuing peace process as the Israeli or American governments, and cannot afford to abandon it.

Only the radical Islamists of Hamas, from their besieged enclave in the Gaza Strip, openly acknowledge the same reality that Avigdor Lieberman describes (although from a very different perspective). There is no peace process, and the “two-state solution” on which it was built is all but dead. So what they offer Israel, at best, is a long-term truce – but only if the Palestinians get their pre-1967 borders back now.

A long-term truce (“like Cyprus”) is all that Lieberman is offering, either – and even that is not going to happen because he has no intention of returning to Israel’s pre-1967 borders. Neither does his boss, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, although he wraps his refusal in more diplomatic language.

All of President Obama’s pleas have failed to extract from Netanyahu even a promise to freeze the expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, let alone to negotiate a withdrawal from them. He has not moved from pleas to actual pressure because the Israelis effectively control the US Congress on this issue, and he will not risk alienating Congress over Israel while he is trying to get legislation through on health care, climate change, and other urgent issues.

He cannot even order the Israelis not to attack Iran. They will do it if they want to, even if the bulk of the Iranian retaliation would fall on American bases and forces in the Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Still, there is no doubt that Obama’s intentions are good. So are mine. Where’s my prize?

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 8. (“Yes…otherwise”; and “What…Israelis”)