The Israeli government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has exploited the capture of Army Corporal Gilad Shalit to restore the country’s diminished deterrence against militant Palestinian factions, to break the elected Hamas government and to impose its unilateral territorial solution on the West Bank. But when the dust finally settles, Israel’s offensive against the besieged territories–and now Lebanon–will have left the region with more destruction and death and the Israeli government with the same strategic deadlock. That’s why instead of lashing out against their neighbors, Israelis must end the vicious cycle of provocations and retaliations, and pursue meaningful negotiations to end the occupation.
The Olmert government bases its campaign against Palestinian civilian infrastructure on three fallacies: that Israel does not initiate violence but retaliates to protect its citizens–in this case a captured soldier; that its response is measured and not meant to harm the broader population; and that it does not negotiate with those it deems terrorists.
But Israel’s offensive did not start last week. The three-month-old Israeli government is responsible for the killing eighty or more Palestinians, some of whom were children, in attacks aimed at carrying out illegal extrajudicial assassinations and other punishments. Hamas has maintained a one-sided cease-fire for the past sixteen months, but continued Israeli attacks made Palestinian retaliation only a question of time. (Palestinian factions not under Hamas’s control had been firing home-made rockets across the border off and on during this period–almost always with little or no damage or casualties–but these factions maintained that the attacks were in response to Israeli provocations.)
Since the beginning of the intifada in September 2000, repeated Israeli bombardments and targeted assassinations against Palestinians have aggravated the violence and led to Israeli deaths. In fact, according to the US academic Steve Niva, who has been documenting the intifada, many major Palestinian suicide bombings since 2001 have come in retaliation for Israeli assassinations, many of which occurred when the Palestinians were mulling over or abiding by self-imposed restraint.
To give three examples: On July 31, 2001, Israel’s assassination of the two leading Hamas militants in Nablus ended a nearly two-month Hamas cease-fire, leading to the terrible August 9 Hamas suicide bombing in a Jerusalem pizzeria. On July 22, 2002, an Israeli air attack on a crowded apartment block in Gaza City killed a senior Hamas leader, Salah Shehada, and fourteen civilians, nine of them children, hours before a widely reported unilateral cease-fire declaration. A suicide bombing followed on August 4. On June 10, 2003, Israel’s attempted assassination of the senior Hamas political leader in Gaza, Abdel-Aziz al-Rantisi, which wounded him and killed four Palestinian civilians, led to a bus bombing in Jerusalem on June 11 that killed sixteen Israelis.
Although Israel’s provocations don’t justify suicide bombings, they demonstrate how its deterrence has lost its effectiveness and why the source of terrorism lies first and foremost in its aggression and occupation. In this context, affected Palestinian civilians see themselves not as “collateral damage” but as victims of state terrorism.
As for the nature of its “retaliation,” one could hardly refer to Israel’s destruction of the civic infrastructure of 1.3 million Palestinians as “measured.” The Israeli army began last week’s offensive on the Gaza Strip by bombing bridges, roads and electric supplies, and by arresting nearly one-third of Hamas’s West Bank-based parliamentarians and ministers (according to the Israeli press, the security services are holding the elected Palestinian officials as bargaining chips with Hamas).
The nature of the Israeli offensive is to punish, overwhelm and deter with disproportionate force, regardless of the suffering of the general public. Cutting off basic services of the Palestinians is not only unjustified, it is collective punishment of a civilian population–illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention.
The asymmetry between Israeli and Palestinian firepower mustn’t be translated into asymmetry between the value of Israeli and Palestinian life. The Palestinians have captured one Israeli soldier, but Israel holds more than 9,000 Palestinian prisoners, about 900 of whom are under “administrative detention,” i.e., without trial. It has held some of these prisoners for longer than three years. Those in the international community calling for the IDF soldier’s release need to address, at minimum, the ordeal of Palestinian women and children in Israeli jails.
The Israeli government, like any other, has the right and indeed the duty to protect its people, but not at the high expense of the Palestinians, whose government’s credibility also rests on defending its people. The use of military force to scare and overawe a civilian population for political ends–in this case, to pressure the Palestinian Authority or undermine the Hamas government–is the very definition of state terrorism.
In its thirty-nine years of occupation, Israel’s attempts to tame or intimidate the Palestinians have instead led to their incitement and radicalization. Isn’t it time for Israel to change course? After all, in a minuscule territory where the longest distance separating an Israeli and Palestinian area is no more than nine kilometers, Israelis will never be secure if the Palestinians are utterly insecure.
That’s why Israel’s harsh responses to Palestinian militancy have generally increased, not reduced, the threat to Israelis. While from 1978 to 1987 eighty-two Israelis were killed in Palestinian attacks, that figure jumped to more than 400 the following decade. And in less than two years of the second intifada (September 29, 2000, to May 29, 2002), more than 450 Israelis and 1,250 Palestinians were slain, mostly civilians on both sides.
Lastly, regarding its refusal to bargain with “terrorists,” Israel’s previous dealings with Lebanon’s Hezbollah paint a different picture. Israel’s bombardment of Beirut’s electric generators and its Operation “Grapes of Wrath” in 1996, which led to the Qana massacre, failed, like many other operations, to deter the Lebanese resistance, which eventually forced Israel to negotiate through a third party with those it deemed “Islamist terrorists” and release hundreds of Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners from its jails in exchange for the remains of dead Israeli soldiers.
The ongoing saga has once again demonstrated the absurdity of unilateralism as a viable and secure solution. And yet, the Olmert government is using the kidnapping of the soldier to undermine the historic agreement Hamas has reached with PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party over a unity government and de facto recognition of and negotiations with Israel, its sworn enemy.
Whether we like it or not, Hamas, like Hezbollah, is mostly a byproduct of an oppressive occupation, not the other way around. That’s why refraining from excessive use of force and concentrating all efforts on a negotiated end to the occupation is paramount. Otherwise, Israel will only increase Hamas’s popularity and push it back to clandestinity and war.