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The fire next time: Max Blumenthal on another war in Gaza that looms heavy on the horizon

Kieran O'Connor21 July 2015

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Writing in Le Monde diplomatique, Max Blumenthal, author of The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza, outlines why another war in Gaza is possible, barely a year after Israel launched Operation Protective Edge and besieged the region.

"A fourth operation in the Gaza Strip is inevitable, just as a third Lebanon war is inevitable,” declared Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in February. His ominous comments came just days after an anti-tank missile fired by the Lebanon-based guerrilla group Hezbollah killed two soldiers in an Israeli army convoy. It, in turn, was a response to an Israeli air strike that resulted in the assassination of several high-ranking Hezbollah figures.

Lieberman offered his prediction only four months after his government concluded Operation Protective Edge, the third war between Israel and the armed factions of the Gaza Strip, which had managed to reduce about 20% of besieged Gaza to an apocalyptic moonscape. Even before the assault was launched, Gaza was a warehouse for surplus humanity — a 360-square-kilometer ghetto of Palestinian refugees expelled by and excluded from the self-proclaimed Jewish state. For this population, whose members are mostly under the age of 18, the violence has become a life ritual that repeats every year or two. As the first anniversary of Protective Edge passes, Lieberman’s unsettling prophecy appears increasingly likely to come true. Indeed, odds are that the months of relative “quiet” that followed his statement will prove nothing more than an interregnum between Israel’s ever more devastating military escalations.

Three years ago, the United Nations issued a report predicting that the Gaza Strip would be uninhabitable by 2020. Thanks to Israel’s recent attack, this warning appears to have arrived sooner than expected. Few of the 18,000 homes the Israeli military destroyed in Gaza have been rebuilt. Few of the more than 400 businesses and shops damaged or leveled during that war have been repaired. Thousands of government employees have not received a salary for more than a year and are working for free. Electricity remains desperately limited, sometimes to only four hours a day. The coastal enclave’s borders are consistently closed. Its population is trapped, traumatized, and descending ever deeper into despair, with suicide rates skyrocketing.

One of the few areas where Gaza’s youth can find structure is within the “Liberation Camps” established by Hamas, the Islamist political organization that controls Gaza. There, they undergo military training, ideological indoctrination, and are ultimately inducted into the Palestinian armed struggle. As I found while covering last summer’s war, there is no shortage of young orphans determined to take up arms after watching their parents and siblings be torn limb from limb by 2,000-pound Israeli fragmentation missiles, artillery shells, and other modes of destruction. Fifteen-year-old Waseem Shamaly, for instance, told me his life’s ambition was to join the Al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas. He had just finished recounting through tears what it was like to watch a YouTube clip of his brother, Salem, being executed by an Israeli sniper while he searched for the rest of his family in the rubble of their neighborhood last July.

Anger with Hamas’s political wing for accepting a ceasefire agreement with Israel in late August 2014 that offered nothing but a return to the slow death of siege and imprisonment is now palpable among Gaza’s civilian population. This is particularly true in border areas devastated by the Israelis last summer. However, support for the Al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas that carries the banner of the Palestinian armed struggle, remains almost unanimous.

Palestinians in Gaza need only look 80 kilometers east to the gilded Bantustans of the Palestinian Authority (PA) to see what they would get if they agreed to disarm. After years of fruitless negotiations, Israel has rewarded Palestinians living under the rule of PA President Mahmoud Abbas with the record growth of Jewish settlements, major new land annexations, nightly house raids, and the constant humiliation and dangers of daily interactions with Israeli soldiers and fanatical Jewish settlers. Rather than resist the occupation, Abbas’s Western-trained security forces coordinate directly with the occupying Israeli army, assisting Israel in the arrest and even torture of fellow Palestinians, including the leadership of rival political factions.

As punishing as life in Gaza might be, the West Bank model does not offer a terribly attractive alternative. Yet this is exactly the kind of “solution” the Israeli government seeks to impose on Gaza. As former Interior Minister Yuval Steinitz declared last year, “We want more than a ceasefire, we want the demilitarization of Gaza... Gaza will be exactly like [the West Bank city of] Ramallah.”

Keeping Gaza in ruins

Behind the quasi-apocalyptic destruction exacted on Gaza by the Israeli military during Operation Protective Edge lies a sadistic strategy whose aim is to punish residents of the besieged coastal enclave into submission. The “Dahiya Doctrine,” named after a southern Beirut neighborhood the Israeli air force decimated in 2006, is focused on punishing the civilian populations of Gaza and southern Lebanon for supporting armed resistance movements like Hamas and Hezbollah. In “Disproportionate Force,” a 2008 paper published by the Institute for National Security Studies, a think tank closely linked to the Israeli military, Colonel Gabi Siboni spelled out its punitive, civilian-oriented logic clearly: “With an outbreak of hostilities, the [Israeli army] will need to act immediately, decisively, and with force that is disproportionate to the enemy’s actions and the threat it poses. Such a response aims at inflicting damage and meting out punishment to an extent that will demand long and expensive reconstruction processes.”

In the aftermath of Protective Edge’s massive destruction of civilian infrastructure in Gaza, the Israeli government set out to obstruct any reconstruction process and extend the suffering of Gaza’s civilian population. When diplomats including American Secretary of State John Kerry gathered in Cairo last October to discuss repairing and rebuilding some of the $7 billion in damage caused by Protective Edge, then-Israeli Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz assured them that their efforts were ultimately futile. “The Gazans must decide what they want to be: Singapore or Darfur,” Katz said, ominously invoking the threat of Sudanese-style genocide. “If one missile will be fired, everything will go down the drain.” The nature of his warning was not lost on the diplomats in Cairo, where one complained of “considerable donor fatigue.”

“No one can expect us to go back to our taxpayers for a third time; to ask for contributions for reconstruction and then we simply go back to where we were before all this began,” a diplomat complained to a reporter. Another conceded: “There isn’t a terrible amount of political commitment or hope.”

In the end, only a minuscule fraction of the $5 billion pledged at the conference has actually made its way to Gaza’s devastated masses. Instead, much of it has been diverted into the coffers of the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank, whose mission requires it to spend around 30% of its budget on “security,” or policing fellow Palestinians, on behalf of their occupier.

Earlier this year, as funds for reconstruction dried up entirely, the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Robert Serry attempted to compel Palestinians in Gaza to accept a rebuilding plan he concocted in cooperation with the Israeli military, the Egyptian military junta of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and the PA. Described by Israeli military correspondent Ron Ben-Yishai as a model of “the conflict management approach,” the plan amounts to the internationalization of the siege of Gaza and the perpetual imprisonment of Palestinians there. Needless to say, it proved a non-starter among those whose lives it would have controlled.

Though Hamas has stringently maintained the ceasefire it inked when hostilities ended last August, Israel has repeatedly attacked Gaza’s fishermen as well as farmers working in areas near the Israeli border wall. As despair spreads, the previously minute ranks of Salafist extremists are expanding and pledging allegiance to the Islamic State (IS), the brutal theocratic crew that has established a “caliphate” in parts of Syria and Iraq and whose followers in Gaza have declared war on Hamas.

Gaza’s IS-allied factions have adopted a simple formula for undermining Hamas that begins with the launching of a crude rocket or mortar usually into an unpopulated area of southern Israel. That these do little or no damage hardly matters, since IS followers know that Israel will respond with airstrikes targeting Hamas-controlled facilities. Through these provocations, IS in Gaza has established an alliance of convenience with the Israeli military, with each relying on the other to tighten the vise on Hamas. Though IS has no chance now of toppling Hamas, its presence — and Israel’s apparent eagerness to play its game — has injected a volatile new element into an already unstable post-war landscape.

Field testing the brand

Hamas and allied militant groups like Palestinian Islamic Jihad entered last summer’s war with a set of conditions that were entirely humanitarian in nature. They called for the right to construct a seaport in Gaza, rebuild the airport Israel destroyed, and freely import and export goods, as well as for Gaza’s stateless residents to obtain travel permits. In exchange, Hamas offered Israel a 10-year truce. Rather than accept any of these conditions, which would have promoted a dramatic reduction in tensions, Israel and its allies in Cairo and Washington opted for 51 days of brutal warfare, knowing that Gaza’s civilians would pay the steepest price — and that an elite sector of Israeli society would reap handsome rewards.

Unlike the rulers of Gaza, Israel’s upper classes thrive off war. The assaults on Gaza since 2005 have invigorated one of the country’s leading industries and been a boon to the 150,000 Israeli families who earn their livelihoods from it. Thanks in large part to the wars in Gaza and the ongoing occupation of Palestine, Israel’s weapons industry has tripled its profits to more than $7 billion a year over the past decade, making a country about the size of New Jersey into the fourth largest weapons exporter in the world.

“A salesman for the IAI [Israel Aerospace Industries] told me that assassinations and operations in Gaza bring about an increase of tens of percentage points in company sales,” said Yotam Feldman, the Israeli journalist whose documentary film, The Lab, provides a disturbing look at the country’s weapons industry and how it has transformed Israeli society. According to Feldman, “the war in Gaza has become inherent to the Israeli political system, possibly a part of our system of government.”

Members of the Israeli elite have benefitted directly from the Gaza wars by orchestrating the assaults as generals and politicians and then taking jobs as lobbyists, marketing to foreign militaries the newest weaponry and battlefield tactics tested on Gaza’s civilian population. Ehud Barak, for instance, was the defense minister who directed Israel’s disproportionate attacks on Gaza in 2008-2009 and again in 2012. He was also one of the closest associates of Michael Federman, a former member of his Sayeret Matkal commando unit and a political advisor who also happened to be the owner of Israel’s largest weapons manufacturer, Elbit Systems. It was perhaps unsurprising then that, after leading the Defense Ministry during so many wars deploying and promoting Elbit’s latest weaponry, Barak’s name suddenly wound up on the Forbes list of Israel’s wealthiest politicians in 2012.

A quick browse through Israel Defense News, the leading English-language trade publication of Israel’s weapons industry, offers perhaps the best look at how new tactics and weaponry are marketed. In its latest issue, dedicated to the “new age warfare” practiced in Gaza, readers are assured that “2015 will be good for Israeli Defense Industries.” Uri Vered, general manager of Elbit Systems, promises that “land field systems” — the tanks and armored combat vehicles deployed in the recent conflict — will experience record growth.

Among the high tech weaponry being touted by the magazine is a drone “capable of loitering over the target and attacking it.” This is a reference to Israeli Aerospace Industries’ Harop, a “suicide drone” first tested in southern Lebanon that hovers over its target before diving into it with 10 kilograms of explosives packed into its nose. With militaries around the world snapping up the Harop by the hundreds, Israel’s weapons sector is eager to roll out a next generation vehicle that includes its own launch pad. In order to brand the newfangled drone with the magical marketing label of “field tested,” IAI simply needs another war.

The point of no return

To be sure, there are figures within Israel’s military-intelligence apparatus keen on averting another war with Gaza’s armed factions, at least in the near term. They recognize that Hamas has become a stabilizing force in Gaza capable of maintaining ceasefires in good faith. As it did with the Fatah-controlled Palestine Liberation Organization during the 1970s and 1980s, the Israeli military establishment has attempted to domesticate Hamas by assassinating “irreconcilables” like former Al-Qassam commander Ahmed Jaabari, while allowing more conciliatory and politically ambitious figures like Gazan Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh to rise. Its strategy is aimed at cultivating within Hamas the kind of docile leadership that now makes up the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, thereby transforming another self-proclaimed Palestinian resistance organization into an occupation subcontractor.

Yet as Israel (relying on international mediators) engages in negotiations with Hamas over a range of issues including the release of a captured Israeli citizen, there is no sense that its domestication strategy is working. And whatever accommodations the gatekeepers of Israel’s military-intelligence sector had in mind, the chaos unleashed by Operation Protective Edge has probably pushed Jewish Israeli society beyond the point of no return. Indeed, the wartime atmosphere proved a godsend for far-right mobilization, electrifying religious nationalist elements in the government and fascist goons in the streets of Tel Aviv. This January, the 45% of Jewish Israelis who complained that their military had not used enough force against Gaza went on to elect the most right-wing government in Israeli history.

Among the leaders of Israel’s increasingly dominant religious nationalist movement is Naftali Bennett, the 43-year-old head of the pro-settler Jewish Home Party. Bennett spent much of last summer’s war railing against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for refusing to order a full reoccupation of Gaza and the violent removal of Hamas — a potentially catastrophic move that Netanyahu and the Israeli military brass vehemently opposed. While Bennett accused Palestinians of committing “self-genocide,” his youthful deputy, Ayelet Shaked, declared that Palestinian civilians “are all enemy combatants, and their blood shall be on all their heads.” According to Shaked, the “mothers of the martyrs” should be exterminated, “as should the physical homes in which they raised the snakes. Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there.”

In the current Israeli governing coalition, Bennett serves as Minister of Education, overseeing the schooling of millions of Jewish Israeli youth. And Shaked has been promoted to Minister of Justice, giving her direct influence over the country’s court system. Once one of the young Turks of the right-wing Likud Party, Netanyahu now finds himself at the hollow center of Israeli politics, mediating between factions of hardline ethno-nationalists and outright fascists.

Where Gaza is concerned, Israel’s loyal opposition differs little from the country’s far-right rulers. In the days before the January national elections, Tzipi Livni, a leader of the left-of-center Zionist Union, proclaimed, “Hamas is a terrorist organization and there is no hope for peace with it... the only way to act against it is with force — we must use military force against terror... and this is instead of [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s policy to come to an agreement with Hamas.” Livni’s ally, Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, reinforced her militaristic position by declaring, “There is no compromising with terror.”

Months after the cessation of hostilities, even as foreign correspondents marvel at the “quiet” that has prevailed along Gaza’s borders, the Israeli leadership is ramping up its bloody imprecations. At a conference this May sponsored by Shurat HaDin, a legal organization dedicated to defending Israel from war crimes charges, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon warned that another crushing assault was inevitable, either in Gaza, southern Lebanon, or both. After threatening to drop a nuclear bomb on Iran, Yaalon pledged that “we are going to hurt Lebanese civilians to include kids of the family. We went through a very long deep discussion... we did it then, we did it in [the] Gaza Strip, we are going to do it in any round of hostilities in the future.”

Yaalon went on to boast to his audience about how one year before Operation Protective Edge, he furnished his commanders with maps of “certain neighborhoods in Gaza” to hit. They included Shujaiya, an area east of Gaza City where over 120 civilians were killed in a matter of hours, and which now lies in utter ruin. Gaza still reels from last summer’s assault, yet there is no reason to doubt that the Israeli military will fulfill Yaalon’s terrifying vow — perhaps sooner than anyone expects.

For Israel, war is no longer an option. It is a way of life.

- This article was first published in Le Monde diplomatique.

- Max Blumenthal will be speaking at a series of events across the UK to mark the release of The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza.  The majority of dates are in association with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.  Please visit the Verso events page for full listings.