By Ramzy Baroud
Why did Israel attack Gaza with such brutality? Did Israeli officials think, even for a fleeting moment, that their army’s attacks could halt, as opposed to intensify, Palestinian rockets or retaliatory violence? Indeed, was Palestinian violence at all relevant to the Israeli action? Was the Israeli bloodletting in Gaza solely relevant to the Gaza/Hamas context, or is there a regional dimension that is largely being overlooked?
In an al-Jazeera English TV discussion, Israeli journalist Gideon Levy and al-Quds al-Arabi editor-in-chief Abd al-Bari Atwan attempted to decipher Israel’s actions in Gaza which have, since February 27, killed more than 120 Palestinians and four Israeli soldiers. These attacks were followed by incursions and further violence, including an attack on a Jewish seminary school in Jerusalem.
Levy explained that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak wanted to demonstrate to the Israeli public that he was "doing something" about the regular launching of rockets from Gaza. Although Levy wasn’t justifying the Israeli government’s inhumane and misguided logic, he disagreed with Atwan over the use of terminology. The latter (who is also an outstanding journalist) had asserted that the killings in Gaza represented a form of "genocide" and "ethnic cleansing".
Arab intellectuals, often wary of the use of certain terminology – since Western sensibilities don’t accept associating Israel with genocide and ethnic cleansing – became less hesitant after Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai warned Palestinians in a radio interview to expect a "bigger Holocaust".
But terminology aside, are we to really believe that the wanton killing in Gaza – a major violation of international and humanitarian laws – was meant to send a message to the Israeli public, or to carry out genocide for its own sake?
Initially, albeit unsurprisingly, the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas seemed oblivious, and then at best neutral, to the carnage. First, it asked both Israel and Hamas to cease their violence, and then it accused Israel of attempting to "derail" the peace process (what peace process?). Finally, and only after the Vatican, thankfully, decried the Israeli killings, Abbas announced the halt of all contacts with Israel.
A few days later, following a trip by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the region, Abbas reversed his position. Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman of the presidency, quoted Abbas as stating that "we intend to resume the peace talks with Israel which reserve the aim of ending the occupation".
Considering the heavy toll that Palestinians endured by a deliberate Israeli attempt to cause a "bigger holocaust", Abbas’ agreement to the resumption of futile chats with the same men who ordered the death of scores of his people is a mockery to say the least.
While Palestinian, Israeli and international responses to violence remain predictable, this view still doesn’t explain the timing or the underlying objectives.
In my view, historically, Israel’s behavior, regardless of its outcome, is always politically motivated, and it never fails to keep a regional picture in mind.
There are two lines of military logic that Israel resorts to. One is motivated by the "chaos theory", the idea that seemingly minor events accumulate to have complex and massive effects on dynamic natural systems. For example, Gaza might have been attacked with the hope of provoking a streak of suicide bombings that would eventually be blamed on Syrian planning and Iranian financing – thus provoking a major showdown in Lebanon. The history of Israeli-Arab conflicts demonstrates how many major invasions are justified by seemingly irrelevant events, such as the 1982 Lebanon War.
But is Israel capable of sustaining another conflict in Lebanon after its miserable – and costly – failure in July-August 2006?
That’s when the US becomes even more relevant. Just as Israeli attacks occupied major headlines around the world, the USS Cole and two additional ships – including one amphibious assault vessel – were quietly making their way from Malta to the shores of Lebanon. The ships were dispatched as a "show of support for regional stability", according to US Navy officials.
With the gung-ho George W Bush administration’s time in office coming to an end and waning public enthusiasm for war against Iran, Israel cannot afford allowing the regional setup to be stacked in the following way: Hezbollah dominating south Lebanon, Hamas dominating Gaza and Iran becoming an increasingly formidable regional power.
This leads to the other line of Israeli military logic, the "big bang" theory. The self-explanatory logic of this theory is applicable in the sense that a regional war – accompanied by mini civil wars in Palestine and Lebanon, along with other attempts at destabilizing Iran and Syria – could work in Israel’s favor.
Under no condition would the US be able stay out of such a conflict (considering its regional interests, allies and own war in Iraq). Revelations of the sinister role played by the Bush administration in organizing and provoking a civil war among Palestinians shows the extent to which Bush is willing to go to achieve Israel’s objectives. More, it shows the willingness of various Arab and Palestinian players to readily participate in the bloody and costly US-Israeli ventures.
With all due respect to Levy and Atwan, I think Israel’s main aim was neither to send a message to its public nor to commit genocide – though these are not unreasonable possibilities. Indeed, the majority of the Israeli public, according to a Tel Aviv University poll, wished that their government would negotiate a ceasefire with Hamas, as bombs were falling atop the hapless Gaza residents.
The facts – as demonstrated by the US-Israeli role in the turmoil in Lebanon, the consistent attempt to arraign Iran, and the Israeli provocations and bombings in Syria – all indicate that Israel’s plans are regional, with Gaza being a testing ground, and the least costly target to isolate and brutalize. Already a massive concentration camp with a largely starving population, Gaza has provided Israel with a perfect opportunity to start sending stern messages to the other players in the region.
-Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is an author and editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His work has been published in many newspapers and journals worldwide. His latest book is The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle (Pluto Press, London).