Antony Loewenstein: A Country Lost in Its Own Region

By Antony Loewenstein

October 30, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the Knesset’s Security and Foreign Affairs Committee that the Israeli military had killed 300 "terrorists" in the Gaza Strip in the past three months.

According to the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, the Israel Defense Force has killed 294 Palestinians in Gaza since the abduction of Corporal Gilad Shalit on June 27, but more than half of those killed – 155 people, including 61 children – had no involvement in hostilities. The group sent a letter to Olmert, demanding to know whether Israel considered "all those who were killed to be terrorists who deserved to die". The Prime Minister’s statement contained "within it a twisted logic whereby the fact that someone was killed by a military proves that he or she is a terrorist".

The latest Israeli massacre in Gaza – the killing of 19 Palestinian civilians while they slept in their beds in Beit Hanun – occurred precisely because the IDF regularly fires shells into heavily populated areas. Under international humanitarian law, a state is prohibited from such activity if the attack is likely to cause undue harm to civilians and will not gain any military advantage.

Israel claims that its actions, while regrettable, were designed to eliminate Qassam rockets being fired into Israel from Gaza. The result is the exact opposite, with Hamas already calling for revenge and an ever-growing and justified militancy against Israel’s continuing occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.

It didn’t need to be this way. After Israel’s military, political and bureaucratic loss during the recent Lebanon war, calmer heads would have welcomed a more measured path. Alas, Israel refuses to negotiate with Syria – despite Bashir Assad’s recent conciliatory statements – and continues to build more illegal settlements on occupied West Bank territory.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz’s Arab affairs commentator, Danny Rubinstein, commented during a speech in Tel Aviv that Israel’s "real aim (in Gaza) is the collective punishment of the Palestinian population. The military operation is designed to prevent the Palestinians rejoicing (when prisoners are released in exchange for Gilad Shalit). This is a political, media-driven operation which lacks any military justification." US-made weapons are killing hundreds of innocent civilians and the world remains silent.

But this may all be about to change. The elevation of far-right and openly racist Avigdor Lieberman to the position of deputy leader and a new portfolio, the Strategic Affairs Ministry, gives the world a unique opportunity to hear the ambitions of an extremist in the heart of "the Middle East’s only democracy".

Lieberman has called for Arab MPs who had contact with Hamas to be executed. Last week he demanded the separation between Arabs and Jews, and the establishment of a purely Jewish nation. On one occasion he even demanded that Egypt’s Aswan Dam be bombed.

Despite the elevation of this fundamentalist Zionist, Diaspora Jewry has remained mute, lest they be accused of disloyalty to their beloved homeland. What will it take for the Jewish establishment to openly and unequivocally condemn the utterances of Lieberman, who, according to Haaretz, is "liable to bring disaster down upon the entire region"?

The international community’s hypocrisy is worth noting. When the Palestinians democratically elected Hamas this year, much of the world boycotted them. Yet when the world accepts Lieberman’s appointment without comment, the double standard is galling. So who is really serious about peace?

Israel is a nation in serious decline. Its President may face indictment on charges of rape, the "peace movement" is virtually non-existent, corruption is rampant (a 2005 World Bank report found that the Jewish state’s economic corruption was one of the worst in the developed world) and the military establishment is addicted to military solutions that have failed.

It is time for some uncomfortable truths to be stated. Israel’s long-term future lies not with a superpower thousands of kilometers away, but in the Arab world. Washington’s standing in the region has never been worse, and just last week Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said that America’s plans in the Middle East faced "failure, frustration and a state of collapse". He predicted the US would be forced to leave the region in the future.

As a strong supporter of both the Israelis and Palestinians, I believe that only international pressure on Israel can bring a nation addicted to violence to heel and leadership on both sides mature enough to negotiate with honesty.

-Antony Loewenstein is the author of My Israel Question (Melbourne University Publishing).

© The Age, (November 10, 2006)

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