By Johann Hari, London Independent
The world isn't just watching the Israeli government commit a crime in Gaza; we are watching it self-harm. This morning, and tomorrow morning, and every morning until this punishment-beating ends, the young people of the Gaza Strip are going to be more filled with hate, and more determined to fight back, with stones or suicide-vests or rockets. Israel's leaders have convinced themselves the harder you beat the Palestinians, the softer they will become. But when this is over, the rage against Israelis will have hardened, and the same old compromises will still be waiting by the roadside of history, untended and unmade.
To understand how frightening it is to be a Gazan this morning, you need to have stood in that small slab of concrete by the Mediterranean and smelled the claustrophobia. The Gaza Strip is smaller than the Isle of Wight, but it is crammed with 1.5 million people who can never leave. They live out their lives on top of each other in vast sagging tower blocks, jobless and hungry. From the top floor, you can often see the borders of their world: the Mediterranean Sea, and the Israeli barbed wire. When bombs begin to fall - as they do now with more deadly force than on any day since 1967 - there is nowhere to hide.
There will now be a war over the story of this war. The Israeli government says: we withdrew from Gaza in 2005, and in return we got Hamas and Qassam rockets being rained on our cities. Some 16 civilians have been murdered. How many more are we supposed to sacrifice? It is a plausible narrative, and there are shards of truth in it - but it is also filled with holes. If we want to understand the reality and really stop the rockets, we need to rewind a few years, and view the runway to this war dispassionately.
The Israeli government did indeed withdraw from the Gaza Strip in 2005 - in order to be able to intensify control of the West Bank. Ariel Sharon's senior advisor Dov Weisglass was unequivocal about this, explaining: "The disengagement [from Gaza] is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that's necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians... Effectively, this whole package that is called the Palestinian state has been removed from our agenda indefinitely."
Ordinary Palestinians were horrified by this, and by the fetid corruption of their own Fatah leaders - so they voted for Hamas. It certainly wouldn't have been my choice - an Islamist party is antithetical to all my convictions - but we have to be honest. It was a free and democratic election, and it was not a rejection of a two-state solution. The most detailed polling of Palestinians, by the University of Maryland, found that 72 percent want a two-state solution on the 1967 borders, while fewer than 20 percent want to reclaim the whole of historic Palestine. So, partly in response to this pressure, Hamas offered Israel a long ceasefire and a de facto acceptance of two states, if only Israel would return to its legal borders.
Rather than seize this opportunity and test their sincerity, the Israeli government reacted by punishing the entire civilian population. They announced they were blockading the Gaza Strip in order to "pressure" its people to reverse the democratic process. They surrounded the Strip and refused to let anyone or anything out. They let in a small trickle of food, fuel and medicine - but not enough for survival.
Weisglass quipped the Gazans were being "put on a diet." According to Oxfam, this November only 137 trucks of food were allowed into Gaza this November - to feed 1.5 million people. The UN says poverty has reached an "unprecedented level." When I was last in besieged Gaza, I saw hospitals turning away the sick because their machinery and medicine was running out. I met hungry children stumbling around the streets, scavenging for food.
It was in this context - under collective punishment designed to topple a democracy - that some forces within Gaza did something immoral: they fired Qassam rockets indiscriminately at Israeli cities. These rockets have killed 16 ordinary Israeli citizens. This is abhorrent: targeting civilians is always murder. But it is hypocritical for the Israeli government to claim now to speak out for the safety of civilians when they have been terrorising civilians as a matter of state policy.
European and American governments are responding with a lop-sidedness that ignores these realities. They say that Israel cannot be expected to negotiate under rocket-fire, but they demand the Palestinians do so under siege in Gaza and violent military occupation in the West Bank.
Before it falls down the memory hole, we should remember that last week, Hamas offered a ceasefire in return for basic and achievable compromises. Don't take my word for it. According to the Israeli press, Yuval Diskin, the current head of the Israeli security services Shin Bet, "told the Israeli cabinet [on the 23rd] that Hamas is interested in continuing the truce, but wants to improve its terms." Diskin explained Hamas was requesting two things: an end to the blockade, and an Israeli ceasefire on the West Bank. The cabinet - high with election-fever, and eager to appear tough - rejected these terms.
The core of the situation has been starkly laid out by Ephraim Halevy, the former head of Mossad. He says that while Hamas - like much of the Israeli right - dreams of driving their opponents away, "they have recognized this ideological goal is not attainable, and will not be in the foreseeable future." Instead, "they are ready and willing to see the establishment of a Palestinian state in the temporary borders of 1967." They are aware this means they "will have to adopt a path that could lead them far from their original goals" - and towards a long-term peace based on compromise. The rejectionists on both sides - from Mahmoud Ahmadinejadh to Bibi Netanyahu - would then be marginalised. It is the only path that could yet end in peace - but it is the Israeli government who refused to choose it. Halevy explains: "Israel, for reasons of its own, did not want to turn the ceasefire into the start of a diplomatic process with Hamas."
Why would Israel act this way? The Israeli government wants peace, but only one imposed on its own terms, based on the acceptance of defeat by the Palestinians. It means they can keep the slabs of the West Bank on 'their' side of the wall. It means they keep the largest settlements, and control of the water supply. And it means a divided Palestine, with responsibility for Gaza hived off to Egypt, and the broken-up West Bank standing alone. Negotiations threaten this vision: they would require Israel to give up more than it wants to. But an imposed peace will be no peace at all: it will not stop the rockets or the rage. For real safety, Israel will have to talk to the people it is blockading and bombing today - and compromise with them.
The sound of Gaza burning should be drowned out by the words of the Israeli writer Larry Derfner. He says: "Israel's war with Gaza has to be the most one-sided on earth.... If the point is to end it, or at least begin to end it, the ball is not in Hamas' court - it's in ours."
This latest Israeli/Palestinian war is another example of the real culture of death. Israel isn't interested in co-existence with the Palestinians, they want domination of the Palestinians. They want control of all regional resources, most especially water. If this was ever a religious conflict it ceased being so a long, long time ago. It's now about who controls the resources.
As an American who has just spent eight years listening to the neo cons convince us of the moral duty of America to spread democracy, Israel stands as the perfect example of what 'spreading democracy' really means. It means spreading democracies controlled by and dependent on the West. It's a new form of colonization under the guise of freely elected governments.
Gaza Palestinians made the mistake of actually freely electing their leadership. In Israeli eyes it was the wrong vote. That's the trouble with democracy. One doesn't always get the result they envision. Now Israeli tanks are poised on the Gaza strip to get what Israel wants the old fashioned way, taking it by force.
What's fascinating to me is the dearth of articles in the West criticising Israeli actions. Israel is taking far more criticism in their own press than Israel is getting from the West. Our government, not surprisingly, is blaming Hamas for inciting Israel to engage in this massive retaliation. Hamas may have launched the first rockets after the cease fire ended, but Israel was the one who refused to negotiate.
I'm at a loss to understand why it's in our interests for the Israeli's to exact a 300-1 kill ratio in their retaliation for rocket attacks on their territory. And I can't forget that they are using our latest weapons technology in this assault. I suspect it's not the first time the Israeli military has been used to 'hot fire' our latest weapons. How wonderful then, that we managed to ship our best and brightest just in time for this latest test. Unless one happens to be a Palestinian civilian.
And just for some icing on this rotten cake, Egyptian border guards are firing on Palestinian refugees who are desperately trying to get away from the Israeli aerial assault. Egypt is also increasing it's military presence on their border with Gaza, while Israeli bombs close the tunnels which became a major route for supplementing the meager supplies the Israeli's were letting through their blockade. I have no doubt military supplies for Hamas also came through these tunnels. Placing whole populations on a 'diet' frequently leads to those populations supplementing their 'diets' anyway they can. It seems Gaza will now be on an even stricter diet making it even easier to find thin suicide bombers.
I don't know how the violence will ever end if nobody in the West will get serious with Israel. Hamas is not going away because Israel 'surgically' bombs the Gaza strip and enforces an inhumane blockade. Hamas is willing to negotiate a cease fire if two things are done, ending the Gaza blockade and establishing a cease fire on the West bank. Israel is being asked to give up nothing more than what they themselves unilaterally put in place.
This is no longer about territory or Israeli national security, it's about humanitarian steps to end what is a de facto Gitmo for 1.5 million people. There are very real differences though, between our Gitmo and the Israeli version in Gaza. Our detainees have enough food and access to adequate medical care. They don't have to watch their children starve before their eyes or get blown to smithereens. Gitmo detainees have the hope that the incoming Obama administration will end their incarceration. The Israeli Gaza Gitmo has none of the above.
If the current situation in Gaza demonstrates anything, it's that Israel has become a domineering paranoid nation out of emotional control. This, coupled with Gaza's current misery, is extremely dangerous for the West. How dangerous? Dangerous enough that Deal Hudson and I are on the same wave length. I never thought I'd see that day.