Israel’s show of force will backfire
By Amin Saikal
The late Palestinian scholar Edward Said described the Palestinians as “the victim of the victim”. The Jewish people suffered hugely at the hands of Europeans in history, but since the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948, the Israelis have subjected the Palestinian people to actions that have in some ways been reminiscent of their own suffering.
In the current crisis, Israel has re-invaded the Gaza Strip and turned it into an encampment, collectively punishing 1.3 million Palestinians.
This has generated an environment in which the Syrian and Iranian-backed Lebanese Islamic Hezbollah attacked an Israeli military post on the border with Lebanon, with Israel retaliating in yet another disproportionate manner. Israel has not only gone after Hezbollah targets, but as usual has sought to punish the state of Lebanon as a whole.
It has targeted the country’s international airport and other infrastructure. Astonishingly, the US has supported Israel in all this. No wonder there is so much resentment of Israel and the US in the Arab-Muslim world.
The Palestinian killing of two Israeli soldiers and abduction of a third more than two weeks ago, and Hezbollah’s subsequent similar actions, have ostensibly generated the present crisis. But such actions are not something new in the area. Israel has been involved in this kind of action against the Palestinians, and to a lesser extent against Hezbollah, for years.
Israel has eliminated, through targeted assassination, hundreds of Palestinians and jailed thousands more, including women and children, and hit and jailed many Hezbollah activists. In the process, it has killed hundreds of innocent Palestinians and many Lebanese.
Israel has justified all this in terms of self-defence, and collateral damage in what it has called a fight against terrorism, as defined by itself.
It has never paid the least attention to the fact that Palestinian violent actions against Israel have had their roots in Israel’s colonial occupation of the Palestinian land and brutal suppression of the Palestinians as a people, who, like Israelis, have the right to live in independence, peace and security.
Similarly, Israel has ignored the reality that its occupation of southern Lebanon for 20 years – until withdrawing unilaterally in 2000 because it could no longer sustain the cost of this operation – contributed substantially to making Hezbollah the fighting force that it is today.
While promoting itself as a bastion of democracy, Israel has scorned all Palestinian efforts at democratisation when the outcome has not been according to Israeli preferences. It has denounced the Palestinians’ democratically elected government as one led by a terrorist organisation, the radical Islamist Hamas, although this is very much reminiscent of its rejection of the PLO as a terrorist organisation in the 1970s and ’80s.
Now that the Palestinians have turned to Hamas for salvation because the PLO proved to be ineffectual, Israel is punishing all Palestinians for exercising their democratic rights. In a similar vein, it has rejected Hezbollah’s democratic participation in Lebanese politics as a legitimate force, and has continued to prosecute it as a terrorist group and to encourage Washington to maximise pressure on Syria and Iran so that Israel can be assured of its position as the most powerful and determining actor in the region.
Unfortunately, the Bush Administration has given Israel virtually unqualified support. When caught between supporting Israel and upholding its rhetoric about liberty, democracy and justice, it has sided with Israel. It has defended the country’s actions in all political forums and cast most of its vetoes at the UN Security Council to protect Israel from any criticism. It has constantly demanded that the Palestinians in particular, and Arabs and Iranians in general, democratise and refrain from violence. But it has never asked Israel not to use American-supplied lethal weapons in violating the rights of the Palestinians and others in the area whenever it has been deemed appropriate.
This, together with US failures in Iraq, has made many Arabs and Muslims turn their backs on the US as a hypocritical power, too immersed in its war on terrorism to retain any sight of realities on the ground.
Neither Israel nor the US can any longer afford to bury their heads in the sand and pretend that the political challenges facing them do not exist. Their actions have increasingly played into the hands of radicals – whether of Islamist or secularist nature – in the Arab-Muslim domain, and, for that matter, in the wider world.
Both Israel and the US need to realise that the application of brute force cannot resolve the deep-seated problems in the region. What is required is a sound political strategy to address the plight of the Palestinians, defuse tension between Israel and its neighbours, and improve America’s image among the Arabs and Muslims. Otherwise the long-term damage to both Israel and the US, as well as the region, may become beyond repair, seriously undermining the efforts to contain international terrorism.
Amin Saikal is professor of political science and director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University.