OVER THE last few years, Israel’s image as a vulnerable democracy, innocently defending itself from hostile forces, has unraveled dramatically. The final straw to break the back of that mythology may well have come in the pre-dawn hours of May 31, 2010, when Israeli commandos attacked six boats carrying unarmed, civilian activists.
The boats were traveling as part of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, attempting to bring humanitarian supplies and relief to Palestinians in Gaza. But before the flotilla made it anywhere near shore—in fact, while it was in international waters, moving in the opposite direction—Israeli forces boarded the boats from sea and air, killed nine peace activists, injured scores more, and arrested and deported hundreds of others. Author and activist Ali Abunimah wrote:
This time, it was not just “expendable” Palestinians or Lebanese who were Israel’s victims, but people from thirty-two countries and every continent. It was the day the whole world became Gaza. And like the people of Gaza, the world is unlikely to take it lying down.
The plight of Palestinians, and in particular those in the Gaza Strip, has come into sharp focus in recent years. Turned into the world’s largest open-air prison since its borders were sealed by Israel in 2006 (and suffering from occupation, violence, and closures in the preceding decades), Gaza is home to over a million and a half Palestinians. Many are refugees displaced by Israel’s “war of independence”—or the Nakba (“disaster”)—of 1947–48.
The nightmare in Gaza entered public consciousness in January 2008, when a series of explosions in the wall separating Gaza from Egypt allowed Palestinians to rush across the border, buy much needed supplies, visit friends and relatives, and take a temporary breather from the stultifying daily reality of life under siege.
Less than a year later, the world looked on in horror as Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, a devastating invasion and aerial bombardment that left more than 1,400 dead, thousands more injured, and wiped out homes, schools, electricity, and sanitation infrastructure. Since then, the continued blockade has made it impossible to rebuild, leaving Gaza “decaying under the weight of continued devastation, unable to function normally,” in the words of Harvard researcher Sara Roy.
These events have helped increase sympathy and solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Jewish college students in the United States, for instance, have shown diminished attachment to the Zionist project. Peter Beinart noted in the New York Review of Books: “For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door. And now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.”
With criticism of Israeli actions growing, and as the international Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement gains steam—two books recently published by Haymarket Books provide timely and indispensable guides for a new generation of activists.
Midnight on the Mavi Marmara, a compilation of essays edited by Moustafa Bayoumi, was published shortly after the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, with the Mavi Marmara as its lead ship, was attacked by Israeli forces. It exposes the bold lies manufactured by Israel’s propaganda machine concerning the night’s events. Nine of the flotilla’s participants submitted eyewitness accounts in harrowing detail.
Lubna Massawra, a ’48 Palestinian and an organizer of the flotilla, described the chaos and violence of the attack. As she walked by dead bodies and bloody injuries, Israeli commandos stood by, refusing medical treatment for the wounded:
The ship was devastated. There was a small mountain of passengers’ bags, open, and flags stained with blood. Letters written by hundreds of children to children in Gaza were on the floor, under the soldiers’ boots. We were under the control of the Israeli soldiers. Dozens of them stood in front of us, in every corner, with their guns pointed toward us. Their faces were covered with black; you could see only their eyes. I realized that we must not be human in the eyes of the Israeli soldiers when I saw them joking with each other—one of them was petting his dog—after they had just killed innocent people in cold blood.
Midnight goes beyond providing important accounts of Israeli brutality. It follows with essays that analyze the causes and implications of Israel’s attack; provide a historical context of the siege of Gaza; scrutinize internal dynamics within Israel and trends in the region; and point a way forward—through international solidarity, more flotillas to Gaza, and the BDS campaign.
As a number of contributors point out, Israel sought to bludgeon Palestinians in Gaza in order to weaken Hamas, while bolstering the compliant Fatah-led Palestinian Authority through Western aid to the West Bank.
At the same time, Israeli policies of closure in Gaza long predate Hamas’s electoral victory in 2006 and takeover of the Strip in 2007. “Closure has been in effect since it was declared in January 1991,” Israeli journalist Amira Hass points out. “Since then, all the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been deprived of the right to freedom of movement. Since then, they have been subject to a complicated regime of permits that is becoming ever more sophisticated.”
Sara Roy, a leading academic specialist on Gaza, provides an essential historical context, outlining Gaza’s long history of subjection to Israeli rule and economic strangulation. “The decline and disablement of Gaza’s economy and society,” she explains, “have been deliberate, the result of [Israeli] state policy—consciously planned, implemented, and enforced.” These policies have been in place through every Israeli administration, through periods of “calm” and cease-fires, and even through the high points of the “peace process” in the mid-1990s.
Nevertheless, an international movement in solidarity with Palestinians grows stronger. Where international law has failed, international activism has stepped up the fight. “The brutality of the flotilla attack was a measure of the extent to which the Israeli polity has grown to fear and loathe this global grassroots movement,” argues writer-activist Mike Marqusee.
As many contributors point out, the BDS campaign has picked up significant momentum. “From the decisions by Norway’s pension funds and several European banks to divest from certain Israeli companies, to university divestment initiatives, the refusal by international artists to perform in Israel, or the flash mobs that have brought the consumer boycott to supermarkets around the world, Israel see BDS as a growing ‘existential threat,’” says Abunimah.
BDS has been able to unite Palestinian and international groups around three basic principles: an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem; recognition of the rights of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in United Nations Resolution 194.
In this context, the attack on the flotilla became, in the words of Adam Horowitz and Philip Weiss, “Israel’s anti-1967 moment,” finally breaking “the blockade on the world’s understanding of the Gaza crisis.” As they explain:
In a generational sense, Operation Cast Lead and the flotilla attack can be understood as the anti-1967 war. It was the 1967 war that helped solidify Israel’s image in the eyes of the world, and in particular of American Jewry, as the scrappy underdog beating the odds. That image has now changed forever, and the ongoing siege of Gaza has caused many to consider what Zionism has built in the Middle East.
Gaza in Crisis: Reflections on Israel’s War Against the Palestinians, by Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappé, also published shortly after the flotilla attack, is an exciting collaboration by two of the most insightful, trusted, and principled sources on Israel and Palestine. The book is made up of articles and interviews, chock-full of valuable historical context, current analysis, and debates about the way forward.
Chomsky’s article, “Exterminate the Brutes,” is an eloquent and damning account of Israel’s 2008–09 assault on Gaza. Chomsky shreds apart the media propaganda and the hypocrisy of Israeli and American officials in justifying the occupier’s violence, while condemning the more muted and weaker violence of the resistance. “Of course all such conclusions…” he adds, “are based on a fundamental flaw: This is us; and that is them. This crucial principle, deeply embedded in Western culture, suffices to undermine even the most precise analogy and the most impeccable reasoning.”
Pappé, an Israeli historian, offers a biting critique of Israeli denial of the Nakba—the disaster of 1948 that displaced almost a million Palestinians from their homes and land. He provides a brief, devastating history of the cruel and deliberate ethnic cleansing that created the state of Israel, and draws out the ramifications that this denial has on the “peace process.”
Not taking responsibility for the Nakba of 1948 forms the basis for the “peace camp” in Israel. This position has been “institutionalized in an extra-parliamentary movement, Peace Now…and several parties…in the Israeli parliament, who evaded the issue of 1948 and sidelined the refugee question.”
Chomsky, too, offers sharp criticism of Israel’s role in the so-called “peace” process. “It is not that Israel does not want peace,” Chomsky says.
Everyone wants peace, even Hitler. The question is: on what terms? From its origins, the Zionist movement has understood that to achieve its goals, the best strategy would be to delay political settlement, meanwhile slowly building facts on the ground. Even the occasional agreements, as in [the UN partition plan of] 1947, were regarded by the leadership as temporary steps toward further expansion.
There are also points of differences between Chomsky and Pappé, and the book opens up an important space to have these debates within the movement.
Pappé, for instance, is a supporter of a one-state solution to the conflict—that is, a single democratic state with equal rights for all its citizens. In an important article entitled “Blueprint for a One-State Movement: A Troubled History,” Pappé argues that the two-state solution—providing a separate state for Palestinians, outside of the Israeli state—is not realistic. “The facts indicated,” he says, “that there was never and will never be Israeli consent to a Palestinian state apart from a stateless state within two Bantustans in the West Bank and Gaza, totally under Israeli control.”
Furthermore, as the two-state solution has historically been associated with “pragmatic Zionism” (the Labor wing of the Zionist establishment), it has only given it cover to pursue the same aims as its more right-wing counterpart.
The total identification of pragmatic Zionism with the two-state solution…equated it in the eyes of the world with “peace” and “reconciliation.” As transpired clearly during the days of the Oslo Accord, the discourse of two states and peace provided a shield that enabled the pragmatic Zionist governments to expand the settlement project in the West Bank and escalate the oppressive policies against the Gaza Strip.
What was and still is presented by Western journalists and politicians as a fundamental debate inside Israel about peace and war, of retaining the territories or withdrawing from them, is in effect a debate about what “maximum territory” is and what are the means of achieving it, as well as how one attains the target of minimum Arabs.
While there is not a chapter devoted to it, Chomsky calls on the United States to join the “international consensus” on establishing two states—with a viable state for Palestine.
Chomsky and Pappé also differ in their analysis, or at least emphasis, of what drives U.S. support for Israel. Pappé argues that U.S. support rests on three legs: AIPAC (the pro-Israel lobby), the military-industrial complex, and the influence of Christian Zionists. Chomsky, on the other hand, maintains that while the “lobby indeed has influence,” it only does in so far is “it pursues goals that are of little concern to the U.S. elite opinion and concentrations of power, like crushing Palestinians.” And in fact, the U.S. is the true “boss” of the equation, not an equal partner open to the whims and influence of the Israeli elite.
Regardless of your position on the relative strength of AIPAC, it’s useful to know its history and growth. As Pappé notes, AIPAC was formed in response to “Arabist” views within the State Department that were less friendly to Israel. It’s not in the book, but it is worth noting that the timing of the decline of Arabists in the U.S. government also coincided with Israel’s rise as a military power in the Middle East. Around the corner from AIPAC’s founding in 1963, the “Six Day War” of 1967 proved Israel’s worth in the region to the U.S. establishment.
To the extent to which there have been debates within U.S. elite circles about Israel’s strength as an asset—or at times liability—the reason why it matters at all has to do with broader U.S. interests. As both Chomsky and Pappé point out, oil in the Middle East has long fueled American ambitions in the region. “Controlling the oil flow, on the one hand,” says Pappé, “and extracting earnings from its production, on the other, became the double goal of American policy in the Arab world.”
U.S. empire, Israeli aggression, and their combined brutalities in the Middle East have seemed impenetrable for decades. But the result of Operation Cast Lead and the attack on the Gaza flotilla has been, in the words of Adam Shapiro, co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement, “a radical shift in momentum. The story is no longer of Arab vs. Israeli or Palestinian vs. Israeli; it is the whole world vs. Israeli apartheid and occupation.”
If we add to that picture the recent upsurges across North Africa and the Middle East, plus the release of the “Palestine Papers” by Al Jazeera, we can expect to see some serious cracks in the status quo.