The Israeli bombardment of Gaza is getting the usual sympathetic treatment from Official Washington, which even excuses Israel’s killing of civilians who are near Hamas militants by claiming that Hamas is using them as “human shields,” as Vijay Prashad explained to Dennis J Bernstein.
By Dennis J Bernstein
The Egypt-Israeli cease-fire offer on Gaza was more a PR stunt than a genuine effort to end Israel’s imbalanced slaughter of Palestinians, author and professor Vijay Prashad says, adding that Israel’s periodic bombing campaigns have come to appear more and more as ethnic cleansing.
Prashad is chair of South Asian history and professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He has just returned to the United States after a year in Beirut, Lebanon, where he taught at American University. He is co-editor of Dispatches from the Arab Spring and author of Arab Spring, Libyan Winter. He is also a columnist for Frontline Newspaper in India.
He was interviewed by Dennis J Bernstein on Pacifica’s “Flashpoints” show, discussing the war’s level of the brutality, the use of new weapons and the real motives behind Israel’s extraordinary use of violence against a civilian population.
DB: You said the cease-fire offered by Egypt and Israel, essentially in the press, came through in a most idiosyncratic fashion. You want to elaborate on that please?
VP: Sure. The interesting thing with a conflict of this nature is there are two parties. There is the Israeli military, which has asymmetric force over the Palestinians, and then there are these various Palestinians factions. Now, it appears that the Egyptians unilaterally created a cease-fire document which they announced via the media and suggested that Tuesday morning at 9 a.m. a cease-fire should begin. This is a very curious way of conducting any kind of negotiations.
A real cease-fire takes place when the protagonists, let’s say the Israeli government and some representatives from the Palestinian factions have a very quiet discussion behind the scenes. They agree on this is what’s going to happen; if there is a violation, this is how we check out whether the violation is real or not. And this is the penalty that will be paid for the violation. In other words, they actually negotiate and create a contract for a cease-fire.
In this case, there was no negotiation, no conversation. In fact, the Hamas leadership said that they only heard about the cease-fire via the media. This is not a real cease-fire or a truce. This was Egypt’s attempt to enter the process where there really is no process.
DB: Egypt, given the current situation there and the disappearing of the Arab Spring there, is not a partner that would be although the corporate media of the West would think: “Well, here’s Egypt, they must be friends with the Palestinians. So this is a fair deal.” Egypt is not in love with the Palestinians, is it, the current government?
VP: This is a very fraught relationship. And the fraughtness of it goes back, in a way, to the length of modern Egyptian history. You know, people do not remember that in 1952 when Gamal Abdel Nasser conducted the coup d’etat against the royal family and overthrew the monarchy. The reason he moved against the monarchy was that in 1948 the Egyptians were defeated by the young Israeli army because they had been badly equipped and very poorly trained. In other words, underfunded by the monarchy.
The idea of the Egyptian military being, in a sense, subordinate to Israel is a longstanding and very quarrellous question inside Egyptian politics. When Egypt was defeated in 1967, Nasser came out publicly and threatened to resign. In fact, he did resign. And there were thousands of people, if not about a million people, some people say in Tahrir Square in ’69 calling for Nasser not to resign.
It’s interesting that since the 1979 Camp David Accord, the Egyptian military has essentially stepped away from the Palestinian/Israeli conflict which has meant that with the largest Arab army no longer a threat — and indeed the largest Arab army, if I can put it like this, bribed by the United States with millions of dollars each year — it was the largest Arab army no longer in the fray, Israel has complete supremacy over Gaza, over the skies of Gaza, over the coastline of Gaza, and indeed over Gaza itself, its land as well. Because it’s not threatened by the Egyptians. In fact, the Egyptians have gone one step further. They have frequently closed off the tunnels that have linked Gaza into Egypt. And that’s been, for a long time, the only way that the Gazan economy has been able to breathe.
So the Egyptians are not heroic, in the eyes of the Palestinians. In fact, they have been an impediment to the movement of a political process for the Palestinians. And many people suggest that Mr. [Abdel Fatah al-]Sisi, now head of state, and head of government in Egypt, tried to push the cease-fire deal through because he feels threatened by the increasing instability in Palestine and would not like to see the soul of Gaza explode in his face.
DB: Talk a little bit about this notion of war. The corporate media refers to this, once again, what’s happening with Israel conducting sort of a slaughter war in Gaza of a trapped population. Would you use the word war? How would you describe what is happening between the Palestinians, in the context of Hamas, and the Israeli military?
VP: You have used a nice expression. You used the expression slaughter war. This might be a good way to characterize what’s happening. Whatever term you use, when you start to describe the situation the word war, by itself, makes no sense.
In other words, as I said earlier the Israelis have complete supremacy over the air, over the coastline, and over the border regions of Gaza. This means, of course, that Israel is without threat when it sends planes over Gaza to bomb any point. The Palestinians have developed a rocket capability to retaliate when they are threatened, but as you can see from the figures that are out there, there are about 200 Palestinian casualties, meaning 200 Palestinians dead. And I believe you have the first Israeli casualty.
What this means, of course, is that the Palestinian military capability is nullified. It is virtually zero. The only regional power, the only regional militia power, that has the capability of inflicting considerable damage on Israel is Hezbollah which has developed quite a considerable rocket capability. There have been some firing of rockets from Lebanon. But that is not by Hezbollah, that is by sporadic groups near the city of Tyre, in south Lebanon.
Two or three rocket launch places have been uncovered by the Israelis. If Hezbollah entered this conflict, they have a vast ensemble of rockets. So what is happening from Gaza, what rockets Hamas is firing is nothing compared to what Hezbollah can fire, and neither of them have any military capability of the kind that Israel has. So it’s entirely a one-way battle if you look at it from that point.
And this is the reason why it’s easy for mainstream Israeli politicians like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and others to talk about eradicating Hamas. Ariel Sharon’s son, Gilad Sharon, two years ago talked about flattening Gaza. This language is only possible because of the overwhelming military superiority that the Israelis enjoy over the Palestinians.
DB: In the context of this, there has been extreme repression leading up to this rocket fire and long before the kidnapping of the three Israeli settlers or teenagers or soldiers. It really is referred to now by more and more folks as an overt form of ethnic cleansing. Some of the folks who have been interviewed about firing the rockets say, “we’re firing the rockets, really, at the places where we used to live, or our families lived for seven generations.” Where are the rockets landing, and what’s your response to that side of this?
VP: Firstly, of course, it’s true that there were three young Israeli settlers who were killed. And that’s not a good thing. And it’s not a good thing because young people like that should not be put in the middle of this conflict, as a pawn. Let me put it this way. The Israeli military and government has been saying that Hamas is using civilians in Gaza as human shields. This is the great claim. And therefore if there are civilian casualties, this is the fault of Hamas.
I would like to put it to the leadership in Israel, that they are using settlers as a kind of human shield for the expansion of Israel beyond its 1967 borders. In other words, it is putting young people, like these three teenagers, into very tense political spaces, and then innocently saying “Isn’t it terrible, they have been killed?!”
In other words, the Israeli government as a policy been doing exactly what it is now accusing Hamas of doing, which is using civilians as human shields. And that’s exactly what those three teenagers were … they were human shields for Israel’s land grab in the West Bank. Whether it’s in East Jerusalem, or indeed, in the area promised to the Palestinian state, in other words, the 22 percent of historic Palestine.
And the point about where the rockets are landing, one has to bear in mind that we’re talking about extremely primitive technology. And this, I think, is, of course, worrying. When we have come to an age when the language of precision is so important to military strategy. People talk about precision bombing, etc. Of course the Israelis have the capacity to do precision bombing, which is what makes the death of civilians so scandalous. Because the capability of precision is in their hands. The point is they are bombing an area as dense as Gaza, 1.8 million people living in 325 square kilometers, [a] highly dense population. Their precision, in fact, is not able to help them only hit military targets.
DB: Maybe you could comment on the notion of bombing a population of refugees, people who have been refugees two and three and four times already. But bombing a population that cannot run, that is locked in, is a potential, unique kind of war crime.
VP: In 1996, when Israel had begun to bomb southern Lebanon, a large number of Lebanese, mainly agriculturists, took refuge in the U.N. compound in Qana. And Israel bombed that compound and killed hundreds of people. I don’t know if this is remembered anymore. But that was supposed to be a refuge for people.
Through the last several cycles, whether it’s Hot Winter, Autumn Wind … I forget the names now, Pillar of Defense, Cast Lead. Each of the attacks over the last decade, from at least 2006 to the present in Gaza, each of these massive bombardments has come exactly as you say, in a pressure-cooker situation because the borders are closed, there is nowhere to run. Which is why thousands of Palestinians rush to U.N. encampments. There are currently over 17,000 Palestinian civilians taking refuge in U.N. compounds.
The U.N. is well aware that with the history of Qana, these compounds are not safe. There are also thousands of people at the Rafah crossing into Egypt. That crossing is largely closed, part of the duplicity of the Egyptian government, that I was talking about earlier. There is nowhere for the Palestinian people to go.
And this technique of so-called knock-on bombing, where a small device, essentially, is dropped on a house. It sends a knocking sound and then within two, three, four minutes the house is bombed. These knock-on bombs are coming at two in the morning, at three in the morning, four in the morning.
Imagine you are in your house in Berkeley, or wherever, and a little device falls on your roof at two in the morning, then you have to run out of that house. You run a hundred meters or so, within five minutes, otherwise you will be destroyed. Your entire family will be killed. This kind of use of weaponry, this kind of pressure-cooker environment in which the bombing is happening and this kind of use of warning in the middle of the night, this itself is a unique category of a war crime.
DB: I should remind people that Israel has got its own weapons industry, but a lot of these weapons are coming from the U.S., if they are not funded by the U.S., but people have referred, after the second or third most recent bombings that bombing campaigns that Israel has conducted over Gaza,.people are talking about it as being a test ground for the latest U.S. and Israeli weaponry. These knock-on bombs, I don’t remember them in Vietnam or the first, or second, or third Iraq war, whatever.
VP: Every time there is a war, we have to become experts on weaponry, because new things are developed. During Cast Lead and during Pillar of Defense, I learned for the first time about how white phosphorous had morphed from being used like napalm, now to be used in a very contained space. Every time there is a war, they are trying out new weapons. It’s grotesque.
The first issue is what are they bombing Gaza for? Have we considered what is the war in? Are the weapons being used commensurate with the war in? Is the war in to find out who abducted and killed those three teenagers? It is already clear that the people who abducted and killed those three teenagers are a rogue group from Hebron. So why is Gaza being bombed? Second war in, is this happening to close down Gaza’s so-called rocket launching capability? What is bombing the European hospital got to do with closing down the rocket launching capability?
So the kinds of weapons utilized are not commensurate with any known war in. Is the war in is to intimidate and subordinate and keep prone the Palestinian population? Then one can understand using this kind of wide spectrum of weaponry, to terrify and to humiliate the Palestinian people. The only war in that these weapons indicate could be the actual war in, is the war in to terrorize and humiliate Palestinians. Otherwise much more specific weaponry would have been utilized.
So you are right, is this a case of simply testing the latest weaponry? It could be. But I would be even more cynical than that. It appears that the war in, which is to humiliate and terrify the Palestinians. It requires them to utilize THE most terrifying weaponry and that’s precisely what that use of white phosphorous was about from Cast Lead to Pillar of Defense and this so-called knock-on bomb. Which now makes you responsible for the killing of your whole family. Because now, you didn’t flee fast enough in the middle of the night, in that five-minute window, and therefore your children died.
DB: Amazing. I’ve just got one more area of inquiry for you. You just returned from teaching in Beirut, Lebanon, had a very clear, close review of the situation going on next door in Syria. Obviously, there’s a flood of Palestinians coming over the border into Lebanon, into camps that are already crowded, two and three times over. We’ve seen this extraordinary expansion of what has been going on in Iraq for some time. We see the Kurds asserting themselves as an independent country, five million there. Twenty million in Turkey, so who knows what’s going on there? But what about putting this, what’s happening, this latest encounter and deadly encounter being brought upon the Palestinians. Put this in context of like what’s going on there. How do you see it, in the whole?
VP: It’s hard to do because this is a big, big shake-up in the region. Some people are talking about the interesting development that has been taking place inside Palestinian politics. Which is that, for the first time, there seems to be a serious attempt to unite the various factions into a new kind of Palestinian liberation organization. And I don’t mean they are actually going to create some kind of foundation like that.
But a unity between Fatah and Hamas, in action, was a huge step forward for Palestine. Because for the last 20 years or so, at least since Oslo, the gap between the Fatah movement and the Hamas movement has been very great. In fact, they have been even attacking each other. So this development, some people suggest, is a consequence of the shake-up in the region. In other words, Hamas has come to realize that its patrons, for instance, Qatar, to some extent Syria and Turkey, etc. have very shifting allegiances. And it’s perhaps a good idea not to rely on too many geopolitical and international actors. It’s a good idea to build on Palestinian unity. This has been one of the salutary outcomes of the Arab Spring, or Arab uprisings development, that this unity phase has come into being.
And, therefore, there is, I think, a reasonable question to be asked. Why did the Netanyahu cabinet utilize the killing of these three teenagers as a mechanism to utilize the two different strategies. To basically subordinate the Palestinians again. One is the aerial bombardment, and bombardment in general of Gaza, and the second is the massive raids that swept through the West Bank, Operations Brothers Keeper, which proceeded Operation Protective Edge. In the West Bank, you don’t have the history over the last 20 years of aerial bombardment in the way you have in Gaza. In the West Bank you have Israeli troops entering through raids, raiding houses, house by house.
So, within a month, you had both the West Bank and Gaza directly attacked by the Israeli cabinet, by the Netanyahu cabinet, for what reason? Because, it is suggested that there’s some sense of apprehension, that if this political unity came to be, if Hamas and Fatah were able to unite, it would directly threaten Israel’s political standing in the region. And secondly, Israel does feel threatened by the emergence of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement. That has put a lot of pressure particularly on European governments.
This has been, I think, a useful way to win back the support of some of those governments in a bizarre way. You can imagine that this kind of mass level of slaughter would turn those governments away. But the Israeli government is very clever, in utilizing these kinds of moments, to, in a sense, win back support, to claim loyalty.
After all Mr. Obama has to go to the White House … and there he has to pledge American loyalty to Israel. So a very curious place he chose to make his most forthright statement about U.S. solidarity with Israel. So what I am suggesting is the politics of the region and of Palestine, perhaps explain a little bit of the churning and of this push-back by this Israeli cabinet.
Dennis J Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom.