Israeli efforts to erase history of occupation are doomed


Calls for mutual restraint ring hollow, for only one side is in a position to exercise it, writes Mohsen al Attar

A MASSACRE is under way. According to reports from UN agencies and local hospitals, nearly 310 Palestinians were killed over the weekend and nearly 600 injured in a series of assaults by the Israeli military against the Gaza strip. To put these figures in perspective, the Bali bombing, so virulently condemned across the globe - and rightfully so - resulted in roughly 200 deaths and an equal number of injuries.

Interestingly, officials from London to Washington have called on both sides to exercise restraint. Restraint is, of course, a relative concept. Israel can claim, as it does, that it has shown restraint in its handling of the mortar and rocket attacks against Sderot (rockets, the Guardian reports, that have killed 18 people over eight years).

Palestinians, conversely, argue that they have shown restraint towards the assassinations Israel has carried out against elected leaders. They also assert that they have shown restraint with regards to the three-year blockade Israel has imposed on Gaza.

In the latter instance, Palestinians appear to be on firm ground. Richard Falk, the UN Human Rights Council special rapporteur on the occupied territories, recently published a report on the coffin-like conditions of life in Gaza. Electricity, water, pharmaceuticals and other basic essentials are constantly in scarce supply.

Half the population lives under the poverty line and the majority is completely dependent on UN agencies and various non-governmental organisations for food provisions (a disaster in its own regard with malnutrition levels now rivalling those of sub-Saharan Africa).

Notably, the Israeli human rights organisation B'tselem has calculated that despite its much-publicised withdrawal from Gaza, Israel has mounted an impressive record of engagement, with nearly 1,000 Palestinians killed in 2008 alone.

These acts of restraint are intended to punish the Palestinian people for their electoral choice and to force them to do what Israel has been incapable of achieving on its own: dislodge Hamas.

But what is Hamas and does it, as Israel's public relations campaign affirms, bear responsibility for the killings? Hamas is branded, ad nauseam, as a terrorist organisation. This label is warranted. Not unlike the IRA once did, Hamas maintains a military wing that has carried out reprehensible attacks against Israeli civilians. Each such attack is justifiably met with a wave of international condemnation and has increased global ire against the party.

Hostility towards Hamas, however, does not end there. A much-ballyhooed fact is Hamas's self-professed Islamic roots. For starters, its name represents an acronym for Islamic resistance movement and its communiqués are peppered with references, often misquoted and misunderstood but present nevertheless, to the Koran.

Israel has capitalised on popular apprehension of Islam by constantly drawing links to the sectarian nature of the party (a perplexing irony when one considers that Israel prides itself on being a Jewish state). In fact, numerous unsuccessful - and often quite comical - attempts have been made by Israel to link Hamas to al-Qaeda in the hopes of generating further sympathy for its cause.

There is of course more to the story - and to Hamas - than this. Not unlike the IRA once again, Hamas is a grassroots resistance movement. It has a strong political wing, so strong in fact that it unseated Fatah in the last round of elections. It also has an even stronger social wing which provides food, schooling and medical services in an environment where official services have collapsed.

All of this begs the question: what is Hamas resisting? Israel prefers to decontextualise the struggle. Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor has suggested that in assessing the latest events "we could start in 1948 but if we want to limit ourselves to the current situation, I would begin with the pull-out of 2005". Palmor is essentially seeking to erase 41 years of occupation from the debate.

By so doing, emphasis can be placed on the immediate actions of Hamas - such as the firing of rockets - and not on the historic actions of Israel - that is, the occupation.

This is, as many will recognise, a doomed strategy. Try in vain - and they all have - but invading forces will never be regarded as victims. The British were not the victims in India, nor were the Soviets in Afghanistan, nor are the Americans in Iraq, and neither are the Israelis in Palestine. Each one of these nations chose to breach the sovereignty of another and, in so doing, acquired the much-detested title of invader.

Under conditions of invasion and occupation, calls for mutual restraint ring hollow for only one side is in a position to exercise it. Rather than repeat the politically correct refrain, the international community should adopt a new strategy. Indeed, to stand idly by while Israel commits gross violations of international law does a great disservice to all parties.

The Palestinians suffer (as did the Lebanese in 2006 when Israel launched a similar offensive for ostensibly similar reasons); the Israelis suffer as their pariah status intensifies; and the world suffers as, in the words of Dr Martin Luther King, injustice anywhere corrupts justice everywhere.

By condemning the actions of supposed enemies but excusing those very acts when executed by allies, the West squanders any moral capital it claims to possess.

Justice knows no borders and injustice knows no friend.

In this instance, the only alternative is to call Israel on the criminality of its actions and of its occupation and to stand in solidarity with justice, if not with the Palestinians.

• Mohsen al Attar is a staff member at the faculty of law at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. He teaches and researches in the areas of law and society, international trade law and class struggle.