Of wrath, recklessness, soccer and apathy

Hisham Melhem

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Once again, Israel and Palestine are at war, or to be more precise Israel is waging war on the Hamas controlled Gaza strip. And once again the people of Gaza, the most densely populated territory in the world find themselves being victimized by a reckless Hamas and a merciless Israel. Some Palestinians refer to the strip as Planet Gaza to denote its isolation, harsh conditions and misery. This is the stuff of madness and nihilism on both sides, because both know, or should know by now, that there is no military solution to their deadly predicament. In the recent past, Israel would visit Gaza with its bombers, missiles and tanks on average of once every two years with the objective of destroying Hamas’ “infrastructure,” kill its leaders, teach them a lesson, or cow them to accept the reality of living under siege and extinguish their spirit of resistance.

One hears from the Israelis the same words, the same threats the same echoes from years past when the Palestinians were operating in Lebanon before 1982. And once again, the Palestinians find themselves alone. This time, more so than in 2012 or 2009 their isolation is deeply felt, only because they could fully see and feel official Arab apathy and popular silence.

The gates of hell

Every time the Israelis carry out their attacks (after giving them morbid names) hoping to achieve the same objectives, and every time they fail, but manage to deepen the alienation of the people of Gaza, and the radicalization of Hamas’ leaders. Every time Hamas lobs rockets into Israel hoping to change Israeli calculus, every time the exercise ends in failure. Every time Hamas finds itself on the ropes, unable to deliver on any of its promises to the Palestinians, Israel comes to the rescue in the form of another incursion or another assassination. For its part, Hamas’ once primitive arsenal of rockets, has been improved recently, but the discrepancy in the fire power between the two sides, and the efficiency of Israel’s military killing machine is so pronounced, that it makes Hamas’ firing of its indiscriminate missiles into Israel an exercise of utter futility and downright nihilism. Hamas leaders are quick with their threats that the “gates of hell” will open if Israel attacks, forgetting that the same gates usually consume more Palestinians than Israelis. In the current bloody encounter we see the same disproportionate efficiency of violence. Israel’s harvest of blood is now beyond one hundred Palestinians killed; most of them civilians including children and women, and not a single Israeli have been killed, not that that should be welcomed.

Rightward drift

Ever since the collapse of the peace talks at Camp David in 2000, and the second Palestinian Intifada there has been a steady shift in Israeli politics towards religious extremism and ultranationalist parties. The separation wall initiated by Ariel Sharon, along with the rise of ultra-nationalist and right wing Israeli politicians such as Avigdor Lieberman who calls for an Israel free of Arabs, and Naftali Bennett who sees a Palestinian state as a “disaster” for Israel, have fundamentally changed Israeli politics. The era of the old labor party politicians such as Yitzhak Rabin who believed in coexistence with Palestinians and their Arab neighbors is gone. In this environment, demonizing Palestinians, particularly those under Hamas became easier and more tolerable. The Sharon-Netanyahu era will be known as the era of mainstreaming extremism in Israel.

Hamas’ control of Gaza in 2007 meant that for the first time a segment of the Palestinian people were living under an Islamist authority with Problematic relations and collaboration with other Islamist movements in the region and with Iran. Hamas’ maximalist political rhetoric and Islamist credentials and discourse, along with the rise of Jewish parties and exclusionary discourse in Israel have added a new dangerous religious framing of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which has been for a long time a conflict between two nationalist movements claiming the same land and fighting over tangible things like territory and material resources, and not a religious conflict at its core.

Every time Hamas lobs rockets into Israel hoping to change Israeli calculus, every time the exercise ends in failure.

Hisham Melhem

Occupation and coercion

The current moment of blood and pain was brought about by the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli youths allegedly by some Palestinians affiliated with Hamas. The subsequent murder of a Palestinian teenager in revenge killing completed the cycle of bloodletting. Credible Israeli media reports showed that the Israeli authorities knew fairly quickly that the three Kidnapped Israelis were killed immediately after their abduction, but that they deceived the public and used the killing as an opportunity to crackdown on Hamas in the West bank and an excuse to arrest hundreds of Palestinians suspected of being affiliated with Hamas.

But the roots of the problem lie in the fundamental reality that the Palestinians find themselves in, and the Israelis would like to deny; that is occupation and the expropriation of Palestinian lands by Israel to colonize and settle. The Palestinians are expected to negotiate with the Israelis the future of the occupied lands, while the Israelis are literally pulling the land from under Palestinian feet. The Israelis that the Palestinians see in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are mostly soldiers or armed and dangerous religious settlers. The predicament of the Palestinians under occupation is astounding in the annals of foreign occupations. Palestinians under occupation have accepted an American security plan that requires Palestinian collaboration with Israelis – the same people who occupy them- to safeguard the lives and wellbeing of Israelis not only in Israel proper, but also the armed Israeli zealots who torment them in the occupied territories. There is a colonial quality to how Israelis, even liberal ones see and deal with the Palestinians that is similar to how French settlers used to see the Algerians. Even the great French novelist and humanist Albert Camus, who was born in Algeria, could not see the Algerians as anything but shadows in the background, as they appear in his novels.

Given the daily humiliations of occupation, the draconian measures imposed on the movements and activities of Palestinians, one is surprised that there is little violent resistance to the occupation. What many Israelis and some of their friends in the US refuse to acknowledge is that occupation can only be maintained by a complex system of coercion. Occupation is a form of violence.

The Israeli Paradox

Israel is a bundle of contradictions. It is a dynamic modern state with a thriving economy that has become an integral part of the global digital economy; it has a loud parliamentary life and vibrant institutions, a diverse media and independent judiciary. If you are Jewish, you can partake fully in the system; if you are a Palestinian citizen of Israel, you have to endure life as a child of a lesser God. Israel also is a garrison state. Israel’s military and Intelligence services are the academies that produce most of its politicians. Israel was born by violent means, and force, usually excessive force was an integral part of its approach to Palestinians and the surrounding Arab states.

This attitude, may have been understood early in its life, when Arab rejection of the idea of a Jewish state, and hostility towards Israel was paramount; but many Israeli leaders still think and act as commanders of a garrison state, even after peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt and the explicit recognition of Palestinians of Israel, and the implicit recognition of those Arab states that negotiated with Israel in the Past such as Lebanon and Syria, and the rest of the Arabs when they adopted the Arab Peace plan in 2002.

Alone again, naturally

A number of factors make the current violence particularly worrisome and dangerous. Unchecked Israeli wrath, if accompanied by a large number of civilian casualties could change the mostly passive attitudes towards Israel’s attacks, and could spark an Intifada that could spread to Israel proper. More importantly, the whole region is teetering on the precipice. From Basra to Beirut, from Aleppo to Alexandria, the region is sliding inexorably towards more blood sweat and tears. Afflicted by civil wars, sectarian cleansing and vengeance in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, facing greater tumult, political uncertainty and economic dislocation in Egypt and Jordan, the fires of the region could in due time engulf Palestinians and Israelis.

What is somewhat unique if not totally surprising about the current violence, is that not even the painful agonies and the civilian casualties of the Palestinians have elicited a strong reaction or backlash from the international community or from the Arab world. This could be explained by a world that has grown tired of the problems of the Middle East, or that the fracturing of Syria and Iraq and the emergence of an Islamist “Caliphate” straddling large areas of the Levant is seen as more threatening to the region and the West. Clearly, Netanyahu found an opportune moment in the World Cup competition in Brazil, to wage his campaign against Gaza. Many people in the Arab world and beyond were discussing the odds of who will win the ultimate prize in soccer. Brazil, Argentina, Germany and the Netherlands were on the lips of many Arabs more than were the names of Gaza and Israel. It seemed that the unraveling of the Levant, soccer and Ramadan have combined to lessen the tragedy of Gaza.

What is difficult for Palestinians to fathom is the extent of Arab apathy both on the level of officialdom and public opinion. Even the reaction of the Arab media was muted. Some Arab publications covered the military exchanges in a strait forward fashion, and the editorial pages were not filled with the columns of outrage. Some Arab states, particularly those that banned the Muslim Brotherhood movement and resent Hamas’ affiliation with it, are seen as not objecting to Hamas getting its comeuppance. But even if the problems with Hamas were not urgent, one could see that the “new normal” in the Arab world (that is the fires of fragmentation, radicalization and sectarian revenge that are burning large swaths of the Arab world) would have made a different reaction from the Arab world to the plight of Gaza somewhat surprising. Palestine, unfortunately for the Palestinians, has lost its pride of place in the collective memory of contemporary Arabs. Once again, the Palestinians are alone.

Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter: @hisham_melhem

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