For over 20 years, Israel and the United States have been working to separate Gaza from the West Bank, in violation of the Oslo Accords they had just signed declaring them to be an indivisible territorial unity. The latest carnage in Gaza is part of an ongoing Israeli imperial policy which, as Noam Chomsky wrote to me just a couple of days ago, seeks “to take over what’s of value ‘in the land of Israel,’ reduce the population to marginal existence (with the usual neocolonial exception: an enclave for the rich and Westernized sectors in Ramallah), and if they leave, so much the better.” But, as Richard Falk, Albert G. Milbank professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, former UN special rapporteur for Occupied Palestine, and author of the forthcoming book Palestine: The Legitimacy of Hope, which will be published in October by Just World Books, underscores in this exclusive interview, Israel always claims that its attacks against Palestinians are provoked by the Palestinians themselves.
C.J. Polychroniou: Professor Falk, here we go again: Israel, one of the world’s mightiest military powers, has launched yet another ground offensive into the Gaza Strip on the rather bogus proposition that Hamas provoked Israel to attack Gaza. What is Israel’s real purpose in attacking Gaza this time around?
Richard Falk: I believe that Israel periodically “mows the grass” in Gaza as one right-wing Israeli advisor to Sharon distastefully expressed the goal of Israel policy toward Gaza several years ago. There were factors present in the context of this Israeli attack that help explain why now. The main two factors in my view were the unwelcome establishment of an interim “unity government” on June 2 by the leadership of Fatah and Hamas, which undermined the Israeli approach of keeping the governing authorities in the West Bank and Gaza as divided as possible. The second element was Israel’s strong incentive to weaken Hamas in the West Bank so that Israel could justify its moves in April to end direct negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and move ever closer to incorporating the West Bank, or most of it into Israel, and fulfill the expansionist Zionist dream to move beyond the 1967 borders.
The June 12 kidnapping incident involving the three teenage settler children from the Gush Etzion settlement near Jerusalem provided the Netanyahu government with the pretext it needed to mount an anti-Hamas campaign that started as a supposed hunt for the perpetrators, detaining up to 500 suspected of a Hamas connection and generally imposing a variety of oppressive measures, including house demolition, lockdowns of Palestinian towns, and random violence that led to six Palestinian deaths. As has been shown, the incident was manipulated in a most cynical fashion by the government pretending to search for the kidnapped youth, while knowing that they were already dead, using public anxiety and anger to incite the Israeli citizenry to justify the oppressive tactics of the government and to create an atmosphere of vigilante vengeance.
Having denied any involvement in the kidnapping incident, it is hardly surprising that in retaliation for Israel’s provocations that Hamas in retaliation began firing rockets at Israeli towns. Israel used its formidable propaganda machine to tell the world that its third major military assault on defenseless Gaza in the last five years (2008-09, 2012, 2014) was a defensive response to unprovoked rocket attacks. With mock innocence, Netanyahu told the world that Israel needed to act to protect its citizens from the rockets, without any mention, of course, of the prior anti-Hamas rampage that included ugly Israeli racist slurs directed at the Palestinians and revenge attacks on Palestinian children.
Why did the ceasefire negotiations in Cairo fail?
The ceasefire failed for several reasons. Hamas was excluded from the process leading up to the proposed ceasefire, and was informed only by the public media. Beyond this, the previously announced Hamas conditions for agreeing to a ceasefire were ignored: release of Palestinians who had been part of the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange three years ago (in which a single captured IDF soldier was released in exchange for the agreed Israeli release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners) and were rearrested in recent weeks as part of the crackdown on Hamas; lifting the blockade and opening the crossings; cease interference with the unity government; restore the 2012 ceasefire. Also, Sisi’s Egypt is hardly a suitable or trustworthy intermediary from Hamas’ perspective. Not far in the background is the brutal repression of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and related hostility to Hamas, which is regarded by the Sisi government as an offshoot.
Would Israel have launched an attack if the new Egyptian government was not also bent on seeing Hamas destroyed?
This is a very speculative issue. Israel did initiate a major attack on Gaza in November 2012 while Mohamed Morsi was president despite his affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, and did then accept a ceasefire arranged under Cairo’s diplomatic auspices. Having General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as president of Egypt is certainly a favorable development from Israel’s perspective. Sisi has substantially destroyed the extensive tunnel network on which Hamas depended to receive needed supplies as well as to collect tax revenues required to administer Gaza. Egypt in recent months has been cooperating with Israel and the United States, including in relation to control of the passage through the Rafah crossing to Egypt, which is the only escape route available to the people of Gaza, including those needing medical attention only available in Cairo. I believe that the Israeli attack occurred at this time principally for reasons of Israeli state policy, and would have taken place without regard to the attitudes of the leadership in Cairo.
With 1.8 million people trapped in an overcrowded war zone, it should be obvious that the Israeli jets’ attacks constitute a blatant violation of international humanitarian law. Yet, once again, Israel is allowed to get away with murder because it enjoys US diplomatic backing as well as US military and financial support. As such, doesn’t this make the United States just as complicit in crimes against humanity as Israel itself?
I do agree that the United States for the reasons you give is definitely complicit in relation to the criminal nature of the Israeli attack. Whether this kind of complicity involves legal culpability, as well as moral and political complicity is an open question. The United States is not, so far as is known, directly involved in planning and carrying out this “aggression” against Gaza and “collective punishment” against its people. Giving military assistance or providing military equipment to a foreign government does not by itself constitute a sufficient connection with the attack as to satisfy legal tests of complicity.
What is clear is that the continuing and unconditional diplomatic support given by the US to Israel, including shielding Israel from formal censure at the UN, and the failure to discourage war crimes being committed, results in much blood on American hands. Activist opponents of this American policy are now more committed to calling upon churches and universities to divest from corporations doing business with the settlements or facilitating Israeli militarism, and there are increasing national and international calls for an arms embargo on Israel, which would be of mainly symbolic force, given Israel’s robust arms industry, which is supplying weapons to many countries, with the grotesque selling point that they have been “field-tested,” that is, used, in Gaza.
Hamas has been faced with a similar situation before, yet, every time it gets into a military confrontation with Israel, it seems to be emerging stronger than before. Should we expect things to be any different this time around?
It is difficult at this point to say. What the encounter did reveal was that Hamas and other militias in Gaza have a considerable supply of longer-range missiles able to strike any city in Israel, including Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It also seems that Israel’s reliance on air attacks and naval shelling was not able to curtail the numbers of rockets being fired. True, despite firing more than 1,000 rockets, no Israeli has yet been killed by a Palestinian rocket (apparently the only Israeli so far killed died from a mortar shell fired from Gaza while he was rushing to a shelter, an option Gazans do not have) [as of interview conducted on July 19]. At the same time, the psychological and political effects of being unable to stop the launch of rockets has damaged Israeli prestige, and may push it to pursue more ambitious goals than destroying tunnels into Israel from Gaza, the stated objective of Operation Protective Edge, the code name Israel has given for its military operation. The high proportion of civilians among the Palestinian casualties (75 to 80 percent) also suggests that Hamas has become more sophisticated in protecting its militants from Israeli firepower as compared to the results of the two earlier attacks.
Of course, to the extent that Israel is politically weaker, Hamas emerges stronger, withstanding the mighty Israeli military onslaught, demonstrating resilience under the most difficult circumstance, and mounting stubborn resistance that frustrates Israel’s announced war goals.
Has Israel become a “fundamentalist” state, betraying all dreams and aspirations that led to its original founding?
I think Israel has definitely moved gradually in the direction of a maximalist understanding of the Zionist project, which is now quite clearly intended to exercise permanent sovereign control over “Judea and Samaria,” what the world knows as “the West Bank.” The new president of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, due to take over very soon from Shimon Peres, belongs to the right wing of Netanyahu’s Likud Party. He is an undisguised advocate of an enlarged Israel that claims the whole of biblical Palestine and repudiates all diplomacy associated with establishing peace on the basis of a Palestinian state, in effect, a one-state approach with Palestinians as permanent minority. Additionally, the Israel of today has moved far to the right; many Israelis have developed a consumerist mentality, and the conflict with Palestine, except during crises as at present, has posed serious threats in recent years to the stability and serenity of the country. Also, due to high fertility rates and the importance of the settler movement, religious Judaism has been playing a larger role, and injects a certain measure of religious extremism and ethnic intolerance into Israeli political and social life.
The two-state solution, long proposed by supporters of the Palestinian cause, including the late Edward Said, seems to be a dead end – at least in my own eyes. Do you agree with this assessment, and, if so, what is the alternative for securing lasting peace among Israelis and Palestinians?
To clarify Edward Said’s position: He did favor for a time in the late 1980s, as did the PLO, the two-state solution, but in the last years of his life he strongly endorsed a single, secular bi-national state as the only workable arrangement allowing the two peoples to live together in peace and dignity. Said rejected the idea of an ethnic state for either people, and believed that Zionist claims to have a Jewish state in historic Palestine would never result in a just and sustainable peace that acknowledged Palestinian rights under international law, including the right of return and equality for the Palestinian minority living in Israel.
I share Said’s latter assessment, and believe that the scale and resolve of the settlers is such as to make their removal politically impossible. For this reason, I have opposed the sort of direct negotiations that the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, pushed so hard a year ago as creating false expectations and artificial pressures. The political preconditions for two states with equal sovereign rights living side by side definitely do not presently exist, and may never have existed. To negotiate with that awareness of futility is to play Israel’s game of endless talks, while the building cranes in the settlements continue their unlawful work at an accelerated pace. Time has never been kind to the Palestinians. Their territorial prospects have been continuously diminished and have now reached the point of a virtual zero. Recall that the UN partition plan in 1947 seemed unfair to the Palestinians when it offered them only 45 percent of Palestine, which then was reduced to 22 percent by the outcome of the 1948 war, and related expulsion of the Palestinians, and still further by “the facts on the ground” (settlements, wall, settler only roads) steadily created since 1967.
The best hope of the Palestine national movement at this time is to proceed via a unity government, also engaging the refugee and exile community of 7 million, by working together with the global solidarity movement that is growing rapidly. In other words Palestinian prospects in the future will depend on the continued mobilization of global civil society to support nonviolent coercive action on a worldwide scale. The BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) campaign has been growing at a rapid rate recently, with analogies to the anti-apartheid struggle that toppled a racist regime in South Africa against all odds and expectations becoming more relevant. This shift in Palestinian tactics in the direction of what I have called “waging a legitimacy war” seems reinforced in its plausibility by the growing global outrage in response to Israel tactics, especially in callous disregard of Palestinian civilian innocence.