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Was Israel’s Latest Attack on Gaza Manufactured to Divert “Democracy” Protests?

Scholars Richard Falk and Stephen Zunes discuss the intricacies of the situation and unpack Netanyahu’s motivations.

Smoke rises after Israeli warplanes strike headquarters of the Qatari Red Crescent Society in al-Rimal neighborhood of Gaza City, Gaza, on May 17, 2021. According to QRCS, the attack killed two Palestinians, including a child, and injured 10 others.

In this extensive interview for Truthout, international relations scholars and experts Richard Falk and Stephen Zunes break down the intricacies of escalation and latest usages of Israeli force in the Gaza Strip. Over the course of the discussion, they illustrate the historical and political complexity of the situation on the ground. They help to unpack the prospects for civilians, the motivations of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the significance of meaningful investigations. They also make comparisons to previous attacks and invasions on Gazans and talk about where the organized left can potentially help move the needle to impact policy for the future of Palestine.

Daniel Falcone: Just after the August 2022 Gaza escalation, humanitarian groups reported the numbers of the internally displaced people in the five Gazan regions and explained the urgent need for housing in respective areas due to the number of homes destroyed, severely damaged and partially damaged. Can you provide information on what is currently happening on the ground in real time?

Richard Falk: The scandal of denying the civilian population of Gaza construction materials to repair the periodic damage done by air, missile and artillery attacks over the decades of Israeli occupation is an ongoing profound challenge to the conscience of humanity and those who self-righteously claim at the United Nations and elsewhere to be the guardians of international humanitarian law. It should not be forgotten that Israel remains the occupying power in Gaza, and thus subject to the Fourth Geneva Convention governing belligerent occupation. Israel is obliged to comply with international humanitarian law, which among many other relevant prohibitions forbids in Article 33 all forms of collective punishment.

Israel’s claims that its “disengagement” from Gaza in 2005 suspended the relevance of international humanitarian law. To be sure, Israeli troops were withdrawn and its (unlawful) settlements disbanded, but the reality so far as control over the internal life of Gaza is concerned, amounted to nothing more fundamental than a shift in the nature of the Israeli regime of control from direct to indirect, with, if anything, an increased ferocity exhibited toward the more than 2 million civilian Gazans. The 2005 withdrawal of military forces was functionally nothing other than a redeployment of military personnel and weaponry with entrances and exits from Gaza even more tightly controlled than before, and Israeli discretionary violence delivered from the air rather than the ground, except for the massive incursions of 2008-09, 2012 and 2014. The pattern of Israeli rule over the Palestinian population living in Gaza remained what it had been since the occupation began in 1967 — cruel, abusive, unlawful and immoral.

This pattern of control was vividly manifested by Israel’s withholding of construction materials desperately needed to repair residential neighborhoods and essential public services, which were unavailable in Gaza and had to be imported. There was extensive damage to health and school buildings, as well as residential structures which seemed often struck, according to reliable reports, qualifying as distinct violations of international humanitarian law and the more general law of war.

Many construction materials, including 1,000 such basic items as cement and steel, were prohibited from entry by Israel’s preparation of a so-called “dual use” list, enumerating items that were theoretically capable of anti-Israeli uses by Palestinian resistance forces (invariably referred to as “terrorists”). Palestinians, in response, were obliged to take emergency measures to provide housing for the homeless, including the irony of recycling the rubble resulting from Israel’s devastating military attacks with advanced weaponry on a totally vulnerable and mainly impoverished civilian population. Israel made no secret of their intention to keep Gaza on “a subsistence diet” and government advisors in Tel Aviv used ghoulish metaphors to justify the frequent recourse to indiscriminate and excessive force such as the periodic need “to mow the lawn” to keep Gazans preoccupied with their own suffering and deprivations, and so disabled from carrying on their struggle against Israel.

The material deprivations involve all components of what human rights specialists refer to as “basic human needs.” Reliable statistics compiled by the World Bank and UN report an increase of the poverty rate in Gaza to an incredible 65 percent of the population, with no less than 33.7 percent living under conditions of “extreme poverty.” Over 80 percent of Gazans depend on foreign economic assistance, and at least 40 percent are severely food insecure. These conditions have steadily worsened since 2007, when Israel imposed a comprehensive blockade on Gaza (in supposed retaliation for the free elections held a year earlier that produced a surprise victory for Hamas). The blockade has brought the once dynamic economy of the Gaza Strip to a virtual halt, accounting for youth unemployment rate that reached 60 percent. If these cold statistics did not tell of the daily horror story, there are other terrible afflictions, including the availability of very little safe drinkable water and the hazards beyond inconvenience of frequent cuts to electricity.

There are many disturbing reports about Gazans, including of children who need medical treatment not available in Gaza, being denied exit permits by Israeli authorities. As might be expected, these bleak conditions have resulted in widespread psychological trauma, including among virtually all children to some degree, with symptoms including serious depression and epilepsy. Even without these underlying conditions of prolonged captivity, the mental and physical health of the population is kept by Israel far below humane standards. This is confirmed by persistent shortages in specialized treatment and care, medicines, hospital facilities, restorative therapies, aggravated by rigid border controls. To make matters worse, those who suffer from incurable mental illness and serious physical disabilities are confined to live out their lives in an atmosphere of acute anxiety not fit for habitation by even healthy persons.

Against such a background, the passivity of governments and the near silence of the main global media platforms has allowed this fallen state of humanity to persist in Gaza, despite the supposedly special protection of international humanitarian law. The people of Gaza deserve better treatment from the UN which has failed the Palestinian people with respect to their basic right of self-determination ever since its establishment in 1945. Beyond this, the UN with accompanying fanfare affirmed its acceptance of the “responsibility to protect” norm in 2005 as guidance for the fulfillment of its humanitarian responsibilities, in reaction to the UN being circumvented by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in the Kosovo War of 1999 that was justified as an instance of “humanitarian intervention.” Responsibility to protect was supposedly an adaptation of such interventions to the state-centric realities of the post-colonial world, shifting the locus of responsibility from intervening governments to the organized world community, as I document in my 2014 book Humanitarian Intervention and Legitimacy Wars.

As far as occupied Palestine is concerned, there is no “world community” when it comes to addressing the long ordeal of Israel’s quasi-annexationist “occupation,” only a narrative featuring the grim machinations of geopolitics. The UN and state-centric world order have failed the Palestinians, most notoriously the Gazans, for far too long. The only hope for humane living conditions so long as Gaza remains occupied is through a mixture of Palestinian resistance and more strongly supported civil society initiatives, including censure, boycotts, embargoes and sanctions.

It should also have been taken into public account that Hamas, after its 2006 election victory, several times offered Israel a long-term ceasefire to be negotiated with the declared intention of producing a detailed agreement. Hamas even appealed to the good offices of the United States to promote a ceasefire as preferable to violent confrontation, but neither Tel Aviv nor Washington saw fit even to acknowledge the offer, much less reply.

Stephen Zunes: As with previous clashes, the recent Israeli bombing campaign killed more Palestinian civilians than militant activists. In addition to several children, the dead civilians included Jamal Khuswan, former chief executive of Al-Wafa Rehabilitation Hospital and a leader of the Gaza Dentists Association, his wife, Mervat, and their 21-year-old son Youssef, a medical student. They were killed in their apartment in the middle of the night while sleeping. None of them were involved in militant organizations.

Israel’s violation of the initial Egyptian-brokered ceasefire and its disruption of subsequent ceasefire talks appears to indicate that the Israeli government was not interested in “restoring calm,” but escalating the conflict, knowing that the U.S. will continue to support them and block the UN from taking any action to stop the fighting.

Meanwhile, the destruction of apartment blocks and other civilian infrastructure, combined with the blockade of the ports and border crossings have made it extremely difficult to rebuild, exacerbating Gaza’s ongoing humanitarian crisis.

As when the U.S. government has backed repressive governments in Latin America, Africa, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere, Washington has gone to great lengths to deny or defend war crimes by its right-wing allies and attack human rights investigators for documenting war crimes. Currently, in Washington, politicians of both parties quite correctly condemned the rocket attacks by Islamic Jihad into civilian-populated areas in Israel yet failed to mention, or even defended, the far more deadly Israeli attacks in civilian-populated areas in Gaza. Indeed, President Joe Biden’s policies in the Middle East are remarkably similar to former President Ronald Reagan’s policies in Latin America — supporting repressive right-wing governments and then accusing human rights activists opposing such policies of backing extremists.

Could you provide some contextual information on the background of the hostilities? How is Israel utilizing the friction and violent outbursts in the region to further institutionalize collective punishments, blockades, and their overall military usage as it connects to U.S. and Israel policy?

Falk: I think it helpful to consider the recent Israeli escalations of violence in shaping its five-day May response to rocket fire from Gaza as part of a broader strategy of intensifying confrontation in Jerusalem and the West Bank. It exhibits an underlying intention of the Netanyahu-led government that took over at the start of 2023 to extend Israeli direct control, even if not its formal sovereignty, over the whole of occupied Palestine.

The Western global media as well as Israel’s international allies, most notably the U.S., avert their gaze or ignore Israel’s series of unlawful provocations that have given rise to a new cycle of Palestinian resistance violence and Israeli disproportionate retaliatory measures. For instance, the death of Khader Adnan in a West Bank prison on May 2 after enduring 87 days in this last of his eight hunger strikes was an emotional event of heroic gravity for Palestinians everywhere, and especially for adherents of the Islamic Jihad movement. Such a provocation does not legally excuse the firing of indiscriminate rockets into Israel from Gaza, although doing minimal damage resulting in the injury of three foreign workers, but it does reinforce the impression that Israel responds disproportionately and punitively.

Certainly, this interaction hardly provides Israel with a credible excuse for concerted recourse to advanced weaponry in Gaza, which killed at least 31 Palestinians, including seven children, besides causing further devastation in this crowded Palestinian enclave, over 70 percent of whom are refugees or descendants of refugees. Seventy-five years after the Nakba had driven Palestinians from their homes in pre-Israeli Palestine and destroyed hundreds of villages where most had resided, this catastrophe has gone unattended by the world. This tragedy of war was compounded by Israel’s denial over this long period of the right of return conferred by international law on all refugees, leaving Palestinians to languish for generations in miserable circumstances throughout the region.

The context surrounding recent developments in occupied Palestine is more sinister and coherent than just the personal misfortunes of the more than 1.5 million Palestinian refugees living in Gaza camps. It is my judgment that Israel’s current government has chosen as its dual mission the de-democratization of governance in the Jewish state and the adoption of a more radical approach directed at the West Bank designed to force Palestinians to choose between leaving and submitting. Even the West acknowledges that this is the most extreme right-wing government Israeli voters have ever chosen, with extremists of the Religious Zionism parties forming a coalition with the hardline right wing Likud Party. This fact is trivialized when it is attributed to the opportunism of Netanyahu who could find no other path back to power if he was to avoid going to jail. The deeper reality, hidden from view by Israel’s habitual reliance on a politics of distraction, is that such a coalition is necessary if the Zionist project of recovering exclusive control over the whole of the “promised land” is to be achieved, something that will only happen when the sumud, or steadfastness, of the Palestinian will to resist in the struggle to recover their rights is decisively crushed.

For this to be achieved Israeli one-staters have placed their hopes on the intensification of oppressive tactics: the violation of the most sacred of Muslim holy sites in ways certain to ignite conflicts with worshippers; a green light given to settler violence, already dramatized by the near-total destruction of the symbolic Palestinian village of Hawara with explicit encouragement from Israeli high officials, including such atrocities as setting fire to Hawara homes while families were known to be inside; announced preparations for doubling the number of settlers in the West Bank; Netanyahu’s selection of the most notorious Zionist racists, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, to head those ministries most responsible for administering Palestinian communities; and carrying out many attacks in the West Bank during the early months of 2023 resulting in death and state terror.

The Israeli government is determined once and for all to end Palestinian resistance and achieve at least a de facto reality of a permanent one-state solution for an exclusivist Jewish state, and in the process, forever ending the always foolish international talk of partition, political compromise, and a peace process. Netanyahu is using his extremist partners in crime to do the dirty work to advance this shared dominant Zionist vision of a unified Jewish state “from the river to sea.” This dramatic turn toward finality comes at a time when global civil society has recently reached consensus in its public discourse due to a series of high-quality reports, certifying that Israel has established an apartheid regime to promote its version of an ethnonationalist state as well as to stamp out resistance to its settler-colonial undertaking.

Europe and North America have essentially refused to recognize this situation, and even the UN has only reacted indirectly by way of a General Assembly formal request to the International Court of Justice to evaluate the legal status of prolonged occupation; reactivating the UN Division for Palestinian Rights and doing the heretofore unthinkable, allowing an official observance of the 75th anniversary of the Nakba to take place within its New York City headquarters.

Zunes: The fighting between forces of the government of Israel and Islamic Jihad appears to be a crisis manufactured by Israeli leadership. Few people want to appear to defend Islamic Jihad, a decidedly violent and reactionary organization even more extreme than Hamas. As a result, as Israelis are increasingly upset at the domestic policies of their far right government, a conflict with Islamic Jihad can be a means by which Prime Minister Netanyahu can get the country to rally around him. Indeed, almost the entire Israeli opposition is backing the government in its attacks on the Gaza Strip.

The Israeli refusal to release Islamic Jihad activist Khader Adnan, who was being held without charge in an Israeli prison, and his resulting death from a hunger strike earlier last month appear to have been designed to help precipitate such a crisis, as have Israeli attacks on alleged guerrilla cells in the West Bank and the more recent assassinations of Islamic Jihad leaders in the Gaza Strip.

How is the conflict being used by Prime Minister Netanyahu for the purposes of regaining credibility, public support and a perceived restoration of the Israeli economy? Can you comment on “Operation Shield and Arrow” and how it compares with prior airstrikes and wars with Gaza?

Falk: As my earlier responses have argued, the May events are but a minor piece of the Netanyahu strategy to alter the relationship of parliamentary government and the judiciary that combines his personal efforts to escape accountability for fraud under Israeli law and solidifying his legacy as a memorable Israeli leader by bringing an ethnonationalist one-state victory to Zionist Israel in its long struggle with the Palestinians. It is the back story of this new phase in the Israeli meta-narrative that has brought Jews in Israel to an unprecedented level of protest against the Netanyahu government’s effort to centralize state/society relations under greater Knesset control, which means a loss of legal protection for Jews in Israel, a weakening of Israel’s independent judiciary, and would likely produce over time a variety of moves that will seriously erode the liberal secular character of the Jewish state.

Operation Shield and Arrow was in some ways a harsher response than previous periodic attacks as the stage for retaliation had been so clearly set by Israeli provocations. Like prior retaliatory Israeli Defense Force operations carried out in Gaza, this one was characterized by excessive use of force, new tactics and weaponry, and disregard of civilian innocence.

The five-day attack, starting on May 8, followed rockets from Gaza inflicting minor wounds on several Israeli civilians and an Chinese foreign worker in and around the town of Sderot near the border. According to reliable reports, the Israeli strikes killed at least 17 Palestinians including civilians and children, as well as several leading members of Islamic Jihad, which was held responsible for a barrage of rockets fired on May 2.

The attack on Gaza followed a period of escalating provocations by Israel from the moment the Netanyahu-led coalition government took over at the beginning of 2023. First by the appointment of racist religious extremists to oversee occupied Palestine, followed by the conduct of a series of lethal anti-Palestine resistance operations, culminating in the harassment of Islamic worshiper at Al Aqsa during Ramadan and finally by the death in an Israeli prison of the Palestinian martyr, Adnan Khader, who died during his fifth hunger strike.

Rather than seeking to moderate this cycle of violence, Israel resorted to its usual “pro-active” policy of punitive response to any show of retaliatory violence from the Palestinian side, regardless of the provocation from its side. In this sense, the five-day Israeli response was the first occasion in 2023 on which the opposition, led by the former Prime Minister Yair Lapid saw eye to eye with the government. As ironically noted by Palestinian journalists, nothing unifies Israel better than killing Palestinians.

The motivations for this undertaking seemed somewhat different, as they included reuniting Israeli Jews around the security agenda, at least briefly, to divert energies from the so-called “democracy” protests. At this time, it is doubtful whether this tactic of distraction will work as the protests have already resumed.

In their way, the protests also serve to hide the overall Netanyahu undertaking aimed at secure, uncontested control over the whole of occupied Palestine except possibly for Gaza, which primarily refers to the West Bank, East Jerusalem having been formally and unlawfully annexed by Israel immediately after the 1967 war. There is no indication that Netanyahu will try to rein in settler violence or oppose the accelerated expansion of settlements in either the West Bank or East Jerusalem.

As should be obvious, this wider course of action by Israel is internationally controversial, most notably its rejection of a two-state solution and a negotiated peace between the two peoples. Even the U.S. and the UN continue to abide by such a zombie alternative, which Netanyahu’s coalition so ardently rejects and which was probably not ever accepted by Israeli hardliners other than as a cynical and convenient fiction, allowing them to give lip service to the international approach, which rested on diplomacy and a brokered peace process.

Zunes: This round of fighting was not as serious, in large part because Hamas stayed out of it and, along with the Egyptian government, worked hard to secure a ceasefire. And the leadership of the Israeli military was not eager to escalate things either, particularly given that the crisis appeared to be generated by Netanyahu for political purposes.

As the U.S. faces its own ongoing issues associated with racial capitalism, ever-increasing levels of ethno-violence, and a lack of governance and resources, working-class people have organized around key issues to confront these matters. Is the Gaza situation moving into the mainstream of liberation discourse, or is it far from achieving its goals in your opinion?

Falk: The conditions of oppressive occupation, blockade, poverty, surveillance, health crisis and food insecurity have precluded normal politics in Gaza for decades. Life for most Gazans focuses on daily struggles to survive, and beyond meeting personal needs, to render assistance to family, neighbors and friends in desperate need. Under such conditions, collective expressions of resistance and martyrdom are the dominant political discourse in Gaza, either taking the form of a new intifada or by way of armed action.

If Gaza were to detach itself from the Palestinian struggle and seek an independent existence or a federal relationship with a neighboring Arab country such as Egypt or Jordan, even Netanyahu-led Israel might be prepared to allow such a development. Gaza is a burden for Israel as well as a potential security threat, and most importantly, not part of the “promised land.” Only a handful of Jews reside in Gaza.

To date there has been little Gazan interest shown toward options based on some form of separation from Palestine. There is doubt that Israel would ever trust the willingness of Gaza to detach itself in this manner from the wider Palestinian struggle for self-determination even if it were to agree to permanent demilitarization. Such an arrangement would be widely criticized by non-Gazan Palestinians, and if ever brought into being, might be repudiated by a new generation or Palestinian dissenters from within Gaza.

Given the uniqueness of the long ordeal endured by the people of Gaza, it seems highly possible that the future will unfold in surprising ways, but political surrender to Israel is not within the realm of possibility. The situation is ripe for liberation, but this cannot happen until that time when resistance and outside solidarity bring the leadership of Israel to its knees, and when and if that will happen is locked in the black box of struggle. Those that seek justice for Palestinians should remember that the impossible happens, most relevantly in the collapse of apartheid in settler-colonial South Africa. Of course, the conditions are very different, yet with enough similarities to sustain Palestinian sumud for as long as it takes.

Zunes: The overall Palestinian cause is increasingly becoming part of mainstream liberation discourse, but Gaza less so, in part because of the reactionary nature of Hamas and Islamic Jihad and their persecution of progressive Palestinians in their areas of control. At the same time, the grossly disproportionate violence inflicted by Israel against the Palestinians in the enclave has resulted in increasing opposition to Israeli policies and even to Zionism as a whole. The racism inherent in Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and the more subtle but very real racism underlying U.S. support for Israel’s far right government, is a major reason the U.S.’s increasingly diverse younger generation, who are more attuned to manifestations of racism, are so much more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than their elders.

The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

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