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“The question is just when”: Max Blumenthal on war in the Gaza Strip’s past — and its future

Author of “The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza” tells Salon what he saw in the rubble of a land under seige

  

"The question is just when": Max Blumenthal on war in the Gaza Strip's past — and its futureCover detail from the book “The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza” (Credit: Nation Books)

If for whatever reason you are one of the very few people on this Earth who wants to go into, rather than get out of, the Gaza Strip, you may want to know what to expect.

Because although it’s been just a bit less than a year since the Israeli-Gaza conflict of 2014 — or “Operation Protective Edge,” as the Israeli Defense Force called it — came to a halt, you shouldn’t expect to find a society rebuilding. No, according to “The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza,” the new book from Max Blumenthal, the journalist behind 2013′s incendiary “Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel,” what you’ll see instead is mountains of rubble, barely any less than there was at the conclusion of the war.

Based on his contacts in Gaza as well as his own first-hand reporting, Blumenthal’s book does two things, neither of which are especially welcome in U.S. politics and the mainstream media. Blumenthal not only provides a methodical breakdown of the run-up to the conflict — one that differs in crucial respects from the narrative most commonly found in American media — but also offers a more detailed accounting of what was happening behind the fog of war. He also tries to answer some of the still-vexing questions about the war: Why did it last so long? Why so many civilian casualties? And what was even accomplished?

Recently, Salon spoke over the phone with Blumenthal to discuss the book, the history of Gaza many Americans don’t know, why he believes the war was an almost deliberate result of longstanding Israeli policy, and why he believes it won’t be the last. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

You argue that last summer’s war cannot really be understood in isolation, that one has to see it in a larger context. For example, why do you think the situation today is a consequence of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s “disengagement” from Gaza in 2005?

The withdrawal of religious nationalist Israeli settlers (who numbered about 9,000) from the Gaza Strip was celebrated by liberals, because they saw these fanatics being forced by Israeli troops from an area that Israel [had] occupied. This actually should have been a scenario, this unilateral withdrawal, that anyone who had any concern for the people in the Gaza Strip would have opposed, because the agenda was very clear and out in the open. It was to remove [Israel] from the obligations of the Geneva Convention regarding the Gaza Strip, to claim that it was no longer occupied.

What did that new footing do for Israel?

It enabled it to establish a panopticon-style system, where it controls the exterior; the sky, the sea; and can place the Gaza Strip under a very high-tech siege, a robotically-controlled siege. Secondly, it allowed Israel to retrench its control of the major settlement blocks around East Jerusalem. They received a letter from George W. Bush [requesting] the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, and guaranteeing these gigantic settlements on top of the Palestinian aquifer — which cut deep into the heart of the West Bank and will eventually separate the West Bank from itself — will remain in permanent Israeli hands under any US negotiated peace agreement. That’s point number two.

And point number three?

Point number three is that withdrawal, in the words of then Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter, allows the military more “freedom of action” in the Gaza Strip. If there aren’t Jewish Israelis in the Gaza Strip, that allows you to start using 150-mm artillery shells during these barrages of the border regions; that allows you to use 2,000-pound fragmentation bombs. As soon as the withdrawal took place, you started seeing the use of experimental weapons, like dime weaponry. Gaza started to become a laboratory for the Israeli weapons industry, and for the entire mechanism of control that Israel’s trying to market and export to the word as field-tested.

I just want to make one more point: we have to understand to what the Gaza Strip is, in the grand scheme of things — not just since 2005, but since 1948.

What do you mean?

Seventy-two to 80 percent of the Gaza Strips’ population qualify as refugees. That means that they are the descendants of people who, during “the Nakbah,” between 1947 and 1948, were forcibly expelled from what is now Israel. These people can’t be allowed to return to their homes under the Right of Return — which is guaranteed to them under UN Resolution 194 — because they’re not Jewish. If they come back, Israel’s Jewish demographic majority will be compromised.

That is how the rulers of Israel, who also rule all Palestinians, see it. They see the population of the Gaza Strip as a demographic threat. So the Gaza Strip is a human warehouse for a surplus population — it’s anachronistic in the modern world. A population is being warehoused because they are of the wrong ethnicity. That’s why the Gaza Strip resists. To me, that is really the essence of the crisis.

Your mentioning the demographic angle brings me to Arnon Soffer, whose colleagues nicknamed him “The Arab Counter.” Who is he? Why is he important?

Arnon Soffer is a chief adviser on demographic engineering — i.e., how to forcibly engineer a Jewish majority in areas under Israeli control — to successive Israeli governments. He conceived of not only the unilateral disengagement from Gaza, but also the separation wall. In each case, he said that they wouldn’t lead to greater national security for Israel, but they would lead to the maintenance of a Jewish [demographic] majority. He’s obsessed with maintaining a threshold of 70 percent. His last name, Soffer, means “counter” in Hebrew; so his colleagues at Haifa University refer to him as “Arnon, the Arab Counter.”

He anticipated that his policy recommendations would reduce Israel’s national security, all in the name of maintaining a demographic majority?

Listen to his words. As he was explaining the need for the unilateral disengagement from Gaza, he said, “When 2.5 million people live in a closed off Gaza, it’s going to be a human catastrophe. These people will be even bigger animals than they are today, with the aid of an insane, fundamentalist Islam. Pressure at the border will be awful; it’s going to be a terrible war. If we want to remain alive, we will have to kill and kill and kill. All day, every day.”

He said that to the Jerusalem Post — and this is when he was a close adviser to Sharon. Sharon credited Soffer with convincing him to disengage [from the Gaza Strip]. It was printed in Israel, but not in the U.S.. I don’t endorse Soffer’s racist language or ideology, but what he said has come true. What we saw last summer with Operation Protective Edge was the fulfillment of his bloody prophecy: “kill, and kill, and kill every day.” That is what the Israeli army did for 51 days.

What caused last summer’s conflict? What lit the spark and caused that 51-day war?

The war was an extension of an ongoing campaign to destroy the Palestinian national movement.  It’s what the Israeli sociologist Barruch Kimmerling called “politicide,” which is the destruction of an entire political identity. He’s extrapolating out of the term “genocide,” which is the destruction of an entire people. I think it’s a really accurate distillation of the long-term Israeli strategy.

I don’t think that Israel has any intention of physically exterminating Palestinians by the hundreds of thousands. It simply wants to eliminate them as a national movement, and make them into wandering Arabs who are either confined to Bantustans in the West Bank; a human warehouse in the Gaza Strip; fourth class citizenship and providing menial labor in Israel proper, or just simple refugee status. But with no political leadership, and no nationalistic goal.

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Elias Isquith is a staff writer at Salon, focusing on politics. Follow him on Twitter at @eliasisquith.

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Benjamin Netanyahu – Stand! Down! Iran (Noy Alooshe Remix)

Benjamin Netanyahu ridiculed over appearance at Paris solidarity march

Benjamin Netanyahu, centre, at the solidarity march in Paris

Benjamin Netanyahu, centre, at the solidarity march in Paris Photo: Yves Herman/Reuters

Benjamin Netanyahu is facing a storm of criticism because of his “embarrassing” behaviour at Sunday’s mass solidarity march in Paris and his calls for French Jews to emigrate to Israel following last week’s deadly attack on a Jewish supermarket.

The Israeli prime minister was seen elbowing his way to the front of the parade of world leaders and also unsuccessfully tried to jump to the head of queue waiting for a bus that was to take guests to the starting point.

After he failed to get on the first bus, a nervous-looking Mr Netanyahu – accompanied by what appeared to be an Israeli security team – wasshown on French video footage waiting for the next one.

During the march, Mr Netanyahu waved to the crowd in response to a pro-Israel shout from a woman spectator, a gesture some Israeli commentators deemed to be at odds with the sombre mood.

The alleged gaffes were further compounded by reports that the Israeli leader attended the event in defiance of a request to stay away from Francois Hollande, the French president, who reportedly did not want it overshadowed by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mr Netanyahu initially agreed but changed his mind after learning that two political rivals – Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli foreign minister, and Naftali Bennett, the industry minister and leader of the Jewish Home party – were going.

His insistence on attending prompted the French authorities to invite Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority leader, as a counterweight, reported the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

The most serious criticism has been levelled at his call for members of France’s Jewish community – the largest in Europe – to move to Israel for safety reasons following last Friday’s attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris, in which four Jews were killed.

Even before his plane departed for Paris, Mr Netanyahu issued a statement saying that he planned to tell French Jews who wanted to emigrate to Israel that they would be “welcomed with open arms”.

That is said to have offended Mr Hollande, who attended a rally at Paris’ grand synagogue on Sunday night with Mr Netanyahu but pointedly left before the Israeli leader addressed the audience.

Mr Netanyahu’s appeal for emigration, echoed by some other Israeli politicians, was criticised by European Jewish leaders and – implicitly – by Reuven Rivlin, the Israeli president, who said aliyah (emigration) should be born out of choice and Zionist feelings rather than fear of anti-Semitism.

Rabbi Menachem Margolin, director of the European Jewish Association, said that instead of calling for Jews to emigrate after anti-Semitic attacks, Israel should “employ every diplomatic and informational means at its disposal to strengthen the safety of Jewish life in Europe”, an Israeli website reported.

Ben Caspit, an experienced Israeli commentator, mocked Mr Netanyahu’s attempt to portray Israel as a safe haven. “Are the Jews of Paris more threatened than us?,” he asked in Maariv newspaper. “All of Israel’s territory is targeted by thousands of accurate and heavy rockets and missiles that could be fired on our heads in the next flare-up with Hizbullah. Just this past summer, Tel Aviv (Tel Aviv!) was a city that was bombed for 50 days. So the French should flee here?”

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