The News on Sunday (TNS): How should we interpret the current round of violence in Gaza — “Israel’s right to self-defence” as some Western powers claim or as an “illegitimate attack”?
Mahir Ali (MA): The US president and his acolytes have been meticulous, in every statement they have issued, in explicitly recognising Israel’s right to “self-defence”. The ground offensive against Gaza was justified on the basis that Hamas had dug tunnels into Israel, with the ostensible intention of perpetrating massacres, not least against schoolchildren. If that indeed was Hamas’s intention, it must obviously be deplored. The only children who have been harmed, though, in the latest bout of bloodletting, are Palestinian children — including infants.
It is very difficult to see “self-defence” as a valid motive, given that the relatives of the victims, young and old, will be even more inclined than before to view Israel as an implacable foe. Were Israel seriously inclined to defend itself, it would aim for a two-state solution. It has shown little inclination to do so. Any reasonable person would recognise the illegitimacy of the latest military misadventure. But what are the chances it could be brought to a halt through a reference to legality? After all, Israel has hardly ever been inclined to take United Nations (UN) Security Council resolutions as something that ought to be acted upon.
The question is not whether the Israeli action is illegitimate, but whether any international body has the guts to designate it as such.
TNS: Beyond this “cycle of mindless violence” as you put it in your last column, what about the larger question of occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state? Is there any hope left?
MA: Hope has been in short supply for more than 20 years now. Had a Palestinian state been established shortly after the 1993 Oslo accords, it may have had a chance. The prospect is now more or less ephemeral. It continues occasionally to be alleged that Ehud Barak offered Yasser Arafat the best deal he was ever likely to get. It wasn’t, though, a deal that Arafat could have accepted without losing the bulk of Palestinian support, given that it entailed Israeli enclaves that made mockery of the Palestinian statelets that would have emerged. The idea of an independent Palestinian state remains an ephemera. Israel remains adamant that any such state must mort only abjure violence, but that its “security” would largely be overseen by the Zionist state. How could such a situation conceivably be acceptable to the Palestinians?
There hasn’t, for a long time, been any realistic prospect of establishing a Palestinian state. The alternative — a one-state solution, envisaging a multi-ethnic, multi-religious entity — has been bandied about by well-wishers for several years now. There are some Palestinians and some Israelis who approve of the idea. But they are in a minority on both sides of the divide. It’s a commendable notion, but much too idealistic — although it may well eventually turn out to be the only reasonable option that remains, given that Israel has occupied substantial swathes of the West Bank.
TNS: Hamas has been caught in the crossfire from all sides, despite the fact that it had been cooperating with Fatah in the setting up of a Palestinian unity government and there was no proof that Hamas was involved in the killing of three young Israelis in the West Bank. How much of this criticism is valid?
MA: Hamas is a fundamentalist organisation to the extent that it is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, and gives the impression of being more radical than Fatah, the primary component of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) — which, mind you, was not so long ago designated a terrorist body with which it was impossible for “civilised” Israel to do business. But it did, implicitly recognising that the PLO resorted to terrorism because no other alternatives were open to it. It is also worth recalling that Islamist entities such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad were not only permitted but actually encouraged by Israel to establish roots in the occupied territories as a means of disenfranchising the PLO.
The ploy worked to a considerable extent, and Israel not only does not appreciate the consequences, but is disinclined to admit its culpability in the phenomenon.
Hamas was categorically ostracised when it won free and fair elections after Fatah had failed to make much headway a dozen or so years into the Oslo agreements, and it sought refuge in Gaza — which had by then officially been “unoccupied” by Israel, although the latter continued to control its borders and its airspace, and an aide to Ariel Sharon was indiscreet enough to publicise the fact that the withdrawal from Gaza was intended to undermine the pressure for withdrawing from the considerably larger West Bank.
To the extent that Hamas wishes to establish a confessional entity (that would presumably mirror Israel), it deserves criticism. But it has posited itself more clearly as a body of resistance, which has clearly been a crucial factor is assimilating support among Palestinians. Its decision to cooperate with Fatah in constituting a unity government for the Palestinian Authority was an uncharacteristically sensible move, albeit also a sign of weakness, given the unwillingness or inability of Hamas’s usual supporters, Iran and Syria, to continue to supply it.
The development ought to have been welcomed by Israel, had it seriously been desirous of peace. Instead, it responded to the pact by declaring its intention to expand its illegal settlements in the West Bank, and deriding the potentially hopeful Fatah-Hamas pact as a travesty designed to promote terrorism.
It has been claimed that this month’s assault against Gaza is a response not so much to the abduction and murder of three settler teenagers, attending the Jewish equivalent of madrassas, who unwisely decided to walk home through inevitably hostile terrain (which does not, of course, mean that their fate was anything other than a grievous crime, just like the fatal ordeal of the Palestinian teenager who was torturously put to death in retaliation), as to the rockets fired from Gaza, and to Hamas’s intentions vis-a-vis the tunnels it had dug out of what has been described as the world’s largest prison.
The rockets are indeed ridiculous, albeit seldom lethal. Their reach has been extended – which, in fact, helps the Israeli propaganda machine to exaggerate the danger they pose, with residents of Tel Aviv forced into shelters, and Ben Gurion airport barred to some international flights after a rocket reportedly landed in its vicinity.
There are plenty of grounds on which Hamas can be criticised, but they pale into insignificance in comparison with the actions of the Israeli state.
TNS: Once the ceasefire is announced yet again, chances are the two sides would go back to the long drawn, now stalled, peace process. Can you evaluate that process for our readers, the problems, the gains so far?
MA: There have been precious few gains since the so-called peace process was initiated in the wake of the first US-led invasion of Iraq. The process, on more than one occasion, has been deemed moribund, if not dead. Israel frequently proclaims that the peace process cannot be sustained because it has no potential partners. However, Mahmoud Abbas — Arafat’s successor — is the best it can hope to get. Abbas has bent over backwards to accommodate Israel. No other Palestinian leader could conceivably go any further. If Israel refuses to accept him, it cannot conceivably have any interest in accepting anyone else. The gains so far have been too few. It’s far from clear whether there will be any more in the absence of a different paradigm.
TNS: How do you look at the international involvement in the issue over the years like that of the US, European Union, OIC, Arab League and the region in general? How crucial is this involvement in moving towards or away from the ultimate solution?
MA: Hopeless would be one way of summing it up. The so-called Quartet named Tony Blair as its emissary. A more cynical step is hard to imagine, given his predilections. The more recent developments have driven UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon to Cairo. But the UN has proved itself incapable of playing a particularly useful role in the peace process, not least in view of the veto the US has repeatedly exercised in order to protect Israel from the trauma of a universal reprimand. The capacity of the OIC and the Arab League to do any good has seriously been in doubt for ages. International involvement will undoubtedly be required in reaching a solution, but there are no signs of it so far.
TNS: The mainstream media has put its weight clearly behind one side. Contrast that with the thousands gathered in some Western capitals against the Israeli atrocities. How do you explain this media bias?
MA: The Western media, in recent decades, has been inclined to avoid the charge of anti-semitism — thereby buying into the Israeli narrative that any criticism of Israel amounts to that, given it is a Jewish state. There have been alternative narratives, though, in not only the Western press but the Israeli press. The overall bias, though, is a consequence of the Israeli-sponsored impression that all alternative opinions are verboten. That’s only one Goebbelsian aspect of Israel’s approach.
The demonstrations in London and elsewhere suggest that the Israeli narrative is not going down too well. It’s a shame, though, that participants in some of the demonstrations — not least in Paris — have demonstrated evidence of anti-Semitism, which inevitably feeds into the Israeli propaganda strain in one way or another. It has long been apparent, meanwhile, that whereas much of the media tends to echo the Zionist line, the public is often inclined to disagree. This is particularly valuable when American or European Jews clearly see through the Netanyahu regime’s propaganda and militate against it.
TNS: Finally, do you think the sheer inequality and brutality of this conflict still has the potential to feed the existing extremist movements or generate new ones?
MA: Palestine has always been on the radar of Islamist movements in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The question is whether it is a cause or merely an excuse. Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria have attracted jihadists in large numbers from across the world. Palestine has never been in the same category, which may disappoint Binyamin Netanyahu as well as Hamas, but it’s just as well. It would be a remarkable achievement if the Palestinian cause were to cease to be a raison d’être for belligerent Muslims. After all, the biggest reason for vociferously opposing the periodic genocide in Gaza is not that most of the victims are Muslims but that all of them are human beings — and no lesser in any way than Israeli targets of violence. But unless this realisation seeps into Jewish and Muslim minds alike, the unequal struggle — and the concomitant bloodshed — will go on.