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Who’s the aggressor?

The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the aftermath of the June 1967 war had very little to do with security and everything to do with territorial expansionism, writes Avi Shlaim.

india Updated: Jan 07, 2009 23:28 IST
Avi Shlaim

I write as someone who served loyally in the Israeli army in the mid-60s and who has never questioned the legitimacy of the State of Israel within its pre-1967 borders. What I utterly reject is the Zionist colonial project beyond the Green Line. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the aftermath of the June 1967 war had very little to do with security and everything to do with territorial expansionism. The aim was to establish Greater Israel through permanent political, economic and military control over the Palestinian territories. And the result has been one of the most prolonged and brutal military occupations of modern times.

Gaza is not simply a case of economic under-development but a uniquely cruel case of deliberate de-development. The development of local industry was actively impeded so as to make it impossible for the Palestinians to end their subordination to Israel and to establish the economic underpinnings essential for real political independence. Gaza is a classic case of colonial exploitation in the post-colonial era. Jewish settlements in occupied territories are immoral, illegal and an insurmountable obstacle to peace. Israel’s settlers were withdrawn from Gaza but Israeli soldiers continued to control all access to the Gaza Strip by land, sea and air. Gaza was converted overnight into an open-air prison.

Israel likes to portray itself as an island of democracy in a sea of authoritarianism. Yet, Israel has never done anything to promote democracy on the Arab side and has done a great deal to undermine it. Like other radical movements, Hamas began to moderate its political programme following its rise to power. From the ideological rejectionism of its charter, it began to move towards pragmatic accommodation of a two-State solution. In 2007, Hamas and Fatah formed a national unity government that was ready to negotiate a long-term ceasefire with Israel. But Israel refused to negotiate with a government that included Hamas.

The timing of the war was determined by political expediency. A general election is scheduled for February 10 and all the main contenders are looking for an opportunity to prove their toughness. The army top brass had been champing at the bit to deliver a crushing blow to Hamas in order to remove the stain left on their reputation by the failure of the war against Hezbollah in Lebanon in July 2006.

To be sure, Hamas is not an entirely innocent party in this conflict. Denied the fruit of its electoral victory and confronted with an unscrupulous adversary, it has resorted to the weapon of the weak: terror. The damage caused by its primitive rockets is minimal but the psychological impact is immense, prompting the public to demand protection from its government. Under the circumstances, Israel had the right to act in self-defence. But its response was totally disproportionate.

No amount of military escalation can buy Israel immunity from rocket attacks. Israel’s real aim is not peaceful coexistence with its Palestinian neighbours but military domination. It keeps compounding the mistakes of the past with new and more disastrous ones.

Avi Shlaim is a Professor of International Relations at the University of Oxford and the author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World