The current hostilities: The bigger picture
The current fighting in Gaza can only be understood in context of the broader Israel-Palestine conflict; and that conflict is only understood in light of a few basic facts:
First, Israel’s long-term goal—laid out in its founding documents and affirmed by every Prime Minister since—is to annex the Occupied Territories. This is why Israel still refuses to declare its own borders after fifty years.
Second, being the world’s only apartheid state—with one set of laws governing (and favoring) Jews and another for Arabs—the key challenge to this plan is maintaining a Jewish majority in Israel. A nation “by Jews, for Jews”—to paraphrase the founding Declaration—should probably mostly be Jews. Anything less than that in the Territories makes annexation a problem.
Since the late 1960’s, one strategy for “Jewish-ifying” (read: ethnically cleansing) the Territories has been to build Jewish-only settlements there, to compress the Palestinians further and further toward the east and gobble up the western land as it is vacated. Another strategy, used in tandem with the first, has been to create enough violence, misery and mayhem in the lives of Palestinians to make them simply leave (or perish in sufficient numbers).
A change of strategy in Gaza
However, Gaza, being the most Arab-dense, radicalized, and “ungovernable” of the Territories, has proved unready for settlement. Sharon’s “disengagement” of 2005—dismantling the settlements and removing IDF ground troops from Gaza—was not about abandoning the annexation goal (much less about “peace”) but about tweaking the strategy and timetable for achieving it. Israel simply traded a settlement strategy in Gaza for one of (increased) conventional violence.
“Disengagement” accomplished two things: First, it freed Israel to expand the settlements elsewhere. In Sharon’s words, “[t]here is no chance of establishing a Jewish majority” in Gaza, so “we are turning our resources to the most important areas, which we need to safeguard for our existence: the Galilee, the Negev, Greater Jerusalem, the [remaining] settlement blocs, and security areas.”
Second, clearing the Jewish settlers from Gaza, along with the soldiers that protected them, opened the way for a massive escalation in violence and state terror against the remaining Palestinians (in essence, “warming up” the region for settlement down the road).
At the time of disengagement, Israel publicly reserved the right to invade Gaza whenever it wanted. Not three weeks afterward, Israeli planes knocked out Gaza’s infrastructure, hitting power grids, roads, and bridges. Near-daily air strikes have continued ever since. These always kill civilians, as do Israel’s artillery shell attacks into Gaza, which were escalated also. In the April following evacuation, Israel lobbed more than 3,000 shells into Palestinian villages in Gaza.
And Israel added a perverse new weapon to the arsenal: the sonic boom. Low-flying jets break the sound barrier, producing a massive shockwave across the region, disrupting sleep, bloodying ears and noses, inducing miscarriage and heart attacks, and causing general fear and disorientation. This could never have been attempted when the settlements were in place.
From Dec. 28, 2008, when Israeli air strikes killed 200 Palestinians in a single day. (Hamas rocket fire has killed 28 Israelis since 2001.)
Direct violence is not the only issue. Israel retains total control of Gaza’s borders, coastline, and air space. It takes a tax bite from every product that enters. It forbids Palestine to negotiate its own trade and foreign policy. Israel uses border closings as a weapon, halting food and medical imports and blocking people from accessing work or medical care. After the Palestinians voted for the “wrong” party in January, 2006, Israel cut off water to Gaza—water-starved as it already was—and kidnapped a third of the new Palestinian legislature. Israel continues to kidnap civilians from Gaza, holding them in Israeli prisons without ever charging them with a crime. (About a thousand Palestinians remain in this predicament.)
This, keep in mind—all of the above—is why Hamas is led to fire those rockets into Israel.
Four points follow from this analysis:
(1) The rocket fire is not an intransigent part of daily life in Israel. The current hostilities are not “complicated” or “delicate.” Hamas’s violence is not “senseless” or primarily ethnically or religiously motivated. You can call Hamas assholes, you can critique their strategies, but their demands are legitimate, and any reasonable person would share them in the same situation.
(2) Since Israel continues to control all aspects of life in Gaza, it makes no sense to quibble over “who fired the first shot” in the current wave of hostilities. If I have broken into your house, locked you in the basement, and camped out in your living room, it matters little who casts the first blow when we get into a fight.
(3) Even if you don’t want to call the situation in Gaza an “occupation,” nobody, including Israel, denies that there is an occupation of the West Bank. And, to paraphrase Noam Chomsky, since the West Bank and Gaza are a single unit, if resistance is legitimate in the West Bank, it is legitimate in Gaza. Again, if I limit my “occupation” of your house to the living room, it still makes sense to throw things at me from the den. The house is “a unit” and if one room is occupied, the house is occupied.
(4) Finally: If you don’t like the Palestinians using violence to resist, ask yourself what else they are supposed to use. They have no other leverage. They have nothing to concede to Israel except cessation of violence. Everything else they either cannot do without, or Israel has already taken from them.
Demanding Palestine cease its violence before any peace negotiations can proceed is one-sided. The occupation is violence—Israeli violence; if both sides renounced their own violence, the Territories would be vacated and there would be nothing to negotiate over. So the ball is firmly in Israel’s court, as it has always, basically, been. (There wouldn’t even be a court if not for Israel’s behavior.)