Historian Yehuda Bauer on Gaza, Part 1

Historian Yehuda Bauer on Gaza, Part 1

The following is an analysis by Yehuda Bauer, a distinguished Israeli Holocaust historian and a long-time supporter of Meretz and its Mapam socialist-Zionist predecessor. He wrote this in response to a move by some members of the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) to accuse Israel of genocide in the Gaza Strip.

Permit me to start with a recap of presumably well-known background facts: Israeli settlers occupied parts of the Gaza strip, employed several thousand Palestinians, and threatened, by their presence, to perpetuate the occupation of the area by Israel. At the same time, Israeli authorities established an important industrial park at the Erez crossing, on the Israeli side, in cooperation with Gazan entrepreneurs; the park employed several thousand Gazans, too.

Tens of thousands of Gazans were employed as workers in Israel, though the conditions of employment varied; according to Israeli law, the workers should have received proper wages and some social benefits, but many employers utilized the economic vulnerability of the Gazans to discriminate against some. Others were employed in a proper way.

Hamas, founded as an offshoot of the Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood, was initially not attacked by Israel, which saw the PLO (and the Fatah movement which controlled it) as its main enemy. Hamas was not directly supported by Israel, but was left to grow without intervention.

Hamas is, as is well known, a radical Islamic movement. Its 1988 Charter is constantly quoted and remains the basic document of the movement. It advocates not a Palestinian state, but an Islamic State of Palestine – in all of it, after the annihilation of Israel – ruled by Shari’a law, relegating Christians, and those Jews who will have survived the destruction of Israel and will have accepted Islamic rule, to a fourth-class status.

Jews generally are regarded as a world-wide enemy, “sons of apes and pigs,” whose aim is to control the world, as has been “proved” by the Protocols [of the Elders of Zion]. The call to kill all Jews is part of the internal propaganda, and repeated countless times in sermons (many of these are recorded on video, and spread, so that one can easily prove this). In accordance with the radical interpretation of Islam, one can indeed arrange a temporary truce or a cease-fire (hudna or tahadiya), but these will be in force only until the Islamic force is strong enough to end it.

Temporary truce arrangements with Jewish tribes at the times of the Prophet, that were then broken and the Jewish tribes destroyed, are quoted to show that one does not keep such arrangements beyond the time needed to regroup.

The sources that enabled Hamas to rise and gain popularity are in large part connected with the continued and mistaken policies of successive Israeli governments, and their American backers.
From the beginning of the second intifada, Hamas, some Fatah elements, and some of the smaller, non-religious, radical nationalist groups, engaged in a two-pronged policy: to create a wall between Gazans and Israelis by attacking all places where the two met, and cause the evacuation of Israeli settlements to the east of the 1967 line (in old Israel) by rocket attacks directed against not military, but civilian, targets. This has been going on since 2001, and has been partly successful.

Some 7000 rockets have been launched against Israel. Hamas attacked the Erez industrial park and caused it to close; it caused the Israelis to fire Gazan workers in Israel and in the end stop work in Israel; it attacked the Ashkelon area, where the electricity plant is located that supplies Gaza with electricity, though it did not manage to hit it; it attacked the fuel depot on the Gazan border that supplies fuel to Gaza; and it attacked convoys of trucks going into Gaza. The border crossings were open in 2001, and trade was engaged in.

Each time rocket fire was directed at the border region with Gaza, mainly but not exclusively at Sderot, Israel closed the crossings. The rationale was that this would cause the Gazan population to turn against those who fired the rockets – a policy that failed in the Lebanon and failed miserably in Gaza. On the contrary, causing hardship to the Gazan population made it support Hamas. To engage in a blockade directed against a civilian population in an armed struggle may not be in contravention to international law, but it is morally reprehensible, at least from my point of view.

As we all know, Israel left the Gaza strip and dismantled its settlements there, in a unilateral move, without an arrangement with the Palestine Authority (PA). Hamas saw this as a victory, which in a way it was. This was accompanied by attempts to keep the crossings open, but soon enough they were closed again when the reaction of Hamas was to continue and intensify the rocket fire. Israel responded with air attacks on rocket launchers, and assassination of major Hamas leaders. Elections took place, and Hamas was democratically and freely elected to lead Gaza. The strong Fatah minority remained. In 2007, Hamas staged a military coup, many Fatah members were killed, and the Hamas quasi-government became what one may perhaps call, paradoxically, a freely-elected, brutal and murderous dictatorship.

In the meantime, Israel responded to the kidnapping (and presumably, immediate murder) of two of its soldiers from within Israeli territory by Hizbullah by an ill-considered military attack and invasion of the Lebanon. That ended with large numbers of Lebanese and Israeli casualties, a UN force to separate between Israel and the Hizbullah, but actually with a clear victory for Iran: the Iranian strategy is directed to achieve two aims: an Iranian-Shiite control of the Persian Gulf, and thus control over some 40% of the oil that the West needs; and an outlet to the Mediterranean, in order to challenge the Egyptian-Saudi Axis that controls the Middle East, under American tutelage.

It is wrong to ignore the ideological dimension, because the Iranian leadership is definitely motivated by an ideology that seeks to establish the rule of an extreme version of Islam over the Middle East, and, hopefully from its point of view, over the world. In that it parallels the Sunni version of the same ideology, despite all the considerable differences – and bitter enmity – between the Shi’a and the Sunni world.

In the 2006 war, Israel gave Iran the outlet to the Mediterranean that it was seeking, because Hizbullah was strengthened. Hizbullah attained a large measure of control over the Lebanon. Hizbullah is, as we all know, a close ally of Iran, though it does not necessarily and always follow the Iranian lead. Its military leader, Imad Mughniyeh, a Lebanese Shiite, was “embedded” with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, until he was assassinated, almost certainly by the Mossad, in Damascus. The “Shura’ (Council) of Hizbullah meets, usually weekly, and always with an Iranian delegate present. But the (Sunni) Hamas representative and delegate to the Hizbullah, Osman Hamdan (he now calls himself Osama Hamdan), also participates, and Hamas and Hizbullah policies are closely connected. Hamas receives its rockets from Iran (in parts that are assembled in Gaza) by sea via Sudan, and thence either by sea or by land, into the Sinai or directly into Gaza. As explained above, the Israeli Lebanese war of 2006 enabled these bonds to be strengthened, and gave Iran a political and military foothold on the Mediterranean.

Having achieved the cutting of relations between the Gazan population and their Israeli neighbors, aided and abetted by the Israeli policy of periodically closing the crossings to Gaza, Hamas then intensified its rocket attacks, and Israel reacted by air strikes against what it thought were the rocket sites, and by killing Hamas militants and leaders. In the spring of 2008, a truce (tahadiya) was brokered by Egypt, because both sides wanted a respite. But Hamas did not stop its attempts to fight, continued to fire rockets, and on November 5 the Israelis discovered a tunnel that was being dug from the Gazan side into Israel. The Israelis presumed that the purpose was not to pick daisies on the Israeli side of the fence – similar tunnels had enabled Hamas militants to try and attack Israelis within the 1967 border, and Cpl. Gilead Shalit was kidnapped this way (by the way, Shalit has been held close to three years – if still alive – and the Red Cross is refused access; Hamas does not recognize the Red Cross, or any international conventions).

An Israeli force destroyed the tunnel and killed two Hamas fighters in it. A rain of rockets descended on Israel, making a joke of the tahadiya. Within the Israeli government, a division arose, between Livni and Mofaz of the Kadima party (Mofaz is a former IDF chief of staff and minister of defense), supported by the ultra-orthodox Shas Party, who don’t send their most capable young men (never mind women) to the Army, but advocate militant policies within the government, and Labor. Defense Minister Barak opposed radical armed reaction and an invasion of Gaza, and he was supported by Gabi Ashkenazi, the current IDF chief of staff. Then, on December 19, Hamas declared the tahadiya at an end, and fired 50-60 rockets a day into southern Israel. For a few days, Barak still sought Egyptian mediation, and his view was again supported by the Army. But the outcry from the population became irresistible.

The first duty of a government is to protect its citizens, and there was an outcry against what was perceived as a weak reaction to an immediate and serious threat. Of course, as in any army anywhere, contingency plans had been prepared; not, as some say, half a year before, but at least a year, if not more, before the fighting broke out – as it should have, because it would have been inexcusable had they not done so.

The air strike, lasting a few days, was supported by almost the whole Jewish Israeli population. Protests from the Palestinian Arab minority in Israel were sporadic and weak, with the police allowing all such demonstrations to take place, even when they had not been officially permitted as the law requires. Israeli Arabs were among the casualties caused by the rocket attacks (as they had been in the Lebanon war of 2006).

Barak then proposed a “humanitarian” cease-fire for two or three days, in order to see whether Egypt might arrange a permanent truce. This was in line with the public –and private – statements of the government (with the exception of the ultraorthodox, and the right-wing “Pensioners’ Party,”a very peculiar political body that is part of the government coalition). These statements declared that the aim of the armed action was to stop the rocket attacks, which affected about one million citizens, Jews and Arabs; and to stop the supply of Iranian arms through the tunnels under the Gaza-Egyptian border, which the Egyptians had not been able or perhaps not willing to terminate.

The government had stated, explicitly, that the aim was not to topple Hamas, and certainly not to occupy Gaza. Barak therefore demanded that he be given the permission to stop the fighting, temporarily at least, in order to avoid a land invasion. Hamas rocket attacks had not been stopped, but the number of rockets decreased from 50-60 to 30-40 a day. The government voted against Barak’s proposal, which was supported by the left-wing opposition [i.e., mainly Meretz– ed.]. In my view, had Barak’s proposal been accepted, it might have created a new situation: Israel could have said – we don’t want to continue fighting, and we offer you a permanent truce; you will stop smuggling arms and we will open all the crossings. If Hamas then would have rejected the offer, and opposed any kind of mediation, Israel would have been justified in sending in its army to protect its civilians from further rocket attacks by an organization that remains dedicated to Israel’s destruction.

It should be remembered that no Arab government, certainly not Egypt, has recognized Hamas rule in Gaza. The Mubarak government opposes Hamas, but does not want to occupy Gaza; nor does it want Palestinians to cross the border into Egypt, nor does it want to expend resources to help the Gazans in any way. It sees Hamas, rightly I think, as the extended arm of Iran and as an immediate threat to its own rule in Egypt, because it is the radical Islamists in Egypt that see Hamas as their allies.

Again, the Israeli government was being pressed by public opinion, and the right-wing opposition, to send the army into Gaza. The armed invasion started, the aim being, as was explained to the public and to the soldiers themselves, to destroy as much of the armed forces of Hamas, especially its rocket launchers, as possible, force Hamas into accepting a long-term or permanent truce, and stop the arms smuggling. The result was the destruction of whole built-up areas, especially in the North of the strip, the killing of over 1300 people, including some 600 civilians, of whom about 300 were children, and about 100 were women. The exact figures, at this time, are not yet clear.

It is obvious that this was neither a genocide nor a genocidal event. There was no intent to destroy an ethnic, national, racial or religious group as such, there was not even an intent to destroy an armed, political and fanatically religious group or abolish its rule over a given territory. There was no massacre of civilians as such either, but violent attacks on what was, rightly or wrongly, but apparently legitimately, thought to be armed men fighting the Israeli army, who were hiding among the civilian population, and as a result many civilian lives, especially those of children, were lost. I am not talking numbers, either, because in my view civilians killed are civilians killed, whether there were 600 as in Gaza, or 40,000 as in Sri Lanka, or uncounted numbers [estimated at five million– ed.] in Congo – none of which, by the way, caused members of the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) to respond the way they did when it concerned Israel in Gaza.

Was Israel guilty of war crimes? Possibly, and this must be investigated, not just by the Israeli army, but by an outside factor. To be continued…

By | 2009-01-28T15:04:00-05:00 January 28th, 2009|Blog|2 Comments


  1. Anonymous January 28, 2009 at 8:06 pm - Reply

    This is not the most one-sided summary that could be written, but it is lacking enough crucial facts of life as experienced by Palestinians in Gaza to render it largely one-sided:

    1) The author knows how many rockets (7000) were fired from Gaza. How many missiles and shells were fired into Gaza by Israel during the same period? (Hint, a large multiple of 7000)

    2) How could the author leave out basic facts like the number of Gazans killed by Israel in, for example, the nearly three years after Hamas’ election victory and prior to Israel’s latest offensive (see B’Tselem’s intifada statistics)? Are little facts like over a thousand Palestinian deaths not relevant?

    3) How could the author leave out basic facts about the progressive and extreme impoverishment of Gaza from 2001 until present caused by Israel’s tightening siege.

    4) Does the author really believe that Palestinian rockets were the entire cause of Israel’s closure of Gaza following disengagement (see James Wolfenson, for example, and other analyses of the failure of the Agreement on Movement and Access)?

    5) Why has the author not noticed that according to UNOCHA data on closures and rockets fired from the Israeli and Palestinian sides, Israel’s tightened siege and heightened attacks on Gaza began immediately after the Hamas gov’t was installed, rather than after any increase in Palestinian rocket fire.

    6) Why has the author failed to mention the US/Israeli plan to support Fateh in militarily overthrowing, by providing weapons and training, the democratically elected Hamas in Gaza prior to Hamas’ summer 2007 takeover, as documented in Vanity Fair and other sources?

    7) Is the author unaware of Israel’s history of economically de-developing Gaza (see Sara Roy), followed by tightening closure starting in 1991 (see Amira Hass)? Did events in Gaza occur in a historical vaccuum?

    These are huge gaps for a “historian” to have missed and call into serious question his credibility.


  2. conefor4200 January 29, 2009 at 1:29 pm - Reply

    Progressive radical advice to the people in Gaza:

    End the armed resistance in the service of the Iranian junta.

    The rest will be easy.

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