The Hamas-led attack on Israel, dubbed the Gaza Ghetto Uprising, was entirely predictable – yet the Israeli establishment totally failed to foresee or prepare for this. In an article published in the Israeli dissident newsletter +972 Magazine just a week earlier, Palestinian journalist Mohammed R. Mhawish had written “It has therefore become increasingly clear that Palestinians in Gaza, after enduring 16 years of siege, are reaching a breaking point” – yet the arrogance and complacency of Israel’s political and military leadership left them oblivious to this reality.
This recalls the similar unpreparedness at other crucial stages of Israel’s conflict with Palestine – notably the failure to recognise the circumstances leading to the Egyptian and Syrian attack in October 1973, and to the outbreak of the First Palestinian Intifada in December 1987. Both of these were also entirely predictable, and indeed had been predicted by observers and analysts not tied to Israel’s ideological conceptions. But a racist contempt for the intelligence and ability of its Arab neighbours and inhabitants left Israel totally unable to understand the development.
In 1973, Egypt and Syria initially made large advances into territory in Sinai and Golan seized by Israel in the 1967 war. Although Israel was able eventually to reverse this, and to make its own advances deep into Egypt and Syria, this came at an immense cost. In the aftermath, as politicians desperately sought to deny responsibility for the background to this military and intelligence failure, a commission was established and a suitable scapegoat was found in Chief of Staff David Elazar. But the political leadership, which at the time was fighting an election campaign using the slogan “Our situation has never been better”, was totally exculpated. The Israeli public, however, was not convinced, and the political failures led to the end of half-a-century of Labour Zionist hegemony and the election of Menahem Begin’s Likud government in the 1977 election.
The political impact of the Gaza attack is likely to far surpass that of the 1973 war. Despite its apparent total control over Gaza, and its much-vaunted ability to detect the movement of every fly in the besieged enclave, Israel was unable to detect and defend itself against the preparations for this attack, which clearly involved several months of coordination between rival groups, the training of several hundred fighters, and the acquisition and deployment of scores of hang gliders and thousands of missiles.
As a result, Palestinian fighters were able to breach the security fence around Gaza in at least 29 places, to fire an estimated 5000 rockets into Israel, and to send parachutists deep into the country. As of now, some 36 hours after the attack was launched, at least 700 Israelis have been killed and thousands injured, and Palestinian fighters remain in control of a number of Israeli communities on the border. In order to dislodge entrenched fighters from the border city of Sderot, Israeli forces demolished the police station in which they had barricaded themselves. Elsewhere in the region, residents complained that they were hiding in shelters pleading for support for six hours or more before the army arrived to rescue them – and many have noted that this is because the army was too busy defending illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank. A national trauma on this scale will dominate Israeli politics for decades to come.
We can be certain that Israel will retaliate, probably with indiscriminate and disproportionate brutality. Israeli PM Netanyahu has threatened to turn Gaza into rubble, and has warned residents to leave – though how they are expected to leave the besieged and surrounded area is unclear. A total blockade has been imposed, with Israel preventing the entry of any food, water or other supplies and cutting off electricity and gas. Hamas is holding scores, possibly more than a hundred, of Israelis to be traded in a prisoner swap. But these unfortunate people and their families should not hold out much hope, since Israeli Finance Minister Smotrich (who describes himself as “a proud fascist homophobe”) has already stated that “We have to be cruel now and not to think too much about the hostages. It’s time for action”.
Over the next few weeks, we can expect to see further pictures of unprecedented carnage across the Gaza Strip. And calls are growing in Israel for “completion of the tasks of 1948” – ie total removal of all Palestinians from Palestine and their enforced transfer to other Arab states. This is the long term goal of much of Israel’s current government.
And in this, they are likely to have the support of the majority of the population, despite the civil unrest that has rocked the country for several months. Opposition leaders Lapid and Gantz are begging to be admitted to an emergency War Cabinet, while reservists who only weeks ago declared their refusal to serve in any war provoked by the Netanyahu government are now queuing up to take part in action against Gaza. The wave of demonstrations has, not surprisingly, been called off.
Israel is in a state of shock, and the aura of security and inviolability has been irrevocably shattered. There are fears of Hezbollah attacks across the Lebanon border, and of a further – long-predicted – armed uprising in the occupied West Bank. The operational and intelligence failures of the Israeli army, too busy protecting pogromist settlers to defend the country’s border population, have been noted by many.
And eventually there will be a heavy political price to be paid. Netanyahu will bear most of the blame – but he is unlikely to be replaced by any leader prepared to take any meaningful steps to reach a just agreement with the Palestinian people. Rather, his successor is likely to come from the ranks of those described by Daniel Blatman, Professor of Holocaust Studies at the Hebrew University, as “neo-Nazi ministers in the government”.
The parallels with 1973 have already been noted. And Israelis are beginning to make comparisons with Pearl Harbour and 9/11. But, as some thoughtful analysts have noted, a better historical comparison might be the 1968 Tet Offensive. Although this initially resulted in a military defeat, it punctured the myth of American invincibility and Vietnamese weakness, and ensured that eventual American withdrawal and the reunification of Vietnam was politically inevitable. Last weekend’s events may come to be regarded historically in a similar way.
At a time when governments of the European countries which perpetrated the Holocaust, or did nothing to aid Jews fleeing Nazi brutality, now express their solidarity with the Israeli state, and project Israeli flags onto their prominent landmarks, our task is clear. We must continue to assert our unconditional, but critical, support for the Palestinian struggle for liberation. Unconditional in the sense that we have chosen our side, and stand “Always with the oppressed, never with the oppressor”. Critical in the sense that, while understanding the boiling rage of Palestinians in Gaza, we can never endorse the indiscriminate murder of civilians (regardless of their political views).
Now more than ever we must stand with the Palestinian people in resisting continued Israeli oppression and brutality. We must defend their right to return to the lands and homes from which they were forcibly removed in 1948 and 1967. And we must redouble our calls for a worldwide campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against the apartheid Israeli state.
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