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Mark Levine Headshot

Who Will Save Israel from Itself?

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One by one the justifications given by Israel for its latest war in Gaza are unraveling.

The argument that this is a purely defensive war, launched only after Hamas broke a five-month old ceasefire has been challenged, not just by observers in the know such as former President Jimmy Carter, who helped facilitate the truce, but by center-right Israeli intelligence think tanks, the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, whose December 31 report titled "Six Months of the Lull Arrangement Intelligence Report," confirmed that the June 19 truce was only "sporadically violated, and then not by Hamas but instead by... "rogue terrorist organizations." Instead, "The escalation and erosion of the lull arrangement" occurred after Israel killed half a dozen Hamas members on November 4 without provocation and then placed the entire Strip under even more intensive siege the next day.

According to a joint Tel Aviv University-European university study, this fits a larger pattern in which Israeli violence has been responsible for ending 79% of all lulls in violence since the outbreak of the second intifada, compared with only 8% for Hamas and other Palestinian factions.

Indeed, the Israeli Foreign Ministry seems to realize that this argument is losing credibility. During a conference call with half a dozen pro-Israel professors on Thursday, the NY Consul General focused more on the importance of destroying the intricate tunnel system connecting Gaza to the Sinai, claiming that such tunnels were "as big as the Holland and Lincoln tunnels," proof of which was the "fact" that lions and monkeys had been smuggled through them to a zoo in Gaza (in reality, the lions were two small cubs, who were drugged, thrown in sacks, and dragged through a tunnel on their way to a private zoo.

The claim that Hamas will never accept the existence of Israel has proved equally misinformed, as Hamas leaders explicitly announce their intention to do just that in the pages of the Los Angeles Times (as did deputy political head Mousa Abu Marzook in a January 6 Opinion article), and to any international leader or journalist who will meet with them.

The claim that Israeli forces have gone out of their way to diminish civilian casualties, long a center piece of Israel's self-image as an enlightened and moral democracy even during war, are falling apart with each new family, 10, 20, and 30 strong, buried under the rubble of a building in Gaza. Anyone with an internet connection can Google "Gaza humanitarian catastrophe" and find the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Occupied Territories and read the thousands of pages of evidence documenting the reality of the current fighting, and the long term siege on Gaza that preceded it.

The Red Cross, normally scrupulous in its unwillingness to single out parties to a conflict for criticism, sharply criticized Israel for preventing medical personnel from reaching wounded Palestinians, some of whom remained trapped for days, slowly starving and dying in the Gazan rubble amidst their dead relatives. Meanwhile, the United Nations has flatly denied Israel claims that Palestinian fighters were using the UNRWA school compound bombed on January 6, in which forty civilians were killed, to launch attacks, and has challenged Israel to prove otherwise.

And numerous flippant remarks by senior Israeli politicians and generals, including Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and General Dan Harel declaring their intention to leave "not one Hamas building standing" in Gaza, and refusing to make a distinction between civilian people and institutions and fighters --"Hamas doesn't... and neither should we" is how Livni puts it -- offer are being seen, rightly so, as admission of war crimes.

Indeed, in reviewing statements by Israeli military planners leading up to the invasion, it's clear that there was a well-thought out decision to go after Gaza's civilian infrastructure -- and with it, civilians. The following quote, from an interview with Major General Gadi Eisenkot in October, is telling:

We will wield disproportionate power against every village from which shots are fired on Israel, and cause immense damage and destruction. From our perspective, these [i.e., entire villages] are military bases," he said. "This isn't a suggestion. This is a plan that has already been authorized.

Causing "immense damage and destruction" and considering entire villages as "military bases" are absolutely prohibited under international law. Eisenkot's description of this planning in light of what is now unfolding in Gaza is a clear admission of conspiracy and intent to commit war crimes, and when taken with the comments above, and numerous others, renders any argument by Israel that it has tried to protect civilians and is not engaging in disproportionate force unbelievable.

On the ground, the evidence mounts ever higher that Israel is systematically violating a host of international laws, including but not limited to These include, but are not limited to, Article 56 of the IV Hague Convention of 1907, the First Additional Protocol of the Geneva Convention, the Fourth Geneva Convention (more specifically known as the "Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of 12 August 1949", the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the principles of Customary International Humanitarian Law (see here).

None of this excuses or legitimizes the firing of rockets or mortars by any Palestinian groups at Israeli civilians and non-military targets. As UN Special Rapporteur Richard Falk declared in his most recent statement on Gaza, "It should be pointed out unambiguously that there is no legal (or moral) justification for firing rockets at civilian targets, and that such behavior is a violation of IHR, associated with the right to life, as well as constitutes a war crime." But by the same logic, Israel does not have the right to use such attacks to launch an all-out assault on the entire population of Gaza.

In this context, even Israel's suffering from the constant barrage of rockets is hard to pay due attention to when the numbers of dead and wounded on each side are counted -- almost 700 Palestinian dead and thousands wounded, versus 3 dead Israelis civilians and a few dozen wounded since December 27. Any sense of proportion is impossible to sustain with such a calculus.

Israeli commentators and scholars, self-described "loyal" Zionists who served proudly in the army in wars past, are now publicly describing their country (in the words of Oxford University Professor Avi Shlaim) as a "rogue" and gangster" state led by "completely unscrupulous leaders." Ben Gurion University Professor Neve Gordon declares that Israel's actions in Gaza are like "raising animals for slaughter on a farm" and represent a "bizarre new moral element" in warfare .

"The moral voice of restraint has been left behind... Everything is permitted" against Palestinians, writes a disgusted Haaretz Columnist, Gideon Levy. Fellow Haaretz columnist and daughter of Holocaust survivors Amira Haas writes of her late parents disgust at how Israeli leaders justified Israel's wars with a "language laundromat" aimed at redefining reality and Israel's moral compass ("Lucky my parents aren't alive to see this," she exclaimed). A few pages away there is a report of paramedics finding another seventy Palestinian corpses.

Around the world people are beginning to compare Israel's attack on Gaza, which after the 2005 withdrawal of Israeli forces and settlers was turned literally into the world's largest prison, to the Jewish uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto. Extremist Muslims are using internet forum to collect names and address of prominent European Jews with the goal, it seems clear, of assassinating them in retaliation for Israel's actions in Gaza.

al-Qa'eda is attempting to exploit this crisis to gain a foothold in Gaza and Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria, as well as through attacking Jewish communities globally. Iran's defiance of both Israel and its main sponsor, the United States, is winning it increasing sympathy each passing day. Inside Israel, the violence will continue to erode both democratic values in the Jewish community, and any acceptance of the Jewish state's legitimacy in the eyes of its Palestinian citizens.

And yet in the United States -- at least in Washington and in the offices of the mainstream Jewish organizations -- the chorus of support for Israel's war on Gaza continues to sing in tight harmony with official Israeli policy, seemingly deaf to the fact that they have become so out of tune with the reality exploding around them.

At my university, UCI, where last summer Jewish and Muslim students organized a trip together through the occupied territories and Israel so they could see with their own eyes the realities there, old battle lines are being redrawn. The Anteaters for Israel, the college pro-Israel group at UCI, sent out an urgent email to the community explaining that "Over the past week, increasing amounts of evidence lead us to believe that Hamas is largely responsible for any alleged humanitarian crisis in Gaza."

I have no idea who the "us" is that is referred to in the appeal outside of the membership of the group (which the President of Anteaters has assured me is in fact growing), but I'm sure that the number of believers is shrinking. Indeed, one of the sad facts of this latest tragedy is that with each claim publicly refuted by facts on the ground, more and more Americans, including Jews, are refusing to trust the assertions of Israeli and American Jewish leaders. Even worse, in the Arab/Muslim world, the horrific images pouring out of Gaza daily are allowing preachers and politicians to deploy well-worn yet still dangerous and inciteful stereotypes against Jews as they rally the masses against Israel -- and through it, their own governments.

What is most frightening is that the most important of Israel's so-called friends, the American political establishment and the mainstream Jewish leadership, seem clueless to the devastating trap that Israel has led itself into -- in good measure with their indulgence and even help. It is one that threatens the country's existence far more than Hamas's Qassam rockets, with their .4 percent kill rate; even more than the disastrous 2006 invasion of southern Lebanon, whose weakening of Israel's deterrence capability in some measure made this war inevitable.

First, it is clear that Israel cannot destroy Hamas, it cannot stop the rockets unless it agrees to a truce that will go far to meeting Hamas's primary demand -- an end to the Gaza siege. Merely by surviving (and it surely will survive) Hamas, like Hezbollah in 2006, will have won. Israel is succeeding in doing little more than creating another generation of Palestinians with hearts filled with rage and a need for revenge.

Second, Israel's main patron, the United States, along with the conservative Arab autocracies and monarchies that are its only allies left in the Muslim world, are losing whatever crumbs of legitimacy they still had with their young and angry populations. The weaker America and its axis becomes in the Middle East, the more precarious becomes Israel's long term security. Indeed, any chance that the US could convince the Muslim world to pressure Iran to give up its quest for nuclear weapons has been buried in Gaza.

Third, as Israel brutalizes Palestinians, it brutalizes its own people. You cannot occupy another people and engage in violence against them at this scale without doing even greater damage to your soul. The high incidence of violent crimes committed by veterans returning from combat duty in Iraq is but one example of how the violence of occupation and war eat away at people's moral center.

But in the US only a small fraction of the population participates in war; in Israel, most able-bodied men wind up participating in the Occupation. The effects of the latest violence perpetrated against Palestinians upon the collective Israeli soul is incalculable; the notion that it can survive as an "ethnocracy" -- favoring one ethnic group, Jews, yet by and large democratic -- is becoming a fiction.

Who will save Israel from herself? Israelis are clearly incapable. Their addiction as a society to the illusion of violence-as-power has reached the level of collective mental illness. As Haaretz reporter Yossi Melman described it on January 10, "Israel has created an image of itself of a madman that has lost it."

Not Palestinians, too many of whom have fallen prey to a similar condition.

Not the "Quartet," the European Union, United Nations, or Arab League, all of whom are utterly powerless to influence Israeli policy.

Not the organized Jewish leadership in the United States and Europe, who are even more blind to what's happening than most Israelis, who at least allow internal debate about the wisdom of their government's policies. Not the growing progressive Jewish community, which will need years to achieve enough social and political power to challenge the status quo.

And not senior American politicians and policy-makers. who are either unwilling to risk alienating American Jewish voters, or have been so brainwashed by the constant barrage of propaganda put out by the "Israel Lobby" that they are incapable of reaching an independent judgment about the conflict.

During last fall's Presidential race, Barack Obama was ridiculed for being a messiah-like figure. The idea doesn't sound so funny now. It's hard to imagine anyone less saving Israel, the Palestinians, and the world from another four years of mindless violence.