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Blown Chances in Gaza

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Posted on Aug 12, 2014

Photo by Poster Boy NYC (CC BY 2.0)

By Sandy Tolan, TomDispatch

This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.

Alongside the toll of death and broken lives, perhaps the saddest reality of the latest Gaza war, like the Gaza wars before it, is how easy it would have been to avoid. For the last eight years, Israel and the U.S. had repeated opportunities to opt for a diplomatic solution in Gaza. Each time, they have chosen war, with devastating consequences for the families of Gaza.

Let’s begin in June 2006, when the University of Maryland’s Jerome Segal, founder of the Jewish Peace Lobby, carried a high-level private message from Gaza to Washington. Segal had just returned from a meeting with Ismail Haniyeh, whose Hamas faction had recently won free and fair elections and taken power in Gaza. Hamas was seeking a unity government with the rival Fatah faction overseen by Mahmoud Abbas.

The previous year, Israel had withdrawn its soldiers and 8,000 settlers from Gaza, though its armed forces maintained a lockdown of the territory by air, land, and sea, controlling the flow of goods and people. Gazans believed they were trapped in the world’s largest open-air prison.  For generations they had lived in overcrowded refugee camps, after their villages were depopulated by Israel and new Israeli cities built on their ruins in the years that followed Israel’s birth in 1948.  By voting for Hamas in 2006, Palestinians signaled their weariness with Fatah’s corruption and its failure to deliver an independent state, or even a long-promised safe passage corridor between the West Bank and Gaza.  In the wake of its surprise election victory, Hamas was in turn showing signs of edging toward the political center, despite its militant history.

Nevertheless, Israel and “the Quartet”—the U.S., the European Union, Russia, and the U.N.—refused to recognize the outcome of the democratic elections, labeling Hamas a “terrorist organization,” which sought Israel’s destruction. The administration of George W. Bush strongly pressured Abbas not to join a unity government.  The Quartet suspended economic aid and Israel severely curtailed the flow of goods in and out of Gaza.

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“It’s like meeting with a dietician,” remarked Dov Weisglass, a top aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.  “We have to make [Gazans] much thinner, but not enough to die.” Only years later did researchers prove that Weisglass was speaking literally: Israeli officials had restricted food imports to levels below those necessary to maintain a minimum caloric intake.  Child welfare groups began to report a sharp rise in poverty and chronic child malnutrition, anemia, typhoid fever, and potentially fatal infant diarrhea.  Human rights organizations denounced the measures as collective punishmentAvi Shlaim, a veteran of the Israeli army, author of numerous books on Middle East history, and professor of international relations at the University of Oxford, wrote:

“America and the EU [European Union] shamelessly joined Israel in ostracizing and demonizing the Hamas government and in trying to bring it down by withholding tax revenues and foreign aid. A surreal situation thus developed with a significant part of the international community imposing economic sanctions not against the occupier but against the occupied, not against the oppressor but against the oppressed.  As so often in the tragic history of Palestine, the victims were blamed for their own misfortunes.”

These punitive measures were to remain in place until Hamas renounced violence (including stopping its cross-border rocket attacks), recognized Israel, and accepted all previous agreements based on the Oslo peace accords.

Which brings us back to that Washington-bound letter from Gaza.  In the wake of the elections, Hamas was no longer the militant opposition to a ruling Fatah party, but a legally elected government operating under siege.  Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, suddenly responsible for governing and facing a mounting economic, humanitarian, and political catastrophe, sought to defuse the situation.  In his June 2006 hand-written note to President Bush that Jerome Segal delivered to the State Department and the National Security Council, he requested a direct dialogue with the administration.

Despite Hamas’s charter calling for the elimination of Israel, Haniyeh’s conciliatory note to the American president conveyed a different message.  “We are so concerned about stability and security in the area that we don’t mind having a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders and offering a truce for many years,” Haniyeh wrote to Bush.  This essentially added up to an offer of de facto recognition of Israel with a cessation of hostilities—two of the key U.S. and Israeli demands of Hamas.

“The continuation of this situation,” Haniyeh wrote to Bush, “will encourage violence and chaos in the whole region.”


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