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Settler States and the Shatterbelt

Analyzing Israel's latest assault on Gaza against the background of a rapidly changing region, Clare Bayard highlights the parallels between the Israeli and U.S. national narratives which give the racist "clash of civilizations" framework so much resonance in U.S. political discourse.

In the heart of the rapidly changing and unstable Middle East, Israel launched the biggest offensive against Gaza since 2008's Operation Cast Lead this month. The assault killed hundreds and alienated millions, and the global backlash led to more countries than ever defying Israeli and U.S. pressure in the U.N. vote to make Palestine a "non-member state" November 29.

What happens in Palestine/Israel affects the world:

"The Middle East lies on the world's largest "shatterbelt"... the region of contact between the world's great sea and land powers... shatterbelts are not just flashpoints for great power conflict. Critically, and unlike in other areas, small states located inside them can significantly affect the course of conflict simply by changing sides, shifting the balance of power across a tipping point. " -Roxane Farmanfarmaian in Redrawing the Middle East Map

 

This shatterbelt is undergoing tremendous change. The Arab Spring has overthrown dictators, changed expectations and is ending the era when entrenched elites (Western-backed or otherwise) monopolized power. But Israel's strategy of colonization backed by military force and Western affirmation has stayed the same. Its effectiveness has been eroding for years, evident in the failures of Israel's wars against Lebanon/Hezbollah (2006) and Gaza (2008, 2012). And the U.S., which leaped to affirm Israel's 'right to self-defense' in this Gaza war, is still backing Israel's bid for full spectrum dominance with billions of dollars of in military aid.

Now even rougher water lies ahead. Israel's international isolation is increasing. Hamas is widely understood to have been strengthened by this latest round of battle (see "Why Israel Didn't Win"). Minimal response to the massacre in Gaza weakened its western-favored rival Fatah, despite Mahmoud Abbas' spotlight moment at the U.N. And the grassroots global campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions is growing by the week.

 

ELECTION WARS 

Israeli strikes from air, land and sea killed several hundred Palestinian adults and children during Operation "Pillar of Cloud." Over 100 were killed instantly; others died in subsequent days in undersupplied hospitals under fire. Several West Bank Palestinians were also killed protesting Pillar Cloud. Israel terms these attacks 'mowing the lawn,' intended "to decimate another generation of potential Palestinian militants."

On another level, this was an "election war." Like Operations Cast Lead in 2008-2009, Pillar of Cloud was launched within the bookends of a recent U.S. Presidential election and upcoming Israeli elections. Numerous Israeli commentators pointed out that one goal of the assault was to build nationalistic fervor and strengthen the hand of hard-right Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the coming Israeli vote.

The opening salvo in this attack was the assassination of Hamas leader Ahmed Jabbari, regarded by many as Israel's "subcontractor" for peace agreements. Jabbari was executed by a rocket while in the midst of indirect negotiations with Israel for a long-term ceasefire.

A coalition of Israeli feminist peace organizations responded to the launch of Pillar Cloud with the following ad in Haaretz:

"No to the Elections War! We refuse war and the spilling of blood. We refuse the wave of hatred and incitement against the residents of Gaza. We refuse the abandonment of the South for political spin."

A Haaretz poll showed that 84% of Israelis supported the assault. Israeli universities supplied social media troops and punished Palestinian students holding silent vigils, while Israeli students chanting "death to Arabs" had free rein on campuses.

Racist social media scandals abounded. Teen soldiers mobilized to the border hashtagged their Instagrams #sexy #bomb #rockstar #kill #nevergiveup #girls, and an IDF social media officer was caught photographed in mud-smeared blackface labeled "Obama style."

Days after the ceasefire, the upcoming elections took what Haaretz called "a tectonic shift towards the right." The Likud-Yisrael Betienu party purged its centrists and is running a Tea Party-style slate of hawks who favor annexing the West Bank, oppose the 'peace process," attack liberal NGOs, and refer to African refugees as a "cancer" and Palestinians as "parasites." These "Greater Israel" architects put Israel on a collision course with most of the world. Even Turkey, Israel's former "I'm not racist, I have a Muslim friend" token ally, froze diplomatic relations during Pillar Cloud.

 

FAILED WAR, FAILING PATH

Israel accelerated years' worth of isolation in this single month, and lost in the ceasefire terms. Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal declared that despite the extensive damage done to Gaza, "Israel has failed in all its goals." A major victory for human rights is possible in the (ambiguously) promised easing of the siege of Gaza.

Netanyahu may have been gunning for a ceasefire all along, in order to be seen as having stopped rocket fire without drawing international condemnation for the increased bloodbath of another ground invasion, or risking the treaty with Egypt. Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the U.S., countered with the shameless claim that "Israel was not confronting Gaza, but Iran." Oren's words were a chilling admission: since target practice on civilians held in an open-air prison is not 'war,' it means this attack goes beyond 'war crimes' to become crimes against humanity.

Oren's other implications - that this was a desired trial of the U.S.-funded Iron Dome missile defense system and a middle finger flipped at Iran (and also the related claim that it was a move to put Obama immediately in a post-election box) - are equally frightening. Israel attacking Iran remains a great potential danger.

On the ground, the Greater Israel project continues to roll along. Today Netanyahu again made it clear that Israel is not bound to respect any Palestinian rights no matter what the world thinks. The New York Times reports:

"As the U.N. General Assembly voted... Israel took steps toward building housing in a controversial area of East Jerusalem known as E1, where Jewish settlements have long been seen as the death knell for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

The U.S. coerced Canada and a handful of tiny countries to vote against Palestine, and moved quickly afterwards to roadblock their path to membership in the International Criminal Court. ICC access to bring Israel to trial for war crimes and illegal settlements is one of the primary Western concerns about UN status for Palestine. As Vijay Prashad said, "Pressure on, despite deals, for Palestine to join ICC. Symbolic steps, moth eaten steps are sometimes still useful platforms for new struggles, in the context of colonial domination."

 

U.S. TO ISRAEL: STILL BFFS, BUT WATCH IT

Netanyahu may have backed the wrong horse in the U.S. elections, but whatever friction exists between Obama and Bibi didn't stop the U.S. from backing increased Israeli belligerence. Obama was not referring to Palestine, Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia when he sprang to Israel's defense and declared: "There's no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders." Post-ceasefire, the administration promised to seek more funding for Iron Dome and linked the need for calm to the cessation of Hamas rocket-fire, saying nothing about Israeli shootings. Still, the administration did push for a ceasefire proposal more to Egypt's and Hamas' liking than Israel's, which may indicate that there are fissures in the current U.S.-Israel relationship that could be widened and taken advantage of if sufficient pressure could be brought to bear for a shift in U.S. policy.

Those cracks exist against the background of Israel abandoning even a pretense of democracy or equal treatment of Palestinians anywhere within historic Palestine. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman continues to shop the racially coded idea of "Israel is Europe" and has declared outright that it is more important for Israel to be "Jewish" than "democratic."

Such actions – on top of the continuous expansion of settlements – are accelerating Israel's international isolation, as the overwhelming vote at the U.N. ("We lost Europe" said a top Israeli official) indicated. They also are making it harder and harder for Israel's apologists in the U.S. to counter the human rights and equality arguments of the Palestine solidarity movement.

 

MILITARIZED RACISM: PARALLELS BETWEEN SETTLER STATES

Israeli Minister of the Interior Eli Yishai promised "to destroy the water and electricity infrastructure, the roads, the transportation and communications, and send Gaza back to the Middle Ages." Only a few months ago, Israel threatened to take Iran back to the Stone Age. We know where Israel got this language, dressing the threats of massacre in a "clash of the civilizations" framework of empire.

In 2006, just before the Israel's Second Lebanon War, the Wall Street Journalcritiqued U.S. so-called restraint in Iraq. They exhumed the 1968 phrase "bomb Vietnam back to the Stone Age," and claimed "white guilt" led to fear of looking like an empire and restrained Washington from utterly destroying a country of sanctions-impoverished brown people.

This thinking taps into deep roots in the history of both Israel and the U.S. as countries founded on settler colonialism, and the way this history shapes both societies to this day. Fighting the erasure of history in the U.S. national narrative is an important component of challenging dehumanizing treatment of indigenous peoples who refuse to go gently into the night. Until more people in the U.S. understand and address our own settler reality, calls to champion Israeli 'self-defense' against the 'savages' surrounding it will be taken as the 'common sense' of U.S. political discourse.

At the same time, U.S. grassroots outpourings of solidarity with Palestine are increasing. Veterans for Peace appealed directly to IDF members to "Rejoin the 'beloved community' of world citizens who recognize the sanctity of all human life. Reject the immoral orders of those who would send you to do their bloody bidding. Refuse orders to attack Gaza." In Israel, at least one person chose military jail over service -19 year old Natan Blanc publicly refused induction a week into the attacks. Israeli war resister organizations often grown at moments like this: Yesh Gvul - There is a Limit - was launched in 1982 by combat veterans who refused to serve in the Lebanon War; Courage to Refuse began soon after the second intifada; Breaking the Silence, founded in 2004, took off in 2009 when Operation Cast Lead veterans testified about war crimes.

And with a grassroots petition effort spurring Stevie Wonder to back out of a benefit for the IDF, momentum for BDS – and its resonance with the anti-apartheid fights of the 1980s – will only increase. It's clear that Israel's colonial project has a shelf date.

 

SHOCKWAVES IN THE SHATTERBELT – AND BEYOND

The Arab Spring is far from over - this shatterbelt is trembling. Sunni-Shia tensions and anti/pro-Western alignments throughout this region already have millions of ordinary folks struggling with daily instability. Even larger explosions remain a danger to the region and the world.

In Egypt, President Morsi emerged with new prestige from brokering the Israel-Hamas ceasefire – but then attempted to write himself powers beyond Mubarak's. Within the week, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians retook the streets to remind him that they didn't overthrow Mubarak just to get a new dictator. It now appears Morsi is backing away from the extremes of his initial decree.

Blood spilled in Syria's civil war is seeping across borders. Lebanon is on the edge. Last month's car bomb in Beirut killing an anti-Assad Lebanese intelligence official set off another round of clashes between Lebanese pro-Assad and pro-opposition factions. Ever-increasing numbers of refugees face shrinking options. Latest reports indicate the U.S. is considering deeper involvement – perhaps officially recognizing the new opposition coalition as some major European countries have, or supplying arms to anti-Assad fighters. Worries are being expressed in many quarters that if fighting escalates further, especially near the Syria-Turkish border, things could develop into a full-scale regional war.

Such dangers are inherent in times when old orders are being shattered and mass grassroots justice movements have not yet created the kinds of broad organizations, inclusive political platforms and internationalist links required to go beyond dictators' downfalls to ensure new democratic political-economic structures.

But the seeds of that leap are now visible. Millions of working-class and poor people around the world are demanding dignity and human rights. Not only are Palestinians resisting occupation and Egyptians continuing their revolution. Europe's massive anti-austerity movement increased its organization, with November 14 becoming the first pan-Continental general strike, coordinating through union bodies including the 85-organization, 60 million member European Trade Union Confederation. Battles for democracy rage from Myanmar to Bahrain. Here in the U.S., some significant struggles are rising from below: the Wal-Mart living wage campaign is rippling out, with striking fast-food workers walking out of dozens of chain stores in NYC a week after the historic Black Friday Wal-mart strike at a thousand stores.

Major victories against racism and colonization were struck this month. And although the road ahead is long and challenging, today people in Gaza are celebrating an official recognition by the world of the most basic fact of their long-denied existence, instead of running from bombs.

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