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Interview with Avi Shlaim:Israel’s “State Terror” in Gaza

Introduction by Lincoln Shlensky

Israeli historian Avi Shlaim, in an audio/video interview (also transcribed) with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, breaks down the responsibility for the current war in Gaza and clarifies the definition of “terror” as a term that should be applied both to Hamas and Israel.  Based on Israeli Ministry of Defense statistics and public news reports, he refutes the “pack of lies” that makes Hamas primarily responsible for having violated the ceasefire.  He contends that “the current vicious Israeli onslaught on the people of Gaza is the climax of this longstanding Israeli policy of shunning diplomacy and relying on brute military force.”

While defending Zionism as a legitimate national liberation movement, Shlaim nevertheless “reject[s] totally, absolutely and uncompromisingly . . . the Zionist colonial project beyond the 1967 borders.”  In the context of the Greater Israel religious/ideological movement that has flourished since the early 1970s, Shlaim points out that “Gaza [is] a classic example of exploitation, of colonial exploitation in the postcolonial era.”

Hamas, in this view, has been doubly abetted by Israel: first, Israel encouraged the growth of the Islamic Resistance Movement in the late 1980s as part of a divide and conquer strategy, and second, Israel undermined Arafat’s Fatah party as the 1993 Oslo accords delivered nothing to the Palestinians that would have shown the value of compromising with Israel.  Now Israel is attempting to decimate and extirpate a Hamas government that was elected democratically and that had demonstrated increasing signs of moderation since taking political control of Gaza.  The military attacks are a dead end strategy for Israel, Shlaim maintains; only negotiations will prove decisive.  Shlaim is still hopeful that the incoming American administration can sponsor such negotiations, even though he is concerned about President-elect Obama’s unexplained reticence during this crisis.

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Dissenting Perspective by Joel Beinin

Avi Shlaim is a leading member of the Israeli “new historians” school.  His interview with Amy Goodman is very clear about the current situation in Gaza and on most matters relating to the Arab-Israeli conflict since 1967.  But his comments on Israel’s defensive stance towards its Arab neighbors from 1949 to 1967 are sharply contradicted by his own writing and evidence in his excellent book, The Iron Wall (and also in Benny Morris, Israel’s Border Wars).

He also has an overly optimistic judgment about the possibilities for a Palestinian state following the 1993 Oslo Declaration of Principles.  He attributes the failure of Oslo to Bibi Netanyahu, who became Israeli Prime Minister in 1996.  But Shlomo Ben-Ami, who was present at the failed 2000 Camp David summit and who served as the last Foreign Minister under Prime Minister Ehud Barak, is very clear in his own book, Scars of War, Wounds of Peace, that it was “a failure written into the genetic code of Oslo.” Even if one doesn’t want to go that far, the platform of the Labor Party, which was in power until 1996, did not support a Palestinian state until just before it lost the 1996 elections to Netanyahu and the Likud.  So it was hardly obvious that Oslo was leading towards a Palestinian state when Labor and Rabin and then Peres were in office.

Avi’s hopeful view that Barack Obama is going to make a significant difference for Israeli-Palestinian peace is also misleading.  The best that can be hoped for is that President Obama will be more responsive than his predecessor to a mass movement demanding peace.  His “monitoring” of the situation in Gaza in contrast to his active stance on the economy and even his statements about the Mumbai bombings does not portend significant change coming from the White House, but rather a cautious avoidance of commitment on Israel-Palestine.  Avi Shlaim is an excellent and important historian.  But this isn’t the first time that he has allowed his political hopes to overcome his cooler intellectual judgments.  Antonio Gramsci’s “optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect” is a more appropriate stance.

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Leading Israeli Scholar Avi Shlaim:
Israel Committing “State Terror” in Gaza Attack, Preventing Peace

Play now:

Amy Goodman: Our next guest is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading authorities on the Arab-Israel conflict.  Avi Shlaim served in the Israeli army in the mid-1960s.  He is now a professor of international relations at Oxford University.  In an article in The Guardian newspaper of London, he says he has never questioned the legitimacy of the state of Israel within its pre-1967 borders.  But he says its merciless assault on Gaza has led him to devastating conclusions.  Professor Avi Shlaim is the author of a number of books, most notably The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World.  His latest book is Lion of Jordan: King Hussein’s Life in War and Peace.  Avi Shlaim joins us today from Oxford University in Britain.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!

Avi Shlaim: Thank you.  I’m happy to be on your program in these very sad times.

Amy Goodman: As you look at what’s happening in Gaza from your vantage point, well, many miles away in Britain, can you talk about the kind of trajectory your evaluation has taken, where you started in your thoughts about Israel and where you are now?

Avi Shlaim: As you mentioned, I did national service in the Israeli army in the mid-1960s.  And in those days, Israel was a small state surrounded by enemies, and the nation was united in face of the surrounding Arab states.  We all felt total commitment to the state of Israel and to the defense of the state of Israel.  The Israeli army is called the Israel Defense Forces, and it was true to its name.

But 1967, the war of June 1967, was a major turning point in the history of Israel and the history of the region.  In the course of the war, Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria, the West Bank from Jordan and Sinai from Egypt.  After the war, Israel started building civilian territories in the occupied territories in violation of international law.  So Israel became a colonial power and an imperial power.

And I, for my part, have never questioned the legitimacy of the Zionist movement.  I saw it as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people.  Nor did I ever question the legitimacy of the state of Israel within its pre-1967 borders.  What I reject, what I reject totally, absolutely and uncompromisingly, is the Zionist colonial project beyond the 1967 borders.  So we have to distinguish very clearly between Israel proper, within its pre-1967 borders, and Greater Israel, which began to emerge in the aftermath of the June ’67 war and has completely derailed the Zionist project.

Amy Goodman: And then, specifically talk about Gaza, how it has developed and where it is today, right now under assault by the Israeli military.

Avi Shlaim: In a long-term historical perspective, I would begin with the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.  I wrote a book, which you mentioned in your introduction, called The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World.  It is a history of the Arab-Israeli conflict since 1948.  It’s a very long book, but I can summarize it for you in one sentence, that throughout its sixty years, Israel has been remarkably reluctant to engage in meaningful negotiations with its Arab opponents to resolve the dispute between them and only too ready to resort to military force in order to impose its will upon them.  And the current vicious Israeli onslaught on the people of Gaza is the climax of this longstanding Israeli policy of shunning diplomacy and relying on brute military force.

Amy Goodman: . . . We’ve had a number of debates here on Democracy Now!, Professor Shlaim, over the past weeks about what’s happening in Gaza and those who support the Israeli military continually say that in 2005, three years ago, Israel pulled out of Gaza entirely.  You have a different picture of what happened under Ariel Sharon in August of 2005.  Explain how you see the withdrawal of Israeli military at that time.

Avi Shlaim: President Bush described Ariel Sharon as a man of peace.  I’ve done a great deal of archival research on the Arab-Israeli conflict, and I can honestly tell you that I have never come across a single scintilla of evidence to support the view of Ariel Sharon as a man of peace.  He was a man of war, a champion of violent solutions, a man who rejected totally any Palestinian right to self-determination.  He was a proponent of Greater Israel, and it is in this context that I see his decision to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza in August of 2005.

The withdrawal was officially called the unilateral Israeli disengagement from Gaza.  I would like to underline the word “unilateral.”  Ariel Sharon was the unilateralist par excellence.  The reason he decided to withdraw from Gaza was not out of any concern for the welfare of the people of Gaza or any sympathy for the Palestinians or their national aspirations, but because of the pressure exerted by Hamas, by the Islamic resistance, to the Israeli occupation of Gaza.  In the end, Israel couldn’t sustain the political, diplomatic and psychological costs of maintaining its occupation in Gaza.

And let me add in parentheses that Gaza was a classic example of exploitation, of colonial exploitation in the postcolonial era.  Gaza is a tiny strip of land with about one-and-a-half million Arabs, most of them — half of them refugees.  It’s the most crowded piece of land on God’s earth.  There were 8,000 Israeli settlers in Gaza, yet the 8,000 settlers controlled 25 percent of the territory, 40 percent of the arable land, and the largest share of the desperately scarce water resources.

Ariel Sharon decided to withdraw from Gaza unilaterally, not as a contribution, as he claimed, to a two-state solution.  The withdrawal from Gaza took place in the context of unilateral Israeli action in what was seen as Israeli national interest.  There were no negotiations with the Palestinian Authority on an overall settlement.  The withdrawal from Gaza was not a prelude to further withdrawals from the other occupied territories, but a prelude to further expansion, further consolidation of Israel’s control over the West Bank.  In the year after the withdrawal from Gaza, 12,000 new settlers went to live on the West Bank.  So I see the withdrawal from Gaza in the summer of 2005 as part of a unilateral Israeli attempt to redraw the borders of Greater Israel and to shun any negotiations and compromise with the Palestinian Authority.

Amy Goodman: Professor Avi Shlaim, Israel says the reason it has attacked Gaza is because of the rocket fire, the rockets that Hamas is firing into southern Israel.

Avi Shlaim: This is Israeli propaganda, and it is a pack of lies.  The important thing to remember is that there was a ceasefire brokered by Egypt in July of last year, and that ceasefire succeeded.  So, if Israel wanted to protect its citizens — and it had every right to protect its citizens — the way to go about it was not by launching this vicious military offensive, but by observing the ceasefire.

Now, let me give you some figures, which I think are the most crucial figures in understanding this conflict.  Before the ceasefire came into effect in July of 2008, the monthly number of rockets fired — Kassam rockets, homemade Kassam rockets, fired from the Gaza Strip on Israeli settlements and towns in southern Israel — was 179.  In the first four months of the ceasefire, the number dropped dramatically to three rockets a month, almost zero.  I would like to repeat these figures for the benefit of your listeners.  Pre-ceasefire, 179 rockets were fired on Israel; post-ceasefire, three rockets a month.  This is point number one, and it’s crucial.

And my figures are beyond dispute, because they come from the website of the Israeli Foreign Ministry.  But after initiating this war, this particular table, neat table, which showed the success of the ceasefire, was withdrawn and replaced with another table of statistics, which is much more obscure and confusing.  Israel, the Foreign Ministry, withdrew these figures, because it didn’t suit the new story.

The new story said that Hamas broke the ceasefire.  This is a lie.  Hamas observed the ceasefire as best as it could and enforced it very effectively.  The ceasefire was a stunning success for the first four months.  It was broken not by Hamas, but by the IDF.  It was broken by the IDF on the 4th of November, when it launched a raid into Gaza and killed six Hamas men.

And there is one other point that I would like to make about the ceasefire.  Ever since Hamas captured power in Gaza in the summer of 2007, Israel had imposed a blockade of the Strip.  Israel stopped food, fuel and medical supplies from reaching the Gaza Strip.  One of the terms of the ceasefire was that Israel would lift the blockade of Gaza, yet Israel failed to lift the blockade, and that is one issue that is also overlooked or ignored by official Israeli spokesmen.  So Israel was doubly guilty of sabotaging the ceasefire, A, by launching a military attack, and B, by maintaining its very cruel siege of the people of Gaza.

Amy Goodman: Israel calls Hamas “terrorist.”  What is your definition of “terror”?

Avi Shlaim: My definition of “terror” is the use of violence against civilians for political purposes.  And by this definition, Hamas is a terrorist organization.  But by the same token, Israel is practicing state terror, because it is using violence on a massive scale against Palestinian civilians for political purposes.  I don’t hold a brief for Hamas.  Hamas is not a paragon of virtue.  Its leaders are not angels.  They harm civilians indiscriminately.  Killing civilians is wrong, period.  That applies to Hamas, and it applies equally to the state of Israel.

But there are two points I would like to make about Hamas, and that is — the first point is that it was elected in a fair and free election in January 2006.  It was an impeccable election, monitored by a number of international observers, including President Jimmy Carter.  So it is not just a terrorist organization.  It is a democratically elected government of the Palestinian people and the representative of the Palestinian people in Gaza, as well as the West Bank.

And the second point that I would like to make is that since coming to power, Gaza has moderated its political program.  Its charter is extreme.  Its charter denies the legitimacy of a Jewish state.  The charter calls for an Islamic state over the whole of historic Palestine.  The charter has not been revised, but since coming to power, the leadership of Hamas has been much more pragmatic and stated that it is willing to negotiate a long-term ceasefire with the state of Israel for twenty, thirty, forty, maybe even fifty years.

Thirdly, Hamas joined with Fatah, the rival group, the mainstream group, on the West Bank in a national unity government in the summer of 2007.  That national unity government lasted only three months.  Israel, with American support, helped to sabotage and to bring down that national unity government.  Israel refused to deal with a Palestinian government which included Hamas within it.  And shamefully, both the United States and the European Union joined Israel in this refusal to recognize a Hamas-dominated government, and Israel withdrew tax revenues, and European Union withdrew foreign aid, in a shameful attempt to bring down a democratically elected government.

So, I do not defend Hamas, but I think that it hasn’t received a fair hearing from the international community, and Israel has done everything to sabotage it all along.

Amy Goodman: Professor Shlaim, you say it’s done everything to sabotage it, except at the beginning, when you say it supported Hamas to weaken Fatah, which it now supports.

Avi Shlaim: Indeed, Israel has always played the game of divide and rule.  This is a very good tactic in times of war, to divide your enemies and pick them off one by one.  No one can complain about that.  But divide and rule isn’t a good tactic in times of peace.  If your aim is to achieve peace with the Arabs, then you should want unity among the Palestinians and unity in the Arab world.  But Israel continued to play this game of divide and rule.

Hamas emerged in the course of the First Intifada in the late 1980s.  It is the Islamic Resistance Movement.  The mainstream movement, Fatah, was led by Yasser Arafat.  And Israel gave tacit encouragement and support to the Islamic resistance in the hope of weakening the secular nationalists led by Yasser Arafat.  It was a dangerous game to play, because the end result of this game was that Hamas emerged as the strongest Palestinian political party.

And Israel helped Hamas inadvertently in another way, because Fatah signed the Oslo Accord with Israel in 1993.  It expected the Oslo Accord to lead to a two-state solution.  And yet, Israel, after the election of Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996, reneged on the Israeli side of the deal.  So, the Oslo Accord, the Oslo peace process wasn’t doomed to failure from the start.  It failed because Israel, under the leadership of the Likud, reneged on its side of the deal.  So that left the Palestinians with nothing but misery and poverty and frustration and ever-growing Israeli settlements on the land.  And it was this context that led to the success of Hamas at the last elections.  So Israel has a lot to explain in the rise to power of the Hamas movement.

Amy Goodman: Professor Avi Shlaim, we only have a minute, but I want to ask you where you see the solution at this point.  Barack Obama will be president on Tuesday in just a few days.  Hillary Clinton will be Secretary of State.

Avi Shlaim: The solution — this is a political conflict, and there is no military solution to this conflict.  The only solution lies in negotiations between Israel and Hamas about all the issues involved.  President-elect Obama is a very impressive man and a very intelligent man and a very fair-minded man.  He hasn’t demonstrated any courage in the course of this crisis.  He hasn’t taken any position.  He hasn’t called for an immediate ceasefire.  So the first step is an immediate ceasefire, and the next step would be negotiations between all the sides about restoring the ceasefire and then moving on to stage two, which is a political settlement to this tragic hundred-year-old conflict.

Amy Goodman: And Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, who said in her confirmation hearing yesterday she wouldn’t negotiate with Hamas?

Avi Shlaim: Yes, but there are other signs from the Obama campaign that they would be willing to consider low-level, indirect contacts with Hamas.  And one has to be grateful for small mercies, so small, minor, low-level contacts with Hamas could lead to a proper dialog in due course.  So I remain optimistic that sanity and rationality would take over in American foreign policy after the dreadful last eight years.

Amy Goodman: Professor Avi Shlaim, thank you very much for being with us.  That’s Professor Avi Shlaim, professor of international relations at Oxford University, served in the Israeli military — among his books, Lion of Jordan: King Hussein’s Life in War and Peace — known as one of the leading authorities in the world on the Israel-Palestine conflict and Arab-Israel conflict.  Among his other books, The Iron Wall.


Amy Goodman’s interview with Avi Shlaim was broadcast by Democracy Now! on 14 January 2009.  The text of the interview above is an excerpt from the transcript provided by Democracy Now!  The introduction by Avi Shlaim and the dissenting perspective by Joel Beinin first appeared in Jewish Peace News on 16 January 2009 and it is reproduced here for educational purposes.


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