Q: How would you assess the Israeli and U.S. responses to the election of Hamas, and to the ensuing conflicts in Gaza and Lebanon?
Noam Chomsky: The U.S. response reveals, once again, that the United States supports democracy if and only if it conforms to U.S. strategic and economic objectives.
Perhaps it would be useful to review some highlights since Hamas was elected in late January 2006.
On February 12, the statements of Osama bin Laden were reviewed in the New York Times by NYU law professor Noah Feldman. He described bin Laden's descent into utter barbarism, reaching the depths when he advanced "the perverse claim that since the United States is a democracy, all citizens bear responsibility for its government's actions, and civilians are therefore fair targets." Utter depravity, no doubt. Two days later, the lead story in the Times casually reported that the United States and Israel are joining bin Laden in the lower depths of depravity. Palestinians offended the masters by voting the wrong way in a free election. The population must therefore be punished for this crime. The "intention," the correspondent observed, "is to starve the Palestinian Authority of money and international connections" so that President Mahmoud Abbas will be "compelled to call a new election. The hope is that Palestinians will be so unhappy with life under Hamas that they will return to office a reformed and chastened Fatah movement." Mechanisms of punishment of the population are outlined. The article also reports that Condoleezza Rice will visit the oil producers to ensure that they do not relieve the torture of the Palestinians. In short, bin Laden's a "perverse claim"; but when the United States advances the claim, it is not ultimate evil but rather righteous dedication to "democracy promotion."1
These paired articles elicited no comment that I could discover. Also overlooked was the fact that bin Laden's "perverse claim" is standard operating procedure. Familiar examples are "making the economy scream" when Chileans had the effrontery to elect Salvador Allende -- the "soft track"; the "hard track" brought Pinochet. Another pertinent illustration is the U.S.-UK sanctions regime that murdered hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, devastated the country, and probably saved Saddam Hussein from the fate of other monsters like him (often supported by the United States and Britain to the very end). Not quite bin Laden's doctrine; rather, much more perverse, not only in terms of scale but also because Iraqis could not by any stretch of the imagination be held responsible for Saddam Hussein.
The most venerable illustration is Washington's forty-seven-year campaign of terror and economic strangulation against Cuba. From the internal record, we learn that the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations determined that "[t]he Cuban people are responsible for the regime," so they must be punished with the expectation that "[r]ising discomfort among hungry Cubans" will cause them to throw Castro out (JFK). The State Department advised that "[e]very possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba [in order to] bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of the government."2 The doctrine remains in force.
Without continuing, we find ample evidence that it is no departure from the norm to adopt bin Laden's most perverse claim in order to punish Palestinians for their democratic misdeeds.
The United States and Israel then proceeded to implement their "intention," with scrupulous care. Thus, for example, an EU proposal to provide some desperately needed aid for health care was stalled when U.S. "officials expressed concerns that some of this money might end up paying nurses, doctors, teachers and others previously on the government payroll, thereby helping to finance Hamas." Another achievement of the "war on terror." With U.S. backing, Israel also continued its terrorist atrocities and other crimes in Gaza and the West Bank -- in some cases, perhaps, in an attempt to induce Hamas to violate its embarrassing cease-fire, so that Israel could respond in "self-defense," another familiar pattern.3
In May 2006, Israeli Prime Minister Olmert announced his plan to formalize Sharon's West Bank expansion programs, which were announced along with the "Gaza disengagement." Olmert chose the term "convergence" ("hitkansut") as a euphemism for annexation of valuable land and resources (including water) of the West Bank, programs designed to break the continually shrinking Palestinian areas into separated cantons, virtually isolated from one another and from whatever corner of Jerusalem will be left to Palestinians, all imprisoned as Israel takes over the Jordan valley and controls air space and any external access. In a stunning public relations triumph, Olmert won praise for his courage in "withdrawing" from the West Bank as he put the finishing touches on the project of destroying any hope for recognition of Palestinian national rights. We were enjoined to lament the "anguish" of the residents of scattered settlements that would be abandoned as they "converge" into the territories illegally annexed behind the cruel and illegal "Separation Wall." All of this proceeds, as usual, with a kindly nod from Washington, which is expected to fork up the billions of dollars needed to carry out the plans, though there are occasional admonitions that the destruction of Palestine should not be "unilateral": It would be preferable for President Mahmoud Abbas to sign a surrender declaration, in which case everything would be just fine.
The people of Gaza and the West Bank are supposed to observe all of this submissively, rotting in their virtual prisons. Otherwise they are sadistic terrorists.
The latest phase began on June 24, when the Israeli army kidnapped two civilians, a doctor and his brother, from their home in Gaza. They were "detained" according to brief notes in the British press. The U.S. media mostly preferred silence.4 They will presumably join the 9,000 other Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, 1,000 reportedly in prison without charges, hence kidnapped -- as were many of the rest, in that they were sentenced by Israeli courts, which are a disgrace, harshly condemned by legal commentators in Israel. Among them are hundreds of women and children, their numbers and fate of little interest. Also of little interest are Israel's secret prisons. The Israeli press reported that these have been "the entry gate to Israel for Lebanese, especially those who were suspected of membership in Hezbollah, who were transferred to the southern side of the border," some captured in battle in Lebanon, others "abducted at Israel's initiative" and sometimes held as hostages, with torture under interrogation. The secret Camp 1391, possibly one of several, was discovered accidentally in 2003, since forgotten.5
The next day, June 25, Palestinians kidnapped an Israeli soldier just across the border from Gaza. That did happen, very definitely. Every literate reader also knows the name of corporal Gilad Shalit, and wants him released. The nameless kidnapped Gaza civilians are ignored; international law, while rightly insisting that captured soldiers be treated humanely, absolutely prohibits the extrajudicial seizure of civilians. Israel responded by "bombing and shelling, darkening and destroying, imposing a siege and kidnapping like the worst of terrorists and nobody breaks the silence to ask, what the hell for, and according to what right?" as the fine Israeli journalist Gideon Levy wrote, adding that "[a] state that takes such steps is no longer distinguishable from a terror organization." Israel also kidnapped a large part of the Palestinian government, destroyed most of the Gaza electrical and water systems, and committed numerous other crimes. These acts of collective punishment, condemned by Amnesty International as "war crimes," compounded the punishment of Palestinians for having voted the wrong way. Within a few days, UN agencies working in Gaza warned of a "public health disaster" as a result of developments "which have seen innocent civilians, including children, killed, brought increased misery to hundreds of thousands of people and which will wreak far-reaching harm on Palestinian society. An already alarming situation in Gaza, with poverty rates at nearly eighty per cent and unemployment at nearly forty per cent, is likely to deteriorate rapidly, unless immediate and urgent action is taken."6
The pretext for punishing Palestinians is that Hamas refuses to accept three demands: to recognize Israel, cease all acts of violence, and accept earlier agreements. The editors of the New York Times instruct Hamas leaders that they must accept the "ground rules that have already been accepted by Egypt and Jordan and by the Arab League as a whole in its 2002 Beirut peace initiative" and, furthermore, that they must do so "not as some kind of ideological concession" but "as an admission ticket to the real world, a necessary rite of passage in the progression from a lawless opposition to a lawful government" -- like us.7
Unmentioned is that Israel and the United States flatly reject all of these conditions. They do not recognize Palestine; they refused to end their violence even when Hamas observed a unilateral truce for a year and a half and called for a long-term truce while negotiations proceed for a two-state settlement; and they dismissed with utter contempt the 2002 Arab League call for normalization of relations, along with all other proposals for a meaningful diplomatic settlement. Even when it accepted the "Road Map" that is supposed to define U.S. policy, Israel added fourteen "reservations" that rendered it entirely meaningless, eliciting the usual tacit approval in Washington and silence in commentary.8
The Hamas electoral victory was eagerly exploited by the United States and Israel. Previously, they had to pretend that there was "no partner" for negotiations, so they had no choice but to continue their project of taking over the West Bank, as they had been doing systematically since the Oslo Accords were signed (extending earlier actions). The pace of settlement peaked in 2000, the last year of Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, then escalated under Bush-Sharon. With Hamas in office, Olmert and his cohorts can lament that there is "no partner." Therefore, they must proceed with annexation and destruction of Palestine, counting on articulate Western opinion to applaud politely, perhaps with mild reservations about unilateral "convergence," and to suppress the fact that while Hamas's programs are in many respects entirely unacceptable, their own are comparable or much worse, and are not just rhetoric: They are systematically implementing their denial of any meaningful Palestinian rights, a crucial difference.
The next act in this hideous drama opened on July 12, when Hezbollah launched a raid in which it captured two Israeli soldiers and killed several others, leading to an all-out Israeli attack, killing hundreds and destroying much of what Lebanon has painfully reconstructed from the wreckage of its civil wars and the Israeli invasions. Whatever its motives, Hezbollah took a frightful gamble, for which Lebanon would surely pay dearly. Here we see the danger of processes that have led to the rise of "parallel or alternative leaderships that can protect [civilian populations] and deliver essential services" with their own military wings, as veteran Middle East correspondent Rami Khouri has noted.9
On the motives, analysts differ. "Hezbollah's official line," the Financial Times reports, "was that the capture was aimed at winning the release of the few remaining Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails. But the timing and scale of its attack suggest it was partly intended to reduce the pressure on the Palestinians by forcing Israel to fight on two fronts simultaneously." Many agree, recalling Hezbollah's reaction to the outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada in September 2000 -- when it seized soldiers in a cross-border raid that led to a prisoner exchange -- as well as its response to Israel's devastating attacks in the West Bank in 2002 (Amos Harel).10 Others highlight the prisoner motive, which is also suggested by the exchange in 2000, by the fact that Hezbollah had attempted capture of soldiers before the recent crisis, and by the matter of Israel's secret prisons, mentioned earlier. Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a Lebanese academic specialist on Hezbollah, regards the Gaza connection as primary, but argues that one should not ignore "the domestic significance of these hostages."11
Still others regard Iran and/or Syria as the main actors. Many experts and Iranian dissidents disagree, though few doubt that Iran and Syria authorized Hezbollah's actions. Most Arab rulers place the blame on Iran. At an emergency Arab League summit, they were willing "to openly defy Arab public opinion" because of their concerns about Iranian influence. One Dubai military specialist commented that the Iranians, by means of Hezbollah, "are embarrassing the hell out of the Arab governments," who are doing nothing while "[t]he peace process has collapsed, the Palestinians are being killed. . . . And here comes Hezbollah, which is actually scoring hits against Israel." The criticism of Hezbollah was opposed by Syria, Yemen, Algeria, and Lebanon; the Iraqi parliament, "in a rare show of unity," condemned the Israeli attack as "criminal aggression," and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose designation Washington applauded, "call[ed] on the world to take quick stands to stop the Israeli aggression." The fact that most Arab leaders, however, are willing to "defy public opinion" may have large-scale regional implications, strengthening radical Islamist groups. It is noteworthy that the "Supreme Guide" of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Mahdi Akef, sharply condemned the Arab states. "The Brotherhood would win a comfortable majority" in a free election in Egypt, according to Middle East scholar Fawwaz Gerges, and has broad influence elsewhere, including with Hamas, one of its offshoots.12
A broader analysis is suggested by retired colonel Pat Lang, former head of the Middle East and terrorism desk at the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency: "This is basically tribal warfare. If you have someone who's hostile to you and you're unwilling to accept a temporary truce, as Hamas offered, then you have to destroy them. The Israeli response is so disproportionate to the abduction of the three men it appears it's a rather clever excuse designed to appeal both to their public and to the U.S." 13
Speculation about motives and conflicting factors should not blind us to the tragedy that is unfolding. Lebanon is being destroyed, Israel's Gaza prison is suffering still more savage blows, and on the West Bank, mostly out of sight, the United States and Israel are consummating their project of the murder of a nation, a grim and rare event in history.
These actions, and the Western response, illustrate all too clearly the amalgam of savage cruelty, self-righteousness, and injured innocence that is so deeply rooted in the imperial mentality as to be beyond awareness. One can easily understand why Gandhi, when asked what he thought of Western civilization, is alleged to have said that he thought it might be a good idea.
-- July 20, 2006
1. Noah Feldman, "Becoming bin Laden" (review of Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden), New York Times Book Review, February 12, 2006, p. 12; Steven Erlanger, "U.S. and Israelis Are Said to Talk of Hamas Ouster," New York Times, February 14, 2006, p. A1.
2. Louis Pérez, "Fear and Loathing of Fidel Castro: Sources of U.S. Policy Toward Cuba," Journal of Latin American Studies 34, no. 2 (May 2002), pp. 227–254.
3. Steven R. Weisman, "Europe Plan to Aid Palestinians Stalls Over U.S. Salary Sanctions," New York Times, June 15, 2006, p. A10. See also Tanya Reinhart, "A Week of Israeli Restraint," Yediot Ahronot, June 21, 2006. A striking illustration of this pattern is the intense (and failed) effort to elicit Palestinian violence to justify the planned 1982 invasion. Palestinian violence does continue, however, notably in the form of Qassam rocket attacks from Gaza by groups that refused to accept the Hamas truce -- actions both criminal and foolish.
4. Jonathan Cook, "The British Media and the Invasion of Gaza," Medialens (UK), June 30, 2006; Josh Brannon, "IDF Commandos Enter Gaza, Capture Two Hamas Terrorists," Jerusalem Post, June 25, 2006; Ken Ellingwood, "2 Palestinians Held in Israel's First Arrest Raid in Gaza Since Pullout," Los Angeles Times, June 25, 2006, p. A20. Apart from the Los Angeles Times, there were only a few marginal words in the Baltimore Sun (June 25) and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (June 25). Moreover, no mainstream media source chose to refer to this event when discussing Shalit's capture. The only serious coverage I know of in the English-language press appeared in the Turkish Daily News (June 25). (Database search by David Peterson.)
5. Aviv Lavie, "Inside Israel's Secret Prison," Ha'aretz, August 22, 2003; Jonathan Cook, "Facility 1391: Israel's Guantanamo," Le Monde Diplomatique, November 2003; Chris McGreal, "Facility 1391: Israel's Secret Prison," Guardian, November 14, 2003, p. 2.
6. Gideon Levy, "A Black Flag," Ha'aretz, July 2, 2006; Christopher Gunness, "Statements by the United Nations Agencies Working in the Occupied Palestinian Territory," July 8, 2006; Amnesty International press release, "Israel/Occupied Territories: Deliberate Attacks a War Crime," AI Index: MDE 15/061/2006 (Public), News Service No. 169, June 30, 2006.