Tanya Reinhart: Always-the victim – Israel’s present wars

By Tanya Reinhart, State of Nature – September-October 2006

Tanya Reinhart

Tanya Reinhart

“It was possible for Israel to handle this incident as all its predecessors, with at most a local retaliation, or a prisoner exchange, or even better, with an attempt to solve this border dispute once and for all.”

In the Israeli discourse, Israel has always been the innocent victim of vicious aggression from its neighbors. This perception of reality has only intensified with its two recent wars – against the Palestinians in Gaza and against Lebanon. On this view, in both cases Israel has manifested its good will – it ended the occupation of the Gaza strip in 2005, just as it ended the occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000. But, on this perception, the other side reciprocated with unprovoked rockets attacks on Israel. This world view was well summarized by Brigadier General Yossi Kuperwasser, who has just finished his term as head of the research division of the Israeli Military Intelligence: “I think the Palestinians themselves do not want the occupation to end. This is to understand why they are pursuing us with rockets from Gaza, where the occupation ended. What is this pursuit? An attempt to force us to shoot at them?” [1]

To intensify the similarity between the two wars, both are perceived as having started with the capturing of Israeli soldiers, by Hamas, on June 28, and by Hezbollah, on July 12. Nevertheless, in both cases, the Israeli perception of the events has very little basis in reality.

The Israeli army’s offensive in Gaza is not about the Israeli soldier captured there. As senior security analyst Alex Fishman widely reported, the army was preparing for an attack months earlier and was constantly pushing for it, with the goal of destroying the Hamas infrastructure and its government. The army initiated an escalation on 8 June when it assassinated Abu Samhadana, a senior appointee of the Hamas government, and intensified its shelling of civilians in the Gaza Strip. Governmental authorization for action on a larger scale was already given by 12 June, but it was postponed in the wake of a global reverberation caused by the killing of civilians in the air force bombing the next day. The abduction of the soldier released the safety-catch, and the operation began on 28 June with the destruction of infrastructure in Gaza and the mass detention of the Hamas leadership in the West Bank, which was also planned weeks in advance. [2]

As obvious in Kuperwasser’s words, the Israeli narrative is that when Israel evacuated its settlers from the Gaza Strip, it has also ended its occupation there and the Palestinians’ behavior therefore constitutes ingratitude. But there is nothing further from reality than this description. In fact, as was already stipulated in the Disengagement Plan, Gaza remained under complete Israeli military control, operating from outside. Israel prevented any possibility of economic independence for the Strip and from the very beginning; Israel did not implement a single one of the clauses of the agreement on border-crossings of November 2005. Israel simply substituted the expensive occupation of Gaza with a cheap occupation, one which in Israel’s view exempts it from the occupier’s responsibility to maintain the Strip, and from concern for the welfare and the lives of its close to a million and a half residents, as determined in the fourth Geneva Convention.

Israel does not need this piece of land, one of the most densely populated in the world, and lacking any natural resources. The problem is that one cannot let Gaza free, if one wants to keep the West Bank. A third of the occupied Palestinians live in the Gaza strip. If they were given freedom, they would become the center of the Palestinian struggle for liberation, with free access to the Western and Arab world. To control the West Bank, Israel needs full control of Gaza. The new form of control Israel has developed is turning the whole of the Strip into a prison camp completely sealed off from the world.

Besieged occupied people with nothing to hope for, and no alternative means of political struggle, will always seek ways to fight their oppressor. The imprisoned Gaza Palestinians found a way to disturb the life of the Israelis in the vicinity of the Strip, by launching home-made Qassam rockets across the Gaza wall against Israeli towns bordering the Strip. These primitive rockets lack the precision to focus on a target, and have rarely caused Israeli casualties; they do however cause physical and psychological damage and seriously disturb life in the targeted Israeli neighborhoods. In the eyes of many Palestinians, the Qassams are a response to the war Israel has declared on them. As a student from Gaza said to the New York Times, “Why should we be the only ones who live in fear? With these rockets, the Israelis feel fear, too. We will have to live in peace together, or live in fear together.” [3]

The mightiest army in the Middle East has no military answer to these home-made rockets. One answer that presents itself is what Hamas has been proposing all along – a comprehensive cease-fire. Hamas has proven already that it can keep its word. In January 2005, Hamas announced its resolution to replace armed struggle with political struggle and agreed to a unilateral ceasefire (“tahdiya” – calm). In the 18 months since then, Hamas has not perpetrated a single terror attack. According to security sources, since the Palestinian election, Hamas has not even participated in the launching of Qassam rockets from Gaza, most of which are carried out by small factions of Fatah. [4] Exceptions to this occurred only under severe Israeli provocation, as happened in the June escalation. However, Hamas remains committed to political struggle against the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. In Israel’s view, the Palestinian election result is a disaster, because for the first time they have a leadership that insists on representing Palestinian interests rather than just collaborating with Israel’s demands.

Since ending the occupation is the one thing Israel is not willing to consider, the option promoted by the army has been breaking the Palestinians by devastating brutal force. They should be starved, bombarded, terrorized with sonic booms for months, until they understand that rebelling is futile, and accepting prison life is their only hope for staying alive. Their elected political system, institutions and police should be destroyed. In Israel’s vision, Gaza should be ruled by gangs collaborating with the prison wards.

The Israeli army is hungry for war. It would not let concerns for captive soldiers stand in its way. Since 2002 the army has argued that an “operation” along the lines of “Defensive Shield” in Jenin was also necessary in Gaza. As documented in detail in my Road Map to Nowhere, [5] on July 15, 2005 (before the Disengagement), the army concentrated forces on the border of the Strip for an offensive of this scale on Gaza. But then the USA imposed a veto. Rice arrived for an emergency visit that was described as acrimonious and stormy, and the army was forced to back down. [6] Now, the time has finally come. With the Islamophobia of the American Administration at a high point, it appears that the USA is prepared to authorize such an operation, on the sole condition that it not provoke a global outcry with excessively-reported attacks on civilians. [7]

If, after 40 years of occupying the Palestinian territories, Israel can still perceive itself as the victim of Palestinian aggression, it is not surprising that this feeling is dominant also on its second front in Lebanon. On this front, it is easier to understand how this perception came about, because the residents of the North of Israel were in shelters for over a month, bombarded and endangered. Israel’s claim, backed by the U.S., that no country would let such an attack on its residents go unanswered, finds many sympathetic ears. But let us reconstruct exactly how it all started.

On Wednesday, July 12, a Hezbollah unit attacked two armored Jeeps of the Israeli army, patrolling along Israel’s border with Lebanon. Three Israeli soldiers were killed in the attack and two were taken hostage. As a distraction, Hizbollah also fired Katyusha rockets close to the border, which obstructed the Israeli army’s awareness of the attack on the patrol. In a news conference held in Beirut a couple of hours later, Hezbollah’s leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah explained that their aim was to reach a prisoner exchange, where in return for the two captured Israeli soldiers, Israel would return three Lebanese prisoners it had refused to release in a previous prisoner exchange. Nasrallah declared that “he did not want to drag the region into war”, but added that “our current restraint is not due to weakness… if they [Israel] choose to confront us, they must be prepared for surprises.” [8]

The Israeli government, however, did not give a single moment for diplomacy, negotiations, or even cool reflection over the situation. In a cabinet meeting that same day, it authorized a massive offensive on Lebanon. As Ha’aretz reported: “In a sharp departure from Israel’s response to previous Hezbollah attacks, the cabinet session unanimously agreed that the Lebanese government should be held responsible for yesterday’s events.” Olmert declared: “This morning’s events are not a terror attack, but the act of a sovereign state that attacked Israel for no reason and without provocation.” He added that “the Lebanese government, of which Hezbollah is a part, is trying to undermine regional stability. Lebanon is responsible, and Lebanon will bear the consequences of its actions.” [9]

At the cabinet meeting, “the IDF recommended various operations aimed at the Lebanese government and strategic targets in Lebanon”, as well as a comprehensive attack on southern Lebanon (where Hezbollah’s batteries of rockets are concentrated). The government immediately approved both recommendations. The spirit of the cabinet’s decision was succinctly summarized by Defense Minister Amir Perertz who said: “We’re skipping the stage of threats and going straight to action.” [10]

At 21.50 that same day, Ha’aretz internet edition reported that by that time Israel had already bombarded bridges in central Lebanon and attacked “Hezbollah’s posts” in southern Lebanon. [11] Amnesty International’s press release of the next day (13 July 2006) stated that in these attacks “some 40 Lebanese civilians have reportedly been killed… Among the Lebanese victims were a family of ten, including eight children, who were killed in Dweir village, near Nabatiyeh, and a family of seven, including a seven-month-old baby, who were killed in Baflay village near Tyre. More than 60 other civilians were injured in these or other attacks.”

It was at that point, early on Wednesday night, following the first Israeli attack, that Hezbollah started its rocket attack on the north of Israel. Later the same night (before the dawn of Thursday), Israel launched its first attack on Beirut, when Israeli warplanes bombed Beirut’s international airport and killed at least 27 Lebanese civilians in a series of raids. In response, Hezbollah’s rocket attacks intensified on Thursday, when “more than 100 Katyusha rockets were fired into Israel from Lebanon in the largest attack of its sort since the start of the Lebanon War in 1982”. Two Israeli civilians were killed in this attack, and 132 were taken to the hospital . [12] When Israel started destroying the Shiite quarters of Beirut the following day, including a failed attempt on Nasrallah’s life, Hezbollah extended its rockets attacks to Haifa.

The way it started, there was nothing in Hezbollah’s military act, whatever one may think of it, to justify Israel’s massive disproportionate response. Lebanon has had a long-standing border dispute with Israel: in 2000, when Israel, under Prime Minister Ehud Barak, withdrew from Southern Lebanon, Israel kept a small piece of land known as the Shaba farms (near Mount Dov), which it claims belonged historically to Syria and not to Lebanon, though both Syria and Lebanon deny that. The Lebanese government has frequently appealed to the U.S. and others for Israel’s withdrawal also from this land, which has remained the center of friction in Southern Lebanon, in order to ease the tension in the area and to help the Lebanese internal negotiations over implementing UN resolutions. The most recent such appeal was in mid-April 2006, in a Washington meeting between Lebanon’s Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and George Bush. [13] In the six years since Israel withdrew, there have been frequent border incidents between Hezbollah and the Israeli army, and cease-fire violations of the type committed now by Hezbollah, have occurred before, initiated by both sides, but more frequently by Israel. None of the previous incidents resulted in rocket shelling of the north of Israel, which has enjoyed full calm since Israel’s withdrawal. It was possible for Israel to handle this incident as all its predecessors, with at most a local retaliation, or a prisoner exchange, or even better, with an attempt to solve this border dispute once and for all. Instead, Israel opted for a global war. As Peretz put it: “The goal is for this incident to end with Hezbollah so badly beaten that not a man in it does not regret having launched this incident [sic].” [14]

The Israeli government knew right from the start that launching its offensive would expose the north of Israel to heavy rockets attacks. This was openly discussed at this first government’s meeting on Wednesday: “Hezbollah is likely to respond to the Israeli attacks with massive rocket launches at Israel, and in that case, the IDF might move ground forces into Lebanon”. [15] One cannot avoid the conclusion that for the Israeli army and government, endangering the lives of residents of northern Israel was a price worth paying in order to justify the planned ground offensive. They started preparing Israelis on that same Wednesday for what may be ahead: “We may be facing a completely different reality, in which hundreds of thousands of Israelis will, for a short time, find themselves in danger from Hezbollah’s rockets,” said a senior defense official. “These include residents of the center of the country.” [16] For the Israeli military leadership, not only the Lebanese and the Palestinians, but also the Israelis are just pawns in some big military vision.

The speed at which everything happened (along with many other pieces of information) indicates that Israel has been waiting for a long time for ‘the international conditions to ripen’ for the massive war on Lebanon it has been planning. A “new order” in Lebanon has been a dream of the Israeli ruling military circles since at least 1982, when Sharon led the country to the first Lebanon war with precisely this declared goal. Hezbollah’s leaders have argued for years that its real long-term role is to protect Lebanon, whose army is too weak to do this. They have said that Israel has never given up its aspirations for Lebanon and that the only reason it pulled out of Southern Lebanon in 2000 is because Hezbollah’s resistance had made maintaining the occupation too costly. Lebanon’s people know what every Israeli old enough to remember knows – that in the vision of Ben Gurion, Israel’s founding leader, Israel’s border should be “natural”, that is – the Jordan river in the East, and the Litani river of Lebanon in the north. In 1967, Israel gained control over the Jordan River, in the occupied Palestinian land, but all its attempts to establish the Litani border have failed so far. From a Lebanese perspective, one may never know when Israel might decide it is time to realize this plan.

As I argued in Israel/Palestine, already when the Israeli army left Southern Lebanon in 2000, the plans to return were ready. By 2002, plans to attack Hezbollah, possibly extending to a war with Syria, were openly discussed in the Israeli media. [17] At that time, as the U.S. was gearing up to its war with Iraq, these plans had to be kept in the drawers. But in 2006, as the neocons in the U.S. administration were entertaining options of “preemptive attack” on Iran, Israel’s plans for this war found sympathetic ears. According to Seymour Hersh, basing himself on intelligence sources, “President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney were convinced… that a successful Israeli Air Force bombing campaign against Hezbollah’s heavily fortified underground-missile and command-and-control complexes in Lebanon could ease Israel’s security concerns and also serve as a prelude to a potential American preemptive attack to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations, some of which are also buried deep underground.” [18] Hersh reports that in the summer (prior to Hezbollah’s border attack) several Israeli officials visited Washington for meetings, particularly with Vice President Cheney, “to get a green light for the bombing operation and to find out how much the United States would bear” [19]

In fact, one does not need to speculate on the U.S. backing of Israel’s attack, even independently of any possible plans for a military operation in Iran, since right from the start, Israeli and U.S. official sources have been pretty open in this regard. As a Senior Israeli official explained to the Washington Post on July 16, “Hezbollah’s cross-border raid has provided a ‘unique moment’ with a ‘convergence of interests’.” [20] The paper goes on to explain what this convergence of interests is:

For the United States, the broader goal is to strangle the axis of Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria and Iran, which the Bush administration believes is pooling resources to change the strategic playing field in the Middle East, U.S. officials say. [21]

For the U.S., the Middle East is a “strategic playing field”, where the game is establishing full U.S. domination. The U.S. already controls Iraq and Afghanistan, and considers Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and a few other states as friendly cooperating regimes. But even with this massive foothold, full U.S. domination is still far from established. Iran has only been strengthened by the Iraq war and refuses to accept the decrees of the master. Throughout the Arab world, including in the “friendly regimes”, there is boiling anger at the U.S., at the heart of which is not only the occupation of Iraq, but the brutal oppression of the Palestinians, and the U.S. backing of Israel’s policies. The new axis of the four enemies of the Bush administration (Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran) are bodies viewed by the Arab world as resisting U.S. or Israel’s rule, and standing for Arab liberation. From Bush’s perspective, he only has two years to consolidate his vision of complete U.S. control of the Middle East, and to do that, all seeds of resistance should be crushed in a devastating blow that will make it clear to every single Arab that obeying the master is the only way to stay alive. If Israel is willing to do the job, and crush not only the Palestinians, but also Lebanon and Hezbollah, then the U.S., torn from the inside by growing resentment over Bush’s wars, and perhaps unable to send new soldiers to be killed for this cause right now, will give Israel all the backing it can. As Rice announced in her visit in Jerusalem on July 25, what is at stake is “a new Middle East”. “We will prevail” – she promised Olmert.

For over three weeks, as Israel was destroying Lebanon, the U.S. prevented all attempts to impose an immediate cease fire. According to the New York Times, it was only when it became evident that Israel’s ground offensive was failing and “Hezbollah was a far more fearsome and skilled adversary than Israel had first thought” that the U.S. decided to pass a cease fire resolution in the UN Security Council. [22] But it made sure the final text of the resolution would in fact allow Israel’s operations in Lebanon to continue. The U.S. rejected Lebanon’s demand, backed initially by France, that the Israeli forces would fully withdraw as soon as the cease-fire was approved. [23] Instead, the resolution is only “bearing in mind [Lebanon’s] request in this plan for an immediate withdrawal of the Israeli forces from Southern Lebanon” (PP5). In its operative clauses it specifies that the Israeli withdrawal will begin after the deployment of UNIFIL forces, which, in turn can start only “upon full cessation of hostilities” (OP2). When this full cessation may be obtained is left completely open, because the crucial clause of the resolution, calling for a cease fire is stated asymmetrically:

[The Security Council] calls for a full cessation of hostilities based upon, in particular, the immediate cessation by Hezbollah of all attacks and the immediate cessation by Israel of all offensive military operations (OP1).

While Hezbollah is required to cease all attacks, in Israel’s case a distinction is made between defensive and offensive operations. Given the standard Western discourse, brought to a new climax by the U.S. in the present war, Israel’s acts have always been only purely defensive. Specifically, the Israeli army has announced already that all its attacks on Hezbollah after the cease fire was declared were defensive operations, designed to enforce the Security Council resolution. In the present international setting, with the U.S. backing, Israel’s attacks on Lebanon and the Palestinian people can continue undisturbed.

Tanya Reinhart is Professor Emeritus of Linguistics and Media Studies at Tel Aviv University and as of January 2007, a Global Distinguished Professor at NYU. She has been a frequent op-ed writer for the Israeli evening paper Yediot Aharonot. She is the author of Israel/Palestine – How to End the War of 1948, Seven Stories, NY, 2002, 2005, and her new book: The Road Map to Nowhere appears in September 2006 (Verso).


1. Interview with Gidi Weitz, ‘To Beirut if Necessary’, Ha’aretz Magazine, August 8, 2006.

2. Alex Fishman, ‘Who is for the Elimination of Hamas?’, Yediot Aharonot, Saturday Supplement, June 30, 2006; see also Alex Fishman, ‘The Safety-Catch Released’, Yediot Aharonot, June 21, 2006 (Hebrew); Aluf Benn, ‘An Operation with Two Goals’, Ha’aretz, June 29, 2006.

3. Greg Myre, ‘Rockets Create a ‘Balance of Fear’ With Israel, Gaza Residents Say’, New York Times, July 9, 2006.

4. Amos Harel, ‘IDF and Qassams / Zero Tolerance’, Ha’aretz, April 7, 2006; Amos Harel and Arnon Regular, ‘IDF: Hamas about to Rein in Qassams’, Ha’aretz, April 10, 2006.

5. Tanya Reinhart, The Road Map to Nowhere – Israel Palestine since 2003 (Verso, 2006), 124-130.

6. Steven Erlanger, ‘U.S. Presses Israel to Smooth the Path to a Palestinian Gaza’, New York Times, August 7, 2005.

7. For a detailed survey of the U.S. administration’s present stands, see Ori Nir, ‘U.S. Seen Backing Israeli Moves to Topple Hamas’, The Forward, July 7, 2006. http://www.forward.com/articles/8063

8. Yoav Stern, ‘Nasrallah: Only Deal Will Free Kidnapped Soldiers’, Ha’aretz, July 13, 2006.

9. Amos Harel, Aluf Benn & Gideon Alon, ‘Gov’t Okays Massive Strikes on Lebanon’, Ha’aretz, July 13, 2006.

10. Harel, Benn & Alon, ‘Gov’t Okays Massive Strikes on Lebanon’.

11. Amos Harel, ‘Israel prepares for widespread military escalation’, Ha’aretz, internet edition, 21:50, 12/07/2006.

12. Amos Harel, Jack Khoury and Nir Hasson, ‘Over 100 Katyushas Hit North’, Ha’aretz, July 14, 2006.

13. Reuters, ‘Lebanese PM to lobby Pres. Bush on Israeli withdrawal from Shaba’, Ha’aretz, April 16, 2006: “Lebanon’s prime minister [is] asking U.S. President George Bush to put pressure on Israel to pull out of a border strip and thus enable his government to extend its authority over all Lebanese land… ‘Israel has to withdraw from the Shaba Farms and has to stop violating our airspace and water,’ Siniora said. This was essential if the Lebanese government was ‘to become the sole monopoly of holding weapons in the country’.., he added. ‘Very important as well is to seek the support of President Bush so that Lebanon will not become in any way a ball in the courtyard of others or… a courtyard for the confrontations of others in the region,’ Siniora said. Lebanon’s rival leaders are engaged in a ‘national dialogue’ aimed at resolving the country’s political crisis, the worst since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war. One key issue is the disarming of Hezbollah… The Shi’ite Muslim group says its weapons are still required to liberate Shaba Farms and to defend Lebanon against any Israeli threats.”

14. Harel, Benn & Alon, ‘Gov’t Okays Massive Strikes on Lebanon’.

15. Harel, Benn & Alon, ‘Gov’t Okays Massive Strikes on Lebanon’.

16. Harel, Benn & Alon, ‘Gov’t Okays Massive Strikes on Lebanon’.

17. Tanya Reinhart, Israel-Palestine – How to End the War of 1948 (Seven Stories press, 2002, 2005), 83-87, 204-206; see also ‘How Israel left Lebanon’. http://www.tau.ac.il/~reinhart (Media articles section)

18. Seymour M. Hersh, ‘Watching Lebanon – Washington’s Interests in Israel’s war’, New Yorker, 08-21-2006.

19. Hersh, ‘Watching Lebanon’.

20. Robin Wright, ‘Strikes Are Called Part of Broad Strategy’, Washington Post, Sunday, July 16, 2006.

21. Wright, ‘Strikes Are Called Part of Broad Strategy’.

22. Warren Hoge, ‘U.S. Shift Kicked Off Frantic Diplomacy at U.N.’, New York Times, August 14, 2006.

23. Hoge, ‘U.S. Shift Kicked Off’.

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