Interview with Gilbert Achcar
Amandla!: The scale of Israel’s attack on Gaza is unprecedented. Do you see this largely as an act of vengeance or does it have a strategic purpose?
Gilbert Achcar: Of course, one dimension of it resembles an act of vengeance. But it is also an opportunity that has been seized by the Israeli far right, represented by Netanyahu and his government, to implement an old dream, an old project of theirs, called the Greater Israel project. They were deeply unhappy at the fact that the Israeli state in 1948 left out from the Palestine of the British mandate some 22%, represented by the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. As we know, those were occupied by Israel in 1967. However, Israel could not swallow them in the sense of annexation, because, unlike what happened in 1948, the population did not flee. The vast majority of them stuck to their land and homes.
They saw what happened in 1948, when 80% of the Palestinian population of the territory that the new Israeli state occupied fled the war, believing they would come back once the fighting was over. And they were never allowed to go back. The population of the West Bank did not want to become in its turn a population of refugees in tents, so they stuck to their places.
It’s the same for Gaza, with the addition that beyond Gaza you have the Sinai Desert. That’s not exactly a place where you would think of fleeing to immediately, unless you are under very, very tough circumstances, as is presently the case. And that’s the point.
So for Gaza, they think they found a way to fulfil that dream. And some of the far right in Israel believe that it’s even the time to do it in the West Bank. They are starting, and this is less reported, of course, than the massacre in Gaza. But you have already a large number of people killed on the West Bank, and permanent harassment by the settlers of the Palestinians there, in parts of the West Bank, openly inciting them to leave and go to Jordan.
And the parallel with 9/11 is quite clear. What the George W. Bush administration did after 9/11, especially the invasion of Iraq, was of course very obviously the exploitation of an opportunity to fulfil a goal that actually was even less related to the event than what is happening in Gaza now.
Amandla!: What they’re doing right now in Gaza is trying to squeeze everybody down Gaza from the north to the south. It’s almost like a phased approach, where you first squeeze them into the south. But there seems no suggestion that the Egyptians are planning to let them in, because they don’t want to house that problem. So where does this strategic objective go?
GA: The term you use is exactly appropriate. It’s a phased operation. From north to south Gaza, and the intention is to move from south Gaza into Egypt. And we know that the Israeli government has deployed a lot of efforts to try to get Western countries to convince the Egyptian government to open the border gate and to let the Palestinians into the Sinai. But Egypt has been very strict on this. The Egyptian government does not want to see the expulsion of what would be close to 2 million Palestinians into its territory, turning them into permanent refugees.
There was a document from the Ministry of Intelligence in Israel, which was revealed at the end of October. It detailed three scenarios for Gaza. The one deemed to be the best in the document was exactly the evacuation of the Palestinians from Gaza into the Sinai, and their permanent settlement there, with the building of a city for them.
All this will depend on the ability of the Israeli army to achieve what they regard as the consensual and minimal goal of this operation, which is the eradication of Hamas.
And that can’t be taken for granted, even with the level of terror and destruction and death. At the time of speaking now, you have close to 10,000 people killed, maybe 40% of them children, out of a population of 2.3 million. Take the same proportion in South Africa and you will get even more frightening figures. That’s why the term genocide that’s now starting to be used, at least as a warning by UN agencies, is absolutely appropriate. What is going on is definitely a genocidal massacre.
Amandla!: That would be the equivalent of more than a quarter of a million people in South Africa dying. Meanwhile, Anthony Blinken is ferrying himself around, doing a kind of Henry Kissinger in the Middle East, trying to talk to everybody. How serious are the risks that this is going to turn into broader military activity in the Middle East, involving other countries?
GA: The countries that might get involved are those allied with Hamas, and that would have been Iran primarily, represented by the Lebanese Hezbollah. There have been a few gestures, which are token gestures, like firing missiles from Yemen, or a few rockets at the border from Lebanon. But Iran and Hezbollah remain cautious. It seems that the Iranian regime does not have the will to get involved in that war and pay a very heavy price for it, given what the United States has been sending to the area, intended as a deterrent for Tehran.
There were reports that the Iranian rulers, and their auxiliaries in Lebanon and Iraq, have told Hamas that it should have consulted them before launching its operation. That’s a way of saying: “Since we haven’t been consulted, we bear no responsibility.”
Amandla!: We have been seeing over the last couple of years Middle Eastern powers defying the BDS call and building diplomatic and economic ties with Israel. Is that process now put on hold? Is it reversed? Is it dead?
GA: It has been dealt a very severe blow at the very least, if it hasn’t been radically reversed. Until now we have, again, token gestures, like recall of ambassadors. Even Jordan did that. These are ways for these governments to show that they are doing something, because they are under heavy pressure. Egypt and Jordan, as two countries neighbouring Israel, are very wary of what’s happening because their populations feel deep solidarity with the Palestinians. Like the rest of the Arab population and way beyond actually – people speak of the Muslim world but even in Latin America, which has nothing to do with Islam, you can see that solidarity.
This conflict in Gaza really epitomises the global cleavage between the Global South and the Global North. Thus, the Arab regimes that had engaged in so-called normalisation, that is establishment of diplomatic and other relations with Israel, find themselves in a very embarrassing situation.
Iran is outbidding all Arab regimes on the issue of Israel; it has used the Palestinian cause as a scourge to beat the Arab regimes with, of course without doing very much itself. Eventually, the future of Arab relations with Israel will depend on what happens at the end of this ongoing tragedy. But the scale of the massacre is already such that it would be very difficult to resume the ”normalisation” process, I believe.
Amandla!: If we look at the politics of Israel, what effect is this whole process going to have? In the short term, it seems to have hardened, almost inevitably, a kind of vengeful attitude. But that coexists with the sense that this was a massive failure on the part of government, and therefore the government must pay. Does it convince anybody who wasn’t already convinced that there is no military solution to this issue? Where does Israeli politics go?
GA: Only a tiny minority is drawing the right conclusion – the one that you just spelled out, that there is no military solution to such a conflict. You have to come to terms on the basis of political settlement, which means inevitably taking into account the Palestinians’ rights. This Israel has completely refused until now.
But the vast majority of Israelis are, for now, unfortunately, in a very different mood, although whether they apply that to the Palestinians in general, or to Hamas in particular, is difficult to tell. A big section of Israeli society has drifted towards the far right, to the point of producing this far-right government that includes neo-Nazi ministers. Such people certainly don’t make much distinction between Hamas and the Palestinians. For them, the Palestinians are evil. They are very openly racist.
Now, there is another segment of the Israelis who still believe that they can get some kind of arrangement with the Palestinians. But I would say the majority of those believe in some kind of Oslo-like deal, which is a total sham. It’s the creation of a Bantustan under Israeli control. The bottom line of this stance is no less racist, ultimately, than the other. Only a tiny minority may believe that Israel should get into a real peace with the Palestinians. And that would mean granting full equality to the Palestinians, as well as the Right of Return of the Palestinian refugees that are today in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and other countries. And that is a very, very radical stance for the present Israeli society.
Amandla!: So, what is the way forward for the Palestinian struggle?
GA: As you said, there is no ground for optimism today in this conflict. The future looks extremely bleak. And it has been looking bleaker and bleaker over many years now. Right now, it’s as if in South Africa you had the white Afrikaners in power. That’s what you have in Israel.
It would take, I would say, major political changes to occur in all components of the situation. Firstly, in the Israeli society itself. Secondly, in Palestinian society and the Arab environment. It would require the emergence of new forces able to win over large numbers to a radical and internationalist perspective. And last but not least, in the United States and the West, you would need a radically different approach to the problem.
Now, of those three, the only place where you have had some real positive development is the United States. It’s paradoxical to say it, but it’s in the United States that we have seen a progression of the understanding of the Palestinian cause, even among American Jews. And that’s very encouraging. You even have amazing polls showing that a majority of the Democrats are against increasing military aid to Israel, for instance. You wouldn’t have had this only a few years ago.
So, there is a real shift there. And maybe, ultimately, this will have repercussions on the Israeli society, which is very, very sensitive, of course, to what happens in the United States. The connection of American Jews in particular with Israel is such that they have a lot of influence on Israeli society. So, if we wanted to identify a ray of hope in this huge darkness, that would be it for the moment.
Gilbert Achcar of Development Studies and International Relations at SOAS, University of London.