Seumas Milne writes: The way western politicians and media have pontificated about Israel’s onslaught on Gaza, you’d think it was facing an unprovoked attack from a well-armed foreign power. Israel had every “right to defend itself”, Barack Obama declared. “No country on earth would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders.”
He was echoed by Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, who declared that the Palestinian Islamists of Hamas bore “principal responsibility” for Israel’s bombardment of the open-air prison that is the Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, most western media have echoed Israel’s claim that its assault is in retaliation for Hamas rocket attacks; the BBC speaks wearisomely of a conflict of “ancient hatreds”.
In fact, an examination of the sequence of events over the last month shows that Israel played the decisive role in the military escalation: from its attack on a Khartoum arms factory reportedly supplying arms to Hamas and the killing of 15 Palestinian fighters in late October, to the shooting of a mentally disabled Palestinian in early November, the killing of a 13 year-old in an Israeli incursion and, crucially, the assassination of the Hamas commander Ahmed Jabari last Wednesday during negotiations over a temporary truce.
Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, had plenty of motivation to unleash a new round of bloodletting. There was the imminence of Israeli elections (military attacks on the Palestinians are par for the course before Israeli polls); the need to test Egypt’s new Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi, and pressure Hamas to bring other Palestinian guerrilla groups to heel; and the chance to destroy missile caches before any confrontation with Iran, and test Israel’s new Iron Dome anti-missile system.
So after six days of sustained assault by the world’s fourth largest military power on one of its most wretched and overcrowded territories, at least 130 Palestinians had been killed, an estimated half of them civilians, along with five Israelis. The goal, Israel’s interior minister, Eli Yeshai, insisted, had been to “send Gaza back to the middle ages”.
True, the bloodshed hasn’t so far been on the scale of Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9, which left 1,400 Palestinians dead in three weeks. But the issue isn’t just who started and escalated it, or even the grinding “disproportionality” of yet another Israeli military battering (even before last month’s flareups, 314 Palestinians had been killed since 2009, as against 20 Israelis).
It’s that to portray Israel as some kind of victim with every right to “defend itself” from attack from “outside its borders” is a grotesque inversion of reality. Israel has after all been in illegal occupation of both the West Bank and Gaza, where most of the population are the families of refugees who were driven out of what is now Israel in 1948, for the past 45 years.
People like to repeat this claim that Israel has the “fourth largest military power” in the world. I have no idea what if any metric that description is based on. In terms of military spending, Israel ranks #17. In terms of number of troops it ranks #30. But in terms of the Global Militarization Index, it ranks #1.
For the purposes of political rhetoric, maybe “most militarized nation on earth” should replace “fourth largest military power” — at least it has a factual basis.