Israeli soldiers return from Gaza, August 3, 2014
There have been two appalling human tragedies during July: the three week-long fighting between Israel and the Palestinians, and the shooting down of a Malaysian civilian airliner on a regular flight over eastern Ukraine.
Palestinians from Gaza have fired rockets ineffectually into Israel, and Israel has inflicted barrages from land and sea, intensive shelling of densely populated areas and a ground invasion of Gaza that have so far killed over 1,400 Palestinians, injured over 7,000 and driven 200,000 to seek shelter in under-resourced United Nations camps. Apartment blocks, sports fields, schools, hospitals, UN premises and power stations have been hit. Fifty per cent of Gaza is declared a ‘no-go’ area by Israel, which, in turn, has lost 58 people including two civilians.
The proximate cause of this latest conflict between Israel and the Palestinians was the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers on the West Bank in the middle of June, for which the Israelis blamed Hamas, arrested hundreds of Hamas supporters in the West Bank and closed down organizations affiliated with Hamas. Available evidence indicates that the murders were not authorized by Hamas, but were perpetrated by a group in opposition to the Hamas leadership. To Hamas, the Israeli clampdown seemed designed to eradicate Hamas’s presence on the West Bank, and required a stern response if the organization was to retain any credibility. Apart from this, motivating the Hamas reaction were two unrelated developments. The first was the establishment by Fatah and Hamas of a national unity government in early June and its imminent breakdown, despite Palestinian high hopes for this new political entity. The second was the increased hardship Gaza has experienced since the closure of the underground tunnels by Egypt that had been used for the import of not only consumer goods but also weapons and transport equipment. Since 2007, Egypt and Israel have cooperated in imposing an economic blockade on Gaza, to the satisfaction of the United States of America.
With unemployment running at nearly 50 per cent, reconstruction all but halted, and exports down to only three per cent of pre-blockade levels, the closure of the tunnels led to a severe worsening of the situation, with fuel shortages leading to power cuts affecting hospitals, schools and failing water and sewerage systems. In response to this tragedy, the so-called ‘international community’, much lauded in the West, has expressed sorrow but failed to do anything substantive. Hamas has refused to entertain calls for a permanent ceasefire unless the economic blockade was lifted, and it could hardly have asked for anything less. The three-day humanitarian truce agreed by both sides from August 1 proved to be fragile.
Israel claims its military operations have three goals: to crush Hamas, eliminate the tunnels that have also been used to infiltrate militant Palestinians into Israel, and to remove, for all time, the threat of rockets fired from Gaza into Israel, though it is protected by a hugely expensive US-financed “Iran Dome” anti-rocket system. Whatever the duration of the Israeli offensive, it is clear that toppling the Hamas authority in Gaza will not be the outcome, and even on the West Bank, Palestinian anger against Israel is riding high. It will come as no surprise if a third intifada or uprising is looming.
The US secretary of state, John Kerry, said that the US was “concerned” about Palestinian casualties, but lent his support to Israel’s “appropriate and legitimate” military operation. This mealy-mouthed reaction, which pays no regard to the totally disproportionate force used by Israel, needs to be contrasted with the massive West-inspired campaign against Russia’s alleged involvement in the missile attack on the Malaysian airliner that was brought down in eastern Ukraine, killing 298 persons, 193 of whom were Dutch. There is no evidence that the Russian state authorized the attack which was quite obviously a mistake, nor that Russian citizens fired the missile, which makes the US and European claim wholly propagandist, especially considering that Stinger missiles were liberally supplied by the US to jihadists in Afghanistan on the grounds that the insurgents had no air cover unlike their Soviet opponents — the same argument that could be used for the missiles apparently used by the Ukrainian separatists. Mistakes can and do happen, but when the Israelis shot down a Libyan civil aircraft in 1973, the Soviet Union a Korean airliner in 1983, and the US brought down an Iranian passenger aircraft in 1988, these were no mistakes but criminal actions done quite deliberately.
Even if the missile in question, probably a SA-11, had been delivered to the separatists by elements of the Russian army, it is impossible to hold Russia responsible unless their citizens actually fired the weapon following official orders. International law is not consistent on this point. The International Court of Justice held the US not responsible for the atrocities committed by Nicaraguan insurgents who were supplied with arms and money by Washington, whereas Serbia was held guilty by the International Criminal Court for crimes by Serb-supported units operating in Bosnia. An American intelligence official has said that the US believed pro-Russian separatists shot down the flight by mistake and evidence suggested the Russian government was not directly involved in causing the crash, but “created the conditions” for the plane to be brought down by the rebels. It is highly doubtful that the civil aviation investigators will come to any other conclusion. An impartial investigation, presumably by the International Civil Aviation Organization, asked for by Germany and Russia is nowhere to be seen, and the experts on the ground are from the countries that sustained casualties and will not be considered objective.
The West’s condemnation of Russian assistance to the anti-Kiev forces in eastern Ukraine is counter to its past invocations of the “responsibility to protect”, by which principle it has openly supported and armed anti-government rebel movements in many parts of the world, most recently in Kosovo, Libya and Syria. Collateral damage, considered legitimate and acceptable in certain circumstances, is obviously an entirely subjective proposition, and different yardsticks apply for Israel and the Ukrainian separatists. As for Barack Obama’s rhetoric condemning governments that use force against their own citizens, he might reflect that this is exactly what the Kiev government of doubtful legitimacy is doing against its citizens in the eastern part of the country, despite calls for a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement from Moscow that have been ignored by Petro Poroshenko, the Ukrainian president, egged on privately and publicly by bellicose Washington politicians.
The Russian response has been inconsistent and has not helped its cause. Vladimir Putin has never said that the rebels had nothing to do with the disaster; but he blames Kiev for attacking them. Pushing back against the US version of the crash, first came the claims that one or more unidentified aircraft were in the same airspace at the time, then that the Ukrainian government had fired the missile, and then that President Putin’s plane may have been the target since it flew the same route when returning from Brazil.
All this seems to suggest a degree of improvisation or lack of knowledge of what is taking place on the ground, both scenarios being deeply disturbing. The realistic answer has to be that the Kremlin has only limited authority over what is taking place in eastern Ukraine and with the rebel formations there. And yet, even if the sanctions damage the Russian economy, Putin could not forego eastern Ukraine to Poroshenko’s forces, and cannot ignore the likelihood of Nato-creep into Ukraine, against which the West has given the Kremlin no assurances, and which creates acute neuralgia in Russia. Nor can Moscow abandon the separatists in eastern Ukraine, who are permanently alienated from Kiev and swarming into Russia as tens of thousands of refugees. Western capitals know all this, but choose not to know.
What is the rationale behind the stronger US-inspired Western anti-Russian sanctions that will not be endorsed by the UN security council nor followed by most of the non-Western world? The US and its oversized military and intelligence agencies need an enemy, and certain countries in Europe, led by Britain, Poland and Holland, slavishly follow Washington’s lead and urge other Europeans to concur in the spirit of unity. America has found a cause that admirably suits its purpose and method; moral outrage, followed by spirited appeals to European allies to show solidarity to revive a flagging Nato, and the demonization of Russia and Putin personally. The isolation and encirclement of Russia and China are America’s strategic priority. The Cold War, unhappily, is back with us. So too is the prospect of the re-incarnation of non-alignment.