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Home > English > Website archives > Rainbow of Crisis > MULTIPLE CRISES RISING IN MIDDLE EAST


Gaza Under Murderous Assault, U.S. Escalating Regional Threats, New Sanctions Against Iran

Saturday 8 March 2008, by Phyllis Bennis

As the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War approaches amid a renewed rise in violence, once-claimed U.S. regional goals of "democratization," "stability," "freedom" are overwhelmed by violent, anti-democratic, unilateral and militaristic U.S. actions across the beleaguered Middle East.

** The massive Israeli military assault on Gaza of recent days is the most immediately murderous part of a series of escalating regional crises that are rippling across the Middle East, involving Palestine and Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, the UN Security Council — and U.S. warships prowling off the Lebanese coast.

** In Gaza, Israel’s attack killed between 125 and 131 Palestinians, of whom half were civilians, and at least 22 were children, including several infants. The attack devastated Gaza’s 1.5 million residents already suffering under what a coalition of British humanitarian agencies including Amnesty International and Oxfam called "worse than at any time since the beginning of the Israeli military occupation in 1967."

** Despite Condoleezza Rice’s opposition, the need for a ceasefire is more urgent than ever. Hamas has offered longterm ceasefires on several occasions, but Israel, backed by the U.S., has consistently refused to even consider the proposal.

** In Cairo, Rice pressed Egypt for greater involvement in the Annapolis "peace process" and reportedly sent a message to Syria via the Egyptian government that the current deployment of three U.S. warships off the coast of Lebanon was designed to remind Syria that the U.S. remains the dominant military power in the region; she simultaneously announced that the Bush administration had waived congressional restrictions to provide Egypt with an additional $100 million in military aid.

** The rising tensions may reverse the outcome of a planned Arab League meeting now set for late March; Egypt and Saudi Arabia had been threatening to boycott to pressure Syria, but tables have turned as the bloody Israeli attack in Gaza, the Vanity Fair revelations of direct U.S. arming and paying for the internal Palestinian fighting, and the high-profile U.S. warships off the Lebanese coast, are embarrassing all the region’s pro-U.S. governments.

** In Baghdad, even as violence once again begins to climb upwards, Iranian President Ahmadinejad paid a high-profile, walk-the-streets-in-safety visit under the noses of the U.S. occupation.

** And at the United Nations, the U.S., backed by Britain and France, exerted enough pressure to force the Security Council to impose a new set of nuclear-related sanctions ? albeit far weaker than Washington wanted ? against Iran.

As the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War approaches, the once-unchallengeable claims that "the surge worked" are harder to find. While the additional 30,000 U.S. occupation troops remain in Iraq, analysts agree that the most important reasons for the late 2007 decline in violence ? especially the rise of the Sunni-based "awakening" militias ? are becoming increasingly dicey. The U.S.-armed militias, trumpeted as a huge U.S. success as they turned away from attacking occupation forces to target al-Qaeda in Iraq instead, are slowly turning against each other, with a concomitant rise in attacks from al-Qaeda linked forces, intra-Sunni violence, and increasing social and political fissures in areas where these militias operate. Since December 2007, more "awakening" leaders have been killed than U.S. troops, so the violence levels are going up, just among Iraqis rather than Americans, so Washington still claims it as a victory. Similarly, Moqtada al-Sadr’s recent announcement that he was extending his militia’s ceasefire another six months, while welcome, pointed to just how little influence the U.S. has in determining levels of violence; at any moment al-Sadr could change his mind. It appears that Iran has urged a diminution of violence from its Iraqi allies as well-at least for now. And in many parts of Iraq, particularly areas once populated by widely disparate, mixed communities, violence has diminished because the brutal ethnic cleansing that the U.S. occupation set in motion has largely been completed; with religious or ethnic "purity" close to complete in many areas, there is simply no more need for sectarian violence to drive the "other" out. Hardly something to celebrate.

Although the immediate likelihood of a military strike against Iran has diminished since the December publication of the NIE finding that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program, such a possibility has not disappeared altogether. U.S. regional policy is based on claiming unquestionable domination of the region, challenging Iran for regional hegemony. Stationing the USS Cole warship off the coast of Lebanon was designed to send precisely that message to Syria ? Iran’s closest Arab ally ? that the U.S. would not hesitate to use force. If not against Iran directly, then against Tehran’s ally Syria, focusing on Syrian influence in Lebanon. Even pro-U.S. newspapers in the region are reporting that sending the Cole ? now replaced by three other U.S. navy warships ? was designed to say that "the U.S. has lost patience with Syria."

Iraq policy, in the meantime, appears rooted in maintaining a permanent occupation: permanent bases, permanent (albeit half the size, depending on which party is in the White House) troop deployment, permanent reliance on mercenaries in Iraq. In Iran, despite the NIE’s finding that Iran did not have a nuclear weapons program, threats and pressure continues, and for all parties, military strikes "remain on the table." In Israel-Palestine the U.S. refuses to exert any pressure on Israel, even to implement Washington’s own Annapolis-based claims of an outline for what a two-state solution might look like by the end of the year.

In Gaza, the five-day Israeli assault left the already besieged, impoverished, disempowered population reeling from the heaviest losses since Israel first occupied the Strip in 1967. The numbers of dead ? 125-131, half civilians, at least 22 children, 4 infants ? resulted in whole rows of mourning tents lining the torn-up roads in areas hardest hit. At least 370 children were reported injured. Hospitals faced hundreds seriously injured without reliable electricity and with huge shortages of vital drugs, spare parts for medical equipment, and surgical supplies. Ambulances came under Israeli fire, 3 medical workers were injured and at least one was killed. The destruction hit hardest in the bleak, crowded refugee camps; in Gaza City itself, two bombs from a U.S.-provided F-16 jet destroyed the 5-story headquarters of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions, seriously damaging scores of nearby apartments.

The international outcry was fierce, with even UN and European Union officials condemning Israel’s "disproportionate" and "excessive" violence. Israel claimed, as is its wont, that its attack was only "in response" to Palestinian rocket fire. But that claim ignored the immediate fact that the rocket fire itself escalated only after Israel’s latest "targeted assassination" of a militant leader in Gaza, which also killed several members of his family. More importantly, it ignored the broader fact that Israel remains the occupying power in Gaza. According to John Dugard, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in the occupied territories, "this means that its actions must be measured against the standards of international humanitarian law and human rights law. Judged by these standards Israel is in serious violation of its legal obligations. The collective punishment of Gaza by Israel is expressly prohibited by international humanitarian law and has resulted in a serious humanitarian crisis."

Dugard appropriately condemned Palestinian attacks that terrorize Israeli civilians, but argued that such acts are an "inevitable consequence" of the Israeli occupation. "While such acts cannot be justified," he wrote, "they must be understood as being a painful but inevitable consequence of colonialism, apartheid or occupation." His report recognized that violence would continue as long as Israel occupies Palestinian land, and that "this is why every effort should be made to bring the occupation to a speedy end. Until this is done peace cannot be expected, and violence will continue. ? Israel cannot expect perfect peace and the end of violence as a precondition for the ending of the occupation." Dugard’s words take on particularly powerful meaning in the context of the March 6 gunman attack on a settler-linked yeshiva in Jerusalem that left 8 Israeli students dead and more injured.

When Rice showed up in the region, it was a repeat of her 2006 role in the midst of Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon: she refused to call for a ceasefire, since that would imply negotiating with, or somehow recognizing the existence of, the Hamas-led Palestinian government in Gaza. Instead, she used the moment to escalate the pressure on Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader in charge of the U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, to continue peace talks. Abbas, despite the continuing tensions between him and the Hamas government in Gaza, responded to enormous pressure from his own population and called off all negotiations with Israel during the first days of the assault on Gaza. But under pressure from the secretary of state, he agreed to reopen talks, although he did not specify when. The New York Times described a humiliatingly direct sequence of Abbas telling reporters he would return to talks only after an Israeli-Hamas truce was accepted, then Rice telephoning the Palestinian leader, followed quickly by another Abbas statement that "we have the intention of resuming" the peace process.

Rice’s visit must be seen as continuing the pattern of direct U.S. arming and incitement of Palestinian violence, as shown in an explosive new Vanity Fair article that documents for the first time the direct role the Bush administration in arming and fomenting last year’s civil war in Gaza. The covert action was approved by President Bush and implemented by Rice herself and Elliott Abrams, Bush’s top middle east adviser on the National Security Council, and famous for his conviction for lying to Congress during the Iran-contra scandal of the 1980s. The article confirms in detail how the U.S. took the initiative to force the militarization of the Hamas-Fatah split, relying on Fatah security chief Mohammed Dahlan whom Bush himself had called "our guy," and enabled by millions of dollars worth of weapons and military training. When Congress prohibited some of the spending on weapons for Palestinian forces, the Bush administration (just as it did during the Iran-contra affair itself) turned to allies in the Arab world for pledges of funds and weapons.

But even while Rice continued pressuring Abbas to continue the fruitless "talks" with Israel, smaller-scale Israeli attacks in Gaza continued, and settlement expansion went on unhindered in the West Bank. The UN’s humanitarian coordination office in Jerusalem reported that in the West Bank, Israel had imposed "an increase in the number of physical obstacles since Annapolis," including checkpoints, fences, barriers, dirt mounds and more. The UN documented 580 such barriers in the Delaware-sized West Bank, 50% higher than in 2005. And in Gaza, even before the explosion of violence in the last few days, conditions were deteriorating to dangerous levels. According to the new report from British humanitarian and human rights agencies, 80% of Gaza’s population is now dependent on international food aid, compared with 63% in 2006. Unemployment is officially over 40%, largely because a full 95% of Gaza’s industry has shut down because of the Israeli ban on importing any raw materials and its ban on all exports from the besieged Gaza Strip.

And Congress continued to add fuel to the fire by supplying Israel with more weapons, in contravention of the U.S. Arms Export Control and Foreign Assistance Acts. This year, U.S. taxpayers will provide Israel with $2.55 billion in arms shipments, a 9% increase over actual spending in 2007. This is the first installment of a ten-year U.S. commitment to increase arms shipments to Israel by 25%. Of the $30 billion total, Israel will spend 25% on its own arms manufacturers, with the remaining 75% going mostly to U.S. war profiteers such as Motorola, Caterpillar, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics and others. And in the face of the most murderous assault on Gaza in 40 years of occupation, Congress responded with a 404-1 vote to support Israel and condemn Palestinian rocket attacks on civilians; the 130 or so dead Palestinian civilians apparently did not exist. (Ron Paul voted no; Congressmembers McDermott, Moran, Capuano and Abercrombie voted "present")

The current escalation of violence demonstrates the urgent need for an immediate ceasefire, including an end to Palestinian rocket-fire against civilian targets and in which Israel ends all of its military attacks (including bombings by plane, helicopter and drone; rocket attacks, naval attacks on Gaza fishermen, tank and foot soldier incursions), deliberate murders known as "targeted assassinations," house and building demolitions, and ends the siege of Gaza. After leaving the region, Condoleezza Rice backed Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas and asked Egypt to negotiate with Israel and Hamas for "a mechanism to calm down the situation in Gaza Strip." She still would not use the term "ceasefire" because of its implication of legitimacy or recognition of Hamas.

In the dire political situation facing Palestinians living under occupation and apartheid, the choices are mostly limited to forms of violent resistance, forms of nonviolent and popular resistance, or surrender. A real ceasefire might reopen the second Palestinian option for resistance: widespread nonviolent mass mobilization.

That option was the strategic choice of the first Palestinian intifada or uprising (1987-1993). It has continued, though less centrally, within the second intifada, and was most recently seen last month in Gaza, in the extraordinary Hamas-enabled involvement of half or more of the entire population who collectively reclaimed their human right to move and travel and find basic necessities of life, long denied by the Israeli military, through the breached Gaza-Egypt border wall at Rafah last month.

And since there is still no serious government or inter-governmental strategy to end the Israeli occupation and reverse its apartheid policies, the role of the international civil society movements remains ever more important. In the U.S. and internationally the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) campaign is gaining new traction and winning new influence as a means of exerting collective, non-violent economic pressure on Israel.

Rice’s visit to the region came only a few weeks before a planned Arab League meeting in Damascus, the first since Bush’s Annapolis conference in November that aimed at building Arab support for his anti-Iran mobilization. U.S.-backed Egypt and Saudi Arabia had been organizing a boycott of the meeting, aimed at forcing Syrian and Lebanese acceptance of the Arab League plan to deal with the divided Lebanon government’s longstanding constitutional crisis. But the meeting’s power dynamics now look very different. Arab societies are raging against Israel and its U.S. backers for the slaughter in Gaza, U.S. warships are cruising Lebanon’s coast discrediting the U.S.-backed majority coalition in Beirut and raising memories of the USS New Jersey’s bombing of Lebanon in 1983, and U.S. allies are on the defensive, running as fast as they can away from any ties to the U.S.

The U.S. muscle-flexing with its warships off the Lebanon coast must be taken seriously. Saudi Arabia and several smaller Gulf states advised its citizens to leave Lebanon the day after the first U.S. warship sailed into position. Former U.S. ambassador to Syria, Richard Murphy, described it as "gunboat diplomacy," saying that the U.S. did not know what to do about Lebanon. The U.S. says it is deploying the warships as a signal to Syria and other Middle Eastern countries of U.S. commitment to the region. And for a lame-duck administration, known for a history of recklessness and reliance on military force as a first option, determined to maintain its hegemony in the Middle East despite any perceived challenge from Syria’s patron Iran, nothing can be ruled out.

Even as direct U.S. pressure mounts against Iran’s closest Arab ally, Syria, Washington’s mobilization against Iran remains firmly in place. The Iranian president’s high-profile visit to Baghdad almost seemed a nose-thumbing to President Bush. Ahmadinejad’s drive from the airport to Baghdad and other cities, his seemingly leisurely strolls through markets and into mosques, was deliberately orchestrated to contrast with the high-security secrecy that characterizes Bush’s brief visits to Iraq, where he huddles in a U.S. military base for a few hours and scurries out. It also represented a more serious challenge to U.S. control of the Iraqi government itself, reminding Washington that while the officials may have been elected under the protection of the U.S. occupation, many of them have even longer-standing ties to Tehran.

The symbolic snub, however, does not change the seriousness of the Bush administration’s continuing efforts to isolate and punish Iran. Despite the November NIE, in which all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies agreed Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program, and despite the more recent report by the UN’s watchdog agency the IAEA that Iran was cooperating in answering questions and that IAEA inspectors just needed a bit more time to finish its work, the U.S. continued its effort to expand sanctions against Iran.

The changed conditions because of the NIE and the IAEA report meant that the harsh sanctions the U.S. hoped would be imposed against Iran had to be qualitatively softened to keep Washington’s position viable in the UN Security Council. So the actual substance of the sanctions resolution has little consequence; all of the travel restrictions, freezing of assets, etc., are voluntary for every country. But the symbolism was very significant, and the passage of the sanctions resolution in the Council by a nearly unanimous vote represented a huge blow to the legitimacy of the Council and the United Nations as a whole, and another grim reminder of the powerful hold the U.S. and its strongest European allies (in this case France, Britain and Germany) hold on even the most committed Non-Aligned governments. For days before the vote, Security Council diplomats from members South Africa, Libya and Indonesia were clear they would not support the new sanctions. Viet Nam waffled, but largely rejected the U.S. initiative. On the Friday before the March 3rd vote, reporters anticipated at least four opposing votes.

After a weekend of orchestrated pressure, with Bush-backing French President Sarkozy taking the leading role, the Council voted 14 to 0 to impose the toothless new sanctions. Libya abstained. South Africa, Libya and Viet Nam supported the U.S.

Just what threats were made is not yet clear. But not one of those governments even tried to make a claim that Iran represented a threat to their national interests ? to the contrary, south-south ties with Iran were longstanding with all of them. Not one of them tried to claim that Iran was building a nuclear weapon. Instead, visibly embarrassed diplomats spoke of maintaining the unity of the Council, speaking with one voice, that Iran would "have to listen." It was a shameful sight, and particularly for Non-Aligned stalwarts, a betrayal of much of the independence that that movement once stood for.

Phyllis Bennis and the Iran Team of IPS have just published a new primer: IRAN IN THE CROSSHAIRS: HOW TO PREVENT WASHINGTON’S NEXT WAR.