Israeli Scholar Avi Shlaim:
Israel Committing "State Terror" in Gaza Attack, Preventing
interview by Amy Goodman
Avi Shlaim, a professor of international
relations at Oxford University who served in the Israeli army
in the mid-1960s. He is the author of numerous books, most notably
The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World. His latest book is Lion
of Jordan: King Hussein's Life in War and Peace. Avi Shlaim is
widely regarded as one of the world's leading authorities on the
AMY GOODMAN: The Israeli assault on Gaza
is entering its nineteenth day, with no end in sight. Israeli
warplanes are continuing their bombardment, launching over sixty
air strikes overnight. Meanwhile, Israeli troops have edged closer
to the heart of the densely populated Gaza City and are engaged
in street fighting with militants.
Since Israel's offensive began on December
27th, nearly 1,000 Palestinians have been killed. More than 4,400
have been injured, and an estimated 90,000 have fled their homes.
Thirteen Israelis have died over the same period, ten of them
soldiers, including four by so-called "friendly" fire.
As the war continues, humanitarian concerns
are mounting. The chief UN aid official for Gaza, John Ging, has
appealed to the international community to protect Gaza's civilians,
calling it a "test of our humanity".
Meanwhile, a UN watch group has accused
Israel of showing a "manifest disrespect" for the protection
of children in Gaza. According to the UN Committee on the Rights
of the Child, more than 40 percent of those killed in Gaza are
women and children.
On Tuesday, the head of the International
Committee of the Red Cross visited Gaza and said what he saw was
shocking. ICRC president Jakob Kellenberger said, "It is
unacceptable to see so many wounded people. Their lives must be
spared and the security of those who care for them guaranteed."
Despite a UN Security Council ceasefire
resolution last week, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said
the military operation will continue.
Our next guest is widely regarded as one
of the world's leading authorities on the Arab-Israel conflict.
Avi Shlaim served in the Israeli army in the mid-1960s. He is
now a professor of international relations at Oxford University.
In an article in The Guardian newspaper of London, he says he
has never questioned the legitimacy of the state of Israel within
its pre-1967 borders. But he says its merciless assault on Gaza
has led him to devastating conclusions. Professor Avi Shlaim is
the author of a number of books, most notably The Iron Wall: Israel
and the Arab World. His latest book is Lion of Jordan: King Hussein's
Life in War and Peace. Avi Shlaim joins us today from Oxford University
We welcome you to Democracy Now!
AVI SHLAIM: Thank you. I'm happy to be
on your program in these very sad times.
AMY GOODMAN: As you look at what's happening
in Gaza from your vantage point, well, many miles away in Britain,
can you talk about the kind of trajectory your evaluation has
taken, where you started in your thoughts about Israel and where
you are now?
AVI SHLAIM: As you mentioned, I did national
service in the Israeli army in the mid-1960s. And in those days,
Israel was a small state surrounded by enemies, and the nation
was united in face of the surrounding Arab states. We all felt
total commitment to the state of Israel and to the defense of
the state of Israel. The Israeli army is called the Israel Defense
Forces, and it was true to its name.
But 1967, the war of June 1967, was a
major turning point in the history of Israel and the history of
the region. In the course of the war, Israel captured the Golan
Heights from Syria, the West Bank from Jordan and Sinai from Egypt.
After the war, Israel started building civilian territories in
the occupied territories in violation of international law. So
Israel became a colonial power and an imperial power.
And I, for my part, have never questioned
the legitimacy of the Zionist movement. I saw it as the national
liberation movement of the Jewish people. Nor did I ever question
the legitimacy of the state of Israel within its pre-1967 borders.
What I reject, what I reject totally, absolutely and uncompromisingly,
is the Zionist colonial project beyond the 1967 borders. So we
have to distinguish very clearly between Israel proper, within
its pre-1967 borders, and Greater Israel, which began to emerge
in the aftermath of the June '67 war and has completely derailed
the Zionist project.
AMY GOODMAN: And then, specifically talk
about Gaza, how it has developed and where it is today, right
now under assault by the Israeli military.
AVI SHLAIM: In a long-term historical
perspective, I would begin with the creation of the state of Israel
in 1948. I wrote a book, which you mentioned in your introduction,
called The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World. It is a history
of the Arab-Israeli conflict since 1948. It's a very long book,
but I can summarize it for you in one sentence, that throughout
its sixty years, Israel has been remarkably reluctant to engage
in meaningful negotiations with its Arab opponents to resolve
the dispute between them and only too ready to resort to military
force in order to impose its will upon them. And the current vicious
Israeli onslaught on the people of Gaza is the climax of this
longstanding Israeli policy of shunning diplomacy and relying
on brute military force.
AMY GOODMAN: We're going to break and
then come back to Professor Avi Shlaim. He is professor of international
relations at Oxford University, served in the Israeli military.
His latest book is called Lion of Jordan. He is one of the world's
leading scholars on the Arab-Israel conflict. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest right now is Oxford
University Professor Avi Shlaim. He teaches international relations
at Oxford University. He's speaking to us from Oxford right now,
leading authority in the world on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
We've had a number of debates here on
Democracy Now!, Professor Shlaim, over the past weeks about what's
happening in Gaza and those who support the Israeli military continually
say that in 2005, three years ago, Israel pulled out of Gaza entirely.
You have a different picture of what happened under Ariel Sharon
in August of 2005. Explain how you see the withdrawal of Israeli
military at that time.
AVI SHLAIM: President Bush described Ariel
Sharon as a man of peace. I've done a great deal of archival research
on the Arab-Israeli conflict, and I can honestly tell you that
I have never come across a single scintilla of evidence to support
the view of Ariel Sharon as a man of peace. He was a man of war,
a champion of violent solutions, a man who rejected totally any
Palestinian right to self-determination. He was a proponent of
Greater Israel, and it is in this context that I see his decision
to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza in August of 2005.
The withdrawal was officially called the
unilateral Israeli disengagement from Gaza. I would like to underline
the word "unilateral." Ariel Sharon was the unilateralist
par excellence. The reason he decided to withdraw from Gaza was
not out of any concern for the welfare of the people of Gaza or
any sympathy for the Palestinians or their national aspirations,
but because of the pressure exerted by Hamas, by the Islamic resistance,
to the Israeli occupation of Gaza. In the end, Israel couldn't
sustain the political, diplomatic and psychological costs of maintaining
its occupation in Gaza.
And let me add in parentheses that Gaza
was a classic example of exploitation, of colonial exploitation
in the postcolonial era. Gaza is a tiny strip of land with about
one-and-a-half million Arabs, most of them-half of them refugees.
It's the most crowded piece of land on God's earth. There were
8,000 Israeli settlers in Gaza, yet the 8,000 settlers controlled
25 percent of the territory, 40 percent of the arable land, and
the largest share of the desperately scarce water resources.
Ariel Sharon decided to withdraw from
Gaza unilaterally, not as a contribution, as he claimed, to a
two-state solution. The withdrawal from Gaza took place in the
context of unilateral Israeli action in what was seen as Israeli
national interest. There were no negotiations with the Palestinian
Authority on an overall settlement. The withdrawal from Gaza was
not a prelude to further withdrawals from the other occupied territories,
but a prelude to further expansion, further consolidation of Israel's
control over the West Bank. In the year after the withdrawal from
Gaza, 12,000 new settlers went to live on the West Bank. So I
see the withdrawal from Gaza in the summer of 2005 as part of
a unilateral Israeli attempt to redraw the borders of Greater
Israel and to shun any negotiations and compromise with the Palestinian
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Avi Shlaim, Israel
says the reason it has attacked Gaza is because of the rocket
fire, the rockets that Hamas is firing into southern Israel.
AVI SHLAIM: This is Israeli propaganda,
and it is a pack of lies. The important thing to remember is that
there was a ceasefire brokered by Egypt in July of last year,
and that ceasefire succeeded. So, if Israel wanted to protect
its citizens-and it had every right to protect its citizens-the
way to go about it was not by launching this vicious military
offensive, but by observing the ceasefire.
Now, let me give you some figures, which
I think are the most crucial figures in understanding this conflict.
Before the ceasefire came into effect in July of 2008, the monthly
number of rockets fired-Kassam rockets, homemade Kassam rockets,
fired from the Gaza Strip on Israeli settlements and towns in
southern Israel was 179. In the first four months of the ceasefire,
the number dropped dramatically to three rockets a month, almost
zero. I would like to repeat these figures for the benefit of
your listeners. Pre-ceasefire, 179 rockets were fired on Israel;
post-ceasefire, three rockets a month. This is point number one,
and it's crucial.
And my figures are beyond dispute, because
they come from the website of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. But
after initiating this war, this particular table, neat table,
which showed the success of the ceasefire, was withdrawn and replaced
with another table of statistics, which is much more obscure and
confusing. Israel-the Foreign Ministry withdrew these figures,
because it didn't suit the new story.
The new story said that Hamas broke the
ceasefire. This is a lie. Hamas observed the ceasefire as best
as it could and enforced it very effectively. The ceasefire was
a stunning success for the first four months. It was broken not
by Hamas, but by the IDF. It was broken by the IDF on the 4th
of November, when it launched a raid into Gaza and killed six
And there is one other point that I would
like to make about the ceasefire. Ever since the election of Hamas
in January-I'm sorry, ever since Hamas captured power in Gaza
in the summer of 2007, Israel had imposed a blockade of the Strip.
Israel stopped food, fuel and medical supplies from reaching the
Gaza Strip. One of the terms of the ceasefire was that Israel
would lift the blockade of Gaza, yet Israel failed to lift the
blockade, and that is one issue that is also overlooked or ignored
by official Israeli spokesmen. So Israel was doubly guilty of
sabotaging the ceasefire, A, by launching a military attack, and
B, by maintaining its very cruel siege of the people of Gaza.
AMY GOODMAN: Israel calls Hamas "terrorist."
What is your definition of "terror"?
AVI SHLAIM: My definition of "terror"
is the use of violence against civilians for political purposes.
And by this definition, Hamas is a terrorist organization. But
by the same token, Israel is practicing state terror, because
it is using violence on a massive scale against Palestinian civilians
for political purposes. I don't hold a brief for Hamas. Hamas
is not a paragon of virtue. Its leaders are not angels. They harm
civilians indiscriminately. Killing civilians is wrong, period.
That applies to Hamas, and it applies equally to the state of
But there are two points I would like
to make about Hamas, and that is-the first point is that it was
elected in a fair and free election in January 2006. It was an
impeccable election, monitored by a number of international observers,
including President Jimmy Carter. So it is not just a terrorist
organization. It is a democratically elected government of the
Palestinian people and the representative of the Palestinian people
in Gaza, as well as the West Bank.
And the second point that I would like
to make is that since coming to power, Gaza has moderated its
political program. Its charter is extreme. Its charter denies
the legitimacy of a Jewish state. The charter calls for an Islamic
state over the whole of historic Palestine. The charter has not
been revived, but since coming to power, the leadership of Hamas
has been much more pragmatic and stated that it is willing to
negotiate a long-term ceasefire with the state of Israel for twenty,
thirty, forty, maybe even fifty years.
Thirdly, Hamas joined with Fatah, the
rival group, the mainstream group, on the West Bank in a national
unity government in the summer of 2007. That national unity government
lasted only three months. Israel, with American support, helped
to sabotage and to bring down that national unity government.
Israel refused to deal with a Palestinian government which included
Hamas within it. And shamefully, both the United States and the
European Union joined in Israel in this refusal to recognize a
Hamas-dominated government, and Israel withdrew tax revenues,
and European Union withdrew foreign aid, in a shameful attempt
to bring down a democratically elected government.
So, I do not defend Hamas, but I think
that it hasn't received a fair hearing from the international
community, and Israel has done everything to sabotage it all along.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Shlaim, you say
it's done everything to sabotage it, except at the beginning,
when you say it supported Hamas to weaken Fatah, which it now
AVI SHLAIM: Indeed. Israel has always
played the game of divide and rule. This is a very good tactic
in times of war, to divide your enemies and pick them off one
by one. No one can complain about that. But divide and rule isn't
a good tactic in times of peace. If your aim is to achieve peace
with the Arabs, then you should want unity among the Palestinians
and unity in the Arab world. But Israel continued to play this
game of divide and rule.
Hamas emerged in the course of the First
Intifada in the late 1980s. It is the Islamic resistance movement.
The mainstream movement, Fatah, was led by Yasser Arafat. And
Israel gave tacit encouragement and support to the Islamic resistance
in the hope of weakening the secular nationalists led by Yasser
Arafat. It was a dangerous game to play, because the end result
of this game was that Hamas emerged as the strongest Palestinian
And Israel helped Hamas inadvertently
in another way, because Fatah signed the Oslo Accord with Israel
in 1993. It expected the Oslo Accord to lead to a two-state solution.
And yet, Israel, after the election of Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996,
reneged on the Israeli side of the deal. So, the Oslo Accord,
the Oslo peace process wasn't doomed to failure from the start.
It failed because Israel, under the leadership of the Likud, reneged
on its side of the deal. So that left the Palestinians with nothing
but misery and poverty and frustration and ever-growing Israeli
settlements on the land. And it was this context that led to the
success of Hamas at the last elections. So Israel has a lot to
explain in the rise to power of the Hamas movement.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Avi Shlaim, we
only have a minute, but I want to ask you where you see the solution
at this point. Barack Obama will be president on Tuesday in just
a few days. Hillary Clinton will be Secretary of State.
AVI SHLAIM: The solution-this is a political
conflict, and there is no military conflict to-there is no military
solution to this conflict. The only solution lies in negotiations
between Israel and Hamas about all the issues involved. President-elect
Obama is a very impressive man and a very intelligent man and
a very fair-minded man. He hasn't demonstrated any courage in
the course of this crisis. He hasn't taken any position. He hasn't
called for an immediate ceasefire. So the first step is an immediate
ceasefire, and the next step would be negotiations between all
the sides about restoring the ceasefire and then moving on to
stage two, which is a political settlement to this tragic hundred-year-old
AMY GOODMAN: And Hillary Clinton as Secretary
of State, who said in her confirmation hearing yesterday she wouldn't
negotiate with Hamas?
AVI SHLAIM: Yes, but there are other signs
from the Obama campaign that they would be willing to consider
low-level, indirect contacts with Hamas. And one has to be grateful
for small mercies, so small, minor, low-level contacts with Hamas
could lead to a proper dialog in due course. So I remain optimistic
that sanity and rationality would take over in American foreign
policy after the dreadful last eight years.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Avi Shlaim, thank
you very much for being with us. Professor Avi Shlaim, professor
of international relations at Oxford University, served in the
Israeli military-among his books, Lion of Jordan: King Hussein's
Life in War and Peace-known as one of the leading authorities
in the world on the Israel-Palestine conflict and Arab-Israel
conflict. Among his other books, The Iron Wall.