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    Middle East
     Jan 26, 2008
The Gaza 'tea party'
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - The Arab world is infuriated by the continued blockade and seizure of Gaza by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Anti-Americanism is on the rise, even in capitals that are loyal to the United States, like Amman, Riyadh and Cairo.

"This is the doing of America," most Arabs believe, in harmony with its "war on terror" against Hamas, the military group that has been in control of the Gaza Strip since June 2007. The Americans have decided to wipe out Hamas, via Israel, while the Arab world is watching. That is the feeling in Arab capitals from Casablanca to Baghdad.

For one thing, the Gaza events were a rude awakening for the

Arab street, after sugar-coated promises for regional peace were made at the Annapolis "peace" conference in the United States last November. To understand the magnitude of what is currently happening in Gaza, and how it backfires on the reputation of the US throughout the Arab and Muslim world, Americans must look back in history, searching for a certain injustice - done to them - that mirrors what is currently happening to the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza who are being collectively punished for being in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong people.

The Gaza 'tea party'
On December 16, 1773, angry Americans destroyed many crates of tea bricks on British ships in Boston Harbor. This event, known as the Boston Tea Party, helped spark the American Revolution. The British responded with brute force in 1774, issuing what came to be known as "Intolerable Acts", and closing down the port of Boston via blockade, until the East India Company was repaid for the damaged merchandise. Gaza is the Massachusetts of 2008. The "Intolerable Acts" of 1774 are a child's birthday party compared to the "Intolerable Acts" of 2008, committed by Israel. The Crossing of Rafah is the Port of Boston, 234 years later.

Americans objected back then; claiming the law was collective punishment for all of Boston rather than the individuals who had destroyed the tea. Boston was a major port for the people of Massachusetts, and its closure sparked public outcry and an emotional outburst that spread as far as South Carolina. Other measures included the Massachusetts Government Act, making all public appointments in Boston invalid unless signed off by the King of England.

The British hoped that by escalating against the Americans in Boston, they would isolate radicals in Massachusetts. The Israelis are hoping to isolate radicals - the Hamas leaders - in Gaza. This eventually backfired. The harshness to what was done in Massachusetts was too outrageous, and forced moderates either to mute their moderation, or transform into radicals. The Intolerable Acts actually increased sympathy for Massachusetts.

The situation in the Palestinian territories got out of hand on January 23, after a week-long siege by Israel on the Gaza Strip. The Israelis were enraged that since June 2007, Gaza has been under control of Hamas, a military group hailed as a resistance force in the Muslim world, but labelled as "terrorist" in the US and Europe. For an entire week, the IDF laid siege to Gaza, under the watchful eye of the US, to punish its entire population for having produced Hamas in the 1980s, and voting for them in the elections of 2005.

Israel claims it imposed the siege in response to over 100 rockets fired into Israel from Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza. The Palestinians claim they fired these rockets in response to the international embargo imposed on Gaza since Hamas came to power in the strip in 2007. The embargo turned violent in December 2007, when 58 Palestinians were killed in Gaza, and another 61 were wounded during IDF operations. On the other hand, six Israelis were wounded by Qassam rockets fired by the Islamic group on the IDF. Since hostilities started last week, over 70 Palestinians have been killed, 23 of them on January 15-16 alone.

According to Louise Arbour, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, "The Israeli practice of collective punishment, disproportionate use of force and targeted killings continues, as does the Palestinian militants' practice of indiscriminate firing of mortars and rockets into Israel. Since the beginning of the year and until midday January 22, Palestinian militants fired about 230 mortar shells and 110 rockets into the northern Negev, including the cities of Sderot and Ashqelon."

Unable to put up with the death, hunger, cold, darkness (fuel has run out in Gaza, and electricity has been shut off), tens of thousands of Palestinians stormed, blew up, and crossed the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, which has been closed to the Gazans since Hamas came to power in Gaza in June 2007.

One man escaping from Gaza to Egypt was quoted as saying, "We haven't eaten meat since the Eid [holiday in December]." The Gazans came to Egypt searching for food, commodities - and security. They were in miserable condition, said Egyptian eyewitnesses, and were allowed to enter Egypt under direct orders from President Hosni Mubarak. Speaking on the behalf of UNRWA, the United Nations agency aiding Palestinian refugees, Peter Ford appealed to Arab States on January 24, calling for donations at US$$9.8 million for "food aid, fuel, supplies and cash assistance to the most needy in the Gaza Strip".

The former British ambassador to Syria was not exaggerating, since 80% of Gazans depend on humanitarian aid, and poverty stands at 57%. Ford added, "It's not in Israel's interest to starve the Palestinians in Gaza!"

Israel - worried at the downing of the Rafah Crossing - noted that it will not let the issue of Gaza snowball into an international crisis (although by world standards, it already is). Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was very clear, saying that he would not let Gazans lead ordinary lives while Hamas was firing rockets into southern Israel. One wonders, what more suffering could the Israeli prime minister want?

Gaza today is a big prison, 100% under the mercy of Israel. The strip is surrounded by electric fences, watchtowers and barbed wire - making normal escape impossible. The strip depends on Israel for electricity and fuel. Before the blockade this January, Israel had bombed Gaza's power station in June 2006. It was repaired, only to be forced to close down this week, because of the blockade. This means no electricity for the Gazans, and no heating in the particularly cold and snowy winter that has ripped through the Middle East.

One observer reminded, "For months a terrible cloud of stench has been hanging over the tiny coastal strip. The sanitation system is in a state of paralysis. Raw sewage is spilling out on to the streets, homes and fields, and in order to save fuel, the city has stopped collecting garbage - 400 tonnes a day. The siege has reduced 85% of Gaza's 1.5 million inhabitants to total dependency on food aid, the highest rate anywhere in the world. More than 95% of businesses and factories have been forced to close their doors (3,500), leading to the loss of more than 65,000 jobs. For Gazans, border closures mean starvation."

Additionally, there is a major crisis in medical equipment and supplies, with over 100 basic types of medicine no longer to be found, in addition to 136 types of medical supplies, like syringes and tape.

Why Gaza?
The Islamic group Hamas fell directly into the hands of Olmert and US President George W Bush. The Americans are very serious on pushing through - in what remains of the US president's tenure - with their "war on terror". The three main targets would be either Iran, Hamas or Hezbollah.

State Department and Pentagon officials are advising against an adventure in Iran - and so is the US's elite press - claiming that it would be suicidal for Washington as long as there is war in Iraq. And the war in Iraq is not coming to an end, despite a relative security improvement in recent months.

Additionally, the Iran option is difficult. Any attack that would not topple the Iranian regime would only strengthen it. Iran is too big, with a strong army, and a firm religious conviction that would allow its soldiers to perform with flying colors in any confrontation with the US. The Iranians are also powerful outside Iran. They can stir up the Shi'ites of Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia - where the US has military bases, in addition of course, to the Shi'ites of Iraq.

With Iran being a difficult option, the second best in the upcoming phase of the "war on terror" would be Hezbollah. If the Americans cannot beat Iran, then the least they can do is cut off its political and military organ in the Middle East, Hezbollah. In the summer of 2006, the Lebanon war was a war between the US and Iran, via Israel and Hezbollah.

The Americans wanted to see how powerful the Iranians actually were, because even today the US has faulty intelligence on the Iranian regime. Ever since 1979, the Americans have had no embassy in Tehran; and thus a large amount of inaccurate information. In the 1980s, this faulty information came from Saudi Arabia, Saddam Hussein and Iranians in the diaspora who wanted the West to believe that the Iranian regime was weak and would fall the minute it were confronted by the international community. That clearly was not true.

Iran surprised the US, via Hezbollah, by how powerful it actually was in 2006. The ceasefire of August 2006 was by no means an end of battle, as far as the Israelis and Americans were concerned. It was simply a grace period to rearm, reassess and then reinvade.

The Americans cannot tolerate the very existence of Hezbollah - such an independent player from the US - in the Middle East. Several of its Arab allies are equally appalled by the popularity of Hezbollah and the legitimacy of its secretary general Hasan Nasrallah. They are afraid that this "success story" will be copied in failed states like Somalia, or even worse - in Iraq. The Mahdi Army after all is already earmarked to become another Hezbollah, and its leader Muqtada al-Sadr is slaving away to become another Nasrallah.

The Americans will not tolerate that, but they have one major problem: they cannot go to war against Hezbollah. This has to be done via Israel. And Israel at this stage is unable to engage in combat with Hezbollah, awaiting the findings of the Winograd Commission (due for final release by late January). This commission, created after the war of 2006, was very critical of Olmert and his government, accusing them of mismanaging the conflict with Hezbollah and leading to the downfall of defense minister Amir Peretz and chief of staff Dan Halutz. The first war led to such results for Israel - causing Olmert to think again before toying with the idea of a confrontation with Lebanon.

So basically, in as much as it is bothered by the continuation of both Iran and Hezbollah, the US administration has to accept the fact that it cannot get rid of them easily. A quick war simply will not erase either Iran or Hezbollah. The last standing target - and the easiest to nail - would be Hamas. This part of the so-called "war on terror" has started in Gaza.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Welcome to Planet Gaza (Sep 22, '07)

A real success story in the US's Iraq: Iran (Sep 20, '07)

The rise and rise of Hamas (Jun 30, '07)

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(24 hours to 11:59 pm ET, Jan 23, 2008)


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