Jonathan Cook: Israel plots another Palestinian exodus


Richard Moore

The meaning of Gaza¹s Œshoah¹: Israel plots another Palestinian exodus

By Jonathan Cook

Global Research, March 8, 2008

Israeli Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai¹s much publicised remark last week 
about Gaza facing a ³shoah² -- the Hebrew word for the Holocaust -- was widely 
assumed to be unpleasant hyperbole about the army¹s plans for an imminent 
full-scale invasion of the Strip.

More significantly, however, his comment offers a disturbing indication of the 
Israeli army¹s longer-term strategy towards the Palestinians in the occupied 

Vilnai, a former general, was interviewed by Army Radio as Israel was in the 
midst of unleashing a series of air and ground strikes on populated areas of 
Gaza that killed more than 100 Palestinians, at least half of whom were 
civilians and 25 of whom were children, according to the Israeli human rights 
group B¹Tselem.

The interview also took place in the wake of a rocket fired from Gaza that 
killed a student in Sderot and other rockets that hit the centre of the southern
city of Ashkelon. Vilnai stated: ³The more Qassam fire intensifies and the 
rockets reach a longer range, they [the Palestinians of Gaza] will bring upon 
themselves a bigger shoah because we will use all our might to defend 

His comment, picked up by the Reuters wire service, was soon making headlines 
around the world. Presumably uncomfortable with a senior public figure in Israel
comparing his government¹s policies to the Nazi plan to exterminate European 
Jewry, many news services referred to Vilnai¹s clearly articulated threat as a 
³warning², as though he was prophesying a cataclysmic natural event over which 
he and the Israeli army had no control.

Nonetheless, officials understood the damage that the translation from Hebrew of
Vilnai¹s remark could do to Israel¹s image abroad. And sure enough, Palestinian 
leaders were soon exploiting the comparison, with both the Palestinian 
president, Mahmoud Abbas, and the exiled Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, stating 
that a ³holocaust² was unfolding in Gaza.

Within hours the Israeli Foreign Ministry was launching a large ³hasbara² 
(propaganda) campaign through its diplomats, as the Jerusalem Post reported. In 
a related move, a spokesman for Vilnai explained that the word ³shoah² also 
meant ³disaster²; this, rather than a holocaust, was what the minister had been 
referring to. Clarifications were issued by many media outlets.

However, no one in Israel was fooled. ³Shoah² -- which literally means ³burnt 
offering² -- was long ago reserved for the Holocaust, much as the Arabic word 
³nakba² (or ³catastrophe²) is nowadays used only to refer to the Palestinians¹ 
dispossession by Israel in 1948. Certainly, the Israeli media in English 
translated Vilnai¹s use of ³shoah² as ³holocaust².

But this is not the first time that Vilnai has expressed extreme views about 
Gaza¹s future.

Last summer he began quietly preparing a plan on behalf of his boss, the Defence
Minister Ehud Barak, to declare Gaza a ³hostile entity² and dramatically reduce 
the essential services supplied by Israel -- as long-time occupier -- to its 
inhabitants, including electricity and fuel. The cuts were finally implemented 
late last year after the Israeli courts gave their blessing.

Vilnai and Barak, both former military men like so many other Israeli 
politicians, have been ³selling² this policy -- of choking off basic services to
Gaza -- to Western public opinion ever since.

Under international law, Israel as the occupying power has an obligation to 
guarantee the welfare of the civilian population in Gaza, a fact forgotten when 
the media reported Israel¹s decision to declare Gaza a hostile entity. The pair 
have therefore claimed tendentiously that the humanitarian needs of Gazans are 
still being safeguarded by the limited supplies being allowed through, and that 
therefore the measures do not constitute collective punishment.

Last October, after a meeting of defence officials, Vilnai said of Gaza: 
"Because this is an entity that is hostile to us, there is no reason for us to 
supply them with electricity beyond the minimum required to prevent a crisis.²

Three months later Vilnai went further, arguing that Israel should cut off ³all 
responsibility² for Gaza, though, in line with the advice of Israel¹s attorney 
general, he has been careful not to suggest that this would punish ordinary 
Gazans excessively.

Instead he said disengagement should be taken to its logical conclusion: ³We 
want to stop supplying electricity to them, stop supplying them with water and 
medicine, so that it would come from another place². He suggested that Egypt 
might be forced to take over responsibility.

Vilnai¹s various comments are a reflection of the new thinking inside the 
defence and political establishments about where next to move Israel¹s conflict 
with the Palestinians.

After the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, a consensus in the 
Israeli military quickly emerged in favour of maintaining control through a 
colonial policy of divide and rule, by factionalising the Palestinians and then 
keeping them feuding.

As long as the Palestinians were too divided to resist the occupation 
effectively, Israel could carry on with its settlement programme and ³creeping 
annexation² of the occupied territories, as the Defence Minister of the time, 
Moshe Dayan, called it.

Israel experimented with various methods of undermining the secular Palestinian 
nationalism of the PLO, which threatened to galvanise a general resistance to 
the occupation. In particular Israel established local anti-PLO militias known 
as the Village Leagues and later backed the Islamic fundamentalism of the Muslim
Brotherhood, which would morph into Hamas.

Rivalry between Hamas and the PLO, controlled by Fatah, has been the backdrop to
Palestinian politics in the occupied territories ever since, and has moved 
centre stage since Israel¹s disengagement from Gaza in 2005. Growing antagonism 
fuelled by Israel and the US, as an article in Vanity Fair confirmed this week, 
culminated in the physical separation of a Fatah-run West Bank from a 
Hamas-ruled Gaza last summer.

The leaderships of Fatah and Hamas are now divided not only geographically but 
also by their diametrically opposed strategies for dealing with Israel¹s 

Fatah¹s control of the West Bank is being shored up by Israel because its 
leaders, including President Mahmoud Abbas, have made it clear that they are 
prepared to cooperate with an interminable peace process that will give Israel 
the time it needs to annex yet more of the territory.

Hamas, on the other hand, is under no illusions about the peace process, having 
seen the Jewish settlers leave but Israel¹s military control and its economic 
siege only tighten from arm¹s length.

In charge of an open-air prison, Hamas has refused to surrender to Israeli 
diktats and has proven invulnerable to Israeli and US machinations to topple it.
Instead it has begun advancing the only two feasible forms of resistance 
available: rocket attacks over the fence surrounding Gaza, and popular mass 

And this is where the concerns of Vilnai and others emanate from. Both forms of 
resistance, if Hamas remains in charge of Gaza and improves its level of 
organisation and the clarity of its vision, could over the long term unravel 
Israel¹s plans to annex the occupied territories -- once their Palestinian 
inhabitants have been removed.

First, Hamas¹ development of more sophisticated and longer-range rockets 
threatens to move Hamas¹ resistance to a much larger canvas than the backwater 
of the small development town of Sderot. The rockets that landed last week in 
Ashkelon, one of the country¹s largest cities, could be the harbingers of 
political change in Israel.

Hizbullah proved in the 2006 Lebanon war that Israeli domestic opinion quickly 
crumbled in the face of sustained rocket attacks. Hamas hopes to achieve the 
same outcome.

After the strikes on Ashkelon, the Israeli media was filled with reports of 
angry mobs taking to the city¹s streets and burning tyres in protest at their 
government¹s failure to protect them. That is their initial response. But in 
Sderot, where the attacks have been going on for years, the mayor, Eli Moyal, 
recently called for talks with Hamas. A poll published in the Haaretz daily 
showed that 64 per cent of Israelis now agree with him. That figure may increase
further if the rocket threat grows.

The fear among Israel¹s leaders is that ³creeping annexation² of the occupied 
territories cannot be achieved if the Israeli public starts demanding that Hamas
be brought to the negotiating table.

Second, Hamas¹ mobilisation last month of Gazans to break through the wall at 
Rafah and pour into Egypt has demonstrated to Israel¹s politician-generals like 
Barak and Vilnai that the Islamic movement has the potential, as yet unrealised,
to launch a focused mass peaceful protest against the military siege of Gaza.

Meron Benvenisti, a former deputy mayor of Jersualem, noted that this scenario 
³frightens the army more than a violent conflict with armed Palestinians². 
Israel fears that the sight of unarmed women and children being executed for the
crime of trying to free themselves from the prison Israel has built for them may
give the lie to the idea that the disengagement ended the occupation.

When several thousand Palestinians held a demonstration a fortnight ago in which
they created a human chain along part of Gaza¹s fence with Israel, the Israeli 
army could hardly contain its panic. Heavy artillery batteries were brought to 
the perimeter and snipers were ordered to shoot protesters¹ legs if they 
approached the fence.

As Amira Hass, Haaretz¹s veteran reporter in the occupied territories, observed,
Israel has so far managed to terrorise most ordinary Gazans into a paralysed 
inactivity on this front. In the main Palestinians have refused to take the 
³suicidal² course of directly challenging their imprisonment by Israel, even 
peacefully: ³The Palestinians do not need warnings or reports to know the 
Israeli soldiers shoot the unarmed as well, and they also kill women and 

But that may change as the siege brings ever greater misery to Gaza.

As a result, Israel¹s immediate priorities are: to provoke Hamas regularly into 
violence to deflect it from the path of organising mass peaceful protest; to 
weaken the Hamas leadership through regular executions; and to ensure that an 
effective defence against the rockets is developed, including technology like 
Barak¹s pet project, Iron Dome, to shield the country from attacks.

In line with these policies, Israel broke the latest period of ³relative calm² 
in Gaza by initiating the executions of five Hamas members last Wednesday. 
Predictably, Hamas responded by firing into Israel a barrage of rockets that 
killed the student in Sderot, in turn justifying the bloodbath in Gaza.

But a longer-term strategy is also required, and is being devised by Vilnai and 
others. Aware both that the Gaza prison is tiny and its resources scarce and 
that the Palestinian population is growing at a rapid rate, Israel needs a more 
permanent solution. It must find a way to stop the growing threat posed by 
Hamas¹ organised resistance, and the social explosion that will come sooner or 
later from the Strip¹s overcrowding and inhuman conditions.

Vilnai¹s remark hints at that solution, as do a series of comments from cabinet 
ministers over the past few weeks proposing war crimes to stop the rockets. 
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, for example, has said that Gazans cannot be allowed 
³to live normal lives²; Internal Security Minister, Avi Dichter, believes Israel
should take action ³irrespective of the cost to the Palestinians²; and the 
Interior Minister, Meir Sheetrit, suggests the Israeli army should ³decide on a 
neighborhood in Gaza and level it² after each attack.

This week Barak revealed that his officials were working on the last idea, 
finding a way to make it lawful for the army to direct artillery fire and air 
strikes at civilian neighbourhoods of Gaza in response to rocket fire. They are 
already doing this covertly, of course, but now they want their hands freed by 
making it official policy, sanctioned by the international community.

At the same time Vilnai proposed a related idea, of declaring areas of Gaza 
³combat zones² in which the army would have free rein and from which residents 
would have little choice but to flee. In practice, this would allow Israel to 
expel civilians from wide areas of the Strip, herding them into ever smaller 
spaces, as has been happening in the West Bank for some time.

All these measures ­ from the intensification of the siege to prevent 
electricity, fuel and medicines from reaching Gaza to the concentration of the 
population into even more confined spaces, as well as new ways of stepping up 
the violence inflicted on the Strip ­ are thinly veiled excuses for targeting 
and punishing the civilian population. They necessarily preclude negotiation and
dialogue with Gaza¹s political leaders.

Until now, it had appeared, Israel¹s plan was eventually to persuade Egypt to 
take over the policing of Gaza, a return to its status before the 1967 war. The 
view was that Cairo would be even more ruthless in cracking down on the Islamic 
militants than Israel. But increasingly Vilnai and Barak look set on a different

Their ultimate goal appears to be related to Vilnai¹s ³shoah² comment: Gaza¹s 
depopulation, with the Strip squeezed on three sides until the pressure forces 
Palestinians to break out again into Egypt. This time, it may be assumed, there 
will be no chance of return.

Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His new 
book, ³Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake 
the Middle East², is published by Pluto Press. His website is

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of 
the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Centre for Research on 

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