Palestinians have the right to self defence
Israeli soldiers tend to their tanks in a deployment area on Israel's border with the Gaza Strip. Photo: Lior Mizrahi
The way Western politicians and media have pontificated about Israel's onslaught on Gaza, you'd think it was facing an unprovoked attack from a well-armed foreign power.
Israel had every ''right to defend itself'', Barack Obama said. ''No country on earth would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders.'' He was echoed by Britain's Foreign Secretary, William Hague, who said the Palestinian Islamists of Hamas bore ''principal responsibility'' for Israel's bombardment of the open-air prison that is the Gaza Strip.
Meanwhile, most Western media have echoed Israel's claim that its assault is retaliation for Hamas rocket attacks.
In fact, an examination of the sequence of events over the past month shows that Israel played the decisive role in the military escalation: from its attack on a Khartoum arms factory reportedly supplying arms to Hamas and the killing of 15 Palestinian fighters in late October, to the shooting of a mentally disabled Palestinian early this month, the killing of a 13-year-old in an Israeli incursion and, crucially, the assassination of the Hamas commander Ahmed al-Jaabari last Wednesday during negotiations over a temporary truce.
Israel had plenty of motivation to unleash a new round of bloodletting. There was the imminence of Israeli elections (military attacks on the Palestinians are par for the course before Israeli polls); the need to test Egypt's new Muslim Brotherhood President, Mohammed Mursi, and pressure Hamas to bring other Palestinian guerrilla groups to heel; and the chance to destroy missile caches before any confrontation with Iran and test Israel's new Iron Dome anti-missile system.
So after six days of sustained assault by the world's fourth largest military power on one of its most wretched and overcrowded territories, at least 126 Palestinians had been killed, about half of them civilians, along with four Israelis. The goal, Israel's Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, insisted, had been to ''send Gaza back to the middle ages''.
True, the bloodshed hasn't so far been on the scale of Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, which left 1400 Palestinians dead in three weeks. But the issue isn't just who started and escalated it, or even the grinding ''disproportionality'' of yet another Israeli military battering (even before last month's flare-ups, 314 Palestinians had been killed since 2009, as against 20 Israelis).
It's that to portray Israel as some kind of victim with every right to ''defend itself'' from attack from ''outside its borders'' is a grotesque inversion of reality. Israel has after all been in illegal occupation of both the West Bank and Gaza, where most of the population are the families of refugees who were driven out of what is now Israel in 1948.
Despite Israel's withdrawal of settlements and bases in 2005, the Gaza Strip remains occupied, both effectively and legally - and is recognised as such by the UN. Israel is in control of Gaza and has blockaded the strip since Hamas took over in 2006-2007, preventing the movement of people, materials and food supplies in and out of the territory - even calculating the 2279 calories per person that would keep Gazans on an exemplary ''diet''. It still invades the strip at will.
So Gazans are an occupied people and have the right to resist, including by armed force (though not to target civilians), while Israel is an occupying power that has an obligation to withdraw - not a right to defend territories it controls or is colonising by dint of military power.
Even if Israel had genuinely ended its occupation in 2005, Gaza's people are Palestinians and their territory part of the 22 per cent of historic Palestine earmarked for a Palestinian state that depends on Israeli withdrawal from the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem. Across their land, Palestinians have the right to defend and arm themselves, whether they want it or not.
But instead the US, Britain and other European powers finance, arm and back Israel's occupation precisely to prevent Palestinians obtaining the arms that would allow them to protect themselves against Israeli military might.
It's not rockets but unconditional US and western support that gives Israel impunity for not lifting the blockade, dismantling its illegal settlements or withdrawing from the West Bank and Gaza.
Whatever the Israeli government's motivations for winding up the past week's conflict, it seems to have backfired. For the first time since the start of the Arab uprisings, the cause of Palestine is again centre stage.
Emboldened by the wave of change and growing support across the region, Hamas has also regained credibility as a resistance force, which had faded since 2009. The deployment of longer-range rockets that have been shown to reach Tel Aviv and Jerusalem has also begun to shift what has been a massively one-sided balance of deterrence.
The truce being negotiated on Tuesday would reportedly enforce Hamas responsibility for policing the strip and break the blockade, opening the Rafah crossing with Egypt. It doesn't, however, look like the long-term security deal with Hamas Israel was looking for, which would risk deepening the disastrous Palestinian split between Gaza and the West Bank.
Whatever is finally agreed won't end Israel's occupation/colonisation of Palestine or halt its war of dispossession against the Palestinian people. That demands pressure on Western powers that underwrite it to change course. But most of all, it needs a change in the balance of power on the ground.