Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai's
much publicized remark last week about Gaza facing a shoah – the
Hebrew word for the Holocaust – was widely assumed to be unpleasant hyperbole
about the army's plans for an imminent full-scale invasion of the Strip.
More significantly, however, his comment offers a disturbing indication of the
Israeli army's longer-term strategy toward 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 B'Tselem.
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 center of the southern city
of Ashkelon. Vilnai stated: "The 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 ourselves."
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 government's policies to the Nazi plan to exterminate European
Jewry, many news services referred to Vilnai's clearly articulated threat
as a "warning," 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 Vilnai's remark could do to Israel's 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 "holocaust" was unfolding in Gaza.
Within hours the Israeli Foreign Ministry was launching a large hasbara
(propaganda) campaign through its diplomats, as the Jerusalem Post reported.
In a related move, a spokesman for Vilnai explained that the word shoah
also meant "disaster"; 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. Shoah was long ago reserved for the Holocaust, much
as the Arabic word nakba (or "catastrophe") is nowadays used
only to refer to the Palestinians' dispossession by Israel in 1948. Certainly,
the Israeli media in English translated Vilnai's use of shoah as "holocaust."
But this is not the first time that Vilnai has expressed extreme views about
Last summer he began quietly preparing a plan on behalf of his boss, the Defense
Minister Ehud Barak, to declare Gaza a "hostile entity" and dramatically
reduce the essential services supplied by Israel – as longtime 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 "selling" 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 Israel's 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 defense 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."
Three months later Vilnai went further, arguing that Israel should cut off "all
responsibility" for Gaza, though, in line with the advice of Israel's
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: "We
want to stop supplying electricity to them, stop supplying them with water and
medicine, so that it would come from another place." He suggested that
Egypt might be forced to take over responsibility.
Vilnai's various comments are a reflection of the new thinking inside the defense
and political establishments about where next to move Israel's conflict with
After the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, a consensus in the Israeli
military quickly emerged in favor of maintaining control through a colonial
policy of divide and rule, by factionalizing the Palestinians and then keeping
As long as the Palestinians were too divided to resist the occupation effectively,
Israel could carry on with its settlement program and "creeping annexation"
of the occupied territories, as the defense minister of the time, Moshe Dayan,
Israel experimented with various methods of undermining the secular Palestinian
nationalism of the PLO, which threatened to galvanize 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
center stage since Israel's disengagement from Gaza in 2005. Growing antagonism
fueled by Israel and the U.S., 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 Israel's
Fatah's 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 Israel's military control and its economic
siege only tighten from arm's length.
In charge of an open-air prison, Hamas has refused to surrender to Israeli diktats
and has proven invulnerable to Israeli and U.S. 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 action.
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
organization and the clarity of its vision, could over the long term unravel
Israel's plans to annex the occupied territories – once their Palestinian
inhabitants have been removed.
First, Hamas' development of more sophisticated and longer-range rockets
threatens to move Hamas' 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 country's largest cities, could be the harbingers
of political change in Israel.
Hezbollah proved in the 2006 Lebanon war that Israeli domestic opinion quickly
crumbled in the face of sustained rocket attacks. Hamas hopes to achieve the
After the strikes on Ashkelon, the Israeli media was filled with reports of
angry mobs taking to the city's streets and burning tires in protest at their
government's 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 Ha'aretz
daily showed that 64 percent of Israelis now agree with him. That figure may
increase further if the rocket threat grows.
The fear among Israel's leaders is that "creeping annexation"
of the occupied territories cannot be achieved if the Israeli public starts
demanding that Hamas be brought to the negotiating table.
Second, Hamas' mobilization last month of Gazans to break through the wall at
Rafah and pour into Egypt has demonstrated to Israel's politician-generals like
Barak and Vilnai that the Islamic movement has the potential, as yet unrealized,
to launch a focused mass peaceful protest against the military siege of Gaza.
Meron Benvenisti, a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, noted that this scenario
"frightens the army more than a violent conflict with armed Palestinians."
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 Gaza's 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 protesters'
legs if they approached the fence.
As Amira Hass, Ha'aretz's veteran reporter in the occupied territories,
observed, Israel has so far managed to terrorize most ordinary Gazans into a
paralyzed inactivity on this front. In the main Palestinians have refused to
take the "suicidal" course of directly challenging their imprisonment
by Israel, even peacefully: "The Palestinians do not need warnings or reports
to know the Israeli soldiers shoot the unarmed as well, and they also kill women
But that may change as the siege brings ever greater misery to Gaza.
As a result, Israel's immediate priorities are to provoke Hamas regularly into
violence to deflect it from the path of organizing mass peaceful protest; to
weaken the Hamas leadership through regular executions; and to ensure that an
effective defense against the rockets is developed, including technology like
Barak's pet project, Iron Dome, to shield the country from attacks.
In line with these policies, Israel broke the latest period of "relative
calm" 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 both the growing threat posed
by Hamas' organized resistance and the social explosion that will come sooner
or later from the Strip's overcrowding and inhuman conditions.
Vilnai's 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
"to live normal lives"; Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter believes
Israel should take action "irrespective of the cost to the Palestinians";
and Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit suggests the Israeli army should "decide
on a neighborhood in Gaza and level it" 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 neighborhoods 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
"combat zones" 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 Gaza's political leaders.
Until now, it had appeared, Israel's 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 course.
Their ultimate goal appears to be related to Vilnai's shoah comment:
Gaza's 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.