Category Archives: Israel and Palestine

Dershowitz shows the way

Jamie has already opened our eyes to the truth this weekend, with an old Joan Peters interview which reminds us to be more careful when considering sources and evidence. Well quite. Following this, I thought i’d post this Alan Dershowitz interview from earlier this year, which warns against the anti-Israeli bigotry of Jimmy Carter, and consigns to the hard-left anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the ‘universal admiration’ of Yithzak Rabin. See the pathway, my friends.

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The Gaza Peace Boats

I haven’t posted in a week or so, largely because I’m on holiday in the South of France, and because I’m working on a longer post about the Climate Camp. This said, I have to flag up the incredible voyage of the Gaza peace boats, as well as the delightful hypocrisy in the response from the defence ministry, who claim that

“You can demonstrate, that’s OK with us. But you are not allowed to break international law.”

The beauty of this project is that it shows the alternatives to waiting around for a lull in government inertia. The response of the international community to the crisis in Gaza has been a mixture of general approval and mild criticism, but the countries that matter have supported Israel wholeheartedly. Earlier this year we were shown that the citizens of Gaza have the power to tear down the walls of their oppression. Here, we see that citizens of the world can take part in this mass struggle against oppression.

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Israel Does What It Wants

Dion Nissenbaum, on the relative impunity enjoyed by Israeli soldiers in the territories, is well worth reading.

Also, check out Steve Clemons’ interview with Mustafa Barghouti. On Obama he unfortunately pulls his punches, but his statistics and observations on the post-Annapolis environment are crucial.

“What happened since Annapolis is really shocking. Since Annapolis, the rate at which Israeli settlements expand in the West Bank is twenty times more than before. Since Annapolis, the number of Israeli military checkpoints have increased from 521 to 607.

Since Annapolis, the number of Israeli attacks on Palestinians have increased by 300%. During the whole year of 2007, 404 Palestinians were killed, and 10 Israelis, or 15 Israelis were killed. During the period since Annapolis, 520 Palestinians were killed, including 70 children.”

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Bil’in’s Victory

Following last September’s Supreme Court ruling, the Israeli establishment has finally agreed to raze a portion of the Separation Wall around Bil’in. Despite a very modest ruling by the court, who simply said that the pathway of the wall should reflect security interests rather than the expansion wishes of the Tzufin settlement,

“the defense establishment initially refused to change the route north of Tzufin. Later, the state agreed to move the fence closer to the Green Line, but not all the way, which would return 1,500 out of 3,000 dunams of land confiscated from local Palestinians. It explained this offer by saying that the original route had passed four kilometers east of the settlements Kochav Yair and Tzur Yigal – far more than needed to keep them out of the range of gunmen on the other side of the fence.”

It has become common in Liberal Democracies for the government and its bureaucracy to ignore court orders and legal processes when they do not suit, so this delay should not come as a surprise. Despite potential problems tied in with a legalistic challenge to the occupation, which I have examined before, this does represent a significant victory for the Palestinians – one which is worth dwelling on. There appear to be a number of reasons why the villagers of Bil’in were largely successful, which we may be able to apply to other situations around the world. The discussion below, which identifies the possible reasons for the success at Bil’in, is a modified version of a longer essay I wrote earlier this year, hence the formal footnotes. I have taken it as read that the official reason given for re-routing the wall – humanitarian concern – is not worth talking about. Instead, the specific contribution of different aspects of the nonviolent resistance has been examined.

1. The Internationals and Israelis

Internationals and Israelis have taken part in actions alongside Palestinians in the West Bank and in Gaza, and have often been severely injured; the deaths of Tom Hurndall and Rachel Corrie, both killed whilst engaging in peaceful direct action, received significant global media attention.[1] Groups such as Gush Shalom and Anarchists Against the Wall (AATW) in Israel, and the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) worldwide, send activists to the West Bank.[2] The original motives for this are summed up by one of the ISM’s founders, Huwaida Arraf:

“The Palestinians started recognizing that when internationals joined in the demonstrations, it resulted in much less Israeli violence. Sadly, Palestinians are just numbers to the soldiers, but they didn’t want to kill internationals. Plus there were international witnesses – eyes watching that could testify to what was being done.”[3]

The role that internationals play in limiting the violence is significant, because it widens the space for the Palestinians to engage in resistance which would otherwise be too dangerous. As another ISM founder, Ghassan Andoni, notes, “getting a group of Palestinians to go and remove a checkpoint might result in a few of them losing their lives and most of the others getting injured or arrested. You cannot build a massive civil-based resistance with this much risk; this much risk can destroy it.”[4] The potential for non-violent action is greatly increased by the presence of internationals. Alongside this, they can raise the morale of the Palestinians, because they are reminded that they are not isolated, and are given the space to engage in meaningful non-violent actions within a more secure environment.

2. Media Attention and Communication

One of the reasons that internationals and Israelis are at less risk of violence comes within the second basis for the success at Bil’in. They have far more access and appeal to global mass media. It is clear that the international media will take more of an interest in a story if internationals are present. The deaths of Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall were widely reported in the West, and their stories became famous. A play about Corrie’s time in Gaza was co-written and directed by Alan Rickman.[5] This attention is at variants with the reporting of the deaths of Palestinians; highlighting this issue, the Observer says that “on the night of Corrie’s death, nine Palestinians were killed in the Gaza Strip, among them a four-year-old girl and a man aged 90.”[6] None of these deaths reached anything approaching comparable coverage.

Internationals also have the opportunity to testify about what they have seen. The ISM media office issues regular press releases, and volunteers who have returned home organise speaker events, write books, and organise new delegations in a support effort which Huwaida Arraf terms “an incredible phenomenon.”[7] The efforts of Israelis and internationals to circulate information about their experiences are aided by the worldwide communication revolution. The power of blogs, e-mails, Facebook and other methods which facilitate the instant dispatch of information should not be underestimated. As Bleiker notes, “the dissemination of a dissident message no longer occurs gradually, but transgresses, almost instantaneously, various spatial and political boundaries.”[8] Whereas twenty years ago the major source of information came from newspapers and the radio, often under corporate control, there are now countless sources of alternative information, which make isolation less apparent and censorship far more difficult. This is why “an act of dissent has the potential to reach a much wider audience than in previous époques.”[9]

In 1988 Herman and Chomsky argued that, due to various institutional and market pressures, the mass media has a tendency to report the news in a manner favourable to specific elite interests.[10] The increase in the capacity of communication networks has the potential to obscure such institutional media bias, to give a broader spectrum of views than would otherwise be permissible, and to pressure mainstream media to report to stories they might otherwise ignore. In 2004 Iranian bloggers used a ‘Google Bomb’[11] to raise the profile of the debate about the name of the Persian Gulf (which National Geographic had referred to as the Arabian Gulf alongside its recognised name). Their actions helped to attract worldwide media attention.[12] Similarly, in 2007, an awareness campaign run through Facebook criticising HSBC’s policy on overdraft charges attracted mass media attention and succeeded in changing the bank’s position.[13]

The communication factor is also enhanced by the increased number of NGOs and Human Rights organisations working in areas of conflict, who are able to provide up-to-date information which is generally perceived as impartial. The OCHA provides weekly bulletins on the humanitarian situation in the Occupied Territories,[14] and organisations such as Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International (AI) and B’Tselem maintain a constant presence. The web presence of these organisations and their findings means that anyone can gain access to reports and distribute the information. In the context of Palestine, this situation has meant that any repression has been reported more widely than it otherwise might have been, particularly when internationals were involved. The human rights organisations have also helped to clarify the details of incidents and scrutinised potential misinformation; when the IDF claimed that Tom Hurndall was killed whilst “wearing camouflage attire moving towards an IDF position while shooting,” HRW were able to establish that this was not the case.[15]

3. The Low-Level of Hierarchy in the Resistance

A third factor which would appear to increase the utility of non-violent resistance in Palestine is the relatively non-hierarchical and decentralised nature of the protest there. In his comparative study of the first and second intifadas, Ghassan Andoni shows that much of the success of the first intifada was due to its non-hierarchical nature:

“Because the resistance had wide popular participation and was diverse in methodology, it managed to confuse the Israeli army and had great potential for sustainability. But by the end of 1989, the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organisation) leadership had begun to centralize the uprising. As a result, the level of popular participation decreased tremendously, local leaders were marginalized, and semi-militant groups…became the main players.”[16]

Writing in 2001, Andoni notes that the current resistance was more centralised than would be ideal, but he does see potential for movement. The protests at Bil’in could be seen as one example of this potential realised; they are organised on the local level, and the groups who join them in solidarity are based on horizontal modes of organisation with no formal chain of command.[17]

By increasing the involvement of participants in all stages of the resistance, decentralised structures can help to create a sense of ownership and thus maintain participation. More significantly, they are also harder to stop than more centrally organised movements, which can be susceptible to bribery, and which can make deals to the detriment of those on the ground. It is possible that an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority would be unlikely to stop the villagers at Bil’in from protesting if it did not ameliorate their situation – only firm compromises from the Israeli authorities could achieve this. Another advantage of non-hierarchical organisation for non-violent action groups comes from Kenneth Boulding, who argues that “the larger and more authoritarian the organization, the better the chance that its top decision-makers will be operating in purely imaginary worlds.”[18] When engaging in Civil Disobedience, an intimate knowledge of the facts is necessary, particularly in dangerous regions. It is arguable that hierarchical structures would be unable to effectively manage the situation on the ground. It should be noted that a lack of hierarchy should not mean a lack of wider organisation – that the protests have died down in Bil’in over the past year could be regarded as problematic; a lack of wider coordination has allowed small groups to be placated by promises from their occupier. Nonetheless this is a seperate issue.

4. The Specific Political Environment

Israeli discourse is often centred around the notion that the occupation of the West Bank and Israel’s wider foreign policy has been necessary as a tool to protect Jews from a hostile Arab world.[19] A result of this has been that failures on the part of the Israeli government to prevent attacks on Jews have been received coldly by the Israeli public, particularly when such attacks have been carried out by the IDF. When Gil Na’amati, a member of AATW who had just served three years in the IDF, was shot in the leg in 2003, there was a significant mainstream debate in Israel. High profile leaders such as Shimon Peres, then Labour Party leader, expressed their shock at the incident; former minister Yossi Beilin, went so far as to say that the soldier who shot Na’amati should have refused his commander’s orders.[20] It would seem that this level of concern within Israel creates opportunities for groups such as AATW to exploit their relative immunity, and thus broadens their utility. Such a situation is also true of the internationals who travel to the Occupied Territories. As mentioned earlier, the deaths of Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall received widespread media coverage. Mark Clyde argues that Israel is dependent on the United States for financial and military support; thus it is not only domestic legitimacy that is of particular concern for Israel.[21] It’s reliance means that challenges to the legitimacy of support for Israel in the US and its allies are a problem for the Israeli establishment; it is this mechanism which would appear to give utility to the contribution of internationals in this particular case.

If it is the case that the above conditions were instrumental in helping the villagers at Bil’in to win change, then these aspects could be taken to other struggles and applied to other situations. Naturally, it is not a cut and paste situation, especially in the case of the specific political environment. Popular struggle is a very imperfect and incomplete science, which improves and progresses with empirical research and trial and error. Nonetheless, it is hard not to look at Bil’in and recognise the potential which comes from solidarity action, from mass communication and from a non-hierarchical mode of organisation.


[1] On Tom Hurndall, see BBC News, “Israeli Troops ‘Wound Briton’,” April 11, 2003, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/2940515.stm (accessed April 15, 2008). He died from his injuries nine months later. On Rachel Corrie, see CNN, “Israeli Bulldozer kills American Protester,” March 23, 2003, http://www.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/meast/03/16/rafah.death/ (accessed April 15, 2008).

[2] They have also sent activists to Gaza in the past, but the border is currently closed.

[3] Huwaida Arraf and Adam Shapiro, “The Uprising for Freedom is an International Struggle,” in Live from Palestine: International and Palestinian Direct Action Against the Israeli Occupation, ed. Nancy Stohlman and Laurieann Aladin (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2003), p.67.

[4] Ghassan Andoni, “The Role of Internationals in the Palestinian Struggle,” in Live from Palestine, ed. Stohlman and Aladin, p.186.

[5] Michael Billington, “My Name is Rachel Corrie,” The Guardian, April 14, 2005. http://arts.guardian.co.uk/critic/review/0,,1459259,00.html (accessed April 6, 2007).

[6] Sandra Jordan, “Making of a Martyr,” The Observer, March 23, 2003.

[7] Arraf and Shapiro, “The Uprising for Freedom is an International Struggle,” in Live from Palestine, ed. Stohlman and Aladin, p.75.

[8] Roland Bleiker, Popular Dissent, Human Agency and Global Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p.97.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent.

[11] A ‘Google Bomb’ is a technique by which individuals conspire to elevate a single webpage to the top of Google’s search rankings, and thereby raise its profile. In 2005 the term was included in the New Oxford American Dictionary.

[12] Michael Theodoulou, “Ideological Gulf Inflames Iran,” Times (London), December 3, 2004. Megan K. Stack, “Iran’s Anger Over a New Map Magnifies a Perception Gulf,” Los Angeles Times, December 2, 2004.

[13] Donald MacLeod, “Students Celebrate Facebook Triumph over HSBC,” Guardian, August 30, 2007, http://education.guardian.co.uk/students/finance/story/0,,2159178,00.html (accessed April 12, 2008).

[14] OCHA, “Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs: Occupied Palestinian Territory,” http://www.ochaopt.org/ (accessed April 19, 2008).

[15] Human Rights Watch, Promoting Impunity: The Israeli Military’s Failure to Investigate Wrongdoing (June 2005), pp.73-77. http://hrw.org/reports/2005/iopt0605/iopt0605text.pdf (accessed April 19, 2008).

[16] Ghassan Andoni, “A Comparative Study of Intifada 1987 and Intifada 2000,” in The New Intifada: Resisting Israel’s Apartheid, ed. Roane Carey (London: Verso, 2001), p.212.

[17] International Solidarity Movement, “About ISM,” http://www.palsolidarity.org/main/about-ism/ (accessed April 20, 2008). “The ISM is non-hierarchical. Actions on the ground are ccoordinated [sic] with the larger Palestinian community and moved through a core group of committed activists. The core group is open to all activists, Palestinians or otherwise, who make a commitment to ISM’s work and take on coordinating responsibilities. The ISM uses consensus decision making in all of it’s [sic] activities.”

[18] Kenneth B. Boulding, “The Economics of Knowledge and the Knowledge of Economics,” American Economic Review, 56:1/2 (1966): p.7.

[19] Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall (London: Penguin, 2001), pp.250-264. Shlaim explains the rationale for holding on to the West Bank and Gaza after the 1967 Six Day War. On broader Israeli policy, see David Horovitz, “Interview with Benny Morris,” Jerusalem Post, April 10, 2008, http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?apage=1&cid=1207649985946&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull (accessed April 12, 2008). Benny Morris suggests that Israel’s use of a nuclear bomb on Iran’s nuclear facilities “could put the fight out of radical Islam for a few generations. The Arab world could soften and move to the West.”

[20] Margot Dudkevitch, Gil Hoffman and Nina Gilbert, “IDF Probes Shooting of Fence Protesters,” Jerusalem Post, December 28, 2003.

[21] Mark R. Clyde, Israeli-United States Relations (Congressional Research Service, November 9, 2004), p.3. http://www.fas.org/man/crs/IB82008.pdf (accessed April 17, 2008).

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Israel’s Terrorists

An article in Saturday’s Times examines an old Irgun pamphlet issued by the Israeli prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner Menachem Begin.

In the document, Irgun tells British troops: “It is unavoidable that many Jewish soldiers and many British soldiers should fall. And it is only fair that these people know at least why they may be killed.”

It adds: “Most of you have been in this country for quite a long time. You have learned what the word ‘terrorist’ means, some of you may even have come into direct contact with them (and heartily desire not to repeat the experience). But what do you know about them? Why does a young man go underground?”

It then draws a parallel with what would have happened if, seven years earlier, Britain had been overrun by Nazi Germany. “Remember 1940. Then it seemed quite possible that your island country would be conquered and subjugated by Hitler hordes . . . what would you have done? Would you have gone underground?” The pamphlet says that the occupation is “illegal and immoral” and “parallel to the mass assassination of a whole people”, in language that echoes that used on a note pinned to the booby-trapped bodies of two British intelligence officers executed by Irgun that same summer.

Irgun Soldiers

Irgun Soldiers

Aside from the juicy irony contained in the reference to an ‘illegal and immoral’ occupation, there isn’t much here that’s controversial. That the Irgun (and it’s younger sibling the Stern Gang, led by another prime minister of Israel, Yitzhak Shamir) was a terrorist group is not disputed. However, stories like this can help give rise to the unhelpful adage that ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’, a rhetorical quote which has some validity when denouncing elite rhetoric, but which is not particularly useful in any form of specific analysis.

Defining terrorism is a notoriously difficult task; every value one might decide to load into the term is contested (Carl Wellman gives strong arguments to suggest that the term need not even imply physical violence). One important aspect of this debate is the question over whether the word ‘terrorist’ should imply a moral judgment. Honderich argues that we should try to avoid ending up with a ‘persuasive definition’, and thus that the word should be easily applicable and should carry no automatic moral appraisal. Instead, we should view ‘terrorism’ as a prima facie wrong, which must be able to justify itself in the same way that any other use of force or authority must (i.e. the burden of proof is on the part of the terrorist). If an attack which involved the killing of ten innocents would almost certainly lead to the liberation of a nation, one could argue that it should be classed as a moral act which, on the whole, improved the human condition. Naturally consequentialist maths is a tasteless and tactless exercise, which is generally made less appaling by the appeal to rule consequentialism (in this case it might be termed Just War theory). It has always been the preserve of the powerful to condemn terrorism. Large states can rely on old-fashioned war, or economic strangulation to achieve their aims. They can destroy their enemy’s army from a distance, and need not imagine what it would like to have their country occupied. This pseudo-moralistic smokescreen should be pushed aside by anyone seriously concerned with a doctrine of moral equality.

Begin appears to accept something like this principle in the pamphlet, when he says that the British should know why the Jews were using terrorism, and that their cause and methods were just. Whether or not he was correct in his appraisal is a seperate matter – what should be taken is the obvious principle that terrorism is not always the wrong thing to do. More importantly, terrorism and terrorists do not occupy some lower moral realm, more evil than everyone else. We are all located on the same continuum. As Robert Pape has argued, terrorists fight in accordance with strategic military objectives, more often than not to secure or defend their homeland. This need not imply that today’s terrorists are right to act as they do; generally they are not. It means that when Israel, or the US and UK, condemn terrorism, and when they use the accompanying fear to justify further oppresive policies, we should be very careful. The terrorists are not the big evil in the sky; they occupy the same moral plain as everyone else, and it’s entirely possible that they have far more claim to their actions than our own country does to its own.

Edit: Obama, in Israel, has just said that there can be ‘no excuses‘ for terrorism (presumably meaning non-state terrorism). Again, an example of the placing of the term in a realm so extreme as to permit any action to be taken against it.  It is sometimes said that there is no idea so absurd that it cannot be justified by the creation of jobs. Something very similar could be said about the prevention of terrorism.

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On Legal Challenges to the Apartheid Wall

There’s a pretty good little article in this week’s Economist, which describes the actions of some Israelis who work against the occupation their country is imposing upon the Palestinians. I’m doing a little research on this during the summer, so there’ll be more on this soon, but for now I want to draw out the part of the article which concentrates on the legal challenges which are being made against the pathway of Israel’s wall.

The focus of the article is on the activist group Peace Now, who represent what could be called the moderate wing of Israeli activism; more radical groups such as Gush Shalom and the Anarchists Against the Wall are ignored. This is a shame, because the tension between the methods and motives of the two groups are worth discussing (although it should be noted that this tension does not negate the fact that both types of groups make valuable contributions to the resistance). At Marxism, Eyal Weizman led an interesting tactical discussion about whether or not the small and genuine gains made by legal challenges of the type Peace Now propose are worth the resulting legitimisation of Israel’s occupation. Whilst a successful court battle against the pathway of the wall might win villagers in the West Bank some of their land back, it may also serve to provide a humanitarian facade which strengthens the popular myth that Israel tries hard to balance the need for security with some ‘concern’ for the Palestinians, and thus give ammunition to those who envisage the wall as a permanent feature of the Israeli countryside.

The victories which have been won in court have been hard fought. In Bil’in, activists struggled for years to win back even a small portion of their land from the snaking pathway of the barrier, and, as I have argued elsewhere, they managed to do so through both determination and use of the moral high ground. Weizman flippantly dismissed the example of Bil’in as a success, on the grounds that they had ‘only’ got 1.7 kilometers of their land back. This attitude is a little too pessimistic in my view – when you count that amount of land in terms of the number of olive trees and fields, and consider the unprecedented nature of this and similar judgments, it should not be ignored. However it is right to regard the development as insignificant compared to what the Palestinians are justly owed.

There is then the uncomfortable need for consequentialist maths. In Peace Now’s route (tactic A) we have small victories, more certain, which may win tangible gains for the Palestinians – gains which can be measured in terms of trees and land and water. In a route which denies this legalistic perspective and refuses to engage in court battles (tactic B), victory is far less certain, but the end-point is the end of occupation, not the modification of occupation. At first glance it may seem that tactic A and B should be used together. Whilst the long-run view should be the end of the occupation (the form this should take is a separate discussion), in the short term it seems reasonable to argue that we should push for small gains and alleviate the suffering of the Palestinians. The problem is that, as mentioned above, employing tactic A may make the long-run goals less achievable. Supporters of Israel such as Alan Dershowitz claim that Israel is special because it struggles and suffers to ensure that the humanitarian concerns of the Palestinians are met. Human Rights organisations rightly note that these claims are false, however in the all-important media war, small concessions on the part of the Israeli government play very well. Victories also help to calm the protesting population – the weekly demonstrations at Bil’in have subsided since the ruling in their favour last September, despite the fact that they still stand to loose a considerable portion of their land to the wall.

This is not necessarily to say that the legal battles should be abandoned. The importance is to understand the potential trade-off, and to frame tactical discussions appropriately. How we should then proceed is a decision for the Palestinian activists, which we should respect and follow. It’s a classic dilemma – the short run versus the long run, likely small gains versus less likely large gains, collaboration and legitimisation versus stalemate and the moral high ground. For now, tactic A seems to be the order of the day. Only time will tell what this can achieve.

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Israel’s Power Advantage

The rocket attack on Sderot carried out by Islamic Jihad today puts pressure on the already fragile ceasefire between Hamas and Israel. Most obviously it highlights the problems involved with the exclusion of the West Bank from the terms of the agreement; whilst Israel may want to divide the two territories, this is unrealistic and most likely an effort to further divide the Palestinians. More importantly, the reaction of Israel, who calls the rocket attack a “grave violation” of the ceasefire, hints at the fundamental power imbalance at work in any form of accord or agreement reached between the various parties. The extrajudicial killing of two Palestinians in the West Bank, whilst not formally in breach of any agreement, was likely to increase tensions in the region and make Hamas’s task of urging sceptical militant groups to refrain from rocket attacks almost impossible. There is no suggestion, however, that Israel breached the spirit and likely success of the ceasefire. Instead the rocket fire has been treated as unprovoked by Olmert and Barak, and their impending response is presented as a reasonable and necessary cautionary reaction.

The power imbalance between the two sides, formalised through Oslo and accepted as uncontroversial ever since, has again given Israel the power to decide how the Palestinians should behave, whilst posturing to their hearts content with little regard for how events might spiral out of control. A response by Israel may be legitimate on paper, but in the context of searching for peace, it would be obscene. Negotiating with Hamas, whilst somewhat overdue, was the right move by Israel. It remains to be seen whether such negotiation was merely an opportunity to seize the first (and inevitable) breach of this ceasefire as a pretext for the major operation which the IDF has apparently been pushing for into Gaza. Such a situation would be reminiscent of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. We can only hope that this is not the case.

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