Israel Calls a Timeout While Gaza Continues to Suffer


by James M. Wall

Late Saturday night, Israel and its allies, the US and Egypt, made a grand show of calling a “time out” (also known as a “ceasefire”) in Israel’s relentless attacks against Gaza’s civilian population. 

The US has agreed for its part to monitor the border between Egypt and Gaza. Egypt’s President Hosni Muburak will inform his people that he favored a ceasefire to end the bloodshed.

And, of course, Israel went through its “democratic” dance by letting the Knesset vote on the ceasefire. But not before killing a few more Gazan children. Don’t want those Palestinians to think we are getting soft, do we fellows? 

Steven Erlanger writes in the New York Times Saturday:

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel announced late Saturday night that the Israeli military would begin a unilateral cease-fire in Gaza within hours while negotiations continued on how to stop the resupply of Hamas through smuggling from Egypt.

Mr. Olmert, who said all Israeli objectives for the war had been reached, said Israel was responding positively to a call by President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt earlier in the day for an immediate cease-fire, in a clearly orchestrated move by two countries that both see the Hamas movement in Gaza as a threat. Meanwhile, Hamas leaders outside Gaza have insisted that the group will fight on, regardless of any Israeli declaration.

The announcement came on a day in which Israel was again criticized by the United Nations over civilian deaths in Gaza — this time after a tank fired at a United Nations school, killing two young brothers taking shelter there.

United Nations aid officials raised questions about whether the attack, and others like it, should be investigated as war crimes. The Israeli Army said that it was investigating the reports at the highest level but that initial inquiries indicated that troops were returning fire from near or within the school.

You know, the usual drill, investigate but let folks know our guys were only responding to attacks. For Gaza’s population, nothing will change. The siege will continue. Starvation will continue. Medical care will remain virtually nonexistent. And a few rockets may still be fired into Israel from Gaza, which Israel will publicize widely. 

Haaretz Correspondent Ari Shavit has a different take, as do an increasing number of Israeli citizens. Shavit says Israel’s actions are “destroying Israel’s soul.” 

Israel’s leaders, meanwhile, are worried less about Israel’s soul and more about the impact of the Gaza war on Barack Obama’s inauguration. Juan Cole, in his Informed Comment blog, detects a connection between the inaugural and the time out.

There are rumors that the Israeli government will declare a cease fire Saturday. They had better. Because if they ruin the Obama inauguration by splashing the bloody bodies of dead Palestinian children all over the press during the next few days, no Americans, even the most pro-Israeli, are going to forgive them. The war has left 1,140 Palestinians dead, over 300 children, and over 5,000 wounded including many women and children, as well as 13 Israelis (4 of them civilians killed by rocket fire). We pay for these wars, we provide the fighter jets, bombs, and tanks. And we don’t want our money used for this sanguinary purpose in the first place; we have enough to be guilty about all on our own. And we especially don’t want to hear a peep from over there while we swear in our first African-American president.

So the Gazan people have the inauguration to thank for this “time out”.

And if you think this is a cynical explanation, then travel back to October, 1956, with author Patrick Tyler, whose new book, A World of Trouble; The White House and the Middle East–from the Cold War to the War on Terror, includes a scene from an earlier time in this Middle East drama.

Read carefully and see if you can find where things have changed, or where they remain the same.

Golda Meir, Israel’s foreign minister in 1956, opens our return to the past by confronting John Foster Dulles with what may have been one of the first times this argument was thrown at an American: “what if the US were attacked from the Mexican and Canadian borders”  

Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and their pro-Israel friends in Congress , may think they are being creative. Little do they know they are reading from the same script handed to Golda Meir in 1956.  

Tyler puts this history in context. 

It was the end of the 1956 presidential campaign. Aban Eban was Israel’s ambassador to Washington, when he received an urgent summons from Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Aides to Dulles had tracked down Eban at the Congressional Country Club in the Washington suburbs where, as Patrick Tyler reports in his book, Eban “had been enjoying a round of golf with Congressman Sidney Yates of Illinois and the journalist Martin Agronsky”. 

Dulles had just learned that Israel was mobilizing its armed forces to strike Egypt.

Tyler reports that Dulles knew the Jewish state faced no immediate provocation. But the fact that it had summoned its population to arms raised suspicions in Washington.

President Dwight Eisenhower, in the final days of his campaign for reelection against Democrat Adlai Stevenson, was furious.  He wrote to Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion warning against any “precipitous military action by Israeli forces”. 

When Eban arrived at the State Department to face an equally angry Dulles. The secretary wanted to know if Israel feared an attack from Jordan. 

Tyler writes: 

Yes, Eban replied, it did–he was now on the verge of blatantly deceiving the secretary of state.  Given Israel’s fears, Eban continued, he understood that its mobilization might raise the question of whether Israel’s intentions were defensive or offensive. But all of his information, Eban said, indicated that Israel’s mobilization was for defensive purposes. 

That was a lie, of course. Eban knew more about the mobilization than he was allowed to say.

He had just returned from Tel Aviv  following a meeting with Prime Minister Ben Gurion. Since coming out of retirement in 1955, Ben-Gurion had staged “large scale raids on jordan and Egypt in retaliation for attacks against Jewish settlements.

A raid at Qalqilya on the night of October 10 had urned into a ferocious battle in the densely populated Arab town, and when dawn broke nearly one hundred Palestinians lay dead with as many wounded. The Israeli paratrooper force, under the command of Ariel Sharon, a brash  young practitioner of the punitive strike,  limped home with eighteen dead and sixty wounded.

Eban had come to understand that the border tension with Jordan was a “calculated charade”. Ben Gurion had a different target. He had been conspiring with Great Britain and France for the three nations to combine forces and move against Egypt. Their goal:

Seize the Suez Canal, overthrow the Egyptian regime and expand Israel’s frontiers into the Sinai Peninsula and thereby bolt Jewish foundations even more firmly on the Mediterranean shore where the Hebrew nation had been born. . .

Unlike Truman, Eisenhower was not beholden to Jewish votes or the Jewish community’s nascent political fund-raising machine. . . 

Since Eisenhower’s election in 1952, he and John Foster Dulles had:

worked diligently and creatively to find solutions in the Middle East. The alarm went up [in Israel] because most of these schemes required Israel to give up land or share water resources with the Arabs.  Eisenhower’s motivation was straightforward and certainly not hostile to Israel.  He was out to protect and expand American interests n the region.

To that end, Eisenhower and Dulles, conspiring with the British, worked to overthrow Iran’s prime minister Mohammed Mossadeg, because he had moved to nationalize British Petroleum’s assets in Iran. 

Looming over all of this maneuvering was Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser, the dynamic former Army officer who after leading a 1954 revolt against the British, became president of  Egypt. The US, Britain, France, and Israel all united in their dislike and distrust of Nasser. 

(The Egyptian leader was highly popular throughout the Arab world. But he faced opposition at home.  Nasser was a secular socialist. The Muslim Brotherhood objected to the secular nature of his new government. This is the same Brotherhood that continues to plague Egypt’s secular government today and just, incidentally, helped give birth to Hamas.) 

What infuriated Eisenhower was that Ambassador Eban “had deceived Eisenhower’s secretary of state  on a crucial matter of war and peace.” Eban begged Dulles for time over the weekend  to confer with his government. 

On Monday, the Israelis attacked.  To Eisenhower, Israel was in a “brazen violation of the armistice” that ended the Israel-Arab war in 1949 and led to the creation of the state of Israel.

Eisenhower prepared to call the US Congress into session and “throw America’s weight behind the victim (Egypt)”.  What he did not know was that six days earlier, Israel, France and Britain conspired to deceive the US government.

To set up this conspiracy, Ben Gurion had flown from Tel Aviv to Paris accompanied by his military chief of staff, Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres, a young Defense Ministry aide to the prime minister.

They met French Prime Minister Guy Mollet and laid out Israel’s goal. Israel wanted to begin with:

. . .the dissolution of Jordan as a state, giving all the land west of the Jordan River to Israel and all the land east of the river to Iraq. . . . Next he proposed the dismemberment of Lebanon, giving Syria the eastern quarter and Israel the southern quarter up to the Litani River and consolidating what remained as a Christian state under the Maronite majority of Mount Lebanon.

A western approved ruler was then to be put in place in Syria. Egypt would be forced to give up control of the Suez Canal to international control. Further, Ben Gurion confided to an incredulous Mollet that Israel believed that there were significant oil deposits in western Sinai.  Israel wanted total control of the Sinai. In return France would be invited to conduct a joint exploration for the Sinai oil.

Before Eisenhower could call on Congress to side with Egypt against the Israeli invaders, both Britain and France joined Israel by attacking Egypt.  

It was at this moment that Ben-Gurion sent his foreign minister, Golda Meir, to meet with John Foster Dulles. 

This was the heart of Meir’s defense to John Foster Dulles:

. . . “Imagine attacks from enemies of camped on the Mexican and Canadian borders inflicting those kinds of casualties in America, she said. “What would the United States have done in such a situation?”

She said the reason there was so much hatred among the Arabs was that they hated the idea that Israel existed. Existence was the only condition that the Jewish state insisted on for peace, and peace had failed because the Arabs would not accept that condition.  

Nasser, she said, was using the passions of the Arabs to achieve his ambition.  In her disarming way, she told Dulles that she was not going to insist that Israelis were angels, but Israel’s conscience was clear.

After fifty three years, the language remains the same: “How would Americans feel if they were shot at from the Mexican and Canadian borders”, Israel demands the right to exist, and all Arab states must acknowledge that.  And, of course, its all the Arab’s fault; Israel is just defending its people.

What has changed? Not much in the language (Peres and Sharon are still around). The power roles are reversed. The US president and his secretary of state take orders from Israel. There is no Ike and no Dulles to angrily threaten to join forces with an Arab enemy.

Fifty three years later,  US leaders conspire with Israel to go through the charade of agreeing to a ceasefire.  

The man who will be inaugurated Tuesday has a choice. Will the US  return to the strong hand played by Eisenhower and Dulles? Or will the US continue the deceit and compliance of Bush and Rice?  We will know soon.

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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