By Hugo Foster
Life got a whole lot worse for the 1.5 million residents of Gaza over the weekend. With a death toll now exceeding 300, the latest war in the battered coastal strip has already surpassed in scope and brutality most previous Israeli assaults on the impoverished territory since the Six Day War of 1967. Yet the grim reality is that the futile and disproportionate incursion – known to Israel’s military as Operation Cast Lead – is only the latest episode in the cycle of bloodletting over Palestine, and will do nothing to alter the basic dynamic of periodic violence in the region. In fact, the latest fighting shows that nothing has been learnt over decades of flawed military policies in the region.
Since the recent expiry of a six-month ceasefire, or tahidiyeh, both Israel and Hamas have sought to renew the agreement but on more favourable terms. For Hamas, whichhas droppedsuicide bombings as its modus operandi to gain leverage over Israel, this has meant once again allowing Israel’s southern towns to be terrorised by makeshift and highly inaccurate Qassam rockets and mortar shells. It figured that by raising the stakes it could force Israel into accommodating its aims, these being the reopening of crossings into Gaza, the cessation of Israeli operations in and around it, the release of Palestinian prisoners and an end to attacks on its infrastructure in the West Bank.
Instead of taking at face value the repeated threats made by Israeli leaders in the past week, Hamas banked on the assumption that these leaders feared getting bogged down in another battle similar to the disastrous July 2006 War in Lebanon. This war essentially wrecked the credibility of Israel’s outgoing prime minister, Ehud Olmert. Hamas also interpreted Israel’s reopening of three border crossings into Gaza on Friday as a sign of a weakening resolve.
Clearly Hamas got it wrong. By adopting the strategy of brinkmanship it shares responsibility for the misery now being heaped on itself and Gaza. In actual fact, the opening of the crossings to humanitarian aid was a trick designed to lower Hamas’ readiness for the impending onslaught, one that the Israeli military had reportedly been diligently preparing through intelligence gathering and target identification for the past six months.
Publicly, Israel has stated it wants to create a new security environment, to deliver the ‘knockout blow’ that will definitively destroy Hamas’ rocket-launching capability. To be sure, Hamas’ military infrastructure has been truly battered in the past couple of days. Yet toppling Hamas’ rule in Gaza is just not feasible. Logistically it would require precisely the sort of costly ground fighting that the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) have tried to avoid since they withdrew from the territory in 2005. And given the close proximity of military and civilian infrastructure in Gaza, it would inflict a level of human damage (beyond the 56 civilian lives already lost) that would eventually weaken tacit international support for Israel’s ‘right to self-defence’, as happened belatedly in Lebanon two years ago.
In reality, Israel’s leaders, with one eye on elections in a couple of months, will probably settle for a more limited outcome. Most likely, the fighting will give way to another temporary ceasefire, and Israel’s leaders will be able to show the Israeli electorate evidence of Hamas’ weakened capability. In other words, when the violence subsides, perhaps within days, when all the bodies have been pulled from crumbled buildings and the full extent of the damage is known, we will be back exactly where we started. Palestinians will continue to live surrounded by death, destruction, poverty and humiliation. Most Israelis will continue to live in relative safety, but surrounded by hostile neighbours waiting for the chance to hit back. The reality is that it will only be a matter of time until a similar episode, either in Gaza or on another front, occurs again, when the ranks of the resistance, buoyed by renewed suffering, hatred and new weapons, swell once again and leave Israel with ‘no choice’ but to strike out in ‘self-defence’.
Since the beginning of the Zionist presence in Palestine, Jewish leaders have employed overwhelming and systematic force in order to force Arab inhabitants of the region to accept facts on the ground. This simple formula was brutally effective from the 1920s through the rest of the 20th Century, as Israel achieved military and economic superiority over its neighbours and was able to inflict a string of humiliating and costly blows on them. But the other historical truth is that no military operation has ever progressed dialogue with the Palestinians, or Israel’s ultimate acceptance and integration in the Middle East.
In fact, such a tactic has locked Israel into a continuing cycle of violence, one from which it has only been able to buy short-lived respite. The Israeli writer Gideon Levy sums this up; ‘The history of the Middle East is repeating itself with despairing precision. Just the frequency is increasing. If we enjoyed nine years of quiet between the Yom Kippur War  and the First Lebanon War , now we launch wars every two years. As such, Israel proves that there is no connection between its public relations talking points that speak of peace, and its belligerent conduct.’
If the Arab states – Egypt, Syria and Jordan - have officially or effectively given up the fight, they have been replaced by tenacious non-state groups – Hamas and Hizbullah – all too ready to keep the resistance going. Regardless of the duration and extent of Israel’s attacks, inflicting such conditions on the people of Gaza (or the West Bank, Beirut and so on) will only strengthen the conviction that Israel is not serious about meeting Arab aspirations for rights and statehood, weaken moderates who argue in favour of negotiating with Israel, and ultimately increase the numbers of those prepared to martyr themselves serving the resistance.
The assumption that hurting Palestinian civilians, either through air strikes or through starvation and power cuts, will make them rebel against their leaders is farcical. Hamas is a religious nationalist movement that above all aspires to defend Palestinian land and security, something that the majority of Gazans believe is worthwhile. This has been shown to be so time and time again.
The EU, France, Russia, UN and belatedly Britain have condemned the ongoing air strikes. But the US, the one power with any real hold over Israel, has shamefully refused to follow suit, urging Israel simply to avoid civilian casualties. As one Jerusalem Post commentator writes, ‘The [US] State Department's reaction seemed to be a repetition of the one we heard two years ago [regarding the July war in Lebanon], but with Hamas replacing Hezbollah and Gaza standing in for Lebanon: the war is Hamas's fault, Hamas should stop shelling Israel with rockets, Hamas is a terror organization, the people of Gaza are suffering because of Hamas’.
This kind of nonsense, in ignoring the true dynamics of the Arab-Israeli conflict, will in the long run do nothing for Israelis or Palestinians. Our leaders should remember that most of Gaza’s inhabitants are children of refugees, the sad legacy of protracted conflict in the Middle East, and a reminder that all attempts to date to produce a military solution to the Palestinian question have fundamentally failed. And any government not yet convinced as to just how explosive the issue of Palestine is across the Middle East need only look at the ripples of civil unrest reported in just about every capital city in the region in the last three days.
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