By Ben Cohen: The world watches as the deteriorating situation in Gaza unfolds, unable to prevent either side from pulling back from the brink of war. With Israel gearing up for a full out assault on the impoverished area it has been occupying for decades, the chances for a peaceful resolution to the conflict that dates back to 1948 becomes ever more a distant dream.
There is a lot of noise surrounding the latest chapter in the violent conflict, and it is drowning out fact and context. The situation is fast turning into a cheering game with supporters of both sides hurling inaccuracies and racial epithets at each other. If you are friends with Jews and Muslims, just log onto your Facebook account and look at the photos and quotes distributed across their newsfeeds. I've already had to delete obnoxious arguments on my own wall that descended into slanging matches rather than civilized debate.
While people are entitled to their own opinions, they are not entitled to their own facts. So here are some:
The latest outburst of violence began when Israeli tanks made an incursion into the Gaza strip and killed a 12 year old boy playing football. The two sides then engaged in back and forth attacks that was followed by a brief ceasefire.
Israel then broke the cease fire by assassinating Ahmed Jaabari, the commander of Ezedin al Qassam, the military wing of Hamas.
The Israeli government has gone to great lengths to explain why Jaabari was assassinated, with the IDF releasing the following 'kill ad' to be distributed across social networks:
What they did not explain is that Ahmed Jaabri was critical to ongoing long term cease fire talks between Hamas and Israel. Jaabri held enormous sway in negotiations because he had the power to keep militants in line at home, and make meaningful concessions to the Israelis. He was instrumental in the negotiated release of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, even personally escorting him to the Rafah crossing with Egypt. According to Gershon Baskin, the Co-Chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, Jaabri was key to a sustained ceasefire agreement with the Israelis. He writes in The Daily Beast:
Repeated rounds of rocket fire over the following year [after the release of Shalit] yielded the same results with both sides seeking a ladder to step down and avoid full escalation, which would not bring any political or military gains. Since that time, with the exception of the last round of violence two weeks ago, the rocket fire from Gaza was launched after a pre-emptive Israeli strike against terror cells. Based on Israeli intelligence information, pre-emptive strikes were conducted primarily against cells from the Islamic Jihad and the popular resistance committees. Hamas almost always sat on the sidelines and allowed the other factions in Gaza to shoot their rockets until the price in human life became too high. At that point, Hamas urged the Egyptians to intervene to secure a return to calm. In the last rounds, Hamas, under pressure from its public, joined in the shooting of rockets—but it almost always aimed its rockets at open spaces in Israel and their damage was minimal. It was clear to all involved that Hamas was not interested in escalating the situation and for its own reasons and agreed to impose the ceasefire on all of the other factions, and on itself.
The key actor on the Hamas side was Ahmed Jaabari, the commander of Ezedin al Qassam, the military wing of Hamas. When he was convinced that Israel was ready to stand down as well, Jaabari was always ready to take the orders to force the ceasefire on all of the other factions and on Hamas.
Baskin, who himself is deeply involved with back channel negotiations between the two sides, writes that a new proposal with his input was being drafted for a ceasefire, and Jaabri was tasked with checking reactions from Gaza.
Then, he was assassinated.
Why would Israel kill someone so crucial to what was left of the fragile ceasefire negotiations? The answer is simple, and you only have to go back to the last invasion of Gaza to see why it happened. 'Operation Cast Lead', the assault on Gaza in 2008 that left over 1,400 Palestinians dead occurred two months before Israeli elections. The latest assault on Gaza is again happening two months before the 2013 elections - enough time for Benjamin Netanyahu to get the public behind him in a time of war.
Politicians waging war to gain popularity is nothing new, and Netanyahu is reviving the age old tactic to entrench his leadership over Israel that is defined mostly by militaristic opposition to the Palestinians and Iran. Politicians like Netanyahu do not exist in peace time, so they need war to make them relevant. Sadly, innocent Israelis and Palestinians are paying the price of his vanity.
Regardless of who you believe is responsible for starting this particular round of violence, one thing is abundantly clear: That Israel has, and will kill many, many more Palestinians than Palestinians will kill Israelis. As Yousef Manayyer, Executive Director of The Jerusalem Fund writes:
Through September 2012, Israeli weaponry caused 55 Palestinian deaths and 257 injuries. Among these 312 casualties, 61, or roughly 20 percent, were children and 28 were female. 209 of these casualties came as a result of Israeli Air Force missiles, 69 from live ammunition fire, and 18 from tank shells. It is important to note that these figures do not represent a totality of Israeli projectiles fired into Gaza but rather only Israeli projectiles fired into Gaza which cause casualties. The total number of Israeli projectiles fired into Gaza is bound to be significantly larger.
For context, consider this: more Palestinians were killed in Gaza yesterday than Israelis have been killed by projectile fire from Gaza in the past three years.
The facts are getting harder and harder for Israel, and the world to ignore. It is illegally occupying and brutalizing the Gaza strip, a territory made up of mostly refugees (around 70% of the population) refused entrance to their ancestral land because Israel took it from them in 1948. Israel controls the airspace and territorial waters around Gaza and routinely makes illegal incursions across its borders. It has strangled Gaza economically via a military and trade blockade, causing untold misery to residents who are literally on the edge of existence. As Amnesty International reports:
Mass unemployment, extreme poverty and food price rises caused by shortages have left four in five Gazans dependent on humanitarian aid. As a form of collective punishment, Israel’s continuing blockade of Gaza is a flagrant violation of international law.....According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the number of refugees living in abject poverty in the Gaza Strip has tripled since the blockade began. These families lack the means to purchase even the most basic items, including soap, school materials and clean drinking water. According to the UN, more than 60 per cent of households are currently "food insecure".
It is not surprising that militants gain power in places like the Gaza strip and make a bad situation worse. The rockets launched into Israel, mostly by independent militant groups outside of Hamas, are not only immoral, but completely counterproductive. The more violence the Palestinians respond with to occupation, the more Israel inflicts upon them - and the means of destruction do not work in the Palestinians favor. The end result is always more dead people and fewer paths to peace. Militants gain power in violent situations and are rarely willing to concede, making negotiations close to impossible.
The US has predictably come down on the side of Israel, pledging its unyielding support for the Jewish state's 'Right to defend itself' and condemning the rocket attacks from Hamas. Behind closed doors however, Obama will be seething as Netanyahu's unilateral war mongering makes the White House's fragile relationship with the Arab world ever more difficult.
It is hard to see a way out of the violence and get back to the remnants of the peace process unless serious pressure is placed on the Israelis to stop its brutalization of the Palestinian people, and the Palestinians are pressured to stop firing rockets into Israel. The United States and Egypt have the power coordinate meaningful pressure on either side, but as of yet, it hasn't been applied successfully.
Netanyahu will most likely be re-elected next year after another round of war and lots of dead Palestinians - a price he is sadly always willing to pay.
And by any conservative estimation, prospects for peace going forward are now close to zero.