Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced a unilateral ceasefire in Gaza last night. It was an announcement that came almost three weeks too late for the roughly twelve hundred Palestinians who have been killed and the thousands injured since the Israeli war machine blasted into action on December 27 last year. It is estimated that around half of those who died were civilians and that 410 were children. On the Israeli side there have been 13 deaths, four by rocket fire and nine in ground battles. While the rest of the world sat appalled in front of their TV screens as images of death flickered past, the Israelis, as is their wont, appeared oblivious to the revulsion their actions were causing in the vast majority of countries across the globe.
One cannot avoid the conclusion that there was a measure of cynicism in their decision to invade Gaza at this point; after all, Hamas rocket fire is not a recent phenomenon, and Israeli sources told the BBC that the plan had been drawn up some time ago. The current government in Jerusalem, however, is firstly, facing an election in February which polls say it is likely to lose, and was therefore seeking to redeem itself with the electorate, particularly after its Lebanon fiasco; and secondly, this was its last opportunity to go on a direct offensive against Hamas before President Bush left office. It probably had no guarantee of what President-elect Obama’s response would be, and it may even have planned to agree to a ceasefire before he was sworn in on Tuesday.
An important element in the current ceasefire is an agreement whereby the US will commit detection and surveillance equipment and provide other assistance to both Israel and Egypt to prevent the smuggling of weapons, etc, to Hamas. The Europeans have also agreed to help in this regard. One can only observe that if, as the Israelis have maintained, it was the rocket fire into southern Israel which precipitated the invasion, why couldn’t they have pursued this avenue a long time ago, and spared the Palestinian civilian population the destruction and suffering which has been inflicted on them? The answer is, of course, that Jerusalem had another aim, and that was degrading the capacity of Hamas to function, and perhaps even through unleashing their firepower to persuade the Gazans to back the political moderates rather than the militants.
If so, it was an exercise doomed to failure. As far as dealing with Hamas via physical confrontation is concerned, it was the Economist which pointed out that the overkill tactics of the Israeli army were really originally developed to deal with the armies of states, and were inappropriate for non-state actors such as Hizbollah or Hamas. One might have thought that the Israelis would have learned this lesson from their Lebanon invasion, from which they emerged psychologically weaker, and Hizbollah psychologically stronger. Furthermore, in the case of Gaza they invaded a territory where people have adopted a martyr’s mantle; ultimate victory for the Palestinians lies not physical conquest, but in sacrifice and endurance no matter what the pain. Furthermore, as any of the former imperial nations could have told Jerusalem, any attempt on the part of an ‘enemy’ to back moderates on the other side by targeting their militants is doomed to failure; it will produce the opposite result, as it clearly has in this instance.
What is particularly unfortunate is the constant short-term thinking of the Israelis. With some significant interludes, their policy has been largely driven by the religious right, which has had far more influence in government than their numbers warrant. The Economist says that the reason for this is Israel’s PR system, which creates coalitions where the small religious parties can exact concessions for their support.
As it is, the Israelis only want peace on their terms – an unattainable goal. While justice for both sides given the history of the conflict is impossible, at least there could be a deal involving some level of equality of injustice for both Palestinians and Israelis. The latter’s ability to continue the tactics they have used in recent years, however, carries an expiry date. It has depended all along on US money and political backing. As the US becomes weaker both economically and in terms of international clout, Israel will find itself more and more exposed and less able to impose its will on the region by force. It could go into Gaza on this occasion partly because of American cover, but partly also because the undemocratic, conservative, Sunni governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who, no matter what their citizens on the street have to say, are unhappy with Hamas and its links to Shi’ite Iran. At some point, however, Egypt too will democratize, and when that happens Israel may find itself next door to a government of a more Islamist complexion than it would like.
The building of the Israeli barrier on the West Bank is also short-term thinking, since it has meant the seizing of Palestinian farmlands which are now being occupied by Israeli developers. As Israel by its actions radicalizes the Palestinians both on the West Bank and in Gaza and undermines the West Bank Fatah leader, Mahmoud Abbas, a peace deal becomes more and more difficult to achieve in the shorter term, and, as mentioned above, Israel does not have time on its side. In a very general sense security for Israel means in the first instance ceasing to expand the settlements on Arab land, and being prepared to dismantle a good number of settlements in a deal. The Palestinian refugees for their part will have to give up all hope of returning to land within Israel’s 1967 borders, although clearly there would have to be some kind of compensation arrangements. Jerusalem remains a particularly thorny issue, one which sank the accord with Yasser Arafat on the only occasion when the two sides were said to have come close to a settlement.
Peace talks, however, would probably have to deal with the West Bank alone initially. The problem with Gaza is – the political split in the Palestinian movement aside – that it is not a viable strip of land. Economically it cannot exist on its own, and it could hardly become part of a West Bank state when it is geographically cut off from it by a huge swathe of Israel. Ideally, perhaps, it should be returned to Egypt, from which country it was taken in the 1967 war. One imagines, however, that the current Egyptian administration would be less than enthusiastic about taking over responsibility for the Palestinian refugees who are crowded in there, given their association with Hamas and their presumed radicalization.
The truce in Gaza is only a temporary holding action, and even that might be fragile since Israel has indicated that in the event of more rocket attacks it would hit back “surgically.” At the time of writing it remained to be seen what the response of Hamas would be. If a more durable truce does come to fruition, then the international community should insist that Israel pays some kind of reparations for the damage caused in Gaza. The possibility has been raised too that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency would ask for an investigation into whether Israel has committed war crimes there.
If Israel becomes more exposed to the reactions of the international community, then it will find that operations such as that in Gaza will not be an easy option.