It is generally difficult to find a comprehensive article on the Middle East, especially with regards to Israel and Palestine, in the Australian press. It can be argued that for a conflict that has gone on for so many years more detailed articles that engage with the immediate causes along with the historical context of the crisis taking place are impossible. Journalists are constrained by deadlines, word length and limitations in their own knowledge of the political and historical setting. However, Paul McGeough’s contribution to the Sydney Morning Hearld illustrates that it is not impossible to write an article that fleshes out the debates and context surrounding the Gaza siege …….
Israel takes little comfort from Obama
January 3, 2009
In July Barack Obama sought to boost his Jewish vote back in America with an emotional stump-speech in Sderot, a community in Israel which is a target for much of the Palestinian rocket-fire from Gaza.
Referring to his children Malia, 9, and Sasha, 7, the then US presidential candidate said: “If somebody is sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that – and I’d expect Israelis to do the same thing.”
This week, however, Obama had no such words of comfort for Anwar Balousha. A 40-year-old father from Gaza who describes himself as a factional agnostic, Balousha had to bury five of his daughters – Tahrir, 17, Ikram, 14, Samar, 13, Dina, 8, and Jawaher, 4 – after they were killed when their home was destroyed in an Israeli missile-strike on a nearby mosque.
Obama was monitoring the situation “along with other global events”, a spokesman said. Monitoring? It sounded like a line from the Bush school of loose linguistics, where “immediate” and “ceasefire” are coupled to be heard by one audience as an instinctive, human appeal to halt a brutal war, while the meaning conveyed to others is approval to press their attack.
If Israel was to act against Hamas, it needed to move in these last days of the Bush presidency because, despite his words in Sderot, Israel worries that the incoming American president might be less supportive than his predecessor. But does Jerusalem have the nerve to keep it up through Obama’s inauguration and the first critical days of an American campaign to reposition itself in the world? On this, the signals are mixed.
Israeli diplomats speculate that their international window for action in Gaza will begin to close as early as Monday when Western officialdom starts to return from the holiday break. A push by Paris for a 48-hour ceasefire offered the hope of some respite for Gaza’s 1.5 million people and its chances of implementation are better with the passing of the Bush-Blair trans-Atlantic axis.
Working against the proposal, however, are Israel’s need for military gains and the competing ambitions of three politicians vying for the prime ministership in Israel’s February 10 election: the Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, the Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, and the Opposition Leader and front-runner in the leadership race, Benjamin Netanyahu. Hamas vows to inflict heavy losses on Israeli forces sent into Gaza, and hectored on Tuesday: “It would be easier to dry the sea of Gaza than to defeat the resistance and uproot Hamas.”
Rhetoric aside, it has taken a week of merciless air attacks and the death of about 400 Gazans before Israel could name a single Hamas victim of standing. At that rate, do the Israeli generals believe international opinion can tolerate the death of thousands of Palestinians so that they might account for a dozen or so senior Hamas operatives?
Such is the illogic of war, which leaves Israeli historians like Tom Segev scratching their heads at a flawed assumption which Segev argues “has accompanied the Zionist movement since its inception” – a belief that military strikes against the Palestinians will “teach them a lesson”.
Writing in the daily Ha’aretz, Segev set out that failed assumption thus: “We are the representatives of progress and enlightenment, sophisticated rationality and morality, while the Arabs are a primitive, violent rabble; ignorant children who must be educated and taught wisdom … The bombing of Gaza is also supposed to ‘liquidate the Hamas regime’, in line with another [Zionist] assumption: that it is possible to impose a ‘moderate’ leadership on the Palestinians, one that will abandon their national aspirations.”
Yossi Alpher, a former Mossad operative turned commentator, offered a similarly bleak assessment. “The economic siege of Gaza has not produced any of the desired political results,” he said. “It has not manipulated the Palestinians into hating Hamas, but has probably been counter-productive. It is just useless collective punishment.”
Noting all of that, Palestinians are themselves hopelessly divided between the Islamist Hamas movement in Gaza, and the corrupted remnants of Yasser Arafat’s secular Fatah movement which, under the hapless Mahmoud Abbas, is propped up by Israel and the US as a government in the West Bank.
Abbas is using the crisis to mount his own rhetorical attacks on Hamas. But the more overt and covert support that Abbas gets, the more his movement is diminished in the eyes of Palestinians.
In the days before Christmas, Israel released 233 of the 11,000 Palestinian prisoners it holds, but virtually all were Fatah members, prompting some Palestinian commentators to brand Abbas as a collaborator.
Ghassan Khatib, one of Abbas’s former ministerial colleagues in the Palestinian Authority, this week cast doubt on Abbas’s efforts to advance himself on the back of Israel’s collective punishment of the Palestinians.
Despite the material and human cost they are made to pay, Khatib told The Christian Science Monitor: “Politically speaking, [collective punishment] strengthens Hamas.”
It remains to be seen if support for Hamas holds in the face of this onslaught. But, if the Foreign Ministry pundits in Jerusalem are right and Israeli forces are made to back away from Gaza, Israeli voters might be left feeling underwhelmed by Livni and Barak’s military achievements.
Such an outcome just weeks before Israel’s general election could clear the way for a return to the prime minister’s office by the Likud’s hardline Netanyahu – whose ham-fisted efforts to destroy Hamas in 1997 had the opposite effect of breathing sufficient new life into the Islamist movement to make it today’s monster in the region.
Netanyahu’s blanket opposition to any concessions on any of the key issues in faltering talks between Abbas and the Olmert Government would leave Abbas without an Israeli partner and leave the new US president and Hillary Clinton, his secretary of state, with virtually nowhere to turn in the crisis.
All of which makes you wonder why Condoleezza Rice did not see this train-wreck coming?
In the past six months she has traipsed to and from the Middle East, desperate for progress in the Olmert-Abbas talks as a legacy for Bush.
For much of that time Israel was planning this week’s attack and the Gaza ceasefire was on life support. Yet the outgoing US Secretary of State made no effort to head off one or to save the other.
The death toll this week is shocking. But just as Hezbollah put the dead from Israel’s last invasion of Lebanon to work as propaganda, so too will Hamas – which over the years has claimed to have evened the contest with Israel by describing it as a balance of terror, rather than of power.
The despatch of twin suicide-bombers last February was the first such attack by Hamas since 2005. A single Israeli was killed in the attack which Hamas said was punishment for more than 100 Gazans killed in air-strikes and incursions into Gaza.
If the same calculus is applied, more such attacks are inevitable.
As this crisis escalated, the talk on both sides was about returning to a variation of the ceasefire agreement that was responsible for a significant easing of violence for much of the last six months.
But some in Israel now see any return to such a deal as a trap to be avoided.
In agreeing to the ceasefire, Israeli negotiators created something of a precedent in equating the lifting of their misery-inducing economic embargo on Gaza with an end to Palestinian rockets being fired into Israel.
Assessments of both the Israeli and Palestinian performance under the ceasefire suggest that Israel had achieved significantly more out of it than Hamas did. But that was an opaque, third-party deal whereas talk of a new ceasefire now runs the risk of a more clearly documented agreement and possibly an independent process to verify compliance by both sides.
As the Americans have learnt at great cost in Iraq and Afghanistan and as revealed in six decades of Israeli military history, shooting your way to victory in this kind of war is an unlikely outcome. And if the men at Israel’s foreign ministry are right in judging that the world will close their window of opportunity as early as Monday, the Israeli military and political leadership has just 48 hours to consider the sage advice of the former Mossad man Alpher.
Israel had to make a choice, he said. Either it accepted the existence of Hamas and engaged in dialogue with the Islamists; or, it fully reoccupied the Gaza Strip, toppled Hamas and bore all the costs involved.
Livni, for one, apparently saw this coming. Late in the week she took the lead of Israel’s founding prime minister. Just as David Ben-Gurion argued that by not setting international borders, the new state of Israel could reserve the right to expand its borders as it pleased, Livni decided that Israel should not seek a firm agreement with Hamas to end this latest conflict.
Such a deal or partnership, she argued, would give Hamas the legitimacy she believed must be denied to the Islamists. Instead, Israel should commit to nothing – other than to blitz whatever might be left of Hamas if a single rocket was fired into Israel.