Understanding the current fighting between Israel and Gaza
One of the purposes of this blog is to try to help busy friends understand what’s happening in the news, and fighting between Israel and Gaza has again taken over the headlines. Some day I’ll put a full-scale analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including its history up under “Realities,” one of the static pages you can access at the top of this website. For today I’ll just say that many of the Israeli government’s actions and policies with regard to the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank are violations of international law — violations that would never have been tolerated so long without US support.
I don’t condone any violence, “justified” or “collateral,” against civilians, but context is important here. Since 2005, when Israel withdrew its settlers and soldiers from the Strip, Gaza has been under an Israeli blockade that amounts to creating prison walls and restricting the prisoners to bread and water. It’s a desperate situation, and desperate people, especially men trying to provide a good life for their wives and children, are capable of desperate acts. Resistance of an illegal occupation is also a right, according to international law.
Finally, Israeli violence against Gaza is totally disproportionate. Palestinians rockets are mostly homemade, have a relatively short range, and rarely find a human target. Israel, on the other hand has all the latest weapons and military technology, thanks its comparative wealth and massive US military aid and arms sales. Casualty statistics bear these differences out. Israel’s previous massive attack on Gaza killed 1,166 to 1,417 Palestinians, compared to 9 Israelis killed by Palestinian rockets. This was Operation Cast Lead (2008), which involved a land invasion as well as bombing. So far in the current operation there have been 40 Palestinian and 3 Israeli deaths, figures that will probably have changed by the end of the day.
I searched for quite a while this morning to find good information on what’s happening, finally settling on an editorial by Uri Avnery on the Counterpunch website (counterpunch.org). Here it is, edited for brevity:
Another Superfluous War by Uri Avnery, counterpunch.org, 11-16-12
How did it start? Stupid question. Conflagrations along the Gaza Strip don’t start. They’re just a continuous chain of events, each claimed to be “in retaliation” for the previous one. This particular event “started” with the firing from Gaza of an anti-tank weapon at a partially armored jeep on the Israeli side of the border fence. It was described as retaliation for the killing of a boy in an air attack some days earlier. But probably the timing of the action was accidental – the opportunity just presented itself.
The success gave rise to demonstrations of joy and pride in Gaza. Again Palestinians had shown their ability to strike at the hated enemy. However, the Palestinians had in fact walked into a trap prepared with great care. Whether the order was given by Hamas or one of the smaller more extreme organizations – it was not a clever thing to do. Shooting across the fence at an army vehicle was crossing a red line. (The Middle East is full of red lines.) A major Israeli reaction was sure to ensue.
It was rather routine. Israeli tanks fired cannon shells into the Gaza Strip. Hamas launched rockets at Israeli towns and villages. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis rushed to their shelters. Schools closed. As usual, Egyptian and other mediators went into action. Behind the scenes, a new truce was arranged. It seemed to be over. Just another round.
The Israeli side did everything to get back to normal, it seemed. The Prime Minister and the Defense Minister went to the Syrian border to show that Gaza was off their minds.
In Gaza, everybody relaxed. They left their shelters. Hamas’s supreme military commander, Ahmad Ja’abari, climbed into his car and drove along the main street.
And then the trap closed. The car was blown up by a missile. Such an assassination isn’t carried out on the spur of the moment. It’s the culmination of many months of preparation, gathering of information, and waiting for the right moment, when it can be executed without killing many bystanders and causing an international scandal. This particular assassination was due to take place a day earlier, but was postponed because of the bad weather.
Ja’abari was the man behind all the military activities of the Hamas government in Gaza, including the capture of Gilad Shalit and the successful five-year long hiding of his whereabouts. He was photographed at the release of Shalit to the Egyptians. So this time it was the Israelis who were jubilant. Much like the Americans after the Osama bin-Laden assassination.
The killing of Ja’abari was the start of the planned operation. The Israeli military has long planned a major operation to destroy as many of Gaza’s missiles as possible from the air. This is the purpose of the “Pillar of Cloud” operation. (“And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to show them the way.” Exodus 13:21)
This will not be Cast Lead II. The Israeli army is rather good at discreetly drawing lessons from its failures. Cast Lead was celebrated as a great success, but it was a disaster. Sending troops into a densely populated area is bound to cause heavy civilian casualties. War crimes are almost inevitable. World reaction was catastrophic, the political damage immense. The Chief of Staff at the time was widely acclaimed, but in reality he was a rather primitive military type. His successor is of a different caliber.
How will it end? It would be foolhardy to guess. Wars have their own logic. Stuff happens, as the man said. Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, the two men in command, hope the war will wind down once the its aims are achieved, so there will be no reason to employ the army on the ground, enter the Gaza Strip, kill people, lose soldiers. Deterrence will be restored. Another truce will come into force. The Israeli population surrounding the Strip will be able to sleep soundly at night for several months. Hamas will be cut down to size.
The basic situation will remain unchanged. Ja’abari will be replaced. Israel has assassinated dozens of Arab political and military leaders, with no real positive results.
Will this operation stop the advance of Hamas? Probably not – perhaps the opposite. Hamas has already achieved a significant breakthrough: the emir of Qatar (owner of Aljazeera) paid Gaza a state visit, the first head of state to do so, and others are bound to follow. The Egyptian prime minister arrived in Gaza in the middle of the operation. Operation “Pillar of Cloud” compels all Arab countries to rally around Hamas, or at least pretend to. In the battle for Palestinian opinion, Hamas has gained another victory over Mahmoud Abbas, whose security cooperation with Israel will look even more despicable.
Like Cast Lead, Pillar of Cloud takes place on the eve of Israeli elections. Two of the leading candidates had hitched their stars to social issues, blown away now as frivolous and irrelevant. Netanyahu and Barak appear multiple times a day on the TV screen, looking responsible, sober, determined, and experienced: he-men, saving the nation.
Was there an alternative? Yes. First of all, you can abstain from “reacting.” Just cut the chain. Then, you can talk with Hamas as the de facto government of Gaza, which Israel did when negotiating the release of Shalit. Why not look for a permanent modus vivendi, with the involvement of Egypt? A hudna can be achieved. In Arab culture, a hudna is a binding truce, sanctified by Allah, which can go on for many years. The Crusaders concluded hudnas with their Muslim enemies.
The day after the assassination, Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin, who had been involved in mediating Shalit’s release, disclosed that he’d been in contact with Ja’abari up to the last moment. Ja’abari had been interested in a long-term cease-fire. The Israeli authorities had been informed.
The remedy is peace with the Palestinian people. Hamas has already said it would respect a peace agreement concluded by the PLO (Mahmoud Abbas) that would establish a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, provided the agreement was confirmed by a Palestinian referendum.
Without such an agreement, the bloodletting will just go on, round after round. Forever.
Uri Avnery is an 89-year-old Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. Gush Shalom – literally “the Peace Bloc,” is an Israeli peace activism group founded and led by former Irgun and Knesset member Avnery in 1993. The American Friends Service Committee has described the group as “one of Israel’s most influential peace organizations.” Since the Irgun was a Zionist paramilitary group that operated in Palestine between 1931 and 1948, we can see that Avnery’s thinking has evolved over the years.