// archives

Gaza Strip

This tag is associated with 32 posts

Palestinian Despair

When all is lost, entire communities sometimes engage in suicidal gestures. It happened as recently as 1906 in Bali, when the local royal family and thousands of their followers, knowing they could not defeat the Dutch conquerors, dressed in their best finery and walked straight into the Dutch gunfire. Thousands were killed.

It has been happening again in the past six weeks in the area in front of the border fence that divides the Gaza Strip from Israel. It reached at least a temporary climax on Monday, when some 2,000 Palestinians were wounded, around half by gunfire, and 60 were shot dead by Israeli soldiers.

That’s at least a thousand unarmed Palestinian civilians struck by Israeli bullets in a single day. One Israeli soldier was lightly injured by a rock or a piece of shrapnel.

Even before the ‘March of Return’ began in late March, the Israeli government said that the march was just a cover for terrorists to cross into its territory and carry out terrorist attacks. Soldiers would therefore be allowed to fire live ammunition against anybody trying to damage the border fence, which included anybody coming within 300 metres of it.

There have been unconfirmed reports that the army was later told to shoot only people coming within 100 metres of the fence, which would involve maybe only half the people in the crowd. But the basic story was unchanged: those clever Hamas terrorists had figured out that the best way to sneak into Israel is to break through the border in broad daylight and make their way past thousands of heavily armed Israeli soldiers on full alert.

So anybody in the crowd could be shot if identified as a ‘key agitator’, even if he or she posed no immediate threat to the soldiers. Indeed, the army, presumably using top-secret equipment that let them identify the dead while other Palestinians carried them away, claimed that 24 of the 60 Palestinians killed on Monday were “terrorists with documented terror background.”

Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu defends the slaughter on the grounds that Hamas “intends to destroy Israel and sends thousands to breach the border fence in order to achieve this goal.” If he truly believes they could destroy Israel that way, then the country must be far weaker than anybody thought. But he’s getting away with this nonsense because Israel’s allies refuse to call him on it.

The French government has called on Israel to “exercise discernment and restraint in the use of force that must be strictly proportionate.” The British government said that “the large volume of live fire is extremely concerning. We continue to implore Israel to show greater restraint.”

The comments of Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who was in Israel to celebrate the opening of the new US embassy in Jerusalem, were even more anodyne. He just ignored the carnage happening at the border and restricted himself to saying that “The United States stands with Israeli because we both believe in freedom.”

But the prize for Most Revealing Remark must go to Khalil al-Hayya, a senior official in the Hamas party that rules the Gaza Strip: “We say clearly today to all the world that the peaceful march of our people lured the enemy into shedding more blood.” Note the word ‘lured’. At the leadership level, both sides see this ghastly event mainly in terms of political theatre.

Hamas WANTED the Israelis to commit a massacre of innocent civilians for its propaganda value. The Israeli army, well aware that this was Hamas’s goal, ordered its soldiers to shoot to injure, not to kill, whenever possible. The final score shows that they largely obeyed: if they had just randomly fired into the crowd, around one in five of the victims would have been killed, not one in forty.

Nevertheless it WAS a massacre, but the Palestinian civilians who were being maimed or killed were willing victims. The mostly young men and women in the crowd milling around in front of the border fence, which peaked at an estimated 40,000 people, knew they stood a fair chance of being killed or crippled, but they just didn’t care any more.

It’s 70 years now since the grand-parents of these young Palestinians were driven from what is now Israel, and they know that they are never going back to their ancestral homes. International law says that refugees have that right, whether they fled voluntarily (as Israel insists) or were expelled by force or the threat of force (as most other people believe), but in practice it’s just not going to happen. Israel is far too strong.

Most of the current generation know that they are never going ‘home’, and will have to live out their lives in what amounts to a not-very-large open-air prison: the Gaza Strip. It’s only natural that they are in despair, and inviting death or injury at the hands of Israeli troops seems like an honourable way out.
_____________________________________
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“So…it”)

Gaza War: Nobody wins

“They began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over,” as Lewis Carrol put it in Alice in Wonderland. He was describing the Caucus Race, but it sounds quite a lot like the Gaza War, doesn’t it? What’s different is that at the end of the Caucus Race, the Dodo Bird declared: “Everybody has won, so all must have prizes.”

That’s what the negotiations in Cairo were actually about: prizes. Hamas leaders in Gaza were demanding an end to the Israeli blockade of the territory and the opening of air and sea ports in the Gaza Strip. They also wanted over 200 Hamas members in the West Bank who had been arrested just before the start of this war to be released. They might as well have asked for the Moon.

Hamas has fired almost 6,000 of its homemade rockets at Israel since the start of the war, but it has killed only two Israeli civilians (plus one Thai guest-worker). It doesn’t represent even a serious danger to Israel, let alone an existential threat. So why would any sane Palestinian negotiator think that Israel would feel compelled to make major concessions to Hamas in order to make the pain stop?

The Israeli negotiators were equally deluded. They understandably dismissed all of Hamas’s demands, but then they made equally ludicrous demands of their own. They wanted Hamas and all other militant Palestinian organisations in the Gaza Strip to be completely disarmed. That would not only end any possibility that the Palestinians could exert military pressure on Israel; it would also quite soon end Hamas’s rule in the Gaza Strip.

Why would Hamas agree with that? Over 2,000 people have been killed and more than 8,000 injured by Israel’s strikes on the Gaza Strip, but that’s less than one percent of the population. Moreover, when the Israeli army actually invaded Gaza on the ground (to destroy the famous “terror tunnels”), Hamas fighters managed to kill 64 Israeli soldiers.

That was a particularly futile waste of Israeli lives, since it is hard to believe that 64 of Israel’s troops would ever have been killed by random Hamas fighters coming out of undiscovered tunnels from time to time. Ordinary Israelis, with nightmare visions of terrorists popping up in their gardens, have bought the official line that the sacrifice was worthwhile, but none of the tunnels actually extended more than a couple of kilometres beyond Gaza’s border.

The Palestinians doubtless think that killing more Israeli soldiers than in the previous two wars combined was some sort of success, even if they lost many more fighters themselves, but in the real world it does not give them any military advantage. So no concessions from either side of any kind.

This was quite foreseeable from the first day of the war, because that’s the way the last two wars ended too. They have all been fought mainly to serve the domestic political interests of the two governments, rather than to force real concessions out of the other.

Hamas’s strategic situation is peculiar: it is very weak and cannot hurt Israel, but it is virtually indestructible. Israel can hammer the population of the Gaza Strip as much as it likes, but that will only strengthen their support for Hamas. Whereas Israel is enormously powerful, but cannot defeat Hamas unless it is willing to re-occupy the Gaza Strip, which would lead to a steady and ultimately intolerable drain of casualties among the occupying Israeli troops.

The moves in this relationship are as stately and predictable as a minuet. When Hamas is under political pressure at home and needs a distraction, it launches a few rockets at Israel or provides some other provocation that the Israeli government cannot ignore. Then the Israeli government, under irresistible domestic pressure to “do something”, launches some air-strikes, and the dance of death recommences.

Stopping is more difficult, because there’s no music to give you the signal by coming to an end. In terms of domestic politics, both sides have already accomplished what they came for, but since neither can acknowledge publicly that that’s all the war was really about, they end up raising wholly unrealistic demands at the cease-fire talks. That’s why the negotiations in Cairo ended in failure: nobody has won, so nobody can have prizes.

Now that the shooting has started up again, there may be a few more hundred deaths, but probably not another thousand, because the fighting really is going to end soon. It just won’t end with a political deal, and perhaps not even with a formal cease-fire. More likely it will just sort of peter out, like these things sometimes do. Until next time.

Gaza: A Little Context

You can see why Hamas doesn’t want a cease-fire in Gaza yet. It is continuing the fight in the hope that international outrage at the huge loss of people being killed by Israel’s massive firepower will somehow, eventually, force Israel to give it what it wants.

Hamas would be quite willing to give up firing its pathetic rockets – which have so far killed a grand total of three civilians in Israel – if Israel ends its seven-year blockade of the Gaza Strip. Dream on.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s goal is harder to define. Domestic political pressure to “do something” about those pesky rockets pushed him into this war, but now he must produce some kind of success in order to justify all those deaths: around 1,150 Palestinians and more than fifty Israelis already.

But what kind of success could it be? He cannot destroy all the rockets – Hamas shows no sign of running out of them – and even if he could Hamas would just manufacture more of them later unless he physically re-occupied the whole Gaza Strip. In recent days, therefore, Netanyahu has redefined the objective as destroying all the “terror tunnels” that Hamas has dug to infiltrate its fighters into nearby areas of Israel.

This makes no sense at all. In order to protect the lives of a few hypothetical Israeli soldiers who might be killed in the future by Hamas fighters using the tunnels, over forty real Israeli soldiers have already died. Besides, Israel can’t stop Hamas from digging more tunnels after the shooting stops unless it can find a way to ban picks and shovels in the Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu needs a victory of some sort before he accepts a cease-fire, but he cannot even define what it would be. So, as he said on Monday, “We should prepare ourselves for an extended campaign.” Meanwhile, the slaughter of Palestinians continues, and sympathy for Israel shrivels even in the United States.

It’s not that the Israeli army particularly wants to kill civilians (although it is sometimes very sloppy), but it does prefer to fight a stand-off war with artillery and missiles in order to spare the lives of its own soldiers. In the crowded Gaza Strip, that inevitably means killing lots of civilians.

The 1.8 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are living at the same population density as the residents of London or Tokyo: about 5,000 people per square kilometre. You cannot use high explosives in this environment without killing a great many innocent civilians, and Netanyahu knew that from the start, because this is Israel’s third war in Gaza in six years.

So the Israelis are being brutal and stupid, and the Hamas leaders are being brutal and cynical. (Hamas doesn’t really use civilians as “human shields”, as Israeli claims, but its leaders know that Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli fire provide them with a kind of political capital.) But this is not to say that the two sides are equally to blame for the killing. There is a broader context.

Before 1948, only about 60,000 people lived on the land now known as the Gaza Strip. The vast majority of those who live there now are Arab refugees, or the children, grand-children and great-grandchildren of Arab refugees, who fled or were driven out of what is now Israel during the 1948 war. They are not there by choice.

Israel has traditionally insisted that the refugees freely chose to flee, although revisionist Israeli historians have debunked that story pretty thoroughly. But which story you believe doesn’t really matter. Fleeing your home in time of war does not deprive you of the right to go home when the fighting ends. Yet the Palestinians have not been allowed to go home, and Israel is adamant that they never will be.

The argument of 1948 still applies: for Israel to remain a state with a large Jewish majority, the Palestinian refugees and their descendants must remain outside it. So most of them are jammed into this narrow strip of territory on the Mediterranean coast – and latterly they have even grown poorer (unemployment is now 40 percent) because they now live under a permanent Israeli blockade.

Israel imposed the blockade after they voted for Hamas, a radical Islamist party that refuses to recognise the legitimacy of Israel, in the 2006 election. Yes, they are more radical than the Palestinians of the West Bank, most of whom are not refugees. But there is no going back, and even in the Gaza Strip most Palestinians know it.

The ancestral lands of the Palestinians in what is now Israel are lost as permanently as those of the American Indians. The “peace” everybody talks about is really just about giving them security of tenure and real self-government in the one-fifth of former Palestine that they still occupy. Unfortunately, that is not even visible on the horizon.

When Netanyahu is addressing American audiences, he gives lip-service to a “two-state solution” that includes an independent, demilitarised Palestinian mini-state, but everybody in Israel knows that he is really determined to avoid it. Israel is therefore effectively committed to penning in and controlling the Palestinians forever.

When their objections to this situation get too violent, they have to be disciplined. That is what is happening now. Just like 2009 and 2012.
_______________________________
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 12 and 13. (“It’s…civilians”; and “The argument…know it”)

Gaza 2014

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, said something cryptic last Friday, shortly after the Israelis began their latest round of attacks on the Gaza Strip. Condemning Hamas’s conditions for accepting a ceasefire as “exaggerated and unnecessary,” he offered his condolences “to the families of the martyrs in Gaza who are fuel to those who trade in war. I oppose these traders, on both sides.”

What could he mean by that? Surely he was not suggesting that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of Israel and the leaders of Hamas, the Islamist organisation that has effective control of the Gaza Strip, have a common interest in perpetuating the current bloodbath for at least a little while longer.

Yes, he was suggesting exactly that, and he was quite right. This is the third “Gaza War” since late 2008 – they come around more often than World Cups in football – and each one has followed the same pattern. Some Israelis are kidnapped and/or killed, Israel makes mass arrests of Hamas cadres in the West Bank and launches air and missile strikes on the Gaza Strip, Hamas lets the missiles fly, and away we go again.

A few wrinkles are different this time. The kidnapping and murder of three young Israeli hitch-hikers in the West Bank, probably by Palestinians who had links with Hamas (although it denies responsibility), was followed by the torture and murder of a young Palestinian, probably by Israeli vigilantes.

The ceasefire signed after the last round in 2012 was already being violated by both sides for some months before the real shooting started a week ago. And, most importantly, Hamas had achieved a political reconciliation of sorts with Mahmoud Abbas’s rival organisation that rules the West Bank as the Palestinian Authority. But although every turn of the wheel is a little bit different, the pattern remains the same.

So why would Prime Minister Netanyahu be willing to launch Israel’s third war against the Gaza Strip in eight years? Because the nature of his political alliances with other parties on the Israeli right, and especially with the settler lobby, means that he could not make a peace deal that the Palestinians would accept even if he wanted to (which he probably doesn’t).

That’s why he was instrumental in sabotaging the Oslo Accords, the theoretical basis for a peaceful “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, during his first term as prime minister in 1996-99. Back in power in the past five years, his primary excuse for not moving on negotiations has been that Mahmoud Abbas could not deliver peace because he controlled only the West Bank, while the intransigent Hamas ruled the Gaza Strip.
Then Abbas stitched together a compromise that brought Hamas back into a unity government three months ago, and Netanyahu claimed that he could not be expected to negotiate with a government that included the “terrorists” of Hamas. So is he now trying to destroy Hamas so that Abbas can rule unhindered over all the Palestinian territories and become a suitable partner for peace? Of course not.

Netanyahu knows, on the evidence of the previous two wars, that Hamas can be battered into temporary quiescence but not destroyed. He also probably realises that if he did manage to destroy Hamas, its place would be taken by a less corrupt and much more extreme Islamist outfit that might really hurt Israel. He is just doing this, with no expectation of victory, because Israeli public opinion demands it.

Hamas’s motive for wanting a little war are more obvious and urgent: it has lost almost all its sources of funding. Iran stopped funding its budget to the tune of $20 million per month when Hamas sided with the Sunni rebels in the Syrian civil war.

Egypt stopped helping it after last year’s military coup against Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government, and closed the tunnels under the border through which the Gaza Strip received most of its imported goods. Those imports were Hamas’s main source of tax revenue. Hamas is broke, and if it stays broke its control over the Strip will weaken.

Whereas a war with Israel will rally the local Palestinians to its support, and if enough of them are killed Egypt and the Gulf states may feel compelled to give Hamas financial aid. So the only real question is how many dead Palestinians will satisfy both Netanyahu’s need to look tough and Hamas’s need to rebuild popular support at home and get financial help from abroad.

On past performance, the magic number is between a hundred and a thousand dead: around 1,200 Palestinians were killed in the 2008-9 war, and 174 in 2012. After that – assuming that only a handful of Israelis have been killed, which is guaranteed by the fact that Israeli air and missiles strikes are a hundred times more efficient at killing than Hamas’s pathetic rockets – a ceasefire becomes possible.

We have already crossed the lower threshold of that range of Palestinian deaths in the current mini-war, so a ceasefire is theoretically possible now, but both sides will probably press on for at least another few days. Then the ceasefire will be agreed, and both sides will start thinking about the next round, only a few years from now. But the dead will stay dead.
______________________________
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 5 and 8. (“A few…same”; and “Then…not”)