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Gaza Strip

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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.
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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.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 5 and 8. (“A few…same”; and “Then…not”)

The One-State Solution

5 November 2012

The One-State Solution

By Gwynne Dyer

“Everybody knows how this will end,” wrote Nahum Barnea, one of Israel’s best-known journalists, in the newspaper Yediot Aharonot recently. “There will be a bi-national (state).” The “two-state solution” for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is dead; long live the “one-state solution.”

The two-state solution, promised by the Oslo Accords of 1993, was the goal of the “peace process” of the past twenty years. It envisaged the creation of a Palestinian state in the one-fifth of the former colony of Palestine that did not end up under Israeli rule after the war of 1948. That Palestinian mini-state, in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, would live alongside Israel in peace, and the long, bitter struggle over Palestine would end happily.

That Palestinian state is no longer a viable possibility, mainly because there are now half a million Jewish settlers living amongst the two million Palestinians in the West Bank and former East Jerusalem. “I do not give up on the two-state solution on ideological grounds,” wrote Haaretz columnist Carlo Strenger in September. “I give up on it because it will not happen.”

The greatest triumph of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, has been to make the two-state solution impossible. Both men pretended to accept the Oslo Accords in order to ward off foreign pressure on Israel, but both worked hard and successfully to sabotage them by more than tripling the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank in only twenty years.

Now the job is done, and it is not only Israelis who can read the writing on the wall. Moderate Palestinians, never all that enthralled with the prospect of a tiny “independent” country completely surrounded by the Israeli army, are also giving up on the two-state idea. As Ahmed Qurei, who led the Palestinian delegation that negotiated the Oslo Accords, wrote recently: “We must seriously think about closing the book on the two-state solution.”

So the one-state solution is creeping back onto the agenda, if only tentatively. The current Israeli government will have nothing to do with it, since endless, futile talk about an independent Palestinian state serves Netanyahu’s purposes so well. But one day there will be a different government in Israel, and the Palestinians will still be there. What are the odds that the one-state solution might then get real traction?

In a sense, the single state already exists: Israel has controlled the West Bank militarily since the conquest of 1967, and until recently it occupied the Gaza Strip as well. Almost 40 percent of Israelis already support a solution that would simply incorporate the West Bank into Israel permanently.

But what would Israel do with those two million extra Palestinians who would then live within the country’s expanded borders? Combine them with the million and a half Palestinians in Israel, the descendants of those who were not driven out in 1948, and there would be 3.5 million Palestinians in a one-state Israel that included almost all the land west of the Jordan River.

Add the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, who will number another 2 million in five years time, and there would be 5.5 million Palestinians in Israel. That would mean there were almost as many Palestinians in Israel as there are Jews.

That unwelcome prospect is probably why Ariel Sharon unilaterally withdrew all Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip and sealed the border in 2005: if there were ever a one-state solution, he didn’t want those extra two million Palestinians to be part of it. He did want to keep the West Bank, on the other hand – but even without the Gaza Strip, the one-state solution would produce an Israel whose population was more than one-third Palestinian.

This is precisely why an increasing number of Palestinians favour the one-state solution. They have tried guerilla war to get their lands and their political rights back, to no avail. They have tried terrorism, which didn’t work either. They tried negotiation for twenty years, and that didn’t work. So maybe the best tactic would be to change the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from an international problem to a civil rights problem.

So the Palestinians should just accept the permanent annexation of the West Bank by Israel, argue the one-staters. Indeed, they should actively seek it. They are already Israeli subjects, by every objective measure of their condition. If they become Israeli citizens instead, then the question of their status becomes a civil rights issue, to be pursued non-violently – and perhaps with a greater chance of success.

That is the logic of the pro-one-state argument among the Palestinians, and it is flawless if you assume that Palestinians would enjoy full rights of citizenship once the West Bank was legally part of Israel. But that is rather unlikely, as the status of Israel’s existing Palestinian citizens already demonstrates. They are much poorer and less influential politically than their Jewish fellow-citizens.

A new public opinion poll in Israel by the Dialog polling group reveals that almost 70 percent of Israeli Jews would object to giving West Bank Palestinians the vote even if Israel annexed the territory they live in. The only alternative is an apartheid-style state where only the Jewish residents have rights, but most Israelis seem quite relaxed about that. The Palestinians are probably heading up another blind alley.

But then, all the alleys are blind.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 10 and 11. (“So…traction”; and “Add…Palestinian”)