Saturday, December 27, 2008

Gaza: What's Behind Israel's New Attack

Yesterday Israel launched a massive attack against Palestinians in Gaza resulting so far in over 300 dead and over 700 wounded. The major North American media presented the news along three points:

  1. Hamas is launching rocket attacks onto Israel
  2. "Tension is increasing" and the situation is becoming untenable for Israel
  3. Israel launches a proportional attack in response
A simple straight forward story. Or is it? Let's consider some of the troubling questions not raised by the main stream media.

Why would Hamas continue launching rockets at Israel when they had signed six months ago a truce? Why now? Who benefits from such actions?

Gaza has been under a real siege since the "withdrawal" of Israeli forces from it in 2005. Israel still controls Gaza's air, land, and sea borders and has severely hampered movement of goods and people across these borders. The only other borders are with Egypt, who is witnessing a rise in opposition movements against President's Mubarak government, is distracted with the president's succession planning, and paranoid about organized Islamist opposition similar to Hamas spreading across the country and gaining broad mass support.

Many international and humanitarian organizations have decried this siege including the International Red Cross, UN organizations, NGOs and even Israeli civic groups. The truce was supposed to end the siege of Gaza in return for cessation of rockets firing against Israel's southern settlements bordering the Gaza strip.

For a while the truce seemed to be working. The long years under direct Israeli occupation (1967-2005), had produced numerous Palestinian factions and armed resistance groups in Gaza, some of which are more radical and less pragmatic than Fatah or Hamas. The Hamas government, which won a majority in internationally monitored fair elections, used its security forces to pressure the different factions into respecting the truce. The military operations decreased in intensity and number on both sides, but never subsided completely, a result hailed as a success setting the grounds for more steps towards a resolution of the issues.

The siege, however, was never lifted. Slightly more goods were allowed into Gaza, but not enough to make a difference in the daily lives of the over 1.5 Million people trapped in the few square kilometers of the strip. Even young Palestinians, who had received prestigious
U.S. Fulbright fellowships were not allowed to leave Gaza to join their universities. Grumbling among the population grew and dissent among the other factions and groups started to manifest itself despite Hamas efforts. Israel claimed that the text of the truce agreement did not promise such siege lifting.

As the six-month truce neared it's end, a number of elements converged to spell its demise. In Gaza people's patience was running low with the daily deprivation of power, water, food, medicine and the continuing lack of security from Israeli raids. Hamas was running the risk of loosing its support to other groups and factions proclaiming simplistic solutions, mostly violent ones. It had to show that it is doing something to change this situation. It articulated non-ambiguous terms for a new truce that would guarantee lifting the siege and made them condition for renewing the truce.

In Israel, the general elections were nearing. The Kadima party still struggling with the legacy of the failed Lebanon war and allegations of corruptions against Olmert, and facing polls indicating that Likhud's and Natanyahu's combative campaign was getting some traction, was also under pressure to compete. Conditions seemed conducive for attempting a bold solution: The U.S. was in the paralyzing transition phase with the sympathetic Bush administration still in office; all major powers were busy with the global financial crisis; and the Arab regimes were as divided and impotent as they would ever be. If the current Israeli administration managed a successful military operation yielding one of those blitzkrieg victories that it delivered a couple of decades ago, a victory in the upcoming elections for Kadima would be secured.

So suddenly, statements are made by Israeli officials that they are committed to the removal of Hamas. A poll commissioned by the Ma'ariv newspaper on December 26th, 2008, has Kadima winning 33 seats against 29 by the Likhud. With such encouraging signs, the military operation was all go and the bombing started on December 27th.

Interestingly enough, the first attacks targeted Hamas security forces, the only regular forces capable of maintaining public order and constraining the militants of smaller factions. This guarantees that some of those factions will still be able to sporadically shoot something at Israel, justifying its "retaliatory" actions.

The "proportional" Israeli response included dropping 90 tons of bombs in the first day alone on densely populated areas. Women, children and innocent civilians were killed as "collateral damage" on the road to political gains. The lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, that there is no military solution to broad based insurgency, went unheeded in the arrogance of militarists. The hearts of thousands of Palestinians, who lost family members, homes, and more importantly hope, was refueled with hate against their oppressors, cultivating the next generation of revenge seeking "militants", "extremists", and suicide bombers, and adding another round to the vicious circle of violence.

It is time that this vicious circle is broken. This is not a conflict between Jews and Arabs, nor a war against terror. There are many Jewish voices, both from within and outside Israel that have risen against the undeniable injustice done to the Palestinians. It is basically a conflict between the fundamental rights of self determination and human dignity of the Palestinian people and the ethnic and religious monolithic ideology of Zionist nationalism. No real peace will ever be achieved as long as Palestinians are denied these fundamental rights.

There are enough international frameworks and tools to implement a solution, if the international community's will is there. But as long as the Palestinian question remains the subject of domestic
or regional political tactics and election strategies, innocent people will continue to suffer and die. Taking the easy way out of blaming both side and sitting back will not absolve us from our human and moral responsibility for what is happening in Gaza.

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  • Hi Nabou.

    Few facts to make history right.

    The firing of Qassams began not as a response to the siege against Gaza, but as a marathon celebration by armed Islamic fundamentalist groups following Israel's withdrawal of its troops and settlers from the Strip. To purposely add insult to injury, Islamic Jihad and other organizations used the ruins of settlements as launch platforms.

    The rockets started BEFORE the withdrawal, when the PA was still ruling the strip, before Hamas took over with very extreme violence (Slaughtering Fatah supporters, dropping them from roofs of high buildings etc)

    After the withdrawal the Palestinians had a wonderful opportunity to make Gaza a free and peaceful land. They could have used the greenhouses we left them which produced TONS of food and were a multi-million dollar business in export. They chose to destroy and loot the greenhouses, and they chose to make Gaza a terrorism heaven, launching rockets all over.

    My home town is Ashkelon and we had rockets falling around for YEARS. Israel did not went in to attack, it didn't stop the electricity it provides Gaza even though the Hamas kept shooting rockets trying to hit the power station in Ashkelon which provides them that electricity (and then it would cry Israel stopped it out of evil)

    Israel held back and held back and even though the people here were constantly under fire. In the 'truce' time more then thousands of rockets fallen here!! Thousands! since the fake truce ended last week we had 300 rockets in less than a week!! 80 in one day!! I was at my parents in Ashkelon at the time, I'm a witness!

    The Palestinian had been WARNED. They refused to listen. Now they suffer the consequences. Mind you with all the bombing, Palestinians reported yesterday that out of 230 dead only 15 were civilians (ie, non-Hamas people). Tomorrow morning Israel is sending 100 trucks with food and aid inside. Show me who tries so hard to be careful and helpful to an enemy during war.

    I have ZERO sympathy to the Palestinians in Gaza, they eat what they cooked.

    There is only one way to stop this. Palestinians will cease ALL activities against Israel (ALL!! Including smuggling more arms in!) and talks will be held on exchanging prisoners. Israel, in return, will stop the attack and will stop the siege on the Egyptian border and the sea.

    We don't want to have anything to do with Gazans and we don't want them to have anything to do with us. Halas.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 6:40 p.m.  

  • This is a great perspective Nabil. More of this as things unfold would be valuable. But tell me, what SHOULD be happening to stop the spiral? What would work? Realistically?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 9:38 a.m.  

  • Hi Civax,
    Thank you for your comments.
    First about history: I started from a recent past. You went a few years further back. It makes a lot of difference where you stop in history. If we go a bit further back, we'll have to admit that Israel occupied Gaza illegally since 1967. The hot houses and tourist facilities were built on Palestinian lands without their consent regardless of how lucrative they were for settlers. So rather than trading bits about history I am interested rather in finding solutions based on values that I hope we share.

    Second on values: I sympathize with the inhabitants of Ashkalon, and I condemn acts of violence against innocent civilians regardless by whom. I don't see you admitting the human plight inflicted by Israel on Palestinians nor sympathizing with these "other" human beings.

    Third: about rights. What gives you (or me for that matter) the right to dictate what Palestinians should do or not do. That's not a dialog. It's a futile one way communication.

    In my experience people who live reasonably well are not usually inclined to violence. That's why I believe that only by enabling Palestinian a decent life with dignity can violence subside; violence will only yield more violence, even if deferred through military means for a while.

    By Blogger Unknown, At 6:10 p.m.  

  • MJ, an international or multinational peace force could be deployed between Palestinians and Israel with a clear mandate to prevent military actions against the other party. This would end the Israeli occupation and start the difficult task of rebuilding civil institutions required for a sovereign state. Israel's security and borders would be guaranteed by international powers (the Group of 4 for example).
    I have no illusion that such a process would be straight forward. It will as messy if not more as Bosnia and the Balkans, but it will get the parties out of the vicious circle and give people hope again.

    By Blogger Unknown, At 6:15 p.m.  

  • Nabou, explain again how we should sympathize with looting of hot houses because they were built without consent? Take them and use them and maybe we'd have sympathy. Destroy them and cry about conditions and me thinks thou doust protest too much. We are not as stupid as the media manipulation you witness would have you think.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 8:36 p.m.  

  • Hi Nabou,

    Thanks for commenting back (this *is* a dialog and I'm very happy to have it)

    First, I'd like to clear something in my first comment. It might be a bit easier if you'd read "Hamas" in almost all places I wrote "the Palestinians" there.

    You right about where you stop in history. This conflict goes quite a while back so solution must begin somewhere.

    Still, if we discuss the why, it's important to know how each side perceives the cause and effect, or we'll find ourselves alienating one of the sides.

    I had long debates on blogs and on twitter (damn it, how long can be a discussion when each response is 140 chrs...).

    I believe the only possible long-run solution will be 2 states, roughly the same sizes as now.

    Unfortunately, I also think this could not happen until the palestinians will have one strong leadership uniting them and able to be both a single address to Israel to talk with, and strong enough to force an agreement it signs on Palestinian factions.

    I'm aware such a strong leadership will be strong enough to get some hard and painful agreements on the Israeli side, but I think Israel will much rather sign a painful agreement with a leadership who can completely assure it's execution. And Israel has already proven it's ability to make hard decisions despite internal objections.

    What I DON'T see happen, is Hamas/Islamic Jihad/other radical groups be anything but an obstacle to such a leadership.

    I truly believe Hamas doesn't even want to have peace with Israel. It is loyal to the thought of Islamic country *replacing* Israel, and couldn't care less about Palestinian or Israeli lives. The Mukawama ('resistance') as an ideal is much more important to it then the lives of anyone, and if death of innocent civilians serves the cause of that 'resistance' then so be it.

    I think for this reason you'd see the PA in the west bank, Egypt, Jordan - and some other secular Arab regimes - quietly (or not so quietly now) supports the current war in Gaza. For them Israel is a great tool to 'get rid of the scary filth' while staying 'clean'.

    For this reason you'd see Hizbulla and Iran (both holding extreme Islam ideals) loudly supports Hamas.

    I also think that considering complicated situation in Gaza and Hamas' tendency to use civilians as human shield (voluntary or not), Israel had done a great job in minimzing civilian casualties. It's not perfect and I AM sorry to have civilians killed (I didn't see even one person in Israel gloats. The sights are far from pleasant and we're all humans after all) but I blame these on Hamas.

    I blame it on Hamas for using the civilians to hide, to fire rockets from among them, for so not caring to provoke Israel that it kept firing so many rockets on my family and the rest of the people in south Israel. For targeting our civilian cities on purpose while he knows we "play nicely" and never target his.

    About the current round of fire (I'm not that naive to thing we're near the solution I've mentioned), here is the solution I suggest:

    Hamas must stop all hostile actions against Israel (rockets, sniper fire etc). Commit it will not resume them as long as the agreement stands and in any way will have to discuss violations first before 'retaliating'. Commit not to smuggle more arms. Allow the Red Cross to visit Gilad Shalit regularly like Israel allow them with his prisoners.

    Israel will stop the attacks. Commit it will not resume as long as the agreement stands and in any way will have to discuss violations first before 'retaliating'.

    Hamas will accept the 3 conditions given by the EU, US and Israel when it took control over Gaza in order to have it's government recognized (They are - Recognizing Israel, Denouncing Violence, Honoring past agreements signed by prev. governments)

    Israel will remove the siege completely including air and water.

    Talks will begin immediately for the exchange of Gilad Shalit with Hamas prisoners.

    This agreement should be in effect for no less than a year, hopefully more.

    It's either that or have Hamas completely removed from power regardless of the steps needed to make it so.

    Feel free to comment on this.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 8:57 p.m.  

  • Civax, I am pleased too we got a conversation going and I appreciate the distinction between the Palestinians people in general and the political/ military organization Hamas. I did some research on the issue of the hot houses and as usual nothing is a simple as it appears on the surface. There was an area with hot houses that Palestinian security forces reached late after the withdrawal of the IDF and yes, there was looting and burning, which the security forces tried to stem. But this was not typical of all situation. In other places the IDF had to completely destroy the installations being left behind (not just the military ones) and remove the rubble for a variety of reasons: some because the owners of these facilities had already taken anything that can be moved and did not want to leave anything behind; some because the Palestinian authorities came to conclude that the type of facility (for example single family dwellings) would not be usable by the Palestinian population with very different density and family sizes, and would be replaced by high-rise buildings instead. This was a complex situation made worse by lacking communications between the Palestinian and Israeli authorities at the time due to the unilateral nature of the withdrawal.

    Whether the solution is a one state or two states, each has pros and cons. I think the more important question is what type of state or states will it be. In the one state solution the question becomes: is it a truly democratic state where each citizen has equal rights and duties? In the two-state solution the question becomes: is the Palestinian state a truly sovereign one or a collection of "reservations" with powerless "chiefs"?

    These are fundamental questions and given the state of mistrust between the parties they are not easy to answer. The tactics used by Hamas, referred to by the military as "asymmetrical" warfare is neither new nor unique to the Israel/Palestinian conflict. Throughout history, where- and whenever people felt strongly wronged by an overwhelmingly more powerful opponent, they resorted to asymmetrical warfare because the only other alternatives would have been to die or give up and loose their freedom.

    The key therefore is to try and build confidence step by step. Usually, it is the stronger more powerful opponent that can better afford investing in the first difficult but necessary steps.

    Keep in mind that these steps MUST demonstrate in practice the answer to the above questions to the man in the street, and that the PA (and before it the PLO) had formally accepted the two state solution. The reason Hamas won internationally monitored fair elections (including votes from Palestinian Christians) is that 10 years of PA negotiations did NOT yield any substantial answers for the people regarding those cardinal questions.

    Finally, I believe that this conflict was shaped by national forces on both sides in an era defined by national conflicts. The world has since witnessed a substantial globalization and may be it's time for both Israeli and Arabs to reconsider solutions within such global context. Both parties have more similarities than they care to admit today as well as synergies in the context of a global economy.

    By Blogger Unknown, At 10:36 p.m.  

  • In reply to "Anonymous": Picture yourself under military occupation for 38 years, where every movement and action is strictly monitored and regulated by the occupier, where visiting a cousin or reaching the regional clinic would involve more than a dozen check points and changing vehicle of transportation as many times. Imagine living in a situation where the rules and impediments for importing or exporting anything borders on insanity. Then one day the occupiers unilaterally withdraw, leaving behind some hot houses, but maintaining full control of land, sea and air borders, and thus the impediments and barriers. Most of what you need to run the hot houses, power, fuel, seeds, are controlled by the occupier.
    Are you surprised that some people reaching the abandoned facilities before security forces get there take out 38 years of misery and frustration on what has been the symbol of the hated occupation for so many years?

    By Blogger Unknown, At 11:09 p.m.  

  • Hi Nabou,

    I'm also very pleased we can get a conversation going. Actually, I was surprised that except few people on twitter who were very hateful, I managed to hold a conversation with people that held opinions very far from mine.

    I completely agree with you on many on the points you brought up, which might narrow the arguments here..

    About 2 states vs one, you'd find the Israelis quite objecting a one state solution, as this is viewed as a plan to overtake Israel by using the demographic "weapon". Therefore you'd see very strong objection even from the political left to one state solution or to the 'right to return' argument.

    2 states solution *is* a solution many Israelis grew to accept, however, and I think the support for that is major here.

    Regarding what type of regime will be in the new state, I'm internally divided.

    As a citizen which has it's own life I feel very strong urge not to care. My basic feeling is "They can do whatever they want just as long as they don't attack me or plot against me." I'd go as far as say I basically don't care if they'll have an endless civil war or a wonderful heaven over there. I don't want to deal with them, hear about them, govern them, anything.

    However, thinking mainly rationally than with my heart, I know it is essential they'll have a VERY strong regime that can subdue all the local chieftains and Hamula heads. I don't believe a democratic regime is what they need at the moment, cause I see the Israeli example. For democracy you need fairly strong economy, educated citizens, independent press and a total monopoly of the right to use force in the hand of one army/police...

    For a beginning country usually a one-party government is much more effective at the first years. Notice I emphasis the limiting of information rather than limiting of civil rights.

    I won't dive into this subject, I'll just point you to compare the regimes of Israel, who was affected by Russia when initially founded, and some African states who were affected by the US and tried to implement democracy from the start. You'd notice the difference. All were founded in the same years, around '48, btw.

    About asymmetrical war. You're correct that this conflict is not the first asymmetrical fight ever done in history, nor in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. (and also in the Israeli-Arab conflict, only in that Israel was the smaller side).

    However, one point that *IS* different from many previous such fights is that since Hizbulla in the last war, there is an extensive use of civilians as cover for fighting forces, for media purposes.

    Hiding within civilian population is nothing new in conflicts. However, in those periods in time the media played almost no role and civilian casualties were mostly ignored.

    What happens now is that groups like Hamas see ONLY benefits from fighting from within civilian population - if Israel doesn't shoot a Hamas team firing rockets from a school, Israeli civilians are under fire. If Israel does attack the Hamas team, Palestinian civilians - even kids - might get hurt, which is still good for Hamas for both worldwide propaganda and in recruiting more angry locals. So using Human Shield became a win-win situation for them.

    This is probably where we differ. I do not count these dead civilians as civilians deaths blamed on Israel, but as ones killed by Hamas. And I'm not even talking about the tendency of different armed groups to fight without uniforms (which is understandable) but when they die, they suddenly count as civilians (and I was a personal witness to several of these cases in the past).

    External forces in this conflict plays a role since inception. Where the west stands it more or less clear (the western governments are understandable about targeting Hamas, but civilian casualties are an image problem for interal issues).

    What is intersting to see how this thing brings out the conflicts in the Arab world.

    The obvious conflict is Fatah vs Hamas, of course. Abbas keeps saying Hamas is to blame and the PA police in west bank breaking any protest or demonstration where there are Hamas people present or flags of Hamas. Even Israeli Arabs did bigger demonstrations. It's also not that secret that many of the Hamas targets bombed were given to Israel by Fatah members. The cooperation is much stronger than both sides show.

    The less obvious, and much more powerful issue is the Moderate Arab regimes vs the Iranian axis (Iran, Syria, Hizb and Hamas). Egypt, Jordan and Saudia are just dieing to see Hamas thrown out. They are very afraid of Iranian and Radical Islam gaining momentum.

    The conflict is so big they refuse to meet together in the arab league and loudly condemn Israel. It's not cause they love Israel, and it's not cause they support it, but it's cause they need Israel to do the 'dirty work' with Hamas.

    This is one of the reasons during all the time of the siege Egypt didn't open the crossing on its border. This is why Egypt keep saying they won't open their crossing until Abbas' people will be back in Gaza. (The other reason is that they don't want to be responsible for Gaza).

    So there is much going on around the conflict.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 10:20 p.m.  

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