Gaza Redux

Diminishing Influence, Fewer Options

With Israel again bombarding Gaza and gathering troops for another potentially devastating incursion into the Hamas-controlled Palestinian enclave, it is tempting to think that nothing really changes in the Middle East, and especially in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But to think that would be a mistake—especially for friends of Israel.

It is not clear what precipitated this latest confrontation. There is no question that rocket attacks from Gaza increased dramatically in recent months, or that some kind of Israeli response was inevitable. Still, the rockets, though frightening, were (and remain) largely ineffectual, and there had been no recent Israeli fatalities. That changed after Israel’s targeted assassination of Ahmed Jabari, the military commander of Hamas. In response, Hamas fired a barrage of rockets, one of which killed three Israelis. Since then, both sides have launched hundreds of strikes. A new Israeli antimissile defense system has proved remarkably effective, while the death toll for Palestinians is mounting steadily.

Knowledgeable observers think neither Hamas nor Israel wants to reenact the carnage of Operation Cast Lead four years ago. That wrenching assault resulted in the deaths of nearly 1,400 Palestinians, most of them civilians. Only thirteen Israelis were killed. If Hamas wants to avoid repeating such a calamity, why would it provoke Israel in this manner? One theory is that a show of military bravado would enhance its status across the new political landscape of the Arab world, especially in comparison with its more moderate Palestinian rival, Fatah. A demonstration of robust military capability—some rockets provided by Iran can now reach Tel Aviv and Jerusalem—might also reinvigorate support among Gaza’s beleaguered and disgruntled population. Hamas also counts on the fact that Israel has no interest in re-occupying Gaza with its 1.6 million Palestinians. Nor is it in Israel’s interest to repeat its brutal three-week 2008–09 siege. Operation Cast Lead was seen by many in the international community as disproportionate if not immoral—some claim Israel committed war crimes—and contributed significantly to the growing isolation of the Jewish state.

Much has changed since then. In 2008 Hamas had few friends in the Arab world. The “Arab Spring,” and especially the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, has changed that dynamic. Under the dictatorial Hosni Mubarak, Egypt worked closely with Israel to limit the smuggling of armaments into Gaza. With Mubarak’s overthrow, the Sinai and the border between Egypt and Gaza have become ungovernable, and smuggling has become commonplace—another reason Israel felt compelled to act. Egypt’s recently elected Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, reflecting popular Egyptian sentiment, has expressed solidarity with Hamas and the people of Gaza. He has criticized Israel’s aerial offensive and warned against another ground invasion. An escalation of violence by Israel would put Morsi in a difficult position—perhaps even push him to reconsider Egypt’s commitment to the peace treaty between the two nations. Turkey, once a reliable friend of Israel, has also sided with Hamas.

If there is to be a diplomatic solution to the crisis, it may come thanks to the intervention of Egypt and Turkey, once peripheral players in the Palestinian conflict. In fact, the United States has been pressing Morsi and Turkey to take the lead in arranging a truce. Many of Israel’s friends, especially the United States, dread the prospect of another gruesome assault on densely populated Gaza. Such a military action would unavoidably be seen as a war against civilians. Remarks of high-ranking Israeli officials about the need to “punish” the Palestinians heighten such fears. Responding with massive retaliatory force to Hamas’s deliberate provocations only jeopardizes Israel’s own moral standing.

No one disputes that the threats to Israel are real or that turmoil in the region—especially the Syrian civil war and Iran’s efforts to develop a nuclear-weapons capability—leave little room for error on Israel’s part. But as the shifting allegiances of Israel’s neighbors indicate, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains the key to the country’s security—and indeed to the whole region’s. Under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel has never proposed a plausible resolution of the conflict. In fact, at every opportunity Netanyahu has sabotaged progress toward a two-state solution. At this very moment, Jewish settlements are being expanded on the West Bank.

For better or for worse, the U.S.-Israeli alliance is not going to change. No American president has much political room to maneuver when it comes to Israel’s military actions. But the Arab world is changing, and both the United States and Israel will soon have to find new ways of dealing with a region where U.S. influence is diminishing and Israel’s options are narrowing. A negotiated ceasefire in Gaza would be a good first step toward recognizing that new reality.


November 19, 2012

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I have just returned to Geneva from a conference in East Jerusalem in defense of Lifta, the last deserted Palestinian village in Israel.  Forcibly evacuated and partially demolished during the Nakba of 1948, the village stands in sorrowful isolation on the outskirts of Jerusalem.  The Israelis plan to turn it into an exclusively Jewish luxury enclave.  While the Liftawis still have keys to their homes, Israeli has the ultimate power and the brutal means to enforce it.  


Regarding the most recent factors that precipitated the siege of Gaza, two young people were killed by IDF forces earlier this month.  Ahmed Al-Nabaheen, a 20- year- old, who suffered from psychiatric problems, died of potentially treatable injuries after he was shot on 5 November.  The Israeli army refused to allow Palestinian ambulances to the scene on Sunday.  On 8 November a 13-year-old boy named Hmeid Daqqa was killed by bullets from an Israeli helicopter.   


“No one disputes that the threats to Israel are real…”   As Amira Hass writes in a recent editorial in Ha’aretz (11/19/2012), “ One of Israel’s tremendous propaganda victories is that it has been accepted as a victim of the Palestinians, both in the view of the Israeli public and that of Western leaders who hasten to speak of Israel’s right to defend itself. The propaganda is so effective that only the Palestinian rockets at the south of Israel, and now at Tel Aviv, are counted in the round of hostilities. The rockets, or damage to the holiest of holies – a military jeep – are always seen as a starting point, and together with the terrifying siren, as if taken from a World War II movie, build the meta-narrative of the victim entitled to defend itself. “

The victim is very well prepared to do just that.  Estimates for Israel's nuclear weapons stockpile range from 70 to 400 warheads.  It is one of four nuclear-armed countries that has not signed the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the others being Pakistan, India and North Korea.  American taxpayers contribute more to Israel’s defense policy than do Israelis, asLieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenazi pointed out in a speech in Tel Aviv on September 11 of this year.


I would further contest the statement that the “U.S.-Israeli alliance is not going to change.”  AIPAC’s extraordinary power over American politics is slowly fading.  Mayor Villaraigosa failed to get his 2/3 vote for an AIPAC-sponsored resolution at the DNC.  JCall, Jewish Voice for Peace and other nonprofit advocacy groups are challenging their mighty grip.  Social media networks are getting the word out that the right wing government of Israeli wants land not peace; that their matrix of control is effectively continuing the ethnic cleansing that began in 1947.


Since 2007 the blockade of Gaza has caused unprecedented levels of unemployment and unrelenting poverty.  1400 civilians were killed during Operation Cast Lead.  The victims of Operation Pillar of Defense, trapped in an open-air prison, sadly continue to rise.  


Americans will continue to be complicit in this violence until the United States cuts off military aid to Israel unless it complies with U.S. and international law.  Meanwhile Palestinian suffering is recorded, as their great poet Mahmoud Darwish reminds us:


   ...nothing passes like that without account All that you have done to our people is registered in notebooks.

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