Israel in Gaza

After a brutal three-week assault on Gaza, in which at least 1,300 Palestinians were killed, nearly half of them women and children, Israel declared a unilateral cease-fire January 17. Destroying Hamas, the radical, irredentist Islamist group that won control of Gaza through democratic elections in 2006, was evidently the goal of the invasion.

Whether this lull in the fighting (Hamas subsequently announced its own seven-day ceasefire) will last is anyone’s guess. Hamas vows never to accept the existence of the “Zionist entity,” although it has made some noises about the possibility of a “long-term” ceasefire. Israel dismisses Hamas as a terrorist group, and has justified its use of what it calls “overwhelming” military force as the only way to halt the launching of rockets at Israeli towns from within Gaza. Thousands of these rockets have been fired over the past few years, resulting in understandable Israeli anger and concern, though little damage or loss of life. Despite the minimal impact, the attacks create an intolerable situation for Israel, and no one disputes the nation’s right to self-defense. Still, two questions arise. First, what is the most effective way to combat such a threat? Second, what methods are morally legitimate? If the long, tragic history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is any measure, Israel’s determination to “punish” the Gazan people, hoping they will repudiate their leaders, seems destined to fail. Moreover, the spectacle of hundreds of civilian casualties in Gaza will only strengthen radical Islamic groups across the region while further undermining Israel’s moral credibility with its allies and friends. Israel’s strikes against UN facilities and hospitals may constitute war crimes. There are limits to the danger civilians can be exposed to even in pursuit of terrorists who are hiding among them.

The situation in Gaza is complicated, and the politics, rivalries, and ambitions of the surrounding Arab states labyrinthine. So-called moderate Arab regimes, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, have no more use for Hamas than does Israel. Keeping Iran at bay is a goal shared by the United States, Israel, and these Sunni Arab countries, and Hamas has ties to Iran. At the same time, Egypt has done little to stop the smuggling of weapons into Gaza. Israel is perfectly justified in demanding that Egypt or the international community put an end to the arms trafficking.

But Palestinians depend on smugglers for basic necessities as well as weapons. In its ongoing effort to destabilize Hamas, and with the support of the United States and the European Union, Israel has imposed draconian economic sanctions on Gaza, resulting in widespread squalor, suffering, and disease. Hamas has demanded the lifting of those sanctions and the opening of Gaza’s borders in return for a ceasefire. Israel has rejected that bargain, causing some of its critics to charge that it was determined to force a military confrontation. As currently constituted, Hamas is clearly no partner for peace, yet Israel’s overwhelming military response will only serve to marginalize moderate Palestinian voices and strengthen the hand of those, like Hamas, who reject a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

There was no secret to the timing of the invasion. Israel is holding parliamentary elections on February 10, with all the major contenders for prime minister vying to claim credit for “victory” in Gaza. (Another disturbing development was the banning of Arab political parties from participating in the election, raising fears about the internal integrity of Israeli democracy.*) Even more telling was the decision to invade Gaza but then to declare a ceasefire before Barack Obama takes office. For eight years the Bush administration has been notoriously supine with regard to Israeli actions, even emulating Israeli bravado in its conduct of the “war on terror.” Obama’s call for a renewed emphasis on diplomacy and negotiation in the Middle East holds out at least the hope that war will once again become a last resort. One hopes that the new administration understands that being a true friend to Israel will often mean saying no to the misguided policies and politics of its leaders. At the very least, the United States should say no to new settlements in the West Bank and the fungible U.S. aid that finances them, no to the use of U.S. weapons against civilians, and no to any Israeli plans to bomb Iran’s nuclear power facilities (something even George W. Bush reportedly had the good sense to do). At this time, Israel needs this sort of friendship more than ever. In the meantime, the traumatized population of Gaza requires immediate humanitarian assistance.

January 20, 2009

*Days after this issue went to press, Israel’s Supreme Court overturned the ban on Arab political parties.