Nearly 700 Palestinians have died since Israel began its assault on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip two weeks ago. Of these, more than half are civilians. Israel has reported 10 casualties on its side for the same period, three of them civilians. The crude handmade Qassam rockets that the scrappy Palestinian forces have fired into Jewish towns are mere slingshots beside the mechanized infantry, artillery units, warships, and armed helicopter gunships that the highly-trained and disciplined Israeli Defense Forces have deployed to destroy targets in Gaza.
By any measure, this is not a war but a slaughter, not a retaliatory response but an outrageous massacre. The Jewish nation’s transformation from colossal victim to callous aggressor is complete.
Gaza’s 1.5 million residents are trapped in what is possibly the mostdensely inhabited strip of land in the world. All border crossings have been sealed by Israeli forces. Palestinians sit in their homes waiting to die, quickly from the Israeli attack or slowly from starvation. In Gaza City, the thousands that have sought refuge in schoolhouses run by the United Nations cannot step out of these buildings without risk of being fired upon. A major humanitarian crisis looms as food and medical supplies run out. The other day, in response to UN pressure, Israel interrupted its assault for exactly three hours to allow trucks to bring in supplies. Then it promptly resumed firing, forcing Gaza’s residents to scurry back into their rabbit holes.
The Israeli military has vowed to pursue this war to its bitter end. The Hamas in turn have threatened to make Gaza a graveyard for Israeli soldiers. Israel must know that the more it succeeds in destroying Gaza, the more heroic Hamas will appear in Palestinian and Arab eyes. The more naked the aggression it mounts, the more it justifies the belief that the establishment of the Palestinian Authority under the leadership of the moderate Fatah was a blunder. The longer the Israeli assault lasts, the more ascendant Islamist extremism becomes.
Israel has marched into a war it can never hope to win by sheer military might. It can reduce the whole Gaza Strip into a vast noman’s land, but at what price? The more Palestinian civilians it kills, the more it isolates itself. It may force Gazans to flee to neighboring Arab countries. But it is unlikely that Egypt to its southwest, or Jordan to the east, or Lebanon and Syria to the northeast will make room for hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees from Gaza. There will be no room for them either at the Fatah-controlled West Bank. The Fatah was dislodged from Gaza in 2007 by the popular Hamas in an armed conflict.
To begin to appreciate the complexity of this conflict, it may be necessary to sketch the broader picture in which it is embedded. Israel is holding national elections in February this year. A key issue in this election is precisely how to deal with Palestinian provocation emanating from Gaza. The incumbent government has been criticized for not being decisive in its response to the Hamas. Many suspect that the present assault is its way of blunting these criticisms.
The picture is perhaps even more complicated on the Palestinian side. The creation of a Palestinian homeland to be governed by an autonomous Palestinian Authority within Israeli-occupied territory was hailed more than a decade ago as a breakthrough for peace in the Middle East. Yasser Arafat’s Fatah party became the Palestinian administration overnight under an arrangement brokered by Western powers and supported by Israel itself. Its major premise was the recognition of Israel’s right to exist in this contested patch of the world. Arafat, who tried to form a Palestinian nation out of the numerous clans and armed guerilla factions that had historically opposed the creation of Israel, was hailed as a hero by the major powers. But sections of the Arab world denounced him as a sell-out. The Fatah itself became known as a corrupt lackey of Israel and the United States.
The Hamas, firmly Islamic in orientation compared to the secular Fatah, never recognized the right of Israel to exist. Like the Hezbollah in Lebanon, it also drew popular support to its cause by socially-oriented projects aimed at alleviating the conditions of the people. In 2006, it defeated the Fatah in Gaza elections, an event that deeply disturbed Israel and the US. The latter moved to arm and train the Fatah forces in a futile attempt to keep the Hamas in check. This intervention only enhanced the standing of the Hamas as Palestinian patriots.
This turn of events suggests that whenever a Palestinian group drops its militancy and learns to negotiate, it risks losing its legitimacy in the process. The Hamas knew this and consciously tried to avoid it. In June 2008, it agreed to enter into a 6-month truce with Israel on the initiative of Egypt. During this period, rockets fired from Gaza went down to about 98% of the number fired in the preceding period. The few rockets that were fired by an Islamic jihad group were staunchly denounced by Hamas. It was a good sign that went unappreciated.
The truce broke down even before it could run its full course. Israel did not lift the economic blockade of Gaza. The smuggling of goods and arms by Hamas through tunnels running from Egypt continued. As Israelis and Palestinians stared menacingly at each other on Christmas Day, the rest of us stared indifferently, forgetting that, in the last analysis, we are all Gazans.
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