No Exit From Gaza

Hostilities have ceased, but it is not clear what has been gained

For 22 days, rockets and mortars pounded Gaza in the military siege that began Dec. 27. It has been a brutal, one-sided assault, ending the lives of about 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis, and bringing the peace process to a screeching halt.

On Jan. 18, Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared a unilateral ceasefire. A few hours later, the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip too declared a ceasefire, while demanding the Israeli Defense Forces withdraw from Gaza within a week and reopen all border crossings.  Hostilities have ceased, but little has been won.

The siege “has only served to empower the radicals and undermine the moderates,” says Mona Khalil, an international lawyer of Palestinian origin living in Vienna, “not only within the Palestinian ranks but among the Arab regimes as well.”

This reversal of fortune resulted in the empowerment of Likud, Israel’s center-right party that calls for the destruction of Hamas, the Islamist party that remains unrecognized as a political actor because of its terrorist tactics.

The siege in Gaza, an occupied territory since the Six-Day War in 1967, can be traced back to the economic boycott against Hamas, a response to repeated firing of rockets into nearby Israeli towns. Both sides accuse the other of not honoring the agreements of the ceasefire brokered by Egypt; Hamas attacks dropped to one a week instead of almost one a day, but never stopped. From a political standpoint, the military operation has altered the power landscape on both sides.

In the end, it weakened the Palestinian Authority led by Fatah, and strengthened Hamas, the Islamist party that had won the Parliamentary elections in 2006 and forcefully took over control of Gaza in 2007.

In Israel, the coalition government of the Kadima and Labor parties, used the siege as a last chance to get ahead in the polls before the Feb. 10  Knesset elections, according to Dr. Karin Kneissl, author of the 2008 book The Cycle of Violence (Die Gewalt Spirale) and an expert on the Middle East.

Ultimately, Israel’s action has weakened the center-left government led by the Kadima Party and shifted the balance toward the Likud Party and the center-right, now favored to win in composite polls reported in the Jerusalem Post. Likud’s leader, former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, criticized the Gaza operation for not achieving any diplomatic goal other than a deal with the US to stop the arms smuggling from Egypt. If he is restored to power, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported, he has vowed “a strong, unwavering, persistent hand until the threat is eliminated.” He has announced plans to allow settlement to expand to the West Bank, a move that will most likely reignite violence.

Kneissl says this war is intertwined with the electoral campaign in Israel. Ehud Olmert, who resigned as the Kadima chairman after allegations of corruption and criticism for the failure of the 2006 Lebanon War, along with the new candidate for the prime minister, Tzipi Lieuvny, wants to bolster their party by demonstrating control over the situation on the eve of the elections.

Another important figure in the cabinet, Ehud Barak, Defense Minister from the Labor Party, had hoped for a ceasefire renewal according to the Brussels based think-tank International Crisis Group. Although, other sources like Al-Jazeera said he planned this operation six months ago, in case Hamas took the six-month lull to rearm.

So what was the point? “Stopping the Qassam rockets was far away from being a sober military assessment,” says Kneissl, “because as soon as another rocket is fired, the operation will be seen as a failure.”

The political road is now open for hard-liners like Netanyahu of the Likud Party and Avigdor Lieberman, Minister of Strategic Affairs from the Beitenu Party, who criticized the outgoing leadership of not destroying Hamas completely.  And an end to the conflict seems further away than ever as the recognized Palestinian counterpart in the peace process, the Palestinian Authority led by President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Fayad from the Fatah Party, is losing support among Palestinian voters.

Healing the rift among Palestinians seems almost as difficult as restoring the peace process between them and the Israelis.

On Jan. 20, Mahmoud Abbas made new calls for Palestinian unity, warning that the national project was at stake, a major shift from his original condemnation of Islamist Hamas, and suppression of pro-Hamas demonstrations in the West Bank at the early stages of the siege. And while the assaults may have targeted Hamas, it was Fatah who was more severely wounded.

“Palestinians saw them as puppets,” Kneissl said, and during the civil war in 2007, “they even had to be evacuated by Israeli military.”

The goal by Western governments to empower Fatah at the expense of Hamas seems flawed to many observers. “They expected people to turn against Hamas for having brought them death and destruction,” says lawyer Khalil.

“But that is not the way it works. If you are being punished, you are more likely to go with the party that is perceived to be fighting for you. So even if you don’t want a religious government [like Hamas], you have pride that someone is standing up for you. That is the psychology at play.”

Europe’s responsibilities towards the Middle East are deep and long standing, says Kneissl, but still, it is a test that never manages to pass,” because of the lack of a common foreign policy. Members interests in the region differ: France, with a six million Muslim residents, has perhaps the greatest interest in muting the conflict.  But as an organization, the EU can do little.

Egypt, the only Arab country sharing a border with Gaza, fears that increasing support for Hamas will empower the Islamists, a potential destabilizing factor for President Hosni Mubarak’s pro-Western and repressive government. But closing its borders to Gaza could result in further destabilization of the Egyptian government and possibly a coup, according to Kneissl.

The human cost has been very high. Amnesty International reports that 700 Palestinian civilians – including 300 children – have been killed. The London-based NGO has also protested Israel’s obstruction of medical assistance and targeting of medical personnel.

However both sides have violated the Fourth Geneva Convention: “Hamas to the extent that they are firing crude rockets indiscriminately and therefore not avoiding civilian targets,” said Khalil, and Israel “for its disproportionate use of force in densely populated civilian areas.”

Still, none of this addresses the fundamental gulf: The Quartet (U.S., Russia, U.N. and E.U.) and Israel won’t recognize Hamas as a political player as long as Hamas rejects Israel’s right to exist, continues violence, and disavows previous agreements. And Hamas won’t give in to any of these demands unless Israel retreats from the occupied territories and opens the border crossings. Without an end to the boycott, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza will most likely continue.

“The world-wide boycott of Hamas amounts to a siege against the people of Gaza,” said Khalil. “Everybody wants peace, but the difference lies in what kind of peace.”

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