Israel's Operation Cast Lead had its "Qana moment" on January 7. Some 40 civilians were killed when Israel mistakenly attacked a United Nations school sheltering civilians. The incident was reminiscent of heavy Lebanese civilian casualties caused by the IDF in Kafr Qana in South Lebanon in 1996 and again in 2006; in both cases, the tragedy altered the nature of the war Israel was fighting against Hizballah.
Last week's unintended deaths in the outskirts of Gaza City were inevitable: Israel is fighting against guerillas who cynically exploit their crowded urban surroundings and teeming civilian population to the utmost. If Israel expands its offensive in this environment, more such tragedies are inevitable, as are additional incidents--caused by the same set of factors--of IDF soldiers killed by friendly fire.
This war's "Qana moment" accelerated its diplomatic phase. Yet to date, diplomacy has gone nowhere. The diplomatic phase began with visits by European leaders early last week and culminated, for the time being, in UN Security Council Resolution 1860 of January 8. The Europeans came in two separate delegations and quickly began contradicting one another and themselves. Both Hamas and Israel rejected the UN's call for a ceasefire, while Egypt is unenthusiastic about offers to deploy American or European engineering forces on its side of the Gaza-Sinai border to help stop Hamas' weapons smuggling. And on January 9, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) ceased to be recognized by Hamas, which argues that his term has ended, thereby constraining any residual capacity he may have had to negotiate or act on behalf of all Palestinians.
Yet the diplomatic phase continues. In parallel, the Israeli leadership is contemplating expanding the war effort in two possible directions. One is reoccupation of the philadelphi strip on the Gazan side of the Gaza-Sinai border. This would be a step toward stopping Hamas smuggling of weaponry through tunnels under philadelphi. But it apparently must be coordinated with Egypt, hence is being delayed.
A second possible direction of Israeli military activity in Gaza is the launching of a major offensive aimed at reoccupying the entire Strip and removing the Hamas leadership. This option is usually associated with the approach of the Israeli political right and center. In the present instance, it is also based on intelligence assessments that Hamas' resistance is weakening. But it is important to note that some on the political left are also advocating it, in the belief that Israel can find a way to restore the PLO to power in Gaza, thereby ostensibly enhancing the prospects for a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This is an extremely dangerous idea. Israel has failed whenever it tried to manipulate the structure of Arab leadership, from Bashir Gemayel in Lebanon in the early 1980s to the Village Leagues and similar abortive schemes involving the Palestinians.
In this regard, the First Lebanon War is particularly instructive: Israel removed the PLO from Lebanon and instead got... Hizballah. There is no telling what we'll get in Gaza if we remove Hamas, but the return of Fateh/PLO is improbable. More likely we'll end up with heavy losses and an open-ended occupation, fighting Islamists who are even more radical than Hamas while the world condemns us. The Israeli public will not forgive the government that gets us into such a mess.
Hamas' conditions for a ceasefire are apparently full withdrawal of Israeli forces and opening of all the crossings, including Rafah, with Hamas and not the PLO or the EU in control on the Gazan side. There may be something to negotiate here. Certainly Israel intends eventually to withdraw. Its prolonged closing of the Gaza-Israel crossings to exert economic pressure has in any case backfired, pushing the Gazan population into the hands of Hamas and helping precipitate this war and generate a humanitarian crisis. Rafah should also be reopened if and when the smuggling tunnels are closed. The question of a non-Hamas presence on the Gazan side of the crossings would still have to be negotiated.
Is anybody in Jerusalem listening? This war has demonstrated that the IDF successfully learned and applied the lessons of the military failure in Lebanon two and a half years ago. But Israel's leadership appears not to have learned how to lead better. Yes, its decision-making process has become more deliberate and responsible. But the three senior leaders, the trio of PM Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and FM Tzipi Livni, are clearly not on the same page and Israel's war aims have been fudged and obfuscated throughout.
The latest example of this mismanagement is UNSCR 1860. A decision that does not mention Hamas at all and that the United States and France both initially promised to delay or veto, might at least have been improved if Israel had taken the trouble to send its foreign minister to New York, where eight Arab foreign ministers were busy lobbying.
We've shown Hamas and Gazans what we can do when we are justifiably angered by their terrorism. Now it's time to communicate with Hamas and offer to open those passages if it accepts our terms.- Published 12/1/2009 © bitterlemons.org
The Israeli war on Gaza, which has now entered its third week and has claimed, so far, the lives of more than 850 Palestinians, mostly civilians, is apparently now in a new phase, where war and diplomacy combine.
Egypt, which has been subject to the most stinging criticisms from Hamas and other political Islamic parties in the region because it refuses to open the Rafah crossing, has finally managed to engage the leaderships of both Hamas and Israel in substantial and sustained indirect negotiations. The two delegations have been traveling for consultations with their respective leaderships in Damascus and Tel Aviv, while their Egyptian host is conducting shuttle diplomacy between them.
The Egyptian-led negotiations process has a chance of success and therefore deserves to be encouraged. This is first because Cairo succeeded in engaging the parties directly, especially Hamas. Second, Egypt will be an important party to any agreement, particularly because the talks have focused on the most significant aspect of a potential agreement, the Rafah crossing and the tunnels that link Gaza to Egypt.
Hamas dismissed the long delayed United Nations Security Council resolution that called for an immediate ceasefire primarily because it was not consulted. That was a strong message to all concerned parties, mostly Israel, the PA and the US. It was also a confirmation that one of Hamas' objectives in this war is to achieve international recognition. In other words, Hamas, which has shown that it is the party that will fight Israel, is trying to say it is also the party with whom to make peace.
The war started with limited and defined objectives. These have since been modified. Israel wanted to stop rocket attacks from Gaza, and Hamas wanted an end to the blockade and the Israeli attacks and incursions. However, like other such major violent events, the war has gained its own dynamic. During the second week and the beginning of the third week, and as a result of failing to significantly weaken Hamas and force it to end rocket attacks, Israel expanded its attacks by occupying some of the populated areas including parts of Rafah.
In parallel, the political objectives are expanding to include "changing the rules of the game", according to the senior ministers running for re-election in Israel, Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak, while right winger Avigdor Lieberman foresees that "the end of the operation will come when there is complete control over Rafah and after that ... the next level--the destruction of the authority of Hamas." This apparent change in position has led observers and analysts to wonder whether possible difficulties in achieving its limited objective of a new ceasefire with improved conditions will cause Israel to pursue a goal of regime change, which will require a full reoccupation of Gaza.
Hamas, in turn, having been able to absorb the first and very heavy Israeli air strikes and noting the overwhelming Arab public support it has received, has also changed its objectives from the narrow aim of surviving and ending the aggression along with the blockade. In his last speech from Damascus, Khalid Meshaal, the exiled Hamas leader, said that Israel's attack would shorten the life of the Jewish state, and Hamas is now keen to take advantage of its regional popularity to assert its leadership among Palestinians and achieve regional legitimacy.
Elsewhere, and as usual, the media has been potently manipulated by Israel and has thus contributed to prolonging the war. Israel used its blockade of Gaza to prevent international journalists from entering the beleaguered Strip. As a result, Israel has had a much easier time of imposing its agenda on journalists eager to cover the war but stuck on the Israeli side of the Gaza border and thus with access only to areas where Palestinian rockets land. Lest we forget, something Israeli officials are trying to make us do, these mostly homemade rockets have killed a total of 18 Israelis in eight years, no patch on the modern armory of the Israeli army and the predictably enormous and disproportionate bloodshed it has caused in Gaza.
In the West Bank, meanwhile, the Fateh leadership and the Palestinian Authority have received a triple blow. Israel's war on Gaza has transformed them into bystanders. They are neither party to the war, nor will they play any significant role in ending it. This helpless position follows on from the failure of the Annapolis process that the Fateh leadership gambled on. On top of that, the PA has to play an ugly policing role in the West Bank to prevent protesters in demonstrations from reaching Israeli checkpoints and Hamas supporters from manipulating the massive popular support for Hamas to destabilize the PA's control.- Published 12/1/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president for community outreach at Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Gaza's war of independence
by Aluf Benn
Some political situations escape the rigorous definitions of textbooks or grand diplomatic designs, and exist outside their boundaries. Hamas' rule in Gaza is a prime example of such a situation. It has many attributes of the state next door, like contiguous territory, single authority and military force, while not enjoying formal diplomatic recognition. Hamas effectively runs Gaza, without its green flag waving outside the United Nations headquarters in New York.
Thus, the world's first Palestinian state is being constructed in Gaza neither by a final-status deal with Israel nor by the Clinton parameters or the Bush roadmap, but rather by means of the guns and rockets of Hamas. It is simply there, ridiculing the endless efforts of leaders, diplomats and think-tankers to build a designer-made Palestinian state "living in peace and security" alongside Israel.
The current conflict in Gaza should be seen as Hamas' war of independence. At the time of writing, three-and-a-half years after Ariel Sharon's disengagement, Israel is deterred from reoccupying the Gaza Strip. True, Israel has been using considerable force against Hamas in Gaza, but stopped short of overthrowing its regime in order to replace it with a friendlier force like President Mahmoud Abbas' Palestinian Authority. And as expected, there are no volunteers to succeed Hamas in caring for the densely populated, poor and violent chunk of land on the eastern Mediterranean.
Moreover, UN Security Council Resolution 1860, which presented the international community's opinion of the crisis, does not challenge the political reality in Gaza beyond expressing hope for intra-Palestinian reconciliation. Hamas is not mentioned specifically, but neither is Abu Mazen, the PLO or the PA. In other words, the Security Council is standing on the sidelines of the Palestinian dispute, not showing preference for the eventual winner.
Hamas has also won implicit recognition of its military force. Resolution 1860 opposes further "illicit trafficking in arms" but says nothing about the existing stocks of Hamas and other militias and terrorist groups in Gaza like Islamic Jihad or the Durmush clan. There is no call for disarming them. This negligence undermines the Israeli demand for the demilitarization of a future Palestinian state.
In this light, Hamas's decision not to extend the six-month ceasefire but rather to challenge Israel to a duel appears more reasonable and less counterproductive than at first glance. Hamas is willing to pay with many casualties, both military and civilian, and with mass destruction in Gaza in return for being left alone to rule the territory under its terms. Hamas cannot "defeat" Israel, but if it survives the war it can present an alternative to the PA and the Oslo legacy. As time goes by, the world will get used to this de facto reality.
Israel says now that its goal is to overthrow Hamas "in the long run," through a combination of political and economic pressures. This is a euphemism for accepting an unpleasant reality. In fact, Israel is accepting--however grudgingly--the Hamas idea of long-term truce. Israel's key demand is to put the flow of arms into Gaza under check, thus preserving the balance of power. It appears that Israel and Hamas will eventually resume the armed ceasefire, with Israel maintaining economic control over Gaza.
Both sides have used the war to "change the rules of the game," Israel by bombing Gaza and invading it with ground forces, Hamas by targeting areas deep inside Israel that until now were beyond its range. This mutual show of force is meant to deter and delay the next round--at least until one side sees an opportunity to improve its relative situation.
From an Israeli perspective, a weakened Hamas is a lesser evil. Just like its Lebanese role model, Hizballah, it will have to keep the border calm and restrain smaller groups with less responsibility. It will also take care of all civilian affairs in Gaza. To a Likud government, its existence could also serve as a propaganda asset, showing to the world what Palestinian independence looks like: armed and Islamic.
To the Obama administration, the Gaza crisis gives both an opportunity and a challenge. The opportunity is to include Hamas in the political process. A stable ceasefire can serve as a basis for engaging Hamas and trying to lure it into accepting, even ambiguously, the international terms for recognition. If Israel is ready to live with Hamas, so can the United States.
The challenge will be to convince Israelis that Gaza will not repeat itself in the West Bank following an Israeli withdrawal. The rocket attacks on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, however mild in their damage, reminded Israelis of their vulnerability to hostile entities in their vicinity. Obama and his team will have to find a way to show Israelis that Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion Airport are not the next targets on the Hamas list.- Published 12/1/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Aluf Benn is the editor-at-large of Haaretz.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Israel is trying to impose its terms
an interview with George Giacaman
bitterlemons: Egypt is getting very heavily involved in the mediation efforts. Does Egyptian mediation hold the key to forging a ceasefire?
Giacaman: One has to see what's behind the headlines. As far as the Hebrew newspapers are concerned, Israel is putting pressure on Egypt by continuing the bombardment of Gaza. So Palestinian lives are being sacrificed in order to pressure Egypt.
Egypt's problem is that the more Palestinians are killed, especially civilians, the more the domestic situation boils over and threatens the regime. In addition, Israel is blackmailing Egypt to ensure its own security, particularly vis-a-vis arms smuggling.
The odd situation here is that the occupier is asking the occupied and neighboring states to secure its occupation, even though it is the aggressor. There is almost total silence on this by western governments, in particular the US.
bitterlemons: Hamas wants an end to the siege and seems focused on the Rafah crossing. Does this not add to the pressure on Egypt?
Giacaman: That's correct but Hamas is not focused only on the Rafah crossing. You have to keep in mind that the truce was supposed to end on December 19. The party that broke the truce was the Israeli government when on November 4 the Israeli army entered Gaza and killed six Palestinians. Israel expected retaliation, but not just that: according to the Israeli media, the military operation we see executed now was planned six months ago.
So in a way this was a premeditated attempt to provoke an incident that would ultimately lead to an invasion, and this is exactly what happened. It's not an accidental thing. The timing--during the last days of George W. Bush and before Barack Obama who may not be quite so accommodating to Israel--was important. This whole offensive is more about the intentions of the Israeli government then Hamas.
bitterlemons: PA President Mahmoud Abbas has said he might accept international troops in Gaza and the West Bank. Hamas is opposed. Is this a non-starter?
Giacaman: Hamas is not opposed to international troops as long as they are stationed not only in Gaza but also the West Bank. Israel refuses this because it wants to get rid of Gaza while continuing its theft of land in the West Bank and expanding its settlements there. For this it wants no observers around.
bitterlemons: Do you think diplomatic efforts are now seriously in swing?
Giacaman: The question now is how long until an agreement is reached, because eventually an agreement will be reached. If you look at the present siege tactics of the Israeli army they are simply circling around and making the odd incursion into built-up areas. I think what Israel might do if there is no agreement in the next few days is occupy a small portion of an area of Gaza City, but not the whole area. As has been clearly stated in the Hebrew press, the Israeli government is concerned about casualties among soldiers, which might backfire politically.
There is a division of opinion in the Israeli government. Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak are both keen to end the military operations now since they are facing elections next month. Ehud Olmert, who is not running for re-election, is not. In a way, Israeli electoral considerations are being played out in the Gaza Strip.
bitterlemons: How important is the inauguration of Barack Obama next week.
Giacaman: If the Israeli offensive continues after the inauguration then Obama will be faced with an immediate problem. I understand that the Bush administration told the Israeli government to end this offensive before Obama takes over. The question is if in the remaining seven days there will be a political agreement and if not, what will Israel do given its reluctance to engage in a full occupation. I suspect Israel wants to end it before Obama takes over.
bitterlemons: In the end, is there anything but a diplomatic solution?
Giacaman: No. In fact, if you take things at face value, Hamas' and Israel's positions are not that far apart. Israel's declared position is to stop the rockets, something Hamas is willing to do provided border crossings are open. This is not hard to achieve. The undeclared positions have to do with the Israeli government wanting to improve the conditions of the truce and what we are witnessing now is a bloody negotiation to improve truce conditions. The Israeli government understands it cannot make Hamas disappear.- Published 12/1/2009 © bitterlemons.org
George Giacaman teaches in the MA program in Democracy and Human Rights and the Department of Philosophy and Cultural Studies at Birzeit University. A collection of his writings from the second intifada appeared in 2008.
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