The ground offensive that Israel started in the beginning of the second week of its war against the Palestinian people in Gaza was expected and, once the air operation had begun, to some extent wanted by both Israel and Hamas.
Hamas, which was at an obvious disadvantage in the aerial phase of the war, kept threatening Israel with "serious consequences" if the land offensive should start. Israel meanwhile could not achieve its objectives by bombing from the air and a ground offensive was "unavoidable".
The diverse diplomatic efforts to stop the war, including those of the French, the Turks, the Russians, the Arab foreign ministers and in the Security Council (where Washington, Israel's staunch ally, has vetoed any resolution) have so far failed because the battlefield is not ripe for a ceasefire. The two sides, Hamas and Israel, are not yet ready to end the confrontation.
Both seem confident that they are heading for victory. The irony is that the objectives of the two sides are not mutually exclusive.
Hamas' strategic objective with this war seems to be to assert itself as the main counterpart to Israel in Palestine, the party that decides on war or peace with Israel. This, after all, is the first war between Israel and the Palestinians that is not fought and led by Yasser Arafat and Fateh.
Hamas spokesman Mohammad Nazzal, commenting on the recent diplomatic efforts to end the war, reminded everybody that no matter who is trying to do what, it has to be understood that the "final word will be for the resistance movement" and not the "so-called legitimate leadership" in Ramallah.
The war on Hamas, which is a part of the regional political Islamic movement, is also allowing the different political Islamic groups in Arab countries to cultivate the unprecedented public Arab sympathy for Hamas. There is no doubt that the war is creating a situation less favorable to the so-called moderate camp. An early sign of this pressure is the statement by the Jordanian prime minister, Nader al-Dahabi, that Jordan might reconsider its relationship with Israel.
The attempt to gain some wider political capital was also illustrated by Hamas leader Osama Hamdan, who in an address to a rally in Syria declared that this war was not a war on Hamas or Gaza, but rather a war on the Islamic Umma (nation).
Israel's tactical objective with its offensive is not completely contradictory. Israel wants to end Hamas' capacity to launch rockets at Israel or at least put enough military pressure on the movement that it will stop. In addition, Israel wants to end the smuggling through the tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border. But Israel understands that it cannot at one and the same time expect the tunnel smuggling to end and maintain its siege on the beleaguered Strip, something that would cause a humanitarian crisis unacceptable to the international community.
Hence, for Israel to succeed in its aims it also needs to end the siege of Gaza in some way, whether through the Israel-Gaza crossings, the Gaza-Egypt crossing or both. In other words, Israel can succeed only if the key Hamas demand for a ceasefire, an end to the siege, is also met. Israel would prefer any end to the siege to be conducted through the Rafah crossing, thus fulfilling another strategic aim: that of making Gaza Egypt's responsibility.
Such an outcome would enable the Israeli government, in which Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak are both hoping to continue after general elections in February, to claim victory. Ditto Hamas, which will survive, keep its power intact and secure an end to the siege.
The main losers will be the civilians of Gaza, in addition to the Palestinian Authority and Egypt. Apparently, the civilian casualties, almost exclusively on the Palestinian side, are a price both Hamas and Israel are willing to pay to achieve their respective victories. Tragically, this is possible only because influential governments, particularly the United States' and those of the EU, by condoning Israel's aggression as "defensive", are closing their eyes to the unfolding war crimes that are being committed. This makes them indirectly responsible.- Published 5/1/2009 © 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
by Yossi Alpher
Israel's war with Gazan-based Hamas is a faithful expression of its broader dilemma with militant Islam. That dilemma is being played out against the backdrop of Israel's complex relations with a troubled Arab world.
As with Hizballah in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, Israel is now fighting a non-state actor, backed by Iran and operating out of a sovereign no-man's land or "black hole" from which Israel had previously withdrawn unilaterally. Both the 2005 Gaza withdrawal and the current fighting reflect Israel's military problem: none of the classic strategies for dealing with a military enemy seem to work. Occupation, removal of occupation, deterrence, tit-for-tat punishment, economic blockade--all have failed. The enemy welcomes extreme hardship and loss of life ("martyrdom") and seemingly would welcome reoccupation. Anything that highlights Gazans' human suffering sells well in the Arab world and among human rights activists in the West. Any opportunity to wage a war of attrition against Israelis--soldiers and civilians, there is no difference in militant Islamist eyes--drives home the militant Islamist message that the Zionist enterprise is doomed.
The leadership in Israel's Sunni Arab state neighbors is torn between its sympathy for the plight of Palestinians, its anger with the militant Islamists, its fear of Iran and its concern lest the Arab masses support Hamas, Hizballah and Iran. The regime in Egypt, in particular, is being targeted by Iran because it (correctly) blames Hamas for this conflict and because of its silent complicity with Israel in keeping the Rafah crossing closed. Silent, because the entire Arab state system, which to its credit has agreed to normalize relations with Israel once peace is achieved, appears to be too weak to take serious action against the Islamist threat.
The ghoulish nature of the militant Islamist campaign was perhaps best illustrated a few days ago when a suicide bomber in Iraq targeted an anti-Israel protest there. The non-Islamist psyche is hard put to grasp what is going on. That's why Israel's official war aim of punishing Hamas in order "to bring about an improved and more stable security situation for residents of southern Israel over the long term" is probably based on faulty logic. Hamas might accept these terms under duress, but not sincerely or for any length of time.
Hence, however successful from Israel's standpoint the current ground offensive is in Gaza, in its search for longer-lasting remedies Israel is once again, as in 2006, reaching out to the international community. It wants to see some sort of international force deployed as part of a solution to keep Hamas from rearming. Hizballah's reluctance thus far to join the fray and open up a second Islamist front against Israel by firing rockets over the heads of UNIFIL II offers silent testimony to the efficacy of the arrangements instituted in southern Lebanon through UN Security Council Resolution 1701.
But Hizballah's silence also apparently reflects its aspiration not to spoil its chances of becoming the dominant political power in Lebanon in next May's elections. Herein lies a warning for Israel and its neighbors, including the Fateh leadership in the West Bank. Hizballah parleyed its survival in the 2006 war into a political victory in Lebanon, assisted by Qatari mediation (and bribes). One political solution to the current Gaza conflict offered by Egypt, Qatar and Fateh is renewal of Hamas-PLO unity talks. If Hamas, riding on a wave of Palestinian and broader Arab sympathy, accepts to return to such talks, it is important both for Israel and the moderate Arab leadership that it not be allowed to exploit them to ride to power in the West Bank as well.
Few Israelis and Arabs hold out the hope that Operation Cast Lead will actually lead to the elimination of Hamas, whose true leadership is in Damascus and whose Palestinian supporters easily number in the hundreds of thousands. If Hamas' Gaza-based leadership and armed cadres can be significantly weakened and a blow struck against one of Iran's two Mediterranean bases, this operation will have to be considered a moderate success but not a decisive victory.- Published 5/1/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons.org family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
No return to the status quo ante
an interview with Ali Jarbawi
bitterlemons: Did the launch of the Israeli ground offensive come as a surprise to you?
Jarbawi: No. It was obvious that Israel would not achieve its goals with just air strikes, so
it was coming. However, it seems to me that Israel is wary of a full-scale ground invasion. Israel
wants to achieve victory with the least number of casualties, and this will never happen because
Gaza is a jungle of cement, of civilian houses. So in order to achieve its goals, the Israeli army
will have to go into these highly populated areas. That is why I think they're stumbling.
bitterlemons: What does Israel hope to achieve?
Jarbawi: I think the minimum Israel wants is a long-term truce on its conditions, i.e., no
more rocket fire from Gaza, no more weapon tunnels and a demilitarized Hamas.
bitterlemons: Is this achievable?
Jarbawi: The operation will continue for a long time, and there needs to be international
intervention to impose the terms of any ceasefire on both parties. How much Israel on its own can
achieve without significant casualties I don't know. It might be able to achieve it objectives with
a full ground invasion, meaning a full re-occupation of all of Gaza.
bitterlemons: And you don't think Israel wants that?
Jarbawi: No, because Israel will become entangled for a long time, there is an election
coming and a new American administration on January 20. I think time is up then.
bitterlemons: For the offensive?
Jarbawi: The offensive may continue beyond the twentieth, but I don't think this is the aim.
I don't think Israel wants a new US administration to take office with this on its hands.
bitterlemons: So when you say an end to the offensive will need international intervention,
do you mean from a new US administration?
Jarbawi: Either from that or from other quarters. If the Israeli government realizes it won't
be able to achieve its goals with a limited operation it may find international intervention
bitterlemons: So, there has to be a political solution; there can't be a military solution.
Jarbawi: Yes, unless Israel decides on a full re-occupation of Gaza and is prepared to go
from house to house.
bitterlemons: When might a political solution take shape?
Jarbawi: Let's see what [French President Nikolas] Sarkozy has in his pocket and what the
UN's Security Council can agree on. If Sarkozy has something that can pass the Security Council then
the pressure may start on both sides.
bitterlemons: Who, in the longer term, stands to gain from this?
Jarbawi: I think everyone will claim victory. Israel can claim an end to rocket fire. Hamas
can claim that it withstood the Israeli onslaught and wasn't liquidated and remains a resistance
movement. Maybe the Palestinian Authority might gain something as well if there is to be a reopening
of the Rafah crossing with a role for the PA and a renewal of the internal Palestinian dialogue.
bitterlemons: What are the necessary compromises?
Jarbawi: Does Israel want a re-unification of the West Bank and Gaza and Palestinian national
unity? I am not so sure. If Hamas continues--and Israel cannot actually destroy the movement's base
--Hamas can claim victory. Hamas will gain recognition at home and abroad and that may open up
avenues for Hamas to talk to other parties, the Europeans and maybe even the Americans.
For the dust to finally settle, we need a new political initiative. To go back to the old process of
open-ended negotiations, which Israel has been taking advantage of to extend infinitely, will not
do. That way lies only further chaos and bloodshed.
bitterlemons: Could all of this have been avoided?
Jarbawi: To tell you the truth I don't think it could. Palestinians have two strategies for
dealing with the occupation, both of which have produced no results: endless negotiations on the one
hand, and resistance without a political framework on the other. The root cause of the problem,
however, is Israel. From the beginning Israel was not interested in reaching a negotiated agreement,
but wanted to impose a settlement. If we had had a serious political process from the beginning it
would have avoided what is happening in Gaza.- Published 5/1/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Ali Jarbawi is a professor of political science at Birzeit University.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
The scenario neither side wanted
by Yossi Beilin
In the Lebanon war, we were informed about the objectives of the operation and knew they were
impractical. Now we are not told, so we have to guess. Is this about destroying Hamas? Apparently
not. Beyond the nausea that this expression conveys, there is also apparently no such animal. After
all, we are talking about religious leaders, political leaders, security forces but also many whose
work is "dawa" or welfare: all see themselves as belonging to Hamas.
Is this about replacing Hamas rule with a regime more convenient for Israel? That's hard to believe.
For one, all attempts by us to appoint Palestinian leaders since 1967 have failed, alongside Ariel
Sharon's notorious failure to determine who would be president of Lebanon in 1982. Then too, even if
it were theoretically possible, what serious Palestinian would agree to occupy a seat vacated for
him by the IDF? The minute he agreed, he would lose all credibility among his own people.
Is this about creating a situation in which Hamas is compelled to recognize Israel and make peace
with it? Presumably not. Hamas considers its adherence to the three "nos" of Khartoum from 1967,
which the entire Arab world abandoned in adopting the Arab peace initiative, to be its primary
distinctive feature when compared to Fateh. Even a prolonged battering by the IDF will not bring
Hamas to make this change.
Evidently, the secret objective of "Cast Lead" is to reach a ceasefire with Hamas that is very
similar to the one that prevailed between us until about two months ago. The scenario that unfolded
on Saturday, Dec. 27 was one that neither side seemingly wanted because both believe that what
follows this conflict will be like what preceded it. As usual they were dragged willy-nilly, through
a mechanism of threats and counter-threats, to the use of force. The ground operation, which began a
week later, was also undertaken with a distinct lack of enthusiasm on Israel's part, and it's hard
to believe that Hamas was really happy to see it. But that's where we are.
What can be done now? First of all, a ceasefire. If it proves impossible to agree, then Israel
should initiate one unilaterally. After all, we are the elephant and Hamas the fly; we can declare
that if, after several days of ceasefire on our part, firing does not stop in Gaza, we'll be free to
take renewed action. Second, the return of Gilad Shalit in exchange for Palestinian prisoners. This
is the right moment; even if Hamas gets what it wants it will be hard put to declare a major victory
considering that the movement is currently in one of its deepest crises. Third, it will be necessary
to renew the Gaza crossings agreement and reopen those passages in conjunction with European and
other forces. An international force can contribute to peace and quiet in the Gaza Strip; the
European foreign ministers recently announced their readiness to entertain such involvement on the
With a renewed ceasefire, and following the change of administrations in the United States and our
own elections, we can move to the next phase: renewal of intensive negotiations with the PLO led by
Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) in order to reach an agreement very similar to the Clinton parameters of
2000 and the Geneva initiative of 2003. Israeli agreement to withdraw from the West Bank and divide
East Jerusalem (to be implemented in accordance with the Palestinian Authority's capacity to realize
the security aspects of such an agreement) can generate indirect negotiations between Israel and
Hamas, through the good offices of Egypt or some other mediator, with the aim of achieving a long-
term ceasefire. We could then hope that peace in the West Bank and the economic prosperity it brings
would become a source of emulation for Gazans and would cause a change of heart in the Gazan regime
or even its replacement by the Gazans themselves. Until that happens, free passage between the West
Bank and the Strip would not be renewed, nor would the Strip be expanded to compensate Palestinians
for the few percentages of territory that Israel would annex from the West Bank.
I think this is a realistic scenario, but I'm not certain. Conceivably some or all of the actors
will behave irrationally, in which case the reciprocal battering will continue. Of one thing I am
certain: there is no reason to maneuver ourselves again into a violent corner before we make the big
effort to live a normal life in this part of the globe; no need to expose hundreds of thousands of
residents of placid cities every two years to missiles and killing that bring no benefit. Before we
throw up our hands in despair, we have to do something.- Published 5/1/2009 ©
Yossi Beilin, a former minister of justice, currently chairs the Geneva initiative and is president
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Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.