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Gaza standoff is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in miniature


Viewing history and events is somewhat like viewing a fractal. As you zoom in on individual events, you see a level of detail not revealed at higher levels. Frequently however, the smaller events reproduce many of the characteristics of the larger conflict, and also resemble each other.

Such is the case for the standoff in Gaza. At first glance, it seems to have reproduced faithfully many aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: A standoff that juxtaposes Israeli military might against Palestinian ability to marshal world opinion. It features Palestinian violence, images of helpless Palestinians versus Israeli might, disproportionate Israeli response, self-serving or indifferent responses by world powers and the Arab world, media distortions, and commentaries that insist on seeing only one side of the problem.

If you are for the Palestinians, then you must blather about the Israeli occupation, regardless of the fact that there were no Israeli soldiers in Gaza until June 25 and there are no Israeli settlements in Gaza. Pro-Palestinian commentators rarely ask why it was necessary for Hamas to continue lobbing lethal Qassam rockets at towns inside Israel. The real answer is known. It is not about "occupation" at all, but about Hamas' demand for legitimacy and an attempt to force the world to accept the Hamas government as a 'Peace' partner, together with its program of annihilating Israel, and the Hamas charter that insists that the French Revolution was brought about to serve 'Zionist' interests, and that the Israeli program is based on the program of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

If you are for the Israelis, then it seems incumbent to ignore the suffering inflicted on Palestinians. You cannot ask why electric transformers and power plants are considered part of the "terror infrastructure" that must be destroyed, while it is OK to transfer fuel to the Palestinians, though fuel is usually considered a strategic commodity. Shutting off the electricity in Gaza did not stop the rain of Qassam rockets. It is also impolite to ask with whom, and under what circumstances, Israel will negotiate. Israel would not negotiate with Mahmud Abbas about release of prisoners or opening Gaza to transport of goods when he was in power just 'because',and now it won't negotiate with Hamas about these issues, because Hamas is in power.

If you are American media, then it seems you can ignore all of these issues, and concentrate on telling people that the Israeli invasion is only about freeing Col. Gilad Shalit as Time Magazine did. Once we accept that premise, then it seems apparent that the Israeli response is certainly disproportionate. Of course, the operation is not just about retrieving Gilad Shalit, and those who pretend otherwise are not telling the whole truth. This same fairy tale was repeated in many variations in many places. On the other hand, the opposite one-sided fairy tale was also in evidence, ignoring the very real suffering of Palestinians, which began when Israel withdrew from Gaza without making adequate provisions for flow of goods into Gaza, before the election of the Hamas.

There is also a revolting element of Schadenfreude in the reactions and expectations of both sides. It was appalling to find that 34% of the Israeli public thought that "an eye for an eye" is justified in return for Palestinian rocket fire (the poll was conducted before the Gaza operation). Even more hair raising and stomach-turning are the descriptions of Palestinians celebrating their "victory" over the Israelis and Palestinian mothers "celebrating" the death of their sons in Gaza. There is no doubt that this reflects a good portion of attitudes toward the conflict and the "other side" in general.

At the next level however, it is evident that there are nuances in public opinion and media responses. Several Arab world commentators have doubts about the Hamas. In Asharq al Awsat, Abdul Rahman El Rashed notes that the Palestinians ask for Arab help, but did not bother to consult the Arab states before launching their worthless rockets and kidnapping the soldier. The Hamas have refused to join the Arab peace initiative, so it is not clear what they can expect the Arab world to do, he writes. An editorial by Fuad El Hashen in the Kuwaiti daily al Watan was even more outspoken, calling on Hamas to stop the rocket fire and tend to reconstruction of Gaza, so that the "Summer Rain" (a reference to the Israeli incursion) will stop falling. In the Daily Star, Ammar Abdulhammid opines that the kidnapping is part of efforts by the Assad regime to destabilize the region:

...after a period of lying low, the Assads are re-emerging as one of the Middle East's chief backers of radical groups - Islamist or ultra-nationalist. The recent showdown with Israel over the fate of an abducted Israeli soldier is a case in point, as the kidnapping seems to have been instigated, if not orchestrated, by Hamas leaders residing in Damascus, where they live under the protection of the Assads.

On the Israeli side there are also a number of critical commentators, though they are generally of the usual persusasions and from the usual sources. The Olmert government is criticized either because it acted too harshly or not harshly enough. It didn't do enough to stop the Qassam rockets or it overreacted. There is clearly a consensus of uneasiness over the competence of PM Olmert and Secretary of Defense Peretz. Many people would be happier if Rabin or Sharon were in charge. They might do exactly the same thing as Olmert and his government are doing, but they would inspire more confidence in the public that they really know what they are doing. Mostly there is a general skepticism that the government knows what the objectives of the Gaza operation are or how to achieve them. This is reinforced by contradictory and nearly simultaneous statements, by Ehud Olmert, who insists the government will not give in to terror and will not negotiate release of prisoners, and Avi Dichter, Minister of Internal Security, who explained that the government would negotiate release of prisoners in return for a truce and release of Gilad Shalit, provided that the release of prisoners took place after the release of Shalit and did not appear to be connected with it. In Damascus, Khaled Meshal, who pulls the strings of the Hamas, rejected the offer. Just to confuse matters, PM Olmert announced that Israel has always been ready to release prisoners, but only in negotiations with moderate Palestinian leaders. He said:

"It's not a secret before the kidnapping that we would free prisoners. But we intended to release them to moderate elements and not to terrorist elements,"

It is news to me. If it is not a secret, it is not very well publicized. Palestinian PM Abbas has been asking for such a prisoner exchange for a long time, but it never happened.

Can we conclude from this, that the whole fight is about who will show who whose first, and how to do the same thing without "losing face" for one side or the other? Not really. The real stakes for Hamas are legitimacy, and the real stakes for Israel are weakening and delegitimizing the Hamas. As Aluf Benn noted, this is not just an Israeli goal:

The U.S. position, as it is understood in Jerusalem, shows an interesting distinction: The administration wants Israel to avoid harming the population in Gaza, so as not to arouse European and Arab criticism, but will be happy with an Israeli blow that will topple Hamas. Hamas' victory in the Palestinian Authority elections wrecked Bush's doctrine of Arab democracy and was taken as a personal affront to the president.

In Washington, toppling the Hamas may seem like a realistic goal. From here, it doesn't seem to be realistic and it won't happen because of an Israeli invasion. We may consider it barbaric, but Palestinians will continue to give out candy and laud the victories of the Hamas even if Israel kills 40 "resistance fighters" for every Israeli killed. President Abbas has no choice other than to fall in line with "Palestinian Unity."

The truth is that the Israeli government got maneuvered into an impossible situation by its own errors and those of the US government and of Abbas, as well as good planning by the Hamas. The withdrawal from Gaza left Gazans without any normal contact with the outside world. The PNA under Abbas refused to have Israeli supervision of Palestinian goods traffic, and Israel refused to have goods traffic without Israeli supervision. The result was the unsatisfactory and porous arrangement at Rafah, which has more or less allowed only subsistence for Gaza and at the same time allowed import of a considerable quantity of arms, as Israeli soldiers are finding out. At the same time, Israel would not negotiate with Abbas over prisoner release and cessation of targeted killings, unless Abbas made some serious moves to curb terror infrastructure, and neither happened. Then the Hamas were elected because of US and Palestinian insistence on holding the elections with the participation of the Hamas. The Hamas now had three golden issues: the prisoners, the targeted killings and the closure of Gaza, which they could leverage in return for Palestinian support and insistence that they are fighting a 'legitimate' resistance campaign. The rain of Qassams became a priority political issue in Israel. It did not leave television screens for a single night, and the government appeared increasingly ridiculous, incompetent and helpless to deal with the situation. The government and the IDF had to "do something" and this operation is the "something" that they did.

Ominously, different Israeli reports give different accounts of the objective of operation "Summer Rains" and in some cases admit that the strategic objectives cannot be defined. It seems that any outcome short of toppling the Hamas has to work in favor of Hamas. If Hamas returns Shalit unharmed and announces a unilateral truce, they will gain a great deal of international legitimacy and Israel would be forced to deal with them. Likewise, a Dichteresque charade in which Shalit is released and the Qassams stop in return for a supposedly "unrelated" prisoner release will give the Hamas not only international legitimacy, but legitimacy vis-a-vis Israel as a negotiating partner, and prestige among Palestinians for having negotiated release of prisoners. Prolongation of the Israeli military action indefinitely is sure to lead to security council censure and mounting pressure for Israel to withdraw, perhaps with no quid pro quo or with a nominal and worthless commitment by Hamas to stop the rocket fire. In this standoff, no matter who blinks first, it seems Hamas will win.

Ami Isseroff

PS - Some additional Arab reaction to the Qassam rockets and kidnappings
And Judy Klinghoffer makes the point that since Damascus and Tehran control Hamas, Hamas is not really a 'democratically elected government'.

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Replies: 2 comments

Most comment and analysis of the Israeli Palestinian conflict seem to be based on the given that Israel has a right to exist and has a right to defend itself. Given this starting point the unrelenting attacks on Israel by Palestinians against overwhelming odds and at enormous cost in life nd treasure seem incomprehensible. But Palestinians do no taccept threse axioms. Thay see the creation of Israel as something which was done by others for the benefit of Europeans. In 1948 many countries of the British, French and Portuguese empires were well on their way to independance and freedom from foreign rule. Only palestine was the subject of a takeover by Europeans against the wishes of Palestinians and their neighbours. A brief look at the voting on resolution 181 (november 1947) which was the first internationally agreed step towards the formation of Israel, shows that the votes against were a solid block of countries in the region and the bvotes for were all from countries far from the region. Palestinian people do not seem to have accepted the idea that 58 years is such a long time that it is pointless to protest. Both sides in the conflict have the certainty of religioud belief to asure themselves of thei righteousness. How then can anyone conclude that there is any chance of Israel and Palestinians ever living in peace side by side? This belief looks very much like wishful thinking

Posted by Student @ 08/29/2006 11:59 PM CST

The situation in Gaza is terrible. Unfortunately, Gaza is far from the world's attention. The world doesn't aid Gaza like it aids Lebanon's rebuilding.
Maybe a different American administration would make a change.

Posted by Yohay Elam @ 09/14/2006 11:54 PM CST

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