The second Israeli war on Gaza began what feels like a very long six days ago but could drag on even longer and escalate further. The main reason for this is that escalation serves the political interests and the agenda of both Hamas and the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is trying to make sure his war on Gaza is more successful than the one launched by his predecessor in 2008, but in actuality the two wars already have one main thing in common: both parties will come out victorious. Israel will devastate Gaza and kill enough Gazans to be able to say that it achieved its objectives. Hamas, which will survive the onslaught, will also be able to say that Israel failed to uproot it.
That does not mean there will be no losers in this war. Like the last one, there will be two. First, the Palestinian people in Gaza will pay the price for both sides’ victories--in lives, in wreckage, in dimmed futures. And second, the Palestinian Authority will be made ever more marginalized and irrelevant.
But Netanyahu is betting his own political fortunes upon victory. This latest wave of violence between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, which was sparked by Israel’s assassination of Hamas military commander Ahmad Jabari, has already increased the popularity of the coalition between Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman for the election that they set for February. It would be naive to miss the connection between the launching of this war, and the announcement of the coming Israeli vote. After all, the first Israeli war on Gaza(Operation Cast Lead) in 2008-09 also preceded Israeli general elections.
After failing to convince the international community, especially the United States, to accept his military designs against Iran (even failing to convince his own military commanders, in fact), Netanyahu found himself stuck with a host of economic and social justice issues as themes for his re-election campaign. As many Israeli analysts have noted, the Israeli right wing has always been more comfortable campaigning on “security” rather than social issues.
Another target of this war is to test and embarrass the new leaders in the Arab world, especially in Egypt. The war creates a “trial by fire” for Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi that will be difficult for him to pass through unscathed. On the one hand, his new regime remains too fragile to deter Israel, and on the other hand, his rhetoric will make it embarrassing for him not to go beyond his predecessor Hosni Mubarak in responding to Israel attacks. The Iranian foreign minister has already stated loudly that Egypt’s withdrawal of its ambassador from Israel is simply inadequate.
By the same token, this war has put Hamas at the center of regional attention. It has given the movement the publicity and prominence that it has coveted since taking power in Gaza in 2007. But more than publicity, the war has garnered Hamas massive sympathy and support, not only among Palestinians in the occupied territories but also among the Arab peoples.
Also, the war has marginalized the Palestinian Authority more, making its attempts at international diplomacy, including its bid for an upgrade at the United Nations, seem flaccid and weak. (This, of course, also serves the internal political interests of Hamas.) The ongoing confrontations, especially with Hamas rockets reaching for the first time Israeli commercial and political centers like Tel Aviv, have a radicalizing effect on the Palestinian public in the West Bank and elsewhere.
But what might be even more important than these considerations for Hamas is that it needs this escalation to pursue its goals related to the Arab spring. Hamas has always argued that it is part of a region transformed by the Arab spring to bring political Islamist movements to power and that it, too, is gaining power. It has argued that the current leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority are part of the despotic past of the region, where the PLO’s allies have been fast disappearing.
The nature of the crowd that is gathering in Cairo to manage the conflict is indicative. Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, the Emir of Qatar and the foreign minister of Tunis are all being hosted by Mohammad Mursi in the presence of Hamas head Khaled Meshaal and his deputy and possible successor Moussa Abu Marzouk.
The question that remains is what the rest of the world, especially the United State and Europe, are going to do? There are only a few messages worth choosing from. All previous Israeli attempts to solve its “Gaza problem” by military means have failed and even backfired. Violence begets more violence, and only a political approach can solve this conflict.
The media line sold by Netanyahu to the United States is deceptive propaganda. “There’s no country on earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders,” U.S. President Barack Obama said with such conviction. Well, no other country in the world is occupying another people, denying them at every turn their freedom, political agency, self-determination and other basic human rights.
This war shows once again that leaving the conflict unattended, as it has been for at least the last two years, allows it to be hijacked by players whose agenda is inconsistent with that of the international community and international legality. These spoilers include the current right-wing Israeli government and Hamas.
Moreover, the confrontation between Israel and Hamas cannot be approached in isolation from the overall Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The international efforts that are badly needed to halt the escalating violence in Gaza should be part of renewed comprehensive efforts to end Israel’s occupation of the 1967 lands, and this must be guided by the vision of two states living side by side in peace and equality.
(Ghassan Khatib is Vice President for Development and Communications and lecturer of Cultural Studies and Contemporary Arab Studies at Birzeit University. Previously, he served as director of the Palestinian Authority Government Media Center (2009-2012), Minister of Labor in 2002 and Minister of Planning (2005-2006). The article was published in the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center on Nov.19, 2012)