With its merciless assault on Gaza, Israel has tried to teach Hamas a lesson, but it has quickly backfired.
The Gaza Strip, one of the most densely populated areas on Earth, has been put under a choking siege since 2005. It was occupied by Israeli forces twice. First was in 1956, during the tripartite (French, British, Israeli) attack on Egypt, following Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal. But Israel had to cut its occupation of Sinai and Gaza short following the collapse of that reckless military adventure.
The second occupation, which lasted until August 2005, occurred in June 1967, when Israel invaded Egypt, Syria and Jordan simultaneously. According to the 1993 Oslo Accords, Gaza was supposed to be returned to the Palestinian Authority, but Israel decided to keep settlers and soldiers to protect them. Yet, and as the situation became untenable, in 2005, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon decided to “disengage” from Gaza, which meant withdrawing the 8,000 settlers there, and moving the occupation to the edges and the sky.
That was never meant to set Gaza and its now 1.7 million population free. Gaza, with Egyptian and European help, was placed under a kind of virtual siege that was further tightened when Hamas took control of the area, following the failure of the US-backed Fateh coup intended to deprive Hamas of its 2006 electoral victory.
On top of the daily suffering due to frequent shortages of food, medicine, fuel and many other basic necessities, the besieged Gaza population was also subjected to routine Israeli attacks, air raids, assassinations and farm destruction. Fishing, which forms a major part of people’s livelihood, was almost banned on the Gaza shores. Much of the industry has shut down as raw materials are scarce, and exports have dropped almost to zero.
Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt contributed to the siege by closing the Rafah crossing. Only what Israel permitted, the minimum that would prevent starvation, managed to reach the stranded population. Often Gazans were punished for weeks, left without power in very cold winters when Israel stopped the supply of fuel needed for the power plants, or when the Israeli air force bombed and destroyed the plants.
Even the tunnels that the besieged people dug deep underground to circumvent collective punishment were regularly targeted and bombed. Many of the tunnels, the alternative lifeline for the siege victims, were recently destroyed by the new Egyptian regime, in retaliation for gangs’ attacks on Egyptian and Israeli targets in Sinai.
Israel toyed recklessly and continuously with the lives, property, rights and dignity of Gazans at will, while the Arab world and the international community kept quiet. Israeli air raids against Gaza were a daily routine. Resulting deaths and injuries — hundreds per year — meant nothing. Many, in the outside world in particular, only saw the Hamas rockets when fired in retaliation for Israeli aggression, but they never saw or recognised any of the Israeli aggression that preceded them. For them, Palestinians are always the threat, they always fire rockets and deprive Israeli mothers and kids of normal life. For them, Israel only acts in self-defence.
In 2008, Israel waged total war on Gaza from land air and sea. It was a war carried out by one of the strongest and best-equipped armies in the region against unarmed civilians. Power disparity was expected to secure the arrogant attacker an easy victory that meant to offset the humiliating defeat the Israeli army had suffered at the hands of the Lebanese resistance two years earlier.
Despite military superiority and political support from international as well as Arab powers, Israel won no victory. Its invading army managed to kill 1,400 people, mostly civilians, destroy schools and hospitals, demolish infrastructure, raze thousands of homes and paralyse life completely. But Hamas was not toppled.
Rocket firing, which Israel claimed it had succeeded to end, continued till the very last minute, before the delayed ceasefire ordered by a complicit U.N. Security Council took effect.
The Palestinians crept out from under the rubble to collect their scattered belongings and put together their shattered lives. Israel banned the entry of building materials into Gaza to prevent the Palestinians from rebuilding what was destroyed.
Despite the crimes and violations revealed by U.N. investigators, Israel faced no consequences. Laws in some European countries were changed to protect Israeli war criminals from arrest. The Goldstone report was ignored and the siege continued, with Egyptian help, with no end in sight.
Last week, Israel decided to break an Egypt-brokered ceasefire, assassinating a resistance leader, Ahmad Jaabari. That was only the beginning of another all-out war to destroy the resistance rocket capability and to teach Hamas a lesson.
Apparently Israel’s arrogant Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was sure of a victory that would enhance his election campaign.
Hamas unleashed one rocket barrage after another on Israeli towns and villages, spreading horror there and this time reaching as far as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Casualties were low on the Israeli side: three dead against more than 100 in Gaza, with hundreds more injured amid widespread destruction.
Once more Israel tried to demonstrate its superiority and invincibility and reaped unexpected outcomes. And once more the Arab Spring Arabs and the Arab League did nothing, except issuing empty condemnation.
Cairo did indeed withdraw its ambassador and expelled the Israeli ambassador. The Egyptian prime minister visited Gaza for a few hours, supposedly to offer support or, as many news reports indicated, to convince Hamas to stop its aggression against poor Israel.
Efforts are under way as I write: the U.N. secretary general and many foreign leaders are on the move to convince Hamas to stop firing so that a truce can be reached.
Have the tables turned against the arrogant attacker still threatening a land offensive and building up forces for that?
With its apparent failure to solve the rockets problem by force, Israel is now begging for a 15-year-long truce while keeping the right to attack any time, as was the case with all previous truces. Some lasted only until Israel felt like resuming its raids on Gaza.
The onslaught on Gaza should indeed stop without delay, to save some children from Israeli rockets; already tens have perished.
Arab mediators have always done what they could to convince the Palestinians to stop defending themselves and to stop retaliating with the only weapons they possess — once mocked by Mahmoud Abbas as rockets of futility — and accept that a truce on Israel’s terms, calling on the Palestinians to go back to their prison and wait for the next time Israel decides to attack, is a worthy offer.
Sadly, the Arab Spring Arabs are not doing any better. It took Arab foreign ministers four full days to meet in Cairo and issue a condemnation. They encouraged any of them who wished to visit Gaza to do so. They also urged humanitarian aid to people under attack. They did not demand an end to the siege or to Israel’s six-decade-old occupation.
No amount of empty condemnation troubles Israel. Perhaps, on the contrary, it assures Israel of sustained Arab ineffectiveness and complicity.
If Israel aimed to test Egypt and the new Arabs, as some speculated, it must be happy with the test results. But the battle results must not be that encouraging.
If Hamas, despite the siege and the general condemnation, managed to build more firepower, which like that of Hizbollah in Lebanon is unbeatable militarily, then Israel is facing a real problem.
Lifting the siege without a complete package addressing all Palestinian rights may not help Israel either. It will only enable Hamas to build more force to fight for Palestinian rights.
That is a lesson Israel should consider. Perhaps Israel should recognise Palestinian rights without waiting for that. But that would take a revolution in Israel.
(The writer is a columnist at Jordan Times, where this article was published on Nov. 21, 2012)