Last Updated: Wed Mar 14, 2012 10:56 am (KSA) 07:56 am (GMT)

What is behind Israel’s assault on Gaza?

Hasan Abu Nimah

For four days, the Gaza Strip was pounded by Israeli missiles and bombs. Twenty-five Palestinians were killed, including several children, and dozens more were injured.

The recent round of violence was not initiated by provocative action from any of the resistance organisations in Gaza. It was started by an Israeli assassination, on March 9, of Zuhair Al Qaisi, the secretary general of the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) whose car was hit by an Israeli rocket while driving with his son-in-law, Mahmoud Hanini, who was also killed in the attack. A bystander was severely injured as a result of the strike.

This predictably sparked retaliation from Palestinian resistance groups in the form of rocket fire at Israel. As usual, the rockets caused little damage and no deaths, but they became Israel’s excuse to continue its barbaric attack on Gaza which killed many people.

What is remarkable this time is that Hamas, which usually bears the brunt of Israel’s incitement, accusations and attacks, did not participate. Israel did not target its leaders or facilities, and Hamas’ military wing did not fire back. It was left to the PRC and Islamic Jihad, mostly, to respond.

Hamas, and indeed all the other factions, were observing an effective truce with Israel, which kept the situation from boiling over since the last massive Israeli assault on Gaza, in August. Palestinians remained under a tight, suffocating siege, but at least without the worst Israeli violence. For Israel, Gaza was subdued.

As usual, the assassination, in this case of Qaisi, was justified on the grounds that the victim was planning an attack on Israel. Israel never provides evidence for such claims, and often the claims it makes are false or later contradicted — like, for example, its claim that PRC carried out the Eilat attack last August from Gaza.

In effect, Israel accuses and sentences Palestinians to death in secret and then executes them. It has done this hundreds of times in an egregious violation of the Geneva Conventions and the laws of war, a war crime, in fact.

The shocking reality, however, is that Israel’s international backers routinely accept this logic. The US, of course, strongly condemned the Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza, but said nothing about Israeli attacks on Gaza. Neither the EU nor the US, Israel’s main sponsors, condemned the Israeli assassination of Qaisi. Both merely called on “both sides” to show restraint.

It did not matter for the EU and its representative, Catherine Ashton, how the truce was violated and who was responsible. Silence in this case is understood as support.

But that has always been the pattern. Israel gets bored with the other side observing a truce. Its forces initiate hostilities in the form of air raids or, like this time, assassinations. If the Gaza organisations decide to swallow the strike, there will be more attacks until they respond by firing rockets. Then Israel retaliates with more force, causing more death and destruction until calls to restore calm start emerging again from Arab and foreign parties. The cycle repeats itself.

The first act of the drama is often ignored by the peace process operators and commentators. They only react when the Gazan organisations retaliate, so the Palestinians are always the aggressors and therefore condemned for committing terror against peaceful Israel. Consequently, Israel exercises its “right to self-defence” when killing Palestinians.

But why did Israel choose to provoke a confrontation with Gaza at a time when Hamas was clearly undergoing a major policy transformation in what one would assume would be a desirable direction for Israel?

The Hamas leadership has taken three key decisions recently. First was the agreement between Hamas chief Khaled Mishaal and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to allow the latter to form the long-awaited “national unity government”. That was interpreted as a major concession to Abbas and his accommodating policies towards Israel.

Remember that Abbas’ Palestinian Authority actively works with the same Israeli army in the West Bank under the title of “security coordination”.

Mishaal had previously agreed to Abbas’ negotiating strategy with the Israelis to which Hamas used to be strongly opposed. In the meantime, Mishaal declared that Hamas would restrict itself to non-violent struggle.

The second was the Hamas leadership’s decision to abandon Damascus as its base. This dissociated Hamas not only from Syria but also from Iran. Mishaal is now effectively based in Qatar, a close ally of the United States.

The third was the statement of Hamas leader Salah Al Bardawil to The Guardian that if “there is a war between two powers [Israel and Iran], Hamas will not be part of such a war”. He added: “Hamas is not part of military alliances in the region. Our strategy is to defend our rights.”

Similar statements were made by other Hamas officials.

Hamas acted to prevent other organisations operating in Gaza to fire at Israel. But moderation never pleases Israel because it is extremism that feeds and justifies its constant need for confrontation and aggression.

Even a moderate Iran would not be welcome by Israel as that, too, might undermine the belligerent propaganda and weaken the case for an Israeli regional war against it.

“It seems that the change in Hamas not only hasn’t convinced Israel, but even stands in the way of its ‘no partner’ policy and could sabotage its efforts to head off the creation of a Palestinian unity government, which would lead to renewed efforts at the UN to secure an independent Palestinian state,” wrote Zvi Bar’el in Haaretz on March 12.

He added: “Hamas must be dragged towards military activity against Israel, and nothing is easier, at least in Israel’s estimation, than to launch a ‘unilateral’ attack against a wanted non-Hamas man, to wait for the response to come, and hope that Hamas joins in.”

Bar’el added: “Advocates of a strike on Iran couldn’t have hoped for a more convincing performance than the current exchange of fire between Israel and Gaza. ‘A million Israelis under fire’ is only a taste of what is expected when Iran’s nuclear project is completed. When that happens, seven million Israelis will be under the threat of fire and nuclear fallout.”

If the goal was to drag Gaza into a war, the Israeli ploy failed, though at the cost of many lives. If it is indeed, as Bar’el suggests, about raising the temperature and pushing for war with Iran, then it only shows how dangerous Israel is, not just to the Palestinians but also to the region and the world.

The last week’s event make even more of a mockery of all the current efforts to revive the “peace talks” between Abbas and Israel. Peace remains the last thing on Israel’s agenda.

The writer is a prominent columnist. The article was published in the Jordan Times on March 14, 2012

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