Israel and Hamas: momentum of war

My new article on openDemocracy, where I write regularly.

The latest war over Gaza leaves unchanged the underlying roots of conflict, even as regional changes are narrowing the potential for a long-term settlement.

Israel’s week-long war against Hamas and Gaza was – assuming the ceasefire of 21 November 2012 holds and there is no immediate resumption – shorter and less murderous than the campaign launched in late December 2008, which lasted three weeks. But it still cost the lives of more than 160 Palestinians, against five Israelis; a disparity that mirrors the gap between the approximately 1,400 Palestinian and thirteen Israeli fatalities (including five from “friendly fire”) last time.

Hamas’s rockets kill only erratically. The Israeli victims are especially unlucky, because most missiles are poorly targeted and many are shot down. The large number of Gazan victims, on the other hand, is the predictable consequence of Israel’s intensively bombarding a densely populated urban area. Hamas makes no bones about randomly terrifying and occasionally killing Israeli civilians. Israel claims its violence is precisely targeted and aims to avoid civilian death, but it knows that many civilians will die as the inevitable consequence of the methods it adopts.

On the surface, Israel’s war was highly limited, apparently aimed at weakening Hamas’s capacity to make further missile attacks (Alan Johnson claims that Hamas’s deadliest new weaponry was destroyed on the first day of the attacks). It is on the face of it absurd to marry “surgical” strikes with such significant anti-population violence. It only makes sense if Israel’s war was an extensive attack on Hamas’s political infrastructure as well as its armour, and a continuation “by other means” of the collective punishment of Gazans, underway since 2006.

Indeed, overt Gazan celebration of Israeli civilian injuries, after the bombing of a Tel Aviv bus, is mirrored in Israeli hostility to the Gaza population. Gilad Sharon, son of late Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, expressed this officially unstated rationale of the Israeli attack when he told London-based Channel 4 News that the Gazans should expect what they were getting, after having voted for Hamas. Sharon actually calls for Gaza to be “flattened” in the same way that the United States destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. It is shocking to hear the degenerate rationale that makes whole civilian populations targets of violence being invoked not in total war, but in a so-called “surgical” attack.

Unfortunately, Sharon’s comments are not aberrations, but reflect the underlying sharpening of Israel’s conflicts with its neighbours. The Arab spring has produced official Egyptian support for Hamas, which has shrewdly distanced itself from the Syrian and Iranian regimes while still benefiting from the deadlier missiles that Iran now boasts of supplying. Israel regards itself as facing an “existential threat” from Iran’s prospective development of nuclear weapons. Some have even suggested that a rationale of the attack on Gaza is to pre-emptively secure its southern flank in case of war with Iran.

Thus Israel perceives itself as engaged in all-out struggle to survive, even when it is not. Paradoxically the policies that this perception enables could, in a worst case, produce a real existential issue in the future. Repeated Israeli aggressions against neighbouring peoples, as well as rulers, will only harden still further the deep Arab and Muslim hostility to Israel that has developed since the state was founded in 1948, amidst the forced removal of most of Palestine’s Arabs.

Israel’s military superiority and, as (Paul Rogers highlights) the deep backing it receives from Washington, mean that Israel should be in a position to reach a relatively favourable settlement of its conflict with the Palestinians. Yet the combination of three factors is probably narrowing the window for such a settlement: because Palestinians (even Hamas) enjoy more active Arab support, because the civil war in Syria threatens to spread violence and destabilise neighbouring states, and because an Israeli attack on Iran could provoke a general regional war. This is a potentially lethal brew.

Paul Rogers may be right that there is a “chance of change” if President Obama uses the first part of his new term to tackle the situation. But in Israel as in Gaza, forces that have shown little interest in serious engagement are in charge. In this war, Israel’s prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu and Hamas have reinforced each other’s dominant positions in their respective political arenas. Netanyahu rules through a right-wing coalition which encourages the settlements that are whittling away the prospects of a Palestinian state on the West Bank. It is not obvious that he wants to, or even could, make the sorts of adjustment that any movement towards peace will require. Nor is it obvious that Obama will show the determination needed to force a change.

So, as Bernard Avishai comments, Israel has been playing with fire. The medium-term prospects are as likely to be a more serious war as a movement towards peace. In such a war, the sections of the Israeli right that aim to expel Palestinians from Israel itself and further “Judaise” the state could gain ground. In a corresponding radicalisation of Israel’s enemies, the apocalyptic hype of Iranian and Hamas demagogues might start to move from empty rhetoric to serious threat. Obama’s task is not just to move things forward, but to stop them getting a whole lot worse.

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