It is clear that the invasion of Gaza by the Israeli army will end with a new ceasefire. The Israeli Government will try to accomplish as many of the conditions it has placed for the ceasefire as possible. These include strict control of the border with Egypt so that arms will not be smuggled to the Gaza strip, in addition to having a permanent ceasefire with no date for its renewal.
The declared aim of the invasion is the stopping of the rockets, an easy one to achieve since Hamas already agreed to this condition with the ceasefire that was supposed to end on December 19, but was broken by Israel on November 4, 2008 when the army killed six Palestinian activists in an operation in Gaza. The timing for the breaking of the ceasefire was interpreted by Israeli analysts among others as a preferable time while the Bush Administration was still in office. The reason for this became clear when the US blocked several attempts at reaching a Security Council decision, thus giving the Israeli army more time to continue its war in Gaza so that it may achieve its aims. There was also the suspicion that an Obama Administration may be less accommodating to Israeli needs in such a conflict.
Israel between Obama and Bush
The rockets were not the reason for the invasion, but the desire of the Israeli government to weaken Hamas militarily and politically, including its ability to govern Gaza, in preparation for any possible new political initiatives on the part of the Obama Administration involving the region as a whole. What was surprising in the media coverage in most of Western Countries including of course the US is the degree to which the Israeli PR line was resonant in the coverage, and the lack of a critical understanding of the issues, even by the standards of Israeli media, which is often more skeptical of the government’s positions than appears in most media coverage in the US.
It remains to be seen what the new US Administrations’ policies are. No doubt its first preoccupation will be the economic crises. But the US will inevitably have to have a foreign policy including as pertains to the Middles East. Once a ceasefire is arrived at in Gaza, it is assumed that it will last for some time and thus it becomes a non-burning issue that requires immediate attention. Therefore, the Obama Administration will not have to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict immediately and therefore focus its attention on other issues such as the Iranian “threat” which receives top priority in Israel.
Gaza: 99% are non-combatants
If the Israeli objective is to “neutralise” Gaza politically for some time, the same does not apply to the West Bank. In the present melee it is now forgotten that Hamas demanded that the six-month ceasefire which was supposed to end on December 19, 2008, should also apply to the West Bank upon its renewal. Israel has refused to accept this demand and near daily incursions by the Israeli army continue in various West Bank towns for arrests and assassinations. Even in Ramallah, Israeli army vehicles are seen on a regular basis in various streets at night.
No doubt, the level of suffering in Gaza, a virtual ghetto, is higher than in the West Bank. The Israeli army estimates that there are 15,000 combatants in Gaza. Others think the figure is exaggerated. But even if correct, of a total population of 1.5 million, this leaves 99% of the population non-combatant, of whom a majority are children. Eighty-five percent of what Gaza needs to survive comes from Israel: food, medicines, fuel, gas, etc. During the six-month ceasefire, out of a total of 180 days, border crossings from Israel to Gaza were closed for 120 days. Shortages of basic necessities were a chronic condition. This explains one essential condition Hamas insists on for a ceasefire: opening the border crossings. A modest condition indeed for those imprisoned in Gaza: sheer basic survival.
Meanwhile, the war on Gaza will further undermine the credibility of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank, as well as the credibility of Arab Countries allied with the US. The PA has not been able to deliver Palestinians from Israel’s occupation, the settlement process continues on Palestinian land, and the Annapolis process came to an end without results. The PA is now hoping that the negotiations will continue after the Israeli elections in February, but this is contingent upon the results of the election. The declared position of Mr. Netanyahu is that he will conduct “economic” negotiations only, but not political ones.
The electoral battle in Israel is being fought in the streets of Gaza
The problem of negotiations is well known. Israel as a state has been far too successful in warding off external pressure, thanks largely to its influence in the US. As a result, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has essentially become a domestic Israeli issue, a political football inside the Israeli political arena where the interests of parties and politicians are local, electoral, instrumental and short term. Essentially, Israelis are negotiating among themselves. This is a dead-end from which the “peace process” will never emerge without outside pressure or Palestinian resistance. This in part is the meaning of the war on Gaza: to keep the political “game” inside the Israeli arena. The electoral battle in Israel is now being fought in the streets of Gaza.
Arab governments, and indeed European governments as well, for varied reasons are all waiting for the disastrous Bush reign to end and for the Obama Administration to take over. It remains to be seen what its policies are in relation to the conflict. What is clear is that the US in particular and European countries as well have shown a clear lack of responsibility in working to end the conflict, even though they have a clear stake in making peace with Arabs and Muslims throughout the world. This will not happen if the conflict in Palestine continues to simmer and periodically explode. In this round, the people of Gaza are made to pay an egregious price. Can one dare hope that this will be the last round?
George Giacaman is co-founder and Director of the Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy (Muwatin), and is a Faculty Member in the Department of Philosophy and Cultural Studies at Birzeit University.