Monday, 18 August 2014

What Israel won--and lost

The latest London Review of Books has a sober and sobering article summarizing the aftermath of the Gaza debacle. It is dated August 1, so there are subsequent developments it does not touch upon. But the reflective, Europe-based view is fascinating both for the tone and the details completely hidden from our awareness—whether by design or mere ignorance matters little. It provides a bracing contrast to the debate here.

Nathan Thrall writes first that the terms of the prior settlement between Israel and Hamas that ended the 2012 violence were never honored nor implemented:

It stipulated that all Palestinian factions in Gaza would stop hostilities against Israel, that Israel would end attacks against Gaza by land, sea and air – including the ‘targeting of individuals’ (assassinations, typically by drone-fired missile) – and that the closure of Gaza would essentially end as a result of Israel’s ‘opening the crossings and facilitating the movements of people and transfer of goods, and refraining from restricting residents’ free movements and targeting residents in border areas’. An additional clause noted that ‘other matters as may be requested shall be addressed,’ a reference to private commitments by Egypt and the US to help thwart weapons smuggling into Gaza, though Hamas has denied this interpretation of the clause.

Thrall then notes that very little violence followed, indicating that a peaceful settlement, a short-term one at least, was possible had there been the desire for one.

During the three months that followed the ceasefire, Shin Bet recorded only a single attack: two mortar shells fired from Gaza in December 2012. Israeli officials were impressed.

Next question: who then provoked the latest round of slaughter:

But [the Israelis] convinced themselves that the quiet on Gaza’s border was primarily the result of Israeli deterrence and Palestinian self-interest. Israel therefore saw little incentive in upholding its end of the deal. In the three months following the ceasefire, its forces made regular incursions into Gaza, strafed Palestinian farmers and those collecting scrap and rubble across the border, and fired at boats, preventing fishermen from accessing the majority of Gaza’s waters.

The end of the closure never came. Crossings were repeatedly shut. So-called buffer zones – agricultural lands that Gazan farmers couldn’t enter without being fired on – were reinstated. Imports declined, exports were blocked, and fewer Gazans were given exit permits to Israel and the West Bank.

Meanwhile, the idea of further Israel-Hamas talks, via third parties, also never went anywhere:

[Negotiations were] repeatedly delayed, at first because [the Israeli side] wanted to see whether Hamas would stick to its side of the deal, then because Netanyahu couldn’t afford to make further concessions to Hamas in the weeks leading up to the January 2013 elections, and then because a new Israeli coalition was being formed and needed time to settle in. The talks never took place.

Anyone following the farcical Kerry talks or the many previous ‘negotiations’ of recent decades will recognize this pattern of excuse-making.

There is a lot more detail in the article, including key facts about how life in the Gaza ghetto was made increasingly desperate. To cite just one example:

Shortages of fuel led to queues stretching several blocks at petrol stations, and fights broke out at the pumps. Garbage piled in the streets because the government couldn’t afford fuel for refuse lorries. In December sanitation plants shut down and sewage flowed through the streets. The water crisis worsened: more than 90 per cent of Gaza’s aquifer was now contaminated.

To alleviate the situation, Hamas agreed to long-standing Western demands: non-violence, adherence to past agreements and recognition of Israel. Then Hamas acceded to the demands of the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank, all to get some relief from the crushing conditions of the trapped Gazans. The result was . . . nada:

The most basic conditions of the deal – payment of the government employees who run Gaza and an opening of the crossing with Egypt – were not fulfilled. For years Gazans had been told that the cause of their immiseration was Hamas rule. Now it was over, their conditions only got worse.

All it took was the spark of a new incident, provided by the murder of the three yeshiva students on June 12, followed by the kidnapping and immolation of a Palestinian teen. As in Ferguson, Missouri, it doesn’t make a lot of difference whether those in charge want a violent explosion to occur or just do everything in their power to guarantee that result.

Thrall says Hamas now has three new demands for a semi-permanent truce, all based on prior agreements that they want Israel to honor: the Shalit prisoner exchange accord, including the release of some 50 re-arrested former Hamas prisoners; the November 2012 ceasefire, which calls for an end to Gaza’s closure; and the April 2014 agreement to pay Gaza salaries and open up the border crossings to much needed construction materials.

Thrall also makes a startling final conclusion: that Israeli officials across the political spectrum ‘have begun to admit privately that the previous policy towards Gaza was a mistake’.

All parties involved in mediating a ceasefire envision postwar arrangements that effectively strengthen the new Palestinian government and its role in Gaza – and by extension Gaza itself. . . . Hamas knows it can’t defeat the Israeli military, but the Gaza war holds out the possibility of a distant but no less important prize: stirring up the West Bank, and undermining the Ramallah leadership and the programme of perpetual negotiation, accommodation and US dependency that it stands for. For many Palestinians, Hamas has once again proved the comparative effectiveness of militancy. . . . Since the fighting in Gaza began this summer, Israel has not announced a single new settlement and has expressed willingness to make certain concessions to Palestinian demands – achievements the Ramallah leadership has not been able to match in years of negotiations.

Finally, despite the awful carnage, it is not clear that Israel has won the military triumph it anticipated:

During Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09, Israel went far deeper into Gaza and lost only ten soldiers, four of them to friendly fire; today Israeli ground forces have lost more than sixty soldiers. Losses among Hamas militants so far appear to be manageable. For the first time in decades, Israel is defending itself against an army that has penetrated the 1967 borders, by means of tunnels and naval incursions. Hamas rockets produced in Gaza can now reach all of Israel’s largest cities, including Haifa, and it has rocket-equipped drones. It was able to shut down Israel’s main airport for two days. Israelis who live near Gaza have left their homes and are scared to go back since the IDF says that there are probably still tunnels it doesn’t know about. Rockets from Gaza kept Israelis returning to shelters day after day, demonstrating the IDF’s inability to deal with the threat. The war is estimated to have cost the country billions of dollars.

Given the unfavorable outcome, it seems Israel can react in one of two ways: seek indirect negotiations and allow Gaza some breathing room essentially on the same terms that were already available before the latest round of bloodshed. That would calm Israel’s allies in the West and slow down the PR debacle that is undermining the zionist image worldwide and strengthening the divest and boycott movement.

Another approach is for Israel to plan for a far more comprehensive assault to destroy Hamas’s new military prowess. We should never assume such an act is unthinkable given the rampant madness—of a chillingly racist nature—now manifest in Israeli society. If 2,000 people, mostly civilians, can be killed today with such arrogance and unapologetic pride, why not 200,000 tomorrow?

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