Sunday 20 July 2014

Déjà Vu in Gaza

As the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) expand their ground operation in Gaza, I cannot help but feel a numbing sense of déjà vu. Indeed, if I changed a few details, I could almost pass off the article I wrote about the last major crisis there in November 2012 as a commentary on the current violence. Sadly though, the IDF's Operation Protective Edge is longer and far bloodier than its 2012 offensive. At the time of writing, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports that the IDF have killed over 400 people in Gaza. Palestinians militants have killed 18 Israeli soldiers and two Israeli civilians. The United Nations (UN) estimates that three-quarters of the Palestinian dead are civilians and that at least 73 were under the age of 18. More children will surely die before it's over.

Just as they did in 2012, US government, the EU and the bulk of the mainstream media have framed the current escalation as Israeli self-defence in response to Hamas rocket fire. That argument is just as spurious today as it was back then. In spite of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's self-serving rhetoric, the timing of the current crisis in Gaza was one of his choosing.

On the pretext of rescuing three Israeli teenagers who had been kidnapped on June 12 near an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, Netanyahu ordered a deadly crackdown on Hamas. He did this even though all of the evidence available to the Israeli intelligence services suggested that the teenagers were killed almost immediately after being abducted by members of the Qawasmeh clan in Hebron, a rogue faction of Hamas that often disobeys the Hamas leadership. There is no evidence that Hamas itself ordered the abduction and murder of the teens.

However, Netanyahu's goverment was angered by the tentative reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah in recent months. Talks between these two rival Palestinian factions led to the formation of a national unity government on June 2. Most of the ministers are independent technocrats and none are members of Hamas, but Netanyahu condemned the formation of the government as an endorsement of terrorism. Moreover, when the both the EU and the US State Department gave cautious, qualified support to the unity government, the Israeli Prime Minister was livid.

The kidnapping of the Israeli teenagers ten days later gave Netanyahu the perfect opportunity to vent his anger. What the Israeli PM presented as a "rescue mission" was in reality a massive IDF campaign against Hamas in the West Bank, one in which 5 Palestinians were killed, 340 were arrested, 1350 homes were searched, and Hamas's social and charity infrastructure was raided and weakened. Hamas''s military wing in Gaza inevitably responded with barrages of rockets into southern Israel, giving Netanyahu his justification for another major military campaign.

So essentially Operation Projective Edge  is just a much bloodier rerun of Operation Pillar of Defence in 2012, which was itself a truncated sequel to the bloodbath that was Operation Cast Lead in 2008. The bitter irony is that these operations achieve nothing but a massive increase in rocket fire while they are under way. Indeed, as researchers for the Jerusalem Fund point out, "[t]he single most effective way to bring projectile fire from Gaza to a halt is through a cease-fire agreement." What is more, their analysis demonstrates that the majority of Palestinian projectile fire is in retaliation for IDF incursions, missile strikes, Palestinian injuries/deaths and attacks on Palestinian fisherman.

Source: The Jerusalem Fund

Of course, Hamas militants are not innocent in all of this. Clearly, the rogue members who abducted and murdered the Israeli teenagers in June knew what the IDF response would be. The Israeli journalist Shlomi Eldar argues that there are divisions between the hardline military wing of Hamas and its older, more pragmatic political leaders. In his view, the kidnappers "have brought Hamas to a place where its leadership never intended to go." However, in the context of the recent crackdown and the ongoing blockade of Gaza, it seems the pragmatists have been undermined and the military wing is now in the ascendancy.

With ISIS on the rise in Iraq, Bashar al-Assad "re-elected" in Syria, and Gaza in turmoil, thousands of ordinary people in the Middle East will continue to suffer and to die. For them, nothing ever changes and their blood never dries.

Correction: August 2, 2014

The original article contained two errors which I have now corrected:

1) The Palestinian national unity government was sworn in on June 2, not June 10 as originally stated.

2) The three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped on June 12, not June 11.

Neither of these corrections affect my argument. Indeed, many other writers — for example, Yousef Munayyer and Larry Derfner  — have pointed out how Benyamin Netanyahu and his government provoked this war.

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