5 January 2009


The bombardment and invasion of Gaza is Israel's heaviest attack on the small strip of land since the 1967 war. Rockets fired from Gaza have reached further into Israel than ever before. After 10 days of fighting, it has variously been reported that up to 500 Palestinians and 5 Israelis have been killed. Despite the human suffering and international calls for a ceasefire, those responsible for the violence have an appetite for more.

The Palestinians have limited powers of government over their territory in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel remains in occupation of the West Bank and retains control of Gaza's borders. This situation is supposedly temporary while negotiations lead to the creation of an independent Palestinian state, but the conditions on the ground have been worsening for years.

Israel removed its army and settler population from Gaza in 2005. This move was intended to mark a great step forward but it has failed to increase security for people on either side. Crucially, Israel has maintained control of access to the territory, denying Gazans the chance to run their own affairs.

Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006 and has since been battling with the defeated Fatah party for control of the Palestinian Authority. In 2007, Hamas ousted Fatah from the Gaza Strip following a sharp internal conflict. Hamas is more hostile to Israel which in turn treats the organisation as a terrorist group. There has been a repetitive cycle of violent incursions by Israel and rocket attacks by Hamas, broken by short-term ceasefires.

As part of its long-term offensive against Hamas, Israel continues to impose a tough economic blockade on the Gaza Strip. This stranglehold has severely punished ordinary Gazans, causing great human suffering. Gaza was already poor - over 1 million of its 1.5 million people are refugees - but today over 70% of its population need food aid. There has been a steep deterioration in the provision of critical services, such as health care, access to water and sewage treatment.

The last ceasefire ended in mid-December, with each side blaming the other for breaches. Palestinians had fired rockets into Israel and the Israeli armed forces had killed Gazans. Hamas and Israel held differing understandings of the nature of the ceasefire - Hamas expected Israel to lift its blockade while Israel sought a complete end to rocket fire.

Israel then launched the current Operation 'Cast Lead' to hit Hamas very hard. Israel has been threatening for months to carry out such an attack unless Hamas ceases firing rockets at Israel. It is clear that the Israeli operation was well-prepared and the timing may have been influenced by the weakened Bush presidency, the upcoming Israeli election and the holiday season.

The Israeli action is designed to deter its enemies on the basis that if Israel is scratched, it will swing a heavy fist in return. The Israelis know they are unlikely to stop the rocket fire from Gaza through purely military means. Israel hopes Hamas will be so damaged over the coming days that it will accept a new ceasefire on conditions more favourable to Israel. This is part of a wider strategy of weakening Hamas to the advantage of more moderate Palestinians.

Israel also hopes that Palestinians will blame Hamas for provoking this war. However, while Hamas is heavily criticized by many Palestinians, the ferocity of the Israeli assault unites rather than divides Palestinians. This is part of the cycle of conflict. While Hamas rocket attacks increase Israeli public support for an attack on Gaza, Israel's bombing of Gaza hardens Palestinian opposition to Israel.

Israeli leaders talk of an 'all-out war' against Hamas. In effect this also means against the Gazan population. In 'casting lead' around one of the most densely inhabited places in the world, Israel cannot avoid high civilian casualties. The UN estimates that around 100 Palestinian civilians have already been killed. As more Gazan civilians die, international pressure on Israel to end the war will increase.

There is also pressure on Hamas to stop firing rockets and smuggling arms and to commit to a longer ceasefire. Despite the intensity of the bombardment and Israel's overwhelming military superiority, Hamas is unlikely to surrender or be destroyed. Resistance forms the basis of Hamas' ideology and if it can simply survive the attack it will claim victory over its mighty enemy. Furthermore, Israel does not have the appetite or sufficient international support for a full reoccupation of Gaza.

So far, Israel has been able to shrug off muted international criticism, chiefly because its major ally, the US, is prepared to allow this war. Others, such as the UK, EU and UN, have little influence in persuading either Israel or Hamas to cease fire. International diplomacy is currently stuck over which side must climb down first. The basic question is whether Israel's economic blockade of Gaza or Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel must cease first. At present neither side is prepared to climb down first.

The Israeli attack offers no remedy, rather it is a symptom and cause of the open-ended Israeli-Palestinian conflict and it is seriously harming a civilian population already enduring great hardship. Israel has tried and failed to defeat Hamas and other Palestinian groups before and it has no clear plan for ending the conflict with Hamas or its occupation of Palestinian territory. Israel cannot impose its will by force and one day it will need to talk to the people it is currently punishing through bombardment and blockade.

This article originally appeared in The Sunday Post.

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