Pounding GAZA

Print edition : December 14, 2012

The scene of an Israeli air strike in Gaza City on November 21. At least 30 strikes were made overnight and targets hit included government ministries, smuggling tunnels and a media office.-BERNAT ARMANGUE/AP

Israel rained bombs on Gaza for eight days but gained little. Now the truce brokered by the U.S. and Egypt has raised fears in the Israeli establishment that the U.S., while redefining its ties with the Muslim world, could make a real push for peace in West Asia.

THE full-scale aerial and sea attack launched on the Gaza Strip in mid-November once again illustrates Israels utter disdain for international law and human rights. Gazas 1.7 million residents had still to get over the impact of Israels 2008 invasion when the latest attack came. In eight days of relentless and intense bombing before a ceasefire came into effect, many government and residential buildings were reduced to rubble and 161 Palestinians, including 44 children, lost their lives. Health Ministry officials in Gaza said 1,222 people were being treated in hospitals for serious wounds. Three members of a single family were killed when an Israeli bomb targeted their residence.

The ceasefire agreement brokered by United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy came into effect on November 21, but before it formally took hold Israel launched another blitz, raining more than 100 bombs and missiles on the Strip. Among the targets was a media centre housing international journalists and the Ministry of Internal Security. Many journalists were injured in what was the second such attack on a media facility in the eight days of bombing. One Palestinian journalist working for the BBC had to have a leg amputated.

The Obama administration and Egypts Muslim Brotherhood government were concerned that Israels onslaught on Gaza was diverting the focus from Syria. Both Washington and Cairo have actively campaigned for a regime change in Syria, where the biggest force in the opposition is the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Besides, Hamas, which governs Gaza, is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Obama administration backs the Brotherhood against secular governments in the Arab world.

Hamas commander Ahmad Jaabari, who was killed in Gaza, seen here with Gilad Schalit, the Israeli soldier whose release he negotiated in October 2011.-KHALID FAREID/AP

The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad, another strong backer and financier of the Brotherhood, made a highly publicised visit to Gaza, the first by an Arab head of state, in early November. Qatar promised billions of dollars in aid to rebuild Gaza, which analysts in the region saw as a way of compensating Hamas for siding with the Western-backed rebels in Syria and shifting its external leadership base from Damascus to Doha, the Qatari capital. The Syrian government was the first in the region to recognise the exiled Hamas leadership in the 1990s as a legitimate resistance force when it was demonised as a terrorist group. It was also reported that the Qataris were trying to impress upon the Hamas leadership the futility of resistance to Israel. That message does not seem to have gone down well with other resistance groups in Gaza, who have vowed to retaliate in the face of constant Israeli provocations.

Hizbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, in a speech delivered when Gaza was being pulverized from the ground, air and sea, said Israel was taking advantage of the turmoil in Syria in its onslaught against Gaza. The resistance axis (Hizbollah, Hamas, Syria and Iran), he pointed out, was not in a position to provide Gaza the kind of logistical support they did in 2008. Israel is taking advantage of the fighting in Syria, of the reversal of priorities, of the transformation of enemies into friends and friends into enemies, Nasrallah said.

Under the terms of the ceasefire agreement, Hamas and the other major resistance group, the Islamic Jehad, agreed to halt rocket attacks on Israel. One of the conditions Israel put forward was that Egypt should guarantee that weapons like the Iranian Fajr-5 were not transferred into Gaza through the Rafah border. This could mean that the democratically elected Egyptian government may have to replicate the policies of the Mubarak regime, which had quarantined the Gaza Strip. During the negotiations Hamas and the Islamic Jehad demanded an immediate end to the Israeli practice of targeted assassinations. It was the killing of the Hamas military chief, Ahmad Jaabari, by the Israeli military that triggered the latest round of fighting. Jaabari is only the latest among the long list of Hamas leaders assassinated by Israel. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, was killed by an Israeli missile strike in 2004. In the same year, Abdel Azis al-Rantissi, the co-founder of Hamas, perished in a missile attack. Two senior Hamas military commanders were assassinated in 2009.

Jaabari was well known to Israel as he had participated in the negotiations that led to the freeing of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit last year in exchange for the release of a thousand Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. At the time of his killing, Jaabari was acting as lead negotiator for Hamas in an Egyptian-brokered attempt to find a negotiated settlement with Israel. U.S. President Barack Obama, however, stuck to the version of events put out by Israel. He blamed the latest crisis on the ever-escalating number of missiles in Gaza.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right), Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (seated) and Defence Minister Ehud Barak in Jerusalem on November 21.-BAZ RATNER/REUTERS

The ceasefire agreement, at least on paper, addressed the main concern of the Palestinians locked up in the Gaza Stripthe issue of the blockade. A paragraph on opening the crossing and facilitating the movement of people and transfer of goods and refraining from restricting residents free movement and targeting residents in border areas was included in the agreement. But like past agreements, this one too is likely to end up in the dustbin in Israel. The Israeli writer Noam Sheizaf told a U.S. news channel that there was no incentive for the Israelis to move from the status quo, especially with the free hand it gets from the world and from the United States. After the latest crisis erupted in Gaza the U.S. wasted no time in ensuring that the United Nations Security Council did not pass a resolution condemning Israel. Countries like India, which were once firmly aligned to the Palestinian cause, issued bland statements requesting both sides to exercise restraint. India currently chairs the Security Council. However, a statement issued by the IBSA (India, Brazil and South Africa) grouping on November 21 implicitly criticised Israel. The IBSA countries deeply regret the loss of human lives and strongly condemn the disproportionate and excessive use of force, the statement said. The IBSA demanded the immediate lifting of the Israeli blockade on Gaza and expressed support for Palestines request to be accorded observer state status within the U.N. system. Israel and the U.S. have vehemently opposed the Palestinian bid for membership at the U.N. Some commentators in Israel believe that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the decision to attack Gaza to divert attention from Palestines statehood recognition bid at the U.N.

Now, with the military threat subsiding for the time being, Gaza Strip faces bigger challenges. The 365 sq km enclave is the most thickly populated area in the world and is among the most impoverished. The blockade by Israel had made life unbearable even before the 2008/9 Israeli military invasion, codenamed Operation Cast Lead. That invasion had led to 1,417 Palestinian deaths and destroyed the already-tottering infrastructure of Gaza. A U.N.-mandated inquiry commission, set up four years ago and headed by Justice Richard Goldstone, had concluded that Israel was guilty of war crimes.

Qatar's Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad welcomes Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, the head of Syria's opposition National Coalition, in Doha on November 11.-KARIM JAAFAR/AFP

But Israel, with the help of the U.S. and other allies in the West, escaped without even a mild censure. According to the U.N., Operation Cast Lead caused a total of $181 million in direct and $88 million in longer-term costs for Gazas agriculture: generated about 600,000 tonnes of rubble and $44 million in environmental costs.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says the Gaza Strip will be uninhabitable by 2020, barring urgent action. A document released in October revealed that the Israeli government had gone so far as to calculate the minimum number of calories required for Gazans to avoid mass malnutrition. The Israeli authorities calculated that they could prevent generalised starvation and maintain the basic fabric of life by allowing 106 trucks carrying essential supplies, including food, a day into the Strip. Before Israel imposed its economic blockade, more than 400 trucks loaded with food and basic necessities used to enter Gaza. The Israeli authorities have given different reasons for continuing with the blockade. They range from denying Hamas access to weapons, punishment for launching attacks, and using hunger as a weapon to make Hamas unpopular with the local populace.

Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai proclaimed that Israels latest military operation, codenamed Operation Pillar of Defence, was intended to send Gaza back to the middle ages, destroying its infrastructure, including roads and water. Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vinai had once threatened a holocaust against Palestinians. Only then, the Minister opined, would Israelis be calm for another forty years.

Armed drones, F-16s, apache helicopters, naval warships and artillery pounded the Strip for eight days. To further terrorise an already traumatised people, Israeli planes dropped pamphlets threatening an imminent ground invasion even as a peace agreement was being brokered. Thousands of Gazans taking shelter from bombs and missiles had to leave their refuge and move to the safety of schools and U.N. relief centres, which were already overflowing with people who had vacated their bombed-out homes and neighbourhoods. Among the sites targeted by Israel was the Palestine National Stadium; it was reduced to rubble. The stadium had been rebuilt painstakingly only recently after the Israelis destroyed it in 2006.

To the credit of the Palestinian resistance forces led by Hamas, Gaza did not buckle down in the face of the massive Israeli show of force. Five Israelis, including one soldier, were killed in the recent round of fighting. According to the Israeli authorities, the Palestinians fired 760 rockets continuously into their territory up till the time the ceasefire agreement came into force. Most of the rockets were Qassam short-range ones, which caused minimal damage. Israel claims to have intercepted 400 rockets with the aid of its Iron Dome anti-missile system. Knowledgeable Israeli defence analysts have, however, conceded that the much vaunted Iron Dome system was inadequate in dealing with the longer-range missiles. Israel claimed that its anti-missile system was a great success but at the same time wanted a more fool-proof system in place. The fact that rockets fired from Gaza could reach the capital, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem came as an unpleasant surprise to the Israeli military establishment.

THESE TWO BOYS, whose bodies are being taken to be buried, and their father were killed in an Israeli airstrike on their house in the Gaza town of Beit Lahiya on November 20, the Hamas Health Ministry said.-MOHAMMED SALEM/REUTERS

The people of Gaza, in marked contrast to the end of the conflict four years ago, took to the streets to celebrate the outcome this time around. Unlike in the last war, this time top officials from Arab countries, including Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil, had visited the enclave to show their solidarity with the people of Gaza. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on the other hand, came in for stringent criticism from the opposition after the ceasefire agreement. One reason why Netanyahu started the latest hostilities with Hamas, according to Israel watchers and his domestic critics, was to refurbish his image as a decisive military leader in the run-up to the general elections scheduled in January 2013.

Shaul Mofaz, the leader of the opposition Kadima party, said the goals of the military operation had not been achieved. Israeli citizens expected something else. They expected a reality in which the Israeli Army forced a truce on Hamas. Today, the Egyptian President, with U.S. backing, forced Israel into a ceasefire, Mofaz told the media. Ismail Haniya, the Gaza Prime Minister, publicly thanked the believer Morsy for his role in facilitating a ceasefire.

There are fears in sections of the Israeli establishment that the U.S., while redefining its relationship with the Muslim world in the light of the momentous events that have occurred in the past two years, could really make a meaningful push for peace in West Asia. American policymakers are aware that the Palestine-Israel issue is at the core of the anger in the region towards the U.S. The American public, too, has become increasingly alive to the fact that Israel is not interested in a two-state solution. Gen. David Petraeus, who recently quit as Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) chief, had warned that the conflict was adversely affecting U.S. interests in the Arab world. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment due to a perception of U.S. favouritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with the governments and peoples in the region, Petraeus told the U.S. Senate in 2010 when he headed the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM).

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