With the attention of the international community diverted towards the unrest in the Arab world, Israel has stepped up its assault on Gaza.
INSTEAD of trying to analyse the prevailing tense political situation in West Asia, the right-wing government in Israel is fishing in troubled waters. Like most Arab governments in the region, it was initially upset with the uprising in Tunisia and Egypt. It was particularly angry with the Obama administration for allowing the political demise of Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptian leader was someone the Israeli leadership had long trusted. That the international focus has now shifted to Libya and Syria, two countries that have a track record of standing up to the West and Israel, has brought back some cheer to Tel Aviv. The further widening of the Sunni-Shia schism, thanks to the Arab upsurge, is also viewed in the corridors of power in Tel Aviv as a helpful development.
As the attention of the international community got diverted, the Israeli government started laying the groundwork for yet another military assault on the hapless population of Gaza. Tensions rose after Israeli air strikes killed two Hamas members inside Gaza in mid-March. Hamas retaliated with a 15-minute barrage of rocket fire. This is the first time in two years that the group has accepted responsibility for firing rockets into Israel.
Since Operation Cast Lead launched by Israel against Gaza in December 2008, Hamas has reined in its militants from firing rockets into Israel, in order to ensure that the fragile ceasefire is not broken. On the few occasions rockets were fired into Israel, the Islamic Jihad and other militant groups that operate independently of Hamas claimed responsibility for them.Jerusalem bombing
On March 23, in the first serious terror strike inside Israel in the past three years, a bomb exploded in a crowded bus station in Jerusalem, killing one person and injuring 24. Hamas denied responsibility for the attack, but the Israeli government was quick to pin the blame on it and unleashed a wave of targeted assassinations and kidnappings inside Gaza and in foreign countries.
After the Jerusalem bombing, Hamas issued a statement stressing the importance of restoring the ceasefire. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as expected, assumed a belligerent posture. He postponed a scheduled trip to Russia and issued a statement promising prompt retribution from the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).
Even before the bomb explosion in Jerusalem, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom had talked about the need for another Operation Cast Lead. He said he was saying that despite being aware that such an act would bring the region to a far more combustible situation. Shalom also said that Israel would not tolerate a pro-Iranian government on its border. He was referring to Lebanon, which is run by a government backed by Hezbollah.
Israel had launched a full-scale war on Lebanon in 2006 in an attempt to defeat the Hizbollah militia. In the event, the much-vaunted Israeli army, the most powerful in the region, failed dismally. Hizbollah leaders have warned that if Israel once again tries to invade Lebanon, its rockets will target Tel Aviv.
Both Hizbollah and Hamas have close ties with the Iranian government as they have been ostracised by the Arab governments in the region except that of Syria. The pro-democracy wave sweeping the region could make things more conducive to the two groups. The new Egyptian government has already softened its stance on Hamas and could open the country's Rafah border crossing with Gaza in the near future. This will considerably ease the economic blockade of Gaza. The Israeli political and military establishment views this emerging scenario with dread.Attacks on Gaza
Since the Jerusalem incident, Israel has been targeting the Gaza Strip regularly. An Israeli airborne attack in the third week of March killed three Palestinian youth playing football. In the same week, an Israeli bomb blew up a car carrying four Islamic Jihad militants. On April 1, Israeli air strikes again killed three Hamas activists travelling in a car in Gaza. Thousands of people attended their funeral.
Earlier in the year, the Mossad (Israel's secret service) abducted an engineer who was in charge of the only functioning power-generating unit in Gaza as he was visiting his wife's family in Ukraine. He was lodged in an Israeli prison, with the authorities claiming that he was a senior Hamas military commander.
Recently, Israeli planes hit a car in Port Sudan, killing the four passengers in it. Sudanese authorities said this was the second time Israel had targeted civilians in the African country. Israel claims that arms are smuggled to Gaza through Sudan. In the West Bank, the Israelis have accelerated their settlement activities. A veto by the United States against the United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israel's settlement policies has only encouraged the right-wing government to grab more Palestinian land. All the other Security Council members, including Washington's close allies, had supported the resolution. Many Palestinian families have been forcibly evicted and their farms bulldozed to make way for Jewish settlers. An Israeli settler family was killed in early March by a Palestinian in response to the arrest and eviction of Palestinians from their lands in the occupied West Bank.Impact of uprising
The Arab street uprising has also had its impact on Palestinians. Thousands of them in Gaza and the West Bank held demonstrations in recent weeks calling for the unity of Hamas, which is in control of Gaza, and the Fatah, which runs the West Bank. Both Hamas and Palestinian Authority leaders have said that they are not opposed to unity.
P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas even went to the extent of saying that the P.A. was willing to forgo the annual $470 million in direct financial assistance from the U.S. for the sake of Palestinian unity. But the Hamas leadership has not forgotten that the Fatah had seized power unconstitutionally in 2007 under American and Israeli pressure despite Hamas enjoying the confidence of Parliament.
Hamas looks prepared to forget the painful episodes of the past if the Fatah does not insist on going ahead unilaterally with municipal and presidential elections in the West Bank alone in the middle of this year. It will not be a level playing field for Hamas as the elections in the West Bank will be closely supervised by the P.A. security forces. Besides, the West Bank is under the Israeli occupation, making the prospects of a free and fair election bleak. Many Hamas legislators have been languishing in Israeli jails.
Netanyahu and the Israeli establishment are not too happy at the prospect of Palestinian unity. In a move meant to get Washington's attention, he issued an appeal to the P.A. to choose Israel as its partner rather than Hamas. You can't have peace with both Israel and Hamas, he said.
Netanyahu is well aware that the Fatah cannot negotiate a separate peace with Israel without the consent of Hamas. Recent revelations in the leaked Jerusalem Papers of the Fatah's collaboration with Israel and the U.S. have eroded its credibility in the eyes of Palestinians.
The propagandists for Israel have started saying that the government will have no partner to negotiate with in case the Fatah and Hamas decide to join hands. The U.S. has conveniently put Hamas on its terror list and refuses to enter into any sort of dialogue with it. The Israeli government's position is that Hamas should recognise its existence. The Hamas leadership has on several occasions said that it is willing to coexist with Israel provided it withdraws to its 1967 border.Goldstone's U-turn
In the first week of April, apologists for Israel had another reason to cheer. Justice Richard Goldstone, the South African judge who chaired the U.N.-mandated commission in 2009 that looked into Israeli war crimes during Operation Cast Lead, backtracked on some of the key conclusions of the report. In a signed article in The Washington Post, the judge, who is himself Jewish, said that in hindsight he would have come to a different conclusion about Israel's actions during the war. If I had known then what I know now, the Goldstone Report would have been a different document, he wrote.
He even tried to whitewash the killing of 29 members of a single family the Shimouni family. Goldstone's present contention is that the shelling of the Shimouni residence was apparently the consequence of an Israeli commander's erroneous interpretation of a drone image.
Netanyahu was quick to demand that the original report should be thrown into the waste bin of history. The Israeli government, which until now was busy demonising Goldstone, invited him to visit the country. Goldstone accepted the invitation.
The old judge, who is a staunch believer, was being pressured by his co-religionists in many ways, crude as well as subtle. Zionist Jews tried to prevent him from attending his own grandson's bar mitzvah in Johannesburg, accusing him of being a self hating Jew.
According to the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, the shameful U-turn did not happen this week. It comes after more than a year and a half of a sustained campaign of intimidation and character assassination against the judge.
In March, the Israeli military intelligence announced that a special unit was created to monitor and even hunt down individuals and organisations suspected of delegitimising Israel abroad. Goldstone has always said that he was at heart always a Zionist. Pappe wrote: You can either be a Zionist or blame Israel for war crimes and crimes against humanity if you do both, you will crack sooner rather than later.
Goldstone's apparent recanting will not in any way alter the facts. Other reputed colleagues of his steadfastly stand by the report's conclusions that Israel was guilty of very serious war crimes in Gaza. The reports of other groups such as Breaking the Silence and of U.N. representatives who were on the ground also vouch for it. The pictures and images that emerged from Gaza during Operation Cast Lead also tell the real story.
The Goldstone Report quotes the IDF Northern Command chief, Gadi Eisenkot, as saying: We will apply disproportionate force on every village and cause great damage and destruction there. From our standpoint, these are not civilian villages, they are military bases. This is not a recommendation. This is a plan. And it has been approved.
Even today, Israel bars the people of Gaza from accessing construction materials to rebuild their shattered homes. Recently, the International Committee of the Red Cross issued a statement describing the continued blockade of Gaza as collective punishment imposed in clear violation of Israel's obligation under international humanitarian law. The statement noted that all of Gaza's civilian population is being punished for acts for which they bear no responsibility.