West Asia

Tenuous truce

Print edition : October 03, 2014

Ismail Haniya (centre), the top Hamas leader in Gaza, and Mousa Abu Marzook (to his left), a Cairo-based Hamas official, during a tour of Beit Hanoun in Gaza Strip on September 2. Photo: The New York Times

Buildings destroyed during the Israeli offensive in the east of Gaza City. Photo: SUHAIB SALEM/REUTERS

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, flanked by military chief Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz and Defence Minister Moshe Ya'alon, arrives for a graduation ceremony of Israeli naval officers in the northern city of Haifa on September 2. Photo: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS

At the end of the 50-day war on Gaza, Israel is a divided house. But Hamas is firmly in control of the occupied territory, with its popularity among Palestinians soaring.

THE open-ended truce that came into force in the last week of August in the Gaza Strip continues to hold, albeit tenuously. The “calm-for-calm” agreement cannot continue indefinitely if Israel pursues its draconian policies towards Palestinians in the occupied territories. There are no signs yet that Israel is serious about lifting the economic blockade on Gaza or removing the travel restrictions that have turned Gaza into an open-air prison since the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the territory in 2005. Hamas has demanded a functional airport and seaport for the enclave. Another key demand is the release of hundreds of Hamas members languishing in Israeli prisons.

The Israeli political leadership is now a divided house, with many senior Ministers blaming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the military, political and diplomatic setback that has befallen the Jewish state. The Prime Minister seems determined to continue with his expansionist policies. Soon after the ceasefire agreement, the Israeli government announced the appropriation of another 500 hectares of Palestinian land on the West Bank. Israel already occupies 61 per cent of the West Bank and controls most of its water resources. The Israeli leadership is doing all it can to stave off the inevitability of a two-state solution. Netanyahu has repeatedly said that he will under no circumstances countenance a Palestinian state. He recently emphasised that there was no question of withdrawing the Israeli army from the West Bank. Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon has threatened to unleash another war on the hapless population of Gaza. Speaking at the end of the latest round of hostilities, he said Israel might return to the battlefield, “and if we do, we will pound Hamas the same way we did during this operation”.

Infrastructure destroyed

The latest Israeli military assault on the Gaza Strip, which began in early July, lasted a full 50 days. The infrastructure of the impoverished strip of land, along with 11,000 houses and residential apartments, has been destroyed completely. More than 2,000 Palestinians were killed and around 12,000 injured, many of them seriously, in the all-out air, land and sea assault launched by the Israeli military. One-third of the 1.8 million people of Gaza have become homeless. Electricity and potable water continue to be scarce. The only power-generating facility in Gaza was among the first targets to be hit by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). The main sewage plant was disabled and 55,000 cubic metres of waste water is now being emptied into the blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Around 60,000 people have been forced to take shelter in schools. This has prevented schoolchildren from returning to their classes at the beginning of the academic year.

The scale of destruction is much more this time than in the 2009 and 2012 attacks by the Israeli forces. Billions of dollars was needed to repair the damage inflicted on Gaza’s infrastructure in those attacks. The Palestinian Authority (P.A.) has put the cost of reconstruction of Gaza now at $7.8 billion. It has been estimated that rebuilding the homes, schools and hospitals will cost around $2.5 billion. To undertake reconstruction works, Palestinians need international aid and Israel’s cooperation, especially since the Netanyahu government continues to restrict the entry of building materials and essential goods into Gaza.

Human rights groups and international legal luminaries say that Israel should be held responsible for committing war crimes in Gaza. During “Operation Cast Lead” in 2009, despite documented evidence of war crimes, no Israeli leader or military officer was held responsible. This time, the international community seems to be more serious about making those responsible for the death of more than 500 children in Gaza answerable for their crimes. Around 3,000 children were injured and more than 1,400 orphaned during the course of the Israeli assault.

The perceptive Israeli writer Gideon Levy, in a recent column in Haaretz, observed that most Israelis considered Palestinian children “insects”. His observations came after Israel went into collective mourning after the death of a Jewish child killed in a Palestinian mortar attack. He was the only Israeli child killed in the fighting. Levy has described the Israeli assault as “the most brutal war Israel has ever waged”, adding that the war had inflicted countless wounds, “those of the Palestinians bleed more, but those of the Israelis are deeper”.

Marjorie Cohn, a former president of the United States’ National Lawyers Guild and a professor at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law, has said that the Barack Obama administration, too, is culpable in the war crimes committed in Gaza during the 50 days. She argues that by sending vast amounts of military aid to Israel, Congress and the Obama administration have aided and abetted the commission of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity by Israeli officials and commanders in Gaza.

The Obama administration rushed in additional arms to Israel when the civilian toll in Gaza, following indiscriminate air and sea attacks, had crossed the 500 mark. Every year, the U.S. provides around $3.1 billion in military aid to Israel. The U.S. has for all practical purposes been aiding Israel’s expansionist and apartheid polices. Israeli forces this time resorted to the same tactics they used in 2009. The United Nations Human Rights (Goldstone) Report concluded that there was “application of disproportionate force and causing of great damage and destruction to civilian property and infrastructure, and suffering to civilian population”.

Organisations representing the international legal fraternity, such as the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, the Arab Lawyers Union and the American Association of Jurists, have written to the President of the International Criminal Court (ICC) demanding investigations into the crimes committed by the Israeli forces during their latest onslaught. The letter states that Israel clearly used “disproportionate force” against the residents of Gaza. Israeli actions, the letter says, have little to do “with any claim of security, but seems to be calculated to exact revenge against Palestinian civilians”. The P.A. has filed an application seeking membership of the ICC. Hamas has supported the P.A.’s move.

No winners in the war

The resistance groups in Gaza, led by Hamas, showed to the world that they could fight valiantly. Israel, which boasts one of the most powerful armies in the world, was fought to a standstill and could not achieve the major goals it had announced while launching its third war on Gaza. At the launch of the new war, Netanyahu had promised to militarily defeat the armed resistance groups and convert Gaza into a pacified and demilitarised zone. The Israeli army even failed to decommission all the tunnels the resistance had built to militarily combat the occupiers. In all, 71 Israelis were killed, the majority of them soldiers. Not even Israelis believe their Prime Minister’s claim that the IDF delivered a “crushing blow” to Hamas. An opinion poll conducted by Haaretz in the last week of August revealed that more than half of Israelis believed that there were no winners in the war on Gaza. Another recent opinion poll showed that Netanyahu’s approval ratings had plummeted from 82 per cent in late July to 38 per cent after the ceasefire agreement in late August.

Hamas’ image bolstered

Hamas remains firmly in control of the Gaza Strip. A recent opinion poll taken among Palestinians in the occupied territories revealed that the popularity of Hamas among ordinary people had soared. The poll predicted that if elections were held in the occupied territories, Hamas would emerge the winner once again. Before the last Israeli onslaught started, Hamas had become politically isolated.

Hamas’ political fortunes were on a downslide after the removal of its parent organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood, from power by the Egyptian military last year. Since then, the Egyptian authorities have further intensified the blockade on Gaza.

It was obvious that the new Egyptian government wanted the demilitarisation of Gaza and the political sidelining of Hamas from the Gaza Strip. But the latest Israeli misadventure has bolstered the standing of Hamas, not only among Palestinians and the Arab street but also internationally.

An Israeli analyst, Ariel Ilan Roth, recently wrote that Hamas had “shattered the necessary illusion for Israelis that a political stalemate with the Palestinians is cost-free for Israel”. The military wing of the organisation is now trying to rebuild ties with Hizbollah and Iran. The leader of the party, Khaled Meshal, lives in exile in Qatar. The Gulf emirate, along with Turkey, continues to be the major backer of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood factions in the Arab world.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and former Irish President Mary Robinson recently issued a joint statement calling on the international community to recognise “the legitimacy of Hamas” as a “political actor representing a substantial portion of the Palestinian people”.

Normal life in many parts of Israel was disrupted during the course of the war. The tourism industry in Israel has been impacted adversely. For the first time, rockets launched from Gaza landed close to the international airport in Tel Aviv. International flights to Israel had to be cancelled for days. Many leading airlines refused to fly to Tel Aviv during the period the fighting was raging in Gaza.

The wanton use of force against the civilian population of Gaza justifiably earned Israel the wrath of international public opinion. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, echoing international opinion, told the U.N. General Assembly that the “massive deaths and destruction in Gaza have shamed and shocked the world”.

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