Postwar: Looking forward to more of the same

The fighting in Gaza seems to be over. Whatever the military or political pretensions of either side, it seems like the civilians have had enough. The Palestinians, certainly, have been battered beyond endurance.

For the next while, at least, attention will turn to the diplomatic arena, though there is likely to also be intense political maneuvering, both in Israel and among the Palestinians. Neither leadership can claim victory with a straight face, so there is bound to be controversy on both sides regarding the profit/loss ratio of the war. It is already raging in Israel; I assume the same is true of Gaza, though it’s probably more muted.

The question now, after seven weeks of wanton killing and destruction in Gaza and higher-than-expected loss and dislocation in Israel, is what comes next?  Has the experience been sufficiently traumatic for Israelis and Palestinians to change tack and finally embark on serious peace-making? Is that even possible, given the anger and hatred generated – entirely understandably – on the Palestinian side?

To look into the future, we first need to understand the past; to dispel the fog of propaganda, bombast and outright deception that accompanies every war. To truly understand why it happened.

The latest war occurred because the Palestinians have been occupied by Israel for over 47 years. It happened because Israel has kept Gaza under a hermetic blockade for the past seven years and done everything in its power to prevent a reconciliation between the two main Palestinian parties, Fatah and Hamas, while complaining loudly that peace can’t be made with a divided enemy.

The immediate trigger of the war was Israel’s decision to cynically leverage the kidnapping – and subsequent murder – of three Israeli youths in the West Bank to embark on an operation aimed at crippling Hamas in the West Bank. The response of Hamas in its stronghold, the crowded and besieged Gaza Strip, was to fire rockets at Israel.

Israel’s contention that the rockets were unprovoked is rubbish. Every rocket was propelled by 47 years of provocation. One may not like Hamas – there is much to dislike about the undemocratic, fundamentalist and socially conservative regime that currently rules Gaza – and one may have genuine concerns about Hamas’ willingness to live in peace with Israel, but those concerns don’t alter the fact that the penal existence imposed by Israel on that woebegone strip of land was both brutal and unsustainable.

History will tell whether Hamas’ approach of armed resistance to the Israeli occupation is smart. There are now over 2,000 Palestinian bodies arguing that it isn’t. But I have no patience for arguments that it is not justified. Whatever means of resistance the Palestinians choose is justified. It is for the Palestinians themselves to answer whether the price they are paying justifies the means.

Netanyahu’s constant refrain during the war was that he wanted to “return quiet” to Israel. The more radical members of his coalition wanted to see the eradication of Hamas in Gaza, but the prime minister did not have the stomach for the Israeli casualties that such an operation would entail. Perhaps he also understood that suppressing deeply-entrenched popular resistance by force requires killing of near-genocidal proportions. If that was part of the calculation that persuaded him to step back from the brink, there is perhaps a glimmer of hope for Israel’s future.

For the Palestinians of Gaza, the war was a humanitarian catastrophe. In additions to the estimated 12,000 dead and wounded, the place has been devastated. Refugees are camped out among the ruins, raw sewage runs through the streets and fresh water is in short supply. The economy, such as it was, is shattered. It will take many years and a massive aid effort to get Gaza back to even its unenviable situation before the war.

It’s difficult to see what Hamas got out of the war except for pride. But perhaps that’s not a meager accomplishment when one’s history of defeats and insults at the hands of Israel is as desperate as theirs is. By all accounts, Hamas and its smaller partners fought well – and they kept on fighting long after the Israeli leadership thought they would stop. Israel certainly didn’t have everything its own way. That will no doubt be the subject of Israeli investigations into the army’s performance.

The new-found reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah survived the war, though the position and authority of West Bank-based President Mahmoud Abbas were severely weakened. The fighting highlighted precisely how little influence he has over events and how irrelevant he is when Israel decides to ignore him. It may well be in Israel’s interests to maintain him as a fig-leaf in the post-war period, but it’s clear to all that he rules – if that is what he does – entirely at Israel’s behest.

So, once again, it’s all up to Israel; specifically, up the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  When Netanyahu says he wants “quiet” that’s exactly what he means: the status quo.

He wants to keep Gaza in a state of penal servitude, build settlements to his heart’s content, spend billions preparing for a war with Iran – on which his heart has been set for years – transform Israeli education into a pseudo-religion of Holocaust remembrance and dismantle any social welfare institutions that still exist in the country – all that, without any resistance from the pesky Palestinians and with the full support and admiration of the world community.

That is the definition of “quiet” in the Netanyahu lexicon.

Some Israeli pundits have written recently about a discernable shift in Netanyahu’s attitude to the Palestinians in the wake of the war. In the future, they say, he will be more amenable to negotiations about an end to the conflict and possibly even prepared to compromise.

I can’t see it. Netanyahu’s ideological world view is too monolithic and deep-rooted to tolerate the type of concessions and changes that are needed if there is ever to be peace in this region. He is too much of a believer in the Land of Israel and too convinced that force can solve any problem for him to accept Palestinian sovereignty and equality. And without such acceptance, there will never be peace.

In a normal democracy, one’s attitude would be: OK, we’ll throw the bastard out. But the bastard, unfortunately, speaks for most of the country. Many of them are unhappy with him right now, but that’s because they wanted him to finish off Hamas for good. There are probably more 20-year-old virgins in Israel today than there are believers in peace – and I’m reliably informed by my daughters that virginity is in very short supply.

All of which means that what the future holds is a lot more of the same. The fighting may have stopped for now, but I wouldn’t advise anyone to buy a cheap holiday home in one of the communities along the border with Gaza that were denuded of their citizens in recent weeks. There is no peace on the hazy horizon.


The mad price of blinkers

By Michael Eilan

When I was a young and very inexperienced journalist I went to hear the late Rashad Shawa, the former mayor of Gaza, speak in Kibbutz Ramat Rahel, which at the time was still a kibbutz, and poor. It must have been some time in the late seventies, and the Gazans were still smarting from the wrath of their next-door neighbor, Ariel Sharon. I can’t remember exactly which troubles were happening just then, but they were there, as always, in the air. Shawa, a tremendously dignified and well dressed gentleman, made a simple plea.

“I don’t know one Palestinian who doesn’t trust at least one Jew, and no Jew who doesn’t trust at least one Palestinian. Let’s start from there.” That was in the good old days, when we were neither good nor old.

This came to mind two weeks ago when Shibli, another real gentleman and good friend from Abu Snan in the Western Galilee, told me he was too scared to allow his 13-year-old son go with a group of friends to celebrate a birthday with a movie in the Kiryat Bialik mall. “There are madmen out there, it’s too scary,” he said. So the fast food outlets in the mall got just a little taste of the deep slump all Palestinian Israeli business have felt for the last month. Great.


The tunnel at the end of the tunnel

Palestinian militants in Gaza resumed their rocket and mortar fire on Israel on Friday morning, following the failure of the indirect negotiations in Cairo to achieve a ceasefire. Israel duly responded with air and artillery attacks on Gaza.

At this point, midday Saturday, it’s difficult to predict whether the current round is just a flare-up or a return to the serious hostilities of the past month. My take is that it may be a macho, Middle Eastern pissing contest – a means of putting pressure on the negotiators – and that neither side wants to return to the dark days of July. We’ll  know soon enough.

What seems clear to me is that Hamas and its allies are determined not to return to the status quo ante and are willing to risk further death and destruction to ensure that they get more than simply quiet – the lack of Israeli military action – for their efforts over the past month.

Israel, for its part, would like to see a Gaza devoid of rockets and tunnels, but is unwilling to pay the diplomatic price, namely the lifting of the blockade, acceptance of land, sea and air links for Gaza and recognition (if only tacit) of Hamas as a legitimate player in the region – including the legitimacy of Palestinian reconciliation.