The questions raised by the recent Gaza escalation - Article by Chris Doyle in Arab News, written 7 October, published 8 October.
Here we go again. The sixth Israeli military operation on Gaza since 2005 is in full swing following Hamas’ extraordinary attacks inside Israel. It is not a surprise to see this again; it was inevitable as nothing had changed in Gaza. The shock was that Hamas tried and pulled off such a dramatic and bloody operation.
Initial assessments of a crisis in progress and with few confirmed details are a risky proposition. The Hamas attack from Gaza in the early hours of Saturday raises so many questions and, as ever, there are few clear answers.
What led Hamas to launch this surprise attack, which is of a scale never seen before? Why such an incredibly bold, reckless move? What does it hope to achieve? Does killing civilians help its cause? Targeting civilians is a war crime. It seems Hamas even took Israeli children into Gaza. It says that it is about stopping the Israeli threat to Al-Aqsa and to get prisoners released. Is that the case or are there other issues at play? Who made this decision and which parts of the Hamas leadership knew and approved what was a secret operation? Is there an Iranian or other foreign hand pushing Hamas on this? Did anyone in Hamas think for one moment about the horrors that Palestinian civilians will now have to endure?
How will Israel act? Will we witness another protracted bombardment of Gaza and a ground invasion? Will this, the most extreme government in Israel’s history, be even more brutal in conducting that campaign? Might it have as its ambition the full and direct military reoccupation of the Gaza Strip? Israel has remained the occupying power, but for the most part controlled Gaza from the armistice lines, the sea and the air. This would mean the return of the Israeli military inside the Strip, a scenario few should welcome. At the end of whatever operation ensues, heads will roll and this could include the demise of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Can or will the Palestinian Authority do anything? Does it have many options? If anything, all this has done is further expose the weakness of President Mahmoud Abbas, who has no solution or strategy to help his people. Many Palestinians will see Hamas as trying to do something, even if some will see this as ill-judged.
What can we expect? This is unlikely to be a short-term escalation. Israel may well opt for a dangerous ground invasion, as it did in 2014 after three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped in the West Bank. Hamas will continue to fire rockets into Israel as long as it can. The violence will probably not be restricted to Gaza, with reports of clashes inside Shuafat camp in East Jerusalem already surfacing. Palestinians in the West Bank have to survive with checkpoints locking them in, while settlers will seek to further their own long-term strategic goals of seizing more land and water, while creating a coercive environment where more Palestinians will be forced to flee their villages and ancestral lands.
Could there be a short-term deal between Hamas and Israel to go back to the situation of last week? This is extremely unlikely. Inside Israel, Netanyahu knows he has to be seen to react to what was the biggest Israeli intelligence and security failure since 1973. This will have shaken the entire security establishment. Some in Hamas may believe that having Israeli prisoners will be a card they can play; an insurance policy. This is very doubtful, at least until Israeli forces have dealt massive damage to Hamas’ capabilities and, in their view, taught it a lesson.Yet the biggest question in the long term will be how the international community responds. If it follows the traditional script adopted after every other Israeli-Hamas conflagration, it will fail both peoples. Soundbites and slogans are not a substitute for a strategy. Yes, Israel has a right to self-defense, but will we hear that Palestinians have that same right? Will the international community remind Israel that there are limits to self-defense and that aggressive attacks on civilians do not qualify? And will we hear that golden oldie of the need to restore calm? Living under occupation is an aggression and never calm.
The international community needs to speak out clearly and act decisively. Hamas is already sanctioned and isolated. What about a drive to end the 16-year-old Israeli-Egyptian blockade of more than 2 million people in Gaza? This is collective punishment of an entire people, a war crime. Keeping these Palestinians locked up in an open-air prison, unable to trade, travel and have a normal life, is a recipe for conflict. Palestinians exist in what is an overcrowded slum with water so bad even animals should not drink it. It is time to see Gazans as humans. We need to ask what impact the blockade has on children, what it means to 800,000 children who have never left this hellhole, who have no concept of what the outside world is like? Ignoring the illegal Israeli actions in the West Bank has had consequences too.
Should the international community do nothing, then what we will see is a massive loss of life and destruction of people’s lives. Already, the fatality counts for both peoples are in three figures and the Palestinian number will be shooting up every hour that the Israeli military operation continues. It may also risk widening the confrontation to the northern front, though for now Hezbollah has stayed out of it.
What would be refreshing would be to see leaders ditching the blame game in favor of finding long-term solutions. These solutions should be win-win for all peoples. It would mean a Gaza that is free to breathe, allowing its people to dream of a new life free from oppression and occupation. It would mean allowing proper and legitimate economic life to flourish. It would mean ending a blockade that denies Palestinians in Gaza the ability to engage with those in the West Bank.
It would also mean that Israeli civilians living in communities around Gaza can live in safety, free from rocket and mortar attacks or, as in this case, free from being attacked by armed fighters who invade their communities.
None of this will come about without a clear, viable political process. The US administration has spoken out more forcefully against many Israeli actions this year, as it should, but it has not advanced any political project that addresses the plight of the Palestinians.
Saudi Arabia has been under pressure to abandon any genuine solution to the Palestinian question in the American push for an Israel-Saudi normalization deal. It has been right to hold out against this.
What these events show us once again is that it is the future of the Palestinians that lies at the heart of this conflict. As one Israel commentator remarked: “Israel will never be paradise if life in Gaza is hell.” Without resolving that issue in a fair and reasonable fashion, all the normalization deals in the world will not bring peace and security to Israelis and Palestinians.