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Gaza: What Does Israel Want?

K. P. Fabian retired from the Indian Foreign Service in 2000, when he was ambassador to Italy and PR to UN. His book Commonsense on War on Iraq was published in 2003.
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  • July 21, 2014

    As the global citizen was eagerly expecting the commencement of a cease-fire earlier announced to come into effect on July 18, the breaking news came that Israel had started a ground offensive. The US had publicly and deferentially cautioned Israel against a ground offensive. The stunning paradox of US-Israel relations is that the giver of military aid and diplomatic support has hardly any leverage over the recipient. In fact, Israel not only takes in the aid but also enjoys huge leverage over US policy in the region. Students of International Relations will find it difficult to see another example of this strange phenomenon. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in their well- researched book The Israeli Lobby and the US Foreign Policy (2006) demonstrated how the pro-Israel lobby works. Those who expected that with Obama as the President the lobby will lose at least a part of its influence have been decisively proved wrong.

    The current Operation Protective Edge started on July 8. To understand why this operation has been mounted one has to go back in time. A time line that starts with the abduction and killing of three Israeli boys in June or another which starts with rockets from Gaza hitting Israel on July 7/8 with Israel’s starting the operation in response misses the big picture.

    The Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement) won an election in Gaza in 2006 against its rival Fatah. The election was free and fair. Since US has stated repeatedly that it wants to see democracy take root in the region, it should have felicitated the Hamas on its victory and lent it support to strengthen democracy in the region. Instead, compelled by Israel, US, the EU, Canada and Japan declared that the Hamas was a terrorist organization. In other words, the Hamas became a terrorist organization in the eyes of US and others only after, and only because, it won an election.

    Israel’s argument is that the Hamas does not recognize Israel’s existence. That argument is, up to a point, technically correct. But, a moment of reflection will show that recognition is exchanged only between states and that since Israel has prevented the emergence of an independent Palestine, it has no right to expect recognition from the other side. Incidentally, Israel and the Hamas negotiated and come to agreements a number of times. In other words, the Hamas does recognize Israel in practice. More over, it is obvious that given the asymmetry in military might and the assured protection from US, Israel is in no danger for its existence.

    The Hamas government in Gaza was virtually strangled to death by Israel and its allies, including Egypt. Gaza is like a large prison for its 1.687 million population in an area of 360 sq. kms, bounded by Israel, Egypt, and the Mediterranean. Egypt under former President Mohammed Morsi partially opened the border with Egypt and after his fall in July 2003, practically closed it. Since 2007, Israel imposed a blockade after the Hamas took over the government.

    According to Oxfam, the blockade "has devastated Gaza's economy, left most people unable to leave Gaza, restricted people from essential services such as healthcare and education, and cut Palestinians off from each other…More than 40% of people in Gaza - nearly 50% of youth - are now unemployed and 80% of people receive international aid. Many key industries, such as the construction industry, have been decimated as essential materials are not allowed into Gaza. Exports are currently at less than 3% of their pre-blockade levels, with the transfer of agricultural produce and other goods to the West Bank and exports to Israel entirely banned.”

    The Hamas government in Gaza found itself bankrupt and could not even pay its employees. However, Israel overplayed its hand as eventually the Hamas government resigned, and Fatah and Hamas got together in April 2014, to Israel’s utter consternation. Since then Israel has been looking for an opportunity to destroy the Hamas. If Israel really wanted peace and security, it could have welcomed the reconciliation between the two Palestinian groups and engaged in serious negotiations with Fatah whose government does not include any one from the Hamas. But, Israel is not looking for a window of opportunity for a peaceful, negotiated resolution with the Palestinians and it rendered futile Secretary of State John Kerry’s hard work.

    The three Israeli boys kidnapped in June were found murdered on July 1. Israel asserted, without evidence, that the Hamas was responsible. Israel started arresting suspects, the Palestinians staged protests, and ten Palestinians were shot dead by Israeli Defence Forces. Hundreds were arrested, many of whom had nothing to do with the abduction and killing of the three boys. On July 7, the Hamas, reportedly, started sending rockets to Israel, much to its satisfaction, and Operation Protective Eagle started.

    Egypt was initially reluctant to get involved in brokering a cease-fire as it did not want to stop Israel’s attack on the Hamas, a branch of the Islamic Brotherhood in Egypt ,a ‘terrorist organization’ in the eyes of the government. At the same time, Egypt did not want to face embarrassment if somebody else brokers a cease-fire as that would have hurt Egypt’s prestige. The cease-fire that Egypt tried to work out half-heartedly did not take off as it did not address the basic issues the Hamas wanted addressed. The Security Council’s press statement (July 12) calling for a cease-fire without taking into account the causes of the conflict was predictably rejected by the Hamas and equally predictably accepted by Israel.

    Now that the dreaded ground offensive has begun, where or when will it end? Israel wants to remove all rockets and launching facilities from Gaza. It also wants to locate the tunnels it says are under construction and destroy them. Previous military operations to take out ‘the infrastructure of terror’ did not succeed. Most probably, Israel will yield to international pressure at some point of time after hundreds of death and causing significant destruction in Gaza. In the process Israel will be seriously damaging all prospects for a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians. But, this cannot be a matter of concern as Israel never wanted a settlement. All that it is prepared is to grant limited municipal autonomy to the Palestinians. That is precisely what it has done so far in the West Bank. As regards Gaza, Israel is prepared to grant such autonomy to a conveniently obedient Fatah. But, will Fatah cooperate with Israel?

    That Israel has responded with atrociously disproportionate force to the killing of three boys for which the responsibility of the Hamas has not yet been established is indisputable. At the same time, there has been hardly any condemnation of Israel’s response. There have been demonstrations of protest, but Israel can very well ignore them. But as the death toll mounts governments will be forced to urge Israel to stop. What is gained by waiting till hundreds more human beings are killed? There is no rational answer to this question, except to say that there is a deplorable deficit of leadership in the Western democracies and elsewhere.

    In retrospect, Israel withdrew its army of occupation in 2005.The Fatah government in the West Bank cold-shouldered the Hamas government in Gaza much to the satisfaction of Israel. A state of war has existed between the Hamas and Israel since the middle of 2007 at least. Over 1200 Palestinians were killed in the 2008-09 and Israel lost 13. Are we to wait for the death toll to mount before a cease-fire is effected?

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India