Hagai Segal on ‘After Gaza’

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Conflict is over – maybe – but underlying causes remain as strong, and intractable, as ever A tense ceasefire has taken hold in Gaza, bringing to an end — for now anyway — the conflict that has been raging for three weeks. Almost as soon as the ‘lull’ of previous months between Israel and Hamas ended conflict had resumed, turning quickly into the largest military conflict seen in Gaza since the Six Day War.

Israel pounded Hamas and targets relating to the government it runs across the Strip and its troops reentered Gaza, all after Hamas resumed mass rocket firing, hitting Israeli cities it had not been able to reach before the ‘lull’ started — now Ashkelon and Beersheva and not just Sderot being hit, bringing a massive Israeli response that left over 1,300 Palestinians dead.

Unsurprisingly, the conflict has dominated the attentions of the globe, as conflict in the Middle-East always does — a leading story every day almost everywhere. During the three weeks of the fighting I was in the UK, Australia and India, and in each place the latest conflict between Israel and Hamas was plastered all over the front pages.

‘Right’ and ‘Wrong’

Fearing the press’s being used as a propaganda mechanism against Israel — as the PLO and Hezbollah did so well in previous Israeli wars in Lebanon — the media was restricted by Israel from entering the Strip, with reports from inside thus limited to those (like the BBC and al Jazeera) who have a small, permanent presence there. The restrictions did little to diminish outrage to Israel’s actions from many foreign quarters, activist and political, however, bringing a whole new dimension of media scrutiny of the events.

Value judgement is never far away when such attention focuses on Israel and the region, and again the reporting has been the subject of huge scrutiny from both sides, the likes of the BBC and CNN being attacked as biased by both! Indeed, moral value judgement of the actions of both Israel and Hamas has dominated much of the associated commentary, and some of this has made very uncomfortable reading for Israel and its supporters.

A fair and accurate moral analysis simply cannot be mathematical. Right and wrong can never be evaluated on the body count alone — but this of course does not really matter in the final analysis. Casualty counting, especially when civilians are killed, will always dominate considerations of the external viewer. For, whatever the justifications, the death of over 1,000 Palestinians and the destruction of 4,000 buildings was guaranteed to bring huge international condemnation down on Israel, increase anger and hatred towards Jews across the globe, and bring a whole new round of ‘Israel is to blame for all the problems in the world’ and ‘Israel is committing war crimes’ comment and editorial.

Who ‘won’ ?

Israelis have been far more interested in one other matter however — whether Israel won this particular war, after feeling it lost the last one.

The government is clearly very satisfied with the military’s performance, and across the country the sense that Israel has re-established its military mystique after the 2006 debacle has been strong. Labour leader and Defence Minister Ehud Barak has seen his popularity soar, Kadima have some military credentials back, and even Olmert has managed to (at least in part) rebuild his personal repute.

The truth however — and the most sobering and depressing aspect of the entire situation — is that no one won this war, because no one ever could. Israel’s offensive was never going to make a decisive contribution to the Hamas problem or to resolving the ongoing Israel-Palestinian conflict, and no one in Israel was labouring under any illusions to the contrary.

Even those in Israel who were behind planning and running the offensive know that after the dust settled Hamas would still be there, and that rockets will eventually again be fired at Israel.

They also know that the choice to hammer Hamas and to cripple its military and organisational facilities and structure will hurt its military capacity, but will also undoubtedly increase its support amongst the Palestinian population of Gaza, and probably the West Bank too. There is no better way to galvanise support around the government of an enemy than to go to war with it.

All this said, there is no doubt that Hamas claims of ‘victory’ — in stark contrast to Hezbollah’s claims in the war in 2006 — have a very hollow ring to them. Their organisational and command structure has been decimated, numerous key leaders in Gaza killed, and with their ‘resistance’ resulting in only a handful of Israeli soldiers being killed. And their numerous rocket attacks, terrifying for those at whom they are aimed, have caused limited physical damage and killed only a handful of Israelis.

The 2006 war is an important source for comparison, and proof of how things have changed since. Then Hezbollah attacked Israel in response to an Israeli offensive against Hamas, yet this time, with Israel’s offensive against Hamas far greater, Hezbollah has very noticeably stayed out of the fight.

Hezbollah may have been able to claim victory then, but the scale of the Israeli response then has ensured that they thought twice this time before attacking Israel. When taken together with how hard Israel has hit Hamas, and the drop in its funding from Iran due to the collapse in the price of oil, Hezbollah this time is behaving uncharacteristically timidly.

2006 and 2008/9 have both shown all too clearly to Islamists that when they attack, Israel attacks harder.

Arab anger, but not Arab unity

This point has been made in more than one quarter in the Arab world too. For while the notion of armed struggle may still appeal to many of the people — and when Israeli is seen as massacring Palestinians, the feeling of affinity with the Palestinians and hatred towards Israel is undoubtedly huge, with Arab leaders and the Arab intelligence having increasingly moved on.

The sentiment is probably best summed up by a piece by Youssef M. Ibrahim, former New York Times Middle East correspondent and Wall Street Journal Energy Editor, now a freelancer writing out of New York City and Dubai.

In it Ibrahim argued: “With Israel entering its fourth week of an incursion into Gaza … a sense of reality among Arabs is spreading through commentary by Arab pundits, letters to the editor, and political talk shows on Arabic language TV networks.”

And the sentiments being expressed?

“The war with Israel is over. You have lost. Surrender and negotiate to secure a future for your children … We, your Arab brothers, may say until we are blue in the face that we stand by you, but the wise among you and most of us know that we are moving on, away from the tired old idea of the Palestinian Arab cause and the ‘eternal struggle’ with Israel.

“Struggle means less land and more misery and utter loneliness … What kind of struggle is this? Is it worth waging at all?”

And his conclusion is stark, and all too clear — “We, your Arab brothers, have moved on … The war is over. Why not let a new future begin?”

And while such sentiments, of course, are hardly the most common viewpoint coming out of the Arab world, dig a little and it becomes very clear that some of them dominated Arab governmental responses to the conflict.

Arab fear of Hamas and its kind

As with the Israel-Hezbollah war, key Arab states — especially dominant regional actors, and relative pro- Western moderates, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia — have been determined not to allow the Islamists to galvanise Arab support around them.

Both have been active in ensuring that Arab statements and media reporting have not projected Hamas as fighting on behalf of all Arabs, and on the diplomatic front have frustrated attempts by other Arab states to take a stand in solidarity with the Islamist group. A Qatari attempt to convene a meeting of Arab Foreign Ministers for just the purpose met with Saudi and Egyptian opposition, resulting in open recognition of the division between Arab states on the matter.

Over the weekend Egypt and Saudi Arabia shunned the meeting in Doha — at which Qatar and Mauritania froze ties with Israel, and Syria pronounced the Saudi/Arab peace plan ‘dead’ — though today, after the conflict has ended of course, Reuters reports that “Arab leaders have patched up their differences … in a Saudi reconciliation bid on the sidelines of an Arab summit that had been marred by divisions”.

Yet, as AFP report, despite “the apparent reconciliation”, the Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Egyptian counterpart Hosni Mubarak “expressed contradictory stands” at the summit. Assad called on Arab leaders to brand Israel a terrorist state and urged Arab to “declare an unequivocal support for the Palestinian resistance”, while Mubarak was keen to emphasise that a peaceful settlement remained the only option. Indeed he spoke in favour of the very Arab peace plan Syria are calling ‘dead’. The related BBC website headline tonight simply reads: “Sharp divisions at Arab summit”. Some ‘reconciliation’!

Indeed, throughout the 3-week conflict, Egypt refused to open their border with Gaza, in their guise as conflict mediator, applying significant pressure upon Hamas to end rocket fire into Israel and end the fighting. So proactive have Egypt been in these regards, that many in the Arab world have accused them of taking Israel’s stance in the conflict, and of abandoning the average Gazan Palestinian.

The Fatah-PLO leadership, and in particular PA President Mahmood Abbas, has also guided a careful path, on one hand determined to condemn Israel and to be seen as speaking for the average Palestinian, but on the other equally determined not to allow his Hamas rival to grow or prosper from the conflict. He went so far, in the very first days of the conflict, as to blame the entire episode on Hamas due to their firing of rockets at Israel.

And now the conflict is over, these same Arab actors are mobilising to take a prominent role in the post-conflict debate, thus to dampen any capital Hamas may be able to take from the fighting. After years of only the sparsest financial support of the Palestinians, Saudi Arabia, for example, has suddenly offered an amazing $1 billion to help rebuild Gaza. It is a calculated move (a) to counter claims that the Arab world is doing nothing for the Palestinians and that only the armed factions are able to defend their rights, and (b) to stop Hamas sowing itself deeper into the social fabric in the conflict’s aftermath. For the moderates are all too aware of who will win and who will lose, if the Islamists start to be seen across the Arab world as the saviours of Palestine and of Arab pride and prestige.

“What’s happening in Gaza is dangerous on its own, but also dangerous in its implications,” said a Jordanian official, speaking on condition of anonymity to the New York Times. “Iran is interested in prolonging the violence, because that would help it to mobilise the Arab street and turn people here against their governments”. The Saudis want to fund the rebuilding of Gaza before Iran steps in and does so, as it has done in Lebanon since the 2006 war.

What now?

What transpires in the coming weeks and months may prove as vital as the events of the conflict itself.

Arab and Muslim anger has already spilled into Diaspora communities, with attacks on Jews and Jewish businesses taking place across the world, and in Europe in particular. Conflict in the Middle-East always results in a global increase in violence against Jews, and further such actions are to be expected.

More worrying though, is the spectre of more deadly ‘revenge’ — i.e. a terrorist attack on a ‘soft’ Jewish or Israeli target in the Diaspora by the likes of Hamas and its allies, or the long awaited attacks Hezbollah has been promising for the past year, which cannot be discounted either.

Most fundamentally, the fighting may not yet be over. Hamas’ ceasefire has only been declared for a week. If rocket attacks resume, as they very well might as Hamas tries to give the impression that it has emerged unscathed from the conflict, then Israel will respond, and respond hard. If this occurs the conflict, the killing and all that comes with it, will immediately return.

The underlying causes of the conflict remain as strong, and intractable, as ever, and so long as Hamas controls Gaza, while calling for and seeking Israel’s destruction, further conflict is inevitable. It is just a matter of sooner or later.

Peace thus takes a back seat, if in the short and medium term it has a seat at all.

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