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On The Gaza Ceasefire, And Its Aftermath

On The Gaza Ceasefire, And Its Aftermath

By Gordon Campbell

The carnage in Gaza has ended in a unilateral ceasefire. Israel has called a halt to its blitzkrieg because of the imminent Obama inauguration, and because the next military phase would have involved difficult street fighting in Gaza City, which could well have blunted the political advantage that the ruling Kadima Party hope to gain from its killing spree in Gaza, during the February 10 Israeli elections. Far easier to take the gains from attacking population centres – mainly by tank shelling and bombardment from the air - and withdraw. It has been ‘a heavenly victory,’ according to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

So far, the media coverage of the Gaza crisis has obligingly treated the Hamas rockets as the trigger point – without mention of (a) the assassinations of Hamas leaders by the Israelis or (b) the blockade of Gaza and the intolerable humanitarian conditions this has imposed on the civilian population, both of which are inextricably linked to the Hamas rocket campaign, ineffectual as it was. ( No Israelis were killed by Hamas rockets during the six months prior to the Israeli invasion.)

The ceasefire terms for opening the border crossing points and lifting the blockade remain unclear. Yet, judging by the Egyptian proposals, they seem to involve the Palestinians in Gaza being forced to accept the despised Fatah faction as the agents who will administer the border control points – this at least, seems a pre-condition that Egypt is demanding for re-opening the Rafah crossing lifeline between Egypt and the Gaza Strip.

A Palestinian ‘unity’ government that gives Fatah more power in Gaza will now, it seems, be imposed by force. It makes no difference that, as Israel’s compliant partner in the bogus ‘ peace’ process, the already dubious status of Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas has been totally undermined by the Israeli offensive. Nor does it seem to matter that Abbas’ term as leader of the Palestinian Authority expired early this month. As Israel’s glove puppet, Abbas is there to do its bidding, not to represent Palestinian opinion. Once again, Israel and the US seem to think that the Palestinians can be terrorized into accepting their political subordination, at barely human levels of subsistence.

After not uttering a word against the Israeli offensive, New Zealand has now sent a million dollars in conscience money, to help clean up the aftermath. It will be needed. Reportedly, Gaza now looks as though it has been hit by a major earthquake. The death toll tells its own story. Some 1,205 Palestinians killed, most of them civilians, and over 300 of them children. 5,000 people have been injured - many of them terribly, in a situation where hospital facilities were already grossly inadequate before the offensive began. There have been reliable reports of flesh melting phosphorus bombs being dropped by the Israelis on civilians, and of the use of carcinogenic depleted uranium shells.

Repeatedly, the Israelis hit UN schools being used as refuges, killing 42 refugees as reported here early in January, and again later .

And on the Israeli side ? It lost only three civilians killed among thirteen dead overall, and four of those soldiers were killed by Israeli friendly fire.

Hamas, as the only force willing to stand up for the population penned up on the West Bank and in Gaza, still enjoys wide support, among some reports of anger at Hamas for offering Israel the rocketfire excuse to launch the offensive. In the short to medium term, Hamas has suffered major setbacks. At least 120 of its fighters have been killed, along with a couple of its top commanders. The social services network of schools and health clinics built by Hamas in Gaza has been virtually destroyed. Much of the tunnel system along the Egypt/Gaza border through which Hamas and others have smuggled humanitarian and military supplies, has been extensively damaged.

Diplomatically, the offensive has also exposed the usual fault lines in the Middle East. Conservative forces – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority - have lined up against Hamas, while Iran and Syria have supported it. Egypt in particular, has viewed the Gaza situation - which it sees as entailing a radical Hamas armed by Iran, on its very doorstep - entirely through the lens of its own internal struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood. The Israeli – linked intelligence news service Stratfor, has summed up Hamas’ current diplomatic isolation in this succinct fashion :

With the majority of Arab regimes content to see Hamas contained, with Iran testing the waters for reopening negotiations with the incoming U.S. administration, and with Syria looking to revitalize peace talks with Israel, Hamas’ external support is becoming increasingly unreliable.

The liberal Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz similarly echoes this sense of Hamas’ strategic isolation :

The alliance of moderates - Egypt, Saudi Arabis, Jordan and the PA - leads the strategic line against Hamas. This pragmatic Arab camp knows that the real battle is being fought against Iran, which wishes to undermine stability in the Middle East and to weaken the moderate regimes. In this fight, Tehran does not intend to neglect its Palestinian project, even if it encountered the most serious threat to its existence in recent weeks.

All of the intelligence assessments in Israel point to the fact that Iran seeks to rearm Hamas with the rockets that it lost, and will aspire to widen their range so as to be able to hit Tel Aviv. Egypt, whose President Hosni Mubarak has already defined a Hamas state in Gaza as an Iranian satellite that has grown on its doorstep, has a considerable interest in preventing the group’s rearmament. Is Cairo's stated desire and the new Israel-U.S. agreement enough to curb the smuggling and prevent another escalation? Opinion in Israel is split, but this will be the key question in light of which the Gaza campaign's success will be determined.

This myopic focus – on crushing the military threat posed by Hamas while ignoring the systematic degradation of Palestinian living conditions that gives strength to Hamas - is unsustainable. Israel’s ongoing seizure and occupation of Palestinian land, and its refusal to allow for the most basic expressions of Palestinian political autonomy are only a recipe for further bloodshed. Since, on past experience, the blood spilled will mainly be Palestinian, Israel may well see that situation as acceptable. Plainly, the situation cannot continue to be framed in terms of accepting Israel’s right to exist, so long as Israel continues to behave unacceptably under international humanitarian law, and in the face of UN resolutions condemning its illegal occupation. Hamas has in fact, for a long time been giving signals – as much it can do, in thereby condoning an illegal occupation - of accepting Israel’s right to exist, as this article from 2006 indicates.

In reply, it has received nothing but assassinations of its leadership, and the bombing of the people it represents - and so the rockets have continued to fly.

It has been left to the likes of Turkey – hitherto an Israeli ally and the recent site of ‘secret Israel/Syria peace talks – to state the obvious. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has bitterly accused the West of a double standard by contrasting the condemnation of the Russian invasion of Georgia last August, and the relative silence over Gaza. Hamas, Erdogan pointed out, has been democratically elected by the people of Gaza but has never been shown not been the respect that its victory at the ballot box had merited.

He also warned that the situation in Gaza could take on a very different dimension if "Western countries" did not show appropriate sensitivity towards Hamas. "This political party Hamas won an election with nearly 75 percent of the vote,” he concluded. “The West, which has shown no respect for this embracing of democracy, is responsible for this situation."

Finally, as an index of what New Zealand could have said - and didn’t - it is worth considering the reaction of the small Scandinavian countries to the Israeli offensive. Here’s a summary from the Swedish English language newspaper, the Local.

For starters, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt condemned Israel’s initial escalations of the conflict as undermining diplomatic moves to bring about an early ceasefire.

The Israeli ground offensive is "basically an admission that (Tel Aviv's) air attacks over the past week have failed to achieve what they had hoped for," Bildt said in a statement…

"Instead of seeking a possible political solution after this failure they have now chosen to dramatically escalate the conflict with a ground offensive. It is obvious that this will make it harder to find a solution to this serious conflict," he added.

In a separate statement Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stare joined his Swedish colleague in condemning the attacks. Gahr said his country "vehemently distances itself from acts of war that lead to massive civilian suffering and requests that the (Israeli) troops are withdrawn immediately."

"Continued bombing of the densely populated Gaza Strip has now become a full-blown military ground operation that is afflicting a civilian population that cannot defend itself and cannot flee," he lamented.

While this was being forthrightly said, New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully was insisting that our country would not be taking sides. Pretty shameful. Sending a million dollars now to help clean-up the evidence of the crime is just not good enough, not when you’re still too timid to condemn the criminals.


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