The tiny Gaza Strip, with its 1.5 million people crowded into 139 square miles, has been a tinderbox since Israel’s unilateral pullout in 2005.
Israel has maintained a punitive military and economic grip on Gaza, keeping the population in what is internationally condemned as a deepening humanitarian crisis. Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement) seized power there in 2007, and began its “resistance” policy of firing rockets into southern Israel. A tenuous six-month ceasefire ended in early December despite reported behind-the-scenes initiatives to extend it, and now we have the horrible spectacle of a massive aerial bombardment of this densely populated strip by Israel, with the civilian toll mounting daily (currently nearly 500 Gazans dead and approaching 2,000 wounded, including children). Hamas has continued rocket attacks on Israel, killing 4 Israelis as of this week, and is threatening suicide bombings and other attacks in Israel.
Israel says its assault is a defensive operation, yet also says it intends to physically wipe out the Hamas leadership. Other objectives appear to be to intimidate the Palestinian people, further weaken Palestinian civil society and promote disunity, and reassert Israeli power.
There is growing international condemnation of Israel’s disproportionate use of force and collective punishment of Gaza’s civilian population, both violations of the Geneva Conventions.
It’s possible a temporary truce may emerge in the next few days, but, more than ever, the underlying issues will at long last have to be resolved. And the incoming Obama administration will have the challenge, and the opportunity, to lead the way to peace.
Who benefits from the crisis that has erupted in Gaza?
The election of Barack Obama brought with it the real possibility for a just solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict based on two states, as long ago envisioned by the United Nations.
During his campaign Obama told Jewish leaders on a number of occasions that his support for Israel did not mean he would support the policies of Israel’s Likud Party. This was a courageous stand by Obama, but it also reflected the growing awareness in influential U.S. circles that a peaceful two-state solution is in U.S. interests, including the long-term global interests of U.S. capitalism, not to mention the interests of the Israeli and Palestinian people.
When he announced his naming of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state and other top national security appointments, Obama singled out a lasting solution for Israel and the Palestinians as one of his four top foreign policy priorities.
Many believe the current military explosion in Gaza seeks to take advantage of the post-election/pre-inauguration leadership vacuum in Washington and the Bush administration’s knee-jerk green-lighting of Israeli military confrontation. Some see it as a challenge to Obama, and an effort to stymie his peace efforts. The Gaza crisis, rather than advancing peace, has the potential to strengthen military extremism in Israel, among the Palestinians, and in the region.
Not everyone wants a political solution
Reactionary forces in Israel, like the fanatical settlers who attacked Palestinians in the West Bank city of Hebron recently, don’t want a political settlement of the conflict. The Israeli far right rejects Palestinian statehood and even the state of Israel within the UN-recognized pre-1967 borders, claiming the entire West Bank as part of “the land of Israel.” Other right and center forces in Israel, while in some cases giving lip service to a two-state solution, want to hold onto as much of the occupied West Bank as possible.
Noted Israeli historian Avi Shlaim wrote last May, “Sixty years on, Israel is not fighting for its security or survival but to retain some of the territories it conquered in the course of the war of June 1967.”
The real purpose of Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 (snubbing negotiations with the Palestinian leadership), Shlaim wrote, was not peace, but to concentrate on unilaterally redrawing the borders of “greater Israel” by incorporating Jerusalem and key settlement blocs in the West Bank. “Anchored in a fundamental rejection of the Palestinian national identity, the withdrawal from Gaza was part of a long-term Likud effort to deny the Palestinian people an independent political existence on their land.” Since then, Israel, with the help of provocations by Hamas, has continued to use Gaza as a lever to disrupt the overall peace process.
Regional power struggle/failed Cold War strategy
Reactionary Islamic and Arab elements don’t want a political settlement either. For them, and thus for the rest of us, this crisis is part of a regional power struggle with global ramifications.
Continuing a centuries-old struggle for dominance in the region, Iran’s reactionary Islamist regime is contesting for power against the reactionary regimes of Saudi Arabia and Egypt. All of them have used the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the suppression of Palestinian national aspirations as an opportunity to claim the mantle of leadership by wielding militant anti-imperialist and/or Arab nationalist rhetoric, while suppressing their own democratic and working class movements.
The rise of extremist Islamic movements is due in large part to the bloody repression and even extermination of communist, left, working class and other democratic currents in all these countries (as in others such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and Indonesia), promoted and abetted by the U.S. as part of its global Cold War strategy.
The U.S. Cold War strategy also included using Israel armed to the teeth as a beachhead in the region, encouraging and supporting Israeli militarists. Israeli government policy, dominated by this approach, has long been to undermine the PLO, in which secular left and democratic forces have played an important role. It is widely known that Israel aided and abetted the formation of Hamas in the early 1980s as a counterweight to the PLO and the secular left/progressive trend within it. Ironically, it is the Palestinian communists and their Israeli counterparts who stood alone in supporting the two-state solution when it was adopted by the United Nations in 1947. Thus Israeli government policy, carrying out the U.S. Cold War policy, has helped created today’s crisis.
Seeing the real or potential threats to their power from extremist Islamic groups their policies helped to create, the Saudis and other reactionary Arab rulers are caught in something of a dilemma. Their alliance with the U.S. became problematic for them following the disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has turned from an opportunity to a major problem for them. At the same time Iran’s Ahmadinejad regime is widely seen as backing Hamas as well as Lebanon’s Hezbollah as part of its project to assume regional dominance by claiming the mantle of “resistance” to imperialism.
Meanwhile, the Israeli right and center forces are in their own crisis. Many commentators tie the current assault on Gaza to the power struggle leading up to Israel’s February elections. As in the U.S., Israeli politicians feel they have to show they are “tough” on national security, and that has translated into aggressive military action. But many Israelis and others warn that, as in the Israeli “defensive” attack on Lebanon in 2006, there will be no good outcome. Many fear the Gaza offensive will only lead to a February election victory by the right-wing Likud Party led by Benjamin Netanyahu, which would further impede the prospects for peace.
Militarism a dead end
Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab made relevant points in a Dec. 30 Washington Post op ed:
“For different reasons, Hamas and Israel both gave up on the cease-fire, preferring instead to climb over corpses to reach their political goals. One side wants to resuscitate its public support by appearing to be a heroic resister, while the other, on the eve of elections, wants to show toughness to a public unhappy with the nuisance of the Qassam rockets.
“The disproportionate and heavy-handed Israeli attacks on Gaza have been a bonanza for Hamas,” Kuttab wrote. “The movement has renewed its standing in the Arab world, secured international favor further afield and succeeded in scuttling indirect Israeli-Syrian talks and direct Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.”
He concluded, “By choosing the waning days of the Bush administration to attack Gaza, the Israelis knew they would face no opposition from the leader of the so-called war on terrorism. Just as George W. Bush’s misadventure in Iraq played into the hands of radicals and terrorists, this Israeli action will produce nothing less than that in Palestine. Let us hope that the Obama administration will see the consequences of what is not only a crime of war but also a move whose results are exactly the opposite of its publicly proclaimed purposes.”
Gershon Shafir, an Israeli sociologist who directs the Institute for International, Comparative, and Area Studies at the University of California in San Diego, writes: “At a strategic level, Hamas is not interested in political alternatives to armed confrontation. But whether one wants to call the Hamas strategy resistance or terrorism, the lack of a serious political plan to accompany military strategies is always counterproductive, as it is has been for Hamas and for the people of Gaza.
“It will be equally counterproductive for Israel. It appears that Israeli political leaders and military planners labor under the illusion that there is a military ‘solution’ to Hamas. The extended military operation in Gaza is expected to serve as a pedagogical tool for moderating or eliminating Hamas. But this will not work, and the idea that a ground invasion of Gaza could actually eliminate Hamas as a force in Palestinian politics is delusional. The Israeli approach is every bit as driven by militarism as Hamas’ strategy is. Beyond a certain point, it can serve no realistic political goals.”
Challenge and opportunity
For the Obama administration to finally achieve the much-needed peaceful solution not only for Gaza but for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it will have to break with the disastrous Cold War policies of the past. This means serious diplomacy that promotes the realist, peace-inclined forces in Israel who realize that peace is in their interests, and, on the Palestinian side, furthers rather than hinders re-establishment of unity and advancement of a more realist, peace-oriented approach. It means promoting the realist, peace-oriented forces in U.S. politics as well. It means diplomacy with Iran that recognizes its legitimate role as an important country in the region. It means political, economic and social foreign policies that promote mutual de-nuclearization and demilitarization, labor rights, grassroots economic and social development and culture, and real democracy — not the phony kind trumpeted by Bush and his ilk.
Susan Webb (suewebb @ pww.org) is associate editor of the People’s Weekly World.