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"Peace" for Gaza: Lessons from Israel’s “brutish” stand-off with Hamas

Cdr Abhijit Singh was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • November 26, 2012

    A cease fire has been called to the ongoing conflict in Gaza, after both Hamas and Israel gave their go-ahead to a peace plan proposed by Cairo, and facilitated, in small measure, by the good offices of the US President and Secretary of State. Tensions had flared up on November 14 after Israel assassinated a commander of Hamas’ military wing, apparently in response to rocket attacks in Southern Israel by Hamas cadres. An unrelenting Hamas continued with the firing of explosive projectiles, leading to retaliatory attacks from Israel killing over 140 Palestinians.

    Israel’s efficient defensive shield – the Iron Dome system – intercepted a majority of incoming Hamas missiles, keeping the number of casualties down to just five on its side of the border. But more than the physical harm caused in the crisis, it was the strain of dealing with the rising tide of public anger across the Middle East that rattled the leadership in Tel Aviv.

    There has been a series of demonstrations in many parts of the Islamic world to show solidarity with the Gazans. Hamas and its allies in the Middle East have accused Israel of arrogance, high-handedness and the use of disproportionate force in putting down the resistance in Gaza. Israel, in turn, charged Hamas with the indiscriminate firing of rockets into its territory. Both sides, no doubt, have a valid point of view, and a compelling account to present. But Israel, the stronger contender, has completely shut its eyes to the travails of the Palestinians. Gaza has, for a long time, been under a crippling economic blockade, with Israel stopping virtually all items of daily needs entering the Hamas controlled territory. Tel Aviv has not articulated any clear condition for the blockade to end, only resorting to more cruel and harsh methods of imposing its ban on the movement of goods.

    A frustrated Hamas responds to Israel’s excesses in Gaza in the only way it knows: by firing rockets into southern Israel - with the result that skirmishes with the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) flare up every now and then. In the second week of November, Hamas, in ritual fashion, fired rockets into Israeli territory. But on this occasion, Israel acted with disproportionate strength, also displaying an unusual impatience in launching retributive attacks. Why?

    The Perfect Alibi

    There is no denying that Israel has a reliable and plausible alibi – the rockets from Hamas controlled territory were causing death and destruction in cities and towns of southern Israel. Tel Aviv had no option but to launch retaliatory attacks. But there is more to the story than is readily apparent.

    A week before the attacks commenced, Israel’s foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman had complained of Mahmud Abbas’ “diplomatic terrorism” at the United Nations. He was referring to the Palestinian President’s efforts to table a proposal in the General Assembly for the grant of non-member status for Palestine. Given the fact that there has been a political mobilization of sorts against Israel’s unjustified attempts to continue with settlement building in the West bank, there was a fair chance of the proposal being supported by many countries. However, the grant of non-member status to Palestine is a “no-go” proposition for Israel, in view of the right it bestows upon the former to approach the International Court of Justice for violation of human rights – something Tel Aviv finds unpalatable.

    A Confrontation of Necessity

    There is also the “not-so-insignificant” fact to be considered that Prime Minister Netanyahu found himself on the wrong side of the US Presidential elections. Facing the prospect of dealing with a leader wholly unsupportive of Israel’s threat to attack Iran, Netanyahu needed a face-saving distraction. The Hamas’ rocket attacks presented him with one too tempting to resist. But if this appears like an ‘expedient’ geopolitical move on the part of Netanyahu, we may be mistaken. Israel’s driving consideration could have been its domestic political imperatives. Elections are due in February 2013 and the already popular Likud party could further strengthen its electoral prospects by getting into a fight with its chief antagonist - Hamas, who anyway does not recognize Israel’s right to exist.

    Also, an aggressive posture in Gaza, in a roundabout way, delegitimises Fateh – the moderate Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, who many see as the true representative of the Palestinian people. Israel’s conservative right has never been comfortable with the legitimacy Fateh enjoys. A scrap with Hamas in Gaza promised to undercut Fateh’s influence and relevance, playing perfectly into the Israeli right-wing narrative.

    Meanwhile, Hamas wasn’t backing away from the contest, milking the situation for all its worth. The Hamas’ imperatives for carrying on with the fight were equally compelling – the militant organization’s leadership has, for some time now, been facing a challenge from more radical groups within Gaza, who find its approach towards Israel rather ‘timid’. Despite its popularity, Hamas lives in perpetual fear that the radical right might highjack its ‘agenda’, and the goodwill of the masses.

    There is also the old Hamas-Fateh divide that continues to plague the Palestinian cause. While Hamas has been gaining in popularity in the West Bank, it is wary of Fateh’s more acceptable status and ‘legitimate’ tactics in solving the Palestinian problem. Now Mahmud Abbas stood on the verge of emerging a hero with a proposal for UN non-member status, sure to be ratified in some form at least. Hamas was doubtless aware that even partial recognition would have been seen as a success. Conceivably, the need to pre-empt Mahmud Abbas’ potentially ground-breaking initiative at the United Nations took over-riding precedence.

    Cairo's Balancing Act

    The situation was rendered more complex by the Arab Spring - the winds of change sweeping across the Middle East that have altered the political landscape of the larger region. The newly elected democratic governments in Tunisia and Egypt seemed to be supporting Hamas, which also had the backing of Qatar and Turkey. Paradoxically, each neighbouring state appeared keen to take the diplomatic high road by not fully backing Hamas’ extremist tactics. During the first four-way peace talks in Cairo, Qatar, Turkey and Tunisia all desisted from taking sides in the conflict. Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian President, in fact, expressed his strong disapproval of rocket attacks from Gaza into southern Israel, a stand backed by the Muslim Brotherhood.

    Cairo’s seeming neutrality isn’t exactly unexpected, given the nature of the political transition in Egypt. But it is nonetheless odd, because the Palestinian issue finds great resonance among the people of Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood, too, has advocated a ‘muscular’ approach in dealing with Israel, even going so far as to demand revoking the 1978 Camp David accords. In the end, the ‘aggravating’ consequences of full backing for Hamas seem to have outweighed the ‘propitious’ circumstances for taming Israel. The new leadership in Cairo, perhaps, realised it could neither support the continuing violence by Hamas nor repeal its peace treaty with Israel.

    A Limited Role for Regional Stakeholders

    The diminishing relevance of other Middle-Eastern states in the present crisis also bears analysis. Turkey, the most significant military power in the region, has had, for over two years now, strained relations with Israel. It openly criticizes Tel Aviv’s policies in Gaza. But Turkey is dealing with an implosion in Syria and a festering Kurdish problem in its north, leaving it in no position to influence events in Palestine.

    Syria, by itself, was never an ally of Israel. Yet, in Bashar-al-Assad, Tel Aviv had an associate who could influence the Hezbullah in Lebanon and keep the radical fringe in Syria under check. Now on the verge of collapse and facing the prospect of a civil war, Damascus finds its leverage severely constrained. The deteriorating security situation in Lebanon meant that the Hezbullah too could not offer to come to the aid of Hamas by opening a second front with Israel.

    Meanwhile, Jordon is facing a crisis of its own. Recent hikes in taxes on oil and gas have resulted in large-scale protests and the regime is apprehensive that its mostly Palestinian public could resort to violent means to express dissent. The Jordanian regime has its own chestnuts to pull out of the fire, and could not be expected to assist in resolving the crisis.

    Throughout the stand-off in Gaza, the Western media was agog with reports of a suspected Iranian hand in fanning the flames of conflict in the region. Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that the rockets used by Hamas were indeed supplied by Iran. But Iran has fast been losing influence in the Levant. There is little it could do substantively to shape the outcome of things in Gaza.

    A Pyrrhic War

    In the end, both sides appear to have wisely avoided a gruelling battle of attrition by opting for a tactical truce - not seemingly on account of a preference for peace but because of a pragmatic recognition of the futility of further conflict. Israel perhaps appreciated that if it pressed on with the offensive, it could well have won the immediate battle, but lost the strategic contest. A ground offensive would have exacerbated the already very tense situation and also turned the tide of public opinion against Tel Aviv. For Hamas, ‘peace’ may have been more about finding a ‘face-saver’ in a crisis that it had walked into by an embarrassing miscalculation of the adversary’s intent and resolve.

    The proposition for both sides to consider is the possibility that in the ‘battle of perceptions’, both may have ended up on the losing side. The real winners are Egypt and the United States, which have emerged as credible mediators with meaningful roles to play in keeping the calm in the region. While Hamas and Israel may both want to project the outcome as a victory for themselves, they will be aware of the high price the crisis has exacted. They may now treat this ‘pause’ to either reflect on the missteps of the past and make necessary corrections, or to use it to rearm and regroup (as is their wont). It will be truly ironical if the peace-plan that has brought the present conflict to an end is so misused that it renders the fissure between Israel and Palestine irredeemable.