image of jerusalem 2013

Gaza was Aflame: But What Now?
My soul cries alas for thee, O my land, With a sigh like the blaze of a conflagration, My soul cries alas for thee, O mine of excellences, With a sigh, That makes me bite my thumb - Ibn al-Rumi, 896 CE

25 January   |   2009   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

I felt sorry for the man - not angry, indifferent or even perplexed, but genuinely sorry. Here was the omnipresent and eloquent Saeb Erekat, Palestinian chief negotiator, facing Zeinab Badawi on the BBC-WS HARDtalk interview on 13th January and striving to explain the position of the Palestinian Authority over Gaza. Mr Erekat was hammering home to global viewers his message that an immediate cessation of hostilities was paramount so that a ‘consensual Palestinian government’ could be cobbled together that would lead toward parallel presidential and legislative elections. In the face of an unravelling Palestinian scenario, this veteran politician referred repeatedly to the rather anachronistic American-brokered Agreement on Movement and Access (AMA) of 2005, which called for Palestinian Authority security forces - and for European observers in the case of Rafah on the Egyptian border - to be stationed on the Palestinian side.

I felt sorry for Mr Erekat because he - and the Palestinian Authority - are in a veritable pickle these days, and many of us watching his rather unhappy interview were aware of a deep gulf as much as a sense of disconnect - I hesitate to use harsher words - between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Here are two movements that deem to embody the legitimacy of the struggle and aspire to liberate Palestine and restore the dignity of its people. Yet, they have both sadly become the deliberate perpetrators, or at least hapless vessels, of exogenous re-alignments and external power-plays - regional as well as international - that have led them toward a confrontation meant to define the future contours of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This interview sounded almost an attempt at self- justification and also self-presence.

The Gaza Strip was targeted by Israeli attacks for twenty-two days. Indeed, the onslaught had been so fierce, and also quite indiscriminate at times, that the UN described the situation in Gaza as a ‘living hell’. It called repeatedly for an immediate ceasefire in accordance with UNSCR 1860 (2009), and the UNRWA chief in Jerusalem also requested an investigation into the possibility that Israel had committed war crimes by bombing civilian targets collectively with chemicals in contravention of Article 3 of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949. In fact, an investigation by hard-hitting C4 journalists this week revealed a high likelihood that the alleged use by Israel of weapons of war such as white phosphorous, flechettes and dime (fragmentation) bombs in civilian areas violated international humanitarian law. An editorial in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz by Amira Hass on 17th January entitled Is Israel using illegal weapons in its offensive on Gaza? shed further light on the use of illegal munitions by the IDF, and a statement dated 11th January in the British Sunday Times by a host of eminent international lawyers concluded unequivocally that “[] the manner and scale of [Israeli] operations in Gaza amount to an act of aggression and is contrary to international law, notwithstanding the rocket attacks by Hamas.” There are moves afoot by lawyers’ associations and human rights’ groups worldwide to take Israel to the International Criminal Court (to which Israel [like the USA] is not a signatory) on charges of war crimes or crimes against humanity, or else to seise courts in countries such as Belgium that enjoy universal jurisdiction and extra-territorial competence. Sensing the real danger of such prosecutions, PM Ehud Olmert today promised full state backing to any Israeli soldier accused of war crimes in Gaza.

Let us draw back one step by recalling that Israel had invoked the right of self-defence under Article 51 of the UN Charter in its war on Gaza. However, a whole body of jurisprudence would suggest that this right of self-defence cannot apply in this particular instance. As many learned lawyers have also opined already, the ICJ stated in the Nicaragua case that a distinction can be made between the scale and effects of a particular military operation when classifying it as an ‘armed attack’ or a mere ‘frontier incident’. An armed attack carried out by “armed bands, groups, irregulars or mercenaries”, the Court added, would have to be “of such gravity as to amount to an actual armed attack conducted by regular forces.” Lawyers might recall that the ICJ jurisprudence in the Nicaragua case was later upheld in the Oil Platforms where it was added that one ought to distinguish “the gravest forms of the use of force from other less grave forms” in ascertaining whether an armed attack had taken place. Finally, in its Nuclear Weapons Advisory Opinion, the ICJ also stipulated that any use of force in self-defence to repel an armed attack must be necessary, proportionate, and in conformity with international humanitarian law.

Today, the death count stands at over 1300 (including 410 children and 104 women), the injured at over 5300, and that the colossal damage to the Palestinian Gazan infrastructure includes 4000 dwelling houses that were destroyed completely. Some estimates put the cost of reconstruction projects alone at about US$2 billion. As Avi Shlaim, Oxford professor of international relations, opined in The Guardian as early as 7th January, could it be that Israel has been turning Palestinians into the hewers of wood and the drawers of water, into a source of cheap labour and a captive market for Israeli goods? In fact, is this a conflict between David and Goliath where the biblical image has been ironically upturned so that a small and largely defenceless Palestinian David faced a heavily armed, merciless and overbearing Israeli Goliath? The figures speak for themselves: in the three years after the withdrawal from Gaza, 11 Israelis were killed by rocket fire. On the other hand, in 2005-7 alone, the IDF killed 1290 Palestinians, including 222 children. Add the fatalities and casualties of the recent war, could this be an unfortunate application of the Hebrew saying of bokhim ve-yorim - translated as “crying and shooting”?

So where are we in this imbroglio in terms of the different parties affected by this war?

  • Palestinians are at loggerheads, and the Palestinian national dream for statehood is in tatters. One needed only to listen to the veiled - and not so veiled - speeches by Osam Hamdan, Hamas representative in Lebanon, or by Khaled Mash’al, its political chief in Damascus, to realise that the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are disjointed radically. One party and its president are perceived by some of being quislings, whilst the other side is perceived by some others of being an Islamist-nationalist resistance wedded to armed struggle that wreaks havoc upon the Palestinian cause and violence upon the world. Two paradoxically contrasting political philosophies, one supposedly focusing on the olive branch and the other on the gun, and both ignoring the middle-ground that could challenge the Israeli occupation rather than quash Palestinian aspirations. Steeped as they are in a bitter battle for dominance, will they retrieve any notion of unity of purpose, and in the process rise from the ashes of self-immolation toward Palestinian statehood within a two-state solution? Will they heed to their own grassroots? Is it possible that the latest Yemeni initiative, not unlike its Egyptian equivalent in many ways, could achieve this necessary fusion of political minds?
  • Israel had shown a surprisingly unique moment of near-total solidarity amongst its own Jewish population, whereby a majority - regardless of their political hues - supported the war against Gaza. Whether for reasons to do with the Knesset parliamentary elections next month, or else for security considerations, the troika in Israel waged a mad war against Hamas, so much so in fact that both sides used metaphors about madness to describe the war in terms useful to their own constituencies. Palestinians called it el harb el-majnouna (to underline its ferocity and therefore garner international sympathy and support). Conversely, Israelis called it baal habayit hishtageya (to frighten Palestinians by the single-mindedness of the Israeli warfare). However, a bit like the Lebanese experience with Hizbullah in 2006, this war did not yield the long-term dividends Israel had promised its people and some of them have started asking awkward questions. Moreover, the Arab Israelis constituting roughly 20% of the overall population in Israel came out strongly against this war, as did numerous protestors across the four corners of the world.
  • The outgoing US Administration revealed one final time its true colours during this latest crisis and the perils of relying on its goodwill to broker an impartial agreement. Indeed, most people, save a majority of Israelis and Cheney-like neo-ideological clones, would agree that President Bush was a political misfortune for the Middle East. Conversely, having watched President Obama’s inauguration in Washington DC, I am equally aware that many people are pinning huge hopes on this centrist orator. Yet, a look at the appointments of his Administration - or at his own sparse pronouncements to date - does not inspire too much confidence either. As I wrote last year, I believe Washington DC will remain locked into a pro-Israel lobby of hardcore politics albeit with subtle and noticeable differences in its nuances and approaches. Perhaps the appointment of the Lebanese American former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell as his Middle Eastern envoy would inject some forward momentum into a moribund process. After all, Mitchell nurtured the Good Friday Accords in Northern Ireland, and I would suggest that his appointment could well lead up toward an inclusion of Hamas in the political discourse. But let us be cautious with our expectations from the incoming president. After all, Rami Khouri got it spot-on when he reminded readers in his Israel’s Siege of Washington that the House of Representatives voted by 390-5 for a resolution that completely backed Israel in its onslaught against Gaza, specifically affirming “Israel's right to defend itself against attacks from Gaza”. A day earlier, the Senate had also overwhelmingly supported Israel and its right to defend itself against terrorism. So I fear that Obama will inherit this reality today, and it remains to be seen whether he could get rid of the manacles that hamper any American president from doing anything other than indulging Israeli policies.
  • The Arab World had been in shambles too, as the straight-talking Amr Moussa, Secretary-General of the Arab League, expressed in his own raw assessment of Arab realities. The agonising splits at three earlier summits - Riyadh, Doha and Sharm el-Sheikh - demonstrated the naked truth of Arab governmental turgid dissonance, splintering and loss of human sovereignty in the face of overwhelming popular anger. Labelled crudely and simplistically as ‘moderates’ or ‘radicals’, almost overtaken by Iran and Turkey let alone steered by larger global interests, Arab solidarity has proven painfully scarce, and it is a matter of time before the realities of this decline become unstoppable. Let me share with you one example. A bilateral agreement was signed between the USA and Israel only one day before the expiry of US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s mandate at the State Department. The agreement dealt with security arrangements related to arms smuggling into Gaza on the Egyptian border. One would have expected Egypt to be an involved, or at the very least an informed, party. Yet this was not forthcoming, and one wonders if this is a newer form of colonialism with masters and puppets balancing their external relations ever so blatantly? In the midst of such Arab inertia, though, there were attempts at reconciliation between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Qatar at the Kuwait economic summit. Although they succeeded somewhat on the personal level, the underwhelming Final Statement of the Kuwait Summit implied less success on the political level.
  • To date, the European Union has been the financial banker par excellence of this conflict, and an otiose Quartet has seemingly fulfilled no better role than that of an understudy for other political actors. However, whether one talks about the effective UNIFIL multi-European presence in South Lebanon, or of the potential monitors on the Israeli-Palestinian or Egyptian borders, there are signs of hope that the EU could at long last be picking up the political gauntlet to assume a leadership role in this conflict - especially in view of the fact that the USA is busy with its economic woes and foreign wars. The Czech presidency - should it manage to surmount the internal ructions between president and prime minister - might help the EU carve a role for itself. However, a note of caution: the veteran Egyptian thinker and writer Mohammed H Heykal has serious misgivings about any enhancement with the EU and Tony Blair, its Quartet envoy. He views it as an encroachment upon Arab interests, and many Arabs and Middle Eastern pundits share this same concern. The EU has to prove its integrity, impartiality and independence.

However, all those fundamental structural weaknesses should not obviate the fact that Israel has almost vengefully tried to pummel a whole people into submission and in the process acted out its cumulative frustrations from both the Lebanese and Palestinian fronts. In an article, How many Divisions?, by Uri Avnery on 15th January, the Israeli Jewish “peacenik” thinker used the shelling of the UN Fakhura School in the Jabaliya refugee camp to interpret the real aim of his government’s military onslaught in Gaza and censure their assumptions. He opined that turning life into living hell does not cause the Palestinian population to rise up against Hamas, but on the contrary, it unites them behind this movement and reinforces their determination against surrender. He wryly reminded his readers that the population of Leningrad did not rise against Stalin, any more than the Londoners rose up against Churchill during the Blitz. Nor for that matter did the Shi’i Lebanese come out against Hizbullah despite the battering it sustained in 2006.

Indeed, going back a couple of years, how come that Hamas, as a resistance movement, maintained its popular base and in the process defeated the PLO faction in the legislative elections of 2006? I do not believe that this is singly due to their welfare social, educational or medical services or even to the allegations of corruption against the Palestinian Authority at the time. Rather, it is due also to the fact that a majority of Palestinians had concluded that the peaceful steps pursued by Fateh as a strategic choice gained no reward in return from Israel. In those rocket-free and calm periods, was there an Israeli freezing of settlements, a release of prisoners or any significant steps toward ending the occupation, halting the wall and facilitating the creation of a viable Palestinian state? In fact, and as far back as the Oslo process a decade ago, have there been significant advances toward statehood? Israel has not undertaken a single bold move toward peace during those sought-out calm periods. So let me add here that the relocation from Gaza was not done for the sake of peace, but that it was a shrewd calculation by the then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to get rid of a messy strip that was hindering Israeli security. Indeed, many international law practitioners still consider Gaza de lege an occupied territory. Sadly, it seems any promise for progress has only come when Palestinians have galvanised their resistance, even with ineffective arms, or when they have hurt the enemy [Israel] whilst also hurting themselves immeasurably. Yet, once the arms have been silenced, the promises for peace have also been forgotten again and ever-renewing pre-conditions have been placed on the table of negotiations.

About a week ago, as the Israeli cabinet decided to declare a unilateral ceasefire, Hamas was still standing, albeit bloodied, but nonetheless unvanquished, in face of a mighty Israeli military machine. Besides, irate Arabs and Muslims on all the streets consider the result as a victory of mind over matter - as they did with the Hizbullah experience of 2006.

So what is Israel, aided and abetted by the USA and a number of other states, attempting to achieve here? Is it trying, as outgoing PM Ehud Olmert mentioned, to pave the way for President Abbas to return to Gaza once Hamas has been tamed into defeat? This is highly contentious, let alone unlikely, as President Abbas cannot afford to return to Gaza in what would be viewed by millions as a courtesy of Israel. Is there then a project to return the administration of Gaza to Egypt and that of parts of the West Bank to Jordan as a way of by-passing the Palestinians in a future settlement? This too is highly unlikely let alone hugely dangerous since it will be resisted tooth and nail by the Palestinians and lead to more intra-Arab feuds. In fact, I suggest that President Moubarak’s refusal to open the crossings permanently is due in part to his intended reluctance to co-opt the Gazan Palestinian case entirely as his own.

Last week, HRH Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan argued the case for an international agency to run the territories. This idea has been mooted in different formats already, not least by Martin Indyk, Director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, in his article entitled A Trusteeship for Palestine in Foreign Affairs (May / June 2003). I somehow doubt that this system, or an international agency for that matter, would suit the Palestinian hopes as it alienates them further from the possibility of statehood. In a sense, His Royal Highness put his own finger on the counter argument when he concluded his article by asserting that “our mutual contiguity demands a final definition of frontiers, while a long-term sustainable peace depends on recognition of interdependent sovereignties across the entire region.”

Another challenging in-depth analysis of two parallel scenarios that stare Israel in the face was provided on 15th January by Leap / E2020 of the Newropeans movement that will field candidates in the June 2009 European parliamentary elections. In its densely-argued treatise, it provided two scenarios for the future: the end of the State of Israel that would result in simple Jewish communities in a Muslim Middle East, or alternatively a durable Israeli state that is a partner of the Arab World in the process of regional integration. The conclusion favoured the scenario for a durable Israeli state so long as it undertook the necessary steps to ensure its survival and prosperity within the region. In a nutshell, I would add that the consequences of the two scenarios would ipso facto mark the stark difference between one-state and two-state solutions.

Essentially, despite the episodic barbarity of Palestinian factions against each other as well as intimidation by brutal force, including the alleged harassment of non-Hamas partisans in Gaza, let me recap that the central issue here remains a long occupation that needs to be ended, but this can only happen when Israel disabuses itself of the testosterone-driven notion that its military prowess will single-handedly cow Palestinians and Arabs into submission. This is no longer the warfare of the 21st century, and it is high time we all come to grips with the need to adapt to new geo-strategic realities. Israel cannot continue with its policies of pretending to want peace, talking the talk all the time, but simply not walking the walk. I would like to hear of one serious Israeli concession that drove peace with Palestinians forward. The Israeli strategic aim has been to rid itself of the Palestinian demography whilst retaining its geography (with strategic depths and resources). In other words, there is no real desire for peace, but one for stalling peace until the creation of a Palestinian state becomes a physical impossibility. So unless the Arab World stops fumbling around with irrelevant agreements that are not worth the paper they are written on, and exerts instead the moral and economic-financial pressures necessary to force Israel to accept a meaningful change in attitude and adopt the still-unexpired Arab Initiative of 2002 that ensures a viable, contiguous and sovereign Palestinian state, I cannot foresee any hope for an independent and peaceful two-state solution anymore.

At the Sharm el-Sheikh summit meeting, Egyptian President Husni Moubarak, Jordanian King Abdullah II and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa exhorted the need to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2009. This is commendable, especially with the unilateral ceasefire by Israel and the responsive truce by Hamas. However, this lull will translate into another stillborn idea if the core issues are not addressed urgently - starting ab initio with a necessary deal on rockets and tunnels that would also focus on the immediate need to open the crossings into Gaza. Life must be re-injected into the strip to help its residents re-discover their human freedoms. If this does not happen as part of a multilateral deal, it will not last long and the world community will face another war. I worry because the previous pattern of interventions and mediations indicates that promises - usually in the form of financial pledges - made during the heat of the moment are quickly forgotten once there is some peace and quiet. Israelis and Palestinians deserve better: this is a duty, not an option, a need, not a luxury.

Let me highlight the sorrowful story of Dr Izzeddin Abul’aish from the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza. A widower and medical doctor, he was devoted to reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis, working at the Chaim Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer where he researched with Professor Tammie Ronen on the effects of conflict-related stress on Palestinian and Israeli children in Gaza and Sderot and helped build bridges between Israelis and Palestinians.

Roughly two weeks ago, three of his eight daughters - Bisan, Mayar and Aya - and one niece - Nur - were killed by Israeli fire. Another daughter - Shada - is being treated for her wounds in hospital. The Israeli army spokesperson claimed the soldiers were returning fire in the direction of areas from which they had been fired upon. My readers can watch Dr Abul’aish’s conversation with an Israeli journalist on You Tube and decide whether this man and his family were also diehard terrorists who should have died in this traumatic war against Gaza. Indeed, the moral of this story is also the centrepiece of my thesis today as it calls upon us to labour for a settlement that comes closer to a real - not virtual - roadmap.

At the Day of Solidarity for Gaza in Beirut yesterday, PM Fouad Saniora asked wryly whether the problem in Gaza was solved by the 22-day war, whether the will of the Palestinian people was eradicated by it, and whether there was any progress toward a settlement. He concluded that Israel did not learn lessons from the past that violence begets more violence. At five minutes to midnight, I invite my readers today to mull over a simple question: Gaza was set aflame, but what now?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2009   |   25 January


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