At least 12 Palestinians have been killed in IDF military attacks on Gaza in the past two days. At least 10 Qasam rockets have been fired into bordering Israeli towns with no fatalities so far. The IDF is now operating inside northern Gaza with dozens of tanks on the outskirts of Beit Hanun. For more details, see this piece.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has warned that “we are moving closer to a major operation in Gaza.” The military correspondents on Israeli TV suggest that a full scale ground incursion is a matter of when, not if. One senior Hamas leader, Nizar Rayyan, is quoted as responding “50,000 fighters and 400 would-be suicide bombers await the invasion.”
Israeli-Palestinian relations were on everybody’s lips in the corridors of the UN General Assembly meetings this week, where I had the opportunity to visit with senior officials from various parties. But the Gaza-Hamas reality was the elephant in the room, nobody wanted to talk about it. The chatter in New York was of preparations for the November Peace Summit. This disconnect is not only astonishing and irresponsible; it is also dangerous.
Of course, there is an element of psychological warfare and testing of limits in part of the IDF and Hamas maneuvering and threats right now. However, the danger of escalation intended or unintended is very real and even the situation as it is produces a terrible scale of human suffering.
The Israeli military and settlements were withdrawn from Gaza in the summer of 2005, but the external envelope remained under Israeli control. Under international law Israel is still considered to have the responsibilities of an occupying power. Following June 10th and the Hamas seizure of power in Gaza, an already dire reality lurched further toward crisis. Rocket fire from Gaza into Israel and IDF actions in the opposite direction have become a constant feature of the landscape. On September 19, the Israeli cabinet declared Gaza a hostile entity. The government took the decision in principle to respond to rocket fire by restricting electricity and other vital utilities to the entire Gazan population. This would further exacerbate an already desperate predicament in which access to and from Gaza for basic supplies and people is at a bare minimum. Eighty-five percent of manufacturing businesses are not operating and 70,000 Gazans have been laid off since the Hamas takeover.
The Israeli government decision may have been an attempt to placate political and media pressure and avoid a full invasion, nonetheless it remains a myopic approach. The UN Secretary General, EU, and Arab leaders have protested the siege being imposed on Gaza (and most have also called for an end to rocket attacks). The US administration has declared its commitment to helping the civilian population in Gaza, but there is precious little evidence that it is backing up these words with action. PA President Abbas, who has not been in Gaza in 3 months, is no fan of the new regime there (yes, that is a huge understatement). But he cannot sit idly by and be blamed for complicity in the suffering of the Palestinian population, he called for an end to the “massacre” being carried out.
The internal Palestinian confrontation, Hamas vs. Fatah, Gaza vs. West Bank, is an ugly spectacle to behold. A disaster for the Palestinians and far from being the glorious opportunity that many Americans and Israelis smuggly depict it as being.
Is there a winner in the siege policy being enacted against Gaza? Some claim that the punishment being meted out on the Gaza Strip residents will lead them to turn against and throw off the Hamas regime. Others contend that under the circumstances prevalent in Gaza, the population will likely further turn to religious escapism and blame its obvious adversaries in Israel and the West. Calibrating the effects of collective punishment is not an exact science. It is though, an utterly vile way to treat human beings.
Three things we can be sure of: (1) innocent people suffer on both sides and violence continues, (2) what takes weeks to destroy can take years to rebuild, especially as social and economic systems breakdown in the Gaza Strip, and (3) these circumstances produce the most fertile ground for Al Qaeda to take root.
A bifurcated failed pre-state of Palestine is the likely product.
Key Hamas figures held out the prospect of an immediate ceasefire, or tahadiya, last week, including in an interview by Ismail Haniyeh's adviser Ahmed Yousef on Israel TV. In a shift from its earlier position, Hamas appears to be willing to accept a ceasefire between Gaza and Israel that does not include the West Bank. It would not be unreasonable to interpret this offer as being in part a response to Israeli pressure on Hamas. It is also indicative that within Hamas, the wing that advocated political participation has been weakened and is trying to regain the initiative. A knee-jerk Israeli response might argue: if the pressure is working, why call a hault? Push on. But to what end? There is no military solution. At best, military leverage can create a political opening, and that seems to be the case right now.
In fact, the IDF has been conducting a dialogue of sorts with Gaza. While most of that interaction deploys tools of violence, part of it has been about allowing controlled minimal entry of supplies to the Strip. It would be reasonable to conjecture that the IDF has a certain degree of respect for its adversary in Gaza that does not exist in its dealings with Ramallah. In a timely intervention a list of Israel's most respected cultural figures issued a declaration just last week calling for ceasefire negotiations with Hamas alongside peace negotiations with Abbas. Signatories included David Grossman, Amos Oz, Yehudit Katzir and A.B. Yehoshua.
What might a ceasefire arrangement include? All hostile actions by any armed faction directed at Israel from Gaza would not only be halted but also actively prevented by the Hamas affiliated security forces. Israel would put an end to all IDF military operations targeting Gaza, and would begin a gradual and progressive easing of the closure imposed on the Gaza Strip allowing for a more extensive opening of crossings and the entry and exit of goods. Egypt would step up activity on its side of the border to prevent weapons smuggling into Gaza. Once a degree of calm is established the EU monitors should be in a position to return to the Rafah Crossing. Ideally, any deal also includes a prisoner exchange allowing for the return of Israeli corporal Gilad Shalit. Such an arrangement need not entail direct Israel-Hamas negotiations and can be brokered by a third-party intermediary. Also, even if a Gaza-Israel ceasefire is de-linked from the West Bank it is advisable not to push this envelope too far. A significant provocation by either side emanating from the West Bank can be expected to destabilize whatever is achieved in the South.
Why is this so important right now? First, there is a humanitarian dimension which should apply anywhere in the world. In this instance it applies to the civilians of both Gaza and Southern Israel. Gideon Levy in Haaretz pointed out that if it was legitimate for Israel to maintain channels with Hamas for the release of Shalit, then it is surely acceptable to exercise those contacts in order to relieve the situation for Sderot residents.
Second, the basic alternative is to wait for a disaster to happen in the full knowledge that it will set in motion a sequence of events in which both Israelis and Palestinians lose. A reason the IDF hesitates in launching a full-scale invasion is their assessment that the costs would be high (in Palestinian suffering, for which Israel would be criticized, and in IDF losses), and the results in the long term are very limited. Nevertheless, if the Israeli casualty threshold for "restraint" (a fluid measure) is breached, then the ground operation scenario kicks in. Every day without a ceasefire brings that undesirable outcome closer.
Third, one of the core ingredients for launching a sense of peace process momentum and making November a success is to improve the situation on the ground. This applies not only to Gaza, but also to the West Bank, and here is the link. If there is a ceasefire with Gaza, and the political option again resonates for the Hamas leadership, the incentive to torpedo the November process is reduced. The IDF is pointing to the heightened tension with Hamas as part of its explanation for non-removal of checkpoints and non-easing of closures in the West Bank. If escalation on the Gaza border is driving the atmosphere pre-November, then the effect is felt in the West Bank and the summit may well be overshadowed. If there is relative quiet on the Gaza border, then this removes an excuse for not easing conditions in the West Bank, and creates a setting in which a positive message in November may be absorbed.Fourth, and finally, Secretary Rice's famous reference to the birth pangs of a new Middle East must not be allowed to produce twins: the supposedly neglected infant Palestine in Gaza and pampered infant Palestine in the West Bank. Ultimately Gaza and the West Bank must be reintegrated under one governing entity. Condi's predecessor at the State Department, Colin Powell recognized this recently in referring to the need to engage Hamas. The further the situation deteriorates, the more difficult it will be to remedy. The conveners and key protagonists of the November meeting are displaying little interest in a ceasefire, but this is precisely the agenda item that others – in Europe, the Arab world, and concerned global citizens – should be tirelessly pushing and pursuing.