Saturday, January 3, 2009

Gaza: More Lessons Not Learnt

The 2006 Lebanon war hovers like a ghost above Israel's offensive against Gaza. The war 2.5 years ago against Hizbollah constituted a watershed in the history of military confrontation between Israelis and Arabs. An Arab military force for the first time stood its ground against Israel, the war ended without a military victor. That in and of itself constituted a military victory for Hizbollah and a defeat in Israel. Israel sees perceptions of its military superiority and invincibility as key to its national security.

Reasserting itself as the superior military force, capable not only of defeating conventional military but also guerrilla forces deeply embedded in a local population is certainly an Israeli goal in Gaza although that is unlikely to have been the driving motive in deciding to strike at Gaza. Yet, Hamas recognition that military resistance and low-intensity conflict is futile and exacts a heavy price is the key to Israel achieving its goal in Gaza: taming the Islamic resistance and reducing it to a state in which it feels that playing ball with Israel is its best option.

Comparisons in recent days between the 2006 Lebanon war and the offensive in Gaza come a dime a dozen these days. Israeli leaders insist that they have learnt the lessons of the Lebanon war and drawn conclusions from the Winograd Commission, which concluded in 2007 that Israeli political and military leaders had gone to more with no plan, proper consultation between the civilian and the military leadership and no exit strategy. For one, they note that unlike Lebanon, where the declared goal had been to destroy Hizbollah, Israel has set its sights lower in Gaza and aims only to stop Islamist rockets from threatening the south of the country.

One significant lesson however has certainly not been learned. Both Hizbollah and Hamas are to a significant degree, products of political, economic and social environments that Israel helped shape. Both were founded in the 1980s as a response to Israel's occupation of and intervention in Palestinian territory and Lebanon. Israel's use of force and to impose its terms on the Palestinians and Lebanon its unwillingness to accept what the most moderate Palestinian forces need to conclude peace has consistently boomeranged. Israel's Palestinian negotiating partner, the Palestine Authority, is struggling to salvage credibility, and reliant on outside powers – Israel, the United States and the Arabs – to help it succeed. Instead of secular nationalists, Israel's most formidable adversaries are Islamists who have proven to be militarily far more inventive and skilled that their secular predecessors and enjoy wide spread popular support.

"…destruction and body counts are not the most useful criteria to use in this analysis. The real measure of what matters politically is the nagging Israeli sense of vulnerability and the Palestinian sense of empowerment, defiance, and capacity to fight back," writes journalist Rami G. Khouri in The Daily Star. "It is a gruesome but tangible victory for Hamas simply to be able to keep firing 30 or 40 rockets a day at southern Israel, while Israel systematically destroys much of the security and civilian infrastructure in Gaza. The David and Goliath story is being reversed - in exactly the same region in southern Palestine-Israel where the story took place in the Bible."

A second lesson not learnt that Israelis and Arabs share more in common than perhaps they would like. The opposite of the Israeli notion that Arabs understand force is true. The advent of live satellite television broadcasting images of dead innocent civilians, including women and children strengthens resolve among Palestinians to fight and widens the wedge between Arab public opinion and rulers. Israelis support the offensive in Gaza and accept the devastating effect it has on the civilian population as a means of self-defense in much the same way that Palestinians and Arabs view rocket attacks on southern Israel. The birth of Hamas and Hizbollah and their effectiveness is rooted in Israel's inability and unwillingness to recognize the symmetry.

A third lesson yet to be learned is that part of the strength of Hamas and Hizbollah is that their popular roots stem from their ability unlike their secular predecessors to cater to a multiple needs of local residents, including governance rather than corruption, local security, a sense of national defense and resistance and delivery of basic services. In its attempts to undermine and discredit them, Israel focuses exclusively on one aspect of their operations, be it violence, relationships with Syria and Iran or their Islamist agenda, rather than on the totality of what they represent. It is that totality that makes it difficult to isolate Hamas or Hizbollah from the environment they operate in and thus hard, if not impossible, to defeat. Hamas "is nothing tangible that you can knock down, it is not a building," says Alistair Crooke, a former British intelligence agent and European Union adviser and founder of the Conflicts Forum that seeks engagement with groups like Hamas and Hizbollah.

Ironically, this last lesson is one that others alongside Israel have yet to learn. Deep seated animosity between the Palestine Authority in the West Bank and Hamas persuaded the authority to effectively reinforce Israel's stranglehold on Gaza by withholding funds and basic goods as documented by Sara Roy of Harvard's Center for Middle East Studies in the London Review of Books. Starting in June, the Ramallah-based Palestine Water Authority (PWA) refused to pass on World Bank funds earmarked for Gaza's Coastal Municipalities Water Utility (CMWU), an entity not controlled by Hamas, that would enable it to pay for fuel to run the pumps for the strip's sewage system. The Palestine Authority's Health Ministry, responsible for procuring and delivering most of pharmaceuticals and medical disposables for Gaza, was throughout November turning shipments away because it had no warehouse space, yet not sending supplies on to Gaza in adequate quantities, according to Roy. Banks in Gaza, suffering from Israeli restrictions on the transfer of banknotes into the territory were forced to close on 4 December. A sign on the door of one read: 'Due to the decision of the Palestinian Finance Authority, the bank will be closed today Thursday, 4.12.2008, because of the unavailability of cash money, and the bank will be reopened once the cash money is available.'

As the Israeli offensive drags on, the Palestine Authority, increasingly on the defensive is being forced to reverse course and seek a rapprochement with Hamas. Both Hamas and officials of Fatah, the Palestinian group dominating the authority, have in recent days acknowledged the need for renewed dialogue. In a concession to Hamas, Authority officials say Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has agreed to release hundreds of Hamas activists imprisoned on the West Bank, a condition Hamas has set for the restart of talks. Hamas in November boycotted talks with Fatah mediated by Egypt because Abbas was holding the Hamas supporters. Abbas, says Middle East analyst Robert O. Freedman "has to be concerned about a sympathy vote for Hamas in the forthcoming Palestinian Legislative Council elections (if they are held, as tentatively scheduled in April 2009) - … in what has become a zero-sum-game struggle between Hamas and Fatah for leadership of the Palestinian movement."

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