GAZA: UPDATE BY SHARIF HIKMAT NASHASHIBI

Claims by even those by its own members – that Hamas emerged victorious from Israel’s latest assault against Gaza are not only delusional, but also perversely insensitive to mainstream Palestinian suffering. With the casualties and material damage so lopsided, on what basis was this victory declared?

If it is because rockets were able to travel further into Israel than before, they still proved just as ineffectual. Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton likens them to “bee stings on the Israeli bear’s behind.” Israeli officials estimate the interception effectiveness of the Iron Dome air defence system during the latest flare-up in violence at 75-95%. Hamas “poses no serious threat to Israel’s powerful military,” says BBC Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen.

Some 1,700 rocket attacks caused just six Israeli fatalities and 269 injuries, most of them light, according to the Shin Bet security service. This compares to 158-177 Palestinians killed (mostly civilians, including at least 30 children and 13 women), and 1,200-1,300 injured. Is Palestinian life so worthless that victory should be declared under such disproportionate circumstances?

Those who believe that Hamas won because Israel stopped short of a ground invasion are ignoring the influence of growing international condemnation and pressure, as well as domestic Israeli politics. It became clear that the support of Israel’s allies for its ‘right to defend itself’ would not extend to ‘boots on the ground,’ and with upcoming elections, it suited Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to talk and act tough, while avoiding a potentially drawn-out invasion that could cost lives, resources and votes.

If victory has been declared because a consequence of Israel’s assault has been steps towards reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, this should have taken place long ago, and not over the corpses and the suffering of Palestinian civilians.

There are those who see Israeli defeat in accepting a ceasefire. However, this was achieved more through Egyptian mediation than Hamas’s military capabilities, and one should analyse the terms and aftermath of the ceasefire before rejoicing.

One of the conditions is that all Palestinian factions in Gaza will stop all hostilities against Israel, including rocket and border attacks. So far, they have stuck to their side of the deal, with no attacks, Hamas deploying police along the border, and Suleiman Al Daya – a leading Islamic cleric in Gaza – issuing the following religious edict: “Honouring the truce…is the duty of each and every one of us. Violating it shall constitute a sin.”

The same cannot be said of Israel, which agreed to end all hostilities against Gaza by sea, land and air, including incursions and assassinations. Within a week of the ceasefire taking effect, Israel had killed a Gazan civilian, injured at least 15, arrested nine fishermen at sea, and sunk several fishing boats, not to mention numerous provocations in the West Bank. No Palestinian factions responded to these clear violations.

The ceasefire terms stipulate that after 24 hours, talks would begin on opening crossings into Gaza and allowing free movement of people and goods. At the time of writing, this has not happened, and the two sides continue to disagree on what this means.

Hamas says the deal covers the opening of all Gaza’s border crossings with Israel and Egypt. However, Israel says it will not lift its blockade, which has caused “unacceptable suffering” to Gaza’s 1.7m people, says UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, and which amounts to “collective punishment, a violation of international humanitarian law,” according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

With no hope that the blockade will be lifted any time soon, Gazans have started rebuilding tunnels to Egypt – more than two-thirds of which were destroyed by Israel during its latest onslaught – that are the territory’s economic lifeline.

The siege of Gaza is ensuring the continuation of a black market that has not only been the target of repeated Israeli complaints, but is also a major source of funds for Hamas, which taxes the tunnel trade. It seems Israel has not yet put two and two together.

Since the ceasefire began, it has allowed Palestinians to fish in Gaza’s waters at a distance of six miles, up from three miles. However, before Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was taken hostage in 2006, Palestinians were allowed to fish 12 miles out, and the Oslo accords – signed in the 1990s – allowed Gazan fishermen up to 20 miles. As such, six miles is in no way a concession – never mind the fact that Israel should not be at liberty to dictate how Gazans use their own waters.

The fourth stipulation is that Egypt will follow up on reports of the ceasefire being broken by either side. How it is supposed to do this without observers in Gaza, a demilitarised Sinai bordering the territory, and while its constitutional crisis has plunged the country into turmoil is a mystery.

Similarly, while Israel expects Hamas – which governs Gaza – to enforce the deal, it has systematically undermined its ability to do so through its blockade and military attacks. This is likely by design, so that if there is an infringement from Gaza, Israel will have a convenient scapegoat, regardless of whether Hamas is the perpetrator.

The Al Arabiya Institute for Studies highlights “the absence of any real guarantees within the agreement,” which “lacks any tangible steps after the confidence- building measures.” As such, a ceasefire on its own is only a small, temporary sticking plaster on a wound that will continue to worsen unless a long-term solution is reached.

“History shows that a ceasefire that does not buy time for a political process to address the festering problems of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, will not last,” says the BBC’s Bowen. “Barring a political miracle, the conditions for the next spiral that turns tension into violence are, sadly, still there.”

What is needed is a total lifting of the blockade, which has turned Gaza into an “open-air prison,” according to UN humanitarian chief John Holmes (even British Prime Minster David Cameron, a self-described “passionate friend of Israel” whose belief in the country “is indestructible,” has described Gaza as a “prison camp.”) This should be accompanied by the deployment of UN monitors to verify that all sides are sticking to the agreement, and a demilitarised zone on both sides of the border. Hamas has previously accepted the idea of a long-term truce with Israel, and while Israel claims it will not deal with Hamas, in reality it does so (the release of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit is just one obvious and recent example).
To ensure this arrangement’s longevity, there should be an international conference, which would pledge major investment into Gaza, along with a transparent monitoring mechanism to ensure that money goes exactly where it is intended.

As people prosper, there would be less and less incentive to resort to violence, and dwindling support for those who advocate or carry it out. It would also prove to Israel, as with its withdrawal from Egypt’s Sinai, that ending its occupation of Arab lands is in its own interests. In return, Hamas would have to agree to allow free and fair elections so that Gazans can choose their governance.

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