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A War Too Far: Israel’s Military Campaign in Gaza

This blog originally appeared on the website of the Centre for Security Governance on 28 July 2014.

Since its establishment in 1948, Israel has fought seven regional wars, has had to deal with two intifadas – and now possibly a third – as well as three localised conflicts in and around Gaza after abandoning the territory in 2005. There is not another country in the world that has had to contend with anything even remotely similar.

Commentary on the latest conflict between Israelis and the Palestinians tends to focus on the disproportional loss of life exacted by the conflict. Indeed, the ratio of Israeli to Palestinian losses is, at the time of writing, around thirty to one. Hamas also bears a co-responsibility for these numbers, not least in their penchant to use human shields to help guard their weapon facilities and attack sites. Horrific humanitarian loses are its most effective weapon in the court of international opinion – and Hamas knows it.

That said, Gaza is one of the most densely populated territories of the world. Its civilian population has nowhere to flee, blockaded as Gaza continues to be. There is no such thing as a surgical strike on a target in Gaza. Imagine carrying out such attacks against targets in Boston, an American city with more or less the same population density, without inflicting serious collateral civilian damage. But the comparison stops there. Bostonians could flee the kind of assault that is now being waged against Gaza. They would also have medical resources to deal with the wounded, of which the embargoed population of Gaza can only dream.

Of course, Israel has a right to defend itself. That said, it also has a responsibility to understand why a significant portion of the Palestinian population is prepared to endure unspeakable suffering to obtain what it feels is just.

In 1948, the United Nations decided to divide what was the then British-administered territory of Palestine between the Israelis and the Arabs. The Israelis were attributed 56 percent of the land, notwithstanding the fact that almost twice as many Palestinians lived in the territory as Jews. Now Israel controls around 78 percent of Palestine. In the meantime, Israel has constructed walls that not only keep terrorists out but also prevent Palestinians from going about their everyday business: working, socializing, marrying, and the like.

Israel’s creation in part derived from the fact that Western nations did not want to accept Jewish refugees in significant numbers during and after the Second World War. This sort of Anti-Semitism was “discrete” but it was real. So the Germans, whose Anti-Semitism eventually culminated in the Holocaust, were to an extent let off the hook, apart from the reparations that they continue to duly pay and the guilt that they still harbour. In general, Western nations have since gone out of their way to support the creation of a viable Israeli state. This has, however, largely been done regardless of the consequences for the region in which this new state was implanted. A bad conscience is a dangerous driver of policy.

The arguments that the Israelis use to justify their continuing occupation are several. Here are some of the main ones:

Israel is the Jewish people’s historical land (but all sorts of other actors have coveted this land – Israel has no monopoly in that regard);

There was no state in Palestine when Israel was constituted, so it had every right to go for whatever it could get (but there were also non-Jewish communities living on this territory with property rights that have long predated the advent of Israel);

The territorial gains Israel garnered in war give them a right to possess these lands in perpetuity (so Hitler would be justified in continuing to occupy Paris?);

There is no effective interlocutor on the Palestinian side (what about on the Israeli side?);

Hamas is a terrorist organisation (just how does one define a terrorist organisation?);

At least for some Israelis (thankfully a minority), the Palestinians are Untermenschen – people not worthy of being engaged in any dialogue at all.

All these propos have a shortening fuse. Israelis and Palestinians need to move on, decisively and sooner rather than later.

Recent Israeli-Palestinian conflicts tended to be bloody but brief. The current one may well be different. Israel seems determined to obliterate the tunnels that Hamas has used to import war materials and build their arsenal of rockets. Hamas insists that a new cease-fire – unlike its immediate predecessors – must result in an end to the blockade of Gaza, in place since Israel’s evacuation back in 2005, and lead to the release of the 500 or so Palestinian prisoners re-arrested in wake of Israel’s punitive reaction to the murder of the three Israeli youths – for which Hamas’s official complicity remains unproven.

Then too, the regional context has morphed. Large parts of the Arab Middle East – Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen – find themselves in unbridled chaos. The current Egyptian government’s complicity in recent cease fire proposals made to Israelis and Palestinians, in which the latter were not involved, smacks of rank opportunism. Egyptian President Sisi detests the Muslim Brotherhood, to which Hamas is affiliated. Egypt has joined hands with Netananyu in sponsoring a cease-fire that it hopes will endear itself to Washington, in much the same way Mubarak did before.

As for Saudi Arabia and Iran, they may seem to have escaped much of the tumult of the Arab Spring. But the causes behind this regional upheaval are also percolating into their societies. The greater Middle East has become an increasingly dangerous place, where borders are losing their capacity to determine who is secure and who is not. Israel is not likely to escape this trend.

Moreover, the geostrategic context has shifted. Russian has become a revanchist power, America a retrenching one, while the Europeans persist in their political ineffectuality. In a way, Russian and Israel have become strategically complicit. Russia needs the current turmoil in Palestine to help deflect attention eastern and southern Ukraine. Israel needs the chaos in Ukraine to help deflect attention from Gaza. Both these approaches are built on sand, but in a world afflicted by crisis, it will take time for populations to connect the dots.

Washington and Tel Aviv should also understand that the current situation in and around Gaza objectively strengthens the opponents of a nuclear deal in Tehran.

The status quo is particularly threatening for Israel. It is only a question of time before it will no longer be able to count on the USA as an unstinting strategic partner: Washington will have bigger fish to fry, and American public opinion will sooner or later shift. Israel lives in an increasingly dangerous region as the same time as it needs new allies. This is the moment for it to strike a historic deal.

Its contours are clear: an end to Israeli settlement policy; a return to the 1967 borders, with practical adjustments; a tri-religiously administered Jerusalem; some form of compensation to the Arabs who lost their land, property, and livelihood in the 1947 War, in return for the relinquishment of their right to return. These will be painful accommodations. They can, however, pave the way for a radically reconfigured Israeli-Palestinian relationship, and eventually even a lasting peace.

But can Israel move in this direction with its current government? Imagine an America led by Tea-Partyists, relying on coalition allies even much further to the right. Israel deserves its place in the Middle East. But it has to earn it anew. Sadly, the prospects are anything but good.

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