A brief history.
There is a lot of rubbish being written about the current conflict in Gaza and I’ll be addressing some of that later on. For the moment, in the interests of being able to see the wood for the trees, let’s have a brief gallop through time.
The first thing to understand is that even in Biblical times, Gaza existed as a separate entity.It was only ever briefly a part of the kingdom of Judah and today, even those who believe in the concept of a ‘Greater Israel’, for the most part do not envisage Gaza as being part of Israel, regardless of their views on the West Bank. In the sixteenth century Gaza was part of the Ottoman Empire and remained under Turkish control until after the First World war, when it became part of the British mandate.To summarise:
- Gaza was directly controlled by the British 1917-1948
- Gaza was nominally controlled by the All-Palestine Government 1948-1959
- Gaza was directly controlled by Egypt from 1959-1967
- Gaza was directly controlled by Israel from 1967-1994
- Gaza was directly controlled by the Palestinian Authority (PA) from 1994-2007
- Gaza was directly controlled by Hamas 2007-present day.
Obviously there were a few twist and turns along the way and those who wish to delve further follow the link.
The 1993 Oslo Accords.
Without going into all the intricacies of the accords, the relevant parts that concerned Gaza are as follows.By agreement, Israel retained control of the airspace over Gaza and of coastal waters. In 1994, in compliance with the Oslo Accords, Gaza became an area of self-governance by the Palestinian Authority (PA). Very briefly, Oslo envisaged a ‘Two State’ solution and between 1994 and 2000, various measures were introduced by both sides to make this transition possible. In 2000, Yasser Arafat turned down Israeli proposals which would have led to the direct establishment of a Palestinian state. His successor, Mahmoud Abbas, similarly turned down Israeli proposals put forward in 2007, despite there being close agreement. At this juncture in the narrative, I’m tempted to echo remarks made by Abba Eban, an Israeli politician and diplomat. ‘The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity’.
Hamas enters the picture.
Hamas came into existence in 1987, an off-shoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood organisation. They are an Islamist organisation and despite several, largely successful (i.e. pulling the wool over Western-Governments’ eyes), PR pronouncements, remain implacably opposed to the State of Israel and wish to establish an Islamist state in the area west of the River Jordan that now comprises the West Bank, Israel and Gaza. I do not propose to go into a discussion about what the Quran says about Jews, except to say that some, unfortunately not many, Islamic scholars interpret several passages which refer to the killing Jews as being a religious duty, as being firmly tied to one incident at a specific time. Privately, most Muslims I know agree with this interpretation but unfortunately, at least among Arab Muslims, it appears not to be the prevailing attitude. Exactly what Israel is supposed to discuss with an organisation that appears to be dedicated to genocide is a question I have long pondered. There are–perhaps–the first signs that a difference of opinion is emerging between the political and military wing of Hamas and whilst these things can develop quite quickly, I advise against any holding of breath.
In 2005 Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza. Nine thousand Israelis were, in some cases forcibly, relocated by Israeli Police and Army units. Even the dead were dis-interred and moved elsewhere. Despite the fact that no Israelis remained within the Gaza area and despite the fact that the Oslo Accord gave Israel control over the airspace above Gaza and coastal waters, the UN chose to interpret this as a continued Israeli occupation of Gaza. There were/are no Israelis in Gaza and the area is solely under Palestinian political and military control, but apparently it’s still occupied. There is a wonderful American expression, ‘go figure’ which covers this situation perfectly. If you have ever wondered why Israel and the Israelis take little or no notice of pronouncements by the Un General Council, this might give you a clue. Anecdotally, Mahmoud Abbas tried to dissuade the then Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, from withdrawing. Why will become apparent in the next few paragraphs. Similarly, Egypt–again anecdotally–turned down an Israeli offer to give them control over Gaza. The withdrawal can be viewed in two lights. The first being Israel had simply had enough and were cutting and running. The second is this was a genuine attempt to advance the two-state solution. I incline to the latter view. Ariel Sharon was never a man to cut and run but he was a hard-headed realist. The eventual final agreement would have to include some Israelis relocating– or more likely being forcibly relocated– and this demonstrated that Israel would not flinch from taking any action necessary. Again, the words of Abba Eban come to mind.
In 2006, the Palestinian Authority held elections. There had been some discontent in Gaza about the lack of progress towards a Palestinian State and about corruption amongst Fatah officials. In point of fact, Fatah was effectively voted out of office, with Hamas in Gaza winning around 43% of the popular vote there. Fatah refused to accept the election result and after what amounted to a civil war, was able to retain political control in the West Bank. In Gaza, Hamas seized power in 2007 following fierce fighting and there has not been an election in Gaza since.
The current situation:
Despite portrayals of the political situation in the Western media, the PA and the Israeli Government do work together in many areas. In my view, the current deadlock in the Israeli/Palestinian negotiations are due to Abbas being unsuccessful in selling the idea of peace with Israel. There is a largely religious aspect to opposition to a peace agreement with Israel and Abbas has been unable or unwilling to confront this. I would say that in all probability most Palestinians want peace, the same as most Israelis do. The problem is that, unlike in Israel which is a functioning democracy,the Palestinian areas are not truly democratic and the minority of Palestinians who oppose peace with Israel would not accept a democratic decision. They would simply pick up their guns and their immediate targets would not be Israelis. Abbas et al are well aware of this.
The big fear for Hamas is that Fatah and the Israeli Government reach an agreement. The big fear for Fatah is they reach such an agreement and Hamas will not accept it. In an attempt to heal old rifts and show a unified face to the world, Fatah agreed that Hamas could re-join the Palestinian Authority. Unfortunately Hamas is regarded by many countries, including Israel, as a terrorist organisation, which means that future negotiations will be problematic if governments hold to the line that they do not negotiate with terrorists. Hanas could help the situation here of course, but do not show any signs of doing so.
Support for Hamas is difficult to judge. The Wikipedia article I have linked to paints a somewhat rosy picture. The truth is more complex. It is certainly true that Hamas officials had a reputation for being more honest than Fatah officials, but depending on who you talk to and how you frame the question, that appears to be no longer true. I have a sneaking suspicion that the residents of Gaza applaud their social programs and are not quite so keen on their Islamist policies and military aims.
We have to, briefly, take a look at the wider context. For a number of years Iran–a Shia state–supported Hamas, a Sunni organisation. This support included funding and, significantly, the supply of arms. With what is in effect a Sunni/Shia war being waged in the Arabian peninsular, funding has dried up but the supply of arms has not. Prior to the Sunni/Shia war, the Iranian aim was to supply both Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon, with arms, thus effectively being able to wage a proxy war against Israel. Iran was reportedly not happy with ‘independent action’ taken by Hezbollah against Israel, which led to the Israeli invasion of Southern Lebanon. Although Hezbollah claimed victory following the 2006 Israeli/Hezbollah war, the organisation admitted in an interview with the al-Jazeera arabic service that it had suffered unsustainable losses in both men and materiel and was not in any hurry to repeat the conflict. It took Iran virtually three years to make good the losses suffered by Hezbollah and, most likely, Iran vetoed any further military action against Israel. Currently, Syria can best be described as a client-state of Iran and the most effective fighters on Assad’s side are supplied by Hezbollah. The last thing that Iran currently wants is an Israeli/Hezbollah conflict which would directly impact on their military support for Assad. I have my fingers firmly crossed as I write this, but I personally do not see the current Hamas/Israel conflict spreading, precisely because of the previously-stated reasons.
Militarily, Hamas are on to a hiding to nothing, so why start the current conflict? My reading of the situation is that despite the current official impasse in the Israeli/PA negotiations, low-level contact between the two sides remained. In an effort to scupper any possible progress, Hamas kidnapped three Israeli teenagers and murdered them. The hope was that the inevitable Israeli manhunt would provoke massive unrest in the West Bank. By and large, thanks in no small measure to Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahus’ joint efforts, this unrest did not materialise. yes, there were incidents but no general uprising. The Palestinians may share the general Arab trait of missing opportunities but they are not stupid and, despite the prevailing opinion in some quarters, neither are they suicidal . At this point, I should make it clear that the reprise murder of a Palestinian youth was precisely that–murder–and the vast majority of Israelis share the opinion that it was not in any way justifiable and the perpetrators should be brought to justice.
Having failed to provoke a general Palestinian/Israeli conflict, Hamas were left with no option–in their eyes– but to continue rocket attacks on Israel. They are playing what is known locally as ‘the Israel Card’. When an Arab government faces opposition at home, they provoke the Israelis and in the resulting exchange of high-explosives, internal divisions tend to melt away. In recent years, this has not worked–the proof being that Assad has not tried it and Iran is not encouraging it. The truth is that Hamas were beginning to face some opposition in Gaza and there is little doubt that there would have been some form of civil unrest in the not too distant future, hence the stepping-up of military action against Israel in the past couple of months.
So: a ceasefire.
Possibly. Despite much of the Western media comparing body counts and so ‘proving’ that the Israeli response has been disproportionate, Western governments have been muted in their criticism of Israel. The simple and uncomfortable truth is that no democratic government could afford to ignore sustained military action against its citizens. The UN, as usual, have helpfully noted that some 77% of casualties in Gaza are civilians. Quite apart from the fact that it is difficult to say for certain who is and is not a civilian, the statement completely ignores the fact that 100% of the targets in Israel are civilian. No doubt Hamas would be delighted to hit military targets, but ‘lobbing’ high explosives towards Israeli towns does not constitute anything but targeting civilians. The UN has been strangely silent on this. As I write this, on the morning of the 15th July 2014, what is emerging is a slight difference of opinion between the military and political wings of Hamas. The former appear to realise that any concrete Arab support is not going to be forthcoming, nor is any great pressure going to be put on the Israeli Government whilst rockets are raining down on Israeli towns. Around 800 at the last count. Just think about that figure for a moment. Not 800 in the last ten years, or even in this present year but 800 in the last few weeks alone. I really rather think that the private opinion of most governments runs along the lines of ‘they asked for it and now they’re going to get it’. The loss of innocent lives is Gaza is to be regretted, of course. Be under no illusion, these are people who just want to get on with their lives, are not terrorists and are probably at best ambivalent about military action against Israel. Israel did not start this exchange of fire, a group of fanatics did. A group of fanatics who do not have the best interests of the people they govern, at heart.
Israel this morning has accepted the Egyptian ceasefire proposals. I rather suspect that they have militarily achieved much of what they wanted. No, to be sure they have not destroyed all the missiles aimed at Israel from Gaza, but a fair proportion of the arsenal has been fired or destroyed. If Hamas do accept the ceasefire, brokered by the Egyptians, then maybe there will be some sort of dialogue. Any long-term solution though is entirely dependent on Hamas abandoning the notion of armed struggle against Israel and accepting the existence of the State of Israel within internationally agreed borders.
Until that day dawns there will be no peace, either for the Palestinians who live in Gaza and Israelis. The real tragedy is that this situation need not exist.
Abba Eban had it exactly right.