August 4, 2014 - An Honest Look at the Suffering in Gaza

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Day 28 of the Gaza war: An honest look at the suffering in Gaza...

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NOTE FROM APN: This week, Alpher discusses criticism of Israel's conduct during the Gaza War and possible terms for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.

As always, views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

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Q. How do you deal with the growing chorus of people from all walks of life in the West who argue that what Israel is doing to the Gazan civilian population is criminal and shameful--that it is punishing and killing the Palestinians as if they were rabbits in an Israeli prison, and that there can be no excuses or political explanations for this carnage. 

A. In the absence of an agreed and manageable ceasefire, there are two ways for the horrific carnage in Gaza to stop. Either the IDF stops shooting or Hamas stops shooting.

If the IDF stops attacking enemy targets in Gaza, Hamas will not stop firing rockets at Israeli civilians or attacking them via tunnels (if any remain). This has been the case with every ceasefire in this war, and it is the case since Hamas took over the Strip in 2007. True, Hamas won't kill or injure many Israelis because Israel has learned, at great cost in blood and treasure, how to protect itself.

But it won't end there. The economic fabric of life in Israel will suffer, and some Israelis will leave--possibly leave Israel because it is constantly under fire and certainly leave the Gaza periphery kibbutzim, some of which already look like ghost towns. Israel's enemies will celebrate and draw encouragement from this. The other Islamists in the Middle East--in Sinai, in southern Lebanon and as far away as the new "Islamic State" and Iran--will all take note that Israel's deterrence has failed and the country is vulnerable. Nor will rulers in non-militant Islamist states like Egypt, Jordan and even Saudi Arabia rest easy given this shot in the arm for the Islamists. And Islamists in western countries, Russia, China and Africa will also feel empowered. Yes, the carnage in Gaza would stop, but no, no people with a drive and an instinct for self-preservation would take this route.

And if Hamas stops shooting? After it has violated eight ceasefires, it is not easy to predict if and when this will happen and for how long. But if Hamas stops shooting, then Israel stops shooting and the carnage ends. Hamas is responsible for the Gazan population. It has brought so much death and destruction upon that population because it needs to present Palestinians to the world as helpless victims. It can bring total relief to the Strip at any time it chooses to invest in the Gaza economy rather than in rockets, tunnels and an army. Since Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, I don't recall a single incident when Israelis have fired on Gazans unprovoked.

Q. But surely Israel has the military capacity to conduct an operation without destroying the fabric of a society.

A. It is unfortunately not possible for the IDF to conduct a serious military operation in Gaza without killing civilians. Gaza is extremely crowded. Hamas and Islamic Jihad units are embedded among and beneath the civilian population; they fire rockets and mortars from positions adjacent to and beneath homes, hospitals and schools. Their leaders, hiding deep underground, appear to be indifferent to the suffering of the Gazan civilian population. Then too, Israeli soldiers, like all soldiers, especially when under fire, make mistakes. And artillery shells and rockets don't always hit where they are supposed to.

This is what war is about, particularly war fought against a guerilla/terrorist state that uses its population as human shields. Here it is important to recognize that Israel is fighting a militant Islamist state that has invested all of its state resources--manpower, budgets, international relations--in its war effort against Israel. Hamas is most decidedly not "merely" a nasty terrorist movement that has embedded itself among innocent civilians. It is an outlaw state. Sadly, at times over the past month it has been treated by the international community as merely another party to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on a par with Israel and the PLO. This pleases Hamas and related militant Islamists, but does a grave injustice to international law and decency.

The unintentional killing of civilians by the IDF is not unique here. The IDF did not coin the term "a la guerre comme a la guerre". In recent history, we witnessed NATO's 1999 campaign to wrest Kosovo from Serbia in which US and European air forces launched 2,300 missiles and dropped 14,000 bombs, including depleted uranium bombs and cluster munitions. Over 2,000 civilians were killed, including 88 children, and thousands more were injured. More than 300 schools, libraries, and over 20 hospitals were destroyed; at least 40,000 homes were either completely eliminated or damaged and about 90 historic and architectural monuments were ruined. All this carnage and destruction was inflicted without NATO countries having been attacked by Serbia at all; the NATO countries were not even protecting their own populations.

Again, in 2004, for 46 days a reinforced American division and a British brigade team fought 3,000 Islamists embedded in the Iraqi town of Faluja with its 250,000 residents. According to US Army figures, 6,000 civilians were killed alongside 1,000 Islamist fighters. Some 20 percent of all homes were destroyed and 60 percent damaged. Dozens of schools and mosques were also destroyed. The US and UK armies were not defending American and British civilians endangered by rocket fire or tunnels. Their enemy did not preach the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (see Hamas Charter) and threaten to annihilate them. No senior UN officials examined every civilian death with a magnifying glass and accused the US and UK of deliberately targeting civilians in "criminal acts", as the IDF has been accused in recent days. There may have been protest demonstrations in Washington and London, but nothing along the lines of the anti-Semitic wave sweeping Europe.

Israel's war-fighting tactics in Gaza are far more mindful of civilian lives, and under far less manageable conditions. Israel has pointedly avoided adopting the obvious tactic of reoccupying the Strip--a move that would take about a week--precisely because of the inevitable cost in Palestinian (and Israeli) lives. By the same token, Israel could have closed off all electricity, water and food supply to the Strip had it wished to fall back on classic war-fighting practices; instead, it has permitted supplies of civilian goods. Meanwhile, Israel's tactics also have cost the IDF nearly 70 lives and countless wounded.

The IDF assesses that about half the Palestinian dead in Gaza are Hamas combatants. There can be no doubt that Israel and the IDF are being held to a very different standard by the international community than other armies that were not even fighting wars of self-defense. The question is, why. . . .

Q. And what, by the way, is the "fabric of Gazan society"?

A. Most Gazans are the descendants of 1948 refugees. They are supported by UNRWA, the UN agency whose schools and hospitals keep taking fire, and several of which were used by Hamas to store weaponry. Most UNRWA personnel are highly dedicated individuals who devote years of their lives to supporting and educating, throughout the Middle East, some five million refugees, many of them living in squalid camps. But UNRWA as an institution represents everything that is wrong with the Palestinian refugee narrative and, by extension, Gaza's human narrative.

Instead of being absorbed and resettled by their host countries in keeping with the practice under which global refugee issues have been dealt with successfully since WWII, successive generations of Palestinian refugees have for 66 years been maintained in refugee camps, stateless and poor, as the United Nations connives with the Arab countries to keep the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on steroids by keeping alive the refugees' "right of return". The best thing that could happen to the "fabric of Gazan society" would be for the international community and particularly the Arab states, many of which hate and fear Hamas and its fellow Islamists, to undertake a major program to resettle and rehabilitate refugees.

This would not end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it would go a long way toward improving the fabric of Palestinian society, thereby making a solution easier to envisage. Instead, Hamas promises that all five million refugees will return to Israel while it preaches (see Hamas Charter) that "there is no solution to the Palestinian problem except jihad" and "the international conferences to resolve the Palestinian problem are all contrary to the beliefs of the Islamic Resistance Movement".

Q. Surely those representing Israel to the world have made these points repeatedly. Why, then, is Israel's "hasbara" (public diplomacy) not doing the job?

A. It's not enough to blame Hamas and Fateh for their misbegotten ideologies and their mistakes. Israel could explain its war effort more effectively if it could point to viable strategies of its own for Gaza and the West Bank. But Israel's "hasbara points" are presented repeatedly in the name of a government that is gradually swallowing up the West Bank and East Jerusalem and that quite simply does not know what to do with or about the Gaza Strip.

The crude tactics of playing rocket alarm sirens to foreign audiences and giving them 40 seconds to take cover, or threatening imaginary rocket fire from Canada into the United States, seem to presume (incorrectly, for the most part) that the international public can be persuaded that this could soon be its situation. Yet too many people believe that Israel has only itself to blame for its plight. That's also not true, but it's hard to make that point when the public has long been exposed to Israel's counterproductive settlement policies in the West Bank and has little knowledge of the differences between Hamas and Fateh (now, tellingly, represented in Cairo by a single delegation).

Q. Well, of the ceasefire demands presented by that delegation, those concerning the economic development of the Strip appear in principle to be broadly acceptable to both Israel and Egypt. But can the goal of long-term prosperity in Gaza or for that matter in the West Bank as well solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

A. Definitely not. Palestinians, especially Gazans, deserve to live a decent life, one that offers their children economic prospects. But it is a mistake to think that if Palestinians have full stomachs, clean drinking water and electricity they will be more kindly disposed toward Israel. This is a political and (increasingly) ideological-religious conflict; it can certainly be alleviated by improving Palestinians' well-being but it cannot be solved this way.

This principle has been illustrated again and again, from Moshe Dayan's decision to integrate the Israeli and Palestinian economies in 1967 (which blew up in Israel's face with the first intifada 20 years later) to Netanyahu's empty "economic peace" platform of the 2009 elections. Not that Palestinians have necessarily been particularly receptive of economic development efforts. The Oslo process provided Gaza with an airport and plans for a harbor, along with "safe passage" to the West Bank; it channeled huge economic investments into the Strip. When Israel withdrew in 2005, attempts were again made to open borders and recruit investments. All this has gone up in the smoke of violence.

Of course Israel's hands aren't clean. Occupation and settlements (in Gaza prior to 2005) have been devastating. But those who argue that Israel's settlements and its angry responses to "a few harmless rockets" ensured that Palestinians never had a chance to develop, are being far too lenient regarding repeated Palestinian failures at state-building, particularly in the Gaza Strip. At this point, any agreement that plows international funding into Gaza but leaves Hamas' military wing--however weakened by this war--in power in the Strip guarantees more of the same. And Hamas, which has devoted significant parts of its budget to digging tunnels and building rocket factories, is not about to simply step aside and return its nasty and impoverished little Islamist emirate to Fateh and Mahmoud Abbas.

Q. Netanyahu has opted to withdraw troops but not to participate in ceasefire talks in Cairo. Is this a good way to end this war favorably and stop the human suffering?

A. In taking these steps, Israel has also finally taken the initiative in this war rather than responding to Hamas attacks and provocations. This decision also reflects Israeli lack of confidence in Hamas' commitments to ceasefires, while demonstrating that Israel is prepared to unilaterally reduce the fighting but that it retains the option of escalating again if Hamas does. This approach may at least upset Hamas' equilibrium, an important step toward ending the conflict.

Meanwhile, with Israeli ground forces withdrawing, humanitarian access to the Strip is enhanced, with Israel itself constantly allowing foodstuffs and medical supplies to enter despite Hamas shelling, and restoring electric supply links between Israel and the Strip that were damaged by Hamas rocket and mortar fire.

But the Netanyahu government will not be able to maintain this standoffish pose for long. For one thing, a return to low-level, static tit-for-tat exchange of fire with Hamas has become increasingly unacceptable to the Israeli public, which wants Hamas' aggression to end once and for all and will not put up with a war of attrition (here criticism of Netanyahu's caution can be found on both the Israeli political right and the center-left). For another, the arrangements that Egypt works out with a joint Fateh-Hamas-Islamic Jihad delegation in Cairo are of vital interest to Israel. So while Israel's unilateral steps have been effective in seizing the initiative and in some ways leaving Hamas without an "enemy", I doubt they can be sustained for long.

Meanwhile, the conflict festers and the ambiguities proliferate. The Netanyahu government, without a guiding strategy other than the obvious objectives of defending Israelis (doable) and disarming Hamas (much more difficult), must maneuver to keep Washington and Cairo on its side while grudgingly accepting that Mahmoud Abbas' plan for a technocrat unity government with a presence in Gaza was not such a bad idea to begin with. Prior to the war, Palestinian Authority PM Rami Hamdallah had acknowledged that Hamas had not let him establish any unity-government presence at all in Gaza. Whether since then Israel has damaged Hamas sufficiently to enable Abbas to govern in the Strip or even at its border crossings, remains to be seen.

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