Homeless in Gaza

Israel started the current escalation in violence. The rockets from Gaza came later
AK Pasha Delhi

The present crises involving Israel and Hamas originated with Israeli airstrikes on November 14, 2012 in Gaza which killed Ahmed Al Jaabri, Deputy Commanding General of Qassam Brigades, his bodyguard and a cameraman. This assassination was not a spontaneous act but based on elaborate surveillance over a long time and obviously well planned in advance. Jaabari was in contact with Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin, seeking to explore prospects for a long-term ceasefire that was reported to Israeli leaders. The ceasefire was being worked out with Egypt’s good offices and Jaabari was acting on behalf of Hamas. He was assassinated a few hours after he received the final draft proposal for the truce that he was committed to.

The killing of this high ranking Hamas military commander in central Gaza was a major Israeli provocation which took the conflict to new heights.  Incidentally, he had successfully negotiated the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. It was Jaabari who produced the soldier, captured during the 2008-09 Israeli invasion of Gaza. Israel had accused him of kidnapping Gilad and blamed him for masterminding rocket attacks.

Undoubtedly, Israel started the current escalation in violence. The rockets from Gaza came later.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has called for fresh elections to the Knesset on January 22, 2013, wants to ‘look tough’ ahead of the polls. The Likud leader clearly aimed to use the Gaza offensive as propaganda since he could not start a war with Iran under US President Barack Obama’s pressure. Since Netanyahu favored Obama’s rival Mitt Romney, the Israeli leader wanted to show his defiance, that he still calls the shots, at the first available opportunity. Thus, Obama was forced to say: “Israel has every right to expect that it does not have missiles fired into its territory.”  Obama also cautioned Israel against sending ground troops to Gaza saying they “are much more at risk of incurring fatalities or being wounded”. 

He promptly sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Cairo and Israel to negotiate peace at the earliest. Netanyahu had vowed not to talk to Hamas and had   promised to overthrow it; instead, he had to talk, and agree for a ceasefire, although indirectly.

There was no doubt about the Hamas rocket barrage from Gaza during this period.  But most military observers see these rockets as wildly inaccurate and generally harmless. This is obvious by the low number of Israeli casualties and minor damage caused which has to be seen in the overall context of massive violence inflicted by Israel on the Palestinians in Gaza.

This time around, Hamas rockets and missiles reached the heart of major Israeli cities like Ashdod, Ashkelon, Tel Aviv and West Jerusalem; Netanyahu had to hide inside shelters

For eight days, Israeli air force launched more than 2,000 air strikes which attacked major centers of the Hamas government and media offices in Gaza. It also led to destruction of many civilian houses and casualties among women and children. More than 170 Palestinians were killed and over 2,000 injured in the air strikes.

The office complex of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh was destroyed. Hamas rockets killed three Israelis in Kiryat Malachi where the top floor of a four storey apartment was blown up. According to New York Times, a comparison between numbers of losses on each side comes to 16 Palestinians per every Israeli. During Israel’s 2008-09 ground invasion of Gaza, the ratio of Palestinian to Israeli deaths was 100 to one.

This time around, Hamas rockets and missiles reached the heart of major Israeli cities like Ashdod, Ashkelon, Tel Aviv and West Jerusalem; Netanyahu had to hide inside shelters. Sirens were heard in these cities for the first time after 20 years of calm after Saddam Hussain had launched Scud missiles in 1991.

The Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv was closed and the rockets had penetrated Israeli radar defenses and exposed gaps in the Iron Dome anti-missile system under real live situation. The Palestinians also fired Fajar-5 missiles. Islamic Jihad claimed the responsibility of firing the Fajar-5 missile towards Tel Aviv. 

Rockets also landed in Holon just south of Tel Aviv which led to panic, traffic grinding to halt and people running for cover pressing themselves against the sides of building in search of shelter. Although no causality or damage from the Fajar-5 rockets was reported, Palestinians reportedly fired more than 600 rockets over the border of which about 245 were intercepted by the Iron Dome.

The targeting of Tel Aviv by Hamas marked a sharp escalation in the fighting between Israel and Gaza. The newly installed battery of the Iron Dome defense system successfully intercepted the rocket aimed at Tel Aviv on November 17, 2012. Sirens wailed across the city for a third straight day.

There were fears of Israeli ground attack in Gaza, but, apparently, two factors prevented this. First, the US prevailed over Israel not to escalate the conflict with the ground attack; second, Israeli military itself feared causalities and injuries in any ground operation of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF).

Gaza holds about 1.7 million Palestinian refugees crammed into only 140 square miles, that is, twice the area of Washington DC. Every Israeli air strike in this densely populated area leads to heavy civilian losses.

The Israeli intention is to re-install fear and terrorise so that they give up their demands, including the Palestinian Authority (PA) asking the UN on November 29, 2012, for non-member observer status, disregarding Israeli and US warnings. Israeli diplomats have warned foreign leaders that they would consider their peace accords with PA null and void if they seek UN status. PA President Mahmoud Abbas was warned that Israel will seize his newly acquired aircraft to travel abroad.

The Israeli attacks are reported to have killed over 60 Hamas company commanders, including Abu Jalal and Khalid Sheer, apparently involved in ‘rocket development’. Hamas officials, throughout the Israeli air strikes, continued to show defiance. “We are sending a short and simple message: There is no security for any Zionist (Israeli) on any single inch of Palestine and we plan more surprises,” said Abu Obeida, spokesman of the military wing of Hamas.

The ceasefire, which became effective from November 21, 2012, became a matter of priority for all parties and the US took the lead along with Egypt, Turkey, Qatar, Tunisia and Arab League. To show solidarity with Hamas, Egypt’s Prime Minister Hisham Kandil and Foreign Minister of Tunisia Rafik Abduer Salem visited Gaza. In Gaza, Salem said, “Israel should understand that many things have changed and lot of water has run in the Arab river. Israel no longer has a free hand, it does not have total immunity, and is not above international law.” Leaders from Egypt, Turkey and Qatar supported the Hamas leadership. Egypt’s President, Mohammed Morsi, met Qatari Emir, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, Hamas leader Khalid Mishael and Turkish Prime Minister RT Erdogan.

Undoubtedly, there has been heavy destruction of Hamas structures due to Israeli bombings which will perhaps weaken it in the long run and propel Islamic Jihad to the forefront. This may be the reason for a grand reconciliation announced recently between Hamas leader Khaled Mishael with Mahmoud Abbas. However, Palestinian resistance will continue in some form or other.

Significantly, Netanyahu sounded upbeat about the outcome of Gaza operations; but many Israelis in the city of Sederot in Negev desert demanded his resignation, including its Mayor, David Buskila. He was accused of incompetence.

For the moment, Netanyahu has diverted Israeli public attention from severe internal problems like poor economic performance, discriminations, social justice, high unemployment, galloping crime rate and so on. These are likely to dampen his chances in the elections. Besides, the continuation of oppressive conditions for Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere will increase their frustrations and may lead to more violence.

According to New York Times, a comparison between numbers of losses comes to 16 Palestinians per every Israeli. During Israel’s 2008-09 invasion of Gaza, the ratio of Palestinian to Israeli deaths was 100 to one 

After the Arab Spring and coming to power of Islamist regimes in Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, Hamas and the Palestinians are likely to enjoy more broad based support from the region. It calls for early resolution of the Palestinian question because it is also “morally unendurable”. More and more people around the globe are now supporting the Palestinian cause.

The branding of Hamas as a ‘terrorist organisation’ does not help as top Hamas leaders have made it clear that they are open to peace if Israel withdraws to the 1967 borders. Even Mahmoud Abbas is accused of not being a viable peace partner.

Is Israel ready to accept peace in return for implementation of UN resolutions and several peace plans? Only time will answer this question which has evaded solution for nearly a century.

The writer is Professor, Centre for West Asian Studies, School of International Studies, JNU.