The situation in Gaza is a tragedy whose denouement is approaching. Over the past two days Israeli air strikes have killed nearly 300 Palestinians — over 700 have been wounded. Israeli tanks are ready to attack and 6,500 reservists have been called up in case the conflict intensifies.
Israel is calling this retaliation for Hamas’ rocket attacks against Israel over the past week, ending a six-month ceasefire (Hamas claimed Israel broke the ceasefire first). Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Olmert, said the campaign would continue “until we have a new security environment in the south, when the population there will no longer live in terror and in fear of constant rocket barrages.”
The question arises whether or not such barrages and death tolls really bolster Israel’s security or U. S. interests in the Middle East. These allies are already vulnerable because of increased distrust and resentment, especially after the perception of a Hezbollah win against Israel in 2006.
No doubt Israel’s actions will embolden hard-liners in Iran, just as they are losing their influence. As the Washington Post editors observed, Hamas may have been weakened by the attack, but “the real winner may be Iran.”
President-elect Obama will have to deal with this situation, which may well escalate by late January. If Secretary Condolezza Rice’s call for a ceasefire is respected, Obama can immediately start the kind of dialogue that will bring security to Israel and stability to the region.
Gaza’s 1.5 million civilians have been under a virtual lockdown for over two years, with extreme shortages of potable water, food, gas, and electricity. Israeli policy has produced the exact opposite result from its stated objective of weakening Hamas. Unfortunately, the current Israeli campaign will have the same effect.
Israel, of course, has the right of self-defense and the duty to protect its citizens. This assault on Gaza, however, will only embolden extremist groups, like Hamas, who would otherwise lack popular support.
Former U.N. Special Rappoteur for Human Rights to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, John Dugard, declared of Israeli-besieged Gaza after Israel had evacuated its settlers but tightened its military control: “Gaza has become the world’s largest prison, and Israel seems to have thrown away the key.”
Israeli civilians have endured barrages of homemade Palestinian-rocket fire, killing several and terrorizing tens of thousands. But these rocket attacks will likely continue given the indefinite imprisonment of 1.5 million Palestinian civilians, the majority of whom are children. Further, this siege policy — and latest assault — only increases the likelihood of future attacks and escalated conflict.
This attack will only weaken Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and may spell an end to the long overdue and short-lived process agreed upon at the November 2007 Annapolis Conference. Abbas will probably be viewed as complicit with the assault if he does not react swiftly, especially with an imminent Palestinian constitutional crisis on January 9th undermining his continued presidency.
Despite the core ideology of its leadership, the majority of Hamas voters have consistently supported a two-state solution, as articulated at the Annapolis Conference. But Israeli policy toward Gaza only creates more unrest and will make the two-state solution less likely. Just last summer 200,000 Gazans broke down the border fence with Egypt just so they could get food.
Until Gaza is allowed some measure of freedom and access to external markets and basics such as food and water, we will continue to see a deteriorating security and humanitarian situation.
Within 10 years, there will be another million Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip. They are not going anywhere. The Israeli leadership must realize that raising a million children on its border without food, medicine, or access to education — and often under bombardment — will not make their country safer.