Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Gazan conflict and the winds of change

Gaza is a place of humanity, warmth and hospitality.
ISRAEL’s Operation Pillar of Defence in Gaza may be over, but the biggest issue of all – the Palestinian-Israeli conflict – still remains unresolved. With the Oslo Accord’s promises of a two-state solution long dead, and Israeli settlement building insidiously eroding the Palestinian West Bank, there appears to be little hope.

The recent Israeli onslaught, flying in the face of international law and the Geneva Convention, ravaged Gazan infrastructure and saw over 150 Palestinian civilian casualties. It was the cynical outcome of a hawkish Prime Minister trying to look the part before a crucial national election.

The official line on how the conflict started (which belies the complexities of the situation) was that low-key tension between Israel and Gaza had escalated with an increase of rockets being fired into Israel. Israeli response – a deliberate provocation – was the assassination of Hamas’ military commander, Ahmad al-Jabari.

As expected, it set off a retaliatory barrage of Gazan rocket fire that in turn killed three Israeli civilians and ratcheted up the fear index in southern Israel, the target of most the rocket attacks.

This laid the ground for Gaza to be taught a lesson. Israel could show mastery of the sea, air and land to convince the electorate of its security, as well as test the waters for international alliances post-Arab uprising.

Or as the Arab e-zine, Jadaliyya, put it: Gaza is the expendable testing ground for Israel’s hegemonic and colonial experiments; it is a laboratory for the fulfilment of the personal ambitions of various Israeli politicians.

But lost in the cynical details of Operation Pillar of Defence was the fact that Hamas, the convenient Israeli bête-noire, was only responsible for a fraction of the rocket fire from Gaza.

Also lost in the details was that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, having played the Iranian nuclear card to the hilt inside Israel, had failed to convince US President Obama to support a strike against Teheran.

Instead, Netanyahu having failed on that count had to fall back on Gaza, and pump up the volume against Hamas. Indeed, if he was to be believed, Hamas – a government without a standing army – had unilaterally created the “security situation” in Israel.

We had to believe that Hamas – also without a navy and an air-force – was at the centre of terrorising Israel, a country with one of the world’s most powerful defence forces and defence systems. But as with most hasbara (propagandistic falsehood) the truth is in the opposite of what is said.

This is because Gaza, a densely populated sliver of land 42 km long and 10 km wide, is not besieging, illegally occupying or even seriously threatening the existence of Israel – and by being blockaded for six years, it has certainly not violated any humanitarian conventions, or international laws on the scale that Israel has.
 
It is Gaza – and not Israel – that is dubbed the world’s biggest outdoor prison. It is Gaza – and not Israel – that has its water summarily cut off in summer so that illegal West Bank settlements can water their lawns. It is Gaza – and not Israel – that has had its crumbling infrastructure bombed by F16 jets and Apache helicopter gunships.

My own personal experience of visiting the territory tells me that Hamas is not Gaza. Gaza is a community. It’s a diverse society of one-and-a-half million people. It’s not a terrorist ghetto as Netanyahu would have us believe, but a place of humanity, warmth and hospitality.

Israel conveniently calling a bombed ministry or school a“Hamas” installation as it did during Operation Pillar of Defence, is like saying the Union Buildings in Pretoria are an ANC installation. It is mischievous and misleading. Hamas is merely the ruling authority in Gaza.

And lots of those people who work in the schools, administration buildings and banks are not necessarily Hamas. Nor were the journalists covering the conflict, who were targeted by the IDF. How can a computer geek in Tel Aviv with a drone joystick determine that unarmed civilians sitting in their houses, or behind their desks, are Hamas or not?

The problem is that the Israeli conversation largely airbrushes out the fact that the majority of Gazans, or Palestinians inside Israel or on the West Bank, actually have genuine socio-political aspirations based on peace. Instead, Palestinian political discourse – particularly if it is at odds with the Israeli hegemonic one – is belittled, and its players dehumanised.

It was Raphael Eitan, a former chief of staff, who set the pace in 1983 when he stated that when Israel “had settled the land”, Palestinians would “scurry around like drugged cockroaches in a bottle”.

The tragedy of this dialogue is that outside of Gaza, few ever seem to ask why some of its young, hungry and angry men – brought up on their parent’s humiliation and frustration – are driven to manufacturing rockets.

And as the Gazans pick up the pieces of their shattered lives, and as Israel goes to the polls in January, Netanyahu will realise that the Middle East political landscape has shifted dramatically. Not only will he have to face a fractious electorate being torn apart by religious fundamentalism and militarism, but a new Arab political order.

The question, as Cairo analyst Dr Hisham Hellyer says, is not if the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will change after the Arab uprisings, but how it will change. The role of Egypt in brokering the Gazan ceasefire is the first indicator of this. No longer will Israel be dealing with Mubarak whose security chief, Omar Suleiman, was a submissive client.

I agree with Dr Hellyer who comments that military options with regards to Israel in the Arab political sphere are off the table. And that’s what makes it so interesting.

For what is on the table is a raft of Arab expectations with President Obama, and other players such as the European Union, coming under pressure to seriously re-examine their engagement with the Mid-East peace process.