Only two years since the end of the Israel-Hizbullah war in the summer of 2006, Israel is again engaged in all out war with a non-state actor on its border. And once again the civilian population is paying a horrific price. The war will drag on for many painful days, and will probably end inconclusively without meaningful progress in solving any of the real issues of conflict besetting the region.
The situation in Gaza need not have reached the bloody impasse it has reached today. Hamas legitimately won the elections of 2006 and constitutionally formed a government; however, Israel, the U.S. and part of the international community, refused to recognize the Hamas led-government and encouraged Fateh to break cooperation with Hamas and to challenge its stronghold in Gaza. Egypt, Jordan, and other Arab states stood by Fateh. Hamas, with backing from Syria and Iran, responded violently by taking over Gaza by force in June of 2007 and chasing Fateh out. It also responded to the denial of its role in government by ratcheting up its military activity and sending salvos of rockets into southern Israel.
In September 2007 Israel declared Gaza a hostile entity and imposed a blockade on it. Tensions ebbed and flowed, with Israel squeezing the civilian population and launching intermittent military raids, and Hamas responding with rocket attacks and attempts at opening the border crossing between Gaza and Egypt to relieve the 1.5 million Gaza population and bring in necessary food, fuel and supplies.
With Egyptian mediation, Israel and Hamas arrived at a 6-month truce in June of 2008. During that period Egypt attempted to mediate the formation of a national unity government between Fateh and Hamas. As the term of the truce approached its end, Egypt also tried to negotiate a renewal of the Hamas-Israel truce, however, with no luck. When the truce expired on December 19, tensions between Israel and Gaza took a quick turn for the worse. Within a few days the two sides were exchanging rocket and artillery barrages. And on December 27 Israel unleashed a large-scale air war against Hamas targets in what Israeli leaders described as the opening phase of a coordinated military campaign to defeat Hamas’s ability to threaten southern Israel. As of this writing (December 30) nearly 370 Palestinians have been killed and around 2,000 have been wounded.
The course and end-game of Israel’s war in Gaza is not clear. The Israeli cabinet says it wants to create a new “security environment”. A government official noted that the Israeli government was intentionally keeping its objectives vague, to maximize its options. The air campaign will certainly degrade Hamas’s capabilities somewhat and will take a terrible civilian toll; however, it is unlikely to stop the rocket attacks, nor defeat Hamas nor lead to a significant climb-down on their part. Israel is threatening a ground campaign, but such a campaign will not be easy and its results are far from clear. Hamas is well prepared for street warfare and Israeli tanks and ground troops will have a hard time fighting their way through the crowded neighborhoods of Gaza. The rapidly rising civilian death toll from a ground campaign will also put serious international time pressure on Israel.
Unlike the war on Hizbullah in Lebanon in 2006, there is no clear geographic objective such as creating a ‘security zone’ that could be held by international UN peacekeepers, nor is there a government in place in Gaza outside of Hamas to negotiate with and find an institutional way out. Israel’s strategy might boil down to degrading Hamas” military capabilities and inflicting so much collective punishment on the Palestinians of Gaza to force Hamas to accept a long-term cessation of attacks on southern Israel. Before the end of the cease-fire Israeli Foreign Minister Livni stated that Israel cannot allow Gaza to remain under Hamas control. However, it is most likely that Hamas will emerge politically intact from this confrontation; and it will probably tout its survival of a large-scale Israeli attack as a moral and real victory, much as Hizbullah did.
In the wider picture, this large-scale war in Gaza is a big step in the wrong direction. The war in Gaza has weakened those Arab states willing to mediate peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Egypt, especially, has come under increased pressure from different directions. Hamas has blamed the Egyptian government for silently accepting the Israeli attacks on Gaza and sustaining the blockade against the Palestinians by keeping the borders closed. The governments of Iran and Syria as well as Hizbullah have joined in painting Egypt, with its policy of peace and mediation, appear as a junior partner in the Israeli onslaught. The Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority have also come under attack, domestically in the West Bank and regionally. The pressure impelled the PA to declare that they were ending their peace negotiations with the Israeli government.
Inner Arab tensions have further escalated with Arab leaders unable to decide whether to convene an urgent summit and if so, where to hold it. A few hours after the Israeli military operations started, Qatar called for an Arab summit to be held in Doha and at least seven Arab states including Syria accepted the invitation. Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and some of the GCC countries remained reluctant to agree on a summit in Doha. The Palestinian Authority for its part has called for the summit to be held in Cairo, at the headquarters of the Arab League.
Faced with inner Arab tensions and the inability of Arab states to pressure Israel to end its military operations, the Arab street reacted strongly. Demonstrations have been taking place in most Arab capitals denouncing leaders for failing to help the Palestinians in Gaza and calling on Arab states that have diplomatic ties with Israel to freeze them. In several places, Egyptian embassies were surrounded by angry demonstrators calling for an end of the blockade on Gaza and for an immediate opening of the borders on the Egyptian side in order to let in food, medicine, and other supplies. In this highly charged atmosphere it is going to be very difficult to bring the region back to the course of negotiations.
In this light, the war in Gaza represents a large step in the wrong direction. The proper approach to resolving crises in the region is not to launch more wars, but to prepare for real progress towards negotiations, compromise and peace. The war in Gaza only benefits those states and non-state actors, which are opposed to—or reluctant about—pursuing negotiations, and in fact adds credibility to their premise that Israel is not serious about peace.
The war in Gaza is bound to strengthen negotiation skeptics in the region and set back the peace process further. Hamas might be opposed to the peace process and Iran might have encouraged them to derail any potential movement toward peace by escalating rocket attacks on southern Israel; however, Israel could have dealt differently with Gaza, not imposing a year long deadening blockade on Gaza in the first place and not responding to the provocations in such a destructive and counter-productive manner.
The U.S. and the international community should help the peace camp in the region by working for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. They should not repeat the almost criminal mistake of 2006 of ‘postponing’ a ceasefire for 33 days—the civilian toll is simply too great and there is no positive conclusion to such a war. Any ceasefire agreement, should it have the potential to last for some time, will have to take into consideration not Israeli security needs alone, but also the legitimate demands of the Palestinians in Gaza to end the blockade and secure basic supplies to its inhabitants. A clear understanding with regard to how to manage the borders between Gaza and Israel as well as between Gaza and Egypt will be a key element in this context.
When this terrible campaign is over, the region will still be where it was before December 27, but worse off. The only painful lesson to be learned from the repeated outbreaks of these wars, is that the Arab Israeli conflict needs serious and urgent attention, and that while the new American administration would like to ignore it, events on the ground impose themselves time and time again.
After the new administration takes office on January 20, and after the Knesset elections on February 10, the U.S. and the international community, in cooperation with the Arab states and Israel should focus on achieving measurable progress in the Arab Israeli conflict. Assuming that a ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas will be reached before January 20, talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority on the final status issues should resume and move beyond routine discussions to real concessions by Israel on the West Bank that could give the Palestinians hope again that peace with some honor is possible and that negotiations are a preferable option to desperate warfare. Bridging the internal divide in Palestine between Fateh and Hamas is also a high priority, in which Arab states such as Egypt and Jordan, and possibly Saudi Arabia, can play an important role once the regional environment becomes less polarized. Finally, the Syria Israel track, now in crisis as a result of the Gaza war, needs to be revived urgently and pushed forward.
*Paul Salem is the Director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut
*Amr Hamzawy is a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut
This commentary is reprinted with permission from Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.