Gaza’s misery a year on from Pillar of Defense

Warring sides continue Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Yossi Mekelberg
Yossi Mekelberg
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Anniversaries in the modern Middle East come in rapid succession. Unfortunately too many of them commemorate another cycle of violence. It is a year since Israel launched operation Pillar of Defence in an effort to bring to a halt the firing of rockets from Gaza onto her southern towns and villages. A truce was declared after a week of bloodshed and destruction. Israeli carried out air and artillery attacks on various Palestinian targets in Gaza, killing 133 Palestinians and wounding around 800. The Palestinians, primarily Hamas’s Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades and the Islamic Jihad, fired nearly 1,500 hundred rockets, killing six Israelis and injuring more than 200 hundred. Their rockets reached as far as Tel-Aviv, though most of them were intercepted by the Israeli Iron Dome air defence system.

When an Egyptian brokered ceasefire was declared on November 21 last year, both sides declared victory, but whatever truth was in either of the side’s claims, this was not a victory in the advancement of the cause of peace and coexistence between the two people. The Hamas leadership saw victory in managing to keep firing at Israel until the ceasefire came into effect, despite the military superiority of the enemy. Hamas’ leader Ismail Hanyia boasted, quite disingenuously, that the Israelis were desperate for a ceasefire because of the Palestinian resistance. Prime Minister Netanyahu, was not far behind in presenting a one-sided picture which described the crippling of the military capability of the Palestinian armed forces in Gaza, and this without the committing of Israeli ground troops, while at the same time also avoiding casualties on her own side due to the effectiveness of the Iron Dome.

Israeli officials were also very keen to brief political observers that they learnt the lessons of Operation Cast Lead, the assault on the Gaza strip, three years earlier and had thus used more accurate intelligence and drones to restrict the number of civilian casualties among Palestinians. The adverse international reaction to the killing of many Palestinian civilians caused a rethink among Israeli strategists on how to achieve its military objectives without suffering the wrath of worldwide criticism for harming non-combatants. Aside from the disastrous consequences for Israel’s image in the world, indiscriminate killing of civilians resulted in repeated calls for bringing Israeli politicians and generals to international justice, who were allegedly involved in war crimes.

Former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once commented that a week in politics is a very long time. A year in Middle Eastern affairs accounts for an eternity

Yossi Mekelberg

This also caused further radicalisation of many Palestinians, especially among the youth. Hamas itself was not spared from severe international criticism for firing indiscriminately on Israeli civilians. Despite the bloodiness of Operation Pillar of Defence it was more contained, in terms of time and casualties, compared to previous similar operations.

Former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once commented that a week in politics is a very long time. A year in Middle Eastern affairs accounts for an eternity. One of the major changes since the end of Operation Pillar of Defence has been the end of Mohammad Mursi’s presidency, who personally brokered the ceasefire. This was a major blow for the Hamas, who lost a major ally in neighbouring Egypt. Moreover, their strategic decision to turn their backs on President Assad of Syria further isolated their Gaza leadership, as they angered their Iranian backers, who responded by scaling down their financial and military support of the Hamas. This together with the continuing harsh measures implemented by Israel, that limit the movement of goods and people in and out of Gaza, have led to an alarming deterioration in the economic conditions in Gaza.

Military outcome

Only a year ago the Hamas leadership could claim that whatever the military outcome of the confrontation with Israel, it became a force to be reckoned with. Israel might deny negotiating with them, but the ceasefire was achieved through indirect negotiations, and as much as the Israeli air defence system was extremely effective, the barrage of rockets launched from Gaza still disrupted life in Israel. The military wing of the Hamas demonstrated that it could reach targets that even the Hezbollah could not, or would not even dare to attempt. A year on the Hamas has to deal with a the new Iranian President Rouhani, who would like to conduct his foreign policy directly with the big powers, and avoid unnecessary support of non-state actors, which might create unnecessary frictions between Iran and the international community. Moreover, as long as Mursi was in power the restriction on the movement of people and goods through the Rafah crossing was more limited.
Now it is barely opened three days a week, and to make things worse Israel and Egypt have destroyed most of the tunnels, which are the lifeline for the economy in Gaza as well as being utilised for the smuggling of weapons. Robert Serry, the U.N. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, told the U.N. Security Council in the summer that 80 percent of the tunnels linking Egypt and the Gaza Strip were destroyed beyond use by the Egyptian army. The inevitable consequences are that Gaza suffers from a serious economic crisis, and a severe breakdown in law and order. The people of Gaza experience up to 16 hours of power cuts a day, a shortage of basic foodstuffs and medicine, and construction material is in very short supply. Furthermore, the pressure is mounting on the government in Gaza as it is running out of funds to pay their employee salaries; overall unemployment exceeds forty percent.

Lesser threat

Israel might feel, for the first time in years that one of her arch-enemies has been contained and hence poses a lesser threat. At a time when the decision makers in Israel are mainly concerned with the Iranian nuclear issue and the peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, a more subdued Hamas is a welcome development for the Netanyahu government. Nevertheless, this is a short term approach. The intolerable situation in Gaza can only spell more radicalization and a likely recurrence of violence, if only to highlight the predicament of the people of Gaza and to break the deadlock. Because the Hamas is weak at the moment it might be an opportunity to include it in the current peace process, when it is so desperate for any sort of achievement.

Magnanimity on the side of Israel might prevent another round of violence, or at least test whether the Hamas leadership, after seven years in power, is ready for statesmanship. If Israel intents to negotiate in good faith with the Palestinians, it is bound to accept that only an inclusive process has a good chance of succeeding. However, the current government in Jerusalem seems to possess a narrow minded approach towards the art of negotiations. Similar to the situation with Iran, Netanyahu and his government believe that the lesson of Pillar of Defense and the sustained economic pressure are the only measures which yield results. There is no notion that at some point there is a need to shift towards negotiation and compromise instead of seeking capitulation. Such an approach might unfortunately lead to another round of violence before long.

Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s College in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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