Obama’s Gaza Opportunity


Published December 31, 2008, issue of January 09, 2009.
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When Israel unleashed its warplanes on Gaza on December 27, a collective gasp could be heard around the globe. The sudden fury of the bombardment brought visions of another Lebanon-style debacle: neighborhoods in rubble, mass civilian deaths, angry mobs surrounding Western embassies, furious diplomatic brinkmanship leading to a humiliating Israeli withdrawal.

What actually happened, at least in the first days, was quite different. Israel’s bombing was targeted with astonishing precision at strategic assets of Hamas, the extremist Islamic party that runs Gaza as an unabashed platform for Israel’s destruction. Yes, there were civilians among the Palestinian dead — too many and each a tragedy. But the vast majority of the dead were Hamas security personnel. Hamas boasts it is at war with the Zionist entity. It got what it asked for.

Most unexpected, international reactions were more muted than they have been during past Israeli actions. Turkey, traditionally Jerusalem’s closest Muslim ally, condemned the bombing but gave no sign of recalling its diplomats from Tel Aviv. Both Egypt and the Palestinian Authority put the blame for the violence mainly on Hamas for ending its six-month cease-fire with Israel and inviting deadly reprisal. As for rage on the Arab street, there were mass protests in Beirut, Amman and a few other places, but they were directed as much at Egypt and Jordan, which share Israel’s dislike of Hamas, as at Israel itself.

Hamas wanted to portray the Israeli onslaught as an attack on the Palestinian people. Many of its sympathizers, Western and Muslim alike, took up that call. But most major players defined the battle, and the larger war of which it was part, the way Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni framed it: as a conflict between moderates on both sides who seek coexistence and extremists who oppose it.

War is the ugliest of all human endeavors. Its central, irreducible objective is the deliberate slaughter of other humans, as quickly and efficiently as possible. Its primary result is a tragic landscape of broken bodies, grieving survivors and ruined homes and lives. War should have died out eons ago, if civilization or evolution had any meaning. And yet it persists, driven by greed or passion or, on occasion, raw need.

Israel was drawn into a war in Gaza that it did not seek but could not avoid. Its southern region has been bombarded by rockets from Gaza, in violation of international humanitarian law, almost continuously since 2002. In the past year alone some 3,000 rockets and mortar shells have hit, making life a daily nightmare for Israelis in range. The death toll has been small, but not for lack of will on Hamas’s part. And in recent months the rockets’ range, power and accuracy have increased dramatically. During the recent fighting, for the first time, the rockets reached Ashdod, Israel’s main port city, halfway between Gaza and Tel Aviv.

Hamas apologists have managed over time to create an alternative reality in which rockets are a legitimate tool to resist the occupation and relieve the siege Israel imposed on Gaza after withdrawing in 2005. In this telling, the Gaza disengagement was not really a plan to let Gazans live their lives, but a ruse to make Gaza a vast prison and plunge its people into a humanitarian disaster. Supposedly, rockets were Hamas’s only tool to defend the Palestinians.

It’s a popular narrative, but it’s full of holes. The rocket fire was not a response to Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005; it began three years earlier. Nor did the blockade of Gaza begin when Israel withdrew. It began two years later. Israel intended to leave Gaza in the hands of the Palestinian Authority. Supplies of food, fuel, water and electrical power continued in full, though Israel insisted on keeping control of Gaza’s land, air and sea access to prevent arms smuggling. Only in June 2007, after Hamas forcibly seized control of Gaza, did Israel impose the present embargo — with the full backing of most of the international community.

As for the supposed humanitarian disaster created by the blockade, consider what the Gaza director of the United Nations Development Program, Khaled Abdel Shafi, told the Scripps News Service in an interview published December 15. “This is not a humanitarian crisis,” Abdel Shafi said. “It’s an economic crisis, a political crisis, but it’s not a humanitarian crisis. People aren’t starving.”

No part of the Hamas narrative is more outrageous, however, than the claim that its attacks on Israel are meant to resist the occupation and defend the Palestinians. Shelling Israel doesn’t defend the Palestinians. It puts their lives at risk by inviting Israeli reprisal. Nor does violence “resist” any Israeli presence; rather, it deepens Israel’s intrusive security measures. Palestinian statehood will require an act of will by Israel. That won’t come until Israelis believe it is safe.

But Hamas doesn’t care about building a Palestinian state or liberating the Palestinian people. It wants to end Israeli statehood. That’s why it continues its provocative acts of terror. It’s the reason the world cooperates in the blockade and looks on when Israel hits back. It’s the main reason for the failure of prolonged efforts by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others to harness Hamas to the Palestinian Authority in order to clear the way for meaningful peace talks with Israel. Israel can’t be expected to create a next-door neighbor dedicated to its destruction. Nearly everyone understands that now.

It would be wrong to catalogue the history of the latest crisis and ignore Israel’s share of the blame. Israel helped to undermine Egypt’s Palestinian unity efforts, meant to win tacit Hamas acceptance of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, by insisting it would not negotiate with a unified Palestinian team. It ignored opportunities to strengthen Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas against Hamas by giving him the concessions he needed — removing West Bank roadblocks, releasing prisoners, rerouting the security barrier — to show his public that negotiating can improve their lives.

Most of all, Israel failed to honor its written agreements to halt settlement construction and dismantle unauthorized outposts. That has arguably done as much to undermine popular trust in the peace process among Palestinians as terrorism has done among Israelis.

It’s widely assumed that Israel timed its action to take advantage of the last days in the presidency of George W. Bush, who has granted Israel a freedom of action it doesn’t expect to receive from Barack Obama. True or not, the timing gives Obama an unusual opportunity. He can change the rules of the game in the Middle East, if he acts quickly. With Israel feeling newly confident, Hamas weakened and neighboring Arab states desperate for stability, the new president has a fragile opening to bang heads together and, finally, close the deal.

Obama had meant to start his presidency on domestic affairs and get to the Middle East when he had time. That’s now a luxury he can’t afford.

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