“We do see, for the very first time … people going through the rubbish dumps looking for things, people begging, which is quite a new phenomenon,” the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) commissioner-general, Karen Abu Zayd, said in an interview with The Associated Press about the humanitarian situation in Gaza.
Gaza, which assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Izak Rabin once wished would sink into the sea, was already “miserable and grim” as John Holmes, the UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said in February, because of Israel’s embargo. According to the UN, 78 percent of the 1.5 million people living in Gaza depended on food distributed by the UN then. The Israeli attacks that started on Dec. 27 not only increased the dependency but also made it extremely difficult for aid agencies to reach the needy.
The “dire” situation in Gaza in not new; almost 80 percent of its inhabitants are descendents of the refugees of the 1948 war. It is one of the most densely populated places on earth. The late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said used to say that it was the worst place he had ever been.
The humanitarian situation worsened when Gaza became “Hamasland” in 2007. Hamas seized total control of Gaza after internal clashes between Fatah, led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Hamas about the right to rule in Palestine. Since then, Israel has imposed economic sanctions and an embargo on Gaza. In turn, Hamas and Islamic jihad militants fired mortars and Qassam rockets toward Israel’s southern settlements.
A truce that was brokered by Egypt went into effect on June 19 for six months, effectively stopping the Gaza-sourced rockets aimed at Israel, but unfortunately it failed to end the Israeli embargo.
The truce was disturbed for the first time on Nov. 4, when Israeli forces entered Gaza for the first time since June to blow up a tunnel that, according to Israel, Hamas was planning to use to capture soldiers along the border. Six Hamas militants were killed on the night of the tunnel raid. Since then rockets and mortar shells have been fired from Gaza to Israel.
Hamas is claiming that Israel was the one that broke the truce, and Israel claims the same about Hamas. In fact, both parties were trying to change the conditions of the truce to their advantage. Israeli Ambassador to Turkey Gabi Levy told Sunday’s Zaman that Israel was ready to continue with the truce to the point of begging for it.
“Hamas wanted to change the initial terms and the understanding of the truce, and this is why they started to attack Israel. Now, around 1 million Israeli civilians are living in the south and are under continuous threat,” he says. “We told them to stop it; we told them that we are very strong, but they did not listen. When they stopped shelling, we opened the borders, but when they attacked us, we closed them, and this went for a while.”
When the truce ended, Egypt started to look for a chance to broker a second term. Hamas has offered another six-month break to violence in the Gaza Strip if Israel were to lift the embargo on the coastal territory and reopen Gaza border crossings. Even on the last days of the truce Hamas had not decided what to do. The exiled leader of Hamas, Khaled Mashaal, was clear that the “truce was limited to six months and ends on Dec. 19.” But Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas leader in Gaza, was pointing to the direction of a renewed truce. But the increased mortar shell attacks against Israel were used as a pretext for the largest operation against Gaza: Operation Cast Lead.
In a week’s time, more than 400 people died in Gaza and thousands were left wounded and dislocated. Interestingly even Abbas put the blame on Hamas. “We called the leaders of Hamas and told them, ‘Please, do not end the truce,’” Abbas said. Bassam Abu-Sumayyah, a columnist for the Palestinian Al-Hayat Al-Jadida daily, accuses Hamas of megalomania and says that it had acted without even a little bit of political and security sense. “Hamas behaved like a superpower. They thought they have limitless number of missiles and can therefore prevail in a war of such size,” he wrote in a recent article.
A columnist for the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam, Abdallah Awwad, said that Hamas had made a major mistake in trying to be both a government operating in the open and a resistance organization that operated underground. “We are paying the price of stupidity and the maniacal love of being rulers,” he said.
This is similar to what Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said about what is going on in Gaza after a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak: “Hamas is the target. Hamas is the address for everything that happens in Gaza, politically and economically. Israel has no interest in hurting innocent civilians, but it has to respond.”
According to the Palestinian ambassador to Ankara, Nabil Maarouf, Livni and Israel’s claim that the objective is Hamas is cynical. “The whole Palestine and the Palestinian people are under attack. Not Hamas. Hamas is a very small part of Gaza. All of the population is Palestinian,” he told Sunday’s Zaman. “And the result of the attacks will also influence Palestine and Palestinians as a whole. In fact Hamas is going to be strengthened. Politically, the vision of an independent Palestinian state and the two-state solution is under the attack.”
Maarouf is particularly against labeling Hamas or any other Palestinian organization as “terrorist.” He believes that there is only one party to be blamed for the current clashes: Israel. “Hamas is a part of the Palestinian people. We, all of us, are under occupation. This means that we have the right to resist the occupation,” he said. “If Hamas and Arabs are fighting, they are fighting against occupation forces. You cannot equate who is under occupation and the one who is occupying. Let the Israelis leave our country, then you will see that we are the most peaceful people.”
According to public opinion polls conducted before the Gaza operation, Kadima was trailing its rival Likud, which is led by Benjamin Netanyahu. After the operation, the situation changed: “The Labor Party and its leader, Ehud Barak, at the same time the minister of defense, has emerged the biggest political winner of the war against Hamas so far,” reported Yossi Verter in the Haaretz daily.
“Barak’s personal fortunes improved sharply, with 53 percent of poll respondents expressing satisfaction with his performance [compared to just 34 percent about six months ago]. A larger number, 38 percent, are dissatisfied with him but that is nevertheless a significant improvement over the 52 percent disapproval rating of six months ago,” he writes. “At this stage, the war bodes well for the three leading parties. Most of the public reportedly believes that in time of war, it’s best to vote for parties whose candidates are experienced, such as former chiefs of staff, prime ministers and defense and foreign ministers.”
But Levy thinks the idea that there is a relationship between the Israeli government’s willingness to hit Gaza so hard and the upcoming February general elections in the country is just “stupid.”
“To whom it is going to serve? There is a full consensus in Israel about the operation because the Israeli public is fed up with Hamas’ rocket attacks. Even the leader of the opposition party, Netanyahu, is joining the campaign to support this operation. There is absolutely nothing to do with the elections in this operation,” he says, adding that there are also claims that Israel is trying to change the situation on the ground before US President-elect Barack Obama takes office.
“There is nothing to do with the new US administration, either. There are claims that Israel is trying to set up the conditions for the future policy of the Obama administration. There is nothing to do with it. This is just self-defense,” Levy argues.
But many analysts, like Jon Alterman, head of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, suggest the opposite. Speaking to The Associated Press, he speculated that Israeli leaders synchronize their retaliatory attacks to political calendars in both Israel and the US because Israeli politicians running for the February elections needed to appear strong against Hamas, and it was perhaps better to strike before Bush left office on Jan. 20 because they weren’t as sure what Obama’s reaction would be.
Anthony H. Cordesman, a military analyst at the CSIS, shared a similar view in a story in The Washington Post last week. “Now I think what the Obama administration faces is at least two years or more before they can really think of having any serious movement on the peace process,” Cordesman said. “Every time this kind of violence breaks out, it becomes harder to move forward. It just creates more of a climate of hostility and anger,” he says, adding that the operation cannot supply the results that Israel was looking for.
Analyst Yossi Melman thinks that at the beginning there were two options: Either the operation would be short and would lead to a new truce, or the operation would be longer and destroy Hamas severely. “But as the days go by it appears that Hamas’ stamina and its operational ability are greater than had been assessed by Israel,” he wrote in Haaretz.
He thinks that from now on there are several options, including a ground operation, which will bring many casualties, or reoccupying Gaza, which will lead to increased friction. Another option is unilateral declaration by Israel of a limited or permanent cease-fire that would transfer “the burden of proof” to Hamas.
According to Melman, a truce reached through international mediation and agreed upon by both sides is another option.
“This should be the option preferred by the Israeli leadership. However, Israel must insist that any such agreement be as broad as possible and include a number of issues that the previous truce ignored,” he says. Among the “ignored” issues, the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier kidnapped and kept as a hostage by Hamas since 2006, has a particular place.
Even the most radical Israelis would accept that whoever started this fight, it is Israel that will decide when to stop the bombardment. The longer the bombardment continues, the harder will it be for Israel to stop what has been started. Maarouf, the Palestinian ambassador, is hopeful of the international community in general and of Turkey in particular.
“We do need the help of the international community because it has both the moral duty and the power to force Israelis to stop their attacks on the Palestinians and recognize their rights. If this can be done, the way will be open for establishing a just peace and normalizing relations between Palestinians and Israelis,” he says.
He also believes that as a temporary member of the UN Security Council, Turkey is the strongest regional power in the Middle East and that it has good relations with all the parties. Maarouf is optimistic that Turkey can bring Arab countries closer to each other. According to him, “This will lead automatically the Palestinians coming closer to each other. If the Arab countries can be reconciled, together with the support of the Arab countries, Palestinian factions can be reconciled, too.”