In the New Years Day post, I focussed on the long-term underlying issues in Gaza, rather than joining the short term finger-pointing and blame game. The morality of the blame game is valuable to Israel and Hamas only in terms of affecting international opinion in their favour and to date they have each established moral supremacy in their own home patches: the US in Israel’s case and the Arab and Islamic ‘street’ for Hamas. Now as the death toll in Gaza clicks smoothly past the 1000 mark (with less outrage than when we passed 500) maybe it is time to focus on the ‘war’ aims and the long term aims of the protagonists.
What does Hamas want? In theory an Islamic state in Palestine and in the world. In reality however their ambitions are less grandiose, and are closer to Hezbollah-type pragmatism than to the universal jihadist lunacy of al-Quaeda. The de facto Hamas political supremo and the last elected Palestinian Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh, has said that Hamas would be prepared to settle in the medium term for a two-state solution with elements such as removal of West Bank wall, ending of Jewish settlements outside 1967 borders, a capital in Jerusalem, release of 11,000 prisoners, communication corridors between Gaza and the West Bank, and recognition of a right to return for refugees. A return to 1967 borders is of course anathema to many Israelis and to the Zionist ideology which underlies much of Israel’s policies, and may be unrealistic in present circumstances. Nevertheless the Hamas agenda, although encumbered by a theological refusal to formally recognise Israel, is not significantly different from the declared objectives of other Palestinian groups including Fatah.
In the short term, Hamas will grasp at any ceasefire that sees Israeli withdrawal and does not seriously weaken Hamas political control of Gaza. Hamas ultimately aspires to political hegemony in the Palestinian territories, a hegemony which was vindicated in the last Palestinian elections and not just in Gaza. (In the large West Bank towns of Nablus and Ramallah, Hamas won 9 out of 11 seats on their Change and Reform’ platform.) However much we may dislike it, it is hard to see any rival to Hamas for democratic political control in Gaza and the West Bank because of disarray within Fatah and other groups under the old PLO umbrella.
What does Israel want? The present Israeli Government in the short term appears to want to get the credit for ending rocket attacks on Israel, attacks which only resumed recently due to Israeli actions which Hamas considered provocative and a breach of an earlier understanding. That is unlikely to be achieved completely but a significant reduction or a temporary cessation of fire may be enough to satisfy many Israelis, at least for the moment.
The Israelis would like to close all tunnels linking Egypt to Gaza. They have largely won the PR battle in the West by presenting these tunnels as existing solely for the smuggling of rockets, or more correctly rocket parts and other weapons and munitions, into Gaza. The reality of course is that the tunnels are primarily a method of circumventing Israeli blockades and other restrictions on consumer goods, foodstuffs and medical material. Military supplies, though politically significant and important to the militants, necessarily constitute a small element of the smugglers’ payload. If these tunnels were eliminated then the Israeli stranglehold on Gaza’s economy and society would be significantly strengthened.
Israel may also like an international presence of some sort to help ‘monitor’ an agreement and hopefully embarrass and undermine Hamas and Palestinians. Nevertheless they will be wary of having too strong an international presence that may inhibit Israel’s future freedom of action.
On the other hand there are subtle hints that Israel may have a grander strategy and may not have risked all this adverse publicity merely to end pin-prick rocket attacks and damage Hamas infrastructure. The conventional wisdom is that the present Israeli campaign is not likely to continue in its present form after the Obama inauguration. However an alternative view is emerging this week among some long-time observers who have been puzzled by Israeli behaviour in this conflict. This view suggests that Israel, or at least some elements within the Israeli Government, would like to continue the war through the Obama inauguration.
Why would they wish to do this?
Traditionally Israel’s best defenders in the US have been Democratic administrations which have had strong Jewish support and membership. However the Neo-Con revolution combined with the Twin Towers fallout has made the outgoing Bush II administration the most pro-Israel ever. Since 2001 Israel has acted with greater impunity than ever, paying less attention to international law and being less concerned with European public opinion. Obama is an unpredictable factor but has appointed Hilary Clinton, with a hawkish pro-Israel Senate record, as Secretary of State and Israel may prefer to force the issue with Obama earlier, rather than later when he may have more confidence on the international stage. This thesis suggests that a continuing war will compel the new administration to choose between the ‘evil terrorism’ of Hamas and the good, if somewhat robust, allied Government of Israel. There can only be one choice in these circumstances for Obama, bearing in mind the selective and absurdly biased coverage in the mainstream US media. It will also be too early to squabble with his new pro-Israel Secretary of State with whom he already has a difficult history. So if I had to make a guess here, there may a few more noisy nights in Gaza yet before Israel can clinch this vital geopolitical chess piece.
But what of Israel’s long term vision for Gazastan? Israel has a very sophisticated information warfare capability. Throughout this conflict Israeli actions have continually strengthened Hamas at the expense of the allegedly more moderate, more corrupt, more secular and hence one could argue, more ‘Western’ Fatah. The wider impact on the Arab ‘street’ has also been an entirely negative one. Israel with its superb PR machine surely knows that endless footage of Israeli artillery and air attacks on crowded Arab urban areas, frequently dotted with prominent minarets, is not going to benefit Israel in its long term relationships with the Arab world. So it would seem that Israel has calculated it does not need good relations with its neighbours. It appears happy to exist in a hostile climate for many years to come, confident that US patronage, and European squeamishness over “terrorism” and fears of “fundamentalism”, will enable Israel to continue to achieve its short-term goals by threats of extreme military action.
If the destruction of Hamas and a lasting peace with the Arab world was the real objective why not adopt a more clever media strategy? It is possible that Gazastan is now performing the role that South Lebanon played for decades. An area where Israel can flex its military muscle with impunity and at minimal cost while enabling a tiny state to play superpower geopolitical games and defer indefinitely the pain of engaging in a real peace process with its neighbours.
The next few days leading up to and beyond the Obama inauguration should tell us a lot about Israel’s real intentions and about what type of future the almost voiceless Palestinians can expect.