Reflections on a war in Gaza

Once again unresolved political issues between Israel and Palestine have resulted in a bitter, armed conflict where the victims have mainly been the Palestinian civil population and where the most radical stances on both sides have served to reinforce each other. Meanwhile, the roads to dialogue, understanding and mutual  recognition have again been blocked. It is the latest episode in an unending conflict and about which we wish to highlight some points for reflection that may allow us to move beyond the taking of sides.

At the start of February, the Galician journalist Suso de Toro described Israel as ‘…a historical reality and like a fascinating human experience. The result of the power of will. It embodies virtues of that which is heroic, while keeping in mind that heroism, as a moral category, is complex and arguable’.

Seldom does a sentence sum up with such clarity the complexity that faces us when we confront the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While it is important not to forget the origins and causes of the creation of the Israeli state, it is equally important to outline the main goals facing Israeli society in order to end the conflict in which it finds itself immersed. It is true that both sides show clear signs of direct and majority support for their respective political leaders, a clear sign of such support are the results of the recent Israeli elections with the victory of the leader of the Kadima Party, Tzipi Livni, closely followed by the conservative Netanyahu and the surprising results obtained by the ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman. Nevertheless, it is also true that neither of them can aspire to a level of complete collective development while carrying the burden of occupation on the one hand, and insecurity on the other. Both are realities that cannot be compared, but which respectively perpetuate the situation of immobility when it comes to political dialogue.

One more battle in a long war?

What happened in Gaza and the rest of the Palestinian territories in the last weeks of 2008 and continues to happen in the early part of 2009, does not precisely correspond with the traditional actions and reactions between both communities since the end of the last Intifada. In effect, Gaza represents a qualitative and quantitative advance in terms of the level of Israel’s military response and political unity. However, it also corresponds with Hamas taking up a more extreme position that has driven their provocations to the limit, while enabling a disproportionate response. It has been seen as such not only by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), but also by the Israeli government themselves.

It is worth keeping in mind that Hamas is taking a stance that has not provoked the effective solidarity of the Arab world, beyond the rhetorical reactions that are always to be expected. There have not been any significant political actions or reactions in support of Hamas, with the exception of the threatening, ‘enlightened’ oratory of the Iranian regime and the diplomatic crisis felt by the Israeli diplomatic mission in Venezuela.

Fatah’s silence and feeble comments have been of particular significance, highlighting the scale of the deep divide separating the two main political alternatives in Palestine.

The much-needed democratisation of Palestinian institutions

The extreme situation through which the population in the Palestinian territories is living is key to understanding the electoral results and the political equilibrium generated in the territories. In this sense, Gaza is a particularly paradigmatic scenario. The population’s majority support for Hamas is objectively indisputable and consequently, there is no doubt as to the government’s legitimacy. Hamas’ processes, its way of acting and its transparency as a responsible political force in Gaza’s political institutions are another matter, however.

A part of the problem is the dangerous mixture of political and religious power. In the case of the Hamas government, as on all sides of the conflict, the two cannot be separated. A more serious issue, however, is the complete lack of transparency and democratic action in the internal processes that affect everyone, from the security services themselves, to the management of educational centres, health resources, and the aid projects that are carried out in the heart of the territory, with international support.

The extreme situation through which the population in the Palestinian territories is living is key to understanding the electoral results and the political climate in the territories

In the impossible dilemma that is raised by the verdict at the ballot box and a government’s democratic foundations, it is necessary to urgently search for a third way for Gaza. International pressure can be brought to bear on its leaders so they take political actions that bring them closer to democratic standards in a dynamic fashion. The hostile pressure of the Israeli government and the  humanitarian crisis being experienced in the territory may explain the authoritarian actions of Gaza’s leaders, but in no way can it justify them.

Weakness and opportunities for a Palestinian state

Any reticence towards an international treaty which would lead to the construction and recognition of a Palestinian state stems from precisely those undemocratic tendencies and theocratic practices outlined above. While extremist organisations such as Hamas continue to retain the destruction of the State of Israel as an objective, it is also true that the Israeli state consistently fails to define the terms and conditions necessary for the establishment of a new Palestinian state. Both parties realise that, internationally, they have unfinished business and they also appreciate the need to arrive at a hypothetical negotiation process with an advantage.

In the Palestinian camp, therefore, Hamas needs to balance its majority social support with a position that is acceptable in the international arena. Meanwhile, Fatah needs to know how to maintain its position as a privileged negotiating partner with Israel without losing the social support that keeps it centre stage on the Palestinian political scene. The third way, led by Mustafa Barghouthi, a doctor and social leader, continues to gain adepts based on political transparency and a rejection of corruption. Nevertheless, the movement is not a serious contender for power, at present.

It is necessary to find an international agreement in order to facilitate a realistic and coherent route map in which neither of the two sides begins at a disadvantage

On the Israeli side, it appears as if the only political decisions that achieve consensus in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, are for violent actions such as those carried out in Gaza. They represent actions that the government itself sees as ‘disproportionate’, but which it uses as the best weapon (literally) against Palestinian military attacks on Israeli territory. It is a political and military dynamic, however, that may have its days numbered, depending on how the new American presidency develops.

Israel and new American foreign policy

In effect, Barack Obama already included questions that directly and indirectly affect Israel in his electoral programme. For this reason, the words of Obama while still president-elect were especially significant, such as when he called for the world to ‘listen to both sides in order to find a solution to the conflict’ in Gaza.

The new US president knows that it is not possible to address policy changes in relation to Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran without  guaranteeing changes in the form and substance of the Israeli government’s activities, both in the domestic and foreign spheres. No American president has tried to face up to the power and  influence of the Jewish lobby since Jimmy Carter’s term in office. Neither, however, has Israel been so economically and politically dependent on the United States.

If President Obama has the ability to make financial and military support compatible, without completely alienating this powerful lobby, while at the same time, force new lines of dialogue similar to those represented by the Oslo Accords and the Camp David agreements, then American foreign policy will take a giant step forward. It will not only be true for the Middle East, but will also provide a certain advantage at the start of a new era of relations with the Arab world.

Facing up to the humanitarian crisis

Beyond the international negotiations and the political options the Israelis and Palestinians aspire to, both sides have the responsibility of facilitating humanitarian activities in the area devastated by the war. Virtually all sanitation, educational and communication infrastructures in the Gaza Strip have been destroyed. As a result, the civilian population is facing an extreme situation that needs redirecting, not for political or partisan ends, but from a desire to alleviate the collective suffering of Gaza’s population.

For this reason, it is worth emphasising the equal share of responsibility between the Israelis, the Palestinians and the international community. The first have the obligation to acknowledge the humanitarian disaster generated by the conflict. They must facilitate and, if necessary, protect the means of access and areas of operation of the teams responsible for carrying out aid projects. Such an agreement is urgently needed in the case of Gaza and needs to be extended throughout the occupied territories.

On the Palestinian side, Hamas in particular has the obligation to stop the indiscriminate use of the civilian population as human shields for its troops and command centres. Such practices by Hamas’ armed forces in Gaza have been the perfect excuse for a harsh response from a wellmotivated army such as the IDF, that is little inclined to make distinctions between civilians and  combatants.

The international community needs to take control of aid operations in Palestine. It is not sufficient for it to simply supply the resources, it must also guarantee the success of the projects while protecting them from the endemic corruption of the Palestinian institutions and also guaranteeing their use in a reasonable time-frame thanks to accords and agreements with the Israeli government. There is no sense to the vicious cycle of construction, destruction and negotiation that international cooperation has allowed in Palestine, particularly on behalf of European Union members.

The search for viable, much-needed dialogue

Finally, we can assume that in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, up to now, neither pre-conceived ideas, nor the ideas of one side versus the other have worked. At present, both the defence of the disappearance of the State of Israel and the preservation of the current situation in the Palestinian occupied territories are equally unfounded positions.

While violent actions strengthen the respective political forces that feed off them, it is worth remembering the enormous political, economic and social cost of such a prolonged conflict.

The perpetuation of the conflict is only possible with explicit and implicit international support for both sides. Precisely for this reason it is necessary to find an international agreement between the leaders of the Arab world, the United States and the European Union, in order to ensure the rules of the game are adhered to and to facilitate a realistic and coherent route map in which neither of the two sides begins at a disadvantage.

For Europe in particular it is a magnificent opportunity to demonstrate that, beyond the useless cheques, that are so easily destroyed and forgotten, it is capable of generating successful diplomacy by functioning as an intermediary between the United States and the Arab world. Likewise, Europe could begin to count on the recognition of its role as a negotiator by both Israeli and Palestinian political leaders.

 Article publicat a: http://www.international-view.cat/PDF/civ%203/civ%203%20Víctor%20Terradellas.pdf

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