The current Gaza crisis is the culmination of more than two years of failed strategy, conceived and carried out jointly by the United States and Israel. The first mistake was their refusal to accept the results of the January 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, acknowledged by all observers to be free and fair. Hamas won that poll, but instead of engaging the new leadership–and testing its avowal that it would accept, if not applaud, a two-state resolution of the conflict–Israel, with US encouragement, cut off aid, tax revenues and, eventually, almost all connection with the outside world. The policy was brutal and straightforward: Gaza’s 1.5 million citizens would be punished for electing leaders unacceptable to Tel Aviv and Washington. The next stage was to encourage a coup by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, despite Hamas’s willingness to form a coalition with Abbas’s Fatah faction. But Hamas struck first, overthrowing the corrupt and discredited PA in June 2007. Since then, Israel has tightened the siege on Gaza, leading the UN’s human rights representative in the territories, Richard Falk, to accuse Israel of committing a “crime against humanity.” Even former Mossad official Yossi Alpher said, “It’s collective punishment, humanitarian suffering…. I think people really believed that if you starved Gazans, they will get Hamas to stop the attacks. It’s repeating a failed policy, mindlessly.”
Israel now claims–again, with robust Bush administration support generally echoed in mainstream US media accounts–that Hamas is responsible for the latest flare-up because it refused to renew the six-month cease-fire negotiated in June, the terms of which were an end to Hamas rocket attacks on Israel in exchange for Israel’s easing of the blockade. The truth is more complicated: even as the cease-fire was being inked, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak began planning a comprehensive attack on Hamas. And while Hamas took advantage of the cease-fire to smuggle more arms, it sharply cut back rocket attacks, whereas Israel never seriously eased the blockade. Israel was the first to seriously breach the cease-fire: on November 4 (when the US election guaranteed minimal press coverage), in an attack on a Hamas unit killing six. Hamas took the bait and escalated rocket fire. Those attacks are violations of international law, of course, but the point is, both sides are responsible for the escalation.
There are electoral as well as strategic reasons for Israel’s incursion: following the collapse of Ehud Olmert’s Kadima-led government last summer, hard-right Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who disparaged the cease-fire and has repeatedly called for the destruction of Hamas, has been ahead in the polls for February’s parliamentary elections. His opponents, Labor Party leader Barak and Kadima leader and current Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, knew that a major blow against Hamas would draw support from Netanyahu’s base–especially if an offensive came in response to a rocket barrage. Indeed, public support for Israel’s campaign has–so far–been overwhelming, and no wonder, since Hamas’s deadlier rockets now allow it, for the first time, to terrorize large Israeli cities like Ashkelon, Ashdod and Beersheba. Sure enough, Barak, most closely identified with the Gaza offensive, has seen his poll numbers shoot up.
The strategic rationale for Israel’s offensive arises from the example of Hezbollah. After years of guerrilla resistance to the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, and aided by a steady supply of increasingly sophisticated arms from Iran and Syria, Hezbollah eventually achieved a deterrent capacity, forcing out the Israelis in 2000. By 2006 it was able to fight Israel to a draw. Hamas has followed the Hezbollah model, and though it is still nowhere near the latter’s armed might, if it continues to smuggle arms it could eventually get there. That would mark a revolutionary and, to Israel, deeply threatening development in a relationship that it has always dominated overwhelmingly. In another echo of the 2006 Lebanon war, Israel has, with its latest offensive, aroused the fury of the Arab and Muslim world not only against Israel and the United States but against the Arab regimes that have colluded with them, primarily Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. And not only has Hamas’s standing in the region risen, so has that of Syria, Iran and Hezbollah.
Israel claims to favor Fatah and President Abbas over Hamas, since Fatah renounced armed resistance and recognized Israel in order to pursue Palestinian statehood through negotiation. And yet Israel often seems to go out of its way to validate the Hamas claim that such a path is worthless. Hamas asks the Palestinian people, What has the Fatah strategy gotten us? Steady growth in settlement population, as well as a separation wall that steals more of our land, with nothing to show for years of on-and-off negotiation. Hamas claims that its steadfast resistance induced Israel to pull settlers from Gaza. There’s plenty to dispute in this scenario, but to most Palestinians the Fatah leadership appears to be a corrupt and politically bankrupt lackey of Israel–in the contemptuous description of Abbas by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, “a plucked chicken.”
Israel does have a more rational strategy, spelled out in the magazine’s lead editorial. As Ha’aretz columnist Akiva Eldar points out at thenation.com, it is unlikely that Israel will get a better deal than the Arab Peace Initiative. The alternative to that is not only more warfare but, sooner or later, world recognition that there should be only one state in Israel and the territories. And that would be the end of Zionism.