Gaza war changes Middle East equation at Israel's expense
Le Monde Diplomatique
February 19, 2009 - 12:00am
"They're still living in the War of Independence (1948) and the Sinai campaign (1956). With them, it's all about tanks, about controlling territories or controlled territories, holding this or that hill. But these things are worthless. (…) The Lebanon war (2006) will go down in history as the first war in which the military leadership understood that classical warfare has become obsolete" (1).
This view, expressed in September 2008, comes not from an Israeli pacifist but the country's prime minister, Ehud Olmert. It would take a highly sophisticated analyst to fathom the subconscious of this politician, who is responsible both for the catastrophic war in Lebanon in 2006 and the recent offensive in Gaza, and who at the same time claims his country needs to abandon its narrow vision of security.
He and the majority of those who govern Israel probably share the view bluntly expressed in 2002 by Israel's then chief of staff, general Moshe Yaalon: "The Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people" (2). With each new war comes the same old refrain from Israel's leaders: the Arabs only understand force; teach them a lesson and peace will at last be possible. "We're going to keep our finger on the trigger" (3) was how foreign minister Tzipi Livni put it. Olmert and his government are in favour of peace in the same way that the US government in the 19th century was in favour of the peace ?they decided to impose on the Native American tribes.
The shelling of Gaza came to a provisional halt on 18 January. The Israeli government wanted its troops out of Gaza before Barack Obama was sworn in and Hamas gave Israel a week to withdraw its soldiers and reopen crossing points with Gaza. Beyond the deliberate destruction of vital infrastructure – which includes ministry buildings and fire stations, the parliament and the university – the human cost shown on TV screens the world over has been overwhelming. Even the French media, which has previously been very timid, hasn't been able to obscure the extent of the catastrophe. Leaving to one side a moral reckoning and the crimes which may mean that Israeli leaders one day face an international tribunal, how has the fighting changed the political landscape at local and regional level?
The prime objective of the Israeli government was to permanently weaken Hamas politically and militarily. It claims to have succeeded in this and taught the "terrorists" a lesson. But is it that simple? The tactic of massive bombardments and avoidance of close combat limited Israeli army losses – the third phase of the operation, which was never put into action, would have been an infantry assault of towns – but hasn't broken up the military core of Hamas, which comprises between three and five thousand fighters. Like Hizbullah in 2006, Hamas was able to keep firing rockets until the very last moment and its arms supply lines held up, albeit at a reduced level.
Whatever the criticisms of Hamas's strategy, including their rocket attacks on civilian targets, the vast majority of the Palestinian population holds the Israeli government responsible for the destruction. As Elena Qleibo, a Gaza-based aid worker from Oxfam and an ex-Costa Rican ambassador to Israel says: "People are extremely angry, and the level of hate against Israel is very high. I have lived and worked in Gaza for many years, and I have never seen such hatred from the population" (4).
The Palestinians also resent the Palestinian Authority's passivity during the war. The internal crisis in Fatah, which was already factionalised, has deepened, in spite of the call for unity and resistance made by Marwan Barghouti from prison. President Mahmoud Abbas, who is himself weakened and marginalised, has called for the creation of a government of national unity. So the Gaza of tomorrow will either remain under Hamas control or will be governed by a national authority in which Hamas plays a central role. Surely not what Israel wanted.
The next phase
The focus of the next phase will be the reconstruction of Gaza, which the Israeli government wants to control tightly. No project will be accepted and not a dollar will reach Gaza without their agreement, according to Israeli officials. In addition, Hamas are to be prevented from claiming this aid. Israel has gained support on this from the EU commissioner for external affairs, Benita Ferrero-Waldner (5), but as there is no other authority in Gaza but Hamas, reconstruction risks being limited to humanitarian aid. All the conditions for renewed hostilities against Israel will once again be met; the Israeli blockade was one of the principal causes for the last escalation.
The war has profoundly altered the regional order, too, though not in the way that Israel wished. First, it has confirmed the isolation of the Palestinian Authority. It has encouraged the consolidation of a resistance front based in Qatar (site of the biggest US base in the region) and Syria. This alliance was made concrete at a meeting in Doha, in which 12 Arab countries took part (among them Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon and Iraq, America's supposed ally) along with Senegal (which holds the presidency of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference), Turkey, Indonesia, Venezuela and Iran. Mauritania has suspended diplomatic relations with Israel and Qatar has broken off economic links. Venezuela and Bolivia have also severed their diplomatic relations.
A few days later, on 19 and 20 January, the Arab summit in Kuwait brought a fragile reconciliation even if it didn't remove differences of opinion. This was made easier by Israel's refusal to negotiate a ceasefire as proposed by president Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. Angered by this rebuff and by the signing of a separate US-Israeli agreement to combat arms imports to Gaza (and therefore control the border with Egypt), Mubarak toughened his stance.
Turkey, Israel's traditional ally, has confirmed its growing importance on the regional stage. Like Mubarak, Turkey's prime minister, Recip Erdogan felt humiliated by Olmert, who kept quiet about his intentions regarding Gaza when he saw his Turkish counterpart during a visit to Ankara on 22 and 23 December. The day after the offensive was launched on 27 December, Erdogan said: "This attack, coming while we are making such efforts for peace, is a blow against peace" (6). Not only did Turkey, the mediator which had brought Israel and Syria to the verge of resuming direct negotiations, suspend its efforts, it also called for Israel's suspension from the UN the day after it fired on UN buildings in Gaza.
During the crisis, Turkey has strengthened its relations with Hamas and is hoping to mediate between it and the Palestinian Authority. And Turkish popular opinion has translated into demonstrations in which several million people have taken to the streets in Turkish towns and villages.
Iran has also seen its regional position strengthened. It has extended its alliances in the Arab and Islamic world. Its radical discourse has been increasingly echoed within the region and it is now in a position of strength vis-à-vis the new US administration. However, Tehran has shown restraint in the crisis. Iranian supreme leader ayatollah Ali Khamenei has even declared that "our hands are tied on that terrain" (7). The firing of rockets from Lebanon prompted fears that a second front might open up. Although this didn't happen, the incident can be taken as a warning: Iran has told the Egyptian government through diplomatic channels that it will not allow Hamas to be crushed.
Contempt for Arab opinion
Western governments have nothing but contempt for Arab popular opinion. This was clear when they challenged Hamas's victory in the democratic elections held in Palestine in 2006. They simply shrugged when in a communiqué on 12 January the Saudi government condemned the "racist genocide" in Gaza. They ignore the extent of protest in the Arab and Muslim world, especially in Egypt (despite the state of near-siege in Cairo) and in Afghanistan. Yet which Arab government would now be willing to sit down to peace talks with Israel? The Saudi king has announced that the 2002 Arab initiative for a comprehensive peace between the Arab world and Israel in exchange for the creation of a Palestinian state on territory occupied by Israel in 1967 won't remain on the table for much longer.
Meanwhile, on Sunday 18 January, while Western journalists broadcast images of Gaza's lunar landscape, prime minster Olmert was to be seen expressing his pleasure to six European leaders, including Nicolas Sarkozy, over their "extraordinary support for the state of Israel and their concern about its security". More than in any other conflict since 1967, the European position, especially that of France, has been aligned with the Israeli government's (see "A people abandoned"). In retrospect, the upgrading of relations between the EU and Israel in early December 2008 looks like a green light to the operation in Gaza. In spite of the Israeli offensive, the EU (and France) will strengthen their bilateral relations with Tel Aviv (8).
This Western alliance engaged in the fight against "Islamic terrorism" has more than a hint of the crusades about it. Without going as far as Silvio Berlusconi, who explained in Jerusalem: "When I heard about the rocket fire at Israel, I felt that it was a danger to Italy, and to the entire West" (9), or the director of L'Express, who wrote that the Israeli army was fighting "for our peace" (10) – some on the right used to explain in the 1980s that the apartheid government was fighting "for us" in southern Africa, against communism, the Soviet Union and Cuba – president Sarkozy has explained on many occasions that Hamas bore a heavy responsibility for this war as it had broken the truce, which is untrue (see "Reasons for war: lies, lies and more lies ", opposite).
In spite of Sarkozy's flying around on numerous foreign trips, France has lost a great deal of credit, as demonstrated by the unprecedented attacks on it in the Arab press, including in moderate countries, where it is now bracketed with the US of George Bush. The Saudi daily Al Watan wrote on 11 January "all the great powers have supported Israel's position, including France, which has thus far been the symbol of balance in regional causes". And France's decision to fight against smuggled arms in Gaza can only be construed as an operation to protect an occupying power: no one has called upon Israel to stop re-arming itself.
"A pointless war has led to a moral defeat for Israel" – so ran the headline in the British Sunday paper, the Observer on 18 January. The majority of moral barriers have crumbled in Israel during the Gaza offensive. A phrase sums up this vision: baal habayit histhtageya ("the boss has gone mad"). Its essence is captured by Giora Eiland, a former Israeli national security adviser: "If our civilians are attacked by you, we are not going to respond in proportion, but will use all means we have to cause you such damages that you will think twice in the future" (11).
This tactic was used in Lebanon in 2006 and was referred to as the Dahiya doctrine, after the district in south Beirut where Hizbullah was based. The aim is to destroy an entire district or village as soon as it is believed to harbour terrorists who are firing on Israel. It was employed again in Gaza and constitutes what international law recognises as a war crime. Yet it is now openly demanded in Israel. In a letter to prime minster Olmert in 2007, the former Sephardic grand rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu explained "there is absolutely no moral prohibition against indiscriminate killing of civilians during a potential massive military offensive on Gaza aimed at stopping the rocket launching" (12). The longer the occupation, the more it corrupts the occupier. One can only imagine what liberties would have been taken by France in Algeria if the war had gone on for 40 years.
The South African government, showing more determination than most, has condemned Israeli aggression against Gaza. The long experience of fighting the apartheid regime taught ANC leaders all about the hypocrisy of western rhetoric on violence and terrorism. Writing about his negotiations with the white South African government and its demands for the end to violence, Nelson Mandela said: "I responded that the state was responsible for the violence and that it is always the oppressor, not the oppressed, who dictates the form of the struggle. If the oppressor uses violence, the oppressed have no alternative but to respond violently. In our case, it was simply a legitimate form of self-defence" (13).