Friday, January 16, 2009

Bitter Pill After the Mourning

by Paul McGeough
The Sydney Morning Herald
January 17, 2009

War sets its own hideous pace but there has to be a morning after. If, as anticipated, the smoke and ash start to clear over Gaza in the coming days, the crying by the wounded and bereaved soon will be drowned out by claim and counterclaim over who won the war.

And unless the world has taken leave of its senses, Hamas will have achieved a remarkable breakthrough - a lifting of the internationally backed siege that has made a prison of the Gaza Strip for its 1.5 million people. No doubt there will be conditions that will temper that sense of victory.

Hamas will insist that it fired rockets to the end - 25 lobbed into Israel on Thursday. But it will be a long time before it fires another.

David Horvitz, editor of the Jerusalem Post, observed: "The practical success or failure of Israel's resort to force will be measured in two areas: the degree to which Hamas is deterred from further rocket fire and the extent to which it is prevented from recovering and then expanding its military capacity."

Other yardsticks will also apply. At $US1.4 billion ($2.08 billion), the first estimate of the cost of damage caused by more than 2300 Israeli air strikes alone seems too low. In an interview with The Times in London, an Israeli officer who was in Gaza described the damage as unimaginable: "It doesn't look like we have been there for [just] a few weeks. It looks destroyed, demolished, like we were bombing it for years."

After almost three weeks of being pummelled by one of the world's bigger and technologically superior military machines, Hamas lost only a fraction of its fighters and still holds a big stockpile of rockets and other weapons, Israeli officers concede.

On the battlefield, Hamas seemed to be playing for time and that seemed to be paying off. Most estimates put its fighting force at 15,000-plus and so far Israel estimates it has killed 300 to 400 of them.

As the third week of the conflict ends, Israel is diminished in the eyes of the world. Speaking of the hundreds of dead children in Gaza, a Tel Aviv-based ambassador was quoted as telling Israel: "Your action is brutal … I don't know how to explain these things to myself, never mind to my government."

At the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, a senior official indicated this ambassador was not alone. Acknowledging the overwhelming negativity of dispatches from embassies in Israel even before the onslaught to come - when foreign media finally gets into ravaged Gaza - the official groaned: "You see the reports in the morning and you feel ill."

The serial wrong-headedness by the US, the Europeans and Israel in their collective handling of the Palestinian issue after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington has been breathtaking. The first mistake was to paint the legitimate national claims of the Palestinians into the so-called "war on terror". That error was compounded by the global collective punishment of Palestinians for electing a Hamas government in 2006.

The siege, as described by the Ha'aretz analyst Amira Hass this week, had existed since the early 1990s and was merely refined after Hamas's election victory. "We're all big boys and girls and we know … Israel's goal was to thwart the two-state solution … ," Hass wrote.

It was then that Israel and its international sponsors decided they needed to deal with the nice "moderates" of Fatah rather than Hamas "hardliners" who had been endorsed by Palestinians because of Fatah's decades of failure.

Describing as a "dangerous idea" Israel's belief that it has a right to choose who represents the Palestinians, the Israeli commentator Yossi Alpher warned this week: "Israel has failed whenever it has tried to manipulate the structure of the Arab leadership … Israel removed the PLO from Lebanon and instead got Hezbollah. There is no telling what we'll get in Gaza if we remove Hamas, but the return of Fatah-PLO is improbable."

Speculating on the inevitable key elements of a ceasefire - rocket fire and weapons smuggling cease and border-crossings re-open - Britain's former ambassador to the United Nations, Jeremy Greenstock, lamented the tragedy in these terms: "It underlines the folly of maintaining the fiction that Hamas is beyond the pale and cannot be a partner in talks … when Hamas leaders have already indicated that they could, in the right circumstances, accept a two-state solution."

Undaunted, Israel's Foreign Ministry has already set up a "morning after" taskforce, with a key challenge to keep both Hamas and Iran out of what is expected to be a major international effort to rebuild Gaza, lest either reaps the kind of kudos Hezbollah did in the reconstruction of south Lebanon after an Israeli invasion in 2006.

Notwithstanding that Hamas is the elected government of the West Bank and Gaza, Israel wants Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority "as well as Arab and international entities" to do the work.

But the war seems to have further eroded Abbas's parlous position. West Bank Palestinians who have dared to protest against Israel's campaign in Gaza have been clubbed and beaten by Abbas's security forces and anecdotal reports from across the West Bank indicate a steady rise in support for Hamas. "[Abbas] is one of the main losers in this war," the independent Palestinian analyst Ghassan Khatib observed this week.

One of the deal-breaker issues that will cause some to scratch their heads is the smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Egypt - hundreds of them delivering everyday goods as well as arms for Hamas.

All originate on the Egyptian side of the border, which suggests Israel went to war against Gaza to achieve an outcome that could have been had in the Washington-Jerusalem-Cairo cosy corner, without squandering so much military, political and diplomatic capital.

If Israel was unable to do a deal with Egypt to close the tunnels, it might have asked for more help from Washington, which gives the Cairo regime an annual pay cheque second in largesse only to that paid to Israel. Such a deal was reportedly to be signed in Washington yesterday.

The outcome of the war will be assessed with the passage of time and, for Israel, there will be a dangerous sleeper effect - the impact of the war on the attitudes and thinking of Gazans, especially that half of the population who are teenagers or younger, and their judgment of who is to blame.

"The children of Gaza who survive this war will remember," the Ha'aretz commentator Gideon Levy wrote on Thursday. "A significant majority of the children killed in Gaza did not die because they were used as human shields or because they worked for Hamas.

"They were killed because the [Israeli Defence Forces] bombed, shelled or fired at them, their families or their apartment buildings.

"That is why the blood of Gaza's children is on our hands, not on Hamas's hands and we'll never be able to escape that responsibility. A child who has seen his house destroyed, his brother killed and his father humiliated will not forgive."

Levy's "what next?" theme was taken up by the provocative former Knesset-member Avraham Burg. Writing on Israel's repeated refusal to accept the Palestinians' chosen interlocutors, he wrote: "On the day Gaza becomes a stronghold of al-Qaeda and global radical Islam, we will discover that it was Hamas, the Hamas of today, that was not so awful."

There were signs this week that Israel's political leadership had split. Already being bundled from office on corruption allegations, the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, seemed out of touch as he manipulated ministerial meetings to prolong the Gaza war and in his public bragging of how the Israeli tail wagged the Washington dog when it came to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's vote in the UN Security Council.

The Israeli historian Avi Shlaim has a wonderful knack of tracing the arcs of Israel's history to reveal today's reality - all the talk of successive governments about the peace process has been lip service which has conceded nothing on the ground.

Even before the events of this week, when Washington dismissed Olmert as - well, as a liar, and the UN used similar language to dismiss Israel's attempt to blame Hamas for the white phosphorous bombing of the UN's emergency stores of food and medicine in Gaza, Shlaim was in his library, re-evaluating the words of John Troutbeck.

In June 1948, Troutbeck vented to Ernest Bevin, the British foreign secretary of the day, that the US had been responsible for the creation of a gangster state headed by "an utterly unscrupulous set of leaders".

"I used to think this judgment was too harsh," Shlaim wrote in The Guardian. "But Israel's vicious assault on the people of Gaza and the Bush Administration's complicity, have reopened the question."

Copyright © 2009 The Sydney Morning Herald

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