Why the Israel/Gaza war may be a game-changer for the region
As I write this, the international moves to secure a ceasefire in Gaza seem to be gathering pace. Both US Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have visited the region to press for a cessation of hostilities. Hopefully they will have more success than the Egyptians, whose earlier attempt at a truce foundered on the fact that it was not discussed with Hamas and did not address the underlying cause of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, which is Israel's seven-year blockade of the territory and its refusal to honour previous commitments (such as those made after the last bout of fighting in 2012) to lift its siege. The blockade has made life intolerable for Gaza's 1.9 million inhabitants, to the extent that the United Nations believes the territory will effectively be 'unliveable' within the next few years. With the virtual collapse of Gaza's physical infrastructure, crippling power and water shortages, unemployment in excess of 40% and international NGOs now estimating that food insecurity affects almost 60% of the population, many would argue that Gaza is 'unliveable' now.
Sadly, a ceasefire will come too late for the more than 750 Palestinians who have been killed in the Israeli military campaign, and the 32 Israeli soldiers and three Israeli civilians who have lost their lives. The United Nations estimates that some three-quarters of the Palestinians killed have been non-combatants, many of them women, children and the elderly. Even the normally pro-Israel Daily Telegraph was forced to admit the scale of the human tragedy in Gaza with a powerful graphic giving details of 132 Palestinian children killed in the violence.
Assuming that a truce is agreed in the coming days, will anything really have changed in Israel and Palestine as a result of the Israeli operation in Gaza? It is tempting to see this latest bout of violence in the territory as just part of a series of military clashes between Israel and the Palestinians dating back to at least 2004 and occurring roughly every two years. So we should prepare for more bloodshed in 2016. But there are at least three compelling reasons for thinking that this latest conflict, though less bloody (so far) than Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09, will be something of a game-changer for the region:
1. The first reason is that Israel has lost significant ground to the Palestinians in the global public relations war. Israel is on the defensive in part because of the sheer severity and apparently indiscriminate nature of its assault on Gaza, with a higher proportion of Palestinian civilian casualties than in 2008/09 and 2012 (when the civilian kill ratio was around two-thirds, still scandalously high given Israel's supposedly 'pinpoint' military technology). But an even more important factor is the power of the internet and social media. In a recent blog, Paul Mason at Channel 4 News noted that many people have abandoned the traditional (and, in the United States, often pro-Israel) news media and now rely on Twitter and Facebook for their news. And the social media feeds have by-passed the pro-Israel news barons and delivered powerful and disturbing images of Palestinian suffering into people's smartphones and iPads. As Mason observes about the Israeli Prime Minister: "Netanyahu complained the Hamas strategy was to provide 'telegenically dead' people: but where Israel is losing the hearts and minds of the world is not via 'tele' anything: it is in the JPEGs that stream into millions of people's mobile phones every time they glance at the object in the palm of their hand." The damage done to Israel's international reputation by such images will be almost impossible to undo, and is already reflected in the widespread popular demonstrations against Israel's actions in European and other capitals.
2. Secondly, the apparent intractability of the conflict between Israel and Hamas has brought home to a global audience the underlying problem in Gaza. This is not Hamas rockets fired into Israel (rockets which are by-and-large ineffective given Israel's state-of-the-art military defences) or even Hamas's apparent rejectionist approach to Israel (while the Hamas Charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish State, Israel overlooks that Hamas has regularly hinted at its willingness to accept a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders). Rather, it is the continued injustice of Israel's 47-year occupation and colonisation of Palestinian territory, whether in Gaza (still regarded under international law as occupied, even though Israeli soldiers and settlers were withdrawn in 2005) or the West Bank and East Jerusalem (where over 700,000 Israeli settlers have built their homes on Palestinian land since 1967). It should be remembered that at least 1.2 million of the 1.9 million Palestinian inhabitants in Gaza are in fact refugees from other parts of Israel and Palestine. Many fled from Arab villages which were ethnically cleansed and destroyed by Israel at the time of its creation in 1948-49 and replaced by Jewish communities such as Sderot, Ashdod and Ashkelon. If the last two weeks have brought anything to the fore, it is Israeli not Palestinian rejectionism: the unwillingness of Israel to engage seriously in negotiations with the Palestinians on the creation of a viable and contiguous Palestinian state, as demanded by the international community.
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3. The third reason is that this latest bout of violence has had a much greater impact on ordinary Israelis than any previous Gaza conflict. For years, despite the existentialist threats trumpeted by their political leaders, most Israelis have lived lives of relative calm and tranquillity, almost oblivious to the suffering, violence and injustice occurring a few miles away on the other side of the separation barrier and the checkpoints. Yet this time the Hamas rockets have reached further into Israel, threatening even Tel Aviv airport and causing Western airlines to cancel flights. More Israeli soldiers have died in this latest conflict than in the last two Gaza wars combined. The heart of Israeli pluralism has been ripped out following the brutal murder by Jewish extremists of an East Jerusalem teenager, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, itself provoked by the Israeli government's provocative and inflammatory handling of the equally brutal murder of three Jewish teenagers near Hebron. The stubbornness of the Palestinian resistance has brought home to many Israelis that the Palestinian problem is not going to disappear any time soon, and the Israeli government's hardline stance is not bringing them the security they crave or deserve.
If, as we all hope and pray, the violence does stop soon, and all parties in the Israel/Palestinian conflict have a moment for calm reflection, they may realise that the status quo is increasingly unsustainable. Israel may think it can continue to resist giving the Palestinians their basic human rights and agreeing to a viable Palestinian state, but it is rapidly losing supporters, even in the United States. Meanwhile international calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel will increase. If Israel does not change course soon, it could attain, as even John Kerry has acknowledged, the pariah status of an 'apartheid state'.