The Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip signals yet another chapter in the tragic dilemma faced by those in the enclave. The only true victims, as it always has been in this conflict, will be the civilians.
Both sides in this intractable war resort to arguments we have all heard before. Hamas condemns Israel as violators of international law for killing noncombatants. Israeli officials, far from being outdone, argue much the same thing against an organisation it hopes to cripple.
Hamas, recognised by many in the international community as a “terrorist” organisation, must be given its due: punishment at the hands of Tel Aviv. That, at least, is one argument voiced by Israeli officials. It is they, after all, who do not abide by the distinction of combatant or non-combatant (these Qassam rockets are not even “smart”, being lumbering, lethal things). It is the Israeli Defense Forces who abide by the rules of warfare, being discriminate in their operations.
Both are, in so far as they merit any attention, correct, at least up to a point. Both are also, in their own fashions, marred by false assumptions and delusions. In tactical terms, the IDF’s bombing of certain sites has raised questions. At least 30 Gazans were killed in a strike on the UN school, though the IDF argues that it was only responding to mortar rounds that came from its compound. Then there is that nasty word - “collateral damage”, where death is dressed up by military spin.
In the broader, strategic sense, Israel did persist in isolating Gaza after its withdrawal (both of soldiers and settlers), shutting it off from human contact for prolonged periods. Such a crippling embargo, raising the spectre of a humanitarian crisis, might have itself been challenged for its legality. In this veritable Bantustan, Hamas could only thrive.
When dialogue ceases, conflict becomes attractive. The use of the rockets then assumes a form of “self-defence”, perverse as it might be. The object of these weapons is a brutal and simple one: the terrorising of Israeli civilians (both Arab and Jew, it must be added). The familiar argument here from Hamas is that Israeli distinction between civilian and combatant is a false one. The state of Israel is militarised, a nation in uniform. One gets the distinct feeling that both Hamas and Israel, at various stages, feel that operating outside the bounds of international law in order to attain their political goals is not only desirable but realistic.
If Israel assumes that this action will bring an end to the conflict, it has already made its first, and perhaps fatal mistake. If it believes in the integrity a Palestinian state, or even the viable existence of the Palestinian people and their determination to survive, then crushing Hamas in itself will do little to encourage it. Hamas does have its fair share of supporters, and, it must be pointed out, electors.
For every Hamas official killed, there are always replacements. Hamas itself is a hydra-headed entity. Cut off a head, another will duly spring forth. The blood is amply supplied by civilians, and commentators are correct to assume that Hamas cares less for the lives of their people than they do for a divine will that abstracts humanity in favour of the after life.
There is also a bewildering context as to how either side will define victory. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz on Tuesday that Israel had little intention of pursuing a prolonged offensive on the Gaza Strip. “We did not set out to occupy Gaza or kill every terrorist. We set out to bring change to the south.”
What is he seeking? An “effective blockading of the Philadelphi Route, with supervision and follow-ups”: namely, the area between Gaza and Egypt which has proven particularly sieve-like in the passage of munitions and arms to guerillas. There are even rumours that an international peacekeeping force might be hurried into the strip at the cessation of hostilities. In more immediate terms, the Israeli military is targeting the rocket sites and supposedly destroying Hamas’ ability to wage war on Israel.
Presumably, the equation for Hamas is a simple one: survival means victory. Again, the Israelis risk placing their decades-old reputation for invincibility in the region at the mercy of military operations against a smaller, seemingly less formidable foe. Given that this foe is a non-state entity, military experts are left in a bind. A rerun of the Lebanon war against Hezbollah could prove disastrous.
Dialogue, and recognition that the death of civilians is unacceptable, must be pursued and acknowledged. A return to the status quo ante is, of course, a feeble aim. That would involve more rockets from Gaza, and a continued blockade of the Gaza Strip.
A mere ceasefire and the elimination of the rockets and their launch sites is just as unrealistic. The redress of Palestinian grievances, the refusal on the part of Israel to reconcile itself with its wounded neighbour, and the discussion on statehood, will then have to take place. Then we can all settle down and talk about history and forgiveness.