January 23, 2009

Prospects for peace in Palestine

The trickiest part in solving a problem is acknowledging, identifying and formulating it correctly. The Palestine-Israel conflict is complex and deeply rooted, complicated by big power rivalry and stakes in the Middle East, and the conflicts spawned and fanned by the Bush-bannered war of terror in the region and world-wide.

Now that a ceasefire has taken place in Gaza with the last of Israel forces reported to have withdrawn from the Strip, the logical question is: how long will this truce last and will a just and lasting peace ensue?

The ceasefire is a welcome development if only because it has stopped, even temporarily, the massive death and destruction inflicted on the civilian population in Gaza. It will allow in unimpeded humanitarian aid without risk of aid workers themselves being attacked by Israeli fire. The ceasefire will make possible a full assessment and disclosure of the conduct of the war by Israel, particularly with regard to the protection or targeting of the civilian population and civilian infrastructures of Gaza given the media restrictions imposed by Israel during the invasion.

It will also allow the start of rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts. The Hamas government can focus its efforts on aiding Gazans rebuild their homes and lives rather than be tied down to defending territory and preserving its fighting force and leadership from deadly incursions of Israeli hit squads.

But a ceasefire by itself does not necessarily lead to peace especially if it absolves Israel of egregious violations of international standards of human rights and international humanitarian law that the United Nations itself has pointed out. The condemnation by the world’s peoples of the use by US backed-Israel of vastly superior, brute and excessive military force in Gaza must not be sidetracked by the ceasefire. We must all take cognizance of the final death toll -- 1,284 — with 894 of those civilians including 280 children or teenagers.

Historically, ceasefires have served to preserve, legitimize and consolidate Israel’s military and political gains from its wars of aggression in the Middle East. These have also tended to reinforce and perpetuate the impunity with which Israel has committed unspeakable atrocities in Palestine using the pretext of “right to exist” and “right to security”.

The 1947 UN Resolution partitioning Palestine into a Jewish state (56.5% of Palestine) and a Palestinian state (43%) was eventually rejected by the Palestinians and Arab states and led to a series of Arab-Israeli Wars including the first in 1949, the 1956 Suez Campaign, the 1967 Six-Day War, the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Each and every time, Israel expanded its territory from the 1947 UN partition and imposed greater and more severe military control over the Palestinians.

The 1993 Oslo Accords granted Palestinians the right to self-governance and set up the Palestinian National Authority headed by Yasser Arafat. But it failed to resolve crucial issues: the return of Palestinian refugees to their homeland; the Israeli settlements in Gaza and West Bank; the status of Jerusalem; and the final Palestine-Israel borders.

Israel undermined the Palestinian Authority by its frequent sealing off of what remained as cut-up Palestinian enclaves and, recently, their building of the Separation Barrier, dubbed the "Apartheid Wall" by the Palestinians.

Israel Prime Minister Olmert justifies the Gaza invasion by insisting that their main objective was to stop Hamas from firing Qassam rockets into Southern Israel, including what used to be Ashkelon, a once-thriving Palestinian city grabbed by Israel in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Israel also aimed to destroy the tunnels allegedly used by Hamas to bring in weapons from its allies, Iran and Syria, passing through Egypt.

While Israel claims to have destroyed 60 per cent of the tunnels, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni went to Europe immediately after the ceasefire to rally international support for a plan to halt weapons smuggling into Gaza. Livni hoped to clinch a deal in Brussels committing the European Union to contribute forces, ships and technology to anti-smuggling operations. The United States has promised to supply detection and surveillance equipment, as well as logistical help and training to Israel, Egypt and others in the region to closely monitor Gaza's land and sea borders.

After 7 years of firing thousands of Qassam rockets on Israel, only 15 Israelis have actually died and physical damage has been minimal. Why so? These Qassam rockets are around 2 to 7 feet long, with an explosive payload of half to a maximum of 10 kg, utilizing scavenged TNT and urea nitrate, a common fertilizer. In 2006, the Israeli Ministry of Defense viewed the Qassams as "more a psychological than physical threat." Contrast this with the number of Palestinians dead and injured, the number of homes and buildings, including hospitals and schools, demolished in the 22-day invasion.

Moreover, the Hamas government and Gazans resisting Israeli occupation and armed incursions into the sliver of land that they have been able to hang on to, have little military defense capability compared to the billion-dollar military aid and weaponry provided by the US to Israel. The supposed smuggling of arms through the tunnels pales in comparison to the generous military aid the Israel government receives annually from its prime backer, the sole Superpower in the world.

Buried underneath the loud protestations about the “terrorist” Hamas smuggling in weapons to Gaza is the fact that the tunnels are an economic lifeline to the desperately poor Gazans whose lives are made extremely more difficult by an almost two-year-old Israeli and Egyptian border closure aimed at bringing the Hamas government to heel.

Any serious effort to bring an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and pave the way for a sustainable peace must also confront the question of political attitude towards Hamas. Despite its being treated as pariah by the US, EU and parts of the Arab world with its designation as a “terrorist organization” and despite the economic blockade that has starved the Hamas government and the Palestinian people of international aid and assistance, Hamas enjoys full support from the Palestinians in Gaza and significant sympathy, if not backing, from Palestinians in the West Bank and refugees in neighboring Arab countries.

Even Israel is forced to grudgingly admit that it remains “the dominant organization in Gaza.” As a top military official said in a briefing that was given on condition of anonymity, “They are the regime and feel very connected to the people.” (New York Times, 18 Jan 09). Clearly, the Hamas is not the "terrorist" organization it is portrayed to be by Israel, the US and EU to justify barefaced aggression, war crimes and wanton human rights violations and even genocide in their desire to strangle it and deprive the Gazans and Palestinians of leadership.

Hamas official Salah al-Bardawil stated that they were working toward achieving the following short-term goals: an end to Israeli aggression in Gaza; the lifting of the siege on Gaza; the reopening of Gaza's border crossings; the rehabilitation of the Strip; and compensation for Gaza residents. Surely, the Palestinians' immediate, urgent demands must be met even as their long-running struggle to return to their homeland and establish their sovereign state there should not be subverted.

What better way to ensure that the Palestinians stop firing rockets into Israel, than for the Gazans and other Palestinians to be allowed to return to Ashkelon and their Palestinian homeland .


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