Fireworks in Gaza

Israel must re-think its strategy in a post-Arab Spring Middle East if it wants to achieve real peace.

Israel was condemned by much of the Arab world for launching its biggest air assault on Gaza in years [AFP]

A friend from Gaza has recently returned back home. Like many Palestinians, he chose to go back home, even if in every sense it is more hellish after four years of normalcy in Britain.

His three kids left the Gaza Strip in 2008 in the nick of time: A few weeks before the three-week winter 2008-09 war, Operation Cast Lead for the Israelis, and al-Furqan (meaning “the criterion” in the Qur’an) for Hamas. He felt confused: On the one hand, he was relieved his kids missed the mayhem the Israelis caused by disproportionate use of force that indiscriminately targeted institutions, civilians and the military. On the other, he could not but help feel a little guilty, insofar as to why his kids are exempt from sharing in the suffering inflicted on other Palestinians kids in times of war, and in-between wars.

He tells me now he is relieved his whole family is in Gaza to join in the common stand made by the entire community of Gazans; children, women, and men, poor and rich, politicised and apolitical, learned and lay, all are rendered equal under the roar of jet fighters and the death probably the world’s best airforce pilots sow from their the US-made machines.

Make no mistake, my friend, an academic in Gaza who formerly worked for Ismail Haniyya, longs for the hills of Devon too. He wants a few hours to give his children and the children of Gaza respite from the poisonous commotion coming from the deadly skies above Gaza, the sirens, the funerals, and the screams.

Above all else, he needs a break from lying. Three-year-old Ayyoub wants to know about the noise, the smoke and the explosions. His dad lies: They are fireworks. He is not sure the lies are working. Regardless, they are his only explanatory device. Ayyoub and his siblings’ experience of the current war is a far cry from the annual fireworks in Exeter’s High Street or in other surrounding towns in Devon.

It is the lies and trauma that Palestinians live with when bomb-shelled, and when ignored by a world where Israel can do no wrong.

Israel lives and dies by security. Similarly, Palestinians commit to resistance. These are two irreconcilable sets of “political imaginary”. The real victim here is peace and truth.

War and partial narratives

There is deception in the world of adults, especially when politics is involved, and when such politics contains a defence of either of the warring parties: Israel and Hamas.

Firing rockets is a useless weapon in the absence of Palestinian unity, a common vision for war or peace, resistance or negotiation, and the kind of capacity-building required for continuous slef-protection and institution-building. There is therefore something absurd about firing rockets at Israel.

This absurdity is flagrant when one accounts for the context: The majority of world public opinion sees eye-to-eye with Israel on this issue. There is a security war with parts of the Muslim world revolving around terrorism and terrorists, especially of Islamist conviction. Coming weeks after the killing of the top US diplomat in Libya, the timing favours Israel. Now and always. Reviled figures from Bin Laden to Abu Qatada are in the eyes of many Westerners indistinguishable from Ahmad Jabari, the Qassam Brigades commander slain by Israel on Wednesday.

Note that doing official business with Israel, directly or indirectly, is no guarantee from immunity. Arafat was forced into total humiliation, coined in a few rooms under the mercy of total Israeli control of air, land and sea. He was allowed to leave unceremoniously to his last destination, the French hospital where he died, allegedly from poison.

Similarly, Jabari was the key link with Hamas in the negotiations, mediated by Egypt, that eventually led to the release of the Israeli soldier Shalit, detained by Hamas for over four years. He personally handed over Shalit to Egypt. Today he is dead. This does not bode well for peace talks and potential interlocutors on the Palestinian side.

Moreover, even if now equipped with new rockets that can hit Tel Aviv, Hamas’ striking power and capacity to reach military targets or avenge deaths from Sheikh Yassine to its operative, Mahmoud al-Mabhouh – who was killed in January 2010 in Dubai under the nose of UAE intelligence – are looking doubtful.

Moreover, Hamas is exhausted by Israel’s ceaseless campaign to recruit spies in Gaza. Recorded messages and SMSs seeking to recruit collaborators frequently bombard mobile users. The wide-scale Hamas campaign to prevent “communication with the enemy” will never be fool-proof. The Qassam Brigades officers are generally banned from using cellular telephones. Voice-print may be used to detect Hamas leaders’ whereabouts, and when located, guided-missiles do what they are made for: Overkill the hunted.

Israel scored a major espionage victory by recruiting Qassam Brigades commander Sami Anan. Despite steadfastness by Hamas, his recruitment by Israeli spymasters and collaboration partly changed the course of the 2008-09 war when he surrendered Tall al-Hawa, the area under his command, to Israeli troops. It caused Hamas dearly in that conflict. What caused a soldier with deep religious convictions to collaborate with Israel? It is one puzzle that Hamas has yet to solve.

It is fallacious to think tha tObama can restrain Israel. Israel inaugurated the re-elected president’s second term with a war on Gaza.” 

Israel’s continuous war of espionage, involving all kinds of means, including electronic and control of the airspace over Gaza and mobile telephone networks, systematically terrorises civilians who lack normalcy in daily life.

War and ‘truth’

In this war on Gaza, like any conflict that pits Israel against an Arab adversary, the Jewish state has the upper hand: Mostly sympathetic Western leaderships. Generally, in the defence of its security, Israel does not need a green light from any party, with the qualified exception of the US.

Romney, if one goes by his rhetoric, would have given the Israelis carte blanche to execute the wars they need to secure themselves. It is fallacious to think that Obama can restrain Israel. Israel inaugurated the re-elected president’s second term with a war on Gaza, a war to which he has lent so far unequivocal support. This support is echoed everywhere in the Western chancelleries of power, with qualifications here and there.

This support serves as quasi legal cover for illegal deployment of over-kill capacity. There is nothing new here. The immunity given to Israel is no different from that the Americans grant themselves by refusing to be part of the International Criminal Court, and seeing justice done in serious violations of law and human rights in cases of torture, rendition flights and undisclosed cases of inhumane treatment of detainees in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

To date, not a single Israeli commander has ever been convicted with crimes against the Palestinian people, from Jenin to Gaza. Diplomats seem to always find ways of equalising between the victim and the aggressor. In the Gaza 2008-9 war, both Israel and Hamas were declared guilty of war crimes.

So when one reads about this conflict, as the ones before it, the sympathy poured on Israel by Western politicians and letters to the editor in mainstream newspapers, to which Arab readers tend unfortunately to contribute very little, one finds clues to Israel’s immunity from the wrath of world public opinion.   

One will read in letters to the editor and politicians’ rhetoric that Israel is “the only democracy in the Middle East” – as if this is an accepted excuse to wage war. Plus, some motivation behind the current escalation is to shore up support for the Likud, the Netanyahu-Lieberman duo. That is, a questionable form of democracy in which war-making may be intended to woo voters.

Some say Israel is put in a position where it “must to respond”. Yet in peace talks, when was last time Israel really offered a response that measured up to the Palestinian people’s aspirations for statehood? In fact, for nearly three years, international diplomacy has done nothing about peace-making, preferring to engage with issues concerning Iran’s nuclear facilities, and recently events surrounding the Arab Spring.

One will read in letters to the editor and politicians’ rhetoric that Israel is ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ – as if this is an accepted excuse to wage war.” 

One hears that militants and fanatics – the same as those who threaten peace in European and American capitals and cities – deserve to be fought for denying Israeli citizens peace. Yet the “peace” they have in mind is blind to the militarised nature of Israel and its nuclear arsenal, which remains immured from international vetting processes. Also, it ignores “peace” through embargo, the killing of Palestinian leaders and pussyfooting on peace-making.

The moral equiliser

And one noted world statesman, the envoy Tony Blair links the stopping of “retaliation” to Hamas ceasing to fire rockets.

In reality, the big lie about Palestine which diplomats avoid regards a more important linkage: Putting an end to 60 years of colonialism, directly and indirectly endorsed by many a Western power. Israel cannot apply some of the rules of the game: Full security and the emblems of full statehood when it refuses to give the Palestinians a full concept of the map where they would, through binding legal agreements and lasting peace, build their own state.

Invoking the firing of rockets and Israeli security as if Israel’s legal status is fully normal is part of the problem of why there is no peace in the Middle East. The firings of rockets, prisoners, and the siege, etc are all devices deployed intelligently by the Israelis to skirt around the issue of peace-making, and indefinitely procrastinating on facing up to the key question of allowing Palestinians a geography, legally demarcated and recognised borders within which they co-exist with the Israelis.

Israeli army spokesman: We will haunt down Hamas

Israel looks increasingly desperate. It is left with an anachronistic means of self-defence: War-making in an age where war is becoming redundant.

Israel will never conduct a war the same way it did in the pre-Arab Spring era. Arab public opinion would not allow it, nor will the emerging democracies being secured in countries such as Egypt. Morsi’s Egypt, committed still to international agreements with Israel, give the Palestinians the kind of moral and psychological depth Mubarak denied them. At least, they are no longer alone and there is humanitarian and material aid at their disposal.

If the war partly is intended to test this new dynamic, Israel should re-think: Millions and millions of Arab youth would not hesitate the call of Palestine. Neither the Arabs nor the Israelis want this scenario of belligerence. That is why Israel should not test the resolve of newly empowered Arab masses for whom Israel is an occupier, usurper of Palestinian land, and a killer of children. Nor should it test Morsi, who will beg to differ with Western administrations, including the Americans, on the root causes of the current conflict.

Through solidarity, these masses form a moral equaliser that give Palestinians some parity in a war of narratives in which Israel, at official and public levels, has often enjoyed largely unfettered and uncritical Western support.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).