Lessons of the conflict in Gaza

Israel claims that its offensive on Gaza is a war on terror; in fact, it is an act of state terroris

Hamas subscribes to a violent anti-Israeli ideology and it does have a military wing, but it is also a political party with a massive popular following, writes Shlaim [EPA]

The cycle of violence that has engulfed the Gaza Strip since Israel’s unilateral disengagement in 2005 is repetitive, predictable, and profoundly depressing. In the last six years Israel has launched three major military offensives on this tiny, isolated, desperately poor, and densely-populated Palestinian enclave.

Invariably, Israel presents itself as the victim, claiming to be exercising its right to self-defence, while denying the equivalent right to the Palestinians. Yet all these wars were instigated by Israel, all were directed against civilians, and all involved war crimes. They are a direct product of Israeli colonialism, of the most prolonged and brutal military occupation of modern times.

Israeli brutality against civilians scaled new heights in the current war which Israel fraudulently calls “Operation Protective Edge.” In this war the Israeli army, which in their Orwellian language Israel’s propagandists like to call “the most moral army in the world”, has been raining death and destruction on the captive population of the Gaza Strip with little attempt to distinguish between civilian and military targets.

While pursuing the fight against Hamas, the Israeli army has bombed private homes, mosques, hospitals, health clinics, ambulances, the Islamic University of Gaza, and UN schools and shelters. It also targeted and destroyed the only power plant, as well as water and sewage systems, driving Gaza to the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe. An estimated $5bn worth of damage has been caused. Over 475,000 people have been displaced. The Israeli death toll stands at 67 – 64 soldiers and 3 civilians. The Israeli army has killed some 1,900 people, mostly civilians of whom 450 are children, and injured 9,500. 

Self-defence against who? 

As usual, Israel pretends that its quarrel is with Hamas, not with the people of Gaza. The ostensible reason for the war is to protect Israeli civilians against rocket and mortar attacks by Hamas militants. In effect Israel claims that this is a war on terror. In truth this is an act of state terrorism. Terrorism is the use of force against civilians for political ends.

The political end in this instance is to maintain Israel’s illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories; to prevent unity between Gaza and the West Bank; and to deny the Palestinian people their natural right to independence and statehood on their land, on the 22 percent they have left of historic Palestine. 

The Israeli narrative about the war, in a nutshell, is that Hamas is a terrorist organisation, it is a mistake to negotiate with terrorists, and the only way to deal with them is by military force. The reality is more complex.

In the first place, the official narrative omits the crucial fact that although Israel disengaged unilaterally from Gaza in 2005, under international law it remains an occupying power because it controls the land crossings into Gaza, its airspace, and territorial waters. Moreover, after withdrawing from Gaza Israel continued to expand its illegal colonies on the West Bank and these colonies constitute the main obstacle to peace.

Secondly, Hamas is not a terror organisation though it does resort to terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians in its otherwise legitimate resistance to Israeli occupation. Nor is it a jihadist movement as its critics claim. Far from being a messianic movement, it is a local organisation with a local rather than a global agenda.

In the eyes of ordinary Arabs and Muslims worldwide, it is a patriotic group which fights with commendable courage against overwhelming odds. Undoubtedly, Hamas subscribes to a violent anti-Israeli ideology and it does have a military wing, but it is also a political party with a massive popular following and this makes it a legitimate political actor.

Hamas won a fair and free election in 2006 and formed a government that offered to negotiate a long-term ceasefire with Israel. Israel refused to recognise the democratically-elected Palestinian government and rejected negotiations. The following year Hamas and Fatah formed a national unity government and renewed the offer to negotiate.

The Palestine Papers, a cache of 1,600 diplomatic documents leaked to Al Jazeera, reveal that Israel conspired with Fatah, Egypt, and the US to overthrow this government, forcing Hamas to abandon the West Bank and seize power in Gaza. Israel’s next step was to impose a blockade of Gaza in breach of many of the humanitarian provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention. This savage siege of the 1.8 million inhabitants, mostly refugees from previous Arab-Israeli wars, is still enforced by Israel with the help of the military regime which recently suppressed democracy in Egypt.

Finally, there is the Israeli refusal to talk to Hamas on the grounds that it is a terrorist organisation. The historical record shows that despite its terrible Charter, Hamas is led by pragmatic political leaders who have settled for a two-state solution along the 1967 lines, and who have made every effort to end the conflict by diplomatic means.

A major move in this direction was the reconciliation accord between Hamas and Fatah and the formation, on 2 June, of a national unity government. This Ramallah-based government consists of Fatah leaders, independent political figures, and technocrats; it does not include a single Hamas-affiliated minister. And it fully meets the three principal Quartet criteria to qualify as a negotiating partner: recognise Israel; respect past agreements; and renounce violence. Yet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced this quintessentially moderate government as a vote for terror, not for peace.

A fictitious narrative

The terms in which Netanyahu and his right-wing colleagues frame the conflict with Hamas is a mixture of half-truths, outright lies, deliberate deception, and mind-boggling double-standards. Their narrative offers no decent way out of the conundrum. It is the problem, not the solution. It makes it impossible to tackle the real roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is a political conflict for which, as the historical record conclusively demonstrates, there is no military solution.

It follows that if Israel adheres to its current policy, the result would be more of the same: more violence, more bloodshed, more terror, more wanton destruction, more human suffering, more wars, and more war crimes. In short, the Israeli narrative revolves round the demonisation of Hamas and demonisation leads directly to diplomatic deadlock.

The international community has both a moral and a legal obligation to protect the Palestinian civilians living under Israel’s military occupation and to hold Israel to account for its persistent violations of the laws of war and of international humanitarian law.

The Western policy of refusing to engage with Hamas, of supporting Israel’s perverse interpretation of the right to self-defence, and of supplying it with weapons that are repeatedly used to bomb a defenceless people is morally indefensible and therefore ultimately unsustainable.

UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon called the Israeli attack on Rafah in which a large number of civilians sheltering in UN schools were killed, “a moral outrage and a criminal act”. This description aptly sums up Israel’s entire policy in the conflict with Gaza.

By its own actions Israel has undermined any claim it might have had to dictate the terms in which the world should view its confrontation with Hamas. A new narrative is urgently needed, one based on the real facts of this tragic conflict, international law, and human decency. 

Avi Shlaim is an Emeritus Professor of International Relations at Oxford University and the author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World and Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations. He is donating the fee for this article to Medical Aid for Palestinians.