Battlefield Gaza

2009-01-05 00:00

Yosef Sheinin, the chief rabbi of Ashdod, was understandably distraught at the funeral of Irit Shetreet, one of four Israelis to be killed by Palestinian rockets since Israel launched its bombing campaign against the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip on Sunday. However, he was wrong to say that her death was “the latest manifestation of 3 000 years of anti-Jewish hatred”. The hatred is real, but its sources are a good deal closer both in time and in space.

Western media coverage of current affairs rarely goes into the origins of those affairs: even what happened last year or 10 years ago is treated as ancient history. So the fury and despair of the million-and- a-half residents of the Gaza Strip can easily seem incomprehensible — the “bottomless hatred of wild beasts”, as Sheinin put it. Why do these Palestinians fire murderous rockets at innocent civilians in Sderot, Ashkelon, Ashdod, even Beersheva?

Because that’s where they come from. Only about a fifth of the Gaza Strip’s population is descended from people who lived in that barren stretch of land before 1948. The rest are people, or the children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren of people, who were driven out of what is now Israel during the 1948 war, or simply fled in fear and were not allowed to go home again afterwards. Their former homes were mostly in the south of former Palestine, in places like Sderot, Ashkelon, Ashdod and Beersheva.

This does not give them the right to launch rockets at the people who now live in those towns, of course, any more than Israel has the right to use its massive air power to pound the crowded Gaza Strip. But it does provide some context for what is happening now — and indeed, happens every year or so. This struggle is still about what it has always been about: the land. And the fact that Israel is killing 100 Palestinians for every dead Israeli does not mean that the Israelis are winning.

Israel cannot actually lose this fight, since Hamas, the Islamist organisation that now controls the Gaza Strip, is distinctly short of F-16s, tanks and UAVs carrying Hellfire missiles. Israel will not lose a lot of soldiers — more than a couple of dozen — even if it invades the Gaza Strip on the ground for a while, because Hamas is not like Hezbollah, the Shia militia in south Lebanon that fought the Israelis to a standstill in the 2006 war.

Hamas does not have the discipline or the weapons that Hezbollah had. It cannot even prevent Israeli infiltration of its own ranks, which is why its leaders die like flies in Israeli air strikes and “targeted killings”, whereas Hezbollah successfully purged its ranks of informers and has not lost a single senior leader to Israeli assassination for more than a decade. The Israelis can do pretty much what they want to the Gaza Strip — but they cannot win.

Ehud Olmert, Israel’s interim prime minister, and Tzipi Livni, his successor as head of the Kadima party, and Binyamin Netanyahu, head of the Likud party and her principal rival for the prime ministership in next month’s Israeli election, all know that. They are all old enough to have watched Israel try to bash the Palestinians into submission half a dozen times before, and they know it does not work. But that is strategy and this is politics.

For Israel’s political leaders, this is mainly about looking tough in front of an electorate that just wants someone to “do something” about the Palestinians and their rockets. Nothing much can be done, short of a peace settlement generous enough to reconcile them to the loss of their land, but Israeli politicians have to look like they are trying. Hundreds of people are dying in the Gaza Strip to provide that show.

The Hamas leaders are equally cynical, since they know that every civilian death, and even every militant’s death, helps to build popular support for their organisation. The dead are pawns and the game is politics. No wonder there is such lack of enthusiasm elsewhere for spending much effort on trying to persuade the two sides to agree to a cease-fire.

They will stop when they have achieved their (purely tactical and short-term) political goals.

There is a more profound issue behind all this, which is Israel’s right to exist versus the right of the Palestinians to their homeland, but we shouldn’t get carried away with the unique moral dimension of all that.

It’s just one more conquerors-versus-previous-inhabitants conflict, like the European settlers versus the Indians in the Americas in the 18th century — or, for that matter, the Israelites versus the Canaanites 3 000 years ago.

Those earlier conflicts were all settled by force, but the world has changed and force doesn’t work so well any more. Israel has the power to hammer the Palestinians endlessly, but the Palestinians don’t give up and go away. They cannot, and neither can the Israelis. Neither side can eliminate the other, as has been amply and repeatedly demonstrated.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that this conflict will ultimately be settled by peaceful negotiation and compromise. It may mean that there will be no solution of any sort for the foreseeable future, just an endless series of bloody, indecisive clashes like the current one.

Happy New Year.

• Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries. His book, Climate Wars, was published recently in Canada by Random House.

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