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Hamas, Gaza and Bush’s Legacy

One would have to have a heart of stone not to be appalled by the mass suffering visited upon the Gaza Strip by Israel’s punishing assault. If blame is to be assessed, however, it does not belong to Israel alone.

The Gaza war between Israel and Hamas is but another legacy of George W. Bush’s disastrous presidency. After Israel withdrew its soldiers and its 8,000 settlers from Gaza in the summer of 2005, the Bush administration decided to bring “democracy” to the Palestinians. It insisted on running a parliamentary election and allowing Hamas to compete.

Hamas was not legally qualified to run without meeting the minimum requirements of the Oslo agreements still in effect from the 1990s: primarily to renounce violence and accept Israel’s existence. Qualifying for elections in this way might have been a lever to get Hamas to change its spots, but the Bush State Department insisted on allowing Hamas to run as it was, cynically assuming that it would not win. Hamas won a plurality of votes with 44 percent to Fatah’s 42 percent and took power early in 2006.

Soon after its election, Hamas declared a truce, but it was still allowing other factions to fire at Israel. Hamas even lauded as “resistance” two successful suicide bombings—one in Tel Aviv and another in Ashdod. A coalition of groups, including Hamas, captured one IDF soldier, while killing two others, in a cross-border raid in June of 2006; this one soldier, Gilad Shalit, is still their prisoner. Tragically, in response, Israeli forces rampaged through Gaza that summer, killing several hundred Palestinians to no avail (a veritable second front to the larger Lebanon war raging to the north).

In June of 2008, Egypt mediated a six-month cease-fire agreement, which expired on December 19. It was mostly observed by both sides until Israel destroyed a tunnel on the Gaza side of the border, apparently being prepared for another raid to capture Israelis. A few armed Palestinians were killed in this incident and Hamas resumed fire on Israeli towns near the border—up to 60 rockets and mortar shells daily.

A very real Israeli security concern is that the Hamas rockets are improving in range. Towns of increasing distance from Gaza have been hit; the fear is that they may soon be able to target Tel Aviv.

There is an elaborate network of tunnels used to smuggle in arms, drugs, medicines and consumer goods from Egypt. Longer-range rockets from Iran have come in via this route. It is this network of tunnels that was a legitimate target for Israel and must be a prime focus of international diplomacy. If this threat is stopped, the international economic blockade imposed since Hamas first took power in 2006 should be lifted. Regardless, its severity should be curtailed to allow for more effective humanitarian relief.

It is believed that Hamas declared an end to the cease-fire and escalated rocket attacks as a “negotiating” tactic to get the economic blockade lifted—without agreeing to peaceful coexistence. Hamas has supposedly suggested a ten-year truce, but only in return for a full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-June 1967 lines and a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

If allowing for the possibility of an exchange of territories and a full peace, this would be appropriate as an end point of negotiations, but not as an ultimatum that doesn’t even commit to peace. This offer is uncomfortably reminiscent of an episode in the Koran when the Prophet Mohammed enacted a fixed-term truce until his forces were strong enough to conquer their foe.

Moreover, this comes from a reactionary theocratic movement that still holds to its 1988 founding charter, which characterizes Jews as “sons of apes and pigs” and as conspiring to enslave the world as depicted in the notorious anti-Semitic forgery, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” When coupled with acts of violence that have cost Israel hundreds of civilian lives in each of the last two decades, persuading most Israelis of the possibility of a peaceful accommodation with such a movement is a hard sell.

Still, it is hardly likely that Israel intentionally killed masses of civilians. If it had been gunning for civilians, Palestinian casualties would probably have been much higher; the dead would almost certainly be counted in the thousands, rather than hundreds.

It is also true that, by comparative historical and regional standards, the level of carnage—although terrible and heartbreaking—was not very high. For example, it is estimated that the Muslim Brotherhood rebels in Hama, Syria in 1982 were crushed by the Baathist regime (still in power today in Damascus) at the cost of between 7,000 and 25,000 lives. This example is especially apt since Hamas is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood movement. Intra-Arab violence in such places as Iraq and Lebanon, as well as conflicts between fellow Muslims in Iran and Iraq in the ’80s, Algeria in the ’90s, and in Darfur today, have been far bloodier than any of the Arab-Israeli conflagrations.

But I raise these facts only to provide perspective, not to excuse Israel. Despite its finger-pointing at Hamas for using innocents as “human shields,” Israel, in having chosen to take the fight against Hamas into population centers, has knowingly decided to pull the trigger anyway.

It is doubtful that an attack of this magnitude—in one of the world’s most overcrowded places, causing many civilian casualties––will ultimately be an effective way to bring Israel security. The human toll in Gaza, the cost to Israel’s image and rising hatred aimed at Israel and even at random Jews around the world, all suggest that this operation was ill-advised.

My final point pertains to Israel’s national elections to be held on February 10. The initial bump up for Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s Labor party, and the loosely-defined “left” or moderate bloc (six or seven of the 15 parties currently represented in the Knesset), appears to have been lost as voters grow embittered by a perception of meager positive results from the Gaza campaign.

The opposition Likud party is expected to be propelled back into power with the claim that the current centrist ruling coalition stopped short of victory, before Hamas fighters emerged from the rubble in surrender. Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu would return as prime minister after a ten-year hiatus. I don’t envy Sen. George Mitchell in his new task as US special envoy.

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