Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire seems to be holding

Calls for comprehensive peace negotiations abound given the inability of conventional western military tactics to deal with the increasing effectiveness of asymmetrical warfare, and the need to compel all parties to forge a solution that recognizes the necessity of all sides to be secure in their homes.

The end of the latest US-supported Israeli air and sea war against Gaza has triggered a global call for immediate comprehensive peace negotiations that would include an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories seized in 1967, the creation of a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with its capitol in East Jerusalem and security guarantees for Israel within its pre-June 1967 borders.

Not exactly a new framework, but one that is viable, that will end – or certainly seriously reduce – the cycle of violence, and that will produce a peace with justice.

There might be a ceasefire, broadly welcomed, but little momentum to follow up on it with a serious peace process yet, despite the appeals. In the end, either the Israelis and Palestinians will move towards peace or towards another round of war. There is no in between. Nor will the window for peacemaking be open forever.

A global consensus supporting the above framework is still broadly supported. But given US near blind support for Israel since 1967 - most especially in Israel’s three recent wars (2006 Lebanon invasion, 2008 Gaza invasion, 2012 air and naval assault on Gaza) -  it becomes increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for the United States to claim its position as a unbiassed broker in such a process. It will take some doing therefore, not only to get Israel to the negotiating table, but to get the United States to play a more constructive role in such a process.

Still there is a ray of hope. Isn’t it time to draw the logical conclusion: that military solutions have run their course and will, in the future, fail and that the conflict between Israel and Palestine can only be resolved politically, through a negotiated settlement based on United Nations resolutions.

If not the cycle of violence will continue. Each time it gets more severe, more difficult to prevent spinning out of control as nearly happened this time. So, the logical thing would be for the parties involved to announce the re-establishing of a negotiating process on all the outstanding issues – final status negotiations – and to move consciously and persistently in that direction. Needless to say, this is not the thinking either in Israel, nor from all appearances in Washington D.C. In Israel, more than 70% of those surveyed would have wanted to see the Israeli Defense Force launch a ground invasion of Gaza. In Washington D.C., as in the past and perhaps even more so, there is no political will to press Israel to the negotiating table and keep it there until an agreement is reached. Instead, Israel is re-armed and drawn ever more closely into U.S.-NATO regional strategic war-making plans.

A war with no winners

The NBC online headline reads ‘After Eight Days of Gaza Violence, Israel Declares “Mission Accomplished”, Hamas Claims Victory.’ A bit odd, no?… both sides claim victory? That is not even a half truth. This was, if anything, a war with no winners; given the mismatch in firepower, the fact that the eight-day Israeli air and sea offensive ended in something of a stalemate, and that Israel could not secure a clear cut military and political victory will be seen as a political victory for Hamas, which it was.

Despite its post-ceasefire blustering, Israel got a dose of its own medicine this time, as Palestinian rockets were able to penetrate as far north from Gaza as Tel Aviv and near Jerusalem. The human and property damage Israel suffered, was, compared to the Palestinians, minor (five dead, some property damage), but the psychological shock of Gaza-based missiles landing in major population centers was considerable. It most probably was a key factor (among many) in Netanyahu not launching a ground war against Gaza. True, Israel’s missile defense system did neutralize about a third of incoming missiles, but two thirds of them landed.

Israel’s wellworn tactic of playing ‘the victim card’ to somehow cover its role as aggressor is losing its potency. And once again, Israel’s ‘precision bombing’ was not very precise. The photos of the victims bely statements by the Israeli and Obama administrations alleging that Israel was engaged in a ‘defensive war’. Images of children being torn to pieces, of three generations of Palestinian families bombed to smithereens, of hospitals targeted as well as foreign media outlets (AP, Al Jazeera) do not correspond to a nation ‘defending itself’ from ‘outside aggression’. Just the opposite.

The pictures of the human suffering its residents have endured, downplayed by the US media but readily available all over the worldwide web, are heartbreaking. A day after it was agreed upon, the ceasefire appears to be holding. Gaza is smouldering but its residents seem unbowed. Hamas was not weakened by this Israeli attack: rather its prestige has soared, not only among Palestinians but globally. Still, for the second time in four years, Gazans paid a heavy, punishing price.

An incomplete damage report, collected from various sources, just before the ceasefire went into effect, reveals the following:

At least 145 Palestinians have been killed in IOF attacks on the Gaza Strip. Of those, 29 were children and 12 women. More than 1100 people were wounded, including 326 children and 162 women. At least 865 houses have also been damaged or destroyed, including 92 completely. Of those 92 houses, 44 were directly attacked; including 33 were deliberately targeted by direct Israeli attacks using the roof-knocking tactic. Expect all of these statistics to spike somewhat upwards.

Another 179 houses sustained serious damages. Threats to cut off electrical and water sources did not materialize, but the infrastructure of both suffered once again.

At this writing, Israeli attacks caused damages to 6 health centres, 30 schools, 2 universities, 15 NGO offices, 27 mosques, 14 media offices, 11 industrial plants, 81 commercial stores, 1 UNRWA food distribution Center, 7 ministry offices, 14 police/security stations, 5 banks, 30 vehicles, and 2 youth clubs. Because of the bombing, some 10,000 Gazans were forced to find shelter from the bombing at UN-run schools.

Regardless of the spin, Israel did not win. Now, with US aid, it hopes to recoup politically (through pressure on Egypt) what it failed to accomplish through the F-16-delivered (not very) precision missiles. The Israeli military, by many estimates the world’s fourth largest, was held at bay by what is little more than a rag-tag militia of Hamas defenders with a few shortrange and (perhaps) anti-tank missiles.

Netanyahu miscalculated

Netanyahu, eager to launch a major ground assault to punish the Gazans yet again, was forced to put the breaks on such an operation which entailed too many risks for Israel, the United States, and strange as it might appear, even a Muslim-Brotherhood-led Egypt. The ostensible goal of the Israeli assault was to knock out Hamas’ missile capacity but on another level, other factors were at play. Yes, as has been well publicized, on some level Netanyahu hoped to isolate and marginalize his opponents vying for political power in the upcoming Israeli elections.

He also calculated that regardless of how the military operations played out, it would complicate life for Barack Obama whose re-election Netanyahu shamelessly lobbied against. At the same time, the Israeli prime minister hoped to embarrass and humiliate the Egyptian government, by forcing it to choose between its strategic alliance with the US and the will of the Egyptian people to stand up to Israel.

But the central political goal of this campaign was to kill the hope, the Palestinian hope that in this, Obama’s second term, there might be a possibility of diplomatic progress towards achieving a political settlement that would lead to a viable West Bank-Gaza Palestinian state with its capitol in East Jerusalem. Through a fullscale assault – air, sea and with a follow up ground offensive, Israel intended to strike a crushing blow to the Palestinians once again, to complicate any effort at Palestinian unity while continuing to build settlements in the West Bank and ultimately to ‘send a message’ that Israel is in control and that there will be no Palestinian state. The occupation would continue as it has since 1967.

A combination of world public opinion fast turning against both Israel and the United States, US pressure on Netanyahu (with its promises of lucrative consolation prize payoffs to Netanyahu), Hamas’ dogged resistance and Israeli worries that Hamas possibly had anti-tank missiles merged to end the Israel air and sea offensive and Hamas’ missile response. The Israeli ground offensive never happened.

Assymetrical warfare - the shadow of the 2006 Israeli military incursion into Lebanon

In many ways, the way that this conflict was fought – and ended – was in large measure dictated by the 2006 Israeli venture into the Lebanon which was, by any objective standard, not just a political but also a military failure in what has been referred to as ‘assymetrical’ warfare. The limits of Israeli military might were exposed. It might be able to fight a conventional war against another regional power, but is far less prepared to fight the guerilla warfare that Hezbollah and now Hamas practice. Israel suffered one of its greatest military losses then, its ground offensive stalled as Hezbollah anti-tank missiles disabled several score of Israeli tanks leading the charge into southern Lebanon.

Forced to withdraw its ground troops, Israel responded with a punishing – but largely ineffective – massive air offensive. Hezbollah’s answer was a massive missile attack on northern Israel which forced more than 100,000 Israelis to abandon their homes and seek temporary shelter elsewhere. As will be the case with Hamas today, in 2006 Hezbollah emerged from that war a much stronger force than it had been, not just in Lebanon, but throughout the region.

In 2008, Israel was able to launch a punishing military offensive against Gaza. That military offensive was little more than an air, sea and ground based massacre. To call it a war is to mis-characterize what was little more than unprovoked aggression. But although Israelis and their US supporters howled against the charges of ‘war crimes’, the moral stain remained. Israel’s prestige in the world – and among American Jewry somewhat – plummeted. And it did not achieve its goal of eliminating Hamas, which was able to rebuild its structures, cadres and military potential rather quickly.

With this current attack on Gaza, Israel’s international standing, despite US support, will continue to tank.

This is the third time in a mere six years that Israel has come out on the short end politically from wars that it has launched. All three times, Israeli military operations have been launched with full support from Washington – be it the Bush or Obama administrations – and with an ample supply of US-made sophisticated weaponry. All three times the thin pretext of ‘Israel’s right to self-defense’ was invoked for what were rather wars of aggression launched on the thinnest of pretexts.

While here in the United States, with the public bombarded with pro-Israeli, anti-Palestinian media spin, the Israeli offensive enjoyed popular support, this was not so in the rest of the world where images of the wanton destruction and killing of Palestinians began to inflame anti-Israeli sentiment everywhere. Outside of the US the argument that ‘Israel has the right to defend itself’ – while somehow the Palestinians don’t have that right – rings surprisingly hollow.

Buying unstable peace…

After the 2006 and 2008 Israeli military adventures, the US Congress speedily and amply provided replacement weaponry, throwing in hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Tel Aviv to boot, this above and beyond the annual $ 3 billion gift. The just-ending Israeli attack on Gaza will follow suit. All indications are that Hillary Clinton, with perhaps her 2016 presidential on the line, did not so much ‘negotiate’ a cease fire as she did pay for it, doling out tens if not hundreds of billions to both Israel and Egypt.

Reports have already surfaced that American financial largesse - once again – coaxed Israel to accept a ceasefire and Egypt to press Hamas to do likewise. This is the modern American form of diplomacy – buying its way to unstable peace – otherwise known as bribery – whether it is paying Poland $8 billion to join NATO, or ‘brokering’ a ceasefire over Gaza. Months before the fighting broke out the United States gave Israel two gifts, one of $270 million and another of $70 million to upgrade its early warning missile defense system. Promises of additional financial aid to Israel – just the opposite message needed to bring Israel to the negotiating table – are already in the offing. Likewise tremendous pressure combined with financial incentives was put upon Egypt to use its influence on Hamas to accept the cease fire.

How to change direction

People speak about how the Middle East has been marred with religious conflict for the past 5000 years. This is utter nonsense, a way simply to avoid putting forth concrete suggestions for ending the crisis by taking the fatalistic and entirely inaccurate position that the conflict is essentially unsolvable.  The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a modern political conflict with its roots in the late nineteenth century; it is primarily not even a religious but a national and colonial conflict.

In his column today, University of Michigan prof Juan Cole offers what he calls `10 Steps that are necessary to lasting Israeli-Gaza Peace‘. They include a call for lifting the Israeli blockade of Gaza which continues to choke the Palestinians there, the granting of Palestinians citizenship and statehood, encouraging Egypt to help with Palestinian rapprochement between Hamas and Fateh, encouraging Egypt to press Hamas to renounce terror as a tool for national struggle, renewed Palestinian elections to create a government of national unity, a moratorium on Israeli West Bank settlement building (the main stumbling block to any successful negotiation), the end of Israeli expropriation of property in East Jerusalem and Israel recognizing the right of Palestinians to have their capitol in East Jerusalem, Israel not insisting on recognition by its negotiating partners as a pre-condition for starting talks, an Israeli-Palestinian return to the bargaining table for final status talks and finally that the United States must stop blocking UN Security Council resolutions critical of Israel.

Taken together if implemented, this would mark a shift in gears, from war-making to peace making. It would be a shame, if after this hard won cease fire, the situation again deteriorated into another war, next time – as this one nearly did – drawing in the whole region, if not the world. With such high stakes, peace really is the only option.

 

This piece was first published on Rob Prince’s blog on November 22, 2012

About the author

Rob Prince graduated from St.Lawrence University in French and Religion in 1966, when he served as a US Peace Corps volunteer and staff member in Tunis and Sousse. He lectures in international studies in the Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver