Gaza: outlines of an endgame

Ghassan Khatib
6 January 2009

The ground offensive that Israel started in the beginning of the second week of its war against the Palestinian people in Gaza was expected and, once the air operation had begun, to some extent wanted by both Israel and Hamas.

Ghassan Khatib is co-editor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president for community outreach at Birzeit University and a former minister of planning in the Palestinian Authority.

Also by Ghassan Khatib in openDemocracy:

"The view from Palestine" (15 October 2001)

"An international solution?" (9 May 2002) - with Yossi Alpher

"The Arab League summit: two challenges" (28 March 2007)

"Palestine: this occupation will end" (7 June 2007)

"Hamas's shortsighted manoeuvre" (18 June 2007)

"Palestinian political rights: a common-sense solution" (27 September 2007)

This article was first published in the independent website bitterlemons.orHamas, which was at an obvious disadvantage in the aerial phase of the war, kept threatening Israel with "serious consequences" if the land offensive should start. Israel meanwhile could not achieve its objectives by bombing from the air and a ground offensive was "unavoidable".

The diverse diplomatic efforts to stop the war, including those of the French, the Turks, the Russians, the Arab foreign ministers and in the United Nations Security Council (where Washington, Israel's staunch ally, has vetoed any resolution) have so far failed because the battlefield is not ripe for a ceasefire. The two sides, Hamas and Israel, are not yet ready to end the confrontation.

Both seem confident that they are heading for victory. The irony is that the objectives of the two sides are not mutually exclusive.

Hamas's strategic objective with this war seems to be to assert itself as the main counterpart to Israel in Palestine, the party that decides on war or peace with Israel. This, after all, is the first war between Israel and the Palestinians that is not fought and led by Yasser Arafat and Fatah.

Hamas spokesman Mohammad Nazzal, commenting on the recent diplomatic efforts to end the war, reminded everybody that no matter who is trying to do what, it has to be understood that the "final word will be for the resistance movement" and not the "so-called legitimate leadership" in Ramallah.

The war on Hamas, which is a part of the regional political Islamic movement, is also allowing the different political Islamic groups in Arab countries to cultivate the unprecedented public Arab sympathy for Hamas. There is no doubt that the war is creating a situation less favourable to the so-called moderate camp. An early sign of this pressure is the statement by the Jordanian prime minister, Nader al-Dahabi, that Jordan might reconsider its relationship with Israel.

The attempt to gain some wider political capital was also illustrated by Hamas leader Osama Hamdan, who in an address to a rally in Syria declared that this war was waged not against Hamas or Gaza, but rather on the Islamic umma (nation).

The losers and the guilty

Israel's tactical objective with its offensive is not completely contradictory. Israel wants to end Hamas' capacity to launch rockets at Israel or at least put enough military pressure on the movement that it will stop. In addition, Israel wants to end the smuggling through the tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border. But Israel understands that it cannot at one and the same time expect the tunnel smuggling to end and maintain its siege on the beleaguered strip, something that would cause a humanitarian crisis unacceptable to the international community.

Hence, for Israel to succeed in its aims it also needs to end the siege of Gaza in some way, whether through the Israel-Gaza crossings, the Gaza-Egypt crossing or both. In other words, Israel can succeed only if the key Hamas demand for a ceasefire, an end to the siege, is also met. Israel would prefer any end to the siege to be conducted through the Rafah crossing, thus fulfilling another strategic aim: that of making Gaza Egypt's responsibility.

Such an outcome would enable the Israeli government, in which Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak are both hoping to continue after general elections in February 2009, to claim victory. The same is true of Hamas, which would in this event survive, keep its power intact and secure an end to the siege.

The main losers will be the civilians of Gaza, in addition to the Palestinian Authority and Egypt. Apparently, the civilian casualties almost exclusively on the Palestinian side, are a price both Hamas and Israel are willing to pay to achieve their respective victories. Tragically, this is possible only because influential governments, particularly the United States's and those of the European Union, are by condoning Israel's aggression as "defensive" closing their eyes to the unfolding war crimes that are being committed. This makes them indirectly responsible.

Also in openDemocracy on conflict over Gaza:

Mient Jan Faber, "Talking to terrorists in Gaza" (14 February 2005)

Eóin Murray, "After Hamas: a time for politics" (30 January 2006)

Guy Grossman, "Israel's Gaza assault: the real motives" (2 July 2006)

Khaled Hroub, "Hamas's path to reinvention" (9 October 2006)

Mient Jan Faber & Mary Kaldor, "Palestine's human insecurity: a Gaza report" (20 May 2007)

Ghassan Khatib, "Hamas's shortsighted manoeuvre" (18 June 2007)

Fred Halliday, "Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq: three crises" (22 June 2007)

Ghassan Khatib, "Palestinian political rights: a common-sense solution" (27 September 2007)

Volker Perthes, "Beyond peace: Israel, the Arab world, and Europe" (22 January 2008)

John Strawson, Rosemary Bechler, "Palestine: the pursuit of justice" (28 January 2008)

Eyad Sarraj, "'Gaza is quite a dynamic place now':an interview" (29 January 2008)

Geoffrey Bindman, "Gaza: unlock this prison" (7 March 2008)

Jeroen Gunning, "Hamas: talk to them" (18 April 2008)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: hope after attack" (1 January 2009)


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