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Gaza's slide to war

Jane Kinninmont
29 June 2006

Just as a glimmer of hope emerges that Hamas might be shifting its position towards Israel, a major escalation of violence risks setting everything back. This is no accidental irony of history – it seems likely that hawkish Palestinian militants were deliberately trying to provoke Israeli military action, in order to derail a "peace process" that they have no faith in. And it might just work.

The prisoners' document

Hamas's endorsement of the "prisoners' document" calling for a two-state solution to the conflict is an encouraging move. Of course, there are many problems: the document doesn't meet Israel's conditions for negotiations; it is debatable whether the statement of a claim to a state within 1967 borders really is a recognition of Israel; and the document's endorsement of "all forms of resistance" within the West Bank and Gaza is never going to be acceptable to Israel, since it implies support for suicide bombings targeting any Israelis within these territories. Moreover, Hamas's hand was basically forced by Mahmoud Abbas's threat to hold a referendum on the prisoners' document if they continued to reject it – they feared they might lose, which would have triggered fresh elections.

All the same, it's a major step for Hamas, continuing a trend of "moderation" already seen in its decision to stand for election to the Palestinian Authority – which it used to reject as a product of the Oslo peace accords, which the movement vociferously opposed – and its maintenance of a unilateral truce towards Israel from February 2005 until earlier this month, when Hamas claimed responsibility for rocket fire from Gaza for the first time. And importantly, the document's endorsement of resistance within the territories captured by Israel in 1967 would seem to rule out rocket fire from Gaza into Israel.

There are certainly some within the Israeli government who see the prisoners' document as a positive step – but it's not clear how influential they are. Yes, Israeli officials have repeatedly said that the document is not enough for them. But Labour MK and former intelligence chief Ami Ayalon, for example, told me earlier this month that if a Palestinian referendum endorsed the prisoners' document, it would invalidate the whole concept of unilateralism. Ayalon added, "I'm not sure all my partners in the coalition government would welcome this."

Nevertheless, since the document was drafted by several Palestinian prisoners who remain in Israeli jails, it stretches credulity to imagine that their captors did not, at the very least, turn a blind eye to enable them to reach the agreement and disseminate it to the Palestinian public.

However, this positive progress has now been overshadowed by the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier and Israel's current land invasion of Gaza – the first time Israeli troops have entered the territory since the withdrawal last year. The invasion is not just about the kidnapped soldier. Israeli hawks have been calling for a land invasion for some time, in order to stop Palestinian militants from firing rockets from Gaza into Israel.

Jane Kinninmont is a political analyst and a poet. She is Middle East and Africa Managing Editor at Business Monitor International in London and freelances for newspapers around the world. Jane's first collection of poetry, Seven League Stilettos, is available from Ragged Raven Press.

Also by Jane Kinninmont on openDemocracy:

"Life after Sharon: Palestinian prospects" (January 2006)

"Guantánamo and back: an interview with Moazzam Begg"
(March 2006)

"Syriana" (March 2006)

"Paradise Now"
(April 2006)

"Man in the shadows: an interview with Efraim Halevy" (April 2006)

"Saudi Arabia's women pioneers " (May 2006)

The rocket fire

This rocket fire is one of the saddest and most futile manifestations of the conflict. For the most part, it involves crude homemade Qassam rockets, which are incredibly inaccurate. They kill one or two Israelis per year, mainly in the underdeveloped border town of Sderot. According to Miri Eisin, a retired Israeli Defence Force (IDF) colonel who took me to Sderot in June, seven Israelis had been killed by Qassams since 2001. Most explode on empty farmland; some hit Palestinian homes, causing damage and injury. Without wishing to understate the tragedy of each individual death they have caused, in military terms the Qassams are pathetic. Their main achievement is to undermine the peace camp in Israel – many Israelis fear that if they withdraw from the West Bank, yet more rocket fire will follow – and to create a strong military and legal case for Israeli attacks on Gaza.

But Palestinian militants now seem to have got hold of the much more serious, longer-range Katyusha missiles, upping the stakes considerably.

In response, the IDF was already shelling Gaza. The high-profile deaths of a Palestinian family picknicking on the beach earlier this month seem to have resulted from Israeli shelling (though possibly from the family accidentally touching an unexploded shell that had been fired earlier, rather than a direct attack). According to a UN spokesman, at least six Palestinians had been killed and sixty injured by shelling before the beach deaths. Three teenage boys were also killed handling an unexploded Israeli shell in northern Gaza early in June; the UN spokesman said "It is believed they were going to attempt to defuse the shell and then sell the casing for scrap metal." On a visit to the Gaza border on 6 June, I could see and smell the artillery shells bursting in the distance. IDF spokesman Jacob Dellal told me, "We don't want a land invasion. This is the lesser of two evils."

Israeli insecurities

But the kidnapping of an IDF soldier last Sunday was both a terrifying incident for Israelis – conscription means that many Israelis are former soldiers themselves, and virtually every Israeli parent has seen their own child go off to the army – and a humiliation for a government whose security credentials have already been questioned. This government is the first in the modern state of Israel to be headed by a civilian prime minister rather than a former general (a tradition of generals as leaders is one of the odd commonalities between Israel and the neighbouring Arab republics). Moreover, its defence minister – a pro-negotiation Labour member – has little security experience. The government has a lot to prove.

So now there is a land invasion, motivated both by a need to answer domestic pressure, and by the sincere belief that Hamas will only understand force. Israeli hawks believe it was Israel's policy of targeted killings, rather than Palestinian pressure or internal evolution, that led Hamas to its 2005-06 truce. But the timing of the attack could undermine the more moderate members of Hamas, who have spoken most strongly in favour of the prisoners' document. And the Israeli detention of several Hamas lawmakers is enflaming the Palestinian street in turn.

Palestinian fractures

Hamas is struggling with its own internal divisions and domestic pressure. There are serious differences of opinion between the leadership-in-exile in Damascus and those on the ground (those who don't actually live in the Palestinian Territories tend to be more hardline), as well as some differences between the leadership in the West Bank and that in Gaza. (There are rumours that the Syrian leadership was behind the kidnapping of the Israeli soldier, though this is not clear.)

Hamas is by no means the most hawkish Palestinian faction. As it moves towards a more moderate position, it runs the risk of losing support to more rejectionist factions, unless it can show the Palestinian public that its change of position is bringing real rewards. Israel no doubt hopes its attacks will weaken the Hamas leadership – but what does it think will replace it? Is there any way that a land invasion could re-empower the more moderate Fatah? Speaking on behalf of the PLO, chief Palestinian negotiator Dr Saeb Erekat said that "kidnapping Palestinian lawmakers and holding the Palestinian government hostage will neither strengthen Israel's hand in bargaining nor bring any good to anyone in the region – especially when we have just signed the Prisoners' Agreement and gained a consensus in support of the two-state solution."

Unfortunately, there is a high risk that the Israeli invasion will play into the hands of the most hawkish factions, like the more hardline members of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and possibly al-Qaeda-influenced groups. Israel's line from the ministry of foreign affairs that this is a "limited operation," only "targeting terrorist infrastructure" is barely plausible when the army has bombed an electricity plant. Israel's belief that Hamas will only understand force seems a hangover from its interstate wars with the Arab states. In this kind of asymmetric conflict, by contrast, this apparent show of force is a huge propaganda victory for Palestinian hawks. The Palestinians can never win a traditional military battle against Israel, as Egypt (for example) once hoped to do. Rather, Palestinian militants use psychological warfare to magnify the effects of their physical actions; like blowing someone up at random on a bus, so that millions of people feel unsafe on public transport. The media sphere is a key battleground in this conflict.

As Israel tries to show its strength, inevitably killing and injuring Palestinian civilians along the way, Palestinian militants will seek to claim the moral high ground – and photographs of Israeli attacks will boost the ranks of militant groups not only in the West Bank and Gaza, but around the world.

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