North Africa, West Asia

Keeping Hamas at bay

While the Israeli motivation has been reduced to nothing more than an aggressive hunger for more Palestinian land or a desire to kill Palestinians, what both the Hamas and the Israeli leaderships are saying and actually doing, is being ignored.

Efraim Perlmutter
14 August 2014

I’ve spent a lot of time reading over the commentary on the latest fighting between Israel and Gaza that appeared both on openDemocracy and elsewhere. In a way it has been a form of escapism from the experience of being a civilian by-stander on the Israeli side of the war itself. Much of the commentary portrays the Palestinian side as nothing more than punching bags for the Israelis. Some of the media institutions kept a daily score card of how many Palestinians versus Israelis were killed as the fighting dragged on. Oddly while the Palestinian losses far outnumbered those of Israel, towards the end of the fighting commentators were beginning to describe the episode in terms of a Palestinian military victory.

On reflection this is not so unusual. After the 1948 Nakba (catastrophe) the Egyptian army returned to Cairo and held a victory parade. The 1967 war is referred to as only a Naksah or setback and so on for all of the Israeli-Arab conflagrations. In each case one can find western observers who, with appropriate sophistry, explain how the Arab defeat was actually a victory which boded ill for Israel’s future military endeavors. This latest flare-up has produced similar analyses.

While many commentators on this forum and elsewhere have reduced Israeli motivation to nothing more than an aggressive hunger for more Palestinian land or a desire to kill Palestinians, they are content to ignore what both the Hamas and the Israeli leaderships are saying and actually doing. On the Israeli side, at the start of the conflict Prime Minister Natanyahu was quite the minimalist in his statements about Israel’s war aims. The aim was to achieve quiet from Hamas in exchange for quiet from Israel. About a week into the conflict the Israeli government expanded the war aims to include the destruction of a tunnel system that had been dug by Hamas, some of which extended into Israeli territory and had been used to attack Israeli forces.

This change was accompanied by the invasion of Gaza by IDF ground forces. Upon completion of the destruction of all known tunnels, the ground forces were withdrawn from Gaza in keeping with the previously announced war aims. Although he has been much criticized by his own right wing colleagues, Israeli commentators have been quite uniform in their assessment, and on rare occasions praise that Natanyahu had announced minimum goals in this military campaign and had pretty much kept to those goals. He had strikingly not called for the re-occupation of Gaza nor the elimination of the Hamas regime.  

Throughout the entire conflict there were world-wide demonstrations demanding an end to the fighting. Unfortunately no one seemed to be able to convince the Hamas leadership that ending the fighting was a good idea. On two or three occasions Israel proposed humanitarian ceasefires and unilaterally stopped firing. The Hamas publicly rejected or ignored these efforts and they came to nothing. The United States proposed a cease fire which was accepted by both sides, however, fighting resumed when Hamas violated the agreement by attacking Israeli ground forces near Rafa in the southern Gaza Strip.

Finally after almost a month of fighting and nearly 2,000 dead, Hamas accepted an Egyptian proposal, which they had rejected in the first days of the conflict, and the fighting came to a brief halt for 72 hours; only to be resumed when Hamas refused to extend the ceasefire beyond its 72 hour duration and began firing more rockets at Israel. Last night, at midnight, another 72 hour ceasefire was supposed to go into effect in accordance with the original terms proposed by Egypt.  

What brought about this conflict is the subject of much debate. As noted above, some argue that it was just one more Israeli plot to bring death and destruction to Palestinians as a means of continuing Israeli territorial expansion. Of course, I don’t agree with this assessment. It seems to me that the conflict was generated by a Hamas leadership enmeshed in a crisis to which there was no solution. Prior to the Syrian civil war the Assad regime was a major supporter of Hamas. This ended when Hamas chose to support the Syrian Sunni opposition. The loss of Syrian support was compounded when the Muslim Brotherhood regime, another major Hamas supporter, was driven from power in Egypt.

In addition the Egyptian government closed down the smuggling tunnels across its border with Gaza, thus depriving the Hamas government of over two hundred million dollars in revenue from taxes on the tunnel trade as well as blocking the shipment of funds to Gaza from Qatar, the last major financial backer of Hamas. The inability of Hamas to pay the salaries of its 40,000 public employees induced the kind of crisis that no regime can survive. Public opinion polls in Gaza illustrate the loss of popularity that the Hamas regime was facing.

Finally Hamas was forced to do what it had avoided for the past several years, form a government of reconciliation with the PLO. However, the PA president Abbas refused to deliver on the expectation that the 40,000 Hamas public employees would be paid out of the PA coffer. At the same time Abbas was continuing to pay the salaries of about 70,000 PA civil servants in Gaza, which could not help but further adversely affect the Hamas image in the eyes of the Gaza public. So Hamas was left with no alternative but to gamble on picking a fight with Israel in the hopes of generating support from the Arab states, the people of Gaza and the PLO against the hated Zionist enemy.

So far, the Hamas gamble has not paid off. While many observers have been distracted by mass anti-Israel demonstrations in Europe and elsewhere, support for Hamas has not been forthcoming from where it counts; Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. Indeed when U.S. Secretary of State Kerry proposed a ceasefire which included Hamas terms, this was soundly rejected by these four states as well as Israel, a rather singular moment of agreement in the Middle East.

While I was perusing some of the commentary on the war, I came across some references to the ineffectiveness (read harmlessness) of Hamas rockets. After the 72 hour truce ended, Hamas launched quite a few rockets into the area where I live. On Saturday afternoon one of them came down near our area’s transportation hub for buses. Luckily, being Saturday when the buses don’t run, there were no people around to be hurt or worse. The following day I dropped my wife off there to catch the bus to her job in Beersheba and took the opportunity to photograph some of the damage caused by the rocket. 

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In the first photo one can see the little crater left by the rocket’s explosion. The rocket itself has been removed and I was told it was one of the older models of the Kassam produced in Gaza. Notice the steel fence about one meter away from the impact site. The second photo shows some of the damage caused to the fence by shrapnel from the rocket.

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I took the third photograph while standing over the impact crater. It shows the general layout of the scene.

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The structure on the left is a kiosk which normally serves free coffee and snacks to IDF soldiers on their way to and from home. It is usually manned by civilian volunteers from the area. In front are steel frames which hold fabric coverings to provide shade. The small cubical structure in front of the bus is a bomb shelter; one of several in the hub. Behind it are roofed benches for people waiting for busses.

The fourth photograph shows some of the damage to the kiosk. Inside, the opposite walls were also damaged as the shrapnel penetrated the wall, passed through the building and out the other side. Had anyone been inside there was every possibility that they would have been injured or worse.

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The fifth photograph shows the pock-marks made by the shrapnel which struck the shelter. There was no penetration and anyone inside would have been well protected.

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All photographs by Efraim Perlmutter.

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