For three weeks, as the Israelis subjected Gaza to some of the most brutal total warfare seen since the US assault on Falluja in 2003, most of the Muslim world could do little more than watch in shock and horror. After the Israeli ceasefire, as Palestinians adjust to the new reality of life in the devastation left by the Israeli blitzkrieg, it is possible to place the events of the last month or so in some sort of political context.
In hindsight, the Israelis’ decision to go to launch a war of exceptional ferocity on Gaza at that particular time should not have come as a surprise. It is how they usually react whenever they are politically out-manouevered, and how they usually start any new effort to re-establish dominance over the convoluted politics of Israeli-Palestinian relations.
Despite the Israelis’ initial claims to have been acting in response to the immediate threat posed by Palestinian rockets, it quickly became clear that the war was the result of a long-term plan which had been made even before the beginning of the six-month ceasefire agreed by Hamas and Israel in June last year. It is now clear that Israel agreed the ceasefire simply in order to buy time to prepare for this war, and to create the pretext for it: Hamas’s announcement in early December that it would not extend the ceasefire, which was itself a response to repeated Israeli breaches of the ceasefire since early November which were evidently designed to provoke precisely that response from Hamas.
The timing was perfect from the Israeli point of view, coming in the political vacuum between the US presidential elections and the end of the neo-cons’ reign, over the Christmas period when the international response would be slow, and before the official expiration of Mahmud Abbas’s four-year presidential term on January 9, which would be a focal point in Palestinian politics. The later announcement of Israeli elections for this month, which could not have been foreseen in June last year, may well have been influenced by the timetable already determined for the war, which would have been pre-scheduled to end before the inauguration of the new US president in late January.
What, then, were the unacceptable developments that the Israelis decided required this war at this time? That is perfectly clear, and is the dynamic that analysts such as those at Crescent have been highlighting for years: the inexorably rise of Hamas as the leading force in Palestinian politics, and the inability of Israel and its many allies -- the US, the rest of the international community, and now also Mahmud Abbas and Fatah within the Palestinian camp -- to effectively counter it in any way.
Until 2006, Hamas was best known as a militant resistance movement, having emerged during the first intifada, maintained retaliatory operations against Israel throughout the 1990s, asIsrael maintained its pressure on the Palestinians despite the so-called peace process, and played a leading role in the second intifada of 2000-2004. However, it was always more than that. Alongside its roots in the tradition of Islamic militant resistance to zionism, it was also deeply rooted in the institutions of the Palestinian Ikhwan al-Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood), giving it both an Islamic ideological element and a tradition of providing educational, social and community services to the Palestinian population suffering under the yoke of Israeli occupation. At the time of the first intifada, when Israel launched an all-out war on the Palestinian people, Hamas also proved itself the only organisation capable of efficiently providing for the needs of the Palestinians suffering under Israeli attack.
Israel’s response to the first intifada, and the rise of Hamas and Islamic Jihad as jihadi Islamic resistance groups in particular, was to turn to the PLO as a potential “partner for peace”. As part of the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian National Authority was established as a pseudo-state operating under Israeli overlordship. Hamas rejected the logic of the Oslo peace process, saying that it did not believe that Israel was serious in wanting peace, and that the Palestinian institutions established by the PLO under the terms of the peace process would only be exploited by the Israelis for their own purposes. At the same time, it did not actively undermine the new PA, arguing throughout that internecine fighting among Palestinians would only serve the interests of their enemies. The importance of maintaining a united Palestinian front was something that Shaikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder and inspiration of Hamas, insisted on throughout his life.
Meanwhile, Hamas maintained its military activities in defence of the Palestinians, and also developing its social and educational activities. During the 1990s, it developed an impressive social welfare infrastructure, including relief and education programs, schools, orphanages, mosques, healthcare clinics, soup kitchens, and sports leagues. It also engaged in political debate with the PLO and other politicians, critiquing their policies and positions, and establishing a discourse on the peace process and the need for resistance that was gradually proved to be correct, as Israel repeatedly broke its promises and moved to grab more and more Palestinian land, despite its promises to vacate Palestinian land in exchange for peace.
When the Oslo peace process fell apart at the end of the 1990s, culminating with Arafat’s humiliation at Camp David in 2000, Hamas’s analysis was vindicated in the eyes of the Palestinians, . As Palestinians took to the streets after Ariel Sharon’s invasion of the Haram al-Sharif in al-Quds in September 2000, Hamas emerged as a leading resistance force during the second intifada, leading military operations against the Israelis.
At the same time, as the Palestinians grew disillusioned with the leadership of Yasser Arafat and the PA, and realised that Hamas’s reading of the situation had been correct from the outset, they expected that Hamas step up to replace the corrupt leaders of the PA and provide leadership in domestic and international politics as well as in military resistance. This was initially resisted by Hamas leaders, who argued that resistance against the zionists was the first priority; but the pressure on Hamas became irresistible, especially when it became clear that the leadership that succeeded Arafat, under Mahmoud Abbas, was prepared to concede far more to the Israelis than even Arafat had ever done.
After the election of Mahmud Abbas in January 2005, therefore, and the success of forcing the Israelis to retreat from Gaza later the same year, Hamas leaders decided (not without considerable debate) to take part in the forthcoming elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council. These took place in January 2006 (after twice being postponed by Abbas for fear of precisely what transpired), and Hamas won an overwhelming victory. In line with its emphasis of maintaining Palestinian unity at all costs, Hamas then offered to establish a government of national unity along with Fatah and Abbas. This was unacceptable to Abbas because it was unacceptable to the Israelis and Americans with whom he had aligned himself. The result was the political stalemate of 2006-07, during which Abbas and Fatah did everything possible to undermine the Hamas government, culminating in Fatah’s expulsion from Gaza in 2007 (widely mischaracterised as a Hamas coup against Abbas) and Abbas’s seizing power from Hamas in the West Bank. Since then, Gaza and the West Bank have effectively been separate entities, with efforts to re-establish cooperation between the leaderships of the two stymied by Abbas’s subservience to Israel and the US.
The object of the division, for Israel and its allies, was to bolster Abbas as a “partner for peace” in the West Bank, willing to make the “hard decisions” necessary to achieve a settlement (ie. conceding all major Israeli demands), while using Gaza as an example of what the Palestinians could look forward to if they refused to cooperate with Israel’s plans. Gaza was therefore subjected to intense economic blockade, starved of access to the international aid provided to the West Bank, and subjected to constant low-level warfare. In the West Bank, by contrast, Hamas was severely repressed and every effort made to portray Abbas as a statesman capable of bring peace to the Palestinians.
The war on Gaza is best understood as the next stage of the same process, in more intense form because of the failure of the Israeli strategy over the previous 18 months. Israel and its allies still hope that the Palestinians of Gaza will turn against Hamas because of the devastation they have suffered, and the Palestinians of the West Bank will be deterred from supportingHamas for fear of suffering a similar fate. Unfortunately for the Israelis, the experience of the last two decades has repeatedly shown that the Palestinians have a remarkable tolerance for suffering and a spirit of resistance that refuses to be broken under the Israeli cosh. All evidence from Palestine suggests that the war has rallied support for Hamas, while confirmingAbbas and Fatah as collaborators.
In September, after announcing that he would step down as Israeli prime minister as soon as a new government was created, Ehud Olmert gave a serious of interviews in the Israeli press imploring Israelis to realise that they must be willing to make greater concessions to the Palestinians if they really want peace. At the time, he was portrayed as a peacemaker and a statesman; just weeks later he launched the brutal and murderous war in Gaza, which may be regarded as his parting gift to his country: an attempt to improve the political scenario in which future talks take place. With a new president in Washington, and a new government in Tel Aviv, Israel clearly hopes to launch a new attempt to impose peace on its terms on the Palestinians in the next few months.
The irony is that peace is available to the Israelis providing they are willing to face up to reality: that they will have to deal with Hamas, as the genuine representative of the Palestinian people, and they will have to be willing to discuss the terms Hamas offers: a truce for a fixed period of time, which may be from 10 to 30 years, and a total withdrawal to the frontier established in 1948. It is this that the Israelis are unwilling to contemplate, and so it constantly tries to use its superior military position, and the political power it wields in international terms thanks to the total support of the US, to force the Palestinians to accept a much reduced pseudo-state under Israeli overlordship instead.
History suggests they will not succeed; and so the cycle of oppression and resistance is bound to continue.