Gaza: Old Struggle, New Realities

The Islamist-led government of Egypt has brokered a truce to end the fierce fighting and exchange of rocket fire between Gaza and Israel. Israel was poised for a ground invasion, but that’s on hold for now. The events reveal old, failed patterns in the Middle East and a seemingly endless conflict that’s has long instigated regional bitterness, determination and extremism, writes Rami G. Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. He points to new dynamics, too. The Palestinians as underdogs are showing resilience, attracting sympathy and support from neighboring Muslim countries. By balking at negotiating with chosen Palestinian leaders, Israel only produces more hardline replacements. Finally, regional partners are showing more capability in negotiating peace than major powers. Khouri notes, “The new developments in this round of fighting suggest that conditions will not remain static, and former advantages by either side will not remain in place permanently.” – YaleGlobal

Gaza: Old Struggle, New Realities

Rising regional powers bring new intensity to Israeli-Palestinian conflict
Rami G. Khouri
Friday, November 23, 2012

War dynamics: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Cairo with Egyptian President Muhammed Morsi pushing for a ceasefire (top); a family in Gaza tries to rest in the rubble of their home

BEIRUT: In the latest armed confrontation between Israel and an assortment of Palestinian resistance groups in Gaza led by Hamas, largely failed patterns of behavior, old and familiar, are reasserting themselves, while new actors and political forces take center-stage in a fast-changing Middle East. The changes are happening because the Gaza conflict is the first instance in which four major regional dynamics converge into a single process: the Arab-Israeli conflict, the regional alliance of Arab and Iranian Islamist forces, the inevitable foreign policy impact of the nearly two-year-old Arab uprisings, and the reconfiguration of power politics as regional players assume a more prominent role to replace the fading impact of global powers.

The most predictable developments are in the United States and Israel, both of which repeat failed policies and appear to be blind to the emerging new realities. It is no surprise to see the American government’s parrot-like support of the Israeli government’s argument that “Israel has the right to defend itself against rocket attacks from Gaza,” while Washington ignores the impact of Israeli attacks and siege against Gaza that prompted the anti-Israeli rockets in the first place. This is why the United States has been a consistently and spectacularly failed mediator in the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations over the past two decades, given its chronic tendency to lean to the Israeli side rather than be genuinely impartial to play its role.

The Israeli response likewise seems depressingly consistent with Zionism’s history of reliance on military force as the main instrument of dealing with Palestinians and Arabs. This persists decade after decade, despite the signs that brutal assaults against military and civilian targets alike have not quelled the Palestinian will to struggle for national rights. Instead, the brute force seems only to motivate the next generation of Palestinians to resist with greater efficacy and determination.

Neither side has the ability to completely wipe out the other or bludgeon its opponent into total submission. The past three decades, since Hamas’ emergence in Palestine as a major political, social and military resistance force in the early 1980s, indicate that both sides are willing to keep fighting over and over again, without moving any closer to resolving this conflict.

The new developments in this round of fighting suggest that conditions will not remain static, and former advantages by either side will not remain in place permanently. The three most dramatic changes are taking place in the Arab world, while the fourth reflects regional and global power transitions. These realities suggest that a shift in the strategic balance of power underway in the Middle East may be the most significant change since the ascendancy of Israel after the 1967 June War.

The first new element to note is how Hamas and other smaller Palestinian resistance groups in Gaza have now started using more advanced and accurate rockets that have reached Tel Aviv and other areas beyond southern Israel. About 300 rockets have been shot down by the Iron Dome defensive missile system developed by the US and Israel, but at least 500 other rockets penetrated the protective system and landed in Israel – most without inflicting major damage. The ability of Palestinian fighters to disguise and protect their rocket launchers, fire into central Israel, and keep firing after a week in which Israel said it had hit nearly 1,500 strategic targets in Gaza, adds a new dimension to the imbalanced military equation. Many Israelis now experience psychological fear that mirrors the fear and tension that Israel’s aerial attacks have long inflicted on Palestinians and Lebanese.

The ability of Palestinians to fire rockets deeper into Israel, and presumably with greater accuracy in due course, suggests that time is not on Israel’s side. Everything Israel has done to protect itself against Palestinian resistance has failed to pacify the Palestinians, including border fences and walls, border-free fire zones, occupation of Gaza, destruction of Palestinian infrastructure, repeated assassinations of Palestinian leaders, and a brutal multiyear siege on Gaza that has resulted – according to UN data – in stunted growth and malnourishment among Palestinian children.

The Palestinian people suffered dispossession and became refugees in 1947-48 at the hands of Zionist militia and the young state of Israel. As long as that is not redressed through a peaceful and just negotiation that satisfies the legitimate rights of both sides, we will continue to see enhancements in both the determination and the capabilities of Palestinian fighters. This is a lesson that goes back to the 1930s, when the existential conflict between Jewish Zionism and Palestinian Arab nationalism first took root. Today, Hamas and other Islamists feel they are on the rise because of their links with other Arabs, Iranians and Turks in the region who share their views, and in some cases offer them valuable technical assistance.

The second major new element in this round of fighting is the steady expansion of militant Islamists in Gaza, such as Islamic Jihad and other groups that make Hamas look pragmatic. Some of the rockets being fired into Israel emanate from several Salafist Islamist groups that have sprung up in Gaza alongside Hamas in the last decade. This mirrors trends across the Arab world, where Salafists are serving in newly elected and legitimate parliaments. This should serve as a wakeup call to the reality that has reigned since the 1960s: If Israel does not come to terms with the political groups now holding power in Palestine and Arab states, it will surely have to deal with more militant ones in the future. Israel did not deal with the earliest Palestinian nationalists in the 1950s and 60s, never really came to grips with Yasser Arafat and Fateh, who were then overtaken in large part by Hamas. Now Hamas may give way to more militant and uncompromising groups if its strategy – including ceasefires, long-term truces, and prisoner exchanges with Israel – fails because Israel only responds with assassinations, invasions and sieges.

The third new element is the changed environment in Arab public opinion around the region, where young new governments more accurately reflect the sentiments of their citizens vis-à-vis the Palestine issue. We should note how the Tunisian and Egyptian governments, in particular, quickly sent their foreign and prime ministers to visit Gaza in solidarity, followed by foreign ministers from other Arab countries, including Turkey. The Arab states are likely to find new and meaningful ways to express real support for Palestinians, which will increase the political pressure on Israel.

The fourth new element is the direct mediating role played by Egypt, Turkey and Qatar in trying to arrange a ceasefire, while the United States moves aside and quietly drops its former monopoly on Arab-Israeli diplomatic mediation. As an ironic testament to this fact, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton is visiting the region this week, but the initial plans did not include meeting with any Hamas leader or visiting Gaza – a powerful symbol of the dysfunctional, distorted nature of America’s failure as a mediator in this conflict.

The new Middle East starting to emerge will be defined less by the might of military powers and more by the popular will of Arab citizens who are overthrowing their autocratic regimes, Islamist and secular resistance movements that have continued to push back against Israeli occupations, and the intermediation of regional powers that are likely to prove to be more effective and credible mediators than Western powers who traditionally played that role.

Rami G. Khouri is director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, and a syndicated columnist based at Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper. He tweets at @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2012 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

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