Last week I had written that by talking of renouncing the “right of return” of the Palestinian refugees President Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine had created an opening for the resumption of Israel-Palestine peace talks and that President Barack Obama in his second and last term would have the flexibility and political strength to press Israel to conclude these talks successfully.
This was perhaps overly optimistic given the strong negative reaction that President Abbas’ statement prompted, particularly in Hamas-ruled Gaza, and the almost deathly silence about this development in Washington and other Western capitals.
Now, however, the world’s attention is focused not on the possibility of the resumption of peace talks but on preventing the threatened Israeli physical invasion of Gaza for which it has called up 70,000 reservists. Heavy armour and troops have already been assembled on the Gaza-Israel border.
How this rapid deterioration happened, along what has always been a tense frontier, is in a sense immaterial. The Palestinians claim that they intensified the firing of rockets into Israel only after Israel targeted and killed Ahmed al-Jabari, the top Hamas military leader, on Nov 14.
There is some support for this claim found in the statement of Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh on Nov 13 when he praised Gaza militant groups for accepting the truce that was worked out after there had been military activity prompted by the killing of a mentally challenged Palestinian near Gaza’s border fence with Israel on Nov 4. The Israelis have a very different narrative.
What is important is that more than 100 people have been killed in Gaza, a number of them children. Almost 900 have been wounded. On the other side, a few Israelis have been killed and less than 100 injured.
Much has been made of the fact that Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza now have long-range rockets that can target Tel Aviv and other population centres in Israel. Yet the truth of the matter is that not one of the approximately 830 rockets fired from Gaza has caused any substantial damage.
Israel’s Iron Dome anti missile defence has knocked out most of the rockets fired. Israeli attacks have destroyed much of the rocket-building capability in Gaza and have expanded the target of 200 daily sorties to cover such civilian targets as Prime Minister Haniyeh’s office and the central police station. The already poor infrastructure in Gaza has been pulverised further.
These ratios suggest what has been evident all along: Gaza’s fighters, no matter how courageous, are no match for the overwhelming military strength that Israel can and has brought to bear. They may have acquired new capabilities — though an Egyptian adviser to President Mohamed Morsi was probably right when he termed the Gaza rockets as primitive projectiles — but the Israelis are far ahead in building defences. A new missile defence system to supplement the Iron Dome system already in place will be operational by 2015. For Benjamin Netanyahu, his hard-line party and his coalition partners this has been an opportunity to bolster support in the forthcoming elections.
The opposition has had to support the escalation of Israeli attacks and the calling up of reservists for an invasion of Gaza to duplicate the three-week invasion of 2008-09, Operation Cast Lead, in which some 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis lost their lives. The Haaretz newspaper in Israel has quoted Interior Minister Eli Yishai as saying that the “goal of the operation is to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages”. If the present rate of sorties continues, this may well be within Israel’s reach even without sending Israeli troops into Gaza.
Certainly at this time a mood has been created in Israel where the voices of moderation have been silenced and support seems to exist for doing whatever is necessary, including putting boots on the ground, to destroy Gaza’s missile-launching capabilities.
If there is to be a cessation of the violence it can only come from international intervention. The British have warned Israel that it would lose international support if it were to invade Gaza. President Obama’s administration has endorsed Israel’s right to use whatever means it chooses to defend its people against rocket attacks but has also been pressuring Israel privately to work out a ceasefire and to desist from plans to invade Gaza.
Egypt, because of its treaty relations with Israel and the theoretically close ties its new government enjoys with the Hamas leadership in Gaza, has been called upon to play a mediatory role. An Israeli envoy has apparently been in Cairo since Sunday and the UN secretary general is also in Cairo.
Reports suggest that the Israeli cabinet has received and is considering a proposal from Cairo for a truce. Other reports suggest that this proposal has emerged after Egypt’s consultation with Khaled Mashal, the Hamas leader who is also in Cairo. If so, it is likely to contain the conditions that Mashal spelt out in his press conference in Cairo on Monday — a cessation of Israeli attacks and a lifting of the blockade that Israel has imposed on Gaza since 2007.
Will this be acceptable to Israel? It is difficult to say. Some Israelis have argued that Israel’s principal objective of degrading the military capabilities of the Gaza militant groups has been achieved and Israel should desist if only to avoid international opprobrium at a time when President Abbas is pressing ahead with his plan for UN recognition of a Palestinian state. On the other hand, Israel’s leaders may well argue that on the eve of elections accepting such conditions would be a sign of weakness that would not go down well with the voters.
There is no certainty about what will come next. What is certain is that even if a ceasefire does happen, severe damage will have been done to relations between the transformed Arab world and the Western supporters of Israel.
There will be further harm when Abbas presses ahead with his bid for UN recognition on Nov 29. Israel will oppose this vehemently and will have the support of the US and some if not all of the Western camp. The prospects for peace or even for resumption of dialogue appear dim.
The writer is a former foreign secretary.
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