April 10, 2011

Context, Context, Context: Understanding the Recent Escalation of Violence in Gaza

On April 7, Hamas militants fired an anti-tank missile at a school bus near the Gaza-Israeli border, critically wounding the bus’s only passenger, a sixteen-year-old boy (CNN).  Hamas has admitted to firing the missile, although it claims that it didn’t intended to target children, pointing out “the road where the bus was travelling was often used by Israeli military vehicles” (Haaretz).

The events which followed the school bus attack were predictable:

The IDF retaliated to Thursday’s rocket fire with strikes in Gaza that day, resulting in the death of five Palestinians.

On Friday, a barrage of rockets and mortar shells was fired at Israeli towns near the Gaza Strip…Although no one was hurt, the mortars exploded near homes and chicken coops, causing damage.

On Saturday, the Israel Defense Forces spokesman's office confirmed that IAF jets attacked three top Hamas officials in the Gaza strip, as well as a smuggling tunnel and a truck carrying ammunition, after southern Israel suffered a barrage of rockets overnight.

The early morning air strike brought the two-day death toll from Israel's ongoing retaliation to 17 Gazans—10 militants, a Hamas policeman and six civilians—amounting to the bloodiest tally since Israel and Hamas wrapped up their three-week-long war more than two years ago. (Haaretz)

Ma’an News adds that the Israeli strikes have resulted in 60 injuries, 12 of them serious (Ma’an).

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Unlike Israeli officials would have us believe, history did not begin with the April 7 school bus attack. The International Crisis Group helps provide us with some context.  The Group notes that, following Operation Cast Lead, Hamas “had largely withheld fire at Israel” and had “sought, with a fair degree of success, to contain” other militant groups in Gaza (“Gaza: The Next Israeli-Palestinian War?”).  Consequently, “fewer rockets were launched from Gaza in 2010 than in any year since the first Qassam missile was fired toward Israel in February 2002” (“Radical Islam in Gaza”). 

Despite this, Israel has continued to prevent an adequate amount of humanitarian goods from entering Gaza and has continued to prevent exports from leaving Gaza (OCHA).  Moreover, Israel “increasingly has targeted Hamas for rocket attacks launched by unaffiliated groups—particularly Islamic Jihad and various Salafi-Jihadi militants” (“Gaza: The Next Israeli-Palestinian War?”). 

It needs to be noted that Hamas does not have complete control over these more radical militant groups.  A recently released WikiLeaks cable shows former Israeli Chief of General Staff Gabi Ashkenazi admitting this to US Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand (Juan Cole).  More recently, GOC Southern Command Maj. Gen. Tal Russo stated, “There is anarchy in Gaza, inside Hamas and inside the other [militant] organizations. No group exerts control there” (Haaretz).

On March 16—three weeks before the school bus attack—Israel killed two Hamas militants in response to a rocket fired by non-Hamas militants.  According to the Crisis Group, this attack marked a major turning point.  “A [Hamas] movement leader argued that these actions violated what Hamas had considered reasonable rules of the game: that when Palestinian projectiles hit open space—as did the ones launched on 16 March—Israel aims at open space in response.”

It came as no surprise then when on March 19 “Hamas—for the first time in many months—fired and immediately claimed responsibility for a large-scale attack, some 33 mortars aimed at what it alleged were four Israeli military bases.”  Israel soon retaliated, and Hamas called for a ceasefire on March 21 (Ma’an). 

The following day, non-Hamas militants fired two Grad missiles and several mortar shells into Israel (Haaretz).  Israel responded by carrying out two separate attacks in Gaza, killing 8 Palestinians. Among the victims were five members of a single family, including two children, in the Gaza City neighbourhood of Shajaiyya. This brought the total for the week to ten dead (including five under the age of eighteen) in addition to 38 wounded (including fifteen under the age of eighteen).” Although Benjamin Netanyahu expressed “regret” that innocents were killed, the Crisis Group notes that “the damage was done, and Hamas immediately announced its intention to exact further retribution.”

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It should be clear then that Israel, not Hamas, has initiated this recent round of violence.  Israel’s primary reason for doing this seems clear enough; its strategy has long been to provoke Hamas into firing rockets. Once the rockets start flying, attention in the United States and Europe is no longer on the many crimes Israel is committing in both Gaza and the West Bank, but on those dastardly, violence-loving Palestinians. 
From Israel’s perspective, there are few costs to this strategy, which can best be described as perpetual war for perpetual colonization.  Yes, rockets from Gaza sometimes kill Israelis, but very rarely.  Since 2001, “just” 28 Israelis have died in rocket attacks (Wikipedia).  Certainly Israeli politicians find this regrettable, but, given that this tragedy allows them to continue their colonization of the West Bank with complete impunity, it’s obviously a price they believe is worth paying.  

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UPDATE: Norman Finkelstein has posted a helpful timeline of major events regarding Israel-Gaza since February 17.

UPDATE 2 (4/12): Regarding Israel’s motives here, I think it’s worth keeping in mind that, in the weeks preceding its March 16 attack, both Hamas and Fatah had been making “enhanced attempts” to be reconciled with one another (Jerusalem Post).  If Israel provoked Hamas into fighting in order to thwart reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, it wouldn’t have been the first time.  Remember back to November 4, 2008, when Israel broke its ceasefire with Hamas by entering Gaza and killing six Hamas militants who were supposedly building a tunnel into Israel.  The raid, Noam Chomsky has pointed out, “came shortly before scheduled Hamas-Fatah talks in Cairo aimed at ‘reconciling their differences and creating a single, unified government,’ British correspondent Rory McCarthy reported. That was to be the first Fatah-Hamas meeting since the June 2007 civil war that left Hamas in control of Gaza, and would have been a significant step towards advancing diplomatic efforts” (Chomsky). 

UPDATE 3 (4/13): From Human Rights Watch:

Attacks since April 7, 2011, by Hamas and Israeli forces appear to have targeted civilians or otherwise violated the laws of war...

 Hamas's armed wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, claimed responsibility for an attack on an Israeli school bus on April 7 that wounded two people, while various Palestinian armed groups fired mortars and rockets deliberately or indiscriminately at Israeli population centers. Israeli attacks in Gaza on April 7 and 8 apparently targeted an ambulance, killed a mother and daughter in an indiscriminate attack, and killed and wounded other civilians in Gaza without taking adequate precautions to minimize civilian harm. (HRW)

UPDATE 4 (4/13): Jonathan Cook argues that both Israel and Hamas have much to gain by this recent conflict—namely, the weakening of PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel, Cook argues, worries about the “diplomatic tsunami” that Ababs hopes to unleash by seeking UN recognition for a Palestinian state later this year.  If things are calm in Gaza, then Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself in a major bind: “either break with his Greater Israel ideology and produce a credible peace plan; or wait for Mr Abbas to make his move at the UN.”  But with Hamas and other groups firing rockets into Israel, Netanyahu can claim, as commentator Aluf Benn recently wrote in Haaretz, that “any area Israel gives up in the West Bank will become a base for the launching of missiles against Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.”

Additionally, Netanyahu realizes that Abbas’ “chances of winning much-needed European support for a declaration of statehood in September, and maybe even of staving off a US veto, depend on elections to refresh his mandate. And credible elections require Hamas’s participation.”  As long as there is war in Gaza, there will not be unity talks. 

Hamas, Cook continues, also has reason to avoid unity talks.  Hamas, he points out, “is growing stronger by the day. Mr Abbas's loss of Mr Mubarak was the Islamist group's gain. Popular sympathy in Egypt for Gaza's plight has already ensured a weakening of the siege, allowing more smuggling through tunnels under the single shared border.”

Moreover, “Hamas’ regional supporters, including Iran and Syria, are likely to exploit this change to arm Gaza’s militants in the hope of making life more difficult for Israel. That appears to explain the shipment of weapons seized by Israel on a ship in international waters last week.

“For this reason the militants in Gaza are choosing to revive the armed struggle, if only briefly, in preference to unity talks and fresh elections. Why play second fiddle to Mr Abbas when the future looks to be moving in their direction?” (Cook)

UPDATE 5 (4/13): MJ Rosenberg makes many of the same points as Cook in an op-ed for Al-Jazeera (Al-Jazeera).

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