Israel has so lost its bearings that its Central Elections Committee (CEC) has banned two currently sitting Arab parties, Balad and the United Arab List-Taal, from contesting the February election – a ruling that is likely to be overturned by the Supreme Court. (Chaim Oron, the Meretz party leader, has condemned this CEC decision and Meretz USA has similarly expressed its dismay.)
Describing the causes for the periodic outbursts of violence in the Arab-Israeli conflict are tricky, because one can almost always go back to a prior transgression or perceived offense by the other side. So it goes with Israel’s war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
After Israel withdrew all its settlements and soldiers from Gaza in 2005, the Bush administration decided to bring “democracy” to the Palestinians. It insisted on running a parliamentary election and allowing Hamas to compete.
As has been pointed out to us by Yossi Beilin, chairman of the Meretz party at the time, Hamas was not legally qualified to run because it had refused to meet the minimum requirements of the Oslo agreements still in effect from the 1990s: that it renounce violence and accept Israel’s existence. Oslo might have been a wedge to get Hamas to change its spots, to go along with all previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements and stop being a terrorist organization.
But the Bush State Department insisted on allowing Hamas to run as it was, assuming that it would not win. Surprise: Hamas won a plurality of votes with 44 percent to Fatah’s 42 percent and took power early in 2006.
Fatah lost primarily because of corruption; by contrast, Hamas is known for its financial integrity. Stupidly, Fatah also ran candidates against each other in multiple-representative constituency districts.
Later a coalition government was formed but Hamas seized control of Gaza violently in June of 2007. In the meantime, Hamas declared a truce but was still intermittently attacking Israel, or allowing other factions to attack Israel. A coalition of terror groups, including Hamas, captured one IDF soldier, while killing two others, in a cross-border raid in June of 2006; this one soldier, Gilad Shalit, is still their prisoner. The IDF rampaged through Gaza in the summer of 2006, killing several hundred Palestinians to no avail (a veritable second front to the main event against Hezbollah at that time).
Egypt mediated a six month cease-fire agreement last June, which expired on Dec. 19. It was mostly observed by both sides (with some exceptions) until Israel destroyed a tunnel which was assumed to be prepared for another cross-border raid to take more Israelis captive. A few armed Palestinians were killed in this incident and Hamas resumed fire on Israeli towns near the border as a result.
A very real Israeli security concern is that the Hamas missiles or rockets are improving in range. They are no longer just “homemade.” Towns further away from Gaza have been hit; the fear is that they may soon be able to target Tel Aviv. There is an elaborate network of tunnels used to smuggle in arms, missiles, drugs, medicines and consumer goods from Egypt. It is this network of tunnels that is a legitimate target for Israel and must be a prime focus of international diplomacy.
At the same time, ever since Hamas took power in the elections of 2006, there has been an international economic blockade. Vital humanitarian supplies are supposed to get in, but they have been doing so only intermittently (sometimes Israel closes border crossings in response to attacks). As a result, the Gazan economy (piss poor to begin with) has been basically destroyed. But what the blockade is supposed to achieve is to force Hamas to renounce violence and accept the principle of a negotiated peace with Israel. This Hamas refuses to do.
It is believed that Hamas declared an end to the cease-fire and has escalated rocket attacks as a “negotiating” tactic to get the economic blockade lifted – without agreeing to peaceful coexistence .
Israel is not wrong to react militarily. Yet, it is doubtful that an attack of this magnitude, in one of the world’s most overcrowded places, causing many civilian casualties, will be an effective way to bring Israel security. The human toll in Gaza, the cost to Israel’s image around the world and in rising hatred aimed even at random Jews in the Diaspora, all suggest that this operation is a huge mistake.
An added dimension to this situation is that Israel has its national elections on February 10. The current coalition government in Israel has three heads, two of whom (Foreign Minister Livni and Defense Minister Barak) are running against each other for prime minister. One result of this initially popular war is that Ehud Barak’s Labor party has benefitted substantially in the polls and the balance of power between the loosely-defined “left” bloc versus the right has moved to favor the left. The actual left, mainly the New Movement-Meretz electoral bloc, has lost some ground. But where the chips will fall on election day is anybody’s guess and will no doubt heavily reflect the state of public opinion on that day, about the Gaza war.