The recent fighting between Israel and Hamas, a militant group and the de facto government of the Gaza Strip, was the deadliest flare-up in Gaza since Israel’s ground invasion, Operation Cast Lead, four years ago. The recent round of violence may have seemed to go by fast to those reading the headlines, but the depth of each occurrence and the cumulative significance of November’s violence proved momentous in the context of such a lengthy conflict.The recent round of violence may have seemed to go by fast to those reading the headlines, so here is the background and summary of what happened last month.
For the past five years, Israel has maintained a blockade of Gaza, disallowing a laundry list of goods into the territory, ostensibly for security purposes. However, internal documents have clarified the actual intentions of the blockade. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the Israeli government “relied on mathematic formulas which computed minimum nutritional requirements that would meet the basic needs of Gaza residents. Based on these formulas, the state determined the amount and volume of goods that were permitted to enter the Strip.” Dov Weissglass, a senior adviser in the Israeli government, provided a more blunt description of the economic sanctions imposed before the blockade: “We must cause the Palestinians to become thinner, but not die.”
Israeli government policy cannot be blamed for lack of implementation, as human rights reports all concur that the blockade has been a disaster for the people of Gaza. The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimated last June that 44% of Gazans are food insecure, 80% are dependent on aid, and 90% have contaminated water from the main aquifer. In addition, Israel refuses to let most building materials in, so the territory has no means to rebuild after the “22 days of death and destruction” (in Amnesty International’s words) that was Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, which turned 3,500 residences into rubble. According to a March 2011 OCHA report, “because of the ongoing restrictions on the import of building materials, only a small minority of the 40,000 housing units, needed to meet natural population growth and the loss of homes during the ‘Cast Lead’ offensive, could be actually constructed.” Of the building materials that do come into Gaza, 60% have to be smuggled through dangerous tunnels. As of June, 172 Palestinians have died while working in these tunnels.
Also in June, Save the Children concluded, “The blockade has been the single greatest contributor to endemic and long-lasting household poverty in Gaza” partly because “many basic food items and medical supplies have been prevented from entering Gaza, including X-ray machines, electronic imaging scanners, laboratory equipment, batteries and spare parts.” As a matter of “urgent priority” they appealed to Israel to end the blockade “in its entirety.” But Israel’s security concerns preclude this, since terrorists have a track record of using medical equipment in their murderous struggles.
Under this state of economic war, physical warfare between the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and militant groups in Gaza is more or less chronic, with occasional flare-ups and ceasefires. The main militant group, Hamas, governs the Gaza Strip, although it has no easy task cracking down on the more radical groups. The militias, primarily Hamas, aim rockets at civilian populations in southern Israel, while Israel periodically launches airstrikes which are purportedly aimed at neutralizing the threat. It is important to critically analyze how effective Israel was throughout the month in stopping rocket attacks from harming their civilian population.
Early this November, there was a lull in the fighting. From October 30-November 8, there were only two breaches of the peace: on November 4, IDF soldiers shot a mentally handicapped Palestinian who wandered near the border, and the next day, one rocket was fired into Israel without causing damage. On November 8, Gaza militants opened fire on IDF soldiers 100-200 meters inside Gaza who were “performing routine activity.” Israeli soldiers then fired at “suspicious locations” and killed a 12-year-old. The next day, two rockets were fired into Israel.
Then, on November 10, Palestinian militants blew up an Israeli jeep, wounding 4 IDF (Israel Defense Forces) soldiers. I srael responded by firing a tank shell at a funeral in Gaza City, killing 4 and wounding 25.
Thirty-four rockets were fired into Israel.
Then, Israel started bombing Gaza, but on the 11th, Israel’s Ynet reported, “both Hamas and Islamic Jihad [another militant group] have agreed to hold their fire if Israel suspends its airstrike on Gaza.” Over the next three days, two rockets were fired into Israel. Then, on the 14th, the IDF tweeted a video of a car in Gaza City being blown up by an Israeli airstrike, with Israel claiming it had never agreed to the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire. In the car was Ahmed Jabari, a senior political leader of Hamas. According to Gershon Baskin, a prominent Israeli peace negotiator who helped arrange the release of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, senior Israeli officials knew a permanent truce agreement was in the works with Jabari when they approved his assassination. Jabari had, in fact, received a new draft only a few hours before, but as Baskin put it, his assassination “killed the possibility of achieving a truce.” In fact, Jabari was responsible for keeping the relative calm. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz described him as “a subcontractor, in charge of maintaining Israel’s security in Gaza.” According to a report by the International Crisis Group, Jabari was “Egypt’s primary interlocutor in negotiating ceasefires” and third-country diplomats had “questioned the logic of killing Jaabari, whose replacement would need time to acquire the same stature and influence in Gaza for imposing a future ceasefire on militants.” Meanwhile, the assassination initiated Israel’s Operation Pillar of Cloud, as it launched airstrikes aimed at taking out launching sites for rockets.
246 rockets were fired into Israel the following day.
Also on the 15th, when asked about the prospect of peace talks, Israeli military spokeswoman Avital Leibovitz said, “nothing like that is on the current agenda.” The airstrikes in Gaza continued, as did the rocket attacks on Israel. Meanwhile, President Obama had very little to say about the escalation aside from chanting the empty slogans on his teleprompter: “We are fully supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself…we will continue to support Israel’s right to defend itself.”
Both sides were at a stalemate. Israel’s Interior Minister and Shas party leader Eli Yishai said, “The goal of the operation is to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages.” But considering the international outcry over Israel’s last major operation in 2009, Israel could not risk more Palestinian civilian casualties, and with elections coming up, IDF casualties also had to be avoided. By November 20th, in the words of Haaretz, “it became clear to Israel that the principles for a cease-fire being proposed by Egypt were much closer to Hamas’ positions than to its own.” A debate then ensued between Netanyahu’s two main advisers: Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. The hawkish Lieberman urged a ground invasion that would reinforce Israel’s “power of deterrence.” The dove, Barak, insisted that “deterrence” could be best preserved by accepting the unfavorable ceasefire agreement, because “a day after the cease-fire, no one will remember what is written in that draft.” At Hillary Clinton’s urging, Netanyahu decided to accept the agreement on November 21st.
During the week before, 1,573 rockets were launched from Gaza into southern Israel, killing four civilians and two soldiers, while the Israeli bombardment killed 173 Palestinians, most of them civilians (102 according to the UN). So how effective was Israel’s strategy of stopping rocket attacks? During the first week of November, one rocket hit Israel, and by the third week, 1,573 rockets did. Moreover, Israel’s “power of deterrence” was not reflected in the crowds of Palestinians celebrating the ceasefire.
In fact, Israeli policy once again boosted the prestige of Hamas at the expense of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. As Crisis Group observed, Hamas had “yet again reduced President Abbas and the PA to passive, powerless bystanders.” Abbas had been planning to have Palestine recognized as a non-member state at the UN General Assembly before, but the U.S. and Israel had threatened financial retaliation. Now, though, these became empty threats, as they could not afford to undermine Abbas who was in charge of putting down anti-occupation protests during the fighting in Gaza.
The vote on the 29th resulted more favorably for the Palestinians than most had predicted. 139 countries took their side, opposed only by Israel, the U.S., and our great alliance: Canada, the Czech Republic, Panama, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau, and Nauru. Humiliated, Netanyahu had one more way to show the world that Israel can still do what it wants: the day after the vote, he announced the construction of 3,000 new settler homes in the West Bank, a plan previously on hold due to American opposition. The new settlements in the “E1” block will cut off Palestinians from Jerusalem and divide the West Bank, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the plan would deal “an almost fatal blow” to a two-state solution to the conflict.
To what lengths Israel will go to preserve its “power of deterrence” is an open question. How long we will sponsor it is another.