Saturday, June 16, 2007 

Losing even while they're winning.

There are shocking acts of cynicism, and then there's the United States, delighting in the slaughter that's taken place this week in the Gaza Strip, brazenly announcing that since Fatah has now been wiped out despite the US's efforts in arming them, that they'll lift the boycott imposed since Hamas was elected last year, as Mahmoud Abbas has kicked them out of government. When Hamas won what were the most free and fair elections in the Middle East outside of Israel itself, the Palestinian people suffered for their impertinence in voting for terrorists. When Hamas wins through armed struggle, the Palestinian people are rewarded for dying and the civil war which might be yet to come.

Another week of violence, summary executions and inhumane brutality has in reality changed very little. Despite the Guardian claiming in its leader today how very unexpected this was, like Hamas's overwhelming electoral victory last year, neither was that much of a surprise. After years of corruption under Fatah, helmed by Yasser Arafat whom Israel refused to negotiate with, imprisoned all the while in his compound up until he left to die in Paris, the Palestinians voted for change. Rather than recognising that the very tactics of non-negotiation, the gradual colonisation of the West Bank by settlements and checkpoints and the open-air imprisonment imposed on Gaza were fueling radicalism, the status quo continued, and Hamas were duly elected. Instead of realising that the people had voted for an end to corruption and for peace rather than Hamas and its rejectionism, the international community went along with Israel and imposed the boycott. Everything that has happened since then can be directly linked back to that decision.

This isn't without Hamas and Fatah trying to build bridges between each other, and with Israel. The agreement which led to the coalition between the two in February was meant to break the boycott, while acknowledging that Hamas had the right to continue to refuse to recognise Israel. This however wasn't good enough for Israel and the US, who continued to enforce it. There was never going to be a better settlement reached between Hamas and Fatah without new elections being called which would have only likely resulted in Hamas winning again, yet this least worst option was boycotted just the same.

As Alvaro de Soto, the outgoing UN envoy wrote in his leaked valedictory report, this refusal to countenance Hamas in any way is "systematically pushing along the violence/repression cycle to the point where it is self-propelling." With no sign of any change, Hamas saw the opportunity to take full control in Gaza where it has long been in the ascendant. Why not, when whatever they do won't make any difference to their overall situation? The fighting has mercifully appeared to end; yesterday calm seemed to return to Gaza, and while the warring factions both carried out what can easily be described as atrocities against one another, Hamas has now released those that were briefly held, and is making overtures towards talks and reconciliation. Whether this will last or not is the key question: as was reported this week, this was no longer about which faction ruled Gaza, this was about taking revenge for brothers and family members killed in the ructions. The simmering anger may not be boiling over yet, but it could easily erupt again, especially if Fatah, now ever more likely to be getting open US backing, carries out more revenge attacks in the West Bank.

The indifference to Palestinian suffering, especially considering how attacks on Israel apart from the rockets fired at Sderot have collapsed, is just as influential in this latest catastrophe as Hamas and Fatah are. We've just commemorated 40 years since the six-day-war, and bit by bit the West Bank is broken up, settled in by extreme right-wing religious Jews and those who enjoy the subsidies, vast areas of it occupied only by the IDF, checkpoints making traveling around the territories next to impossible for ordinary civilians, all while the security wall swallows up yet more land, not to mention how all these factors make it next to impossible for those unlucky enough to live there to actually work in any meaningful sense. This isn't about protecting Israel any longer, it's about making life as uncomfortable as possible, about systematically destroying any hope that there will be any kind of viable Palestinian state left once Israel's decided which parts it wants to keep and inflicting collective punishment on a people who have been waiting for over half a century for justice for having the cheek to continue resisting. The world it seems is more than prepared to let this happen, more concerned with boycotts other than the only one which matters(ed) and with stopping one of the few critical academics from continuing in his job. Israel has already triumphed.

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Saturday, May 26, 2007 

Just two piles of bodies, one Israeli, one Palestinian.

A Palestinian boy stands in front of a burning truck, during the recent in-fighting in the Gaza strip.

The weariness concerning the continuing conflict in Gaza between militants firing their rudimentary Qassam rockets and Israel responding with the overwhelming force of its hellfire missiles is hard to get past. Always beneath the surface of the on-off confrontation between the resistance groups and that of the IDF is a grim calculus of death; 40 Palestinians have now died in air strikes since Hamas and others stepped-up the firing of rockets into the towns of Sderot and Ashkelon, while a single Israeli woman was killed when a Qassam landed on top of a car. 11 other Israelis have been wounded in the last two weeks, while since the Qassams were first launched in 2001 12 Israelis have lost their lives to them.

The figures surely tell their own story. However much pain can be inflicted by Hamas and others on Israel, they only get it returned to them with far more vengeance than they could ever manage. Since the beginning of the second intifada in September 2000, over 1,000 Israelis have been killed, while over 4,400 Palestinians have died. A similar tale occurred during last year's Israel-Lebanon-Hizbullah war, when over 1,000 Lebanese civilians died while only 43 Israelis did, a battle in which Hizbullah was almost universally seen as the victor, despite the casualties.

The higher than usual firing of Qassam rockets came at a time when Gaza had again became an open battlefield between Hamas and Fatah gunmen, continuing their power struggle which has simmered ever since Hamas won the elections in January of last year, triggering the economic boycott which has left the Palestinians ever more cut-off and reliant on help from such well-intentioned fair-weather friends as the Iranians. The tactic seems to have worked in stopping the in-fighting, only to heighten the carnage caused by the predictable response from Israel. Both sides have a contempt for human life that helps them justify their respective responses; each attack is a response, every missile an act of self-defense. The absolute stupidity which keeps Hamas and others firing their pathetic rockets is almost impossible to countenance, bringing only death and destruction in their wake, while doing nothing to help bring an end to the occupation and the creation of a Palestine state any closer. It's easy to blame the Israelis for the way their missiles kill the innocent while also targeting militants, but the Qassams, however technologically backward, and psychologically rather than physically damaging, could not be tolerated by any state. The response to them may be disproportionate, but few would deny them the right to attack those launching the homemade missiles into Israel. It might be considered collective punishment, which is illegal, but no one's really prepared to raise their voices that loudly about it.

This bloody, tedious stalemate has become one of the defining features of the Israel-Palestine conflict. However often both sides reach out with apparent olive branches, Hamas doing so early this year, when one of its militant leaders admitted that Israel was a reality, in complete contradiction with its anti-semitic charter which calls for its destruction, and Olmert recently, when he gave a cautious welcome to the Arab Peace Initiative, while still refusing to discuss the matter of the right of return for refugees, the bloodshed seems to inexorably continue with no end in sight. Welcome developments, like that of Palestinian women who bravely confronted Israeli soldiers last year in peaceful, unarmed direct action protests, which if taken further could have taken the gun out of Palestinian resistance, seem to have come to a halt.

As ever, there seems very little to be optimistic about. Hamas continues to hold the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who before long will have been in captivity for a year, while Israel continues its own raids on Palestinian politicians and others; many of those held during last summer's incursions into Gaza are still in custody, while Nasser al-Shaer, regarded as one of the most moderate members of Hamas, was again arrested, having been detained for a time last year. The Israeli government itself is still mired in the aftermath of the heavy criticism handed down in the Winograd inquest into the Lebanon war, Olmert and Peretz both on their way out, Kadima likely to be replaced by Likud and Netanyahu at an eventual election.

Where the battle being fought between Fatah al-Islam and the Lebanese army fits into all this is anyone's guess. A radical Islamist group which apparently shares the same Salafist ideology as al-Qaida, it seems to have sprouted almost out of thin air, leading many to wonder just who's backing it and why. The usual claims that it's all Syria's doing, despite the Syrians being diametrically opposed to takfirists, even if it might let some of them cross into Iraq over its vast border, don't seem to stand up, while Seymour Hersh has alleged that Saudi Arabia, much more sympathetic towards Sunni radicals as long as they don't attempt to overthrow their own corrupt monarchy, was funding the group as a bulwark against any eventual attempts by Hizbullah to gain further power in Lebanon. In any case, the fears that the Nahr al-Bared camp would be turned into a bloodbath through indiscriminate fighting between al-Islam and the army appear to have been thankfully proved unfounded: most of the refugees in the camp have now fled, while a tense truce is holding, although this may only be a lull while the army restocks. While sympathy for al-Islam was always low, the tactics of the Lebanese army, using the same shelling methods which the Israelis have in the past subjected Gaza to, could have raised tensions in other refugee camps in Lebanon.

The solution to all of this also remains the same as ever. The Palestinian groups, or at the very least, Hamas and Fatah, should announce unilateral ceasefires. Hamas needs to recognise Israel's right to exist; it doesn't have to renounce violence yet, which would likely be too far a step all at once. In response, Israel should stop all building works on settlements within the West Bank, and begin negotiations on the question of prisoners, either to be swapped or released or otherwise, which could then be built on into negotiations on a state in itself. The populations of both Israel and Palestine always agree on one thing: both desperately want peace. It's just some of their politicians at the moment which don't.

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