Another Showdown in Gaza?

By Osama al-Sharif

Gaza is bracing itself for a harsh winter. Less than a week has passed since Israel slammed shut doors to all land crossings, leaving a million-and-half hapless Palestinians to a miserable fate. We have seen the images before; long queues at petrol stations, Gaza city engulfed in an eerie darkness, children huddled together around a kitchen table doing their homework and trying to make use of little light from a burning candle.

And then there are the surprise commando incursions, the dead bodies of Palestinian activists arriving at badly maintained hospitals, the wailing and crying of women and children, the angry shouts of youths calling for revenge and the occasional firing of rockets from olive groves at nearby Israeli population centers. Gaza’s saga has become predictable and banal.

Israel’s collective punishment of millions of civilians in Gaza has become a normal event for the rest of the world. So much so that only a handful of Arab and international news media are following it. The plight of Gazans barely makes front-page headlines. Israel is politely reprimanded by the U.N., but it doesn’t care. The Arab world is silent, busy with other things. The Palestinian National Authority‘s response is timid, almost suspicious.

One is tempted to ask if there is collusion between senior Palestinian figures and the Israeli government. A few days ago outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced that confrontation with Hamas, which controls the Strip, was inevitable. Hamas responded that the uneasy truce with Israel was about to collapse. Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister, made direct threats. The truce is shattered, announces Olmert as he ordered his top military brass to prepare for a showdown with Gaza’s leaders. Again the world is silent.

The escalation comes in the wake of a failed Egyptian initiative to bring Palestinian factions to Cairo in an attempt to end the two-year-old rift between Hamas and the PNA. Palestinian president and Hamas leaders trade accusations. But the reconciliation meeting falls through and with it goes hopes of a Hamas-Israeli deal to release Gilad Shalit and hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. It’s back to square one for all sides; but no one wants a stalemate.

Kicking Gazans where it hurts serves many sides. Israeli parties are preparing for early elections in February. Barak’s Labor party is trailing in the polls and is expected to suffer a historic defeat. Olmert, who will remain in power for a few more months, wants to appear tough, maybe to deflect attention from his personal troubles with the police, or to give his successor and head of Kadima party, Tzipi Levni, a much needed boost.

The PNA is in deep water. George Bush is leaving and his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice admitted few days ago that a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian before the end of the year was now highly unlikely. With nothing to show, Mahmoud Abbas must find ways to justify his presence as head of the PNA after his term expires in January. And he must deal with internal dissent within the largest of Palestinian factions, Fatah, which is to hold its central committee meeting soon.

Hamas holds many keys and can, if it wants to, turn the tables on its main adversaries, both Palestinians and others. Somehow there is much to be gained from weakening, or, better still, destroying Hamas. That is Israel’s specialty. A small war in Gaza will do a lot to help Barak’s chances at the coming elections. It will also serve Livni’s interests as she aims at winning the votes of skeptical right-wing voters who had fled Likud and embraced Kadima.

Forcing Hamas to accept a deal on Shalit will also give Kadima an edge over Likud and its leader Benjamin Netanyahu. A broken Hamas will help Abbas overcome the many barriers that await him, inside Fatah, within the West Bank and in front of his international beneficiaries.

Aside from humanitarian organizations, no one really cares about what is happening to Gazans. The Egyptians are miffed at Hamas because of its refusal to attend the Cairo reconciliation meeting. They feel that they have used their good offices with all parties to their limit. That is why the Rafah crossing point, between Gaza and Egypt, remained closed last week.

Hamas is being punished for its policies, both past and present, and as it stands it has no allies. As bad as this seems to be, the fact remains that innocent Gazans are made to pay for Hamas’ judgments.

Hamas knows that it is facing a major threat. Israel has the upper hand if the latest showdown develops into an open military confrontation. If Israel invades Gaza it will be the third time it does so in 60 years. That may prove to be a big mistake for Israel, but then Tel Aviv is known for repeating past mistakes.

It did so in Lebanon before, in the West Bank and there is no reason to believe that it will not do it again in Gaza. The question is this: What next? Assuming that the Israeli Army will barge into the Strip, roll its tanks into Gaza City and hunt down Hamas’ leadership, what would that achieve?

It is an open question, but we can predict that such an action will not spell the end of Israel’s problems, nor will it secure Mahmoud Abbas an easy and trouble-free control over the occupied territories. And with the negotiations all but over, the Palestinian problem will nag on and on, regardless of the outcome of the current showdown with Hamas. Somehow, Israel, the US, the PNA and many others, including the Arabs, have been missing the point about how to end the oldest conflict in the region.

In the current scheme of things, there is little assurance that policies under consideration will make things better. Hamas may be at fault, but launching another military adventure will not solve matters. In fact, it will only thrust issues into the unknown.

– Osama Al-Sharif is a veteran journalist based in Jordan. (Originally published in Arab News – www.arabnews.com – November 19, 2008.)

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