Target Practice in Gaza

By Nadia W. Awad  – The West Bank

What came first: the chicken or the egg? And who started the latest round of clashes in Gaza: the Israelis or the Palestinians? Depending on whom one asks, the answer will be different every time – the Israelis, the Palestinians, both are guilty, it depends…

On November 5, Israeli forces entered Gaza, killing six Palestinians in the process. Since then, Palestinian fighters have been clashing with Israeli troops and dodging Israeli missiles. In response to every Israeli action, they play their only card- they fire homemade rockets into Israel. To date, 16 Palestinians have been killed, with zero Israeli fatalities recorded. Palestinians say Israel made the first move by entering Gaza in an unwarranted and aggressive manner. Israel, on the other hand, says it was responding to rumors of possible kidnapping attempts against Israeli soldiers and the threat of more rocket attacks. But debating who started the latest round of violence is an unproductive pastime. Instead, considering the timing and the consequences of these hostilities yields a much more interesting though sad tale.

November 5 was the day after the US presidential elections. It was also a few days before Hamas, Fatah, and other Palestinian factions were to head to Cairo for the unity talks that never happened. Roughly five months into a relatively stable six month truce between Israel and Hamas, Israeli forces and tanks, supported by warplanes, entered the Strip, killed six Palestinian fighters, and then withdrew, all the while expecting the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire to remain intact. At a time when any semblance of quiet was crucial, Israel didn’t feel the need to oblige. What message were they trying to send? Was it to show that the conclusion of the American presidential elections would have no effect on Israeli policies – they would continue to do as they wished regardless of international criticism? Was it to remind the Palestinians that Israel held the upper hand militarily and that they could go into Gaza or the West Bank anytime they liked, truce or no truce? Was it to further divide the Palestinians, knowing all the while that any such attack would weaken President Abbas’ position in the eyes of the Palestinian people, and damage a little further the fragile foundations of the peace process? Or was it to make the man who ordered the incursion, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, appear a strong leader as he prepares to run for the office of Prime Minister in Israeli elections next February? No matter what the answer, Israel is either very smart or very short-sighted, though most people would probably agree with the former description.

With its latest intensive incursions, Israel has sent multiple messages that it is strong and ready for battle. It has affirmed to Palestinians that not only does Israel want to have its cake; it thinks it can eat it as well. The incompatibility of an inhumane blockade on Gaza – not to mention the settlements, checkpoints, and a separation wall – with the peace process does not seem to faze the Israelis in the slightest. Similarly, despite their Gaza offensive, they still want to maintain the truce with Hamas.

Unfortunately, an analysis of possible messages will not change the humanitarian crisis unfolding on the ground in Gaza. The Israeli army and Palestinian fighters are engaged in a tit for tat struggle. In addition to the 16 Palestinians killed, the remaining 1.5million residents of Gaza are plummeting even further into a humanitarian disaster of dire consequences. With no fuel, no food and no medical supplies being allowed in, Gazans are living in virtual blackout with severe food shortages. While Gazans have been living in a prison for the past two years, the latest blockade is making a terrible situation absolutely unbearable. UNRWA, which alone distributes food to more than 750,000 refugees, announced that it would essentially have to close up shop unless the flour, oil, milk and meat waiting to be delivered through the closed Gaza crossings was allowed through. In the last couple of days, Israel has allowed some token deliveries to be made, but they are not nearly enough to prevent the humanitarian crisis from worsening. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights urged Israel to end the blockade immediately, saying that Gaza’s 1.5 million residents have been “forcibly deprived of their most basic human rights for months."

Adding to the food shortage problems, Israeli bulldozers went into southern Gaza and razed agricultural lands, leaving them unfit for farming. A blackout of a different kind is also occurring in the Strip, as Israel has prevented foreign journalists and reporters from entering or leaving Gaza. The Foreign Press Association condemned the closure this week, saying, “We regard this as an unconscionable breach of the Israeli Government’s responsibility to allow journalists to do their jobs in this region.”

In the meantime, Israel has merely shrugged off all criticisms and calls for compassion. Instead, it continues to refer to the homemade rockets as ‘missile launches’, suggesting that Palestinians are in possession of technologically advanced weapons. Instead, what Palestinians have is a primitive rocket fired from somebody’s shoulder or backyard. They can cause damage, but more often strike empty spaces since they are not guided. In this latest round of attacks, no Israelis have been killed by them and only a handful has died since the rockets started several years ago.

Many Palestinians believe that the rockets need to stop; after all, as a weapon against Israel’s military, they are virtually useless. Strategically, they serve no purpose at all and are counterproductive, with the repercussions always falling hardest on the Palestinians. They also give Palestinians a bad reputation. One could compare the act to injecting drugs into the body’s system. In the short term, it feels good, giving an immediate sense of gratification; but in the long term, only the person injecting it will be harmed. Similarly, stone throwing is also a useless action, but as the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said once commented, "One stone tossed into an empty space scarcely warrants a second thought… but it is a symbolic gesture of joy.”

Palestinians have been firing these rockets for years because those who fire them believe they are either symbolic or real gestures of resistance. For its part, Israel is either unaware of or choosing to ignore the fact that no number of incursions, missile attacks, or razing of agricultural lands will stop the rockets. It has been using the same strategy for years despite little success; but rather than shifting tactics, Israel prefers to flex its military muscle, using the Gaza Strip as target practice instead.

In the place of old tactics, new policies are needed. Both Israel and the Palestinians need to end the clashes and reaffirm their commitment to the truce. Israel also needs to remove the blockade it has imposed on Gazans, an inhumane form of collective punishment it should not have embarked on in the first place. Internally, Palestinians need to focus on their own national unity talks in order to present a unified front at the negotiating table with Israel. Peace through negotiations is the only way forward.

(Originally published in MIFTAH – www.miftah.org – November 19, 2008)

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