THE NOVEMBER 2012 CONFLICT IN GAZA

Canberra, 27 November 2012


PROS, CONS, OUTCOMES AND THE FUTURE

“We must liberate all of Palestine and recover every grain of sand! Jews are most welcome to stay if they want to live in peace as equals under the law, but forget about colonisation, democracy for Jews only and apartheid. They must disappear for sure!”     A University Student from Palestine.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflicts have become almost completely predictable in its intensity and the level of death and destruction meted out by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) as well as in the ferocity of the rocket attacks mounted by Hamas against Israel. The recently concluded eight-day conflict was no exception. However, it is easy to analyse a conflict from the comparative comfort of a study room thousands of miles away from the horrors of war and its aftermath. This is one such analysis. The November 2012 conflict, the latest in a series, was named Operation Pillar of Cloud by Israel and Stones of Clay by Hamas, both terms being taken from their religious books.
During the eight days of conflict, Israel carried out over 1500 aerial strike missions using F-16 fighter aircraft, Apache helicopters and uninhabited combat aerial vehicles, while Hamas fired thousands of rockets into Israel, especially the towns of Ashkelon and surrounding areas. Unlike previous conflicts, this time around, Hamas was able to target both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, demonstrating a capability that they had not possessed in the previous 2008-2009 conflict. Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) claimed full responsibility for the rocket attacks. At the end of the conflict, 140 Palestinians (mostly civilians) and five Israelis had died, and Gaza had suffered significant damage to its infrastructure, buildings and factories. The actual cost is still to be calculated although Hamas has estimated the destruction costing close to 1.2 billion dollars. At the end of eight days of intense fighting, both parties agreed to a ceasefire brokered primarily by the Egyptian President Morsi, with active participation of the United States in the person of the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. At least for the time being (at the time of writing) the ceasefire is holding with both sides adhering to the terms and conditions.
Unlike in earlier conflicts when the support for Hamas by Iran and other friendly Arab nations was always covert, this time Iran openly declared that they were supporting the Palestine ‘resistance’ through the provision of rockets. More importantly, Iran declared that since it was difficult to provide hardware because of the Israeli blockades they would be transferring technology to Hamas to mass produce Fajr-5 rockets. These rockets are more powerful, accurate and destructive than rockets that have been used so far. Further, Iranian Quds Force—Special Forces—have been actively providing military assistance to Palestinian fighters in the Gaza strip. The ceasefire is only a tentative truce with no guarantee that the cycle of violence will not erupt again because of some flimsy reason. The earlier conflicts, even though they inflicted much greater destruction and higher death toll than the current one, brought out a largely even handed acceptance from the rest of the world that both the sides were at fault, somewhat to the same degree. However, at the end of this conflict there is a palpable perception that Israel was the aggressor. The number of articles and opinion pieces that have condemned Israel for its actions are far more than in any instance before, to an extent wherein the political leadership of Israel is being labelled war criminals, even by some Western journalists. This is a perception that needs to be carefully monitored by Israel.
Arab Perceptions
The broad perception around the Arab world regarding this conflict is very similar to the opinion held of the 2008-2009 three-week winter ‘invasion’, called Operation Cast lead by the IDF. There are five major factors that are visible commonalities in all the Israeli-Palestine conflicts. First, Israel is seen as illegally occupying Palestine territories, which is compared to colonisation. The United Nations (UN) recognises that Israeli settlements in Palestine are illegal constructions and must be removed, a stance that gives credence to the perception of illegality. Second, the targeted assassination of the leadership of Hamas and other militant groups is viewed as extra judicial killings that are against international law. The recent killing of the military commander of Hamas, Ahmed al-Jabari, was one of the catalysts for the current conflict. Another verifiable fact is that between the conclusion of Operation Cast Lead and the start of the 2012 conflict, 315 Palestinians had been killed by Israeli actions. The question being asked is whether the concepts of ‘self-defence’ and ‘retaliation’ can be used as a reason for the application of force only by Israel and is not the right of the Palestinians. Third, from an Arab perspective, the entire Western world is seen as being pro-Israel, irrespective of the ground realities and Israeli actions. This pro-Israeli stance is further seen as the reason for the weak response of the UN to Israel’s military operations while the actions of the Hamas are more vociferously condemned.  
Fourth, Israel’s actions that invariably result in the killing of civilians, however careful the IDF is with their targeting, is seen as collective punishment against a whole nation-in-waiting for the actions of their military wing. This is against humanitarian law that prohibits collective punishment of any sort and cannot be argued away with the explanation that the Hamas rocket-firing sites are located in civilian areas while at the same time condemning Hamas for targeting civilian areas in Israel. There is an obvious sense of double standards here. Fifth, if the UN appraisal that Israel’s occupation of Palestine lands is illegal is accepted, there is another universally accepted norm that comes into play—people under illegal occupation are permitted to take up arms against the occupiers to liberate their land. Therefore, the Gazans (since the 2012 conflict was confined to Gaza with the West bank not taking any action, this seems a better term to use than Palestinians) have all the right to resort to the use of force to push out the occupying people. In addition, the Israeli withdrawal in 2005 is not seen as a real withdrawal, since Israel continues to control what goes in and out of Gaza and is extremely restrictive of the movement of people and goods.
Gaza today is a besieged and broken place—with 1.6 million people living within a blockade for the past six years. An NGO report states that 10 per cent of children under the age of five in Gaza have permanently stunted growth because of exposure to continuous malnutrition. Unemployment, which runs parallel with poverty, is rampant. It is reported that 58 per cent of the youth between the ages of 20 and 24 are unemployed and that 39 per cent of the people live below the poverty line. These are damning statistics.
The Ceasefire
The ceasefire was brokered primarily by Egyptian President Morsi, who although new to the role of a statesman, turned out to be an overwhelmingly clear-headed pragmatist and more importantly the only world leader that Hamas was comfortable to deal with and felt it could trust. [The later self-proclaimed authoritarian decree that gave him absolute and sweeping powers and placed him above judicial oversight, which is in turn creating an extremely volatile situation in Egypt, displayed a completely different aspect of President Morsi’s character.] The ceasefire, that has held till now (at the time of writing), demonstrated in very visible and clear terms that Egypt is still the foundation for stability in the Middle East. No other country in the region can bring to bear the same weightage of societal, cultural and religious pressures on another nation and even on non-state entities as well as splinter militant groups. Egypt’s efforts were also supported by the Arab League. Although it took three days of hard fighting for this body to move out of its lethargic state and become proactive it must be acknowledged that once the Arab League started to be involved, it took meaningful steps to resolve the issue. This meant several visits by Arab League foreign ministers to Gaza, making it impossible for Israel to isolate Hamas, which was one of their primary aims. The process of bringing about a ceasefire was significantly accelerated by the Arab League actions.
The ceasefire has not changed any of the realities of the convoluted problems that plague the Israel-Palestine relationship. However, Israel for the first time has agreed not to engage in cross-border incursions and to stop targeted assassination of individuals. It also agreed to open the crossings into Gaza to facilitate the movement of people and goods and to refrain from restricting their free movement for purposes of trade. Hamas on its side agreed to stop the rocket attacks into Israel. Although few rockets were fired after the ceasefire came into effect, Israel did not respond, thereby averting a potential breakdown and further escalation.
The Outcomes
There are a number of outcomes that resulted from the ceasefire that has come into effect. The first, a major outcome, is that Hamas emerged as the big winner in this conflict, with increased prestige and status, and more firmly in control of Gaza than prior to the conflict. This was made possible because of two interconnected factors; one, during the conflict, in the efforts at obtaining a ceasefire, both Egypt and the Arab League treated Gaza as a de-facto state with Hamas as the Government; and two, this implicit acceptance of Hamas as the ruling entity of Gaza, as opposed to the broader Palestine Authority that nominally governs both the West Bank and Gaza, transformed Hamas from a militant group and legitimised it as a political entity. The corollary is that the Palestine Authority, and particularly its leader Mahmoud Abbas, got sidelined to the extent of becoming irrelevant in the fundamental issue of the freedom of Palestine. The second outcome stems from these two factors—Palestine statehood has become that much more of a distant dream, since there will be a complex process of redefining the leadership issues within the Palestine Authority after this conflict. [In a few days the UN General Assembly will vote on the issue of giving the Palestine Authority observer status. The vote is likely to be passed, which could restore the prestige of both the Authority as well as its leader, a situation that could exacerbate the leadership contest.]   
The third outcome is that the neutrality of the UN is now a debatable issue, not only in the perception of the Middle East nations but also in the calculations of a large number of states across the world. This is indicated by the criticism levelled at the UN from a diverse range of sources and also the fact that it played almost no relevant role in the negotiations prior to the ceasefire. The end-result could well be a further decline in the perceived capability of the UN to influence even smaller nations that are in conflict. In an already weakened state, the UN could be sliding into irrelevance through incompetency. The fourth outcome, equally important as the rest, and in some aspects even more so, is the status of Israel’s strategy of deterrence and pre-emption as a national security imperative. The fact that air strikes that created significant damage to Gaza did not stop the Gazans from continuing their rocket attacks almost completely nullifies the concept of deterrence. Pre-emptive strikes are prone to success only in cases where the adversary is in a well-entrenched position in a conventional sense. When the adversary and its elements are dispersed at random, pre-emption is very unlikely to succeed other than to inflict punitive damage. In this ‘round’ even the disproportionate and almost indiscriminate use of force did not achieve the objectives that were laid out for the IDF. Israel may well have to search for another strategy to ensure that its national security is backed by some other viable strategy, if the IDF is to continue to be the first and final arbiter of the nation’s security.
The Future
The ceasefire is just that, a ceasefire which means that violence could erupt anytime because of even very small breaches of the laid down conditions. Only lasting peace will bring security to both sides and this is possible only if the economic and societal injustice that is being perpetuated on the Gazans can be stopped and then reversed. Palestine statehood and independence is intimately connected to the economic development and assured human rights of the people, it cannot be otherwise. The trigger to achieve any progress in this area lies in Israel’s hands, at least for the moment. There are three dynamics that have changed in the past few years that Israel must consider at all times in the future whenever the need to resort to military action is being debated. First, Hamas did not concede to Israel’s demand for a unilateral ceasefire, which means that both deterrence and punishment failed as strategies; second, Hamas rockets for the first time reached Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, an ominous warning of the increased power and accuracy of their newly acquired arsenal; and third, because of the increased status and legitimacy of Hamas in Gaza, Israel will have to deal with Hamas as an entity, which they had so far refused to do. Future Israel-Palestine conflicts are not likely to play out in the same fashion as the previous ones.  
The manner in which the current ceasefire was achieved indicates a potential change in the way in which Middle East diplomacy will be conducted in the future—it will become increasingly regionalised. This has implications for both the US and Israel. By virtue of the unconditional support that the US has given Israel for more than six decades, it will not be able to play the role of a diplomatic interlocutor, especially when there is an on-going conflict. The US per force will have to play a secondary and much diminished role in any future diplomatic initiative in the region. President Obama in his second term may want to be, and even try to be, more pragmatic about the Middle East peace process and the US role in it. However, domestic pressures may not permit a non-biased stand and the eternal battle between partisanship and transparent diplomacy is bound to continue. Nobody will be the winner in these circumstances. While the rise of Hamas to a major player in the Palestine political firmament will bring about certain amount of volatility in the short term, it also has the potential to change the political landscape of the region, which may not be conducive to long term peace and more importantly to the long term security aspirations of Israel. There is a need for concerted diplomatic efforts to bring Hamas into the fold of normal political parties in order to find a peaceful way forward. The onus of responsibility to create peace is slowly shifting towards Israel.
Illegal Israeli settlements on Palestine land is the crux of the problem—the two-state solution can never be implemented as long as these settlements remain, and 600,000 Israelis are not going to volunteer to move out of their homes to be resettled elsewhere. In effect, nothing has changed because of the recent conflict and nothing much will change in the future, unless this fundamental issue is directly addressed and laid to rest to the satisfaction of both parties. Even the current fragile ceasefire will hold only if the central provisions upon which it was built are implemented in good faith by all concerned. Based on past history, this is unlikely to occur, a sad but true statement!                                          

About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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