Sealed off from the international media, the state of the people of Gaza after Israel’s Christmas aerial assault is still unclear. It has been estimated that almost 2,000 people have been killed and wounded. If this is accurate, Palestinian losses will be bigger than in any conflict since the 1967 Arab-Israel war.
There is greater certainty about Israeli casualties. By 31 December, four Israelis had been killed by rockets and mortars fired by Hamas fighters.
This imbalance, and the heavy loss of Palestinian civilian life, has been passionately denounced across the Arab and Islamic world. The UN and the EU, citing humanitarian concerns, have called for a ceasefire. As this was being written, there were signs that the Israeli government was considering a temporary halt to the attacks, although suggestions were still being made that Israel would reoccupy Gaza to eliminate Hamas.
Whatever option Israel chooses, attitudes within Gaza are unlikely to change. Three years ago this month, it voted for Hamas in elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council.
The US and the West have boycotted the party. Israel has arrested more than half of its MPs and imposed an embargo on Gaza. But there is no evidence these actions have seriously undermined support for Hamas. Israeli attacks are more likely to increase its popularity than reduce it.
The debate about the Gaza war has been between those who argue that Hamas is to blame for breaking the ceasefire and others who believe the Israeli response has been disproportionate. Both are at least partly right, but this obscures the main point: Gaza’s torments are essentially due to the inability of Israel’s leaders to live up to their assertions that they want peace.
There is no secret about what this entails. It requires addressing the key issues defined by the 2007 Annapolis agreement, the 2002 Road Map for Peace, the 1993 Oslo accords, the 1991 Madrid conference and innumerable other agreements and declarations that Israel’s leaders have supported.
The most important are the rights of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, the final status of Jerusalem and the future of Palestinian refugees.
Dialogue with Hamas
Israel’s leaders argue that the principal problem has been Palestinian obduracy, but this is inaccurate. No offer satisfying their minimum aspirations has ever been made.
In June, it will be exactly 15 years since Fatah, which provides the leadership of the Palestinian National Authority, was allowed to return to Gaza and the West Bank. Its failure since 1994 to secure what it said it had been promised is the principal reason for the rise of Hamas.
Islamic extremism and Iranian interference are secondary factors. They would have no traction if the Palestinians had hope.
Pragmatists argue that the only practical option is for Israel and the West to face the facts and open a dialogue with Hamas. But even if they were to happen, talks are pointless until Israel offers the credible prospect of meaningful self-determination in the Palestinian territories it has occupied or controlled since 1967.
That will only be possible when the Israeli majority demonstrates that they accept a viable Palestinian state is not only inevitable, but desirable. It is something they have failed to do at every election, and Israel’s leaders have largely given up trying to change their minds. Instead, an illusion has been fostered that one more war will make the problem disappear.
The Palestinians should do more to win over moderate Israelis. But the largest impediment is the disagreement within Israel about where its borders should finally be and the role it will play in the wider region when peace comes. This conflict will express itself once more in next month’s Knesset elections.
Champions of a comprehensive approach to the Arab-Israel conflict argue that it is the only way Israel can be reassured that the territorial concessions it is obliged to make will deliver permanent peace.
Partial solutions, like Israel’s unilateral Gaza withdrawal in 2005, and hot-house diplomatic initiatives have not worked and cannot work.
Nor will yet more one-sided attacks on essentially defenceless Palestinians. They can only intensify the bitter feelings that, in turn, feed the fear and distrust within Israel that are the principal barriers to peace.