The Other War

by Sune Haugbolle.

Below is a translation into English of my op-ed on Gaza, published January 9 in the Danish daily Information (to non-Danes: Information is a leftist daily roughly equivalent to the Independent – in fact they publish Robert Fisk’s pieces). Link to the Danish piece here.

The Other War

One the eve of January the 4th, as the IDF rolled over the border crossing into Gaza, the Israeli government’s spokesman Mark Regev appeared on TV screens across the world and assured viewers that the ongoing conflict is nothing more than a defence against Hamas’ rocket attacks. The war simply put.

Israel unquestionably has a security problem in form of Hamas. But this war is about more than Hamas’ rocket attacks and the Israelis’ brutal attempt to stop them. Israel’s attempt to portray the war in 2009 as a defence against the assault of a terrorist enemy conveys a here-and-now image which suits the short time frame of our TV reality, and which consciously tries to obfuscate the broader lines of the Middle East conflict.

Without too much information, or historical memory, it is easy to sympathise with the state of Israel’s wish to neutralise an aggressive enemy on its door step. Regev’s simple formulation probably won the sympathy of many Danes, despite Israel’s continued bombing of densely populated areas and the many reports of civilian casualties, which viewers have had to swallow with their nine o’clock tea – the regrettable collateral damage that we have been taught to accept in every conflict against terrorists.

While the land invasion continues to rage it is important that we keep in mind that the tight Israeli blockade was one of the reasons why Hamas on the 19th of December chose to end the ceasefire from last summer. In the words of one Hamas leader, the blockade gave them choice between starvation and continued struggle. The group probably also reasoned that fighting could provide a way to ease the pressure on them from an increasingly desperate population looking to the de facto government of Hamas for solutions.

The blockade, which several international observers have condemned as an inhuman form of collective punishment, officially serves the purpose of restricting smuggling of weaponry and ammunition into Gaza. Even though Israel in 2005 ended its occupation of the Gaza strip, the IDF still controls access and hence are masters of the area’s aid dependent economy. The southern border crossing is still controlled by another former occupation force in the strip, Egypt.

To Gaza’s citizens, the blockade feels more like a form of collective strangling. By minimising the import of basic goods, materials and fuels to the Gaza strip, Israel has within the last year made most of its 1.5 million inhabitants completely dependent on international aid organisation. According to UNRWA and the World Food Program, which together provide for more than half of Gaza’s total population, in the last two months only a small percentage of clothes, medicine and other basic goods have arrived, as a direct consequence of Israel restricting the number of trucks into Gaza dramatically. How shoes, medicine and tea mugs can be a security threat to anyone is really not clear.

On November the 5th, Israel closed the border crossings to Gaza completely in response to rocket attacks from Hamas, which in their turn came in response to an Israeli incursion killing six Hamas members. The total blockade and quick worsening of an already dire energy and nutrition situation in a few weeks turned a serious humanitarian crisis into a catastrophe.

The blockade is not the only reason for the war, of course. Hamas can be blamed for gambling with ending the ceasefire and attacking Israel when they must have known that the coming Israeli elections could prompt its leaders to react harshly. In a wider sense, the situation today in Palestine also bears witness to what a miserable deadlock the Palestinians’ historic struggle for independence has ended in since the second Intifada in 2000 all but put an end to the Oslo peace process. Yasser Arafat’s successors in Fatah have been too weak, and lacked sufficient American support, to continue the negotiations for an independent Palestinian state, which came close to succeeding at Camp David in 2000.

Of course the lack of Israeli will to end their settlements is the real reason for the death of the Oslo process, but it doesn’t change the sad fact that is the divided and ineffective Palestinian national movement today, since Fatah lost the elections to Hamas in 2006 and was evicted from Gaza in May, 2007.

Since then, Gaza’s international status has, more than ever before, been unclear. Officially the Gaza strip forms part of the Palestinian National Authority, but in effect they are now ruled by Hamas, who, it must be said, have not exactly been the picture of good governance according to reports by Amnesty International and others.

When Fatah left Gaza in 2007, the area entered into a status of no man’s land, in terms of international law. Add to its isolation the fact that many in the West have chosen to adopt the Israeli view of Hamas as a terrorist organisation and a key opponent in the war on Islamist terror in which we are supposedly engaged. These discursive constructions of Gaza as illegitimate and isolated make the war tolerable and justifiable to the Western public. They are designed to do so. And they make it possible to drink that nine o’clock tea even if it’s now starting to taste a tad bit bitter from the increasing hundreds of civilian casualties.

What ever one might think of Hamas’s violent ideology and the negative impact it has had on the peace process, there is no denying the fact that the group is the main political representative of the Palestinians in Gaza. And the Palestinians must not be robbed of political representation in the face of Israel – that would, politically speaking, be the greatest crime of all. For the time being, there is no alternative to Hamas. Even if they are really toppled in the coming weeks, it is impossible to see Mahmoud Abbas somehow entering Gaza on the back of an Israeli tank.

In fact, despite the pounding they are taking in these days, Hamas in all probability will remain the political representatives. The lessons Israel should have learned from the war against Hizbollah in 2006 is that such organisations which rest on social networks cannot be knocked over by bombs. Hamas is not a series of buildings, but an ideology of Islamic resistance that will only be strengthened by a long and bloody fight.

In a regional context, Hamas belongs to the group of Islamic non-state organisations which, like Hizbollah, claim the right to fight Israel independent of the state. What Israel and the West have apparently failed to register is that these organisations thrive on war and sacrifice. Seen through the optic of martyrdom even a bloody defeat is the foundation of future victory.

Thus, the war is part of a regional struggle between Arab states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan who support an American dictated peace in the Middle East – and to which group Abbas belongs – and on the other side the rejection front consisting of Hizbollah, Syria, Iran and Hamas.

If the strategic calculation from Israel’s side has been to strengthen Mahmiud Abbas and the moderate Arab states by neutralising Hamas militarily, then that is unlikely to succeed, an besides an almost incredible misreading of the empathy of other Palestinians and Arabs. The longer this war continues, and the more civilians are killed, the more support Hamas will get from Arab populations. Exactly like in 2006, the war in 2009 spells out a dilemma in Arab politics, namely that while most Arab governments have been edging towards normalisation with Israel, great parts of its populations back up the uncompromising Islamic resistance groups.

That fact is not least due to the direct, unmitigated and often emotional view of the war offered by TV channels. Al-Jazeera, still the most widely viewed Arab TV channel, has so far covered the war in way that bears witness to the strong, and in may ways understandable, wish among Arab media and Arab publics to counter what they see as the West’s hypocritical attempt to cover this as a war of two equal sides – Mark Regev’s “rocket logic.” The result so far has been a media coverage which, to a large extent, makes Hamas the heroes and martyrs they want to be.

This is what the war in 2009 is about: structural violence against a brutalised people, a divided Palestinian political class, and strengthening of the extreme positions in Israel, which will soon be lead by a right wing government, among the Palestinians, who can be forgiven for giving up hope that they have a partner for peace in Israel, as well as in the Arab populations who turn against their own leaders in disgust. Violence breeds violence and, what is worse, self-righteousness.

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