Gaza remains the litmus test for Israeli-Palestinians relations
In the tragic reality of Israeli–Palestinian knife-edge relations, another round of violence is always just around the corner. And after every outburst of hostilities, observers attempt to assess who had the upper hand, and what will happen next. It was no different when after the recent targeted assassination by an Israeli air raid of Baha Abu Al-Ata, leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s (PIJ) Al-Quds Brigades in Gaza, the PIJ retaliated with a barrage of rockets, and the all-too-familiar ritual of mutual aggression continued until a cease-fire was brokered.
On this occasion the IDF was up against the smaller of its two enemies in the Gaza Strip, the Islamic Jihad. Significantly Hamas avoided becoming embroiled beyond a merely symbolic missile launch after the truce had been already declared. As for the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, it condemned Israel half-heartedly, without shedding too many tears at the sight of Israel pounding their bitter rivals, even though 34 Palestinians, including utterly innocent non-combatants, were killed.
Testimony to the dire state of the Israel–Gaza situation is that all involved, including the international community, have resorted to the pessimistic view that these outbreaks of violence are inevitable, cyclic and serve as a pressure valve until relative calm is restored. What is hardly discussed or even mentioned are the dire conditions of almost 2 million people living in Gaza, most of them refugees, and how the neglect they suffer from directly and unequivocally plays into the hands of more extreme elements within Palestinian society, both in blockaded Gaza and the occupied West Bank.
These short, but deadly, outbursts of hostilities reflect the limited appetite on all sides for entering into a prolonged conflict which painfully exposes the lack of any strategic outlook or political horizon. Israel’s superior military strength is not in question, most demonstrably in relation to the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad. And although Israel may use its military might to hurt the factions in Gaza, it is unable to defeat them. On this occasion it couldn’t prevent them from launching up to 450 missiles which reached as far as north Tel Aviv. Although that attack caused mainly minor injuries and damage to property, and 90 percent of the missiles were intercepted by the “Iron Dome” defense shield, it still forced many businesses to shut down for nearly three days, as well as forcing a million Israeli children to stay at home instead of going to school and compelling many local residents to temporarily evacuate their homes. Attacks such as this that partially paralyze normality in Israel, become a source of encouragement for the Islamists in Gaza. Yet, there is a recognition by these movements that by raising the stakes they, and those who live around them, are made to suffer again and again by the IDF, with little to no intervention from the international community.
A great deal of this suffering is a direct result of Israel barring access to much of the farmland and fishing waters, all in the name of its security
This situation should especially concern the international community, because civilians are trapped in terrifying situations on both sides of the border. No civilians should be targeted by either side; it is immoral, and flagrantly violates international law. Women and men, young and old, are caught in the crossfire of political antagonists whose default mechanism is the resort to military power. But the situation on the Palestinian side is much grimmer. Israelis enjoy a sophisticated air-defense system, fortified shelters and a mighty army to protect them; they enjoy freedom of movement within the country and can leave it at will. Moreover, they live in a prosperous country free of oppression.
One cannot think of a more diametrically opposite scenario than that which exists on the other side of the Gazan border, where ordinary Palestinians are at the mercy of Israel’s military power, blockaded in a tiny strip of land with severe restriction of movement beyond it, whether to Israel or Egypt, and their daily lives are under the oppressive rule of Hamas as they pay the price of a fragmented Palestinian political system.
Daily life in Gaza is riddled with hardships. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 38 percent of Gazans live in abject poverty, a quarter of the workforce is unemployed, 40 percent of youth can’t find a job, and those who are employed suffer from wage decline. This leads to more than half the population experiencing food insecurity, while three quarters of the residents of the Gaza Strip rely on international aid programs.
A great deal of this suffering is a direct result of Israel barring access to much of the farmland and fishing waters, all in the name of its security. At the best of times Gazans have almost no access to drinkable water, are allowed just few hours of electricity per day, and suffer from a chronic shortage of life-saving drugs.
If this is “normal” life, whenever violence erupts the situation becomes even more intolerable, and beyond the fatalities and injuries, economic activities also grind to a standstill. It is estimated that last week’s hostilities caused $3.1 million in direct damage with hundreds of housing units damaged or reduced to rubble.
The main losers in this conflict are without doubt the people of Gaza, as their conditions steadily deteriorate along with their chances of reconciliation with the Israelis. Even if Israel claims, as it has done, that in this round of violence it had the upper hand, hitting the PIJ hard and exposing that it stands alone without the support of either Hamas or, most certainly, the Palestinian Authority, this is a mere short-term gain until the next vicious cycle of violence. Unless Israel wants to live by the sword for many more generations, it should take the peaceful initiative, and divert resources into improving conditions for the Palestinians in Gaza as a first and necessary step. First and foremost treat them as human beings.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. Twitter: @YMekelberg