‘Forgotten’ Gaza needs more than pious messages, empty promises
Over six months ago, Israel ended its pummeling of Gaza and Hamas ceased its rocket attacks. This was the fifth war on Gaza this century. In its wake, all sorts of promises and pledges were trotted out about the need to restore calm, address the underlying issues and assist in the reconstruction of Gaza. Were these promises honored, and what have we learnt since about the nature of what happened?
Rarely has international attention on this conflict dissipated so swiftly. It was days rather than weeks before foreign ministers began dropping their pious messages about Gaza. Donor aid almost vanished. UNRWA may be unable to pay salaries in December.
As ever, calm was restored, but only for one party and one people. Israeli cafes, bars and nightclubs soon hummed with customers, the beaches of Tel Aviv grew crowded, and Israelis were able to jet off for their annual vacations.
But where do Palestinians in Gaza go for vacation? Palestinian children do not understand the term. Most have never left this hell-hole. They have no need of passports. The only aircraft they see are ones coming to bomb them. They can go to the beach, but who fancies swimming in the sea at Gaza when up to 80 million liters of partially treated sewage are dumped there each and every year? Israelis return to their homes, while according to the UN, 56,000 properties in Gaza await reconstruction from May. Winter rains have flooded many of these homes and others.
Israel maintained during those 11 days of conflict that its forces were engaged in surgical strikes targeting only Hamas military infrastructure. At the time, the evidence from the ground brought that claim into serious question. In the ensuing six months, additional evidence has been gathered that further trashes those claims.
One major incident was the Israeli bombing of Al-Jalaa tower, which housed the offices of Associated Press and Al Jazeera. The attack caused outrage, but Israel stuck to its line that Hamas was using the high-rise for its operations. By November, Israeli reports showed that the country’s leaders lacked the intelligence needed to justify such a strike and even doctored evidence passed to the US.
The monitoring organization Airwars has compared Israeli strikes in Syria to those in Gaza in May and determined that up to 10 times as many civilians were killed in 11 days of bombing in Gaza than in Israel’s entire eight-year campaign in Syria. It serves to highlight the contrasting aims of the two operating theaters.
Rather than ending, or even just easing, the 14-year blockade of Gaza, Israel has continued to reinforce it
In Syria, Israeli operations have focused tightly on restricting Iran’s military deployment and missile programs, and preventing arms shipments to Hezbollah. In Gaza, Israel did have a legitimate preventative aim — to stop rockets and mortars being fired into its territory — but as in earlier wars, its broad targeting demonstrates it is also very much a punishment and deterrence strategy.
The Israeli strategy is quite clear for those who care to pay attention. Former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni remarked about one earlier Gaza pummeling in 2009: “We have proven to Hamas that we have changed the equation. Israel is a country that when you fire on its citizens, it responds by going wild — and this is a good thing.”
Going wild is still part of the program, and each time Israeli forces get that bit wilder.
The major international actors — let’s not pretend there is a community — did not even go through the pretense of talking about a proper independent investigation as they had, for example, after 2009. Israel once again has no fears in the near future for any accountability mechanism.
Israel and Egypt have engaged in discussions on reconstruction in the Gaza Strip. This is very much in line with the “shrinking the conflict” approach. Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has shared his own plan with the Egyptian authorities, describing it as “economy in exchange for security.” The Israeli government has yet to officially adopt the initiative. Yet Egyptian leaders must be all too aware of the long-term Israeli objective of dumping responsibility for Gaza on them. It has started some reconstruction, but such efforts alone will change little.
We await the details. However, you cannot simply tinker with the Israeli-Egyptian blockade and expect a miracle. Gaza needs to be freed, and its people allowed to breathe. Without allowing proper trade there is no legitimate economic life in Gaza. The blockade has to go as a bare minimum. The muted long-term cease-fire suits the interests of the Israeli far right and Hamas. Neither wants to face the consequences of proper negotiations and the concessions neither could ever make. It does not resolve the crisis.
Rather than ending, or even just easing, the 14-year blockade of Gaza, Israel has continued to reinforce it. After more than three years, Israel has completed yet another barrier around Gaza. This high-tech version runs for 65 km, and includes remote sensors, cameras, an underground wall and a maritime barrier. Its first barrier was built as long ago as 1994. Further fortifying the prison walls will bring Israelis just a veneer of additional security. Rockets and mortars will still fly over these barriers. Bombs will rain down in the other direction.
All the conditions are firmly in place for another confrontation. It may not be in 2022, but within a year or two would not be a surprise. There will come a point when one side or the other wishes to resume hostilities. Israeli leaders will feed the need to mow the lawn again, as Israeli strategists so charmingly refer to their bombing barrages. Hamas may wish to demonstrate it is still capable of launching rockets at Israeli civilians, and that it has not gone away. Its leaders, many living outside the strip, do so with scant regard for the welfare of the 2 million Palestinians who live under their control and who have to wade through the rubble afterwards searching for bodies or live with the trauma that never recedes.
Quite what Hamas believes it achieves through this is a mystery. Israeli leaders who want an eternal blockade of Gaza are content, while those who might be willing to ease or lift it are hardly encouraged.
Will anything shake the major international players from their stupor? The costs are enormous. The international donors subsidise the blockade with their millions. It is time for a little more ambition than crossing fingers and praying the problem will not flare up again.
• Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). Twitter: @Doylech