Sunday, December 28, 2008

Notes on the Gaza bombings

Two days ago, the Israeli Air Force began a large, sustained bombing campaign against Hamas sites inside the Gaza Strip, a small patch of land between Egypt and Israel, and bordering both countries. This post is a summary of the background of this conflict, which has been going on for decades, and the events that led Israel to attack Hamas this week.

What is Hamas?

Hamas is an Islamist faction that was founded in Gaza about 20 years ago. It is violently anti-Israel. Hamas is a direct outgrowth of the original Islamist group of the Middle East, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, founded in the early 1920s to counter Western influences in Egypt and, later, elsewhere in Arab lands.

Hamas was elected to office in Gaza by Gazans in 2006, mainly because of the corruption and inefficiency of the then-ruling Palestinian Authority (PA) under Mahmud Abbas. After its election, Hamas set about murdering PA officials and members of Fatah, the PA's armed political wing. By mid-2007, the PA had been driven out of Gaza except for a few liaison offices. Today, the PA governs only the West Bank, between Jordan and Israel.

Hamas has always openly proclaimed that its purpose is the destruction of Israel as a political entity and the ejection of all Jews from the land of Israel. Hamas' charter states bluntly, "There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad," as well as calling for an end to the state of Israel.

Wikipedia has a reasonably balanced and complete history of Hamas, including this insight:

According to Steven Erlanger of the New York Times, Hamas excludes the possibility of long term reconciliation with Israel. "Since the Prophet Muhammad made a temporary hudna, or truce, with the Jews about 1,400 years ago, Hamas allows the idea. But no one in Hamas says he would make a peace treaty with Israel or permanently give up any part of Palestine." Mkhaimer Abusada, a political scientist at Al Azhar University explains that “They (Hamas) talk of hudna, not of peace or reconciliation with Israel."
Hudna is an Arab word with a uniquely Muslim context meaning temporary truce in order to gain strength or advantage enough to resume open warfare. Another history of Hamas can be read on Hamas is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, Canada, the European Union and other countries and is banned by Jordan.

What does "Islamist" mean?

The religion founded by Muhammad is Islam; its adherents are Muslims. Their beliefs and way of life are called Islamic. "Islamist" is not a Muslim term. It was coined by French scholar Gilles Kepel, head of the post-graduate program on the Arab and Muslim worlds at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris, to describe a particular strain of politically active Islam that promotes a strict, unyielding view of Islam. Islamism was originally oriented toward changing Arab countries to practice in government and social life that strict view. (See his article, “The Trail of Political Islam,”

The best-known Islamist today is al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. In many interviews and written documents he has promulgated since the early 1990s, bin Laden has stated his objectives plainly:

  1. The ejection of, first, Americans and second, all other non-Muslims from the whole of Saudi Arabia, which bin Laden refers to as the "Land of the Two Holy Places" (Mecca and Medina, the latter being Muhammed's birthplace).
  2. The institution of strict sharia, or Islamic, law in Saudi Arabia, followed by the same in all the other countries bordering the Persian Gulf.
  3. The reclaiming for Islam all the historic lands of the ancient Islamic caliphate at their widest extent. For example, bin Laden refers to Spain not as Spain, or even its older name of Andalusia, but as al-Andalus, the Arabic name given to those parts of the Iberian Peninsula governed by Muslims at various times in the period between 711 and 1492.
  4. The expansion of Islam across the entire globe.

These are ambitious objectives, as you can see.

Muslim law Professor Khaled Abou El Fad explains Islamism as "supremacist puritanism" in his article. "Islam and the Theology of Power."

What is the source of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians?

There is no casual answer to this question. For the long answer, I recommend Sister Ruth Lautt's comprehensive article, The Church’s Witness on Issues in the Arab/Israeli Conflict. Here is a shorter answer.

"Palestine" was never an independent nation since before the time of Christ, having since then been ruled by the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines and Arabians, briefly by Europeans during the Crusades (and not all of Palestine then). Until the establishment of modern Israel in 1948, the people living in historic Palestine had never been self governing since the land belonged to ancient Israel/Judah.

In late modern times, most of the Middle East was under the sway of the Ottoman Empire, headquartered in Turkey. The Ottomans made the unfortunate decision to ally with Germany during World War I. The end of the war meant the end of the Ottoman Empire, and Palestine came under control of the British as a prize of war. (British forces under George Allenby took Jerusalem in 1917.)

The land that became modern Israel was sparsely populated at that time. One-third of the people living there were Jews, more than had lived there since Roman times. The League of Nations, formed in 1919, passed resolutions directing the British to create a Jewish homeland. This directive became known as the British Mandate and ultimately came to include approximately the lands that became Israel in 1948, plus the Transjordan (known today as the West Bank) and Gaza.

In 1947, the United Nations resolved that the lands of the British Mandate, not including Jordan, be partitioned into two states, one Jewish, one Arab. The Jews accepted this resolution while the Arab nations violently opposed it. The result was the war for Israeli independence, beginning in May 1948 and culminating in a ceasefire in February 1949. During the war hundreds of thousands of people, both Jews and Arabs, were dispossessed of their homes and forced to leave or chose to leave because of the violence of war. Refugees were Arabs and Jews in approximately equal numbers. Sister Ruth summarizes,

The Arabs that stayed in what became the borders of Israel became Israeli citizens. The Arabs that fled or were forced out became refugees. For the most part they were never resettled and the United Nations maintained and continues to maintain them as refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and in what we now call the Palestinian territories under a special agency created only for Palestinian refugees -- United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA).
Today, these refugees and their descendants live mainly in the West Bank and Gaza. Neighboring Arab countries have been very inhospitable in accepting them. For example, after the Gulf War of 1991, Kuwait expelled all Palestinians living and working in the country, about 200,000 overall.

Since 1948, the Arab nations have not accepted the legitimacy of Israel as a state and have rejected the concept of a "two-state solution," the basis of the original British Mandate that would have created both a Jewish nation and a Palestinian nation. The two-state solution still forms the basis of the West's attempts to mediate a peace. This is exactly the solution that Hamas rejects. Even Yasir Arafat, when proclaiming his acceptance of the state of Israel to the West, made it clear in his domestic statements that Israel could not continue as a Jewish state, but would have to become a majority-Muslim country.

Except Egypt, no Arab nation has formally signalled acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state, although Jordan does so in practice if not in declaration. Most of the rest of the Arab countries deal with Jewish Israel as a fait accompli, though they look forward to the day when it will transition to Muslim majority.

This history is the root of the conflict between Hamas and Israel (and, for that matter, between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon).

Why is Israel bombing Hamas in Gaza?

Hamas has for years been carrying out terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens. A large number of suicide bombers attacking Israelis in the last dozen years or so have come from Gaza, sponsored by Hamas or Fatah. Under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Israel sealed the border with Gaza a few years ago and withdrew all forces from Gaza. Sharon also ordered the dismantling of Jewish settlements in Gaza. However, peace did not break out once the last Israeli left Gaza. If anything, violence against Israel intensified.

For several years, Hamas has launched explosive rockets from Gaza into southern Israel. A number of Israelis, including women and children, have been killed. These rocket attacks are indiscriminate since Hamas long ago declared that any Israeli of any age, occupation or either sex is a legitimate target. In retaliation (and contrast), Israel has carried out carefully controlled, precision attacks against key Hamas figures, especially those commanding or conducting the rocket attacks. The Israeli attacks have almost without exception been conducted using precision-guided missiles fired from Israeli helicopters with few other Gazans killed or injured.

Earlier this year, Hamas agreed to a ceasefire with Israel. However, Hamas continued to launch rockets against Israel not long after agreeing to the ceasefire. They fired dozens of rockets per day, sometimes as many as 60, causing deaths and injuries among Israeli citizens. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis were compelled to hide in shelters for many hours per day. (Some of Hamas's rockets can range 40 kilometers, about 25 miles.) The economy and social life of southern Israel was pretty much shut down.

I spent some time in the frequently-targeted Israeli town of Sederot in October 2007. Six rockets hit near the town the day I was there, although not during the time I was there. I posted a photo-essay here.

These attacks were the proximate cause of Israel's bombing of Hamas' facilities this week. While working through backchannels to get Hamas to honor the ceasefire, Israel began planning this campaign perhaps as long as six months ago, according to the UK's Guardian newspaper, which continued,
[Israeli Defense Minister Ehud] Barak said yesterday (Dec. 28) the timing of the operation was dictated by Israel's patience simply "having running out" in the face of renewed rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza into Israel when the shaky six-month ceasefire expired 10 days ago. "Any other sovereign nation would do the same," is the official Israeli refrain. Amid the storm of international criticism of Israel's hugely disproportionate response, it is easy to overlook the domestic pressure faced by the Israeli government over its handling of "Hamastan".

Homemade Qassam rockets and mortars rarely kill but they do terrify and have undermined Israel's deterrent power as well as keeping 250,000 residents of the south of the country in permanent danger.
It is, of course, the Guardian that says israel's campaign is "disproportionate," an unsurprising charge for the paper to make since it has a long anti-Israel editorial history. (British newspapers are openly partisan and don't claim to be impartial in reporting.) See my own assessment here. Actually, rumors of action against Gaza have been flying for much longer than six months.

Israel's attacks are intended to do four main things:
  1. Kill as many high-level Hamas figures as possible.
  2. Reduce the ranks of Hamas rank and file by causing casualties among them.
  3. Provide disincentives for Gazans' support of Hamas' control of their political future and hence,
  4. Delegitimize Hamas' authority.

As video from Gaza makes clear, Israel's attacks have been conducted with as great precision as possible. The vast majority of killed and injured have been unambiguously members of Hamas. Gazan civilians have suffered, yes, but there is no way to claim with integrity that the Israelis have failed to follow the Just War tenet of discrimination, just as it is undeniable that Hamas has deliberately attempted with success to kill Israeli civilians.

How will this all end?

Unfortunately, the question assumes that there will be an end. Hamas, funded by Saudi Arabia and equipped by Iran through Egypt, considers itself locked in a death match with Israel. Israel cannot permit hundreds of thousands of its people to live under constant threat of death by Hamas' rockets.

Israeli prime Minister Olmert has been on politically shaky ground for several months, accused of graft and corruption going back years. The end of his ministry looms. Even so, he has indicated that he will order a land invasion of Gaza if Hamas fails to follow the terms of the ceasefire it agreed to follow. Israeli tank units have already assembled near Gaza.

In my opinion, the war cannot end on terms favorable to Hamas because Hamas simply is too weak to enforce its will against Israel. Terrorism is all it can do, and while the destruction it has wreaked using terrorism has been great in the past, it can never be so great that Israel will submit.

Israel, on the other hand, has the military capability to crush utterly Hamas, but the cost in lives to both Israel and Gaza's civilians would be more than Israel is prepared to accept. An air campaign alone cannot compel Hamas to surrender its fight. Unless Israel is prepared to accept a long-term deployment of its armed forces inside Gaza, these strikes will bring only temporary respite from Hamas' attacks. However, Olmert proved in 2006, during Israel's campaign against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, that he has no stomach for the slog of ground warfare.

On the other hand, Israel can "win" if it can knock out Hamas' claim to be the legitimate representative of the Gazan people. Arab journalist Khaled Abu Toameh, whom I met and talked with for an afternoon in October 2007, writes that the attacks have already caused Hamas to lose much legitimacy.

Hamas appears to have lost some of its credibility due to the fact the Islamist movement was unprepared for the surprise offensive - a fact that contributed to the deaths of dozens of policemen who were attending a graduation ceremony in Gaza City on Saturday.

Hamas's relatively moderate response to the operation (only a few dozen rockets and mortars that have killed one Israeli citizen so far) has also harmed the movement's reputation.

Prior to the attack, Hamas operatives had threatened to fire thousands of rockets at Israel, including Beersheba and Ashdod.

Hamas's top leaders in the Gaza Strip, Ismail Haniyeh, Mahmoud Zahar and Said Siam, have all gone underground out of fear of being targeted by Israel. Just a few days ago the three had proudly announced that they were not afraid of death and would be "honored" to join the bandwagon of Palestinian "martyrs." The general feeling on the streets of the Gaza Strip on Sunday night was that the countdown to the collapse of the Hamas regime had begun. As one local journalist put it, "We don't know who's in control of the Gaza Strip. The feeling is that the Hamas regime is crumbling."

The question is, though: who or what is ready to replace Hamas if it loses political power in Gaza? PA President Abbas has publicly been unsupportive of Hamas, even going so far as to blame Hamas for the Israel's attacks it broke its ceasefire with Israel. As Mr. Toameh notes, Abbas would like nothing more than for the PA to return to power in Gaza.

As well, there is good reason to believe that some important Arab states are not much sorry to see Israel take Hamas down a peg or three, much as they publicly denounced but privately approved Israel's abortive attempt to shatter Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006. The reason? The Sunni states near Israel - Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt - are very concerned about Iran's rising influence in the Mediterranean Middle East. Iran sponsors both Hamas and Hezbollah (Hezbollah, or "Party of God," was a political entity in Iran originally; the Lebanese faction is a sort of franchise). Zvi Barel writes,

Thus far, Hamas has not succeeded in generating an Arab diplomatic initiative that would lead to a renewed cease-fire on its terms. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which view Hamas as an Iranian ally whose goal is to increase Tehran's regional influence at their expense, prefer to wait a bit in the hopes that Israel's military operation will strip Hamas of its ability to dictate terms. And without those two states, the Arab League will have trouble even convening an emergency summit.

Granted, such a summit has limited practical value. But its absence indicates that Arab solidarity with the Palestinians is crumbling under Hamas' leadership.

Middle East politics often seem opaque. There is much that goes on "behind the curtain" that we do not see. So expect to be surprised again in days to come.

Also recommended:

"The Sederot Gambit"

"1948, Israel and the Palestinians: The True Story" in the Wall Street Journal, May 2008.

"The neighborhood bully strikes again," by Gideon Levy, who denounces the campaign, based (apparently) not on a lack of justification but because Gideon believes the Olmert government to be incompetent in security matters (and for good reasons, I would add, as I explained here).

"A hard look at Hamas' capabilities," which are not to be scoffed at.

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