Sunday, 6 June 2010

Gaza Beseiged, Israel Isolated

Shocked, I sat sweltering in a classroom at Birzeit University. I was out on the West Bank, in the summer of 1998, studying the Arab-Israeli conflict and working for a Palestinian negotiator from the Oslo peace process. A Palestinian lecturer was asking students provocative questions about the conflict. He paused, and asked the Palestinians present: if you could, who would prefer just to drive all the Israelis into the sea? The overwhelming majority of hands shot up instantly.

The group was made up of reasonably well-off young Palestinians. Some devout Muslims, but mainly moderate, modern, students living in relative luxury compared to conditions on the Gaza strip – claustrophobic then with a million inhabitants, the population is now 1.5 million.

At the time, hopes for peace were still tantalisingly high, culminating in the Camp David negotiations in 2000 that came within a whisker of ending the fifty year conflict. My experience chimed with a long-held Israeli gripe. Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, had signed the Oslo accords in 1993, and taken control of large swathes of the occupied territories. But he had done little to sell the deal – or the compromises involved – to the Palestinian people, and scarcely looked any more serious about delivering his promise of security to Israel. If anything his party, Fatah, encouraged unrealistically high domestic expectations, which their President would never – and could never - deliver. Arafat used the dangerous limbo that followed to strengthen his grip on authority, and profit from corruption. The average Palestinian I met had far more direct experience of Arafat’s venal regime than Israeli brutality – the university lecturer quipped that he had been imprisoned by the Israelis, but tortured by the Palestinian Authority – a fact that fuelled the rise of Hamas on a ticket of honest government, welfare for the needy and wiping Israel off the map.

None of this excuses the actions of Israel – whether illegal settlement building on the West Bank, or this week’s raid on the Mavi Marmara, a ship carrying aid to the Gaza strip, which resulted in tragic loss of life. But, it helps explain their stubbornness. So, do some of the knee-jerk reactions.

The blockade of Gaza has been roundly lambasted – but there is no question that blockade is a legitimate means of maritime warfare, as set out in the 1994 San Remo manual, widely accepted as reflecting international law in this area. There is no doubt that Israel has a right of self-defence against Hamas, a terrorist group, running the Gaza strip. Nor that there have been previous attempts to ship in heavy weapons to attack Israel – Arafat was caught red-handed when the Karine A was intercepted by Israelis in 2002. Widespread harping about United Nations resolutions stress the (undoubted) obligation on Israel to facilitate humanitarian aid, but too often ignore the recognition of a right - and duty - to act to ‘prevent illicit trafficking in arms and ammunition’.

The real issue is whether Israel could have achieved its legitimate aims, without killing nine people on board the Mavi Marmara. Israel’s aim was to re-direct the ship to the port of Ashdod to properly check the cargo. Yet, poor intelligence, the wrong equipment and flawed tactics left Israeli commandos woefully ill-prepared to board the ship and contain any violence without resort to lethal force. Equally, there is increasing evidence that the ship - far from simply carrying aid - set off with the deliberate intention of provoking an Israeli over-reaction. Footage of aid workers wielding iron bars and chanting anti-Semitic slogans appear to back up these claims.

The Mavi Marmara incident has prompted renewed calls for the US to impose peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The reality is that a two-state solution requires leadership on both sides to deliver its terms – and that is sorely missing. The problem with the Netanyahu’s Likud-led government is not that it is right-wing – Menachim Begin’s Likud government delivered peace with Egypt in 1979. For all its hubris, the current Israeli government is weak, dependent on fringe parties. Meanwhile, despite the suffering of its people, the Palestinian leadership has never looked more fractious, or less able to deliver its side of the bargain.

The Netanyahu government may settle for stagnant stalemate. Yet, there remains a wider lesson for Israel. Since independence in 1947, Israel attracted widespread international sympathy as a doughty democracy, toughing it out in a rough neighbourhood. Palestinian leaders made life easier, by point blank refusing to talk peace and renounce violence, until 1988 when Arafat – at least publicly - accepted Israel’s right to exist. Ever since then, the pressure on Israel to compromise has grown – and the growing number of Palestinian civilian casualties has swayed international sympathies. Whatever the legalities of blockades, however powerful Israel may be militarily, the country is losing the struggle for moral authority – and, with it, US goodwill. Utopian dreams of peace and reconciliation between old foes in the Middle East have never looked so distant. But, even realpolitik suggests Israel must find a way to extricate herself from a conflict that saps her strength, and compounds her isolation.


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