Sunday, January 18, 2009

Gaza: Was There A Winner?

It may seem crass to talk about winning and losing in the face of the Gaza slaughter, as though it were a football game. But there is good reason when one considers that the final tally of a battle or a war shapes key future events, determining the likelihood of future victories or even whether other battles will be entered into by those involved.
And it is not only those directly involved who must be considered, for a victory or defeat by the army of choice will determine future actions. It is a truism about the Middle East, for instance, that Israel's 6-day, smashing victory over three Arab armies in 1967 secured them the sponsorship of the United States, which has sustained their superior position viz. their regional competitors.
Based upon a numbers count it would seem that Israel is the definite winner. There are, after all, something like 1300 dead Palestinians, plus another 5400 wounded, with well over half of the total being accounted for by civilians, even with only women and children being counted as such. This compares to 3 dead Israeli civilians and another 10 dead soldiers, most of them killed by friendly fire, apparently.
But we can't look at the present invasion in terms of crude - and deadly - numbers.
Israel has a massive military superiority over Hamas and its allied militias, like Islamic Jihad, the PFLP and DFLP. They have F-16s, guided bombs and missiles, Merkava tanks, phosphorous shells, unmanned surveillance drones, a navy, all the latest techno gizmos, access to US satellite intelligence - not to mention, apparently, the intelligence support of Mahmoud Abbas, Israel's favourite Palestinian collaborator, and leader of Fatah. All of this ensured that a Hamas military victory over Israel was utterly impossible and Hamas seems to have been smart enough to avoid direct confrontations in the open.
Israeli political leaders had set themselves a series of goals prior to and during the operation. Since Israel initiated the present conflict, planning it far in advance, prior even to the 6 months ceasefire negotiated with Hamas, and set the terms for its victory, it must be measured against those goals. In addition, other, unintended consequences must be looked at.
Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, along with Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, have argued that the primary goal of the Gaza invasion was to stop Hamas lobbing rockets and mortars into southern Israel. If this were really the purpose of the attack, then certainly Israel has failed miserably, as demonstrated by the ceaseless firing of rockets throughout the invasion and even immediately following Israel's unilateral ceasefire. What's more, if the Israeli government wanted to end Gazan rocket fire the answer was very simple - meet the conditions of the original ceasefire negotiated with Hamas and agree to continue it. Hamas had, after all, met its terms - not only discontinuing Hamas' firing of rockets but putting a lid on rocket fire by rival militias such as Fatah and Islamic Jihad. Between June 19, when the ceasefire was agreed and November 4, when Israel launched a military raid, breaking the ceasefire, rocket and mortar fire was effectively nil (see attached pdf, p.6). It was Israel that failed to meet the terms of the ceasefire and which repeatedly provoked Hamas with attacks, arrests and killings.
The second stated goal was to prevent Hamas from re-arming. However, again, actions speak louder than words. If this were Israel's sole goal, they could have negotiated a deal with their pliant Egyptian ally or focused bombing strictly in the border region, where the smuggling tunnels exist. Nonetheless, even the head of Israel's intelligence agency, the Shin Bet, reports that the tunnel network hasn't been destroyed and that it will be up and running again in short order if Egypt doesn't clamp down.
In other words, stopping smuggling was never dependent upon bombing the hell out of Gaza - it couldn't even be effective. What was required was Egyptian cooperation. But Egypt is now less likely, not more, to agree to a politically unpopular clampdown against the Palestinians, after hundreds of thousands demonstrated in solidarity with Gaza and against the Egyptian dictatorship. That was made clear after Israel and the US signed an agreement - without telling the Egyptians - to tackle the tunnels on Egyptian soil. The Egyptian Foreign Minister responded saying that Israel and the US can "do what they wish with regard to the sea or any other country in Africa, but when it comes to Egyptian land, we are not bound by anything except the safety and national security of the Egyptian people and Egypt's ability to protect its borders." President-for-life Mubarak went on television to specifically state that foreign monitors would not be allowed in Egypt. But even if Egypt agrees to more American Army Engineers to help it police the border, or an increase in police numbers IDF officials don't believe that this will stop the smuggling. So, Israel's second policy goal is clearly a failure.
The real key for Israel was the need to restore its deterrent capability" - basically to instill fear in any and all Arabs who might think to challenge the occupation or any other Israeli strategic goals. New York Times billionaire columnist Thomas Friedman supportively referred to this as "educating" Hamas by "inflicting a heavy death toll on Hamas militants and heavy pain on the Gaza population." This was, in other words, according to Israeli supporters and critics, a terrorist operation by the state of Israel. As Norman Finklestein pointed out in a recent interview: ""The goal of the operation was to terrorize the civilian population so that Palestinians would be afraid of Israel. This is the dictionary definition of terrorism."
Has Israel restored its deterrent capability, so badly damaged by its failed war in Lebanon in 2006, and its withdrawal under duress from Gaza in 2005 and southern Lebanon in 2000? Certainly every Israeli politician, journalist and military leader is claiming this. However, if the goal was simply to impress upon Hamas that they couldn't defeat Israel militarily, this was already known. Hamas has been trying since at least 2002 to agree a long term truce with Israel, only to face Israeli bombs and targeted assassinations. Certainly by now, any Palestinian knows that it doesn't matter what you do, Israel will try to kill you.
"it is overwhelmingly Israel that kills first after a pause in the conflict: 79% of all conflict pauses were interrupted when Israel killed a Palestinian, while only 8% were interrupted by Palestinian attacks (the remaining 13% were interrupted by both sides on the same day). In addition, we found that this pattern -- in which Israel is more likely than Palestine to kill first after a conflict pause -- becomes more pronounced for longer conflict pauses. Indeed, of the 25 periods of nonviolence lasting longer than a week, Israel unilaterally interrupted 24, or 96%, and it unilaterally interrupted 100% of the 14 periods of nonviolence lasting longer than 9 days."

The irony is that this pattern almost ensures the continuation of violent resistance since even non-violence is met by Israeli attacks. At a certain point, Israel's deterrent capability is undermined by the fact that only utter defeat and an acceptance of genocide would prevent Palestinians from resisting Israel's aggression. Certainly Hamas was suitably unbowed to fire off nearly two dozen rockets after Israel's unilateral ceasefire and to demand a withdrawal within one week or they would restart hostilities. What's more, everyone can see, as they did in Lebanon in 2006, that while Israel could defeat three Arab armies in six days in 1967, after three weeks fighting a starved, blockaded, disarmed population in Gaza, the IDF didn't take more than a corner of Gaza City.
Ultimately, of course, it will be in the coming days that the interpretation of events will unfold, depending upon the actual state of Hamas and other resistance organizations. It is likely that while Arabs throughout the region will of course remember that Israel can, in fact, destroy unarmed populations, that it is possible to resist and survive. What's more, Hamas will likely be strengthened politically, while Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah organization will be fatally weakened. Israel, the US, EU and their Arab client regimes may try to hold him up but everyone knows that they are now dead as a resistance movement and thus in the eyes of the Palestinian people.
This makes it more likely that Israel will, as a result of this onslaught, be forced to recognize Hamas as the legitimate representative of the Palestinians, as will the international community. The 18 month campaign to destroy the results of the democratic election of Hamas, first by arming Fatah and fomenting a civil war and now with a direct intervention, have utterly failed.
And outside of the Middle East, Israel has managed to discredit itself even further, spurring into being a massive movement in solidarity with the Palestinians and against Israel. They have shattered the myth that Israel is the victim and the Palestinians the aggressors. This movement, the heroic resistance of the Palestinians and the images of Israel's utter brutality, which they were unable to hide, though they barred all journalists from entering Gaza, has pushed even Israel's staunchest allies to criticize them. Turkey, Israel's only Muslim ally, strongly rebuked Israel, demanding their exclusion from the UN until they implemented the Security Council resolution. Egypt, the biggest Arab nation and paid billions by the US to play with Israel, has been made even more unstable by the slaughter, creating concern for the US' major Arab bulwark in the region. Jordan recalled their ambassador in protest. And there is even suggestion in a fascinating article by Justin Raimondo that the US ruling class is growing tired of Israel's mad dog routine, which threatens US hegemony in the region by alienating Arab allies and threatening others with domestic political upheaval because of Israel's penchant for killing Arab civilians.
It's unclear how all this will pan out over the medium term. But it is clear that the Gaza operation, which Israel was forced to end before Obama's inauguration, has not all gone the way Israel hoped. It may not even go the way that Livni and Barak hoped it would in terms of their electoral prospects, with the ultra-war mongers in Likud making most of the gains from the invasion. 
Hamas and the Palestinian people will live to fight another day, with a much larger international movement, one in which the call for boycott and divestment may get a major hearing. And the whole region has been destabilized thanks to Israel's compulsive need to avoid peace at any costs. The blowback is looking to be much worse than what they started out fighting, as they have internationalized the conflict.
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