Sunday, January 4, 2009

Trying to Make Sense of Gaza

At one time, understanding relations between Israel and the various Arab states in the Middle East was pretty straightforward. You had Israel surrounded by Arab states that did not recognize its right to exist. Some of those countries like Egypt, went to war with Israel and after being defeated, President Anwar Sadat decided that peaceful coexisting made more sense that fighting wars (especially losing ones) so Sadat signed the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty with the help of President Jimmy Carter and became the first Arab state to recognize Israel’s right to exist. But hate dies hard. Much of the rest of the Arab world condemned Sadat for this gesture of peace and he was later assassinated by Muslim radicals.

Since then, with the notable exception of Iran’s
President Ahmadinejad who has openly condemned Israel’s right to exist, most of the rest of Middle East has since softened their previously hard line towards Israel. The Palestinian people (looking for their own homeland) were represented by Yasser Arafat, who also waged war against Israel as the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) later did a similar act as Sadat and along with Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords with the help of President Bill Clinton. But this time it was the Israeli who was then assassinated by one of his own radicals.

The result of Oslo was that Arafat’s PLO
Fatah party was given authority over the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza. But free elections in 2006 resulted in a surprise victory for a rival group, Hamas who is considered worldwide to be a terrorist group and does not recognize the right of Israel to exist.

Hamas is popular in Gaza because of its
social welfare and education programs it has provided. But at the same time, they have been firing rockets deep into Israel following the recent end of a 6 month truce. Rockets flying into Israel are nothing new. But especially with Hamas now using improved rockets that fly farther and are more accurate, Israel decided that the time had come to finally deal with Hamas. This leads us to the present conflict that is dominating the news.

Unlike a more conventional war when a country sends an army to attack, Hamas is firing rockets from locations in Gaza with heavy concentrations of civilians. Israel has responded with surgical airstrikes at Hamas targets in Gaza but the civilian casualties are mounting and Hamas is still launching rockets at Israel. Now Israel has just made the difficult decision to
launch a ground attack on Gaza which is leading to more civilian casualties, many of them children.

What can anybody do? We can only guess what the incoming Obama administration will do since they do not assume office until January 20th and any number of things can happen between now and then. Meanwhile, President Bush appears to be doing little more than
blaming Hamas for starting the conflict by launching rockets into Israel which is true but doesn’t do anything to defuse the situation and address the problem of civilian casualties and a destroyed infrastructure in Gaza.

For the time being, the perhaps the best hope to bring the two sides to peace is Anwar Sadat’s successor in
Egypt, Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt is the crucial, if reluctant, intermediary between Israel and Hamas, which is no great friend of this moderate secular government. Still, a sustained Israeli ground operation in neighboring Gaza would sharply increase public pressure on President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to do more to help the Palestinians there.

Mr. Sadat’s successor, Mr. Mubarak, has successfully negotiated the complicated issues of regional security, solidifying a relationship with Washington, maintaining cool but correct ties with Israel and sharply suppressing Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. But it is a delicate balancing act..
With Israel now taking the step of a ground invasion of Gaza, even if they are successful in attacking the Hamas positions and stopping most of the rocket fire, they know that they cannot get to all of them. And furthermore, withdrawing later from Gaza means that Hamas can then simply rearm and start launching rockets at Israel again.

So the only hope of ending the civilian bloodshed in Gaza is for others to help forge a truce which will allow Israel to withdraw while at the same time, making sure that Hamas does not use the truce to gear up for more attacks. This is a tall order but one that is urgently needed for humanitarian reasons.

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