As the images of carnage from Gaza continue to roll in everyday it is hard not feel some emotion well up inside. The spectacle of grand human suffering tends to do that. Whether it is sympathy toward the Gazans, or anger at Hamas, one’s position on the conflict in Gaza is easy to articulate, but almost impossible to reconcile with opposing opinion. And unlike other seemingly intractable issues of left and right, where acrimony is constant, the tragedy of Israel and Palestine is that the conflict is punctuated by moments of potential reconciliation, such as the Oslo Accords of 1993. And then, there also are moments like the current Israeli incursion into Gaza, where reconciliation becomes an impossibility, and hundreds of lives are lost.
For those of us with no horse in the race, so to speak (I am of neither Arabic, nor Jewish descent), lines are too often drawn left and right. The usual arguments resurface, abound with debates on the definition of terrorism, proportionality, the right to exist and how far back history reaches until it becomes irrelevant. Then to complicate things further, we have to come to terms with the argument that we cannot apply Western standards to a conflict that is essentially local and impenetrable to Western standards, an argument that is very convincing when looking at Iraq, but weak considering American and international responsibility in the region. With such a morass of tired arguments, it is difficult to navigate toward an understanding, but what many of us who have no ties to the region can agree upon is the absolute necessity for negotiations. And this is where blame really can be apportioned.
Usually when discussing Palestine and Israel there is a sense that one must take into account historical context, i.e. if you don’t your history then you have no idea what you are talking about. And before the second Gulf War this would be correct, but when considering the current catastrophe we need only look back as far as March 2003, when the first of three actors precipitated the current crisis. First, the US invaded Iraq and strengthened Iran’s hand, by not only emasculating one of just two Islamic neighbors that could counter Iran’s power in the region (the other being Saudi Arabia), but by also fostering an Iraqi government sympathetic to Iran’s Shiite ruling class. The sudden injection of Iran’s influence in the Middle East allowed it to empower Hezbollah, resulting in Hezbollah’s war with Israel in 2006 and severely damaging Israel’s image. The third and most influential of all, occurred in 2005 when Hamas, whose charter includes the destruction of Israel, was elected to govern Gaza. The combination of these three factors has made Israeli leadership believe that it is imperative for Israel to demonstrate its might.
Ostensibly, Israel’s motive for the recent attack is to end rocket strikes into its territory, but it has become increasingly clear that the chief goal of the operation is to remove Hamas from power by force, and this is where Israel’s arrogance descends into foolishness. Many cite that Ariel Sharon’s bold move of removing both soldiers and settlers from Gaza should have been enough to halt Palestinian aggression. This, however, is not acknowledging Israel’s total control over the territory, a control that Israel has wielded with indifference ever since Hamas gained power. By blockading imports and exports in and out of Gaza, and at one point cutting off all electrical power to the region, Israel has utterly strangled the Gazan economy, causing a prolonged humanitarian crisis. During this time the UN Human Rights Council, along with NGOs such as OXFAM and Amnesty International, have repeatedly condemned Israel’s actions.
At this point Israel had two options. One, to negotiate with with a weakened adversary, or, two, remove Hamas and renew its strength, reestablishing the status quo. For Israel, it would appear that the bigger risk was to step into the unknown and negotiate with a terrorist group. While it could have yielded a more constructive future with the Palestinians the risk was that negotiating with Hamas might further the notion of a weakened Israel. And with an empowered Iran to the east and Hezbollah to the north, reestablishing the status quo was a ‘safer’ option for Israel. Incidentally, a poll taken last February by Haaretz-Dialog poll showed that the majority of Israelis supported dialogue with Hamas, so it appears that geo-politics was far more influential in the decision to strike rather popular support.
And now approximately 700 Palestinians and ten Israelis are dead. Although having normal service resumed reassures Israel’s security chiefs that it can now play a game it understands, it only serves to incite more violence, of which both populations are sick of.
Israel’s reluctance to negotiate with Hamas is further compounded by the the failure of the vast majority of the international community to recognize Hamas authority in Gaza. This reluctance reflects a general attitude that Hamas represents an extreme minority faction. This attitude fits just right in with the both neo-conservative and liberal views, namely, that there are good Muslims and bad Muslims, the bad ones being the religious ones who blow themselves up. This is a view that is destructive and protracts the current stalemate. Hamas does indeed represent an extreme element of the Gazan population but Hamas governs the Gaza strip after winning fair and democratic elections, thus representing the majority of Gazans. To not acknowledge this and to be complicit in its forceful removal is to deny democracy to the very region that the US is attempting to export democracy. Before any negotiations begin the legitimacy of Hamas must first be recognized by the international community. Without that recognition Israel has little or pressure to negotiate.
Though Hamas is guilty of heinous crimes in the name of its cause, there can be no denying that Israel has committed its fair share of horror too, as we continue to witness today. The key to begin relieving the situation is for one party to step into the unknown and risk demonstrating weakness. In order to achieve this, the US, Israel’s main partner, must break rank and also step into the unknown and recognize a terrorist group as a legitimate government. I understand that this is very unlikely given the unique relationship between the US and Israel, not to mention AIPAC’s influence over Obama, but, as we have seen in the past, negotiations with terrorists are possible. We need only remember John Major approaching the IRA in the early 1999s, the reconciliation achieved in South Africa and also the talks between Yitzhak Rabin and Yassir Arafat.
It is only when leaders take great leaps of faith, and put aside abstract geo-political policy, can peace really be aspired to. Unfortunately, that looks like a long way off in the Middle East right now.