Unease has unfortunately been the cornerstone of life across most of West Asia, with indoctrination, militant nationalism and the rise of theocracy making the region a powder keg dangerously close to ignition. A dystopia – where life is “poor, nasty, brutish and short” but hardly “solitary”, where disquiet is ever bubbling under the surface, often spilling over, resulting in violent conflagrations, and where all belligerents seem to find both legitimate grounds as well as international support for aggression – can aptly describe the ongoing Hamas-Israel conflict. And though it is easy to choose a side, justify its actions, or vehemently oppose them, this inadvertently might lead to one conforming to biases of self and society. Such biases and marked inaction from the international community, along with broken promises, extremism, terrorism and immoderate Israeli retributions have made life in the Holy Land a living Hell.
Left: Division of British Palestine proposed under UN Partition Plan Right: Current political control. Area in white is under de facto Israeli occupation Images courtesy Wikimedia Commons
On June 12, three Israeli teenagers hitchhiking their way back home were abducted from Gush Etzion, an Israeli settlement in Zone C of West Bank, which is under full control of the Israel military. On June 30, the dead bodies of the three youth were recovered. Blaming the Fatah-Hamas pact, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu called for a tough response. Though Hamas denied any involvement, its leader did little to quell Israeli resentment – they even chose to praise the perpetrators. The response that Netanyahu had promised arrived, named Operation Protective Edge, and engulfed Gaza in an endless barrage of artillery shelling and missile launches. Hamas countered with an indiscriminate volley of rockets, most of which were however intercepted by Israel’s impressive Iron Dome.
The ensuing military incursions revealed new terror tactics including extensive tunnel warfare, and new military counter-offensives that further the capabilities of traditional military in urban warfare scenarios, but all the while, the victims have remained the same. New York Times runs a daily counter, and at the time of writing, 1878 Palestinians and 67 Israelis have lost their lives in the 30 day period since the Israeli military launched Operation Protective Edge. While all Israeli casualties have been military personnel barring three, the same cannot be said about losses incurred by Palestine. Nearly 1500 of those who died have been civilians. The consequences of these killings and the flagrant violation of human rights serve only to empower the much radicalised Hamas, and further legitimise its terror activities in the eyes of its support base. Israel claims that public infrastructures – including schools and hospitals, were targeted in air raids as they were used as Hamas hideouts. Its sympathisers have tried to condone the unpardonable loss of innocent lives by accusing Hamas of using human shields and arguing that Gaza is a cramped area where it is difficult to prevent collateral damage, but it is difficult to invalidate the argument that this disproportionate punitive actions taken up by the Israeli military, aimed at stamping out terrorism from Gaza strip and West Bank, will only serve to fuel resentment that is radicalising these areas – a vicious loop is at work in West Asia that shows little sign of abating.
And though human rights violations by the trigger happy Israel army are inexcusable, it’s only one consequence of the turmoil that has compromised basic human rights in the region since the British Mandate for Palestine expired in 1948. The Promised Land was created, but where two independent states had been envisaged, only one survived. The regions earmarked for the proposed Arab state were overrun by Israel, Jordan and Egypt, with Jordan and Egypt losing and relinquishing territorial claims subsequent to the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War. Currently Israel military controls West Bank and Gaza strip as the occupying power.
A massive civil disobedience, two wars and three peace summits failed to empower the Palestinians with the right to self-determination, till the Oslo Accord of 1993 when Israel agreed to transfer civilian authority to elected Palestinian representatives in phases. But as is with most agreements, the stipulations failed to transpire into reality. The region remains strife-torn with Israel military retaining de facto control of West Bank and Gaza strip. While Israel has largely equivocated on its commitments and the international community has spectacularly dithered, the Palestinians have suffered and their anger against Israel is palpable.
Loss of human lives and alleged deployment of experimental weapons aside, it is Israel’s economic warfare that is sapping the life out of Palestine. While Zone A and Zone B of West Bank are under direct Palestinian civil authority, it is in the much larger Zone C – constituting 66 per cent of the geographical area of West Bank and containing most of its arable and pasture lands that the real Palestine lies, economically. Adding to the foreign occupation is Israel’s settlement drive in West Bank, an action that contravenes the Geneva Convention and breaches the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. And while Israel has withdrawn its settlers from Gaza strip following the al-Aqsa Intifada, it still blockades the coastal waters off Gaza, preventing any trade activity. The border crossing with Egypt is similarly closed. It has been argued that while the destruction of tunnels on Israel-Gaza border will significantly reduce raids by Hamas, destruction of those on Egypt-Gaza border will wreck whatever remains of the economy in Gaza, as the tunnels were used for smuggling food and supplies from Egypt – an activity of cardinal value in a territory that is completely blockaded and depends almost entirely on the occupier for electricity and water. Israel on its part maintains that the tunnels on Egyptian border were being used to smuggle in long range rockets.
Lest it gives the impression that Israel’s actions are without instigation, it would serve well to focus now on the suffering in Israel.
Images courtesy Israel Defence Force, in an article from before the current offensive. Article here.
It is evident that Israel is being continuously pounded by rockets launched by Hamas and its splinter organizations, including the Qawasameh tribe whose members have been indicted in the kidnapping and subsequent murder of the three Israeli youths. Since the Israeli air offensive on July 8, 3200 plus rockets have been fired into Israel. These pose a threat not only to Israel, but many instances of misfiring result in Palestinian casualties as well. The psychological scars on Israeli kids growing up in a nest of hostility and rocket launches cannot be overstated – a study in Sderot on a representative sample concluded that 75 per cent of children aged 4-18 are suffering from post-traumatic stress symptoms. A further 28 per cent of adults and 30 per cent of children are suffering from PTSD.
Equally appalling is the diatribe of Palestinian leaders. Instead of fostering equanimity in relations, Palestine leaders stand accused of mass indoctrination and anti-Semitism. Israel defends the high handedness of its military as a deterrent against possible existential crises, and the rhetoric directed against it by Hamas leaders gives Israeli policy makers legitimate causes of concern. The perceptions of undiluted hate directed at them by the Palestinians spur the Israeli settlers to equally heinous crimes. As retaliation to the three kidnappings, a 16 year old Palestinian boy was lynched and burnt by an Israeli mob on July 2.
But the current offensive, as The Wall Street Journal quotes Yigal Carmon, has not been about retaliation. The discovery of intricate network of tunnels leading from Gaza to within Israel has posed new challenges for Israel Defence Forces (IDF). The 2006 capture of Gilad Shalit caused much outrage in Israel. His release was secured 5 years later in exchange for 1027 Palestinians and Arabs. Kidnapping military personnel provides Hamas with a better bargaining chip than firing rockets that will be knocked out of the sky; and Israel knows this. The current offensive was aimed primarily at destroying these tunnels, whose count vary from 9 to 31.
Worse still, there have been reports of extensive child labour for building these tunnels, with other expenses secured by siphoning humanitarian aid. Such irresponsible actions call into question the commitment of Palestinian leaders to lasting peace. Unreasonable demands like not negotiating till Palestinian right of return is assured – an arrangement wherein some 5.5 million Palestinians will have right to property within Israel and Palestinian territories are not easy concessions. Such a massive influx, should all the Palestinian refugees choose to exercise it, would render Israel an Arab-majority state.
As the conflict drags on with no resolution in sight, the body count mounts. The international community is ever eager to broker a peace, but only when tensions reach tipping point. The big economic and military powers have failed to dissuade both Hamas’ vitriol and Israel’s self-righteous defence that entails the subjugation of Palestine. In that sense, the challenge for the international community lies not only in defining and protecting territorial extents but also safeguarding human-rights. USA, Israel’s closest ally, has to pressurise it into normalising relations with Fatah, lifting blockades off Gaza and restarting peace talks aimed at returning sovereignty to Palestine. The Arab League can propel itself to international relevance by helping to contain Palestinian anger and desperation, and convincing Hamas to soften its aggression and hard-line. And it is the international community’s duty to help the stricken sufferers with humanitarian aid and moral solidarity. For each casualty in this endless game of action and reaction is never just an Israeli or a Palestinian, but a blow to the ever deepening fissures that divide the region and its people.