October 26, 2012
Violence in Gaza and Southern Israel Comes With New Alliances
Violence flared up in Gaza and southern Israel this week as Israeli forces killed four Palestinian militants and injured nine others while over 70 rockets fired from Gaza injured three Thai workers in Israel. This tragic violence comes at a time when the regional landscape is changing, leaving many to wonder about what comes next.
Since its founding in 1987 as a branch of the Egyptian Muslim brotherhood, it has operated as an armed resistance group opposed to Israel. After contesting and winning parliamentary elections in the West Bank in 2006, it took over Gaza by force 2007 when the election results were not implemented. Its rockets into Israel led to Operation Cast Lead by Israeli forces in 2008-2009 that left 1,400 Palestinians and nine Israelis dead in three weeks. Hamas now faces the challenge of trying to balance its armed resistance credentials and its political survival.
On Tuesday the emir of Qatar became the first head of state to visit the Gaza Strip since Hamas took power. The emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, pledged $400 million to build housing, rehabilitate roads and create a prosthetic center, among other projects. The infusion of money is critical at a time when both Gaza and the West Bank are experiencing a financial crisis. Foreign Policy’s David Roberts believes that, “by breaking Hamas's regional isolation and explicitly recognizing its rule over Gaza, Doha has strengthened the militant group's hand against its Palestinian rivals.”
Reuters reports that “analysts think Qatar, building up a leader's role in the Sunni Muslim world and influence beyond the Gulf, hopes to tame Hamas, get it to reconcile with the Fatah movement of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and perhaps advance the cause of Middle East peace.”
Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, declared that the emir had “thrown peace under the bus.” Southern Israel has faced what he described as “a steady drizzle of rockets” in the last few weeks. While it has largely abided by the truce brokered after Cast Lead, extremist Salafi militants inspired by the ideology of Al Qaeda are causing problems for Hamas, once considered one of the most extreme Palestinian movements. Another group, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which the New York Times describes as “somewhere between Hamas and the Salafists,” is becoming better armed thanks to support from Iran. Many of the members of these groups defected from Hamas after it decided to participate in the 2006 elections. These groups are credited for most of the recent cross-border rocket salvos.
Israeli officials hold Hamas will be held responsible for any attacks coming out of Gaza whether it is directly responsible or not. The day after the emir left Gaza, Hamas began a major to take part in the rocket salvo against Israel, suggesting the Emir’s support was facilitating more violence. attacks. Many analysts attribute rockets fired by Hamas militants to political pressure. Mukheimar Abu Sada, an independent analyst in Gaza, said “Hamas is under pressure from the people: 'Where is the resistance that you speak of?' Hamas needed to save face.”
Khalil Abu Shammala from the human rights group Ad Ameer gives his insight into Hamas’ violent outburst by saying, “It was a calculated escalation. The rockets used were short range, though Hamas and other groups have rockets with ranges of 20 km and more. But they did not use them and that is evidence the escalation was calculated and limited. As a resistance movement, Hamas feels embarrassed in front of its own members, so it attempts through these limited responses to prove it remains on the battlefield.”
Israel’s foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman had a different interpretation, believing the visit from the emir encouraged the violence. He said, “I think what we see, especially yesterday, the visit of the emir of Qatar in Gaza, it's clear support for terror and terrorist activity,” at a news conference with the visiting EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton.
Israeli civilians in southern Israel are becoming understandably impatient as rocket attacks interfere with and threaten their lives. Netanyahu told residents in Ashkelon, “We neither chose nor initiated this escalation, but if it continues, we are prepared for much more extensive and deeper action.”
Israeli army officials are also concerned that the influx of weapons coming from the Sinai could make the situation worse. However, the options on the table for the Israeli military may be quite limited. In 2011, the Economist wrote, “To topple Hamas, Israel would have to enter Gaza's cities, which Israel's forces shrank from doing last time round... Moreover, if Israel's aim is to stop the rocket fire, unseating Hamas may have the opposite effect…the resulting mayhem would offer fertile ground for global jihadis, like al-Qaeda, to try their luck at fighting back.”
So far, Israeli officials are publically considering all options. Defense Minister Ehud Barak said, “If we need a ground operation, there will be a ground operation.”
Given the complexity of the situation in Gaza, here are some links to stories and analysis to provide more insight:
Last weeks’ bulletin reported on the students from Gaza denied scholarships funded by the U.S. to study in the West Bank after Israel rejected their permit requests. Sari Bashi, executive director of Gisha, penned an op-ed for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency explaining “a bit of daylight may be just what Israelis, Americans and Palestinians need most right now.”
Vivien Sansour and Jacob Wheeler explain just how important Palestinian olive trees are to the economic and cultural wellbeing of Palestinians. One farmer explained " 'When they were destroying my trees, it was like somebody uprooting my heart from my lungs.”
In the first elections to take place in the Palestinian territories in six years, only 55 percent of those eligible went to the polls to vote. Fatah and its affiliated parties won the majority of seats in cities all over the West Bank but the low turnout compromised the results for many. Hamas boycotted the elections.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas this week that he would be ready for negotiations with Israel "straightaway" if the U.N. recognized Palestine as a non-member state.
Robert Malley and Hussein Agha explore the changing Middle East with shifting alliances and new leaders in the New York Review of Books.
Corinne Whitlatch, the founder and first executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace, was a friend of Senator George McGovern, who passed away this week. Corinne recalls Senator McGovern, his relationship with CMEP, and his dedication to peace in the Middle East:
Churches for Middle East Peace is grateful for George McGovern’s decades long dedication and work for Middle East peace. He was a founding member of CMEP’s Leadership Council and one of CMEP’s first fundraising letters was from George.
Long before I came to Washington and became CMEP’s director, I was a friend of George McGovern. I was treasurer of the McGovern for President campaign in Iowa where his caucus success launched his successful candidacy for the Democratic contest against Richard Nixon and political defeat. Also working for the Iowa campaign were McGovern family members from Iowa and his nearby home state South Dakota which led to my working security for the family at the Miami convention. At the convention, McGovern’s expressed concern for Palestinian human rights brought pressure from a major donor and awakened me to the controversy and the issue.
Senator George McGovern was a foreign policy expert with long service on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who knew the fundamental importance of Israeli-Palestinian-Arab peace to the Middle East region and any chance for global peace. He was on the board of the Middle East Policy Council, which publishes an academic journal, for two years. When he became its head in 1991, our paths crossed again. Our last time together was at the September meeting of the heads of Middle East peace groups on the morning of 9-11.
With no hesitation George, who had retired to South Dakota, accepted my invitation to join CMEP’s Leadership Council. “If my name can help, use it.”
It was an honor to know George McGovern, his example of perseverance and steadfast work for peace is an inspiration to me, to CMEP and a great many people. Our commitment to peace making will be his legacy.
Formed in 1984, Churches for Middle East Peace is a coalition of 24 national Church denominations and organizations, including Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant traditions. It works to encourage U.S. government policies that actively promote a just, lasting and comprehensive resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ensuring security, human rights and religious freedom for all people of the region.