BETWEEN THE BEGINNING of January and the end of October of this year, in excess of 500 rocket and mortar shell attacks were launched from Gaza into the territory of the state of Israel and, perhaps, more importantly into areas populated by civilians. Clearly, as many observers both inside and outside Israel have noted, this situation would be intolerable to any sovereign state and, under any ‘normal’ set of circumstances, a serious response would be both understandable and justified. However, the relationship between Israel and Gaza is anything but normal and the recent outbreak of violence on both sides can only be understood in the context of this broader relationship.
In August 2006, Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip, which, together with the West Bank, it had occupied since the June 1967 war with neighbouring Arab states. However, this ‘disengagement’ by no means put an end to Israeli control over the tiny territory. Earlier in 2006, the Islamist movement Hamas was victorious in elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council – the assembly created under the terms of the Israeli-Palestinian ‘peace process’ which Hamas largely rejected. In late 2006 conflict broke out between Hamas and the secular Fatah organisation which ultimately led to the consolidation of Hamas’ control over Gaza while Fatah took control of the West Bank.
Israel responded by blockading Gaza by land, air and sea – subjecting its population of 1.6 million to strict controls on imports, exports and the movement of people by land air and sea in a manner that the United Nations has characterized as ‘collective punishment’ of all of those living in Gaza and a denial of basic human rights in contravention of international law. According to a 2008 report of the International Committee of the Red Cross, 70 per cent of the population are food insecure, dozens of basic medicines are unavailable due to the blockade and the infrastructure of Gaza has been devastated over the past five years. In June of this year, six UN agencies including UNICEF, the UN High Commission for Human Rights and UNESCO called for an end to the blockade as a violation of international law.
One result of all of this has been recurrent outbreaks of violence between Israel and Gaza-based groups. However, such conflict is asymmetrical in nature. While Hamas is in possession of thousands of rockets with a range of less than 50 miles, Israel has one of the best-equipped armies in the world. Between December 27 2008 and September 30 2012 eighteen Israelis were killed by Gaza-based Palestinian groups. During the same period, 1,661 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces. In the latest round of violence, around 1500 rockets were fired from Gaza between November 14 and the ceasefire eight days later. In response there were the same number of Israeli airstrikes on Gaza. During this set of exchanges five Israelis and 167 Palestinians were killed. While Israel cited attacks from Gaza as the provocation for its actions, many see a link with impending general elections in Israel, although few doubted that prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, would be re-elected in any case.
US reliant on Egypt
The outbreak of violence is nothing new. What is different this time is the regional context and the ways in which the ceasefire was agreed. The tumultuous changes in the Middle East over the last 22 months have dramatically altered the regional political landscape. This time around Israel negotiated in Cairo with Hamas and Islamic Jihad indirectly through the new Islamist government in Egypt. Also key to the talks were US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the Islamist Turkish ruling party. Whether the ceasefire will last is open the doubt – already there have been breaches.
However, a number of things are clear. The reliance of the US on Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood leadership indicates a new willingness on the part of Washington to engage with Islamists at least for as long as they have shared objectives. The intervention of the new Egyptian Prime Minister, Mohammed Mursi, has enhanced his regional and international prestige. His decree, following the ceasefire, in which he assumed sweeping new powers drew widespread condemnation within Egypt but little by way of critical response from the international community.
But, if the regional context has changed, what appears unaltered are the underlying dynamics of the conflict. Netanyahu resists substantial negotiations with the Palestinians who remain divided ideologically between Hamas and Fatah, as well as geographically between Hamas-controlled Gaza and the Fatah-controlled West Bank. The largely uncritical support of the US for the Israeli position, as evidenced by its opposition to the vote on Palestinian statehood at the UN General Assembly, remains unwavering. Given all of this, how long will it be before we witness the latest round in the apparently never-ending but utterly unproductive cycle of violence between Israel and the Palestinians?
Dr Vincent Durac lectures in Politics of Development; Middle East Politics; the International Politics of the Middle East and Political Islam in the UCD School of Politics and International Relations. His research is focused on a number of aspects of contemporary Middle East Politics, including political reform, the role of civil society the impact of external actors in the region and Yemeni political dynamics. He is a visiting lecturer in Middle East Politics in Bethlehem University in Palestine.