CRUCIBLE: War in Gaza, Israel and Obama. By Julkipli Wadi

What makes this recent war in Gaza overwhelmingly troubling is the manner in which Israel launched brute force of disproportional magnitude using latest war machine and warfare technology to annihilate civilian population with impunity and with total disregard of any civilized conduct of war and established norms of nations. It is, to say the least, a war never been seen since contemporary times including the Gulf War, the US war in Afghanistan, the US invasion of Iraq, and the Israeli war in Lebanon in 2006.

For lack of better analogy, the Israel war in Gaza maybe likened to brute force unleashed by armed-to-the-teeth Robocops against helpless inmates who are simply armed with makeshift tin can that produced fireworks (read: terrorism by Israel) who have nowhere to run to as the prison house is fully sealed, with no free people outside coming to their rescue. It’s probably the reason why many commentators refer to the war in Gaza as massacre, carnage, genocide, ethnic cleansing and many more. 


Certainly, the Hamas especially as it fired Qassam rockets to Jewish settlements is also to blame in the war in Gaza. The violence and other atrocities it committed against Israeli settlers have to be condemned, too, by international community. Although one thing is clear: the Hamas is a recent creature borne out of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. 

Above-mentioned past wars were of course waged with similar intensity if not barbarity but the difference
with that of Gaza’s is they were previously launched with certain degree of symmetry with the presence of minimum elements of conventional warfare between protagonists: they both exchanged fires; they maneuvered in battlefields with some respectable resistance, while they also suffered casualties and collateral damages. Finally, past wars before Gaza were launched with considerable long period of time with some signs of relative conclusion. But it’s not the case of the war in Gaza. 

Since the launching of the war by Israel on December 27, 2008 until the unilateral declaration of ceasefire by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last Sunday (equivalent to only 23 days), the Israel Defence Forces has been overwhelmingly dictating the war, its launching and its duration until its ceasefire few days ago.

The number of casualty has reached 1,250, most of whom Palestinian civilians, especially children, with only 10 Israeli soldiers killed and 3 Israeli civilian casualties. The number of Palestinians injured, mostly children, is more than 6,000, possibly close to 7,000 or even more if proper accounting is done. As Palestinians have been retrieving their dead, the casualty is expected to increase even more. The war has wrought US$1.5 billion financial cost on Gaza that increase US$500,000 everyday, while destroying 20,000 residential buildings and other several government and business infrastructures, schools, mosques, hospitals, UN headquarters and offices, and so on. 

While Israeli officials claimed that the war was launched against Hamas, only two top Hamas officials were killed, Nizam Rayyan and Said Siam. Graphic images of dead children are shown before our eyes with the hell created by cluster bombs from F-16s, from barrage of artillery and cannons coming from Israeli tanks and naval boats hitting mostly civilians in densely populated areas comprising 1.5 million people in the main suburbs of Gaza. 

The Associated Press reporting last Sunday described the carnage left by the Israel Defense Force: “Destruction was everywhere on Sunday, in churned up farmland, dangling electricity poles, charred bodies of cars abandoned on pulverized roads, and broken pipes overflowing with sewage. The stench of rotting corpses, both human and animal, hung in the air. For three weeks, Israeli airstrikes targeted Hamas militants … smashing much of Gaza's already shabby infrastructure and turning neighborhoods into battle zones.”

According to former US President Jimmy Carter the war in Gaza is unnecessary. “I know from personal involvement,” Carter said, “the devastating invasion of Gaza by Israel could easily have been avoided.” Waging war in Gaza is a least strategic option by Israel compared to her obsession to strike Iran as most preferred option since the US invasion in Iraq and after the humiliation of Israel army in Lebanon in 2006.

Since Israel failed to get the support of President Bush on Israel’s plan to strike the nuclear reactors of Iran considering the weight of Iraq war on US economy and the waning American public support on the Iraq war, Israel has to take the least preferred option: to strike Hamas while Bush has still few days in office in order to prop up the popularity of Kadima and Labor parties (specifically Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak) in the forthcoming February 10 election. 

In his piece, “What is Israel’s goal in Gaza,” Neve Gordon, also the author of “Israeli’s Occupation,” identified three immediate reasons why Israel attacked Gaza last December 27: (1) To destroy Hamas; (2) To prop up Kadima and Labor parties where both Livni and Barak head respectively and to defeat Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu in the coming Israel February 10 election; and (3) To repair Israel military image after its humiliation in the war in Lebanon in 2006. While the above-mentioned reasons are probably internal to Israel and her relation with Hamas, what Gordon failed to highlight is this more important reason: Israel’s opportunism on the remaining days of President Bush II in office.

As reported by the New York Times last week where Israel failed to get the nod of President Bush last year to bomb the nuclear facilities of Iran via Iraq after Israel received a warning radar system that was just turned over last Summer as a “parting gift” from President Bush as he prepared to leave office, Israel had to find other issue of secondary significance while Bush is still in office: launching a devastating war on Hamas, even if in Israel’s calculation crippling Hamas is of secondary value with least strategic significance. The obsession of Israel is not Hamas. In fact, for some reasons the Hamas and its so-called terrorism provide Israel the much needed pretext for IDF to control Gaza, to erect Bantustan walls and to build more Jewish settlement like in the West Bank, and in nearby areas like Sdirot and Ashkelon. 

After initial victory by Israeli soldiers in the war front of Gaza, Israel President Simon Peres visited them two weeks ago. When asked by an Israeli soldier for a guarantee if Hamas would be blot out of Gaza when the occupying Israeli military leaves Gaza, Peres answered: "the problem is not Hamas or Hisbollah; it's Iran." Thus, Hamas is not the real target, while the war in Gaza is not the real objective. To say the least, they are merely sacrificial lambs in the remaining days of Bush in office.

Knowing that Obama would probably take a less belligerent stance toward Palestinians in early phase of Obama Presidency – not that there would be a dramatic shift from Neo-conservative policy of Bush, Israel anticipated the global pressure on Obama with his Yes-We-Can promise by taking advantage of the remaining days of President Bush. Thus, even if crippling Hamas and destroying Gaza is of less strategic significance, Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni, and Ehud Barak who have at stake in the coming February election waged war against Hamas, a usual electoral campaign strategy by any Israeli politicians who want to prop up their winnability every election time in Israel. 

And true enough Olmert unilaterally declared ceasefire before the Presidential inauguration of Obama so that Israel would be viewed as “game” and not spoiling the party in the historic inauguration of President Obama. Thus, if the war in Gaza is a “parting gift” of Bush to Israel, declaring a unilateral ceasefire in Gaza is a gift offering by Olmert to
President Obama.

Other benefits that would accrue on Israel by launching the least preferred option including destroying Hamas and waging war in Gaza are: (1) isolation of Hamas while pressuring Mahmud Abbas to further kowtow to Israel; (2) Israel’s constriction on the people of Gaza since the 18 month imposition of food blockade; (3) closing of crossings; (4) constriction of freedom of movement including control of strategic resources in Gaza; (5) the Gaza war as dress rehearsal for a resumption of war with Lebanon; and (6) widening the rift within the Arab world particularly between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan together with Fatah on one side and Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Qatar and other countries together with Hamas the on other side. 

There is no question that because of the devastation in Gaza, Hamas has been crippled militarily cutting off its control of Gaza, although the people of Gaza continuously support it – not Mahmud Abbas and the Fatah. But even if neutralizing Hamas is a least preferred option, by destroying Gaza Israel gained two major benefits:

First, it would be able to control Gaza and its strategic resources. According to Jake Bower in “Why It Rains: Hamas holding Israeli gas reserves hostage” Israel “plans [in Gaza] $400,000,000 offshore natural gas field development project….The deposit reportedly contains an estimated 50 to 60 billion cubic meters of natural gas. The field… is considered to be the largest in the area north of Egypt….Estimated at 100 billion cubic meters of proven reserves, these discoveries potentially offer enough gas to meet Israel's goal of supplying 25% of its energy needs for more than 20 years — even without further imports.


The discovery has also raised realistic expectations of locating oil deposits beneath the gas fields….Unfortunately for Israel, 60% of these reserves are in waters controlled by the Palestinian Authority, which has signed a 25-year contract with British Gas for further exploration in the area….”

Second, by waging a brutal war in Gaza, Israel, Mike Whitney believed, is able to engage a “dress rehearsal for Lebanon.” “The reason,” Whitney observed, “the rationale for invading Gaza keeps changing, (from rocket-fire to Hamas infrastructure to strengthening deterrents to weapons smuggling to ceasefire violations etc) is because the real purpose of the operation is to conduct a dress rehearsal for the impending invasion of Lebanon.”


Moreover, “Israel has never recovered from its defeat at the hands of Hezbollah during the 33 Day war in 2006, so it is preparing for a reprisal.” The attack on Gaza is just a "dry run"; a confidence-building exercise to strengthen morale and put the finishing touches on the battle plan. That's why there's such a disparity between the implicit risks of the current operation and its minuscule strategic gains. It's not really Hamas that is in the cross-hairs, but Hezbollah; and this time, Israel hopes to crush them with overwhelming force.” 


Whitney believes that “Gaza is also the testing ground for new Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Chief of the General Staff Gabi Ashkenazi. Barak and Ashkenazi replace former Defence chief Amir Peretz and Israeli Air Force Commander Dan Halutz, the two main scapegoats for the failed campaign. The new leaders are expected to take what they've learned in Gaza and use it in Lebanon. So far, the Israeli high command seems to like what they see.”


The question thus is: if Israel is obsessed against Iran or engaged in dress rehearsal for Lebanon, why should it unleash excessive force in Gaza? 


Ismael Haniyeh, the Prime Minister of Gaza, explains the reasons: “Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 did not end its occupation nor, as a result, its international obligations as an occupying power. It continued to control and dominate our borders by land, sea and air. Indeed the UN has confirmed that between 2005 and 2008, the Israeli army killed nearly 1,250 Palestinians in Gaza, including 222 children.


For most of that period the border crossings have remained effectively closed, with only limited quantities of food, industrial fuel, animal feed and a few other essential items, allowed in… Despite its frantic efforts to conceal it, the root cause of Israel’s criminal war on Gaza is the elections of January 2006, which saw Hamas win by a substantial majority.” 


“What occurred next,” Haniyeh revealed, “was that Israel alongside the United States and the European Union joined forces in an attempt to quash the democratic will of the Palestinian people. They set about reversing the decision first by obstructing the formation of a national unity government and then by making a living hell for the Palestinian people through economic strangulation. The abject failure of all these machinations finally led to this vicious war.”


The Hamas leader is convinced that “Israel’s objective is to silence all voices that express the will of the Palestinian; thereafter it would impose its own terms for a final settlement depriving us of our land, our right to Jerusalem as the rightful capital of our future state and the Palestinian refugees’ right to return to their homes.”


Understandably, while Haniyeh criticized Israel for the strangulation of the people of Gaza as part of Israel’s repression against Hamas, what Haniyeh missed out is that Israel knows that even if the latter strikes hard on Hamas, Arab states would not come to their rescue owing largely to pro-US Arab governments’ ambivalence if not suspicion on the Hamas: while it is the vanguard of the Palestinian people, Hamas is largely seen as radical Islamic group that off-shoots from the Muslim Brotherhood whose political motive in the long-term is abolition of Arab authoritarian regimes. Indeed, Israel exploits this dilemma of Arab states, which is glaringly shown in Arab regimes’ lackadaisical reaction on the war on Gaza revealing not only their deep-seated division but also their extremely feeble if not utterly pathetic engagement against Isr


During 23 days of Israel’s barrage of fire on Gaza, Arab states could not even take a posture much less agree on a unified position to help the Palestinians, to condemn Israel and to make Israel liable before the international court of law for the war crimes and international humanitarian crisis Israel wrought in Gaza. Instead, three tracks of diplomacy were frantically organized: 

(1) Arab moderate initiative composed of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan that advanced the Cairo proposal whose main content is the halting of arms shipment to Gaza via the Rafah border, but which is already rendered moot since Foreign Minister Livni had already signed a “Memorandum of Understanding” with Secretary Condoleezza Rice providing the US-Israel cooperation in stopping the flow of arms to Hamas. 

(2) Abbas-UN Sec Gen initiative whose direction is to secure a UN Resolution supportive of the Palestinians and condemnation of Israel in the war on Gaza, but which has been short of being ridiculed by Israel. As the UN Resolution was being chiseled in New York, the IDF has been busy bombing UN headquarters and offices in Gaza, making Sec. General Ban Ki Moon look distraught and pitiful in the face of Israel’s belligerence not only against the UN Charter but against the UN itself. And as if to show how Israel has grappled by the nose the White House is the news that Olmert called Bush in the middle of a speech ordering him to tell Sec. Rice not to vote for proposed UN Resolution; and Dubya could not but accede to Olmert.

(3) Doha Emergency Summit, an initiative spearheaded by Qatar together with Syria, Iran, Sudan and others that take a belligerent stance against Israel while showing support on Hamas. While the Cairo proposal advances a pragmatic position to both Hamas and Israel relative to border crossing and arm shipment, the Doha group purports to support Hamas with its position to declare a ceasefire, to open the border, to lift the blockade on Gaza, to engage in humanitarian assistance, and to hold international conference for the reconciliation of Palestinian factions. In sum, while Arab states fool themselves of believing that they have done something to halt the war in Gaza, truth is their initiatives did not have any taint of influence on the decision of Israel to stop the war. As mentioned, Olmert declared a unilateral ceasefire on Gaza last Sunday was not due to any exertion of influence by Arab states. 

In fact, it is non-Arab states like Venezuela, Bolivia and Malaysia that showed the mettle to engage Israel in the international legal front. After President Hugo Chavez kicked out the Israeli ambassador from Caracas, President Evo Morales of Bolivia and Prime Minister Abdulah Badawi of Malaysia proposed to charge Israel with committing war crimes and other violations under the Geneva Convention at the International Criminal Court.  

While these are commendable efforts by these mostly Non-Aligned Member countries as their way in showing solidarity with the Palestinians and to engage against Israel as these are also a slap on the face of Arab governments, concern is raised however whether the efforts of Bolivia and Malaysia would succeed. First, like the US, Israel is not a signatory to the Statute of Rome which is necessary before a state or other party can be charged of any war crime or other pertinent violation. Second, Israel has the propensity of violating UN Resolutions and other judicial edicts of international tribunals since practically her creation with consistent backing from the United States since 1948. At any rate, this form of international support and solidarity can be considered diplomatic advances of the Palestinian cause from non-Arab initiatives. 

As rubbles are being cleared in Gaza, Arab officials continue to hop from one Arab country to another to craft what they naively believe as truce with Israel, to reconstruct Gaza and to work for the reconciliation of the Palestine factions. Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries pledged US$2 billion to rebuild Gaza which has become their usual way in addressing Israel’s mess in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia pledged US$30 billion to develop Lebanon after the devastating Israeli war in 2006. 

While extension of assistance is important, working for creative, durable settlement of the Palestine conflict must be pushed forward even more. Without it, the conflict can recur anytime. Israel can destroy at will any Palestinian communities or any Arab entities today, as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and United Arab Emirates are ready to build them tomorrow. What the heck for Israel? For all we know, before reconstruction can begin, Israel already aims its war machine at another Arab target. Then, the pathetic cycle of Arab-Israeli conflict continues where Israel becomes more militaristic and hegemonic, while the Palestinians are continuously dispossessed from their homeland. 

While Israel Defense Forces pounded Gaza, Israel continuously exploited the “Iran scare.” It has received audience with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with her “smart power” strategy in the Middle East, particularly containing Iran’s nuclear program and Iran’s “malign influence” in Iraq. Earlier, Presidential candidate Barack Obama already committed to side with Israel in his speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a diplomatic gain of Israel reminiscent of her clandestine posture before the US invasion of Iraq. What’s good then Presidential candidate Obama opted diplomacy with ran, which was the proper approach to reduce the tension in the Middle East. Finally, President Barack Obama emphasized during his inaugural speech that he “seeks new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect” with the Muslim world.

While there won’t be dramatic, fundamental shift of US foreign policy in the Middle East, it is hoped that a relative, moderate change may begin in the coming days. Sally Buzbee of the Associated Press raised hope and wrote: “Unlike the Lebanon war, the fighting in Gaza contains faint stirrings of change across the region that could bring a more hopeful outcome for Israel, the Palestinians and the West. Chief among them is the inauguration of a new U.S. president. The Bush administration had long ago lost most ability to get even allies in the Middle East to robustly push U.S. goals. Incoming President Barack Obama won't, of course, instantly change Arab resentment toward America, and he has made clear that he will continue with traditionally strong U.S. support for Israel.”

Buzbee believed, too, “Obama and the team he has chosen might be more willing to accept the type of arrangement that many believe is needed to relieve the suffering in Gaza and figure out a political solution. That will likely involve giving Hamas some face-saving partial authority role in the crowded territory it seized in 2007 after winning elections.”

How far will Obama veer away from Bush’s neoconservative policy in the Middle East? How creative will be the Obama peace initiative, if there will be any, between Israel and Hamas? Will Israel concur, if there is any, to new peace effort by the White House? How about the Hamas, the Fatah and other Palestinian factions? What about Arab states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia including critical ones like Syria and Iran?

As more questions are raised, change will certainly usher for good or for worse in Gaza and elsewhere in the Middle East during the initial phase of Obama presidency.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Julkipli Wadi is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of the Philippines in Diliman. This paper was  presented during the Forum on the War in Gaza held at Asian Center Conference Hall, University of the Philippines Diliman, Quezon City, January 20, 2009.)