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Ahmed Shihab-Eldin

Ahmed Shihab-Eldin

Posted: December 28, 2008 02:17 PM

The media's emphasis on the retaliatory nature of Israel's air strikes on Gaza distracts from the more consequential, newsworthy elements -- Israel's disproportionate use of violence and its upcoming Parliamentary elections.

That Israel attacked Gaza is no surprise. Since the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel ended on December 19, it was only a matter of time before Israel responded to the increasing number of rockets fired across the border.

Under the blockade, Hamas' options were limited as the Palestinian people that elected them to power in the first place were increasingly powerless themselves. But on many levels it is foolish of Hamas to fire rockets arbitrarily at Israel since Israel's response will inevitably overwhelm them, not to mention the unwavering support from the U.S. and Britain for Israel.

For over a year, Israel has cleverly conducted a campaign in the West Bank that has caused further divisions between Hamas and Fatah, hoping that it would eventually lead to a shift in public opinion within Palestine, around the Arab world, and consequently result in the removal of Hamas from power -- regardless of the means.

Ever since the President's Fatah forces lost control of the Gaza Strip to Hamas in 2007, the two groups have drifted further apart politically and have vowed to challenge each other.

In May 2007, Israel arrested 33 senior Hamas officials in the West Bank, and in the following months Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas began closing down organizations that Hamas claimed were charitable and cracking down on Hamas' influence in the West Bank.

Saturday's storming assault -- or as Israel put it, "surgical strikes" on military targets in Gaza -- that killed over 300 Palestinians, many of whom are civilians, marks the bloodiest single day of violence since 1967.

Israel had hoped to change the situation on the ground and eliminate Hamas from the political and public sphere, but just as Gaza was surprised with the severity and strength of Israel's attack, Israel may unintentionally galvanize Palestinians to rally for Hamas and strengthen Iran's standing in the Middle East too.

Hezbollah was viewed by large swaths of the Arab world as the only Arab resistance group able to fight Israel in Lebanon. Now, Hamas has a chance to achieve the same recognition in Gaza.

What a damning start to the new year (it is also the Muslim New Year, which starts on December 29).

Israel's inability to recognize the desperation of Palestinians -- alongside Israel's destructive policies towards them -- and Hamas' inability to recognize the opportunity it creates for its enemy to successfully justify extreme violence with its largely ineffective rocket launches, suggests this war will not be brief.

The mortars fired into Israel from Gaza grant Israel the perfect opportunity to justify their attempts to eliminate Hamas -- and with elections coming up in February, they seem as committed as ever. But equally committed are the countless number of impoverished, desperate Palestinians crammed in Gaza who have seen their livelihoods lost and family members killed indiscriminately. It is the cliched "vicious circle," though hardly "an eye for an eye" -- more like "an eye for a head."

The European Union called for an "immediate ceasefire." France criticized Israel for the use of "disproportionate force." But the U.S. and Britain (the two countries that led the War in Iraq) chose not to condemn Israel, instead the Bush administration expectantly pledged its allegiance with Israel. Condoleeza Rice said in a statement, "We strongly condemn the repeated rocket and mortar attacks against Israel and hold Hamas responsible for breaking the ceasefire and for the renewal of violence there."

But who will hold Israel responsible for the blockade of Gaza, which under the truce, was supposed to be lifted gradually?

Since Hamas gained total control of Gaza, Israel has imposed a systematic and terrorizing 18-month blockade on the strip, starving the 1.5 million Palestinians of fuel, electricity and medical supplies, which allowed for the death toll to climb higher as life-saving medical supplies remained unavailable to treat the wounded through a second day of fighting.

While the threat of rockets launched from Gaza can seem menacing, or even "terrorizing," it is incomparable to the terror that millions of Palestinians endure on a daily basis -- starving, living under an economic blockade, essentially imprisoned, desperate and demoralized.

Despite Israel's use of the threat of rocket fire as justification for its military attacks, the reality is that only one Israeli man has died from a Palestinian rocket attack since June -- and he died after Israel's bombardment of Gaza yesterday.

Death on either side of the border is disgraceful, but compare these two figures:

-- Since 2005, nine Israelis have been killed by rockets coming from Gaza.

-- Since yesterday morning, over 300 Palestinians have been killed by bombs and missiles coming from Israel.

Today, Israel acted on its announced plans to continue its "retaliation" against Hamas, proving yesterday's historic assault was "only the beginning." Israeli politicians hoping to demonstrate their ability to properly protect Israeli citizens have capitalized on a perfect opportunity.

As Israel's parliamentary elections draw near, politicians must be perceived as willing to do whatever it takes to protect Israel from the threat of rocket fire from Gaza. The aerial assault's main objective was to create a "shock and awe" effect, just as President Bush had done in his invasion of Iraq, that would produce a chaotic atmosphere facilitating a complete elimination of Hamas' military and security infrastructures and guarantee a sweeping and final victory.

Ehud Barak has been preparing Israelis for a full-on attack for some time now and stressed that he didn't intend to mislead them.

"It won't be easy and it won't be short," he said, offering an outlook that is more earnest and realistic than President Bush ever offered Americans in the run up to the Iraq War.

Israeli leaders who seem too keen on compromising with the Palestinians are likely to lose support from constituents. Aware of the fragile leadership in Israel following Prime Minister Olmert's corruption charges, Hamas leaders may have planned the increase in rocket attacks, despite warnings, to test both Israel and America's weakened image in the Middle East.

In a televised address, Olmert said it was his aim "to change the situation in the southern part of Israel." The campaign word of 2008 rolled off his tongue effortlessly. Change.

The change of leadership in America and the economic crisis are precisely what has so many in Israel worried.

America's reputation among many Arabs is damaged, as shown by this month's shoe-throwing spectacle. The general failure of the War in Iraq and the general perception of America's blind support for Israel are seen as one in the same, breeding new wells of anger and hatred that may be tapped to recruit new trainees for terrorism.

Any provocation coming from armed groups in the region -- for instance, Hamas' rockets -- may be an attempt to see how an unpopular, overstretched and economically bust America will come to Israel's rescue when its own economic and military viability is in question.

In the run-up to the general election, we were reminded that the next American president will be tested in the first 6 months of his presidency and that a 3 a.m. phone call was sure to come. But President-elect Obama is gonna need a switchboard and team of operators to field all the calls he'll be receiving.

Israel's ailing government has been preparing the Israeli people for a full-fledged effort to get rid of Hamas once and for all. In the days leading up to the attack, Israeli officials carefully and cunningly claimed they did not want the ceasefire to end, reminding the world it was Hamas that ended it in order to create the perception that Israel had not planned or hoped for an escalation of violence despite the reconnaissance missions they ran prior to the actual attacks. Hamas, on the other hand, argued that the economic blockade and strangulation of Gaza was what prompted them to end the truce.

Israel's insistence that their actions are defensive measures would work better if they had not prevented the international press from entering Gaza just a few weeks before they launched the assault.

As the attacks occurred, I was in Kuwait walking through The Avenues, one of Kuwait's newest mega-malls. With smooth, polished marble below me and dazzling chandeliers above me I was completely oblivious to the maelstrom raining above Gaza.

At home, flipping between channels, my family all gathered around the television and watched as Arab leaders and demonstrators from across the region blasted Israel and condemned the international community for its lack of leadership and fairness in ending Israel's escalating attacks.

Their statements were woven with startling images of bloodied bodies strewn across demolished buildings and rubble. Their comments often amounted to a blurred and blended stream of anger, frustration and curses of America and Israel and I wondered if any of this would ever reach an American audience.

Baghdad, Beirut, Amman, Cairo and Istanbul all saw large protests including both burning tires and candles. But in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, all of whom are geographically and emotionally much closer to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, it is there that the most roaring responses were heard.

In Amman, a city whose inhabitants are predominantly of Palestinian origin, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood called Arab rulers that have established terms with Israel criminals and demanded they cut ties.

In Lebanon, hundreds of thousands were in the streets to support the Palestinians in Gaza, and many demonstrated near the Egyptian embassy in Beirut.

Egypt, which brokered the six-month cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, has struggled to end the violence after President Hosni Mubarak met with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, and has also been unable to bring the clashing factions of Fatah and Hamas together.

"Today everybody has to stand by the Palestinian people's side and stop this blind military action," Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Egypt's foreign minister said. But he also blamed Hamas for ignoring warnings that Israel would attack if they continued to send rockets to Gaza.

Hamas will never heed any warnings from Israel and will continue to fire rockets indiscriminately because it is their only means of fighting. Accordingly, Israel will always "retaliate" and justify their actions by focusing only on a short period of time where they can appear to be defending themselves against Hamas' largely laughable rocket attacks. This way they can drive a narrative that overlooks the oppressive, brutal blockade that encourages the continuation of rockets.

While Arab countries have unanimously condemned the attacks on Gaza, some seem to want to wait to see whether Israel's gamble that their attacks will diminish Palestinian support for Hamas will materialize before getting too involved.

When Amr Moussa, the head of the Arab League, called for the UN Security Council to meet to discuss the situation in Gaza and called for an emergency meeting with foreign ministers of the Arab League, Arab ministers postponed it, citing preoccupations with other affairs.

Hisham Youssef, a spokesman for the Arab League, said that the responsibility does not lay with the Arab league and instead deferred to the UN, claiming they have not taken any responsibility for stopping the offensive on Gaza.

There are many obstacles facing any lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but the elephant in the room -- or at least one of the bigger elephants-- is the lack of Arab unity on promoting the rights of Palestinians and trusting a unified Palestinian movement to secure a path towards peace.

Israel has shown no indication that it plans to change its course of action, despite the UN Security Council's call for an immediate halt to the violence, and they don't have to. So far, they have succeeded in diverting attention away from the crippling blockade and isolation imposed on Gaza and successfully framed their excessive use of violence as a defensive measure to protect Israelis from the fear of aimless rockets.

Once again the United Nations, with all its resolutions and supposed authority, is powerless when it comes to Israel's right to defend itself at all costs. Since the U.S. and Britain both hold veto power Israel will never have to take any decision taken by the UN seriously.

President-elect Obama and soon to be Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have spent much time arguing in the past about who would be more ready to lead America on day one. But following Israel's ambitious attack on Gaza, they are both going to have to show up more prepared than their predecessors since it is likely that a renewed anger towards Israel and America will send many figurative shoes flying their way.

 

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