The ceasefire agreed by Israel and Hamas in Cairo after eight days of fighting is merely a pause in the Israel-Palestine conflict. It promises to ease movement at all border crossings with the Gaza Strip, but will not lift the blockade. It requires Israel to end its assault on the Strip, and Palestinian militants to stop firing rockets at southern Israel, but it leaves Gaza as miserable as ever: according to a recent UN report, the Strip will be ‘uninhabitable’ by 2020. And this is to speak only of Gaza. How easily one is made to forget that Gaza is only a part – a very brutalised part – of the ‘future Palestinian state’ that once seemed inevitable, and which now seems to exist mainly in the lullabies of Western peace processors. None of the core issues of the Israel-Palestine conflict – the Occupation, borders, water rights, repatriation and compensation of refugees – is addressed by this agreement.
The fighting will erupt again, because Hamas will come under continued pressure from its members and from other militant factions, and because Israel has never needed much pretext to go to war. In 1982, it broke its ceasefire with Arafat’s PLO and invaded Lebanon, citing the attempted assassination of its ambassador to London, even though the attack was the work of Arafat’s sworn enemy, the Iraqi agent Abu Nidal. In 1996, during a period of relative calm, it assassinated Hamas’s bomb-maker Yahya Ayyash, the ‘Engineer’, leading Hamas to strike back with a wave of suicide attacks in Israeli cities. When, a year later, Hamas proposed a thirty-year hudna, or truce, Binyamin Netanyahu dispatched a team of Mossad agents to poison the Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Amman; under pressure from Jordan and the US, Israel was forced to provide the antidote, and Meshaal is now the head of Hamas’s political bureau – and an ally of Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi.
Operation Pillar of Defence, Israel’s latest war, began just as Hamas was cobbling together an agreement for a long-term ceasefire. Its military commander, Ahmed al-Jabari, was assassinated only hours after he reviewed the draft proposal. Netanyahu and his defence minister, Ehud Barak, could have had a ceasefire – probably on more favourable terms – without the deaths of more than 160 Palestinians and five Israelis, but then they would have missed a chance to test their new missile defence shield, Iron Dome, whose performance was Israel’s main success in the war. They would also have missed a chance to remind the people of Gaza of their weakness in the face of Israeli military might. The destruction in Gaza was less extensive than it had been in Operation Cast Lead, but on this occasion too the aim, as Gilad Sharon, Ariel’s son, put it in the Jerusalem Post, was to send out ‘a Tarzan-like cry that lets the entire jungle know in no uncertain terms just who won, and just who was defeated’.
Victory in war is not measured solely in terms of body counts, however. And the ‘jungle’ – the Israeli word not just for the Palestinians but for the Arabs as a whole – may have the last laugh. Not only did Hamas put up a better fight than it had in the last war, it averted an Israeli ground offensive, won implicit recognition as a legitimate actor from the United States (which helped to broker the talks in Cairo), and achieved concrete gains, above all an end to targeted assassinations and the easing of restrictions on the movement of people and the transfer of goods at the crossings. There was no talk in Cairo, either, of the Quartet Principles requiring Hamas to renounce violence, recognise Israel and adhere to past agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority: a symbolic victory for Hamas, but not a small one. And the Palestinians were not the only Arabs who could claim victory in Cairo. In diplomatic terms, the end of fighting under Egyptian mediation marked the dawn of a new Egypt, keen to reclaim the role that it lost when Sadat signed a separate peace with Israel. ‘Egypt is different from yesterday,’ Morsi warned Israel on the first day of the war. ‘We assure them that the price will be high for continued aggression.’ He underscored this point by sending his prime minister, Hesham Kandil, to Gaza the following day. While refraining from incendiary rhetoric, Morsi made it plain that Israel could not depend on Egyptian support for its attack on Gaza, as it had when Mubarak was in power, and would only have itself to blame if the peace treaty were jeopardised. After all, he has to answer to the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’s parent organisation, and to the Egyptian people, who are overwhelmingly hostile to Israel. The Obama administration, keen to preserve relations with Egypt, got the message, and so apparently did Israel. Morsi proved that he could negotiate with Israel without ‘selling out the resistance’, in Meshaal’s words. Internationally, it was his finest hour, though Egyptians may remember it as the prelude to his move a day after the ceasefire to award himself far-reaching executive powers that place him above any law.
That Netanyahu stopped short of a ground war, and gave in to key demands at the Cairo talks, is an indication not only of Egypt’s growing stature, but of Israel’s weakened position. Its relations with Turkey, once its closest ally in the region and the pillar of its ‘doctrine of the periphery’ (a strategy based on alliances with non-Arab states) have deteriorated with the rise of Erdogan and the AKP. The Jordanian monarchy, the second Arab government to sign a peace treaty with Israel, is facing increasingly radical protests. And though Israel may welcome the fall of Assad, an ally of Hizbullah and Iran, it is worried that a post-Assad government, dominated by the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brothers, may be no less hostile to the occupying power in the Golan: the occasional rocket fire from inside Syria in recent days has been a reminder for Israel of how quiet that border was under the Assad family. Israeli leaders lamented for years that theirs was the only democracy in the region. What this season of revolts has revealed is that Israel had a very deep investment in Arab authoritarianism. The unravelling of the old Arab order, when Israel could count on the quiet complicity of Arab big men who satisfied their subjects with flamboyant denunciations of Israeli misdeeds but did little to block them, has been painful for Israel, leaving it feeling lonelier than ever. It is this acute sense of vulnerability, even more than Netanyahu’s desire to bolster his martial credentials before the January elections, that led Israel into war.
Hamas, meanwhile, has been buoyed by the same regional shifts, particularly the triumph of Islamist movements in Tunisia and Egypt: Hamas, not Israel, has been ‘normalised’ by the Arab uprisings. Since the flotilla affair, it has developed a close relationship with Turkey, which is keen to use the Palestinian question to project its influence in the Arab world. It also took the risk of breaking with its patrons in Syria: earlier this year, Khaled Meshaal left Damascus for Doha, while his number two, Mousa Abu Marzook, set himself up in Cairo. Since then, Hamas has thrown in its lot with the Syrian uprising, distanced itself from Iran, and found new sources of financial and political support in Qatar, Egypt and Tunisia. It has circumvented the difficulties of the blockade by turning the tunnels into a lucrative source of revenue and worked, with erratic success, to impose discipline on Islamic Jihad and other militant factions in the Strip. The result has been growing regional prestige, and a procession of high-profile visitors, including the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who came to Gaza three weeks before the war and promised $400 million dollars to build housing and repair roads. The emir did not make a similar trip to Ramallah.
Hamas’s growing clout has not gone unnoticed in Tel Aviv: cutting Hamas down to size was surely one of its war aims. If Israel were truly interested in achieving a peaceful settlement on the basis of the 1967 borders – parameters which Hamas has accepted – it might have tried to strengthen Abbas by ending settlement activity, and by supporting, or at least not opposing, his bid for non-member observer status for Palestine at the UN. Instead it has done its utmost to sabotage his UN initiative (with the robust collaboration of the Obama administration), threatening to build more settlements if he persists: such, Hamas has been only too happy to point out, are the rewards for non-violent Palestinian resistance. Operation Pillar of Defence will further undermine Abbas’s already fragile standing in the West Bank, where support for Hamas has never been higher.
Hardly had the ceasefire come into effect than Israel raided the West Bank to round up more than fifty Hamas supporters, while Netanyahu warned that Israel ‘might be compelled to embark’ on ‘a much harsher military operation’. (Avigdor Lieberman, his foreign minister, is said to have pushed for a ground war.) After all, Israel has a right to defend itself. This is what the Israelis say and what the Israel lobby says, along with much of the Western press, including the New York Times. In an editorial headed ‘Hamas’s Illegitimacy’ – a curious phrase, since Hamas only seized power in Gaza after winning a majority in the 2006 parliamentary elections – the Times accused Hamas of attacking Israel because it is ‘consumed with hatred for Israel’. The Times didn’t mention that Hamas’s hatred might have been stoked by a punishing economic blockade. It didn’t mention that between the start of the year and the outbreak of this war, 78 Palestinians in Gaza had been killed by Israeli fire, as against a single Israeli in all of Hamas’s notorious rocket fire. Or – until the war started – that this had been a relatively peaceful year for the miserable Strip, where nearly three thousand Palestinians have been killed by Israel since 2006, as against 47 Israelis by Palestinian fire.
Those who invoke Israel’s right to defend itself are not troubled by this disparity in casualties, because the unspoken corollary is that Palestinians do not have the same right. If they dare to exercise this non-right, they must be taught a lesson. ‘We need to flatten entire neighbourhoods in Gaza,’ Gilad Sharon wrote in the Jerusalem Post. ‘Flatten all of Gaza. The Americans didn’t stop with Hiroshima – the Japanese weren’t surrendering fast enough, so they hit Nagasaki too.’ Israel shouldn’t worry about innocent civilians in Gaza, he said, because there are no innocent civilians in Gaza: ‘They elected Hamas … they chose this freely, and must live with the consequences.’ Such language would be shocking were it not so familiar: in Israel the rhetoric of righteous victimhood has merged with the belligerent rhetoric – and the racism – of the conqueror. Sharon’s Tarzan allusion is merely a variation on Barak’s description of Israel as a villa in the jungle; his invocation of nuclear war reminds us that in 2008, the deputy defence minister Matan Vilnai proposed ‘a bigger holocaust’ if Gaza continued to resist.
But the price of war is higher for Israel than it was during Cast Lead, and its room for manoeuvre more limited, because the Jewish state’s only real ally, the American government, has to maintain good relations with Egypt and other democratically elected Islamist governments. During the eight days of Pillar of Defence, Israel put on an impressive and deadly fireworks show, as it always does, lighting up the skies of Gaza and putting out menacing tweets straight from The Sopranos. But the killing of entire families and the destruction of government buildings and police stations, far from encouraging Palestinians to submit, will only fortify their resistance, something Israel might have learned by consulting the pages of recent Jewish history. The Palestinians understand that they are no longer facing Israel on their own: Israel, not Hamas, is the region’s pariah. The Arab world is changing, but Israel is not. Instead, it has retreated further behind Jabotinsky’s ‘iron wall’, deepening its hold on the Occupied Territories, thumbing its nose at a region that is at last acquiring a taste of its own power, exploding in spasms of high-tech violence that fail to conceal its lack of a political strategy to end the conflict. Iron Dome may shield Israel from Qassam rockets, but it won’t shield it from the future.
Ghiyath Matar, the martyr in Daraya who, with a gesture that confirms the nobility of the Syrian revolution, had distributed water and flowers to the Syrian soldiers, was kidnapped by the secret service on 6 September, 2011 and returned to his family four days later as a battered corpse.
Ghiyath Matar today weeps for his city, Daraya, as he sees more than three hundred martyrs assassinated by the blind machine of the Assad army thugs and shabbiha that have devastated as the Tatars had done, eliminating anyone who they had at the range of their guns.
But the regime, not content with this inhuman massacre, ratcheted up their ferocity by sending a reporter from Addounia TV, owned by Rami Makhlouf, to traipse around with tele-cameras among the corpses still fresh with blood to interview the injured, including a woman who seemed to be at her last breath.
Two massacres: the first an expression of the drunkenness to kill anyone around with an incredible bloodlust, the second an expression of insensitivity, meanness and contempt, she wanted to record the voices and images of the event in order to terrorise Syrian men and women with the prospect of a similar fate to that of the inhabitants of Daraya, Baba Amro, Azaz and other places.
The criminal does not erase the traces of his crime, but he is actually proud in front of everyone, convinced that the support of Russia and Iran will save him from the abyss, preventing the any sort of fulfillment of his own end.
Yesterday the torturer Bashar surpassed his own father the assassin, resolving his psychological conflict with the father figure, whose effigies filled Syria of the phantom threat of a new Hama.
Last Sunday, as I watched the images of the victims of Daraya, I was reminded of a meeting in Beirut, in the house of the Arabist, Frenchman Michel Seurat, who was killed after a kidnapping. It was 1981, Beirut was experiencing devastating moments under the Israeli invasion.
That day I asked the Syrian intellectual Elias Morcos, who came from Lattakia, how the situation in Syria was, from where he received the news of the massacre in Hama. Morcos did not answer directly, but told me about Genghis Khan. When I showed surprise that Morcos, a Marxist-realist, took refuge in a metaphor, he looked at me: “What do you want me to say?”. Then he told me how the secret service men had raided a bar in Lattakia, where he was having coffee, ordering everyone to kneel.
The pain veiled his eyes with water that did not look like tears. This authoritative man, who had been a leading intellectual of our generation and whose political and moral conduct was irreproachable, found himself on his knees with others.
I was reminded of Elias Morcos not because the secret services humiliated those men like they did with the entire Syrian people, but because instead of speaking of the Assad regime, or perhaps precisely to talk about it, he had to turn to the image of the Mongols invading the Arab Levant.
They are the Mongols and with them there is no truce, nor under the oaks – as Mahmoud Darwish once wrote – or in the darkness of the tomb.
A bloodthirsty appetite dominates the machine of the regime, which has lost all legitimacy and power. The lie of its anti-imperialism became apparent. The aircraft MiG and Sukhoi never dared to stand up against the Israeli Air Force when it bombed Syria. The mission of the regime has nothing to do with anti-imperialism and resistance, its real mission is to bend his knees and humiliate the people of Syria.
The Syrians are alone in front of the machinery of death.
All verbal support of the United States and Europe is a false, misleading, cynical lie.
The deafening silence of the world in the face of the repressive machinery of Assad is not due, as is often said, to the fact that Syria lacks that oil that arouses appetites for profit and domination by the West, but it is due to Israel. The destruction that the regime has inflicted on Syria, Israel could not even dream about. When the regime will fall, and it will be inevitable, Syria and the Syrians will have ahead of them long years of reconstruction.
Do not believe the analysis that the reason for the lack of support for the Free Syrian Army is the fear of the Arab states regarding Islamic fundamentalists.
The reason is neither the lack of oil nor the fear of fundamentalists. Western countries and in particular the UN does not fear political Islam, which in fact it is building alliances with States where there are such parties in power.
The only reason is to strengthen the racist component of Israel, whose insolence and arrogance has reached the point of making accusations of racism against South Africa which has decided to apply a special label for the goods produced in the occupied West Bank.
Bashar Assad is carrying out a task that for others has so far been impossible: he is destroying Syria and its social fabric. Then what good does it do to supply arms and aid to those who want its fall?
If it remains forever, whether its Russian and Iranian allies merrily dance to the rhythm of bombs and massacres, Assad will lose power after destroying the country from north to south. His allies will be covered with shame and hated by all Syrians and Arabs.
The perpetrator of Damascus has never been so vital to Israel as he is now, so do not expect anything from those who claim to be a friend of the Syrian people.
The Syrian people are alone.
They are alone in defending the dignity of the human being in the entire Arab world. Alone, shedding their own blood, giving humanitarian and moral meaning to politics.
What can I say to you who are alone?
Your solitude, my brother, you can only compare to that of the Palestinians, who have found themselves in front of every bloody turn taken by Israeli savagery. I know well, brother, that these words do not stop the bleeding, do not dry your tears, do not console the heart of a grieving mother.
I tell you that you’re alone.
I tell you to persevere in your solitude, your insistence on taking ownership of the dignity submerged in the blood of your sons and daughters, your efforts in defending the ruins of houses destroyed by cannons and fighter planes, are the road that you have to singlehandedly defeat the torturer who would like to once again make you go down on your knees.
I know that you do will not kneel. I know that your mission, crowned by blood, is now the value of our human dignity. I have nothing but these words of mine that bow in tribute to your sacrifices and your victims.
Author: Elias Khoury, Lebanese novelist and intellectual