At the beginning of October 2014, international donors met for a conference to discuss Gaza, during which they pledged $5.4 billion for its reconstruction. With these promises in place and work on rebuilding the ruined enclave beginning, it is perhaps worthwhile to analyse what exactly happened in Gaza during the summer of 2014.
First of all, how did it start? Three Israeli settlers were kidnapped and murdered in the West Bank, allegedly by Hamas-affiliated individuals. Israel responded with a limited air campaign against Gaza along with a “strategy of terror” where a number of Palestinians were arrested, beaten up, terrorized, harmed and, ultimately, a Palestinian teenager was burnt alive by enraged Israeli civilians. This eventually led Hamas to launch rockets against Israel, which, in turn, compelled Israel to initiate Operation Protective Edge as a “self-defense measure”. During Operation Protective Edge, 2,101 Palestinians (70% of them being civilians) and 71 Israeli (64 of them being soldiers) were killed. These are the facts, but let’s not forget that tensions between Hamas and Israel have been ongoing since Hamas came into existence in the 1980s.
What were the two sides’s main objectives? Israel’s declared goal was first and foremost to stop rocket fire from Gaza in order to guarantee safety of Israeli citizens (who are generally protected by Iron Dome). Moreover, Israel wanted to destroy tunnels that Hamas could use to launch attacks within the border of Israel. Last, but not least, Israel wanted to neutralize Hamas for good, attacking its weaponry as well as killing its leadership and soldiers. Hamas was motivated primarily by the blockade on Gaza which prevents goods and humanitarian aid from entering Gaza and people leaving, along with its long stated will to wipe the Jewish state off the map.
Why now? As we have said, Israel’s retaliation to the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli citizens was the main reason for Hamas to respond with rocket fire that provide an excuse for Israeli “self-defense” operation. Nonetheless, there may be other reasons why a war in Gaza was the best option for all the parties involved. Firstly, starting with the Arab Spring, many variables of the Middle East magma changed.
One by one, Hamas lost its main allies. Syria and Iran stopped backing Hamas as a consequence of its support to the Sunni-led rebel forces of the Syrian civil wars. Teheran cut off its financial support to Hamas, which amounted to $20million a month. This did not represent a huge problem as long as Muslim Brotherhood’s Muhammad Morsi was in control of Egypt, permitting tunnels between Egypt and Gaza to remain open thus guaranteeing permanent supplies for Hamas and Gaza’s people. But, with the outset of Morsi and the rise to power of General al-Sisi, things changed and Gaza was yet again sealed off on its border with Israel and Egypt. In brief, Hamas was left with little options.
Another consequence of the changing context was a tentative rapprochement with al-Fatah and the creation of a Palestinian unity government in June 2014. It is self-evident that a unity government can be much more powerful than two opposing factions governing Gaza and the West Bank as two separate entities. That was expected to have a decisive effect on the peace talks, which were nonetheless disrupted by Israeli President Bibi Netanyahu with airstrikes on Gaza and threats of unspecified sanctions against the Palestinian Authority. In Netanyahu’s words, the Palestinian Authority had preferred the peace with Hamas to the peace with Israel.
It is worth noting, at this point, that the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority had seemed pointless during 2013 and 2014 due to two main factors: the decision of President Abbas to seek the non-member observer state status at the UN for his country (which was granted in November 2014); the refusal on part of Israel to halt the construction of settlements in the West Bank (not only regarded by the Palestinians as a conditio sine qua non for any step towards a real peace, but also a practice that has been declared illegal by the United Nations and the International Justice Court (IJC)).
Several commentators have pointed out that Netanyahu probably hoped to disrupt the newfound unity by waging war against Hamas. Another reason for Netanyahu to dislike this new unity government is the possibility for Palestine to seek membership of the International Criminal Court (ICC), empowered to do so by the decision of the UN General Assembly to recognize Palestine the status of a State in November 2012. In order to obtain membership, it would be necessary that the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have an agreement. Needless to say, the unity government could have facilitated said agreement. As a member of the ICC, Palestine could rightfully bring Israel before the ICC on charges of war crimes. It could be argued that by waging war against Hamas, Netanyahu was trying to put the Palestinian Authority in a corner, forcing it to condemn Hamas’ actions and to end the unity government.
What now? The latest outburst of violence between Israel and Hamas has not, apparently, produced any significant change in the balance of power of the region, nor in the way both Israel and Hamas perceive one other or make decisions. Same old same old, probably the most evident outcome of this war was simply a return to the status quo ante, with no benefit for neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians.
Nonetheless, there are two aspects that are worthwhile taking into consideration. First: Israel has lost the media war, being for the very first time depicted as the “bad guy” by most of media. Thanks to the new social media, as well as to some non-Western “traditional” media such as Al Jazeera, the latest act of the seventy years old Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been told by the Palestinian perspective. Despite the IDF’s attempt to show Hamas’ perfidy on its Twitter page, the Western media were flooded by the shocking videos and pictures of thousands of innocent Palestinians, mostly children, wounded and killed by the Israeli offensive. For the very first time, we could not look the other way in the face of entire neighborhood burned to the ground, schools destroyed by intensive bombing, entire families killed in one single strike. As stated by the Washington Post, “opinion polls showed Israel losing support in the West, even in the
United States”. Operation Protective Edge was widely condemned, as it was evident that it was not a “protective” operation.
Ban Ki Moon, UN Secretary General, went as far as softly linking Israeli’s action in Gaza to alleged war crimes, as the force deployed by Israel was disproportionate and amounted to "collective punishment”, which is considered illegal under a number of international conventions. The price that Israel will have to pay for this blatant failure is not yet measurable, but it will probably cost Israel in terms of bargaining power when the peace process will be resumed.
Secondly, Israeli offensive produced a shift in the Palestinian balance of power: in a way, it pushed Hamas closer to Abbas’ al-Fatah, possibly strengthening the recently-formed unity government. On the other hand, it boosted Hamas’ popularity in the West Bank (Hamas flags were seen flying in Nablus and other West Bank towns), enhancing its relative power within the unity government. Last but not least, Israeli disproportionate retaliation and claims about Israel’s war crimes, encouraged Hamas to approach the Palestinian Authority on the possible Palestinian membership to the ICC. Just before the cease-fire, Hamas signed the document which President Abbas put forth as a condition that all factions approve, before he goes to sign the Rome Statute, which paves the way for Palestine's membership in the ICC. Israeli action are considered illegal by a number of international institution such as the IJC, which declared “illegal” Israeli settlement in the West Bank in a non-binding sentence. Furthermore, the Human Rights Council in March 2013 presented a report stating: “Israel must cease settlement activities and provide adequate, prompt and effective remedy to the victims of violations of human rights”. It is obvious that, if Palestine is to join the ICC, such opinions coupled with the current unpopularity of Israeli action will present some major challenges on the desk of Israeli President Bibi Netanyahu.
Written by Irene C and published on 12-November-2014