1. There seems to be a massive upsurge in violence in Gaza these past few days; what is happening?
It is important to recognize that the violence is mostly one-sided. On the one side, Israel is conducting a major military operation into the Northern Gaza Strip that includes ground forces, air-strikes and missile-strikes in crowded residential neighborhoods. It has also fired upon ambulances and destroyed many civilian homes. On Saturday (March 1), Israeli operations killed over 60 Palestinians, some of them were reported to be armed fighters but at least half of them were civilians, including 10 children and three women. Since last Wednesday (February 27) the Israeli assault has killed over 100 Palestinians and injured over 200. Israel claims this is only the first phase of the operation; the next phase will involve more ground troops.
On the other side, Palestinian rocket fire on Israel from Gaza killed one Israeli last Wednesday (February 27) and Palestinian fighters killed two Israeli soldiers in this operation.
2. How did this start?
This latest round of violence started when Israel air-strikes assassinated five high-level Hamas militants in southern Gaza early on Wednesday (February 27) and Hamas responded with a rocket barrage on the Israeli town of Sderot, killing one man, the first Israeli victim of rocket fire in nine months, and then fired longer range rockets on the large Israeli town of Ashkelon. Israel then responded with air-strikes on Gaza, including destroying the Hamas government interior ministry building, and then launched this major new operation it is calling “Operation Warm Winter,” the largest inside Gaza in the past few years. Reports in the Israeli press suggest that Israel had been preparing for a major operation in Gaza over the past month.
3. Israel claims that its actions are defensive and necessary to end Palestinian rocket fire into Israel that kills Israeli civilians. Doesn’t Israel have the right to defend itself?
Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza have killed 14 Israelis and wounded hundreds more since 2001. These rocket attacks contravene international law and should stop immediately.
However, there are many ways a country can defend itself and Israel’s current military operation is unjustified for two main reasons.
First, Israel’s actions themselves are war-crimes. Attacks on residential areas (Gaza is one of the most crowded areas in the world) and the targeting of civilians, including homes and medical teams, represent war crimes according to the provisions of international humanitarian law. The use of disproportionate and lethal force against a civilian population even in response to the unlawful rocket attacks carried out by Palestinian armed groups is a blatant violation of the laws of war, enshrined in customary international humanitarian law and the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Second, if Israel’s goal is to end rocket attacks from Gaza, the most logical step it could take would be to respond positively to Hamas’ repeated cease-fire proposals for a complete end to rocket fire on Israel, most recently on February 23rd, when Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said that Hamas will consider any initiative that will bring about a ceasefire. Hamas claims it has secured the agreement of all factions to halt rocket fire and promised to impose the cease-fire provided that Israel reciprocates. Israel’s Prime Miniser Ehud Olmert immediately rejected the cease-fire offer, even though a growing number of Israeli politicians and security officials are calling for Israel to accept a cease-fire. Israel’s current operations are clearly about much more than securing Israeli civilians lives. Israel could easily end the rocket fire by accepting a cease-fire.
4. What would a cease-fire include?
Hamas has proposed a cease-fire many times and has been clear that it would have to include a cessation of all hostilities: Hamas would cease and impose a halt to all rockets and mortar shells from Gaza provided Israel would end its “targeted liquidations”, military incursions and its siege of Gaza. The negotiations should be conducted by Egypt, particularly since it would have to open the border between the Gaza Strip and Sinai to end the siege of Gaza and give it back its freedom of communication with the world by land, sea and air.
5. But how can one reach a cease-fire settlement with a violent organization that declares that it will never recognize Israel?
Israel’s demand that it cannot negotiate a cease-fire because Hamas does not “recognize Israel’s right to exist” is nothing more than a pretext for avoiding an end to violence on anything other than Israel’s terms. Even though Hamas has been responsible for many reprehensible and violent attacks on Israel, it is the main power in Gaza and has a track record of living up to its agreements. The claim about recognition is faulty for the following reasons:
First, the lack of recognition has never stopped states from negotiating with its adversaries; history is replete with negotiations between sworn enemies.
Second, such recognition is traditionally reciprocal; in order for Israel to receive recognition it would have to simultaneously recognize the state of Palestine and define its own borders, which it refuses to do. Third, and most importantly, in practical terms, if one state or group makes an agreement with another state, then it has recognized that state. So if Hamas were to agree to a cease-fire with Israel, it is meaningless whether or not it has formally recognized Israel because in fact, it has.
6. What then are the political reasons why the Israeli government rejects a cease-fire and chooses massive military invasions and violence in Gaza as its preferred policy?
The immediate reason is that the current Israeli government is under severe domestic pressure to take major actions to stop Palestinian rocket attacks, and since it will not accept a cease-fire and knows it cannot completely reoccupy the Gaza strip without major casualties, it is choosing to unleash intense violence upon the area where rocket attacks come from and upon Palestinians–both fighters and civilians–in order to pressure Hamas to halt rocket attacks. This is a form of collective punishment; it has never worked in the past and contravenes international law.
The deeper reason Israel chooses violence over a cease-fire is that Israel wants to avoid negotiations with a united Palestinian government that holds firm to basic Palestinian rights to a full and sovereign Palestinian state in the lands occupied by Israel in 1967. It wants to impose an agreement upon a weakened and divided Palestinian people who could be pushed to accept a deal that allows for Palestinian rule in truncated territorial enclaves under complete Israeli control, with most of the Israeli settlements remaining on Palestinian land. Dividing Hamas-ruled Gaza from the West Bank and refusing to negotiate any deal with Hamas helps it do this.
7. But do all Israelis oppose a Cease-Fire?
No. According to a recent poll, a majority of the Israeli public (64%) support direct talks with Hamas to achieve a mutual ceasefire. Moreover, Knesset Member Yossi Beilin and other high level politicians have called for an agreed ceasefire with Hamas and the former head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, Efraim Halevy, calls for Israel and the US to negotiate a ceasefire with Hamas.
8. What should American policy be regarding the situation in Gaza?
The U.S. Government should demand that all attacks in either direction between Gaza and Israel cease now, permanently. It should support a resolution to that effect in the UN Security Council. It should pressure Israel to accept a cease-fire
A cease-fire should be welcomed by all who truly want to see the violence stop, the siege of Gaza end, Israeli civilians secure and see a new basis for negotiations that will lead to full political rights for Palestinians according to international law and peace for Israel. Call for an immediate cease-fire now.
STEVE NIVA is a Member of the Faculty, Middle East Studies, The Evergreen State College.