At this point in Israel’s unfolding war on Gaza, it’s reasonable to stop and ask – what is Israel’s end game?
Not it’s stated purpose, which is to stop rocket attacks from Gaza, destroy Hamas’s “terrorist infrastructure” of“death tunnels” and so on, and break its hold on political power in the territory – but the true long term, sustainable outcome it’s aiming for, the “permanent solution” to the Gaza problem.
To answer this question, let’s look at what it is actually doing in this war, and what strategic purposes may underlie those actions.
Civilian infrastructure destroyed
Early on in the war, Israel began to target essential civilian infrastructure – such as water supply pipes, sewage works, water pumping stations. There is no reason to believe that these actions were anything other than deliberate. Certainly Israel never apologised for them.
More recently it destroyed Gaza’s only power station, and it’s now beyond repair. And this does rather more than just put the lights out. Any water pumps or sewage works that have somehow survived the bombing and shelling have now ground to a halt for lack of power.
As noted by Luisa Gandolfo in the Ecologist, ”Cutting off the electricity means cutting off the life support to those who have a chance to survive the bombardment”. Would it be so extraordinary to imagine that this is, in fact, the precise purpose – to render Gaza uninhabitable?
We must also consider the numerous apparently deliberate attacks on civilians. Perhaps the most egregious example is the yesterday’s shelling of a school operated by the United Nations agency UNRWA as a shelter for 3,300 civilian refugees, killing 15.
Another is the bombing of an outdoor market, which also took place yesterday, killing 17, shortly after Israel declared a 4-hour ceasefire. Following an initial bombing, a second bomb was dropped minutes later just as ambulances arrived at the scene, as CNN caught on camera.
From a military point of view these attacks make no sense. They have also attracted international condemnation and have done nothing to boost Israel’s already low, and plummeting reputation.
So we have to ask – do the attacks serve a purpose that justifies those collateral costs? What if that purpose is to tell Palestinians:
“We will kill you and you can do nothing about it. It does not matter who you are or where you are, even if you are under supposed international protection. We will kill you and we will get away with it. No matter what our crimes, we are untouchable.”
Sticks and stones …
UNRWA has spoken in unprecedently harsh terms of the attack. ”Tens of thousands may soon be stranded in the streets of Gaza, without food, water and shelter if attacks on these areas continue”, tweeted UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness.
And its Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl released a statement: ”Children killed in their sleep – this is an affront to all of us, a source of universal shame. Today the world stands disgraced.”
“I condemn in the strongest possible terms this serious violation of international law by Israeli forces … We have moved beyond the realm of humanitarian action alone. We are in the realm of accountability. I call on the international community to take deliberate international political action to put an immediate end to the continuing carnage.”
And therein lies the problem. The UN Security Council stands supine, knowing that the US will veto any attempt to hold Israel and its military accountable. We are not in the “realm of accountability”, but precisely where we have always been as far as Israel’s crimes are concerned – in the realm of impunity.
We may like to imagine otherwise, but we know the truth. Neither Israel, nor its soldiers, nor its commanders, not its political leaders, will ever have to defend their actions in this round of conflict, or face any kind of punishment or sanction, no matter what they do.
In fact it’s the gas
Now consider another dimension to the issue, already written about in The Ecologist: Gaza is valuable property thanks to its enormous resources of natural gas.
When originally discovered in 2000, Gaza’s ofshore 1.4 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves were valued at $4 billion. Since then the Gaza Marine reserve has been re-estimated to 1.6 trillion cubic feet, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), while”offshore Gaza territory may hold additional energy resources.”
Israel is approaching a severe domestic ‘gas crunch’ pending the development of its own deep-water Leviathan gas field. Moreover it is now estimated that Gaza Marine’s exploitation could yield revenues of $6-7 billion per year.
And one thing is clear – Israel has no intention of letting Hamas anywhere near that money – nor even Fatah, which runs the West Bank, on any terms other than those that Israel lays down. In 2007 Moshe Ya’alon, a former IDF chief of staff, stated:
“It is clear that without an overall military operation to uproot Hamas control of Gaza, no drilling work can take place without the consent of the radical Islamic movement.”
And needless to say, that would be entirely unacceptable.
The international dimension
Another factor to consider is international politics. Currently Israel commands overwhelming political support in the USA and Canada, and rather weaker support in Europe and the Arab world, where governments side with Israel but with fast diminishing public support.
For now, Israel get get away with its crimes, not only scot-free but to applause and material support. Hot on the heels of its attacks on ‘protected’ civilians, for example, as reported on CNN, the US decided to release stocks of munitions for Israel to continue its attacks:
“Among the items being bought are 120mm mortar rounds and 40mm ammunition for grenade launchers, the [anonymous US defense] official said. Those will come from a stockpile the United States keeps in Israel, which is worth more than $1 billion.”
But this situation may not continue indefinitely. Thanks to its uncritical support of Israel, America’s standing as the world’s leading advocate of freedom, democracy and human rights is looking increasingly threadbare, and many senior US officials and politicians are surely looking for a long term way out – no matter what praise, money and weaponry they shower on Israel today.
While support for Israel in Europe falls away, elsewhere in the world, sentiment is turning to outright hostility. Bolivia now classifies Israel as a “terrrorist state”, and on 23rd July the UN Human Rights Council voted overwhelmingly (only the US voted against) to
“urgently dispatch an independent, international commission of inquiry … to investigate all violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, particularly in the occupied Gaza Strip …”
And only yesterday, the Palestinian Authority decided to accede to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court – a first move towards allowing the proto-state to file lawsuits against Israel for its alleged war crimes.
So what does this mean?
For now Israel can act with impunity, but not forever. Even in a few years time the international political climate is likely to have turned further against Israel and restrict its freedom of action. In short, Israel has a finite window of opportunity in which to impose its will on Gaza.
So what is Israel’s will? It could be this simple: to finish the job of 1948, when the indigenous inhabitants of southern Palestine were ‘ethnically cleansed’ from the land by Jewish militia, terrorised into abandoning their homes, towns and villages, and forced to seek refuge in the narrow strip of land that is Gaza.
The next step in this historic process would be to empty Gaza of its people. A drastic step indeed – but not an irrational one. It was all very well to keep 1.8 million Palestinans incarcerated in Gaza, so long as the land was of little value. But now, thanks to its offshore wealth, it’s a treasure trove.
So why can’t Israel simply take the gas, but leave the people where they are? In a word, rockets. So long as Hamas and other armed groups can target offshore gas infrastructure with their rockets, the gas is unexploitable. So not only must Hamas go, but the entire ‘sea’ in which Hamas swims (that is, the Palestinian people) must also go.
Moreover, so long as Palestinians control the territory of Gaza, they will also be able to assert and sustain claims of ownership of its offshore marine resources.
The real estate of Gaza would be an additional boon – and a highly valuable one, releasing 365 square kilometres of prime development land, including 41 kilometres of to-die-for Mediterranean coast. Estimates of its economic value must surely begin around $10 billion.
Israel is also severely alarmed at the impact that Hamas’s increasingly sophisticated rockets can have on vulnerable infrastructure: in particular Tel Aviv airport, which came under a partial international travel ban last week after a Hamas rocket landed nearby.
And more importantly, the Dimona nuclear reactor which provides Israel with its military plutonium. Of a salvo of three rockets targetted at the reactor on 9th July, only one was intercepted by Israel’s ‘Iron Dome’ missile protection system. A successful strike on Dimona would represent an ‘existential threat’ to Israel from the nuclear fallout that would be released.
If it is indeed Israel’s intention to ‘cleanse’ Gaza of its people, then the attacks on civilians, and vital civilian infrastructure, make perfect sense. So too do Netenyahu’s warnings of a “prolonged offensive” and his call-up of another 16,000 military reservists, and the US’s release of further munitions into the fray.
Where would the people go?
There does remain one unanswered question: where are all the people to go? One answer is that many may die. Not from direct bombing and shelling – the total of dead, now approaching 1,400, is well short of having a ‘demographic’ impact on the territory. Even if 6,000 are killed by the time it’s all over, that would be only 0.5% of Gaza’s population.
But what could have a demographic impact is the effect of disease. If by some mischance the ebola virus, or cholera were to take root in Gaza, with its filthy water, lack of electrical power, failed sewage system and demolished hospitals, a great many more would surely die, perhaps hundreds of thousands.
And this would also increase the pressure for the survivors to be removed to safety, for purely humanitarian reasons.
With appropriate financial inducements – in all probability financed by the US in its ‘honest broker’ role – some could be sent to enclaves in the West Bank, others to Egypt, others again to Jordan, and yet more dispersed across the world to countries where Palestinian relatives may have settled. Some may even find refuge in Israel itself.
We cannot know if this really is Israel’s plan for Gaza – the true purpose of its Operation Protective Edge. But if it is, that would explain otherwise inexplicable aspects of Israel’s conduct of the war so far, and fit with Israel’s strategic interests.
It would be a dazzling display of Netenhayu’s proverbial chutzpah, and enormously popular with Israel’s increasingly right-wing, nationalist electorate. The construction boom would also create much needed housing and employment, and trigger a huge surge of money-making to rekindle Israel’s depressed economy.
And as for the principle – would Israel really contemplate such a wholesale theft of Palestinian land? – we already have the answer in Israel’s unceasing annexation of land in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, notably the entire Palestinian section of the Jordan Valley.
The annexation of Gaza is therefore a possibility – and one that Palestinians, their supporters, and the wider international community must consider, and decide how to respond if this is indeed the scenario that plays out in coming weeks and months.
Oliver Tickell is the editor of The Ecologist, where this essay originally appeared.