Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 19 January 2009

What now, after the Gaza ceasefire?

Israel claims victory while announcing a ceasefire in its military actions in Gaza. But it has lost much more than it gained, and the effects of its aggression has damaged its image and the peace process.


And so Israel has finally announced a unilateral ceasefire in its war on Gaza, after 22 days of the most violent and aggressive bombardment of Palestinians trapped in the small and overcrowded strip of land.

However, Israel is not pulling out its troops and tanks. Its re-occupation of Gaza thus continues. Neither is it lifting the siege, raising the question how to bring supplies to a people who have been starved of food and deprived of medical care and electricity.

So long as troops and the siege continue, the war on Gaza is not yet over, and the plight of the Palestinians continues.

Another immediate question is the response of Hamas. It has vowed to fight on as long as Israeli troops are in Gaza. Whether rockets will still be fired into Israel will be closely watched.

For weeks and years ahead, there will be heated debate on the Israeli military action of the past three weeks, the disastrous effects on Palestinian lives, and the political impact on Israel, Palestine and the region.

In announcing its ceasefire, the Israeli premier claimed victory, saying its enemy Hamas has been weakened militarily and taught a lesson.

However, Israel's political goal of either toppling Hamas or shattering its hold of power has failed. The reverse happened. Most analysts believe Hamas has emerged with a much stronger political standing among Palestinians and the Arab world, with its prestige having risen for having stood its ground and resisted Israel's overwhelming force.

Israel has indeed done a disservice to Hamas' rival, the Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, whose image and legitimacy diminished increasingly the more the war continued.

While Israel and its supporters tried to portray it as a war between equals, the rest of the world saw it differently. It was a one-sided onslaught of a powerful war machine using the most deadly and sophisticated weapons against a defenceless people who have been deprived of weapons, food and health care.

One of the atrocities has been the use of bombs that release clouds of white phosphorous, which causes the most painful injury and death, burning the skin to the bone.

As the borders were sealed, the Palestinians were unable to flee from the war zone. They just became captives awaiting their fate. Over 1,200 died and more than 5,300 wounded, with grossly inadequate facilities to treat the victims.

Israel's audacious action in the face of popular outrage around the world was only possible because of the staunch support of the United States government. The Israeli Prime Minister even boasted how he phoned President Bush to insist that the US abstain in the UN Security Council vote calling for an immediate ceasefire.

The Bush administration supplied Israel with most of the weapons and aircraft used in the war against Gaza. European countries are also n not blameless. While they decry the civilian deaths, they did not put pressure, such as aid withdrawal, on Israel.

The double standards and hypocricy are staggering. While billions of dollars of funds and weapons are constantly supplied by the West to Israel, there is a ban on any weapons to be obtained by the elected government in Gaza. The Palestinians are thus prevented from defending themselves, while they have to absorb the most horrendous bombardments.

For almost two years there has been a blockade of Gaza, preventing food and other essential items from crossing the borders. When the Palestinians build tunnels across the border with Egypt to enable the inflow of food and essentials, this is portrayed as a crime.

Many people across the world asked these questions: Why deny weapons to Gaza to protect itself while supplying such deadly and sophisticated weapons to Israel which used them to such deadly effect? Why grudge the people of Gaza to obtain food and medicines through the tunnels when these essentials are blocked from entering by road or ships?

Perhaps the incoming US President, Barrack Obama, will act differently from his disastrous predecessor who gave a blank cheque to Israel. The speculation is that Israel decided on its ceasefire before Obama took over office, as it is unsure whether the new President will be as supportive as Bush.

But even if he wants to be more even handed in his approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama faces the power of the Israeli lobby. The US Congress on 10 January voted overwhelmingly (390 to 4) to fully support Israel in its war action.

Another issue that will long be the subject of public outrage is the heavy onslaught on civilians. Israel's propaganda machine insisted that its military never targeted civilians, and blamed Hamas for “hiding among the people” and causing the civilian casualties.

Few bought this blame-the-victims story, since the majority of those that died or were injured were civilians, including so many infants and children. The head of the United Nations' relief agency expressed his increasing anger on the effects of Israel's actions.

Israel claimed its bombing was based on pin-point precision, and avoided civilian casualties. If there was such precision to avoid civilians, why did its missiles hit United Nations facilities three times?

First, a UN school was hit, killing 40. Second to be hit was the headquarters of the UN relief agency where hundreds were seeking shelter. Just days later, two people were killed when missiles struck another UN-run school, prompting the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to express his “outrage.”

Ban had been assured by Israel that the UN's premises would be fully respected. Perhaps Israel wanted to “teach a lesson” not only to Hamas but also to the United Nations, whose officials had become increasingly critical of Israel.

Many experts have described many of Israel's actions as war crimes. United Nations senior officials have asked that the Israeli military be held accountable for several incidents that caused the deaths of civilians. Will there be follow-up actions to hold Israel to account?

That Israel's image in the eyes of the world has plummeted to a new low may be one of the most important effects of its war on Gaza. The peace process is in tatters. Palestinians understandably hold a deeper grievance against a cruel power that killed and wounded the family members of so many of them. Millions of people around the world came out in protest to show their outrage.

At the end, it is hard to see what Israel has gained from its “victory” in Gaza, while there are so many negative effects. The verdict will likely be that this was a senseless and counter-productive three weeks of aggression against an oppressed and defenceless people.