Under Siege

Explosion in Gaza City

Smoke rises from Gaza City following an Israeli airstrike. The Israel Defense Force hit the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip with over 200 such strikes on Saturday alone. (Photo credit: Associated Press)

Gaza and Tel Aviv burn while Hamas and Israel prepare for war in the latest Mideast crisis.

War again consumes the Holy Land, the latest chapter in one of the world’s most tragic and enduring conflicts. Frustrated by an inability to stem rocket attacks from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) launched “Operation Pillar of Defense” last week against over 800 regional targets, including alleged rocket launching sites, weapons depots, and government facilities.

French and Egyptian negotiators are racing to secure a ceasefire, but Israel may not be willing to back down; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has activated some 75,000 reservists in preparation for a “significant expansion” of the operation. If peace can’t be brokered soon, there may well be a ground war in Gaza.

The history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is long, bloody, and sadly repetitive. “Peace in the Middle East” has been the failed ambition of U.S. Presidents, Israeli Prime Ministers, and Palestinian regimes for decades with little effective progress. Complicating recent matters is Hamas, the “Islamic Resistance Movement” labeled a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States, and several Western nations. Having won control of Gaza in the 2006 elections and the subsequent battle with secular opponent Fatah, Hamas broke ties with the recognized Palestinian government headquartered in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Militant and less concerned with international recognition than the Ramallah-based (and Fatah-led) Palestinian Authority, Hamas has proven volatile and unpredictable. Its military wing (the “Al-Qassam Brigades”) intensified missile strikes on southwestern Israel and especially the financial center of Tel Aviv, reversing years of relative calm. The Brigades’ second-in-command Ahmed Jabari took the reigns to great effect, scoring decisive victories while surviving four assassination attempts since 2004. His luck failed on the fifth; as part of Pillar of Defense, an Israeli drone killed Jabari and his bodyguards last Friday.

Perhaps predictably, Hamas has chosen to fight fire with fire. Despite the IDF’s revolutionary “Iron Dome” defense system, hundreds of missiles have fallen on Tel Aviv while Jerusalem suffered its first Palestinian rocket attack in forty-two years. U.S. President Barack Obama warned that an independent Palestine demands peaceful coexistence with Israel, declaring that “there’s no country on Earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders.” While recognizing the Jewish state’s inherent right of self-defense, Obama and other global leaders urged restraint alongside their condemnations of the Hamas offensive.

West Bank/Gaza

The Palestinian Authority-led West Bank and Hamas-controlled Gaza are separated by 20 miles of Israeli territory. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

British Foreign Secretary William Hague went further to remind Israel that the world will be closely monitoring its response. Regarding Netanyahu’s comments signaling a potential ground war, Hague remarked, “[An] invasion of Gaza would lose Israel a lot of the international support and sympathy that they have in this situation… including in the United Kingdom.” Just twenty-five miles long and home to nearly two million Palestinians, Gaza presents a densely-populated urban warfare nightmare. Over a hundred Palestinians, among them some thirty women and children, have already died in the Israeli counterattack. Nearly a thousand are wounded, flooding local clinics and hospitals. The human cost from an invasion could be catastrophic.

In Ramallah, Fatah officials are calling for an immediate Arab League summit to coordinate a regional response to the conflict. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas seems hopeful they can together contain Hamas, but the League isn’t known for speed or efficiency. Western hopes remain in Cairo, where Egyptian officials are leading the effort to craft an emergency ceasefire agreement. It may be an uphill battle. Most Gazans fault Israel for the bloodshed, believing Pillar of Defense an attempt to bolster the regime’s security credentials ahead of crucial January 2013 elections. Confident in its arsenal, Hamas vows to continue its siege until Israel ends its decades-long blockade of the Gaza Strip. It’s a deal Netanyahu’s unlikely to take.

The shadow of the 1947 United Nations partition plan looms large over this and every Palestinian conflict, a stark reminder of the two-state solution that never was. While Hamas by any measure goes too far, Muslims across the Middle East sympathize with their demand for an independent homeland. Should Israel fail to strike a fatal blow in its latest offensive, Jerusalem may have to seriously consider ending its occupation and opposition to Palestinian sovereignty. A victorious and emboldened Hamas may not leave it any choice.

What’s next? That’s the difficult question on everyone’s mind with no clear answer. The IDF has expanded its operations from military targets to government offices, leveling the Hamas Ministry of the Interior and the office of its Prime Minister. Noting that Gazan hospitals were quickly overwhelmed by casualties, the World Health Organization warned that critical shortages of food, water, and medical supplies (which some blame on the Israeli blockade) could exacerbate the death toll. In their defense, Israelis have done their best to warn civilians of inbound air strikes. But people can only flee so far in such a tiny region.

While Hamas and the IDF continue their respective strikes, it’s ordinary Gazans and Israelis caught in the crossfire. Neither side is entirely blameless, but Jerusalem can’t hope to completely eradicate its foe without a truly devastating cost. Similarly, Palestinian fortunes are only worsened by indiscriminate rocket attacks on major civilian centers. While Palestinian independence has been too long delayed, it still requires a partner in Israel and international support.

There are good men and women working in Jerusalem and Ramallah (and, lest we forget, Gaza) toward that elusive peace, even as others jeopardize their efforts with senseless violence. It may one day be different, but today the war goes on.

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