"Singapore or Darfur": The escalating ferocity of the Gaza Wars

© Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos: An Islamic Jihad fighter in central Gaza a few days after the declaration of a cease-fire with Israel. Gaza 2014

© Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos: An Islamic Jihad fighter in central Gaza a few days after the declaration of a cease-fire with Israel. Gaza 2014

Gaza is no stranger to violence. Situated in the corner of the Mediterranean between Israel and Egypt, the strip of land little more than half the size of Singapore has been fought over across the sands of time and history by major empires and regional powers whether they be Egyptian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Arab, Crusader, Ottoman Turk, or British. Since 1948 this mandate of violence has been passed over to Israeli and Palestinian as they wage war on this age-old battleground. The Fifty Day War in 2014, the latest round of conflict in a series of clashes between the Hamas and the Israeli military in the Strip, demonstrates that the importance of Gaza to different factions has remained unchanged in modern times. 

Since the Israelis seized Gaza following their lightning victory in the 1967 War, it has been a site of crucial developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict both positive and negative. As military governor, Ariel Sharon crushed Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip between 1970-71. His military units carried out a string of tactics which pancaked entire districts which systematically relocated 160,000 Palestinians, killed over 100 Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) suspects, and led to the arrest of 700. Gaza was the spark for the first intifada or uprising across the Occupied Territories following a car accident in Jabaliya refugee camp and the area was one of the first places to experience Palestinian autonomy and self-governance under the Oslo Accords.

However the onset of the Gaza Wars (2006 - current) have shattered the hopes and progress made during the 1990s replacing it with deep despair and uncertainty. Since the ascension of Hamas to political power in 2006, it has been estimated that 5,000 Palestinians have been killed, 15,000 wounded and 100 Israelis have been killed. The tactics used by the Israeli military in some ways parallel those it utilised in its siege of Beirut, Lebanon in 1982.  As with the PLO who dug into Lebanon's capital during the horrific civil war in the 1970s and 1980s, Israelis are using massive military power and bombardment to locate and destroy Hamas's tunnels to stop them firing rockets into Israel and for the end purpose of Gazan civilians ejecting Hamas from political power.

While Israel no longer deploys occupation forces within Gaza (following its 2005 withdrawal under its former military governor turned prime minister Sharon), the military continues to control the Strip covertly. The Israeli navy patrols the Mediterranean coastline harassing fisherman, preventing Gaza exporting goods and importing supplies which the Israeli military believes will curb armament imports. Aircraft, attack and surveillance drones, and surveillance balloons indisputably rule the air, while the Israeli military have 'restricted farmers access to 17% of the total land mass of the Gaza Strip and 35% of agricultural land' (Bregman, Israel's Wars, 313). The Gaza Strip is under economic blockade and international institutions and Israeli military officials are predicting dire consequences in the long-term. According to Israeli historian, Ahron Bregman, food imports by the Israelis into Gaza have been in steady decline since Hamas were elected in 2007 (Bregman, Israel's Wars, 312).

Number of Lorries Importing Food into Gaza

Israeli policies in Gaza have been supported by many Arab states whose actions, alongside those of Benjamin Netanyahu's government, have contributed significantly to freezing the peace process and strangling Gaza. Contemporary challenges and concerns have altered the equation for many Arab governments and leaders in a wider regional conflict which has torn countries like Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya apart. Egypt, Gaza's second neighbour, has been wracked by revolution and counter-revolution. These developments have been exacerbated by short-term socio-economic turmoil and political-military crisis. 

According to Major General Yair Golan, Egypt and Israel have established an "unprecedented level of cooperation" regarding intelligence and coordination in military activities to combat extremism. This tight coordination has been exemplified by Egyptian-Israeli military activities to quell the Sinai insurgency which was ignited in 2011 following the Egyptian Revolution. Since 2012, Israel has allowed Egypt to deploy ground and air forces to north-eastern Sinai to fight militia and insurgent groups in towns such Al-Arish and Sheikh Zuweid. According to the military appendix to the 1979 Camp David Peace Accords prohibits Egypt from sending its military into the section of the Sinai Peninsula closest to the Israeli border. Practical security considerations by the Israelis have relaxed these constraints on the Egyptian military, an Israeli official stating that "in practice, the military appendix is non-existent." 

In return, Egyptian officials have endorsed Israeli drone and air-strikes in the Sinai against factions, militias and groups such as Ansar Bait al-Maqdis who pledged themselves to ISIS. The Egyptian military's tough stance on the population of Gaza and its historically turbulent relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood are crucial factors in explaining Gaza's suffering. Equally they demonstrate how 'the ordeals of Gaza and the impasse in the quest for a Palestinian state elicit little Arab solidarity or sympathy (the military junta in Egypt has reached unprecedented levels of discursive demonisation of Hamas and Islamic Jihad). (Filiu, Deep State to Islamic State, xiv)

Former Egyptian President Mubarak imposed a tight economic blockade on the Gaza Strip in 2007 cutting off supply lines to Hamas. This blockade has intensified under General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (who removed Egypt's first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood) as collective Israeli and Egyptian military policies have aimed to suffocate Hamas of popular support. Encasing Gaza's population in this hellish cycle has spawned economic deprivation, crime, resource insecurity and violence.  

The dismissal of Palestinian needs by Arab states is not a new phenomenon. Despite the significance of the Arab revolutions in rapidly changing the context of the region, Arab states and leaders, historically, have rarely turned their rhetorical support for the Palestinians into practical results. The PLO were repeatedly in the sights of the Syrian forces and Hafez al-Assad during the Lebanese Civil War, expelled by the Jordanians following the Palestinian insurgency in Black September (1970) and ejected from Lebanon by the Israeli military and Lebanese people in 1982. Gaza was under Egyptian occupation and military administration between 1948 and 1967 until the Israelis seized Gaza in the Six Day War. While support for the population continued into the 1970s, this support ended with the Egyptian-Israeli peace process between Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, where the Egyptian president agreed to end administrative support for the Strip as part of the wider agreement for the Israelis to return the Sinai to Egypt and increased U.S military and economic support. 

In the 2010s, the Palestinians predicament remains bleak whether they are shelled and starved by Syrian warplanes in Yarmouk or shelled and starved in Gaza City by the Egyptian and Israeli military hierarchies in the wider and merciless geo-political power struggles reshaping the modern Middle East. The Arab states, alongside Israeli actions, have played an essential role in liquidating Palestinian aspirations for a state.

The Fifty Day War in 2014 and its aftermath have had significant consequences for Israel. The war was catalysed by the murder of three Israeli teenagers from settlements in the Hebron area and the subsequent arrest of over five hundred of Hamas activists which prompted a response from Hamas to fire rockets into Israeli territory. The direct links to Hamas were tenuous, nonetheless on 8 July 2014 the Israeli army launched Operation Protective Edge escalating the conflict. For fifty days Gaza descended into a situation of startling personal and collective horror as over two-thousand Palestinian (largely civilians) were killed. During the raging war, as Filiu illustrates 'the Egyptian propaganda machine careered out of control...as never before had an Israeli offensive against Palestinians been greeted by Egypt in such a blatant manner.' The war, following horrific Israeli raids and the breakdown of several ceasefires, has produced terrible consequences for Gazan civilians.

Operation Protective Edge was an extreme misapplication of Jabotinsky's ‘Iron Wall’ doctrine which stipulates that negotiations with the Arabs must be from a position of military strength and power. The quiet cancellation of the Hannibal Protocol (28 June 2016), used to devastating effect on Black Friday in Rafah following the kidnap of an Israeli soldier, indicates that the Israelis are modifying their engagement rules. Whether or not this directive is ignored in future conflicts remains to be seen, as the latest war indicates the IDF failed to live up to their own rules of engagement. 

According to Ahron Bregman, a former Israeli artillery forward observer during the 1982 Lebanon War, such destruction and casualties were avoidable. The IDF as quoted by Haaretz in 2010 ‘introduced a document defining rules of engagement for the military during combat in areas of civilian population. It incorporates lessons gleaned from Operation Cast Lead’ where similar charges of war crimes were brought up against the Israeli military as well as in the 2006 Lebanon War. The latest conflict in Gaza illustrates that the IDF did not follow their rules of engagement; sixty-seven percent of casualties in the Fifty Day War were civilians (thirty-seven percent of these were children) and twenty-eight percent of Gaza's population was displaced by fighting. 

The military operation destroyed 20% of the Gaza Strip, while the population of 1.6 million is set to increase to 2.1 million is now dependent on a trickle of humanitarian aid. Reconstruction efforts, estimated to cost $7 billion, have stalled in large part because of the Egyptian-Israeli blockade. According to the U.N report ‘abscence of sustained and effective remedial action and an enabling political environment…(with) virtually no reliable access to the daily lives of Palestinian Gazans in 2020 will be worse than they are now as safe drinking water, standards of healthcare and good education and the  affordable and reliable electricity  become distant memory.' The deteriorating socio-economic situation and food and water insecurity in the Gaza Strip combined with an increase in population will breed extremism, desperation and further resentment amongst the besieged populace. Hamas are a home-grown, radical religious-nationalist movement democratically elected by Gazans in 2007. Unlike the PLO in Beirut during the 1970s and 1980s (who had a poor relationship with Lebanese authorities and civilians as a foreign army) Hamas maintain considerable support amongst its population angry at the secular Palestinian Authority's ineffectiveness and corruption. The cost of uprooting Hamas may be far greater than is deemed tolerable by Israeli military officials and the international community alike to secure Gaza. 

Israel remains a nation at risk of being consumed by the weight of its own brutal actions. Israeli historians, are stripping away the nationalist narrative (often simplistic and self-serving) of the state replacing it with historiography which aims for a more critical perspective of the Israeli military and it foreign and domestic policies. Since Israel's disastrous involvement in Lebanon these historiographical developments have methodically stripped Israel of "moral immunity" when it wages wars of "no alternative". The record presented once the myth crumbles is not pretty, the reality ugly. The Fifty Day War, while eclipsed by the brutality of the Begin Doctrine in Lebanon (1977 - 1982), is the latest demonstration of the scale of suffering Israel is capable of inflicting without tangible political outcomes. The war hit Israeli society hard as attacks took place against anti-war demonstrators in Haifa and Tel Aviv and dissenters were patronised, vilified or physically threatened by members of their own society. The worst of this rhetoric came from the current Israeli Minister of Justice, Ayelet Shaked, who posted on Facebook: 

“Behind every terrorist stand dozens of men and women, without whom he could not engage in terrorism. They are all enemy combatants, and their blood shall be on all their heads. Now this also includes the mothers of the martyrs, who send them to hell with flowers and kisses. They should follow their sons, nothing would be more just. They should go, as should the physical homes in which they raised the snakes. Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there.”

Such developments including these words are disturbing as Israel's continues its shift to the far-right and swiftly demonstrating the costs of permanent war may yet bring for the state's robust democracy, civil rights, rule of law and free press.  In Israel, their is a wide resignation that a fifth operation in the Gaza Strip in less than a decade is an inevitability, an operation which will do little to solve the political equation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Israel's next war in Gaza will be bloody and consequential, the tipping point for a major humanitarian and political crisis in Gaza. The deposition and destruction of Hamas will secure short-term Israeli and Egyptian security concerns, however its destruction will potentially create a volatile political vacuum.

Whether by the product of a Palestinian civil war or an Israeli invasion into one of the most densely populated areas on the planet, removing Hamas from power will come at great human cost to Israelis and Palestinians alike. Without effective political leadership, leaderless Palestinian violence in Gaza will be unpredictable and defined by protest, sporadic and individual violence or spontaneous rebellion similar to the first Palestinian intifada in 1989. The first major bus bombing for nearly a decade in April 2016, the utilisation of knives, cars, screwdrivers, handguns, cleavers and other forms of  low-level violence which has led to deaths of 36 Israelis and over 200 Palestinians since the Fifty Day War  and bouts of instability in Jerusalem are grim indicators of what a full-fledged intifada absent channeled political Palestinian leadership pitted against the most right-wing government in Israeli history could look like. 

In December 2014, Israeli Transportation Minister Israel Katz stated that "the Gazans must decide what they want to be, Singapore or Darfur. They can pick between economic recovery and war and destruction." The intermittent and bloody conflicts have been punishing for Gazans, the destruction of the Strip's population centres devastating while numerous Israeli civilians have been killed by rocket fire. Gaza has been enveloped and torn down to the bone by war. The costs of conflict married to unemployment and the suffering of the Palestinians have failed to replicate the results against the PLO during the siege of Beirut; the displacement and destruction of Hamas as a political and military force. Gaza is unstable and its spiralling deterioration is increasingly ominous as Major-General Herzl Halevi argues, 'the lack of economic development in the coastal enclave, currently under joint Israeli and Egyptian blockade, would inevitably lead to humanitarian catastrophe and another round of violence.'

Israelis are generally skeptical or apathetic to the prospects of peace, particularly after the bloody days of the second intifada and the continued attacks against civilians and soldiers inside the Occupied Territories. Events beyond the Green Line are (largely) removed from their daily lives and there is little political will for peace in public opinion where food prices, housing costs and domestic politics are dominant themes rather than the state's conflict with the Palestinians. 

Absolute good choices are neither practical nor measure to the reality of real-world situations presented by war. Most Israelis see the conflict as it is, not as they would it like to be and war is complex, particularly the Arab-Israeli conflict. Its solutions are deeply rooted in human psychology and conditioning as the conflict becomes contradictory. It is precisely these multi-layered contractions which tap into human nature more powerfully than most wars. Israel and the Palestinian Occupied Territories speaks to the heart about the inherent complexities of war, the horrific experiences that we hear from soldiers and civilians and the stories they tell as they come home from modern conflicts. Middle Eastern conflicts are changing into unwinnable wars shaped by guerrilla warfare and the creation of media narratives and images to sway the public into supporting military campaigns. In recent years, war and immense human suffering has become a way of life across vast swaths of the region and peace is regarded as a privilege rather than the norm.

Gaza remains the key to the construction of a viable Palestinian state and Israeli security. The trajectory of Gaza becoming a new "Darfur" or new "Mogadishu" closed off to the outside world, leaderless and absent economic development on Israel's doorstep is an ominous scenario for Israel and the region. Israel's next war will inevitably refocus the Israeli public and garner unwanted international and regional attention. Whether or not the IDF is equipped to contain the looming disaster approaching besieged Gaza, Israel's political establishment and its Arab partners cannot wish away or turn a blind eye to the ultimate need for a political and socio-economic solution to its protracted conflict within the Gaza Strip. 

Matthew C.K Williams