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     Volume 8 Issue 54 | January 24, 2009 |

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Cover Story

War and Piece

I am an Arab
You have stolen the orchards of my ancestors
And the land which I cultivated
Along with my children
And you left nothing for us
Except for these rocks...”
--Mahmoud Darwish

Nader Rahman

All this war over two small pieces of land?

On November 4, 2008, the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) stepped back into the Gaza strip to complete what they considered to be a routine operation. They received positive information that a tunnel was being dug from Gaza to Israel and feared that it would be used to capture Israeli soldiers. They went in the only way they know, hard and fast. Before the dust settled six Palestinian men were killed, and IDF was back on the other side of the border. If anyone was wondering how the six-month long ceasefire ended, then look no further than the aforementioned incident. Interestingly this incident is not what is commonly cited as the start of the current Israel-Palestine conflict, but then again even the news and so called 'statements of fact' differ based on where one sees them. Seemingly one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter as the saga of Palestine, its people and its independence continues under the watchful eye of CNN and BBC. The filtered prism of satellite television has a way of skewering even the clearest picture, as truth and propaganda become two sides of the same coin. The war was avoidable, the results regrettable and the future of the Middle-East peace process is now questionable.

To put things into perspective one must understand the recent history of the Israel-Palestine conflict and its place in the ongoing peace process. The American backed Egyptian government brokered a six-month ceasefire of sorts in June 2008 between Hamas and Israel, whereby Hamas would stop their rocket attacks and Israel would end the blockade of Gaza, recreating commercial activity amongst others to levels before 2005. The ceasefire created an uncomfortable lull between the two nations and eventually was breached, but the real question remains as to who the bigger aggressor was.

By the time the truce entered its fifth month things were seemingly on track. Rocket attacks on Israel had gone down by 98% in comparison to levels before the ceasefire and Israel had eased the blockade on Gaza, at least that's what was being said. The truth lay somewhere in between. For the ceasefire to work effectively both parties had to live up to their promises, and when faced with feelings of mutual distrust it was easy to let the ceasefire slip. While a 98% decrease in the number of rocket attacks is something to be proud of, it is still by no means a ceasing of all rocket fire. The Israelis also put forward a mask in front of their activities as they claimed they were easing the blockade but at no point in time increased supplies to the region by more than 20%. This unease was accepted and essentially tolerated from both sides till November 4, 2008, when against better judgement Israel re-entered Gaza militarily to carry out an operation on a tunnel that led from Palestine to Israel. The operation was both a success and a disaster. While it provided Israel with short-term success, the losses of that singular action would soon outweigh the gains.

Palestinian firemen extinguish fire at the UN warehouse in Gaza City after it was hit by Israeli strikes. The UN suspended some of its operations in Gaza after Israeli shells smashed into its compound, setting fire to warehouses of badly-needed aid and prompting outrage from UN chief Ban Ki-moon as he arrived in Israel.

Quite rightly many argued that Israel had no right to enter Palestine militarily after it had agreed to a ceasefire. Others claimed that while a tunnel was dug from Gaza into Israel it would have made more sense to attack from the Israeli side (of the tunnel) rather than enter the Gaza strip, breaking their own word. That way the legality of the attack could not have been questioned. The simple operation turned into a gory mess with 6 dead, that too, killed by the occupying forces coming back to a place they 'claim' to have left. It proved to be the straw that broke the camel's back. Hamas considered the act as a “massive breach of the truce” and by the next day shelling had begun again. From 5 November to 19 December (the official end of the truce) fighting continued in a disjointed manner, with both sides edging towards a larger conflict. Hamas had every right to feel aggrieved by the situation, they claimed that two percent of rocket fire that did continue throughout the ceasefire came from smaller factions within the party, while other disgruntled members took actions into their own hands and acted separately from the party nucleus. For their part a 98% decrease was met with a marginal removal of the blockade on Gaza, essentially enough for humanitarian aid and very basic amenities. Israel's tactic of using the blockade as collective punishment for all Gazans was as barbaric as it was arbitrary and in the end the seeds of discontent planted into the hearts of every Gazan were sown by Hamas.

A man holds a portrait of German dictator Adolf Hitler reading "Hamas" as he takes part in a pro-Israeli rally in Berlin.

A day after the ceasefire officially ended, Hamas openly stated that they would not pursue it any further and that it was ready for an Israeli backlash. This turned out to be a lot of hot air from an organisation that has neither the political or military clout to deal with Israel face-to-face. But what they do have in bucket loads is the spirit of resistance and without so much as a second thought they stepped up their shelling of Israeli targets. By December 25, Israel had had enough and Ehud Olmert, the Prime Minister of Israel, provided Palestine with what would be their last warning in an interview with an Arabic news channel where he said, “I am telling them now, it may be the last minute, I'm telling them stop it. We are stronger.” After two more days of intense rocket fire, Israel finally stepped in, apparently to protect itself from Palestinian rockets. The response was devastating and in no way was proportionate to the rockets that were launched by Palestine.

To the layperson 60 or 70 rockets launched from Palestine into Israeli territory may seem like an outrageous number causing immense damage, but the Qassam rocket pioneered by Hamas and used for seven years is less lethal than the average number of murders committed in one day in the US. Roughly 28 Israelis have been killed by Qassam rockets in the last seven years, while their pitiful range, that too devoid of guidance systems is between 3 and 10 Km based on which model is used. They are homemade and more 'projectiles' than rockets. In fact in 2005 Israeli Defence Minister Yaakov Toran was even quoted as saying, “we need to remember that Qassams are more a psychological than physical threat.” After all of this, the reason they went to war and massacred hundreds of innocent Palestinians was simply that they wanted to protect themselves from rockets which even they considered to be of minimal danger.

It is a tough pill to swallow but even they are entitled to respond to attacks against their country, it is the IDFs duty to protect its citizens. The only problem was the reaction

The body of the child (top) killed during Israeli strikes over the UN-run school is pictured along with bodies of two other children killed during strikes in the morgue of Kamal Edwan hospital in Beit Lahia

was grossly disproportionate to the action that caused it. The words flow easily when one writes them, but the real meaning of 'grossly disproportionate' is a kind of horror that we in the subcontinent have not experienced since the bloody birth of Bangladesh or more recently the riots in Gujrat. The battle continued for almost exactly three weeks and took place over set phases. There was first the aerial bombings, which lasted for a week. They did most of the damage and permanently displaced close to 30,000 Palestinians, while killing hundreds of innocent people. The Israeli military claimed that they had specific targets and that any civilians that were killed, were by accident and that Hamas fighters used human shields, which added to the death toll.

Not everything is as it seems, as much of what the Israeli military claims is continually being questioned and looked into. Their attacks on the Palestinian police first raised eyebrows as many claimed they could not be defined as combatants and that they had to be proactively engaged in hostilities for an attack on them to be warranted. Israel overlooked that point of view and bombed the police into submission. This, potentially, could be the first tick against them in the war crimes box. Another potential flashpoint is the Ibrahim al-Maqadna Mosque strike, when the IDF attacked a mosque with more than 200 people in it, killing 12. The al-Fakhura school incident is also one that raised eyebrows, as is easily seen as Israel's most naked act of aggression against civilians - 42 civilians died, close to double the entire number of Israelis who lost their lives in the conflict. Day by the day the humanitarian crisis deepened, as more civilians died and were injured. The three-hour humanitarian ceasefires every other day provided little respite for the Palestinian masses as they were being bombed into submission. The incidents of highly questionable Israeli tactics continued with the outrageous shelling of the UN headquarters, which destroyed tons of fuel and food.

Israel may have claimed victory (as Hamas did as well), but the real test for the UN and other international actors is how they deal with the allegations of Israel's breach of international laws. Richard Falk, Special Rapporteur to the United Nations on "the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories", even went so far as to say, that the Israeli airstrikes were "severe and massive violations of international humanitarian law as defined in the Geneva Conventions, both in regard to the obligations of an Occupying Power and in the requirements of the laws of war." There are also allegations from Human Rights Watch and doctors treating casualties that Israel used banned weapons such as white phosphorous and Dense Inert Metal Explosives,although these are yet to be corroborated.

A Palestinian woman stands infront of a destroyed building following an Israeli strike in the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood in Gaza City. Israeli forces battled Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip's main city and bombed the enclave's southern border with Egypt as the death toll from the war on Hamas went past 1200.

The stories continue to pile up every day, as the death toll rises. This was a war that was mishandled from day one and in the end only served in showing the world the brutality Israel believes in. The response to the Hamas attacks was disproportionate and completely out of order. Most of the western world took the attacks with a pinch of salt, no doubt 'escalation' was the word that came to mind. But three weeks later nothing short of massacre describes the atrocities. Where were the world leaders while innocent civilians and hundreds of children were being slaughtered? The chillingly appropriate idiom for the war is that killing Palestinians was as easy as shooting fish in a barrel.

Where does the peace process go from here, and more importantly what does all this mean for the larger picture of the Middle East? There are no easy answers but some truths must be dealt with, the two-nation theory is the only way forward and for that Hamas must realise that not recognising the state of Israel will only weaken their cause, not fortify it. And for that matter Israel must look beyond Hamas's renegade reputation and accept them as the democratically elected government of Palestine. This is where the world must stand up and take notice of Hamas and accept that they came into power with the people’s mandate, they cannot simply be cast aside because they appear to be militant or because of their ideologies. America marched into Iraq in the name of democracy and as soon as a democratic government is elected in Palestine they malign and isolate them. This double speak must stop, or the violence never will.

A man rushes an injured boy to Gaza City's al-Shifa hospital following Israeli strikes on January 10, 2009. Israeli troops battled Hamas fighters in Gaza into a third week on Saturday, as a new round of diplomacy got underway to end a war that has killed more than 800 people despite a UN truce call.

For their part Hamas must make peace with the secular Fatah as well, they have been warring for too long and essentially their goals remain the same. They too look for a unified, liberated Palestine. These petty disputes must be dealt with, people with vastly differing ideologies have got along with each other for thousands of years, now it is their time. Hamas must also move away from its militancy movement, while wars like this make them heroes to some, other views them as agents of terror. A war like the one just recently fought will either break people or bring them together, they cannot truly say they did the latter. Thousands have died, they have been weakened and they must continue the fight in the international sphere, but without guns. The first Intifada was so successful because it quite literally pitted boys with stones against the tanks of Israel, they garnered more support than the armed Hamas movement and internationally they were seen as the simple people who fought for their land and rights. After arming themselves Hamas have garnered support but only from one side of the spectrum, the side populated by extremists.

Israel must also take an introspective look into its own actions, this war was reprehensible and their cavalier disregard for human life should be internationally condemned and reprimanded. They should also look into the quality of life, rather than just living. The last 60 years have been hell for them in more ways than one, constantly fighting the Palestinians (and in a larger sense, the Middle East) is not a way of life. At the end of the day they must realise, people were driven out of their homes and lost their land only so that they could have a homeland. They should treat the previous inhabitants on their land as they would like to be treated as well. Their military heavy handedness and lack of foreign policy acumen has made them possibly one of the most hated countries in the world. This is the time to stop its criminal activities and move towards a more sustainable peace in the Middle East.

A Palestinian protestor uses a sling shot to hurl a stone at Israeli soldiers during a demonstrator in the West Bank village of Jayyus near Qalqilya. Palestinian youths stand near burning tires during clashes with Israeli forces that followed a protest against Israel’s offensive in the Gaza Strip. A Palestinian woman walks near anti-riot Israeli police in Arab East Jerusalem. The Israeli army locked down the occupied West Bank as Hamas called for a day of "wrath" against the deadly offensive on Gaza.

Will any of this happen? Probably not, but at least we should know what to do, even small victories like that are worth a lot these days. The Palestinian people deserve better, what the world owed to the Jews 60 years ago, they now owe to the Palestinians. For the injury that this conflict has become how much longer will we let it bleed?

“No one can take my identity
Away from me,
Not tanks or guns or bombs
Meant to desecrate me and kill me.
My country lives in me.

I am the cry of liberty
No matter what they take from me,
They can't take away my identity
Or my dignity.
Palestinian am I.”
--Edna Yaghi

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2009