BEIRUT (Reuters) - Israel’s week-old offensive in the Gaza Strip is a violent sequel to a drive led by the United States, with much European and Arab support, to punish Hamas for resisting a largely discredited Middle East “peace process.”
The campaign is unlikely to eradicate Hamas or make it any easier for the next U.S. president, Barack Obama, to break the cycle of conflict and rescue swiftly receding prospects for a solution based on creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Israel is consolidating its grip on the West Bank, while keeping Gazans bottled up. Splits between Palestinian factions have made sporadic U.S.-sponsored talks between the Israelis and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas notional at best.
Outgoing President George W. Bush had set a goal of reaching a peace deal by the end of 2008 after belatedly relaunching Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at Annapolis in November 2007.
Faced instead with a new spasm of violence, the White House has effectively encouraged the Israelis to pursue what they portray as an attempt to quell rocket attacks on their civilians and “change the reality” in Hamas-controlled Gaza.
The European Union, lacking the energy and unity to act in the diplomatic vacuum left by Washington, has merely appealed for a ceasefire — and promised a bit more humanitarian relief to the 1.5 million people locked into the coastal strip by a punitive Israeli blockade and a sealed Egyptian border.
The Arab League, caught between public dismay at the Gaza bloodshed and the hostility of many member states to Hamas and other Islamist groups allied to Iran, has agreed only to ask the U.N. Security Council to compel Israel to halt its onslaught.
But the council is toothless without the United States and other veto powers in accord. It has yet to adopt a resolution.
So far air strikes have killed 424 Palestinians, a quarter of them civilians according to a “conservative” U.N. estimate. Rockets fired from Gaza have killed four Israelis.
Israeli leaders, keen to bolster their security credentials before a February 10 election, began the assault on December 27, eight days after a six-month, Egyptian-mediated Hamas truce expired.
Rocket fire mounted after Hamas declared it would not seek to renew a truce that was never fully observed. Israel had kept up tight border controls and launched deadly raids on militants, who failed to halt all of their pinprick rocket attacks.
The unfolding war is a culmination of attempts to crush Hamas that intensified after the Islamist group’s decisive victory over Abbas’s Fatah faction in a 2006 election.
The United States and the EU, which classify Hamas as a terrorist group, reacted sharply to the result of the poll.
They boycotted the Hamas-led unity government and cut off most aid, insisting that Hamas recognize Israel’s right to exist, renounce violence and accept agreements made by the Palestine Liberation Organisation — from which it is excluded.
The United States bolstered pro-Fatah security forces, but Hamas drove them from Gaza in June 2007. The West has since poured funds into the West Bank to prop up Abbas’s authority.
“Neither Israel nor anyone else has a long-term workable strategy for dealing with Hamas in Gaza,” wrote Israeli security analyst Yossi Alpher in the bitterlemons.org online newsletter.
Hamas, he argued, has taken over a slice of Palestinian territory, but refuses to act like a sovereign power and “glories in the victimhood or martyrdom of its people.”
At best, the Israeli attack would deliver a few more months of truce, Alpher said. At worst, it could inflame Arabs and Muslims against Israel and the West, prompt Palestinian rioting and spark a new conflict with Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
The assault on Gaza is a major embarrassment for Abbas, now openly accused by Hamas of being an Israeli collaborator.
He has thrown all his bets on faltering U.S. peace efforts embodied in Bush’s “road map” plan of 2004. But his strategy has failed to bring Palestinian statehood any closer.
Israel controls all access to the Gaza Strip, while expanding settlements and barriers in the West Bank — allowing Hamas and others to argue that such negotiations are futile.
“The Israeli attack on Gaza is strengthening Hamas politically and increasing public support for the movement,” wrote Palestinian analyst Ghassan Khatib in bitterlemons.org.
Hamas’s main objective, he said, was to force Egypt to open its Rafah crossing point with Gaza and lift the siege — without Palestinian Authority control and European monitoring as before.
Cairo rejects those terms for fear of undermining Abbas and to avoid being lumbered with long-term responsibility for Gaza.
Iran and Hezbollah are exploiting the Gaza crisis to stoke popular anger at Arab rulers, such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, who view Hamas and other Islamists as a threat to their own power.
But the militants’ recipe of prolonged struggle with Zionism offers scant relief for Palestinians desperate to lead normal lives beyond the shadow of Israeli occupation and control.
“Fair enough, the Arab street blames Mubarak and King Abdullah for not doing anything about Gaza, but nor is Iran, Syria and Hezbollah doing anything,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Institute’s Middle East Centre in Beirut.
“And certainly Israeli policy is a dead end as well.”