30 December, 2008

Beyond bombs and rockets in Gaza

When Israel attacked Lebanon in 2006, it achieved some military success. It degraded the armed capability of Iran-backed Hezbollah and caused the international community to engage more constructively in Lebanon.

But such success was limited and not the main measure of the outcome - points worth remembering now as Israel engages in intense attacks in Gaza.

Two years ago, world opinion turned against Israel while Hezbollah claimed a moral victory as images of widespread destruction from Israeli bombing shocked even Israel's friends. Now, the militant Hezbollah is in a stronger position politically with veto power in Lebanon's cabinet.

The Israeli attacks that began Dec. 27 in Gaza appear to be better targeted than the Lebanon campaign, hitting key security installations of the ruling Hamas, which the US also terms a terrorist group. This time, most of those killed - more than 250 and counting - were uniformed members of Hamas's security forces. Still, civilians have lost their lives and hundreds are wounded.

The reason for the attack seems more compelling than what sparked the war in Lebanon - Hezbollah's killing of three Israeli soldiers and kidnapping of two others. Hamas has been acquiring longer-range rockets that can reach farther into Israel and has continued to smuggle in arms despite a six-month cease-fire that expired Dec. 19. In the intervening days, its missile attacks on Israel have escalated.

But as in the Lebanon war, it's difficult to predict where this strong Israeli action will lead. This is not the situation of the previous decades, when Palestinians were led by Yasser Arafat - a terrorist, true, but one who eventually led a secular movement toward statehood.

Now, Palestinians live in parallel universes.

In the West Bank, they're under the weak leadership of President Mahmoud Abbas, trying to support the peace process. Palestinians in Gaza, meanwhile, no longer live under Israeli occupation, but they're governed by Islamist Hamas. That group won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, but took control of Gaza through a military putsch in 2007. Hamas calls for the destruction of Israel and won't renounce terrorism.

Israel and the West have tried to force Hamas's hand through economic isolation. That strategy seems to have had some effect, producing an imperfect peace during the truce. Rocket fire from Gaza greatly decreased the hope that trade would resume and Gaza could begin to recover. But the rockets did not entirely cease, arms smuggling continued, and the truce lapsed.

By moving so forcefully in Gaza, Israel appears to be putting immediate concerns ahead of long-term peace prospects. Elections are coming in February, and political leaders undoubtedly feel compelled to prove their security credentials.

But with politics among Palestinians also uncertain (Mr. Abbas's term may expire next month), Hamas, too, has something to prove. It may be looking to Hezbollah and calculating it can win followers' hearts and minds even if it suffers a military setback.

It will take continued engagement by the Arab countries, the US, and others to steer these parties toward long-term peace.


This is day four of the Israeli offensive against the Gaza Strip. Over 350 Palestinians have been killed including 60 civilians in the deadliest violence in the territory in decades. "Israel is engaged in an all-out war with Hamas," Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Parliament on Monday as his air force struck at the organization's civic institutions — the Islamic University, Interior Ministry and presidential guesthouse.

As the conflict enters its fourth day, with no active diplomacy and anti-Israel protesters taking to the streets around the Arab world, there appeared to be no quick end to the largest assault on Gaza.

Hamas killed three Israelis on Monday after firing more than 70 rockets, including a long-range one into the booming city of Ashdod some 18 miles from Gaza, where it hit a bus stop, killing a woman and injuring two other people. Earlier, a rocket hit nearby Ashkelon, killing an Israeli-Arab construction worker and wounding three of his colleagues.

In Gaza, residents pulled relatives from the rubble of prominent institutions leveled by waves of Israeli F-16 attacks, as hospitals struggled to keep up with the wounded and the dead and doctors scrambled for scarce medical supplies. Hamas gunmen shot accused collaborators with Israel in public; families huddled around battery-powered radios, desperate for news.

Barak said Israel would widen and deepen the attack if necessary and told Israeli lawmakers the military would continue the assault until Hamas no longer had the ability to fire rockets into Israel. Politicians on the left who supported the initial attack urged the government to seek a new cease-fire rather than continue the bombardment.

But the military created a two-mile war cordon along the Gaza border and amassed tanks and troops there, with commanders saying that a ground force invasion was a distinct possibility but had not yet been decided upon.

In Tehran, Iran a group of influential conservative Iranian clerics began an online registration drive seeking volunteers to fight Israel.

Barak had told lawmakers that Israel had nothing against the citizens of Gaza and that it had more than once offered its hand in peace to the Palestinian nation. "But we have an all-out war with Hamas and its offshoots," he said.

Israel sent in some 40 trucks of humanitarian relief, including blood from Jordan and medicine. Egypt opened its border with Gaza to some similar aid and to allow some of the wounded through.

At Shefaa Hospital in Gaza, the director, Dr. Hussein Ashour, said that keeping his patients alive from their wounds was an enormous challenge. He said there were some 1,500 wounded people distributed among Gaza's nine hospitals with far too few intensive care units, equipped ambulances or other vital equipment.

On Monday, Ashour was not the only official in charge. Armed Hamas militants in civilian clothes roamed the halls. Asked their function, they said it was to provide security. But there was internal bloodletting under way.

In the fourth-floor orthopedic section, a woman in her late 20s asked a militant to let her see Saleh Hajoj, her 32-year-old husband. She was turned away and left the hospital. Fifteen minutes later, Hajoj was carried out by young men pretending to transfer him to another ward. As he lay on the stretcher, he was shot in the left side of the head.

Hajoj, like five others who have been killed at the hospital this way in the past 24 hours, was accused of collaboration with Israel. He had been in the central prison awaiting trial by Hamas judges; when Israel destroyed the prison on Sunday he and the others were transferred to the hospital. But their trials were short-circuited.



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