Whenever the topic of Israel's recent savage invasion of Gaza comes up, whether it be at public meetings, at forums, in discussions with friends or casual strangers, the one question that keeps coming up is the one dramatized by Israeli President Shimon Peres at Davos when he referred to Hamas raining thousands of rockets and mortars on Israel, "day in and day out", over years, terrorizing Israeli citizens and not stopping them in spite of repeated warnings by Israel. Turning to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had accused Israel of "killing babies" and more, Peres accusingly asked, "What could we do? What would you have done?", implying that invasion of Gaza was the only option Israel had.
"What could we do?" A simple, plaintive cry! A master stroke by an experienced politician and veteran diplomat, guaranteed to win instant approval and acceptance from the audience.
Perhaps if Erdogan had been given an opportunity to do so, those who heard the question posed by Peres would have also heard the reply. Unfortunately, though Erdogan tried, he was cut short by the moderator and so the question still mocks.
The answer, of course, is as simple as the question itself. There is lots that Israel could have done other than invading Gaza, laying waste the land, killing hundreds and injuring thousands - lots that would have more effectively and surely protected Israeli territory and its citizens.
To begin with Israeli leaders should have asked themselves whether the action they contemplated was appropriate and proportionate. True, thousands of rockets and mortars had been launched by Hamas into Israel over the years. But these were primitive, with a limited range and very limited destructive power, incapable of being aimed at specific targets. Yasser Arafat used to refer to them as fire crackers that made a lot of noise but did little damage.
Misguided, wasteful, harmful (even more to Hamas itself than to Israelis), unconscionable, reprehensible, deplorable, condemnable - all these they certainly are.
A serious threat to Israel , calling for and justifying the devastating and savage invasion that Israel unleashed on Gaza - that they certainly were not.
Though thousands of them had been fired into Israel by Hamas, the total number of Israeli deaths due to them over the last 8 years is only 15 and hardly any damage worth the name has been done. This speaks volumes about their effectiveness and the danger they posed..
This is not to condone their being launched by Hamas or belittle Israeli deaths. An Israeli life is as precious as a Palestinian one and even one death is one too many. The question here is of proportionality. Israel knew that the action it contemplated would result in hundreds of Palestinians being killed, thousands being injured and massive destruction being caused. Israel also knew that the invasion would result in a disproportionate number of Palestinian civilian casualty compared to militant casualty.
Consideration of the disproportion between Palestinians that would be killed compared to the Israelis that had been killed, as also the disproportion between the combatant and civilian casualties that would result, should have made Israel refrain from taking this inhuman action. It was an immoral decision and should never have been taken.
That, of course, still leaves unanswered the question "What could we do?" And here is the answer.
An invasion of Gaza was not the only means available to Israel to defend its territory and protect its population, which, Israel claims, was the sole reason for the invasion.
Had Israel really been concerned about peace, about stopping rockets being rained on Israel from Gaza, about freeing its citizens from living in fear of unannounced death and destruction from Qassam rockets, it would not have broken the 6 month truce brokered by Egypt in June 2008 by going into Gaza on November 4, 2008, killing 6 Palestinians and injuring 6 more, on the pretext of destroying a "ticking" tunnel and then, one day later, killing one more Palestinian.(the truce was due to expire in December).
Though a few rogue elements in Gaza did fire some rockets into Israel during the truce (about 500 rockets were fired during the period, most of them after Israel broke the truce on November 5) Hamas honored the truce and enforced it on its cadres (even Israel's intelligence agencies acknowledged this had been implemented with surprising effectiveness). And, for several days before the expiry of the truce, Hamas sought, through the good offices of Egypt and others, to extend the truce.
In a meeting with Jimmy Carter in Damascus on December 14, Khaled Mishal, Hamas political leader, offered to resume and extend the by-then-tattered six-month truce in return for Israel 's lifting the siege of Gaza . Robert Pastor, who accompanied Carter, promptly conveyed that offer to the Israeli military.
As against this, Israel not only reneged on its commitment and failed to ease, during the truce, the strangling siege it had put on Gaza for months, and broke the truce, as described above, but also ignored all overtures by Hamas to resume and even extend the truce. Israel chose instead to invade Gaza - once again.
Ephraim Halevy, former head of Mossad, who served as Ariel Sharon's national security advisor, wrote recently in Yediot Ahronoth that the government could have stopped the rocket attacks long ago by lifting the siege on Gaza .
The truce had been going well. From the beginning of 2008 till June19 Hamas fired 2660 projectiles into Israel . From June 19, when the truce started, till November 4, only 65 rockets had been fired. Israel itself admitted that during the truce period there was a significant reduction of shells being lobbed into Israel . Clearly, strengthening and extending the truce was the way to go. But Israel chose to violate the truce and thus end it and then resort to military intervention. Obviously, stopping the rockets from falling into Israel is not what was uppermost in the minds of those who elected to invade. They, each of them individually and all of them collectively had their own agendas. But that is another story..
Confirmation of this comes from a surprising source. Henry Siegman, a Jewish writer, revealed in his article "Gaza; The Lies of War"(published in the London Review of Books on January 29, 2009) that Brigadier General (Res) Shmuel Zakai, a former commander of the IDF's Gaza Division., in an interview in Ha'aretz on 22 December, accused Israel's government of having made a ‘central error' during the tahdiyeh, the six-month period of relative truce, by failing ‘to take advantage of the calm to improve, rather than markedly worsen, the economic plight of the Palestinians of the Strip . . ."
In a column (Eyeless in Gaza) by Roger Cohen in the February 12 issue of The New York Review of books, the Brigadier General is reported to have said: " We could have eased the siege over Gaza Strip in such a way that the Palestinians, Hamas, would have understood that holding fire served their interests. But when you create a tahdiyeh, and the economic pressure on the Strip continues,' General Zakai said, ‘it is obvious that Hamas will try to reach an improved tahdiyeh, and that their way to achieve this is resumed Qassam fire. You cannot just land blows, leave the Palestinians in Gaza in the economic distress they're in, and expect that Hamas will just sit around and do nothing."
In fact, Israel could have had peace and security a long time back, if that is what it wanted, by honoring its commitment of the Oslo agreement to arrive at a final resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by the end of the five year period. Instead it raised new objections and made impossible demands at Camp David , demands that no Palestinian leader could possibly accept, and then, when Arafat walked away from the meeting without signing on the dotted line, accused him of having chosen violence over peace!
Israel got a second chance at peace. It could have accepted the Arab proposal which was agreed to by all the Arab countries in the region as also by Palestinians. Put forth unanimously by the Arab League in March 2002 it offered Israel recognition of the state of Israel and diplomatic relations by all of them. All Israel had to do was to return to the pre-occupation boundaries of 1967 and recognize a Palestinian state on just 22 per cent of the land the Palestinians had occupied prior to the formation of Israel, and arrive at a just solution about the right of the Palestinian refugees to return to their land and/or be adequately compensated. This proposal was subsequently accepted by all the Muslim countries (not just the ones in the region) and repeated in recent years. Hamas itself has repeatedly signaled its own acceptance of such a settlement. But the Israelis have ignored this proposal.
In March 2008, Khalid Mishal, head of Hamas's Political Bureau, stated in an interview:
There is an opportunity to deal with this conflict in a manner different than Israel and, behind it, the U.S. is dealing with it today. There is an opportunity to achieve a Palestinian national consensus on a political program based on the 1967 borders, and this is an exceptional circumstance, in which most Palestinian forces, including Hamas, accept a state on the 1967 borders....There is also an Arab consensus on this demand, and this is a historic situation. But no one is taking advantage of this opportunity. No one is moving to cooperate with this opportunity. Even this minimum that has been accepted by the Palestinians and the Arabs has been rejected by Israel and by the U.S.
Of course Israel (and the US), which would rather deal with the more compliant, more accommodating ( read ‘more acquiescent') Fatah's Mahmoud Abbas rather than the more unbending Hamas, has gotten out of having to deal with Hamas by the simple expedient of branding it a "terrorist organization" and then refusing to deal with "terrorists". But the fact is that Hamas is a religious and social organization that uses terror and is no more a terrorist organization than the Zionists were when they embarked on their own rein of terror against the British and the Palestinians prior to the birth of Israel and immediately thereafter to "cleanse" the territory of Arabs, so that a Jewish state could be formed, and, for the expected millions of Jews to reside in. Tom Segev of the Israeli daily Ha'aretz considers Hamas "a genuine national and religious movement (that) cannot be bombed away."
What is more, whether you like Hamas or not, whether you approve of it or not, Hamas did get democratically elected to power and is the defacto and dejure representative of the Palestinian people. Abbas was only the president, elected a year earlier. His government, ever since the elected Hamas members had all been arrested by Israelis, is only an interim government. In fact, Abbas is no longer the President, his term having expired this January. There can be nothing more absurd than wanting to deal with him rather than Hamas.
When confronted with this, Israel pulls out its trump card: "Read Hamas's charter. It calls for exterminating the State of Israel. How can one negotiate with someone who wants to eliminate it?"
First of all, it is not only Hamas that wants to "eliminate" Israel . There are many who feel that a state based on religious identity - as Israel is - is an anachronism in this age of modern, secular states and, instead of a ‘two state solution', the time has come to bring about a ‘one state solution'. One democratic, secular state with all presently staying there having equal rights and guarantee of religious freedom.
To a great extent Israel itself has brought about this change in thinking. By its settlement policy, it has become so imbedded in West Bank that it will be impossible to root out all the settlements and the settlers from West Bank without a great upheaval. And, it would be a great waste to do it.
It is, therefore, in Israel's best interests to arrive at a just, two-state solution, while it still can,and the reality is that this is not possible without including Hamas in the negotiations.
Notwithstanding the language of its charter, Hamas is no longer what it was when the charter was drawn up. When the Unity Government was formed, Hamas opted not religious ideologues into the cabinet but comparatively young technocrats and experts in their respective fields.
The "terrorist organization" and "the Hamas charter" are just buzz words, mere bogeys. Israel is fully cognizant that the Hamas Charter is not an insurmountable obstacle to negotiations with it on a two-state settlement on the basis of June 1967 border. Here is what a former Mossad head, Ephraim Halevy, observed recently in Yediot Ahronoth: "[T]he Hamas leadership has recognized that its ideological goal is not attainable and will not be in the foreseeable future.... [T]hey are ready and willing to see the establishment of a Palestinian state in the temporary borders of 1967....They know that the moment a Palestinian state is established with their cooperation, they will be obligated to change the rules of the game: They will have to adopt a path that could lead them far from their original ideological goals."
A US Army Strategic Studies Institute analysis published shortly before the Israeli offensive concluded that Hamas was considering a shift in its position. This is what it had to say: " Israel 's stance toward (Hamas) ... has been a major obstacle to substantive peacemaking."
Recently 14 senior former peace negotiators, including former Israeli Foreign Minister Ben-Ami and the UN's former envoy to the Middle East Quartet, issued a statement calling on the Mideast Quartet to include Hamas in talks. All of them agree a peace settlement "without Hamas will not be possible." (for full statement go to: http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,609945 )
The conclusion is inescapable that halting the rain of rockets on Israel was not the driving force behind Israel 's devastating invasion of Gaza . What then? Prime Minister Olmert was eager to divert attention from the ongoing probes against him and was also concerned about his "legacy". He had been badly stung by his misadventure in Lebanon and the humiliating defeat Israel had suffered there. Foreign Minister Tzip Livni of the centrist Kadima party, who was at the time contesting the elections and was hoping to become the next Prime Minister, wanted to show that though a woman she was as tough, if not tougher than her other two rivals, Barak and Benajamin Yetanhau. Defence Minister Ehud Barak of Labor, who was also contesting the elections, wanted to show that despite the perception (actually a misperception!) that he almost gave everything to the Palestinians at Clinton sponsored negotiations at Camp David , he was as tough on the Palestinians as any of his rivals. He decided to project his army credentials. Netanyahu of Likud, a known rightist had to maintain and enhance his reputation of being completely anti-Palestinians. And all of them felt the need to reestablish the credibility of Israel 's "deterrence".
Above all, the invasion was to ‘sear deep into the consciousness of Palestinians that they are a defeated people' as former IDF chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon remarked about the goal of the occupation.
Either Peres knew all this and yet chose to ask, with an air of indignation and innocence "What could we do?" In which case he should be ashamed of himself. Or, he did not know any of this. In which case he is not doing his job as President of Israel.
Israel could have done a lot to defend its territory and protect its citizens without launching a devastating attack on Gaza . It still can, if that is what it wants and not the destruction of Palestinian lands and the overthrow of Hamas.
In the face of all this, to claim that "Israel wants peace but the Palestinians want terror" and to dramatically wail "What could we do" is, to say the least, the height of hypocrisy.
Gulamhusein A. Abba
Danbury, Connecticut , USA