Israeli troops have completed their withdrawal from Gaza following the military campaign designed to degrade Hamas’ ability to continue firing rockets at Israeli civilians. A tenuous ceasefire now has a chance to take hold – although it has been challenged several times by Hamas rocket fire, whilst its terms are still being finalised.
This latest bout of fighting was part of the larger regional struggle between moderate Arab states on the one side, and Iran and its terrorist proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah, on the other. A successful military operation against Hamas, followed by an effective ceasefire, will set back Teheran’s regional ambitions and attempts to destabilise the region. It should also help advance prospects for a two-state resolution to the conflict.
The regional implications of the fighting were clear. While Teheran warned Hamas not to accept the terms of an Egyptian ceasefire proposal, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and even the Palestinian Authority were largely muted in their response to – and even quietly supported – Israel’s actions. Despite anger over civilian casualties, many in the Arab world, including Palestinians, rightly blamed Hamas for the violence.
Australian and Western interests are also implicated, as Hamas’ and Iran’s interests are diametrically opposed to anyone who supports a two-state resolution to the conflict and the wider fight for human rights. Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, runs a brutal terrorist regime that seeks an Islamist state over all of “Palestine”; recently imposed sharia law in Gaza; murders its political opponents; and oppresses women, gays and minorities.
Backing a fellow democracy with which they have shared values and interests, Australia and other democracies supported Israel’s right to self-defence. They also correctly labelled Hamas’ rocket attacks and refusal to continue the June 2008 ceasefire as the conflict’s cause.
This recognition is a far cry from many of Israel’s critics, who reflexively label Israel’s response “disproportionate”, yet remained silent as Hamas rockets rained down on Israeli civilians. Civilian casualties are of course tragic. But the double standard is breathtaking.
Hamas deliberately exacerbates the problem by using civilians as human shields, firing from nearby schools, hospitals and mosques, and blending in with the civilian population all while intentionally and indiscriminately trying to kill Israeli civilians – all of which are actual war crimes. Meanwhile, human rights activists and NGOs are quick to falsely allege Israeli war crimes even as Israel does everything possible to minimise casualties to Palestinian civilians while protecting its own.
Because Hamas is not likely to stop firing rockets at Israel as long as it has them, the sine qua non of any durable ceasefire is ending Hamas’ smuggling of rockets and other weapons into Gaza from Egypt. The ceasefire will fail if, like the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah ceasefire, it allows Hamas to rearm and resume firing later. As Australian UN Ambassador Robert Hill explained, “To achieve a durable ceasefire… rocket attacks against Israel must cease. Arms smuggling into Gaza must end.”
Egypt is critical to these efforts. Fortunately, Cairo has its own interests in containing Hamas and (finally) cracking down on the smuggling. Israel also signed an agreement with the US under which Israel will receive technical assistance and intelligence support to help prevent weapons smuggling. Britain, France and Germany offered their assistance as well. Ideally, the Palestinian Authority (PA) also will have a renewed role at the Egypt-Gaza border.
Hamas must also not be allowed to recoup its tattered credibility in Gaza by “winning” the ceasefire. Thus, Hamas cannot spearhead – with Iranian funds – the reconstruction efforts that will follow the ceasefire or control the humanitarian aid and other goods that will come into Gaza. Instead, the international community must lead both efforts with renewed roles for the PA but excluding Hamas.
Critically, new US President Barack Obama stressed the importance to the ceasefire of preventing Hamas from rearming and also working through the PA to reconstruct Gaza.
Finally, the international community must remain steadfast in refusing to negotiate with Hamas as long as it remains recalcitrant.
Those who argue that no Israeli-Palestinian peace is possible until Hamas is brought into the fold have it exactly wrong: Hamas has absolutely no interest in peace with Israel, and thus negotiating with Hamas would be futile.
Hamas’ true objection is Israel’s existence, full stop. Its Charter calls for the destruction of Israel and extermination of Jews, and Hamas’ leadership repeatedly reaffirms those goals in both words and deeds.
The cause of the recent bout of fighting proves the point. Over the last eight years, Hamas launched nearly 10,000 rockets of ever increasing range, sophistication and lethality at Israeli civilians. Nearly one million Israelis and key strategic assets, including ports and the Dimona nuclear facility, were endangered.
The attacks are not about “occupation”, since some 6,500 rockets were launched after Israel completely withdrew from Gaza in 2005. Nor is it about the blockade, since the attacks preceded it and continued even though Israel and the international community offered to lift the sanctions and engage with Hamas once it recognised Israel’s right to exist, renounced violence, and accepted previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.
When Hamas refused to extend the six-month “ceasefire” and resumed firing rockets at Israel on a mass scale, Israel had no real choice but to respond. As long as Hamas can continue its rocket war against Israeli civilians, peace is impossible. That is why a weakened and marginalised Hamas – which understands that it cannot defeat Israel through violence – is necessary to any hopes of a lasting Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
And contrasting Gaza with the real improvements in the West Bank will bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah, who have committed to negotiating a two-state resolution to the conflict.