Sydney Morning Herald – September 22, 2014
All attention has turned to Australian military personnel being sent to Iraq to destroy the Islamic State. But crucial talks are set to commence soon on another critical battleground in the quest for Middle East peace.
This week talks are expected to begin in Cairo to produce a long-term ceasefire for Gaza. Israeli representatives and a joint Hamas-Palestinian Authority delegation are supposed to meet under Egyptian mediation to discuss relaxation of border controls by both Israel and Egypt, Israeli demands for demilitarisation of Gaza, Hamas demands for a sea port and airport and payment of Hamas salaries, and reconstruction arrangements.
If the international community wants to ensure that any ceasefire agreement prevents yet another bloody Gaza conflict like the one that ended on August 27, they should be listening to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. He has repeatedly criticised Hamas for instigating and then prolonging the war and causing Palestinian suffering, lamenting how “it was possible for us to avoid all of that, 2000 martyrs, 10,000 injured.”
Earlier, he asked of Hamas, “What are you trying to achieve by sending rockets?” and regretted the loss of life that resulted from the Hamas rejection on July 15 of the same Egyptian ceasefire terms that it finally accepted on August 26.
Similarly, veteran Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid, wrote, “Hamas depends on death, which gives it power and allows it to raise funds and purchase weapons…Hamas has never been interested in liberating the Palestinian people from the occupation” and said to end the repeated rounds of violence from Gaza, “we [Palestinians] must get rid of Hamas and completely demilitarise Gaza.”
They are right. The recent conflict was sparked – and then callously prolonged – by Hamas, a proscribed terrorist group dedicated to Israel’s destruction and the genocide of Jews, determined to create bloodshed on both sides to strengthen its power. Hamas was not fighting Israeli “occupation” nor trying to saving Gazans from the blockade – which anyway only keeps out goods with military uses.
It is an Islamist group broadly akin ideologically to Islamic State – dedicated to “liberating” all of Palestine, described as Islamic “Waqf”, land held in trust for all Muslims, on behalf of the global Islamic community, not establishing a Palestinian state as such.
With its regional standing waning and coffers dwindling, Hamas sought Palestinian and Arab accolades for attacking Israel with rockets, and international sympathy for its demands by forcing Israel to respond.
Militarily, Hamas failed. Israel achieved its limited objectives of weakening Hamas and stopping the rocket attacks and terror threat against southern communities. Hamas lost three-quarters of its 10,000 rockets and its dozens of attack tunnels – the product of years of secret planning and massive investments of labor and scarce resources.
Much more effective was Hamas’ “human shield” strategy, sacrificing Gazan civilians and then manipulating the media and international organisations to create opprobrium against Israel. While this did not force Israel to end the fighting and concede Hamas’ demands, as Hamas leaders hoped, it undoubtedly did harm Israel politically.
Hamas embedded rocket launchers, arsenals and tunnel entrances in civilian areas and buildings – including schools and hospitals – in contravention of international law.
Despite Israel’s nearly unprecedented precautions – including warning civilians to evacuate combat zones through leaflets, phone calls, text messages and other methods civilian deaths and destruction tragically yet unavoidably occurred.
Furthermore, international media in Gaza was prevented or intimidated from reporting on Hamas actions which invited Israeli retaliation – such as firing 248 rockets from inside or next to schools, 331 from mosques, 41 from hospitals, 50 from children’s playgrounds, 85 from medical clinics and 30 from UN facilities, according to the IDF. Intimidation and self-censorship were acknowledged later by numerous reporters who worked in Gaza and by the Foreign Press Association, which condemned in the “strongest terms ” Hamas measures against journalists.
Hamas also exploited dubious casualty statistics from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Ministry of Health – adopted without investigation by UN agencies and reported unquestioningly by international media.
In fact, scepticism of these statistics was found to be warranted by investigations in both The New York Times and BBC, and Israeli sources put the number of civilians among the dead at about 50 per cent. Meanwhile, the usually cited statistics appear to include large numbers not killed by Israeli military action, but by the estimated 875 rockets fired by Palestinian groups which fell within Gaza, executed by Hamas as supposed collaborators, or who simply died of natural causes.
Yet there is no doubt that the suffering of Gazans, and Israelis, in the recent conflict was very real. However, as Bassem Eid suggested above, to prevent a similar war the international community must find a way to help Gazans rebuild their destroyed homes and infrastructure and to gradually open Gaza’s border – without rewarding Hamas. Above all, reconstruction of Gaza must proceed in tandem with demilitarisation.
Hamas will not agree, but both Israel and the current Egyptian regime, which shares Israel’s enmity for Hamas, will be determined to do whatever is necessary. So will Abbas’ Palestinian Authority, as he has repeatedly made clear.
What is now needed is similar determination, over an extended period, from the international community to institute arrangements to carefully screen all cargo and travellers entering Gaza to prevent the introduction of weapons or terrorists and monitoring of all construction material entering to prevent Hamas control.
Such arrangements are essential to avert more deaths in a further round of Gaza conflict, and to undermine the rejectionist Hamas’ continuing efforts to destroy any prospect of a viable two-state peace, the only hope for a lasting resolution to Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Colin Rubenstein is executive director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council.