Sydney Morning Herald – January 23, 2009
Israeli troops have withdrawn from Gaza following the military campaign designed to degrade Hamas’s ability to continue firing rockets at Israeli civilians. The tenuous ceasefire has a chance to take hold – although it has been challenged several times by Hamas rocket fire – while terms are being finalised.
This latest fighting was part of the region-wide struggle between moderate Arab states on the one side, and Iran and its terrorist proxies on the other. A successful military operation against Hamas, followed by an effective ceasefire, will set back Tehran’s regional ambitions and attempts to destabilise the region, and help prospects for a two-state resolution to the conflict.
The regional context of the fighting was clear. While Tehran warned Hamas not to accept the terms of an Egyptian ceasefire, the moderate Arab governments (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, have correctly blamed Hamas for the violence.
Australian and other Western interests are implicated in the regional struggle, as Hamas and Iranian interests are diametrically opposed to all those who support a two-state resolution to the conflict and the wider fight for human rights. Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, has run a brutal terrorist regime that seeks to impose an Islamist state over all of “Palestine”; it recently imposed Sharia law in Gaza; it murders its political opponents; and it oppresses women, gays and minorities.
Supporting a fellow democracy with which they have shared values and interests, the Australian Government and other democracies defended Israel’s right to self-defence against Hamas rockets while also calling for a ceasefire and a return to the peace process. Importantly, these governments also recognised the true cause of the conflict: Hamas’s launching nearly 10,000 rockets at Israeli civilians for the last eight years.
Thanks to Iranian assistance, these rockets were no longer the “homemade” Qassams, but were of ever-increasing sophistication, range and lethality. Hamas’s capabilities had grown to the point that nearly a million Israelis and key strategic assets, including ports and the Dimona nuclear facility, were threatened.
Justifications by Hamas and its defenders for these attacks ring hollow. How can Hamas claim it is only “resisting occupation” when Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, and Hamas’s response was to fire even more rockets into pre-1967 Israel?
Claims that the attacks are in response to Israel’s internationally backed blockade are similarly specious. The blockade did not begin after Hamas was elected in 2006, as is frequently misstated, but was only imposed after Hamas ejected the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, and Fatah from Gaza in a violent June 2007 coup.
Israel and the international community offered to lift the blockade as soon as Hamas recognised Israel’s right to exist, renounced violence, and accepted previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements. Hardly onerous requirements for entry to a peace process; but by studiously refusing to do any of the three, even after Israel quit Gaza, Hamas has demonstrated – yet again – that its true objection is Israel’s existence. But that’s not a surprise, since its charter calls for the destruction of Israel and extermination of Jews, and Hamas’s leadership repeatedly reaffirms those goals in both words and deeds.
Unfortunately, many of Israel’s misguided critics have fallen prey to what has been called Hamas’s “win-win” strategy, whereby it seeks to kill as many Israeli civilians as possible while also endangering the lives of ordinary Gazans. Thus Hamas fires its rockets from schools and hospitals, stores ammunition at these and other civilian places, and its fighters blend in to the civilian population – all war crimes – while hoping Israel’s response leads to civilian casualties, despite Israel’s doing all in its power to minimise them.
Yet, Israel is accused of acting disproportionately or indiscriminately, targeting civilians when responding to valid military targets. Meanwhile, while using its own population as civilian shields, Hamas indiscriminately targets Israeli civilians, and few objections are raised by human rights activists or NGOs.
As long as Hamas is able to wage a rocket war against Israel with impunity, there will not be peace. That is why many, including the US President, Barack Obama, stress that the key to a durable ceasefire is to stop Hamas rearming.
The international community must be steadfast in refusing to negotiate with Hamas as long as it remains recalcitrant. Those who argue that Israeli-Palestinian peace is impossible unless Hamas is part of the process have it wrong. Hamas has absolutely no interest in peace with Israel, and thus negotiating with it is futile.
Dr Colin Rubenstein is executive director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council and a former lecturer of Middle East politics at Monash University.