Gwynne Dyer: Battlefield Gaza

Yosef Sheinin, the chief rabbi of Ashdod, was understandably distraught at the funeral of Irit Shetreet, one of four Israelis to be killed by Palestinian rockets since Israel launched its bombing campaign against the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip on Sunday (December 28).

However, he was wrong to say that her death was "the latest manifestation of 3,000 years of anti-Jewish hatred". The hatred is real, but its sources are a good deal closer both in time and in space.

Western media coverage of current  affairs rarely goes into the origins of those affairs: even what happened last year or  10 years ago is treated as ancient history.

So the fury and despair of the 1.5 million residents of the Gaza Strip can easily seem incomprehensible--the "bottomless hatred of wild beasts", as Sheinin put it.

Why do these Palestinians fire murderous rockets at innocent civilians in Sderot, Ashkelon, Ashdod, even Beersheba?  

Because that's where they come from. Only about a fifth of the Gaza Strip's population is descended from people who lived in that barren stretch of land before 1948. The rest are people, or the children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren of people, who were driven out of what is now Israel during the 1948 war, or simply fled in fear and were not allowed to go home again afterward. Their former homes were mostly in the south of former Palestine, in places like Sderot, Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Beersheba.

This does not give them the right to launch rockets at the people who now live in those towns, of course, any more than Israel has the right to use its massive air power to pound the crowded Gaza Strip. But it does provide some context for what is happening now--and indeed, happens every year or so.

This struggle is still about what it has always been about: the land. And the fact that Israel is killing 100 Palestinians for every dead Israeli does not mean that the Israelis are winning.

Israel cannot actually lose this fight, since Hamas, the Islamist organisation that now controls the Gaza Strip, is distinctly short of F-16s, tanks, and  unmanned aerial vehicles  carrying Hellfire missiles.

Israel will not lose a lot of soldiers--more than a couple of dozen--even if it invades the Gaza Strip on the ground for a while, because Hamas is not like Hezbollah, the Shia militia in south Lebanon that fought the Israelis to a standstill in the 2006 war.

Hamas does not have the discipline or the weapons that Hezbollah had. It cannot even prevent Israeli infiltration of its own ranks, which is why its leaders die like flies in Israeli air strikes and "targeted killings", whereas Hezbollah successfully purged its ranks of informers and has not lost a single senior leader to Israeli assassination for more than a decade.

The Israelis can do pretty much what they want to the Gaza Strip--but they cannot win.

Ehud Olmert, Israel's interim prime minister, and Tzipi Livni, his successor as head of the Kadima party, and Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the Likud party and her principal rival for the prime ministership in next month's Israeli election, all know that.

They are all old enough to have watched Israel try to bash the Palestinians into submission half a dozen times before, and they know it does not work. But that is strategy, and this is politics.

For Israel's political leaders, this is mainly about looking tough in front of an electorate that just wants someone to "do something" about the Palestinians and their rockets. Nothing much can be done, short of a peace settlement generous enough to reconcile them to the loss of their land, but Israeli politicians have to look like they are trying. Hundreds of people are dying in the Gaza Strip to provide that show.

The Hamas leaders are equally cynical, since they know that every civilian death, and even every militant's death, helps to build popular support for their organization. The dead are pawns, and the game is politics.

No wonder there is such lack of enthusiasm elsewhere for spending much effort on trying to persuade the two sides to agree to a ceasefire. They will stop when they have achieved their (purely tactical and short-term) political goals.

There is a more profound issue behind all this, which is Israel's right to exist versus the right of the Palestinians to their homeland, but we shouldn't get carried away with the unique moral dimension of all that. It's just one more conquerors-versus-previous-inhabitants conflict, like the European settlers versus the Indians in the Americas in the eighteenth century--or, for that matter, the Israelites versus the Canaanites 3,000 years ago.

Those earlier conflicts were all settled by force, but the world has changed and force doesn't work so well any more. Israel has the power to hammer the Palestinians endlessly, but they don't give up and go away. They cannot, and neither can the Israelis. Neither side can eliminate the other, as has been amply and repeatedly demonstrated.

That doesn't necessarily mean that this conflict will ultimately be settled by peaceful negotiation and compromise. It may mean that there will be no solution of any sort for the foreseeable future, just an endless series of bloody, indecisive clashes like the present one. Happy New Year.




Dec 31, 2008 at 3:52pm

Hmm, starting off with "one of four Israelis to be killed by Palestinian rockets since Israel launched its bombing campaign..." is a good representation of the single-sidedness of this article. The writer then tries to justify the actions of the terrorists (oh wait, that word is never mentioned, even though that is what Hamas is listed as by Canada/US/EU) by saying they are firing rockets into the villages where they were previously forced out of.


Jan 1, 2009 at 12:34pm

Very sad and very confusing situation. Will it ever be resolved? Seems like this very conflict displays the flaws of the human race. Like the gangs in LA and revenge killings. It's all justified in their mind. The insanity of it all when you see it from the outside. When you're in it, revenge and reacting with force and spite is all you see or feel. Nobody willing to back down. Over and over banging heads on a wall. That's the human race. It would be a miracle if a change of mentality took place. If one side said, hey, with one or two actions on our part, this could all be over. Instead, they are getting a forever lasting struggle.

Lovin the Straight!


Jan 2, 2009 at 10:44am

You say "There is a more profound issue behind all this, which is Israel's right to exist versus the right of the Palestinians to their homeland." That's not quite accurate. The Arab Peace Plan calls for security and recognition of Israel within its pre-1967 borders. The plan is accepted by all the Arab countries, and both Hamas and Hezbollah have said they would go along with it. Israel is the only entity in the region not favoring this plan. So it's not about the security of the State of Israel within its legal borders - it's about Israel wanting security over permanent possession of the occupied terrirtories, over 40% of which it has moved close to half a million settlers. Since 2001, for every rocket Hamas has fired, 100 settlers have moved in.

It's not rocket science, and it's not about rockets, which merely provide distraction from the ever increasing illegal occupation.

If Israel accepted the Arab peace plan, the root of this crisis would be cut in an instant. Extremists on both sides would remain, but the conditions for peace would be there. Israel would have security within its legal boundaries. But it has to remove its settlers. Palestinians are willing to finesse the right of return to Israel proper.

It's not the security of Israel itself - that's on offer to be granted. It's the occupation, stupid!


Jan 5, 2009 at 1:16am

George Galloway 1/3/09 Truth About Israel

"In April and May of 1943 the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto were surrounded by barbed wire fences by the occupiers of Poland....

Today the Palestinian people in Gaza are the new Warsaw ghetto and those who are murdering them are the equivalent of those who murdered the Jews in Warsaw in 1943."

Top 5 Lies About Israel’s Assault on Gaza