Saturday, January 3, 2009

The dead are pawns in politics

Jan 3, 2009

By Gwynne Dyer

RABBI Yosef Sheinin, the chief rabbi of Ashdod, was understandably distraught at the funeral of Ms Irit Shetreet, one of four Israelis killed by Palestinian rockets since Israel launched its bombing campaign against the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip on Dec 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 million and a half residents of the Gaza Strip can easily seem incomprehensible - the 'bottomless hatred of wild beasts', as Rabbi Sheinin put it. Why do these Palestinians fire murderous rockets at innocent civilians in Sderot, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Beersheva?

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 afterwards. Their former homes were mostly in the south of former Palestine.

This does not give them the right to launch rockets at the people who now live in the areas, of course, any more than Israel has the right 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. Hamas, the Islamist organisation that now controls the Gaza Strip, is distinctly short of F-16s, tanks and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) carrying Hellfire missiles. Israel will not lose a lot of soldiers even if it invades the Gaza Strip. Hamas is not like Hizbollah, the Shi'ite militia in South Lebanon that fought the Israelis to a standstill in 2006.

Hamas does not have the discipline or the weapons that Hizbollah 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 Hizbollah 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 in Gaza - but they cannot win.

Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Kadima party head Tzipi Livni, and Mr Benjamin Netanyahu, head of Likud 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 leaders, this is mainly about looking tough before 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 Gaza to provide that show.

The Hamas leaders are equally cynical, since they know that every civilian death helps to build popular support for their organisation. The dead are pawns, and the game is politics. No wonder there is such lack of enthusiasm elsewhere for spending much effort trying to persuade the two sides to agree to a ceasefire. They will stop when they have achieved their 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 Europeans versus the Indians in the Americas of the 18th 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.

The writer is a London-based journalist.

[The Israeli-Palestinian issue is a problem created by the United Nations (with the US pushing or leading the move) when they decided to carve out what is now Israel from the middle-east and give it to the displaced Jews. It was shortsighted and naive of the powers that be then to think that the problems of displaced Jews could be so easily solved. Instead, they created a lasting problem.]

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