Friday, June 18, 2010

Hamas is to blame for Gaza tragedy

The flotilla may have been an aid mission but it was also a political gesture, says Eamon Delaney

THE storming last week of the aid convoy to Gaza by Israeli commandos was not only a tragedy for the victims, it was a disaster for Israel and for its many friends in the West, although in the past few years it has been difficult to defend Israel. The storming of these boats, in international waters, shows a flagrant disregard for human safety, but also for international concerns, as does Israel's misuse of Irish passports for hit jobs in Dubai, and its ongoing building projects on Palestinian land around east Jerusalem, totally undermining any meaningful peace process.

This attack confirms that Israel is locked into a 'security only' policy and will blindly strike out at those whom it perceives are against it. In doing so, the Israeli government is condemning another generation of Israelis to live under siege, and to be the citizens of a state that is for many an international pariah. As someone who has taken a supportive attitude to Israel over the years, especially when it comes to the hypocrisy of those who would criticise Israel for responding to attacks on its people and territory, this is not a comfortable thing to write.

But for some time now, making the case for Israel has been hard. In 2006, there was the bloody invasion of Gaza, but at least this was part of an actual conflict and an incursion deliberately provoked by the deadly Hamas, an organisation which has been nothing short of disastrous for the Palestinian people.

Of more lasting damage has been the apparent lack of any serious intent on the part of Israel in entering into the search for peace in the West Bank and in the creation of a Palestinian state. Here, its partners are not Hamas but the moderate Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah. However, Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to stop the building of illegal settlements, especially around Jerusalem. This made a mockery of any meaningful negotiations. It also made a mockery of US president Barack Obama's promises on the matter. No wonder his peace envoy George Mitchell is in such despair. Having worked his magic in Northern Ireland, Mitchell knows that for any such settlement to work, there has to be a basic foundation of trust and compromise. Amazingly, however, there is now actually some hope of a settlement there with, according to Fatah, the broad parameters in place and new talks about to begin between the two sides. So there may yet be a rare positive side-effect from the flotilla fiasco.

However, for Gaza itself, which is run by Hamas, Fatah's bitter rivals, the situation looks utterly bleak. Context is everything, after all, and it is worth noting how we have come to this pass. For years, Gaza was administered by Israel but in 2003, finding it too difficult to handle, it uprooted the few Jewish settlements there and withdrew. However, instead of it becoming a pliable Palestinian territory, Gaza fell into the hands of the Hamas organisation who immediately declared their total non-recognition of Israel and used the territory as a base from which to launch attacks. In response, Israel put Gaza under a blockade, which has had severe consequences for the population. Not that Hamas seems to care. This is an organisation which picked a war with Israel that it knew it had no hope of winning. Instead, it launched hundreds of rockets from deep inside residential areas, knowing the Israeli reaction, and over-reaction, would result in civilian deaths. This is how Hamas fights its wars.

And yet none of this deters Hamas. In a Guardian interview, published on the very day of the flotilla-storming, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal almost jauntily looked forward to the next round of "fighting with Israel". "It won't be a picnic," he said and reiterated his organisation's complete unwillingness to recognise the original Israeli state, despite pleading from Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, Hamas continues to be funded by the Syrians and Iranians, anxious to stoke bloodshed, but suitably far away enough not to suffer the consequences. With proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad needn't feel too disappointed that he hasn't yet got nuclear weapons so that he can fulfil his repeatedly stated ambition of "wiping Israel off the map". (And still Western critics say Israel should get over its hang-up with the 'holocaust'!)

The reality is that Hamas should be blamed for bringing ruin and destruction to the people of Gaza. Inside the coastal territory, Hamas now enforces an authoritarian regime, and has imposed a repressive Islamic culture, which has, thankfully, whittled away its popular vote of 2006. Not that the residents will have a chance to express this, given that Hamas has cancelled elections and forcibly and bloodily evicted its rivals in the Fatah movement.

These are awkward questions for the flotilla volunteers. Granted they were on a humanitarian mission, but it was also a political gesture of solidarity with the besieged territory. And yet despite the blockade, Hamas has managed to get plenty of arms into Gaza, mainly through desert tunnels, and has been able to launch hundreds of rocket attacks into Israel.

Meanwhile, the US and most European states also regard Hamas as a terrorist organisation and treat it as such. Of course, many observers now feel that Israel should simply recognise Hamas as the administrator of Gaza and deal with it accordingly, however unpalatable this might be. After all, the Israelis said they would never deal with Yasser Arafat and the PLO but they ended up doing a peace deal with them. In that case, the PLO eventually recognised Israel and the argument is that Hamas would grudgingly do the same if given a durable peace settlement and the lifting of the blockade. This would be quite similar to Northern Ireland where Sinn Fein still holds out its aim of a united Ireland while recognising the 'de facto' rule or ongoing administration of Northern Ireland by the British.

If there is no such agreement, it is hard to see where this will end up. Israel cannot destroy Hamas and the more it attacks it and enforces the blockade of Gaza, the more it will reinforce Hamas. Hamas, however, cannot destroy Israel or wish it away. Any hope of that evaporated long ago, with the continued defeat of the neighbouring, and much larger, Arab countries when they went to war against Israel over the decades. Egypt and Jordan now have peace agreements with Israel, and Syria is close to one. (Although rogue state Iran is trying to develop the bomb.)

But in the meantime, the question for Israel is how does it deal with a hostile neighbour who doesn't even recognise its right to exist. Now there's one for the ever-patient George Mitchell to ponder.

Sunday Independent

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