WASHINGTON, Apr 17 (IPS) - Three months after the end of Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, and nearly four months after former prime minister Ehud Olmert started it, the standoff between Israel and Hamas is as unresolved as ever.
Gaza’s 1.5 million residents, nearly all of them civilians, are still in a very tough situation, since Israel still prohibits the shipment into Gaza of many requirements for a decent life - including the building materials needed to repair or rebuild the thousands of homes and other structures the Israeli military destroyed during the war.
But it is already clear that the war has changed many aspects of the complex political dynamics both between and inside the Israeli and Palestinian communities.
Hamas, simply by surviving, has become stronger both within Palestinian politics and throughout the broader Middle East.
In the Israeli elections of early February Olmert’s party was defeated - by representatives of an even more militarist trend in Israel whose rise was fueled, in good part, by the war-fever unleashed among Jewish Israelis by Olmert’s own war.
Meanwhile, the ferocity with which Israel fought the war caused significant damage to the country’s image around the world. In the U.S., unprecedented numbers of civil society groups - including Jewish groups - expressed open criticism of Olmert’s decision to launch the war, even from the war’s very earliest days.
All these developments have been evident during Sen. George Mitchell’s latest visit to the region, which started Wednesday. This was Mitchell’s third visit since he was named U.S. special envoy on Jan. 21. Some of the post-Gaza developments seem to make Mitchell’s peacemaking effort harder. But others, especially the new estrangement between the government of Israel and some of its former strong supporters around the world, open up new possibilities for his mission.
Indeed, in some of Mitchell’s early appearances on his latest trip, he has shown himself more ready than any U.S. official has been for many years to publicly adopt a position - in this case, support of an independent Palestinian state - that is very different from that espoused by the government in power in Israel.
When Olmert launched the war on Gaza on Dec. 27, he was aiming either to destroy Hamas or to inflict so much harm on it that its leaders would bow to Israel’s political demands. Despite the large amount of damage the Israeli military inflicted on the people of Gaza, it did not achieve either of those objectives. Hamas’s long battle-hardened command structure in Gaza remained intact and in place.
(Hamas’s broader, ‘nationwide’ leadership has anyway been located for many years now outside the occupied territories. Thus, the idea of breaking or ‘taming’ the whole organisation by delivering a knockout blow to its units in Gaza was always poorly thought through.)
Instead of being broken, Hamas found that during the war its popularity rose throughout the occupied West Bank and among the five million Palestinians living in exile outside their homeland. It dipped somewhat in Gaza, doubtless because of the punishment the IDF was inflicting on the Strip’s people. But Gaza is roughly half the size of the West Bank. The overall effect was that Hamas became stronger.
Fatah, a movement that in recent years has aligned itself ever more closely to U.S. policies, meanwhile saw its popularity decline.
Indeed, the collapse of Fatah’s internal decision-making structures is now so severe there is a real possibility it might disintegrate altogether. Though the collapse has been underway for some time now, the Gaza war certainly hastened it along.
Fateh has also, ever since 1969, been overwhelmingly the strongest component of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), the secularist body that has authorised all Palestinian peace efforts with Israel to date. Fatah’s decline thus also threatens the survival of the PLO - unless the on-again-off-again ‘unity talks’ that Fatah and Hamas have been pursuing in Cairo can find a formula to bring Hamas into the PLO for the first time ever.
Amid all these political developments, Gaza’s 1.5 million people are still trying to deal with life-situations and livelihoods that were shattered by the recent war. During the war more than 1,300 Palestinians were killed, most of them civilians. Ten Israeli soldiers and three Israeli civilians lost their lives.
For three years prior to the war, there had been intermittent exchanges of fire between Israel and Palestinian militants - mainly Hamas people - operating from Gaza. In addition, Israel maintained a tight siege around Gaza, in clear contravention of its responsibility as “occupying power” to safeguard the welfare of the Strip’s indigenous residents.
At the end of the war both Israel and Hamas announced parallel (and un-negotiated) ceasefires. That was on Jan. 18. In the absence of any more formal, negotiated ceasefire agreement, the existing ceasefires have remained fragile, and several exchanges of fire have occurred.
But in addition, Israel has considerably tightened the physical siege of Gaza - and this, at a time when the Strip’s residents have extraordinary needs to gain access to the materials they urgently need to rebuild the 5,000 homes and other structures that were destroyed during the war. Those structures included vital water and sanitation facilities, factories, warehouses - and even the parliament.
John Prideaux-Brune, Oxfam’s country director for the West Bank and Gaza, has described Israel’s policy toward Gaza as being one of “intentionally inflicted de-development.”
He told IPS recently, “Israel went on a rampage in Gaza during the war. You can see whole villages flattened, the cows and other livestock killed. They seem to have gone in and removed anything that could have been used for economic development - farms, factories, you name it.” (Israeli sources have said that during the war, the military trucked in 100 heavy-duty bulldozers, especially to undertake this destruction.)
“It seems a mind-numbingly stupid thing for Israel to do,” Prideaux-Brune said. “Where states have succeeded in suppressing terrorism, they have done so through negotiations and fostering economic development.”
He said he hoped western governments would act quickly to persuade Israel to lift the siege. That, he said, would allow Gaza’s people to move back onto a path of economic development rather than continuing to live on handouts.
Many of the humanitarian aid organisations that have been providing ‘emergency’ aid to Gaza (and the West Bank) for many years are now, like Oxfam, becoming more vocal in arguing that the only thing that can really stabilise the very vulnerable situation of the Palestinians of these occupied areas is to find a speedy end to the Israel’s military occupation of their home territories.
Prideaux-Brune said that the Gaza Palestinians are currently suffering from a deliberately inflicted “dignity crisis.”
“So long as Israel controls everything in these people’s lives, they will remain vulnerable,” he said. “Emergency relief aid is no substitute for successful peacemaking, and that is the only way to get to real economic development.”
*Helena Cobban is a veteran Middle East analyst and author. She blogs at www.JustWorldNews.org.