Tragedy in Gaza

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A week into Mivtza Tzuk Eitan, the death toll has crossed over 500 Palestinians and 27 Israelis and yet there are no signs of a ceasefire agreement. Hamas has fired over 1,700 rockets into Israel in just the past two weeks but loss of life has been minimal largely due to Israeli civil defence measures. In Gaza, countless thousands of Palestinians have fled Israeli gunships and tanks but there is little place for them to go anywhere in the already congested Strip.

There is no doubt that what is occurring in Gaza is profoundly moving. It is also quite clear that Israel and its international assets are constantly under threat of suicide bombers, rockets, kidnappers, and hijackers. Demonstrations, pro-Palestine and pro-Israel but mostly the former, have been taking place the world over – Paris, Copenhagen, Sydney, Brussels, Bucharest, Sanaa, Istanbul, New York, London – and in India, domestic politics has motivated the Congress Party to loudly demand that the Government of India condemn Israeli actions against the Palestinians unequivocally.

War has always been brutal and urban warfare even more so; urban guerrilla warfare particularly so. Until the advent of social media and embedded journalism, the horrors of the front never reached middle class civilians, sitting comfortably at home and far away from the conflict zone. Armies have never liked the door-to-door, street-by-street demands of fighting amidst human settlements and the reason for that is now on every TV screen and Twitter timeline. After all, even the most callous can ignore only so many old people, women, and children perishing as collateral damage.

The strong international reaction is more indicative of the general ignorance of war conditions until now than any especially brutal tactics of the the Israeli Defence Forces. This is war, and it is in an urban setting; there will inevitably be the irreparable collateral damage of lives lost and broken. While not all Palestinians are Hamas, neither were all Germans Nazis nor were all Vietnamese Viet Cong. For once, the nightmare is being flashed into unaware middle class homes and the reaction is predictable.

It is interesting to note that the public has reacted more strongly to Mivtza Tzuk Eitan than governments. While most governments have appealed to Hamas to desist from firing rockets into Israel and to Tel Aviv to show some restraint, mob passions have been inflamed. Interestingly, even Arab and Muslim governments – brothers of the Palestinian people – have largely remained silent or mumbled their criticism of Israel in hushed tones. Palestine, it seems, has no friends, a bitter lesson pro-Palestine activists and militants have learned the hard way.

While one can extend sympathy to the Palestinian bereaved, it is not easy to convert that sympathy into support. How does one reconcile the fact that Palestinians have repeatedly bitten the hand that tried to feed them because “it was not doing enough”? It is as if the Palestinians expect a monopoly over their benefactors’ attention and resources.

Jordan will not quickly forget that the Palestinian Liberation organisation attempted a coup in their country that had to ultimately be ruthlessly put down with Pakistani arms and Israeli intelligence. Kuwaitis will not forgive so quickly Palestinian support to Saddam Hussein when the Iraqi dictator invaded and annexed the tiny Gulf emirate in August 1990; nor is it easy to move past scenes of celebration in Palestine and Palestinian localities in the West when the events of September 11 unfolded.

Yet in Gaza today, it is Israel who is in the wrong – not for the Palestinian casualties but for its own. Benjamin Netanyahu has sacrificed the lives of 27 of his countrymen with little to show in return. The prime minister’s own military and intelligence officials have expressed disagreements with him over the scale of the operation and its potential success rate. No one is certain what Israel’s war aims are – the kidnapping of the three teenagers was clearly a false pretext for a larger operation that had been planned a while back. Even if the IDF is completely successful in destroying every stockpile of armaments and demolishing every supply tunnel, the very nature of asymmetric warfare is such that these will be replaced quickly. For military as well as publicity reasons, Israel cannot afford annual excursions into Palestinian areas with heavy death tolls. As many analysts have warned, if the unending dissatisfaction among the Palestinians gives an opening to groups like ISIS, Israel will have invited upon itself far greater troubles than a few rockets into its cities. Mivtza Tzuk Eitan may be a tactical Israeli victory but it is a strategic blunder for it was not in the service of any larger political objective. For all intents and purposes, Netanyahu has lost the public relations battle already.

The real tragedy is that the solutions are few and hard; one might ask Hamas to stop firing rockets into Israel, but a line from Gladiator comes to mind: when Quintus mutters to Maximus about the Germanic tribes that people should know when they have been conquered, Maximus replies, “Would you, Quintus? Would I?” Against a vastly superior enemy in the IDF, Hamas cannot relinquish its best weapon – international opprobrium at Israel over civilian casualties – and therefore  deliberately entangles the Israeli forces in guerrilla warfare in “non-combatant” zones.

If Israel were asked to show restraint, Tel Aviv would undoubtedly claim that it is their right to defend themselves against acts of terror. In this, they would be right but consider this: one of the greatest causes for friction between the two sides is the continued settlement by Israelis of disputed territories. This is a blatant violation of international law and yet settlers receive funding from the Israeli state as well as from non-profit organisations in the West, particularly the United States. Washington can easily turn off this tap but has been hesitant to do so for domestic reasons, feeding into the Judean discontent. Small wonder then, that many Palestinians see Uncle Sam more as a hypocritical player in the Middle East than as an honest peace broker.

World over, legislative bodies offer the Palestinians empty words but none are willing to offer peacekeepers or real solutions. The Arab countries are nowhere to be seen and Egypt still keeps the border crossing at Rafah from its territory into Gaza closed. India’s Congress Party wants to condemn Israel as if that would set right all wrongs in the region but has little to offer in terms of thinking on a peace process or the will to enforce it. One only wonders how Delhi would react if the Knesset were to admonish it on the application of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in Kashmir.

War has always been like Gaza, like Syria, like northern Iraq – it is just that no one really cares once the guns fall silent. So if there is to be any moral outrage, it ought to be expended over that before tussling with an intractable reality of life and urban warfare. The entire Levant is a human tragedy on an epic scale but there is little anyone is willing to do to stop it.