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Gaza: how not to learn the lessons of the past

Published: Tuesday, 22nd July 2014

The Middle East is depressing almost wherever you look. What is happening in Gaza as I write is yet another major tragedy, all the worse for being such a predictable repetition of the past. As UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, I lived through, at second hand, every moment of the January 2009 Israeli invasion of Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, and wrote a chapter about it in a 2013 book on my humanitarian experiences, ‘The Politics of Humanity’. Over 1300 Palestinians, mostly civilians, were killed during Cast Lead. Israeli losses were very light by comparison. The military operation was designed to be so devastating as to teach Hamas and their supporters a lesson they would never forget for having the temerity to launch rockets at Israel. The rocket launches, then even more than now, were not only unacceptable in principle but futile from every point of view - incapable of being targeted in any significant way, meaning that anything or anyone they hit was almost certain to be civilian in nature.  Those who launched them were certainly heedless of the likely consequences for the civilian population of Gaza, and frequently seemed to shelter in and around civilian installations, effectively using the population as human shields.

In their Cast Lead response, the Israelis bombed and shelled targets they described as legitimate because connected with Hamas. Many were not military in any way. As I saw for myself when I visited shortly after the end of the violence, they also blew up and bulldozed factories and other commercial installations before withdrawing. The terrorist label seemed, for Israel, to stick to more or less everyone in Gaza, by a process of assimilation and dehumanisation, and to justify almost any attack. They were no doubt not actively intending to kill civilians, but in the circumstances of Gaza, that was bound to be the result, then as now. In the end, after three weeks of death and destruction, a ceasefire was agreed and the Israelis withdrew. The rockets more or less stopped, though only for a short time. Hamas’s control of Gaza was largely unimpaired, though they suffered great material and human losses.

The big losers were once again the civilian population of Gaza - although they already had little to lose, in truth. They had been living under Israeli siege for two years, because of Hamas rule. Israel feared that imports would contain military or dual use material which would feed the rockets. They also wanted to weaken the Hamas grip and show the mostly young population the consequences of living under Hamas. So they only allowed in the bare minimum of supplies, and sometimes not even that. They also prevented virtually all travel to and from Gaza, turning the narrow and crowded strip of territory into what has often been accurately described as a large open-air prison. This strategy failed, and as a form of collective punishment was considered illegal under international law. Many people in Gaza did not much like Hamas but they blamed Israel for their plight far more. Moderate Palestinians who might have wanted to support Fatah, in control of the West Bank and ready to negotiate with Israel, were alienated and squeezed out.

This was and is a classic hopeless cycle of violence, notable even in a region full of such cycles. Blame and counter-blame about who really started it were rife at the time and have continued since. No-one achieved their political objectives in 2009. Israeli citizens were not safer than before, or if they were, only for a short time. Hamas showed their will to resist (though they kept their heads down during the invasion itself), but little else. The siege was not lifted.  Hatred and bitterness were increased on both sides. The prospects of lasting peace were damaged further.

Here we are again, following a reckless escalation by both sides after the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers. More than 500 Palestinians have already lost their lives, and this time the Israeli death toll is also mounting. What is the point of all this? Israel does not want to reoccupy Gaza, but cannot reliably stop all the rockets without doing so. Hamas cannot do any real damage to Israel, for all its vainglory and rhetoric. The only chance of a way forward - genuine peace negotiations on a two state solution - has been blocked yet again, by short-sighted folly on both sides, despite strenuous US efforts. Settlement building on the West Bank continues, taking us ever further from the prospect of a two-state solution. International attention has been mostly diverted by the horrific civil war in Syria, and now by the startling developments in Iraq. Some pretended that this meant the Palestinian issue had been relegated to the sidelines, perhaps for good. Anyone who had had anything to do with it in the past knew this was not true and that it was only a matter of time before it blew up again. The prospect of a third intifada, however hopeless and bound to end in bloody failure, is once again on the cards.

What can anyone from the outside do in such circumstances? In the short term the need is for maximum pressure for a ceasefire and for the provision of humanitarian aid. Once the violence stops, we have to get to grips with the underlying problems. This is not just about restarting the same old peace process and hoping it will go somewhere this time. There is little or no chance of that, unless there are real changes of personalities and policies on both Israeli and Palestinian sides. I would start by suggesting we all face up to four realities.

  • Continuing settlement of the West Bank makes a lasting peace deal almost impossible. It has to stop once and for all.
  • The siege of Gaza is inhumane and counterproductive from every point of view.
  • The Palestinians (and other Arabs) have to accept that they cannot achieve anything through violence, and must live in peace with Israel.
  • Hamas has somehow to be brought into the picture and into the fold. Dismissing them as terrorists and refusing to talk to them has failed, and only increased their credibility in the eyes of many young Palestinians.

All this is very difficult, but the situation cannot go on like this without further major violence and loss of life, mostly on the Palestinian side, yet again, and without the long-term dangers to both Israel and regional stability increasing dramatically over time. The primary responsibility lies with those directly involved. We cannot in effect want a solution more than they do, or produce and impose a solution they do not want. But outsiders can help by encouraging those who want to move in the right direction, and engaging even with those who don’t.

Sir John Holmes GCVO, KBE, CMG
The Ditchley Foundation