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Gaza: can the same actions produce different results?

Published: Monday, 26th November 2012

I spent a lot of time as UN Emergency Relief Coordinator either in Gaza or worrying about the humanitarian situation in the territory, particularly in the aftermath of the Israeli ground incursion in early 2009, Operation Cast Lead. Gaza was always a depressing place to visit but the picture after Cast Lead was particularly grim – the extent of the destruction was shocking, including deliberate bulldozing of what little was left of Gaza’s industry, and the reinforcement of the population’s isolation and impoverishment. Hamas seemed to care little for the welfare of the people whom they were supposed to represent, since they knew perfectly well what would be the outcome of their indiscriminate (and very largely ineffective) rocket attacks on Israel. Israel seemed to regard more or less the whole of Gaza as a nest of Iran-backed terrorists who deserved pretty much anything that happened to them.

Cast Lead was designed to be so devastating that it would prevent future rocket attacks. It did have this effect for some time, but gradually, and predictably, the number of attacks crept up again over time as Hamas and other more extreme groups built up their stocks, and the comprehensive Israeli restrictions on the entry and exit of most goods and people into and out of Gaza continued. These restrictions were undermined by the existence of a large number of smuggling tunnels into Gaza from Egypt, which meant that weapons and many other goods could come in, but legitimate business was very difficult indeed – all of which suited Hamas very well. In other words Hamas remained in control of Gaza, and gained some prestige from having been seen to resist the Israeli operation (in practice they went underground and survived it rather than resisting it), while the isolated territory as a whole continued to live up to its reputation as a giant open-air prison and a Middle East tinder box.

Now we are back to where we were, with another highly damaging round of violence, with civilians again the main victims on both sides. Albert Einstein is supposed to have said that insanity is repeating the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results. The Middle East often seems to be the embodiment of this. The ceasefire is good news but what are its chances of lasting? There was an immediate difference of interpretation, with Hamas saying the blockade would be lifted, and the Israelis saying that they had only agreed to talk about it (the latter interpretation, sadly, seems almost certain to be more accurate). Can broader discussions lead anywhere?

I desperately hope so, for the sake of the people of Gaza, the future health of the region and the chances of an eventual Israeli-Palestinian settlement. But it is hard to be optimistic. I often discussed with the Israelis what I saw as the long-term folly of their isolation of Gaza and alienation of its inhabitants, and their reliance on military force alone to keep themselves safe. But there was absolutely no meeting of minds. Is there a change of heart now? I see no evidence of it so far. I was not able, to my regret, to talk directly to Hamas, because of a foolish Quartet/UN ban on doing so, but if I had I would have said to them that their policy also looked doomed to fail. Resistance for its own sake is not enough, and the only real victims are the people of Gaza. I see little evidence of a change of heart here either. The celebrations of the ceasefire as some kind of political victory are merely sad.

So has anything changed which might encourage us to think that the outcome will be different? The Arab and particularly Egyptian context has changed profoundly in the wake of the Arab spring. Joint Israeli-Egyptian containment of Gaza because of shared suspicion of Hamas is no longer possible in the same way as it was under President Mubarak, though Egyptian fears of extremists in Sinai remain serious. New regimes in Egypt and elsewhere need to take public opinion, the famous Arab street, more seriously into account. Does this changed context give more hope of political progress? The deep Egyptian engagement in the ceasefire negotiations is a positive sign in many ways. They do not want Gaza to explode in their faces, still less give any credence to the idea that they should take on Gaza themselves. But are the conditions really there for a broader negotiation about lifting the blockade and bringing Hamas into the political fold, including reconciliation with Fatah? Does Egyptian visible support for Hamas betoken an openness to Israeli ideas of what is needed? Are the Israelis ready to moderate previous policies of using overwhelming force to make their point?

We desperately need to see a change in the underlying situation, or the Palestinian issue will continue to poison the region, as it has done for so long. Some observers have suggested that the latest Gaza crisis might be the catalyst for a wider shake-up and the beginning of a more positive approach. This really is the triumph of hope over experience, but I profoundly hope it is right. In any case the Americans and Europeans can no longer pretend that there is a peace process in place which we need to protect. Bolder thinking is needed on all sides if deaths in Gaza are going to produce something positive, and not just another nail in the coffin of the two-state solution.

Sir John Holmes GCVO, KBE, CM
The Ditchley Foundation