The Israeli offensive in Gaza isn't an attack on Hamas, it's an attack on peace

Benjamin Netanyahu was given the opportunity to choose between peace and war, and he chose war

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“Mowing the lawn.” That’s the obscene phrase used in Israeli military circles to describe how, every couple of years or so, Gaza is subjected to an awesome display of firepower to trim back Hamas’s military capabilities and ambitions.

This time 208 men, women and children have died so far. The UN has estimated that three quarters of them are civilians. Among the dead are nine young men who were watching the World Cup semi-final in a busy café when it was hit by a missile.

Two others were residents of a home for the disabled, whose crime was reportedly to be living downstairs from an Islamic Jihad member. And 18 members of the extended al-Batsh family were also killed by one Israeli strike. In addition to the dead and 1,300 wounded, over 8,000 Gazans have been left homeless due to attacks on their homes.

On the Israeli side, one civilian has been killed. But before you draw conclusions from the vastly disproportionate casualty figures, Israel and its supporters urge you to look at the context. Hamas has fired over 1,000 wayward, low-tech missiles at Israeli towns and cities, causing many people to hide out in bomb shelters. If Hamas has failed to kill Israeli civilians, it hasn’t been for want of trying.

This is true, and let’s be clear: targeting civilians is never permissible, under any circumstances. But Hamas rocket fire is not the only context to this outbreak of violence. There is another story behind the scenes of devastation emerging from Gaza today, and you need to understand it if you want to know why Palestinians are dying.

On April 23 of this year the Palestinian Authority announced it was forming a unity government to bring to an end the damaging split between Hamas and Fatah, the two main Palestinian political parties. For anyone who wants to see a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, this signal of growing Hamas moderation was very good news indeed.

Some fear Hamas would seek to spoil any deal to end the conflict: although it has repeatedly pledged to honour any two-state settlement endorsed by a Palestinian referendum, there are undoubtedly elements within the movement that would see any peace treaty as a surrender.

Ever since Hamas decided to stand for election to the Palestinian parliament in 2006, there has been a tug of war within the party between those who want to see it remain a “resistance” movement and those who advocate pragmatism.

Recent upheavals in the Middle East have cost Hamas several of its major patrons – Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Syria and Iran – leaving it unable to pay salaries to government workers. Flat broke, Hamas fell into the arms of the moderate Palestinian Authority, backing a new government that recognised Israel, forswore violence and endorsed previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

So how did Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu respond to this outbreak of reasonableness? He walked out of peace talks, wailing that the PA was giving in to extremism. And when last month three Israeli hitchhikers were kidnapped, he ignored credible Hamas claims that it had nothing to do with the crime, and concealed evidence that the victims were already dead, in order to use the tragedy as a pretext for a massive indiscriminate crackdown on the party in the West Bank.

Some 800 individuals were arrested, including charity workers and journalists with links to the party. The squall of rockets Hamas fired from Gaza in response led to the Israeli assault now in its ninth day.

In an alternative universe, Israel’s leadership would have viewed the Palestinian unity government as a fantastic opportunity. The scales had decisively been tipped in favour of Hamas’s moderates, and the extremists knew that rocking the boat would have brought the government (and potentially the entire movement) down. Instead of a military assault, Netanyahu could have responded with an aggressive peace offensive, offering the Palestinians an end to the occupation and their own state.

But this would have required a serious commitment to peace. Instead, according to a senior US official who oversaw the latest peace talks, the “bitter truth” is that Israeli ministers were guilty of the “sabotage” of negotiations by “building settlements on the territory meant for [a Palestinian] state”.

In fact, Israel’s Prime Minister was never serious about allowing the creation of an independent Palestine. How do I know? Because he said so himself, in stunning remarks on Friday which the world’s media has inexcusably ignored. Confirming what many of us have long suspected, Netanyahu argued that “there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.” In other words, no Palestinian sovereignty on the West Bank, no two-state solution, and no peace.

This is the context to the violence we are now witnessing. Apart from providing catharsis for a nation still enraged by the West Bank kidnappings, the bloodletting is intended to counter the threat posed by Hamas pragmatism.

The violence will strengthen the movement’s extremist wing and boost its previously waning popularity in the Gaza Strip. These are entirely foreseeable consequences of the assault, and ones with which Israel is perfectly comfortable. A Hamas that is militarily and economically weak, politically radical and hanging on to power by its fingertips is precisely what Israel wants.

Should it forget its lines in future and begin making moderate noises, Israel can always fire up the lawnmower again. In Gaza, all flesh is grass.

Read more:
Why I'm on the brink of burning my Israeli passport
Israel’s reaction has been vicious and misdirected
War is war: Why I stand with Israel

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