Wednesday 7 January 2009
Deborah Orr: There wouldn't have been Gaza rockets without the blockade
Blair to his credit at least understands that the invasion and the blockade are linked
Tony Blair, the Middle East envoy, reckons that a ceasefire in Gaza could be negotiated very soon, provided that the tunnels from Egypt that provide the territory with, among other things, smuggled weapons, are closed off. It's a shame that he did not express his ambitions in another way. Perhaps a ceasefire could be negotiated very soon if legitimate channels for the import of all goods except arms into Gaza were opened up.
Such a suggestion, however, might be seen as critical of Israel's own perceived position as a reluctant aggressor and defensive state. The international community has completely accepted Israel's justification for its attack on Gaza, so much so that all of its spokespeople are careful not to refer to any Israeli action that can be viewed as provocative, such as its suffocating 18-month long blockade on that tiny, overpopulated strip of land.
Supporters of Israel's action are fond of reiterating Israel's narrow justification for its action. Who else would put up with regular rocket attacks from a neighbour, it asks? No one suggests that they would be happy to. It is accepted that Israel has the right to defend itself, and so it should be. Yet few would acquiesce without protest to a swingeing two-year blockade by a neighbour either, though no Western leader ever seems seriously to ask that highly pertinent question.
On the contrary, Blair implies that in order to obtain a ceasefire, Gaza's Hamas leadership must prove itself willing to comply proactively with the blockade against it, as well as refraining from actually firing weapons. Yet Hamas does not only import arms through Egypt's tunnels. It also imports everything from livestock to medical supplies – about 90 per cent of all goods entering the area.
Politically Hamas is popular not only because of its refusal to abandon armed struggle and accept the state of Israel, but also because it organises social support more efficiently than other groups. Even during the siege it has found some ways to mitigate the effects of Israeli policy on Gazans. The blockade is viewed by many as "collective punishment", because it exists to discomfort ordinary citizens and thereby undermine the ability of Hamas to govern. The idea of the blockade was to turn Palestinians away from the group that it had democratically elected. Yet Blair's peace plan considers that the blockade should be extended, with the ability of the Israelis to control the flow of goods into Gaza further strengthened. So the long-standing humanitarian crisis that is the result of the blockade would actually be augmented in order that the more extreme and immediate horror of warfare could be curtailed.
Increasingly, the international community concerns itself mainly with crisis management in Israel-Palestine, and this plan of Blair's is a perfect example. Being seen as one of the brokers of a ceasefire is a fine thing. But a willingness to accept and refine a system that keeps 1.5 million people effectively imprisoned in order to achieve one, is not a strategy exactly guaranteed to foster long-term stability, or even hope. The Israeli fight is against Hamas in general, not just Hamas rockets, and the attack and the blockade are intimately linked.
Certainly, the ideological position of Hamas is abhorrent, as is the organisation's inability to comprehend the absurdity of its own propaganda. Its leadership insists that Israel should view its rocket-fire as "symbolic", and simply put up with it in order to preserve a fig-leaf of dignity for the Palestinians as "people of resistance".
In believing this, Hamas acknowledges the importance of symbolism. But it fails to understand that Israel cannot then accept what its rocket fire symbolises. This, of course, is the impossible ambition that Hamas will not relinquish – the imposition of an Islamist state covering all of the Israeli and Palestinian territories. Hamas wants Israel to accept that this is what Hamas wants, but to be relaxed about it, because all parties know it cannot be obtained (at least for a while).
Herein lies the paradox of "disproportionality". Hamas refuses to stop fighting because this would be an acknowledgement that it cannot win against its far more powerful enemy. Yet because it will not disengage from "symbolic" armed struggle, it offers Israel the international justification it needs in order to stay engaged, and with much more deadly effect.
Blair, elbow-deep as he is in the rhetoric of the "war on terror", is as keen to isolate Gaza because of the ideological rhetoric of its leadership as the Israelis are. His line is that a two-state solution can only be achieved if "Palestinian unity" is delivered first. He would not, of course, approve of the sort of Palestinian unity that would be delivered were the Palestinians on the West Bank to vote Hamas as well. Like Israel, he has a certain type of Palestinian unity in mind. Yet in this respect he is making the same insane demand on Hamas as Hamas makes on Israel. He wishes for Hamas-led Gaza to dissolve itself in order that his problem can be solved.
Blair, to his credit, understands at least that the present military action and the long-standing blockade are linked, even if he is wary of making any links that portray Israel as aggressive. Yet he actually signs up to that aggression because he is interested only in challenging the blockade in ways that will damage Hamas. He believes that a peace process cannot be pursued unless Gaza becomes more like the West Bank. Yet one easy way of doing this would be to accord the same rights of governance to Hamas as are accorded to the Palestinian Authority, as long as a ceasefire is respected.
The blockade, therefore, has to be dismantled, except with regard to the import of weapons. Under a ceasefire, there is simply no moral justification for the continued siege against Gaza, the cutting of its water supplies, its electricity, its medical aid, its fuel and its food. Yet Israel continued to do this during the six-month ceasefire that Hamas delivered, because it wishes to disrupt the ability of Hamas to govern the Palestinians who voted for it, not just the ability of Hamas to fire its "symbolic" rockets.
It is unreasonable to attack Gaza because it does not respect a cease-fire that brings it no benefit, but only further pain. It is unreasonable to undermine the democratic choices its people have made, because we do not approve of them. It is unreasonable to sabotage Hamas in its social work as a region's selected administrator, because we fear this may also burnish its popularity as an anti-Zionist group. Yes, the rockets must stop. But so must the siege.
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