Over the last 12 days, Israel has inflicted a bloodbath on the Gaza Strip that matches the darkest days of the Iraq war. Backed to the hilt by the US author of that catastrophe, it has killed more than 650 people in less than a fortnight, including at least 200 children, and wounded three thousand. Yesterday, after killing 50 civilians in UN schools sheltering refugees – “C’est la guerre”, the Israeli minister Meir Shitreet told the BBC when asked about the atrocities – the Israeli government agreed a three-hour daily lull in the carnage for “humanitarian purposes”, as diplomatic manoeuvring intensified over a possible ceasefire deal. All this at the cost of only 10 Israeli dead, six of them soldiers.
But despite this gruesome demonstration of its overwhelming power, Israel once again faces the threat of political and military failure, just as it did in Lebanon in 2006. After its most pulverising assault ever on the blockaded territory, Hamas remains standing, its administration intact, its rockets reaching ever further into Israel proper. Far from turning the Gazan population against the Islamist movement, the signs are that Israel’s onslaught is cementing its support.
From what has emerged so far, the deal touted by President Sarkozy and Egypt would trade a full ceasefire for the opening of Gaza’s border crossings – which reflects Hamas’s own terms – combined with an international force on the Egyptian border to police arms-smuggling tunnels. So long as that didn’t challenge Hamas’s authority or involve stationing foreign troops inside Gaza, the Palestinian movement could clearly live with such an arrangement.
The Israeli government yesterday declared it accepted the principles of the plan, while the details had yet to be agreed. But it’s hard to see how a deal that could have been struck without war would be seen as anything other than a Hamas victory. And the domestic electoral boost won by Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak as a result of the firestorm they have unleashed would then be lost. That’s why the logic of what they have started is likely to push the Israeli government to set impossible conditions, blame Hamas for a breakdown and intensify its onslaught still further.
If Israel’s leaders are going to be able to declare the victory they failed to achieve in Lebanon, they can hardly be seen to leave the power and appeal of Hamas intact, let alone strengthened. At the very least, they would want to arrest or kill key Hamas leaders and stage a humiliating parade of captured fighters – combined perhaps with a buffer zone in the north of the strip.
But that would require Israeli troops to take their land invasion into the heart of the strip’s cities and refugee camps, at a certain cost of heavy casualties and public support. They would then face the choice of whether to drive Hamas underground and reimpose a full-blown occupation – or face intensified guerrilla war against sitting targets in a security zone, as happened in Lebanon in the 1990s. No wonder Livni and Barak are divided about what to do.
Whichever choice they make, the war is already cutting the ground from beneath Israeli and western policy across the region. Among Palestinians, it is undermining Mahmoud Abbas – whose presidential term runs out tomorrow – and his Fatah movement, while increasing support for Hamas in the West Bank, where US-trained and EU-financed security forces have now arrested hundreds of activists and banned Hamas demonstrations.
It is also strengthening those inside Fatah who want to break with the western-enforced schism between the two wings of Palestinian politics. Hussam Khader, a West Bank “Young Guard” Fatah leader, is one of those now demanding direct unity negotiations with Hamas, and for the Fatah-linked Al-Aqsa Brigades to fight alongside Hamas against Israel’s onslaught.
“Israel has made a big mistake,” he told me this week, “because Hamas will become stronger and Fatah weaker as a result of the war, even if Israel re-occupies the Gaza Strip.” Comparing Hamas’s resistance in Gaza to the battle of Karameh that secured Yasser Arafat’s leadership of the Palestinians in 1968, Khader predicted: “After this war, Hamas will lead the PLO.”
The same trend can be seen in the wider Middle East, where Hamas has won powerful new supporters, including democratic Turkey, while western allies, such as the Egyptian and Saudi dictatorships, have lost more credibility by being seen to have tacitly supported Israel’s attempt to crush Hamas at the expense of the Palestinians of Gaza.
Most of those Palestinians are in fact refugees or the families of refugees from the towns of southern Israel, including Ashkelon and Ashdod, which have been targeted by Hamas – and from which they were ethnically cleansed when Israel was established in 1948.
But the bulk of the western media would have us believe that the cause of this war is Hamas’s firing of mostly home-made rockets into Israel – which no state could tolerate without retaliation. In this myopic fantasy land, there is no 61-year national dispossession, no refugee camps, no occupations, no siege, no multiple Israeli violations of UN security council resolutions and the Geneva conventions, no illegal wall, no routine assassinations, no prisoners and no West Bank.
Nor would you have much sense that – as Akiva Eldar, the Israeli Ha’aretz columnist, wrote this week – “Gaza is still, practically and according to international law, occupied territory”, and part of one political entity with the occupied West Bank. Or that the US, Britain and the EU, while paying lip service to ceasefire calls, prepared the ground for this barbarity with money, arms and diplomatic support as hope of a viable two-state solution has disintegrated before our eyes.
Pressure now has to be brought to bear not only on Israel, but on those governments that support it – including Britain’s. That’s why the call by Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, for an arms embargo on Israel and the suspension of the EU’s new cooperation agreement with Israel – the first mainstream party leader to do so – is so significant. David Miliband, the foreign secretary, calls it naive. In reality, the naivety lies in imagining that the west can continue to underwrite the injustice and bloodshed inflicted with no respite on the Palestinian people, without paying a price for it.