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Operation Protective Edge: Reading between the lines

Israel's official narrative on its recent attack on Gaza, code-named "Operation Protective Edge" and which has thus far left 192 Palestinians dead, with well over a thousand more injured, is basically the same as the justification for those attacks on Gaza that came before it: "Cast Lead" in 2008-2009 and "Pillar of Cloud" in 2012. Namely, that Israeli military violence against Gaza is an act of self-defence in response to rocket barrages from the Gaza Strip. Let's set aside the fact that Israel's response to the rocket attacks is massively disproportionate, taking into account the disparity in the quantity of casualties, with zero fatalities occurring in Israel from the rocket attacks. The fact is, as the UN reports, that almost eighty per cent of the victims of Israeli airstrikes in Gaza are civilians; the notion that Israel is acting out of self-defence is highly dubious, to say the least.

The key to understanding Israel's bombardment of Gaza is the unity government between Hamas and Fatah that was formed on 2 June this year. While Palestinian unity is itself something that Israel has always done its best to sabotage, the fact that the US and EU actively welcomed the formation of the unity government and said that they would be willing to work with it in terms of negotiations, rocked Israel to its core. The notion of Hamas as the irrationally intransigent arch-rejectionist has always been absurd, but it is nonetheless an important part of Israel's own rejectionist mythology, in which Hamas's "terrorism" and supposed inherent "anti-Semitism" is utilised by Israel in order to maintain the status quo of occupation and the annexation of the West Bank, with Gaza contained and isolated under constant siege and the permanent threat of Israeli violence. Hamas's acceptance of the unity government meant that it in effect accepted the US terms for its cooperation with any Palestinian government, which is an acceptance of "past peace deals" and thus, in turn, an acceptance of the PA's commitment to a negotiated two-state solution based on UN resolution 242.

Contrary to the image Israel projects of itself, it is perfectly happy with Hamas or other resistance groups firing rockets at it ineffectually; Hamas has no weapons capable of inflicting major damage on Israel, and with the US-supplied "Iron Dome" missile defence system in place, Israel has, in truth, very little to worry about. What Israel fears more than anything, though, is peace, and the formation of a Palestinian state. Or, more specifically, the extent of its own rejectionist stance towards a two-state solution being revealed fully to the world; that would leave its usual allies in the difficult position of shielding Israel from the international community, the vast majority of which fully accept a two-state solution. Even within the confines of the US framework for "peace", which is actually highly biased towards Israel, the Zionist state has now become a radical rejectionist, with Benjamin Netanyahu quite openly stating on Friday at a press conference that Israel has no interest in the creation of a sovereign Palestinian entity in the land currently under occupation.

So, following the announcement of the unity government, the Israeli government went into a slight meltdown. Not only did it denounce Hamas and the Palestinian Authority immediately, but it also turned its denunciations and condemnations on the US, with Netanyahu saying that he was "deeply troubled" by Washington's recognition of the Palestinian government. Israel's communications and home front defence minister, Gilad Erdan, accused the US of unprecedented "naivety" and of "collaborating" with Hamas. The Israeli line was that any recognition of the unity government would strengthen Hamas "terrorism".

Israel is a deeply savvy political actor, and despite its propaganda against the movement, it knows very well that Hamas is an altogether pragmatic organisation. Netanyahu's government also knows that one of the most significant factors in Hamas's participation in the unity government is because it finds itself in what is arguably its weakest position since it was first elected to power in 2006, hit by the coup against a key ally in Egypt's Mohamed Morsi and a cut in the funding it receives from Iran. If it could push Hamas to react violently, thus providing a pretext for large-scale military action, Israel could remind its allies that Hamas is a "terrorist group" and put the focus back on violence in general, while also exacerbating the existing tensions within the unity government. The "Hamas as murderous terrorist aggressors" angle serves Israel's annexationist interests better than the potential angle of "Hamas as pragmatic partners for negotiation", which is exactly what its participation in the unity government suggested.

It didn't take long for Israel to find its pretext and, without meaning to be callous, it was an almost perfect pretext. In June, three teenage settlers were kidnapped and found murdered in the West Bank; without presenting any evidence, the Israeli government immediately blamed Hamas. The movement denied any involvement in the abduction and murder of the teens, but there was no stopping Netanyahu; Israel says that Hamas are child-murderers, so child-murderers they shall be.

Prior to finding the settlers' bodies, Israel had launched "Operation Brother's Keeper", during which it proceeded to round up and imprison all of the Hamas leadership in the occupied West Bank, some 350 people, while also re-imprisoning many of those prisoners who had been released as part of the Hamas-negotiated Shalit exchange deal. Despite supposedly being about finding three missing Israeli teens, the operation seemed more like a declaration of war against Hamas. In the course of the operation, the Israeli government killed ten Palestinians, including two under the age of 18, while many more were injured and detained. In response, rockets were fired from Gaza at Israel, with no deaths or injuries, but Israel had got the violent response it was looking for. Hours after the teenagers had been found dead, and Netanyahu had stated ominously that Hamas would "pay a heavy price" for a crime that he had no evidence that it had committed, Israel launched an attack against Gaza, with the Israeli Air Force pounding dozens of targets within the Gaza Strip. This resulted in Hamas responding formally with the firing of rockets, and thus Israel began to escalate the situation into what would become the slaughter of "Operation Protective Edge".

With news today that Israel has accepted a ceasefire proposed by the Al-Sisi regime in Egypt, one might think that progress has been made, or that Hamas is somehow impeding peace by rejecting the ceasefire, but it seems that the peace deal may very well be a ruse to corner Hamas and further cast it as the cause of this violence. The truth is that this ceasefire was proposed without Egypt's Al-Sisi regime even consulting Hamas, either directly or through interlocutors; its terms represent merely a continuation of the status quo of the brutal Israeli-Egyptian siege on Gaza. Israel is under absolutely no pressure to modify any of its current policies or meet any of the reasonable demands set by Hamas last week, which Israel flatly rejected. It seems to have been designed to achieve its antithesis, the continuation of violence, with Israel threatening to intensify its attacks on Gaza, if Hamas doesn't accept a return to the status quo as proposed in the ceasefire. And that is what this has all been about; Israel taking the opportunity to ensure that the status quo, which entails violence, occupation and annexation, is not disturbed by any force or group, least of all Hamas.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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