If the analogy of the Gaza strip as a 1.5 million capacity prison seems like hyperbole, witness the “prison break” this week of hundreds of Gaza’s Palestinians into Egypt near the border town of Rafah. Residents broke through the border wall (with the aid of explosives) not to smuggle in more ammunition, but to buy “rice and sugar, milk and wheat.”
With Israel’s crushing two week old blockade in effect, intended to snuff out militant groups, Gazans have watched their economy crumble. Industrial stockpiles dwindled and food was in short supply. Fuel shipments were cut to Gaza’s sole power plant, leaving much of Gaza City in darkness. Reports on the ground outline relentless suffering.
It’s a sign of how far things have come (or not, rather) since Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza strip settlements, a withdrawal seen by Palestinians as one in name only. Israel still has control over nearly every aspect of Gazan life and has applied it mercilessly. Students destined for universities abroad have been trapped by the border closures and restrictions on travel. With the blockade, Gaza is at risk of becoming “virtually 100 percent aid dependent,” according to a UNRWA representative.
For Israel, it is the barrage of Qassam rockets, deployed by the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, that underscores the entire Israeli response in Gaza (suicide bombings from there have become virtually impossible since a border wall was built around it several years ago). Over 1000 Qassams were fired in 2006 alone. Considering the restraints, they are manufactured and deployed with remarkable efficiency.
“It is the duty of all states to ensure the right to life and safety of its people, especially from vicious acts of violence and terrorism,” argues Gilad Cohen, Israel’s UN representive. But the Qassams are, of course, no existential threat to the Jewish state. It is only poor Sderot, a farming village barely a mile from the border of northern Gaza, that bears the brunt of the rockets (calling them missiles would be an overstatement).
To the extent that Qassams have caused death or injury there, they are indefensible. But if, as the Israelis argue, every life is precious, the grossly disproportionate body count delivered within Gaza as retaliation serves as a reminder of how quickly the argument can turn. Within the past week, over 40 people have been killed and 120 injured, most of them civilians. Targeted killings mean little when aimed within one of the most densely populated areas of the world.
“It is a message to Hamas, and hopefully the people in Gaza, who by the way elected Hamas as the government, to put pressure on that government,” adds an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman. However, when Palestinians are pushed ever further below poverty level (as over two thirds of Gazans currently are), survival is more of a priority for them rather than facing militants with guns. The response is seen, quite rightly, as collective punishment.
It should also be noted that Gazans also helped elect Hamas not to wage endless (and so far, unwinnable) war, but to save themselves from the kleptocracy of a Fatah-led government. Hamas notably rejected a referendum proposed by Fatah leader and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas on a two-state solution based on 1967 borders (something Hamas abhors). The fact that a clear majority of Palestinians support such an outcome may have been a reason.
The truth is that Qassams are much more a political weapon than a tactical one. To the extent it serves their interests, they are overstated by Israel and understated by Hamas (to the outside world, anyway). The salvos are a reaction of emotion and spite, not practicality. Deep down, most Palestinians probably know this.
If Israel is being goaded into reinvading the territory (as some are pondering), the result could be endless misery. As with any occupation (Iraq comes to mind), Israelis need to ask themselves what could possibly be achieved. Likewise, the Qassams do little more than offer Israel valuable cover. Without the current crisis, the recent decision by Israel to expand the Har Homa/Jabal Abu Ghneim settlement south of Jerusalem by 300 units might have met with more international resistance.
Ultimately, Hamas will have to reconsider the wisdom of their current tactics. The successful liberations of recent times have not relied largely on weaponry. This is no accident. From South Africa to East Timor, there is still tremendous global inertia towards supporting self-determination. That support depends on a moral high ground, which Qassams can only continue to obscure.
For now, Israel will pull back just enough to reduce the boiling over into merely boiling. Fuel shipments to the stricken power plant have now resumed. The lights are back on, but in the scheme of things, there is still darkness. Some Israelis are imagining the crisis to be a charade created by Hamas as a provocation. This in a conflict littered with them. Irony, it seems, is not yet in short supply.
Zahed Amanullah is associate editor of altmuslim.com. He is based in London, England.