Fighting in Gaza was almost inevitable, say local experts
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 29, 2008 - When it comes to continued violence between Israel and the Palestinians, centuries of history and generations of ill will are large enough obstacles to overcome. The upcoming elections in Israel -- as well as the recent one in the United States -- make a difficult situation even more volatile.
That's the view of local experts in Middle East history and politics in the wake of the latest flare-up of attacks between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. With the end of a cease-fire between the two antagonists, renewed violence was almost inevitable, they say, even if the level of the attacks was not necessarily expected.
"I cannot believe that Hamas would not have taken into consideration what effect the Israeli elections would have on the Israeli response," says Henry Berger, emeritus professor of history at Washington University.
"But they may not have anticipated the ferocious and extremely heavy operation."
Israeli elections are set for Feb. 10, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is in charge of the Israeli offensive against Gaza, is considered a contender to become prime minister, though he has been lagging behind his competition.
Add the fact that the U.S. government is in transition, and that attacks on both sides take on a kind of sad sameness, a continuation of what political science professor Jean-Robert Leguey-Feilleux of St. Louis University calls a "vicious circle."
Hamas has "this illusion that Israel can be defeated," he said, adding that its "radical drive" makes it likely to continue to provoke retaliation. With its counterattacks, Leguey-Feilleux said, Israel "hopes to publicize how unreasonable Hamas is."
The Bush administration has strongly condemned Hamas, saying Monday that it must "agree to respect a sustainable and durable cease-fire." The Obama transition team has maintained its stance that Bush is the current president and is the only one who can speak for the United States.
But there has been widespread speculation that an Obama administration may not be as supportive as Israel as the Bush White House has been -- talk that Berger terms "media chatter." It's too soon to tell what change there may be, if any, but Berger said that the U.S. transition had a definite effect on the timing of the current situation in Gaza.
"The Israelis probably didn't want to greet Barack Obama's inauguration by doing this," he said, "so they chose to do it while Bush is still there. I don't know that Hamas was at all affected by the fact that it was a transition period. They were going to do what they did no matter what."
Where will the latest rocket attacks lead? How will the standoff end? Leguey-Feilleux said international pressure may lead to another cease-fire, and Obama is likely to try to bring both sides together, but with support of the population in Gaza, Hamas isn't necessarily going to agree to concessions.
For Berger, some sort of negotiated settlement is the only likely end to the continuing cycles of violence.
Noting that Hamas' whole reason for being is its refusal to recognized Israel, he added:
"You cannot have a Palestinian-Israeli peace without one of two things happening. Either Hamas has to be brought into negotiations or, conversely, Hamas has to be evicted from Gaza and the Palestinian government of President Abbas has to prevail. One or the other has to happen before you can have a comprehensive peace, and I think the Israelis understand that.
"If the current leaders of Hamas remain, then there eventually is going to be a fight to the death. The Israelis know where their leaders are. You can see from the attacks that they have a very superior intelligence operation. So you are never going to have peace unless something is done diplomatically. Hopefully, what comes out of this will move the situation to a more diplomatic stage."
The conflict hit home in St. Louis with a vigil Sunday night at St. Louis University, where organizer Hedy Epstein said more than 200 people -- Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists -- called for an end to the attacks.
Epstein said she did not condone the violence from Gaza that Israel said prompted its attacks. But she said the response was disproportionate to the provocation.
"Israel is the fourth-largest military power in the world," she said. "What do the Palestinians have in Gaza or the West Bank? They've got stones they can throw at a tank.
"Israel has every right to provide security for their people. But security does not come through military weapons. It comes when you sit down and you talk. Israel knows what they are doing. But from a political point of view, I don't think they have an answer.
"It's just going to be a horrendous massacre. When is the world going to say 'no more'? The world is afraid of being called anti-Semitic if they oppose Israel's policies."
Contrary to Epstein's David-and-Goliath characterization of the conflict, Batya Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in St. Louis County, said Hamas' rockets have reached 24 miles into Israel and it was planning to go even farther.
"No government can allow that," she said. "The dilemma is an enormous one. The human tragedy is enormous. But I think it does come down to the fact that they had no choice. They were acting in self-defense. Sometimes, because Israel is strong, it's always seen as being wrong. In this case, I believe it's using its strength in an appropriate way."
She also said Israel is doing what it can to mitigate the effects of the attacks on civilians, but Hamas has embedded its facilities in civilian neighborhoods.
As long as Hamas' stated purpose is the destruction of Israel, Abramson-Goldstein said, she sees little if any hope of a negotiated settlement. "Where it's possible, Israel is working intensively with the Palestinians. They can't work with an entity that seeks - and I'm quoting - your obliteration. But where it is possible to talk, good things are happening."