Not only has southern Israel suffered a massive barrage of qassam rockets but Hamas has manufactured yet another artificial humanitarian crisis putting greater international pressure on Israel to cancel its economic embargo of the Strip and Egypt has openly allowed for the breaching of the Egypt/Gaza border fence effectively eliminating what little import controls were once in place.
First the rockets. In the last three days, more than 100 qassams have been fired at Israel with nearly 40 alone since Thursday morning. Despite the mainstream media’s characterization of these missiles as crude, homemade, inaccurate, and ineffective, the reality is that they are truly deadly. True, very few people have actually been killed by qassams over the past seven years that they have been launched from Gaza, but they have left the entire area in state of siege and constant fear. These barrages have made towns like Sderot, directly north of Gaza, practically unlivable. Clearly, this is the objective.
While the international community at large screams about (generally limited) civilian casualties resulting from Israeli efforts to target terrorist leaders, rocket launching commandos, and organizational centers, no one gives a damn about the war crimes being committed by these terrorists. Yes, indiscriminately firing mortars and missiles targeting civilian population centers do constitute war crimes. Given that Israel faces widespread recrimination every time it attempts to militarily respond to these attacks, it has tried taking the sanctions route.
Enter the humanitarian crisis. In response to a particularly vicious week of missile attacks on Sunday, January 20, Israel had the audacity to temporarily restrict the flow of fuel to Gaza’s one power reactor. Note that this is something Israel has considered doing for well over a year now but has repeatedly put off for fear of causing unnecessary suffering. In response, Hamas shut off Gaza’s one power reactor. Incredibly, it has been made to sound as if this installation was totally without fuel reserves and its “necessary” deactivation cut off the power supply to the entire territory. Incidentally, the reactor supplies a mere 25-30% of the Strip’s energy needs. Most of the rest is supplied directly from Israel’s reactor in Ashkelon with the remainder coming from Egypt. The Israel Electric Corporation, the company which supplies fuel to Gaza was livid at the suggestion that they had run out of fuel knowing full well that electricity was still flowing to the strip even while under fire. Excuse me if I don’t jump headlong into the international pity parade watching the well-choreographed children walking down the streets of Gaza City with candles in hand. The crisis is a fake, a publicity stunt for the international media and an artificial rallying point for the disunited leaders of the Arab world.
This has been ignored by most. Indeed, the irony implicit in Hamas’ television station’s on-air broadcasts with the studio lights turned off claiming they had no electricity was missed by just about everyone. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as morally perturbed as anyone by the deaths showcased by the press during this crisis which have resulted from hospitals not having the electricity to power their critical instruments. Yet I’m even more upset that these people were made into completely unnecessary “martyrs” to serve Hamas’ political objectives. The obvious truth is that if Hamas really truly cared about the lives of these people, they would stop firing rockets. This has been Israel’s primary if not sole condition for the resumption of regular border traffic. Israeli PM Ehud Olmert finally got it right when he said this yesterday:
We will not permit, under any circumstances or conditions, a humanitarian crisis to develop… We will not harm the supply of food for children, medicine for those who need it and fuel for institutions that save lives. But there is no justification for demanding we allow residents of Gaza to live normal lives while shells and rockets are fired from their streets and courtyards at Sderot and other communities in the south.
Maybe the world is right. Maybe this does constitute collective punishment. My question is this: what other options has the international community left open? It has been made distinctly clear that Israel is not allowed to take on this fight on its own terms. It is indeed one of the great ironies of our time and the most hypocritical application of humanitarian norms to claim that any country must both endure constant attack and simultaneously be required to provide the basic necessities for those who attack it. The truth is that Israel is in a state of war, enduring a constant state of aggression from an enemy with clear intentions of eventual territorial conquest. The notion that Israel is not allowed to defend itself violates the most basic principle of both international law and the international order, that is the right to self defense. Being deprived of this right means Israel must depend on the good will of its neighbors to ensure Gaza does not get out of hand.
But the border wall came down. When Hamas militiamen knocked large portions of the border wall down yesterday, hundreds of thousands of Gazans poured across while Egyptian soldiers stood by doing nothing. This was no spontaneous act. In fact, Hamas and it’s partner militias in the Popular Resistance Committees have been sawing away at the wall’s foundations for months just waiting for the right moment to take it all down. Just like the Second Intifada, this was planned well in advance.
Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak reportedly ordered soldiers to let the people cross “because they were starving”. This I accept, largely because I have to. While I doubt starvation has reached, say North Korean levels, thanks to the massive daily import of international food aid, I do understand that lives have been disrupted and, again thanks to Hamas control, day-to-day goods, even those supplied by UNWRA, can be hard to come by. Let me repeat again, the problem is not Palestinians flooding Rafah and El Arish to buy food, produce, cigarettes, and home supplies. The issue is that an open border is one over which deadly weapons and funds for Gaza-based terror organizations flows freely. Egyptian border guards have claimed that no such contraband has passed through, but given their lax enforcement of weapons smuggling as is with the many many tunnels dug underneath the border wall, I am skeptical at best.
This is not to say that even this is a problem in and of itself. In one of the most original takes yet I have read on the border breach, Alex Fishman of the Israeli paper Yediot Ahronot has argued that this incident marks the culmination of Israel’s real disengagement from Gaza. Now, he argues, Gaza is Egypt’s problem. With the border breached, now Egypt must provide the Gazan Palestinians with water, food, fuel, electricity, and all other basic necessities. Israel can formally seal its borders while Egypt is forced to reign in the looming chaos.
While I am tempted to believe Fishman, experience tells me otherwise. It does not matter that the breaching of the border and the free flow of traffic contravenes every Israeli-Egyptian border agreement on the books and it does not matter that Egypt is temporarily handing a surge of pedestrian traffic. The reality is that the mythology of Israeli occupation is a necessary one for not only for Hamas but for every Palestinian political and militia group not to mention the entirety of the Arab world. As in 1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982, Egypt still has no interest in controlling Gaza and derives clear political capital from the image of the oppressive Israeli occupation. Egypt is prepared to be a temporary benefactor for “starving” Gazans, it is not willing to be their patrons.
Nor will the international community follow the logic of transference of responsibility. As with every other Palestinian violation, the international onus remains on Israel to provide the solution through further concessions. The international community is not nearly as interested in assisting suffering civilians in Gaza as it is in ensuring that Israel is forced to continue to carry the material load and moral responsibility. The outcome is predictable: a minimum degree of order will be restored on the border with limited Egyptian policing without the assistance of a wall, and demands will be made of Israel again to reopen the border crossings into its territory and provide humanitarian aid.
Fishman has one thing right: the status quo has changed. Hamas is now more free than ever to import weapons, raise international funds, and receive military training from hostile states and terrorist groups. The breaching of the border fence means that Gaza will become an even more dangerous and externally threatening place. The reality is that the old rules still apply. With better access to weapons, training, and material resources, the attacks will intensify while Israel’s military options remain circumscribed by international opinion. In fact, Fishman’s argument is quite familiar from the original disengagement. So Ariel Sharon‘s argument followed, once Israel withdraws not only will it gain greater international legitimacy, but it will finally have an international border across which it will respond to attacks rather than a contested domestic one. In theory, this would mean that Israel would be free to respond to terrorism and qassam fire given that the occupation excuse would no longer apply. This was not the case then and it is not the case now.
Gaza’s border with Israel will only become quiet when some degree of deterrence is established (if such a state of affairs is even materially or diplomatically possible). Unfortunately, this is not something that the international community nor the largely-liberal Israeli public itself is willing to allow.