18 January, 2009

Gaza: Unilateral Cease-Fire

It's nice that the bombs have (mostly) stopped falling, but I call bullshit:

JERUSALEM – Israel declared a unilateral cease-fire in the Gaza Strip on Sunday meant to end three devastating weeks of war against Hamas militants, but just hours later militants fired a volley of rockets into southern Israel, officials said, threatening to reignite the violence.

No one was injured in the assault in which five rockets were fired and four landed. But shortly afterward, security sources in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun reported an airstrike that wounded a woman and her child. The Israeli military had no comment.

In another incident after the truce took hold, militants fired small arms at an infantry patrol, which directed artillery and aircraft to strike back, the military said.

"Israel will only act in response to attacks by Hamas, either rockets into Israel or firing upon our forces," government spokesman Mark Regev said. "If Hamas does deliberately torpedo this cease-fire, they are exposing themselves before the entire international community as a group of cynical extremists that have absolutely no interest in the well-being of the people of Gaza."

Regev would not say what level of violence would provoke Israel to call off the truce.

So, Israel unilaterally declares the war over - for now. Why unilaterally? Because they don't want to deal with Hamas. A bilateral agreement would mean that Israel has to make concessions it doesn't want to make, and would take a few days longer. So hey, presto! temporary peace, unless of course they break it.

Hamas isn't terribly impressed with the whole idea:

In a televised address, Mr Olmert warned militants in Gaza that if they "decide the blows they've been dealt are not sufficient and they are interested in continuing the fight, Israel will be prepared for such and feel free to continue to react with force".

The ceasefire came into effect at 0200.

Hamas has rejected the move, saying any continued Israeli presence in Gaza would be regarded as an act of war.

"The occupier must halt his fire immediately and withdraw from our land and lift his blockade and open all crossings and we will not accept any one Zionist soldier on our land, regardless of the price that it costs," Hamas spokesman Farzi Barhoum said, shortly before the ceasefire began.

I can guarantee you Israel knew that's precisely what Hamas would say. This, my darlings, is a publicity stunt. Listen to what Olmert says and it shouldn't leave you in doubt:

Israel's "goals have been achieved, and even more", Mr Olmert said.

Hamas was badly damaged both militarily and in terms of government infrastructure; rocket factories and dozens of smuggling tunnels had been destroyed, he said.

But the success of the ceasefire depended on Hamas, he said.

Troops would remain in Gaza for the time being and if Hamas held fire, the military would "consider pulling out of Gaza at a time that befits us".

Note the studious ignoring of one of Hamas's major conditions: Israel will pull out of Gaza when it damned well feels like it. Which is guaranteed to provoke Hamas into continuing its attacks, as we've already seen. On top of this, Olmert's claim that Israel made all of its goals and more is utter, unvarnished bullshit. Observe:

Israel stopped its offensive before reaching a long-term solution to the problem of arms smuggling into Gaza, one of the war's declared aims.

And furthermore:

Israel succeeded in hurting Hamas and in creating an international awareness of the need to prevent weapons from being smuggled into the Gaza Strip, but not all the operation's objectives were accomplished. Rocket fire from the Strip into Israel continued throughout, and it will take a few weeks to determine whether they will stop. A humanitarian crisis in Gaza was not averted and it is not clear whether the likelihood of securing the release of abducted IDF soldier Gilad Shalit has increased.


But Hamas' gains cannot be ignored: It has won international legitimacy and sympathy, and its forces still control the Gaza Strip.

So I agree with those observers who believe that Israel stopped bombing at this moment because they want no dead children distracting from Obama's inauguration, which may rather get up Obama's nose at a time when they need to ingratiate him. They stopped bombing in such a way as to almost guarantee Hamas keeps firing rockets at Israel, which will allow Israel to play the victim once more. "See? We wanted peace. We stopped hitting them, all we were doing was everything that led to this conflict in the first place - minor little things like trying to starve Gaza into submission, trying to force a puppet government on them, destroying what little economy and infrastructure they have left."

If the Palestinians resist hitting out after all of the suffering they've endured and will continue to endure under the Israelis, they'll be candidates for sainthood.

These are some of the pieces they're left to pick up.

The group of boys gather defiantly to play soccer each day, war-weary after three weeks of near-constant shelling and dearly in need of some childhood release.

This border town of a couple hundred thousand people has been especially hard hit during the 22-day Israeli assault against Hamas militants in Gaza as Israel seeks to destroy hundreds of tunnels used to smuggle in weapons — but which also provide an economic lifeline for destitute Gazans.


The children, along with much of the population, have grown indifferent to the roaring fighter jets overhead and the all-powerful thuds of explosions nearby.

"We're not afraid of the bombs anymore, we play football everyday," 13-year-old Mohammed Gheiss said Saturday. Gheiss is the goalkeeper for the small team of boys playing in a relatively safe wasteland about a mile from the more dangerous border area.

"What's sad is that we're not as many as before," he said, pointing at the improvised tent nearby for the wake of his friend, Eissa Ermallat.

Eissa, 12, died a day earlier, hit by an unmanned Israeli warplane attack while collecting firewood, said his father, Mohammed Ermallat, who led the group of mourners.

Eissa's friend, 12-year-old Amir Jeradat, was unable to attend the wake, laid up in an-Najar hospital just 100 yards away with a fractured arm from the same attack.

"We heard the drone but we didn't see it until it fell a meter from us," the boy said. "We were just playing, it was calm, I don't understand."

How do you explain such things to children? How will they grow up remembering anything other than bombs falling senselessly as they try to play?

There's so much that's inexplicable:

Being from Gaza these days is a burden. Everyone who knows me is asking about my family. And all I can answer is how they were four days ago when I could reach them last. They have no electricity now, and I can only hope they are alright.

I can tell you how they were when I last checked on them.

My cousin Rabah's house was hit directly by an Israeli strike. This is tragic irony. Rabah opposes Hamas deeply. But missiles do not care about such things.

His brother Yehia, also a critic of Hamas, is a local journalist. His office was hit.


Until seven days ago, Beit Lahia, our town, had been relatively safer. My family's five-story home suffered substantial damage. In addition, my family's neighborhood mosque was one of the 70 hit by Israel. Seventeen worshipers lost their lives as they were praying. Abu Mazin, my father, is probably not surprised by the worsening situation. He often said, "The past is the good part. At least we know how painful it was. The future is scary because it always gets worse for us Palestinians." He also told me that our town has been hit by what he can only describe as a time machine that took them 50 years backward.


Three days ago, I read my cousin's name on the internet, Amal (Arabic for Hope). She was 22 years old. Standing at the kitchen sink, she was fatally wounded. A sniper shot her in the head and she fell to the ground on Omar, my nephew who told me the story, was mortified. Amal passed away when her heart gave up.

Why seventy mosques bombed? Why was a young woman shot in the head by a sniper doing no more than standing at her own kitchen sink? What explains violence this senseless?

Apologists for Israel try. They try to explain (h/t):
Your unit, on the edges of the northern Gaza town of Jabaliya, has taken mortar fire from the crowded refugee camp nearby. You prepare to return fire, and perhaps you notice -- or perhaps you don't, even though it's on your map -- that there is a United Nations school just there, full of displaced Gazans. You know that international law allows you to protect your soldiers and return fire, but also demands that you ensure that there is no excessive harm to civilians. Do you remember all that in the chaos?

This was the Steven Erlanger's lead on a front page story in the New York Times today that went on at great length rationalizing Israeli conduct during their assault on Gaza. It ran the same day that Israel hit a fourth UN school. Four of them. The Times cannot even publish its rationalization of the last UN school bombing before a new one is hit.

Reading it made me physically ill. Move the context to, say, Bosnia. Imagine a front page story in the Times sympathizing with the tough calls that had to be made by those poor Serb gunners bearing down on the besieged city. Or better, to the Warsaw ghetto during the Second World War. You know, the place where those sneaky Jewish irregulars refused to come out and fight like a legitimate army and instead hid among the civilian population.

Four UN schools. Seventy mosques. Countless houses where civilians had been told they should gather for safety. All bombed. And sometimes, yes, there were Hamas militants fighting and then fading away. But not in the vast majority of cases. In most, witnesses, including international observers (in case you're one of those who doesn't believe a word those self-serving Palestinians say), advised there had been no rockets fired, no bullets shot. Just sudden and catastrophic death unleashed by an Israeli tank or warplane, for no reason anyone could discern.

And now we have a unilateral cease-fire that does nothing to address any concerns for Israel's. Somehow, some way, the Palestinians are supposed to accept this as their lot. Their fault their children were maimed and killed. Their fault they have lost nearly everything. Their fault they are penned in like cattle, denied food and fuel and a scrap of human dignity.

Israel promises that things will be better if the Palestinians just stop shooting their rockets, but that's been tried and failed. They have no trust left:

And Abu Moustafa does not trust the Israelis to provide for people in Gaza.

"We depended on the tunnels for all our supplies," he said.

"They were our lifeline. Now we are totally cut off from the outside world. The Israelis promise to open the crossings - but they have made those promises before."

So for the moment, while the rockets may have stopped, many of the same uncertainties remain.

There is only temporary relief here. The longer-term future of the Gaza people is as precarious as ever.
Israel believes it gained something with this war. I don't see it. All I see is loss:

But with this latest ceasefire, the town of Rafah is now counting its losses.

Every family has been touched by this war.

At the morgue they were still queuing on Saturday for the bodies. In the corner of the room a small boy wept - a son without a father.

And there are plenty of fathers without sons.

Ziad Al Absi lost three of his boys. A rocket attack on his house destroyed his bedroom, where his children were sleeping around him.

But neighbours say Mr Absi is nothing to do with Hamas.

"I only support Palestinians who kills Israelis," said Mr Absi. "Because the Israelis believe all our children are terrorists."

Deeper hatred

And therein lies the dangerous legacy of this war. The hatred runs deeper than ever, with the next generation of Palestinians already vowing revenge.

There may be a cease-fire. It might even hold for a day, ten days, a few months. But after all of the destruction, lasting peace seems to be among the casualties.

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