‘Gaza is a tragic place’, observed John Lyons, The Australian’s Middle East correspondent, the other day. It certainly is. Gaza must be one of the worst places in the world in which to live or at least try to survive. For starters, its population of more than 1.7 million long-suffering Palestinians has to live in an area of just 365 sq km. Compare that with Sydney’s 12,145 sq km. They have no control over their Mediterranean waters or their air space. That belongs to Israel. Israel, along with Egypt, controls who and what come in and out, making it as some see it the occupying power even though it officially disengaged from there in 2005.
The people of Gaza live under the rule of Hamas which has done little to advance their economic prospects. While Hamas was democratically elected, its leaders have shown scant concern for the well-being of the electorate. They have mounted relentless rocket attacks on neighbouring Israeli towns and other Jewish targets, knowing full well the deadly consequences. The Israel Defence Force website tracks the number of rockets launched. Since Hamas came to power in 2006 the total is a figure many Australians would find hard to comprehend as part of our daily life: 11,687.
Three times in the past six years, Israel has been sufficiently provoked to go to war against Hamas with punishing and lopsided results for Gazans as we are witnessing at present. For them, that means Israeli shells whistling in from tanks on the sand dunes along the border or warships off the coast or missiles from the air. Homes are destroyed or blown up in an instant. So are what normally would be thought to be safe places for Gazans to seek shelter, such as schools, mosques, hospitals and even refugee camps. Currently, the U.N. says 167,000 Gazans are displaced.
Israel says it targets only sites which it claims Hamas uses to store rockets or from which to fire them. It tries to warn residents in the vicinity that an attack is just minutes away. While this may be noble in the absence of rules in today’s warfare, the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem says more than half the Gazan dead are innocent civilians. The total Gaza death toll in the current offensive is more than 1350 as well as 56 Israeli soldiers and three civilians. The Gaza Health Ministry says the number of injured is 6000. Who knows what the long-term trauma might be for Gazans, not to forget those Israelis having to live with the constant threat of rockets hitting them.
Gazans may well hope that the U.S. will arrange a settlement to bring them peace. John Kerry, the Secretary of State, mishandled the talks to try to achieve that, according to many observers. He has virtually walked away from them now, much to the satisfaction of hardline Israelis. President Obama urged Benjamin Netanyahu to cease the Israeli bombardment. The Israeli leader simply ignored him and increased the attacks just as he did with the same plea from the U.N. Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon. It is yet another example of Washington’s influence in foreign affairs counting for so little these days, even with one of its closest allies.
It also must be yet another cause for disillusionment by Gazans. Some may even hark back to the days when Israel occupied their tormented land. The economy was much better then, thanks in part to the 9000 Israelis who settled there. They brought industry and agriculture, creating hundreds of jobs. But the settlers were evicted when Israel relinquished control of Gaza in 2005.
When Hamas came to power in 2006, the U.S. and the European Union refused to recognise it and suspended direct aid. They regarded it as a terrorist organisation. Hamas had to rely on aid from friendly countries like Turkey, Qatar and Iran.Then Hamas and Fatah, which controlled the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority umbrella, fell out. This led to more distress for Gazans: power struggles and Palestinians (Gazans) killing each other – 600 no less.
Next, Israel imposed economic blockades in response to Hamas rocket attacks. Egypt, which controlled the south-west border, joined in because of suspected connections between Hamas and terrorist groups operating in the Sinai. All this led to shortages of fuel, urgently-needed medical supplies and cement and building materials. At times the border was closed altogether, preventing Gazans carrying out employment in Israel. At one stage, they had no power for seven weeks. In fact, this week’s Israeli bombardment has knocked out the power station again.
But Gazans were not without ingenuity. They dug tunnels from Egypt in particular to smuggle in all manner of supplies, including rockets. Emboldened, they also dug a network of tunnels to infiltrate Israel. Given Israel’s record of security vigilance, it is astonishing that the tunnels managed to escape detection. Their discovery further inflamed Israel, resulting in the ferocity of its current action to destroy them along with Hamas’ weapons arsenal.
The chances of a permanent settlement are remote. Israel says it is determined to crush Hamas and would not consider any deal until its foe was fully disarmed. Hamas says it has no interest in any deal with conditions. Indeed it would be contrary to its whole raison d’être of wanting to drive Israel from occupied land. So for now we can expect a continuation of those distressing images of anguish and tears as Gazans learn of the deaths of their loved ones and return to what is left of their homes and of Israelis as they bury their soldiers and run for cover when sirens alert them of another Hamas rocket on its way.
The overwhelming military might of Israel and its destructive deeds against its comparative Dad’s Army neighbour have been a disaster for the Jewish state’s international image. It has provoked ugly attacks of anti- Semitism, especially in Europe. But a poll shows that the overwhelming majority of Israelis are in favour of the offensive against Hamas.
Wars have never brought genuine peace to the Middle East. They never will, given the deep historic, cultural and religious differences. The antagonists have created so much hostility among themselves that the likelihood of any enduring peace settlement is remote and the cycle of violence will continue its terrible toll.
FOOTNOTE: In 1972, five years after Israel drove out the Egyptian forces and began its occupation of Gaza, I visited the territory. I was amazed to encounter a small factory where Gazans were making Israeli military uniforms. ‘Why not?’ someone said. ‘We need jobs’. Nothing has changed except the relaxed atmosphere in Gaza then is anything but today.
John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.