A press report earlier this week said that an Israeli military task force that had studied the network of tunnels that Hamas has built in recent years to infiltrate their fighters into Israel was “stunned by the sophistication” of the extent and complexity of the tunnels system. In turn, I am stunned that the Israelis were stunned, because they seem unable to grasp the nature of the conflict they are engaged in against all Palestinians.
Anyone who uses traditional political, diplomatic or military criteria to analyze the current conflict between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza will only become hopelessly lost, and miss the realities that drive both sides — as the stunned Israelis demonstrate. The intensity and savagery of the fighting, and the will to fight and die if necessary on both sides, takes this round of fighting well beyond all previous ones which ended with cease-fire agreements and a few years of calm, before a new round of fighting erupted.
Things are different now because of the failure of two doctrines that have dominated Israeli-Palestinian relations during the past two decades: the Israeli military doctrine of “mowing the lawn” that requires a hard attack against Palestinian resistance groups and civilian infrastructure in Gaza every few years, and Fateh’s and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ negotiating endlessly with Israel without achieving a peace that results in two states living peacefully together.
Both those approaches have failed to achieve their intended goals. The insincerity of Israel in negotiating a peace agreement was clarified by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week, when he stated that even in any peace agreement, Israeli would have to maintain permanent military control of much of the West Bank, which essentially rules out the birth of any viable Palestinian state.
Consequently, the demise of peace talks and the futility of Israel’s repeated attacks against Gaza have shifted this conflict from the realm of the 20th Century Western, liberal, negotiated conflict resolution mode and thrown both sides back into a biblical-era existential battle that can end only in either survival or extinction. The third option that Israel seems to prefer is unworkable and inhuman, because it is essentially a perpetuation of 19th Century colonial rule: a pacified and demilitarized Gazan population that is savagely attacked every time it tries to resist Israeli subjugation, and Israeli military controls defining all other Palestinian borders.
The ancient Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is full of examples and exhortations about the Hebrews/Israelites, Amalekites, Edomites and others annihilating and removing each other from the face of the earth, often with God’s approval, or even divine command. Israelis and Palestinians today understand in their bones the fears of national extermination, exile or decimation, because they have felt it in some manner. Pre-Israeli state European Jews experienced the genocidal crimes of the Nazis and the pogroms of Central Europeans and Russians, and Palestinians in their own world experienced the ethnic cleansing and colonial domination of the Zionists who came and created the Israeli state in a land that was over 93 percent owned and inhabited by Palestinian Arabs. This is not a Bible lesson for both sides; it is a seminar in ugly contemporary history, where you either win and survive, or lose and die.
The intensity and savagery of the Israeli attacks against (mostly) civilians in Gaza are well documented in the media these days, as is the ability of the Palestinian resistance fighters to hit back and kill (mostly) Israeli troops. The problem for Israel is that its overwhelming military strength that allows it to “mow the lawn” every few years has not achieved its goal of a pacified Palestinian population that accepts its subjugated fate.
The sophistication of the tunnel system that Israel now seeks to destroy reflects the determination of the Palestinians living under a colonial-style siege in Gaza to fight back and achieve their freedom, even at the risk of death. It is impossible to miss the fact that during the last half a century every increase in the use of force by Israel has generated an enhanced resistance response by Palestinians, including enhanced will and technical proficiency. The Palestinians do this to achieve three goals that cannot be separated: to stop Israeli military attacks on Gaza, to remove the siege on Gaza and allow its people to live a normal life, and to seek a permanent redress of grievance and end to their refugeehood in an internationally legitimate manner.
The short-term consequences of this round of fighting revolve around how a ceasefire might occur that leads to long-term quiet and normalcy for both peoples. Yet neither side can ignore any more the more important longer-term development, that all concerned must seek a resolution to this conflict that resolves its core claims: How can Jewish Zionists and Christian and Muslim Arab Palestinians live in peace, legitimacy and security in the land they both call home?
Such a conflict that now drives the most powerful survival instincts on both sides cannot be resolved by traditional means, like shuttle diplomacy, American mediation, or confidence-building measures. Returning to the situation of last month is not feasible for Gazans who would remain under siege and attack, while the Israeli, American and Palestinian governments persist in their moribund diplomacy. This round of attacks by Israelis and Palestinians may prove to be most significant for pushing all concerned to seek a permanent resolution of this conflict, rather than letting it fester in 19th Century colonial mode, as has been the case for decades.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global