What does Israel hope to achieve by striking Gaza?

Israel says the goal is not to remove Hamas but to reassert Israel’s “deterrence” capability.

What just happened in Gaza? It depends which version you want. The Israeli one, rapidly disseminated through media, was that it had “elminated” Hamas’s military chief, Ahmed Jabari and attacked Hamas weapons infrastructure to stop the rain of rockets firing into southern Israel. The Islamist group Hamas has ruled the Gaza strip since 2006, the same number of years that the area has been under a crippling siege. The rapid Israeli dissemination, by the way, included army tweets of a video clip showing the moment a rocket dropped on Jabari’s car and this message: “We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low-level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead.”

This “targeted assassination”, which killed at least eight others, including two children, and the subsequent Israeli bombardment broke a shaky truce that Egypt had just mediated. In the past weeks, Israel has killed civilians in Gaza, including three children, and wounded dozens more, while Israeli soldiers and civilians have been wounded in attacks from Gaza. Israel holds Hamas responsible for the attacks, even though most of it comes from other fighter groups which Hamas is struggling to control. Now, the Islamist movement has said that Israel has “opened the gates of hell” and is retaliating with a blitz of rockets – three Israeli civilians are reported dead, while residents in the south have been urged to stay indoors. This could get bigger and more deadly.

The parallels with Israel’s deadly assault on Gaza in late 2008 are clear. Then, around 1,400 Gazans, mostly civilians, were killed in a bloody, 22-day offensive that Israel launched just after Obama was sworn-in as president and just before an Israeli election. Yesterday, Zehava Galon, who chairs Israel’s left-wing Meretz party, described the Israeli government as: “A team of pyromaniacs that want to cause war on the eve of elections.” The assessment is that prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his defence minister Ehud Barak are showing some of the forceful leadership that Israelis seem to love at the ballot box. War, or course, removes other issues – such as rising social discontent – from the campaign agenda for elections taking place in late January 2013. Now Israeli politicians of all the main parties are backing Netanyahu’s strikes on Gaza – to do otherwise, when the war drums are beating, would be tantamount to treason and an electoral turn-off. When Israeli army radio reported the Meretz quote about pyromaniacs, the presenters added that it was hard to believe Israeli Jews were saying such things.

So once again Gazans are trapped in a sealed strip and terrorised by heavy bombardment – from airstrikes and gunships, while Israel has said that ground troops are on stand-by, too. Thirteen Palestinians are reported dead.

But the assault carries more risk for Israel this time, given the dramatic changes in the Middle East. Israel no longer has the tacit support of a compliant president Mubarak in Egypt, nor does it have Turkey as ally. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is like a mothership for Hamas; it has said that Egypt: “will not allow the Palestinians to be subjected to Israeli aggression, as in the past”. Egypt has recalled its ambassador to Israel, while the Israeli envoy in Cairo was also told to pack his bags.

Israel says the goal this time is not to remove Hamas (as was the objective in 2008) but to reassert Israel’s “deterrence” capability – or in other, more stomach-turning words, to strike until it is deemed that the lesson has been learned.

You can find Rachel on Twitter as @RachShabi

A plume of smoke rises over Gaza during an Israeli air strike, as seen from Sderot. Photograph: Getty Images
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The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood