In the days following Israel’s assassination of the Hamas military commander Ahmed al-Jabari, history appeared to be repeating itself in the Middle East. As in 2008, when Operation Cast Lead was launched, Israel seemed poised to mount a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, with huge civilian casualties certain to result. The Israeli interior minister, Eliyahu Yishai, spoke of sending Gaza “back to the Middle Ages”. No less chillingly, Hamas’s armed wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, served notice of its intention to resume suicide bombings in Israel. “We’ve missed the suicide attacks. Expect us soon at bus stations and in cafés,” it declared in a propaganda video. That, at the time of going to press, both sides have pulled back from the brink is due largely to the efforts of the Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, who has shown himself to be a pragmatic figure capable of exerting leverage over both Israel and Hamas.
The past week’s events have proved, once again, that there is no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The acknowledgement that Israel has the right to defend itself should not preclude criticism of its actions. As the former foreign secretary David Miliband has observed: “Self-defence is not the same as smart defence.” Rather than weakening Hamas, the assault on Gaza, which has killed more than 135 Palestinians, an estimated half of them civilians, has strengthened it. The Islamist group has enhanced its claim to be the pre-eminent defender of the Palestinian cause. At the same time, the attacks have further marginalised the Palestinian Authority, Israel’s ostensible negotiating partner, which has been reduced to the role of a helpless bystander.
That there have been mercifully few Israeli casualties has more to do with Hamas’s limited weaponry and Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system than it does with any restraint on the Palestinian group’s part. Yet although nothing justifies the rocket attacks on Israel, one cannot ignore the context in which they take place. Since Hamas assumed administrative control of Gaza in 2006, Israel has maintained a draconian and illegal blockade of the strip which has immiserated its 1.7 million residents, 80 per cent of whom are dependent on humanitarian aid.
It was no coincidence that Operation Pillar of Defence was launched as the Palestinians prepared to seek observer status at the United Nations through a vote in the General Assembly on 29 November. Avigdor Lieberman – the Israeli foreign minister and leader of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, which has recently merged with Likud, the party led by the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu – has claimed that the Palestinians will be “destroying the chances of peace talks” if they pursue their campaign for UN recognition.
Yet, through its own actions, Israel has already come close to doing so. In defiance of the UN, the US and the EU, the Likud-led government has continued to expand settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, to the point where there are now more than 550,000 settlers, controlling 42 per cent of the land and representing nearly 10 per cent of the Israeli Jewish population. With every new settlement that is constructed, the possibility of a viable Palestinian state recedes further.
Mr Netanyahu will use the strength of Hamas, which does not recognise Israel, and the weakness of the Palestinian Authority, which does, to argue that he has no “partner for peace”. He would be careless to do so. Israel’s ultimate security depends on the establishment of a Palestinian state, based on the 1967 borders and with East Jerusalem as its capital, and a just settlement for refugees. Should Mr Netanyahu continue to obstruct any progress towards this goal, he will condemn his country to perpetual war.