x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Another war in Gaza, and a deadly indifference to history

When Israeli ambassadors urge the West to let Israel finish Hamas off "so we can sit with moderates and talk peace", it becomes clear why this crisis continues.

When Israel made the decision to assassinate the Hamas military chief, Ahmed Al Jabari, were its leaders foolish enough to assume that would be the end of it?

Having been down this road before, where assassinations only led to escalation and then full-scale hostilities, one might have hoped that someone in the Israeli high command would have recalled 2008 or 2006 (and so many other tragic, bloody episodes in the past) and cautioned that "no good will come of this". Instead, it's more of the same.

On Friday I heard an Israeli ambassador verbalise why this crisis continues: "We must finish them off, so we can sit with moderates and talk peace." More callous-minded Israeli journalists speculated the Netanyahu government was itching for a skirmish as a pre-election display of muscle, to sideline the opposition parties just two months before voting. If the Israelis were making such a crass political calculation for short-term gain, serious questions must be raised about their leadership.

Yet the same goes for the Palestinian side. At what point do they learn that revenge is not a political strategy, and that aimlessly firing a barrage of missiles into Israel is nothing more than a criminal and stupid act? Criminal, because it can result in the deaths of innocent people, and stupid, because it gives the Israelis the pretext to respond with overwhelming and disproportionate force.

There is plenty of speculation in the Arab media regarding Hamas's calculations. Since they won in national elections more than a half decade ago, Hamas has had to face a choice - to attempt to govern or to continue to operate as a "resistance" group. For a short while, it appeared that it might have been ready to behave as a responsible authority attempting to control cross border attacks and planning, with Qatari assistance, a massive Gaza reconstruction effort. But that phase was short-lived. After the assassination of Mr Al Jabari, Hamas took the Israeli bait.

The Arab world does have a lot on its plate and the region is unsettled, but as is so often the case, in an instant, the Palestinian issue comes roaring back. For reasons of history and deep culture, when Palestinians are hurt, the Arabs bleed. Palestine, for Arabs, remains "a wound in the heart that has never healed".

It is an old lesson, but with a new twist. In the past, when Israel was having its way with the Palestinians (or with Lebanon, as was the case in 2006), despite widespread outrage, Arab leaders largely remained on the sidelines. But in the aftermath of the "Arab Spring", Arab public opinion matters. Governments, new and old have their ears to the ground and are more responsive to their public's unrest. Should Israel seek a replay of 2008-2009 and undertake a massive ground assault into Gaza, the new Egyptian government would be hard-pressed to remain quiet. Jordan, facing growing public discontent, would also feel compromised.

Escalating violence would even place the Obama administration in a bind. Still attempting to recover from the devastating blunders of the Bush years and the setback encountered by its own failed Israeli-Palestinian peace bid, the last thing the White House needs is to be confronted with a bloodbath in Gaza.

Washington had its short-term Middle East agenda set. It appeared ready to attempt renewed engagement with Iran in an effort to reach an agreement on that country's nuclear programme. And having successfully worked with regional allies to restructure the Syrian opposition, creating a somewhat more representative body that could receive aid, the US and its partners were prepared to try to hasten the end of that conflict. These plans would be derailed should the clashes in Gaza spin out of control, with the US coming down squarely on Israel's side, alienating Arab public opinion.

Since no one will win and everyone will lose, it might be assumed that sanity will prevail. But given the record of the participants, that might be hoping for too much.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa