x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

A whole history of betrayal in one hour in Beit Hanoun

Gazans are alone. But how did that come about? Alan Philps tries to find the answer

A Palestinian girl carries belongings as she and her family leave the Abu Hussein U.N. school in the Jebaliya refugee camp, northern Gaza Strip, hit by an Israeli strike. Khalil Hamra / AP Photo
A Palestinian girl carries belongings as she and her family leave the Abu Hussein U.N. school in the Jebaliya refugee camp, northern Gaza Strip, hit by an Israeli strike. Khalil Hamra / AP Photo

There is a YouTube clip that condenses one hour in the life of the Beit Hanoun district of the Gaza Strip into a time-lapse video of 72 seconds. In that time an entire residential area is demolished by Israeli high explosives. This is the fate of the buffer zone that Israel is clearing – 44 per cent of the territory of the strip: a wasteland created in one brief hour. The residents forced to flee Beit Hanoun may well have been among those who sought shelter in the United Nations schools that were shelled by the Israeli army.

Firepower used on an unprecedented scale is not a trick of the camera. In 2002, the Israeli air force dropped a one-tonne bomb on the home of Salah Shehadeh, head of the military wing of Hamas, killing him and 14 members of his family. At the time, this was seen by many in Israel as excessive, even verging on the criminal.

According to Yuli Novak, of Breaking the Silence, which encourages veterans to speak about their army experience in the occupied territories, Israel has dropped more than 100 one-tonne bombs on Gaza in the current conflict. What was the exception in 2002 is now routine. So routine, in fact, that the United States is rushing supplies of ammunition to Israel, just as it did in the 1973 war when it was defending itself against the armies of Egypt and Syria, not the ragtag forces of Hamas.

I have not been to Gaza for a decade but I do get messages from there. One is from a health worker who wrote: “I cannot understand how the world is closing its eyes to all the obvious crimes against civilians in Gaza.” She concludes: “Our people in Gaza know that the world has chosen to leave them alone to face Israel’s massive power and I’m afraid they will never be able to forgive.”

Shortly after I got this message, I heard the new British foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, venture into the minefield of Middle East politics. In 2010, David Cameron, the British prime minister, had referred to Gaza as a “prison camp” and said Israel should ease its blockade, so perhaps Mr Hammond might have some strong words. No chance. He kept to the safe ground of how the conflict looks, rather than the substance, saying western public opinion was turning against Israel because of the scale of the action in Gaza. He refused to call the action “disproportionate”.

So my Gaza correspondent is right. They are alone. But how did that come about?

Facts are no consolation when you are under attack, but the history is clear. Israel has succeeded beyond its dreams in keeping every­one except Washington away from the Israel-Palestine peace negotiations. In the past, the United Nations was a powerful influence and there used to be distinct European and Russian views on the Middle East. That died when the European Union, the UN and Russia folded their efforts into the US-led Quartet.

All these centres of power and influence have given way to Washington. In the minds of the diplomats who count, Israel-Palestine is separate from the rest of the ferment in the Arab world.

But even Washington’s relentless Israel-first approach is not enough for the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. John Kerry, the US secretary of state, spent a year trying to forge a peace agreement but his efforts collapsed over Israel’s insistence on building more settlements on occupied land. Mr Kerry’s assistant, the lifetime pro-Israeli advocate Martin Indyk, blamed Mr Netanyahu for the failure of the talks, saying he kept “humiliating” the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, with repeated announcements of new settlement plans.

Diplomatically, the stage is as lifeless as the ruins of Beit Hanoun. Mr Netanyahu has ruled out a Palestinian state. As for Hamas, at the start of the year it was friendless and broke, having lost the support of Egypt after last year’s military takeover. Under these constraints, it agreed with Mr Abbas’s Fatah movement for a unity government to be based in the West Bank – a move that could perhaps have transformed the diplomatic landscape.

Since the war broke out, the conciliatory tone of the Hamas leadership has been replaced by steely demands that any ceasefire agreement must ease the blockade that Israel and Egypt are imposing on the Gaza Strip. With few friends in the region’s governments, Hamas is now writing a heroic myth of lonely resistance. While Hamas’s success in attacking Israel or defending its own people is minimal, resistance is a powerful message for the disaffected youth of the Arab world.

As for the Israelis, the mood has also changed. Assaults in Gaza are so common that Israelis use the term “mowing the lawn” to describe them – a regular chore. But the discovery of an unexpectedly large network of tunnels has given the military a green light to go much further.

There is something unsettling about tunnels in any war zone, but in Gaza’s case they are far more serious. Israel controls the sea, the sky and most of Gaza borders. It registers every birth. It knows who lives in each house, and what their phone numbers are, and can call them up and tell them by name that they have three minutes to leave. Imagine what confidence that gives the Israeli security establishment when the enemy is defenceless before them. But actually all the while there was a subterranean world into which Israeli drones could not peer.

According to the Israeli press, the cabinet is divided over whether to try to “eradicate” Hamas from Gaza, or declare victory and withdraw. The framing of the issue is absurd. If Hamas is crushed, another movement even more radical will take its place. With most of the population of Gaza being refugees, they need the world to take an interest in their future, not let them rot for another generation.

The real issue the Israelis should be focusing on is how much longer they can keep the issue of Gaza separate from the revolutionary ferment in Syria and Iraq? Not forever.

Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs

On Twitter: @aphilps