Sifting Through the Rubble of Gaza

To the extent that my posting on Gaza over the past few weeks has focused on political and strategic analysis, it might have come across as callous to the human suffering taking place there. For the record, debates about whether a war is causing a humanitarian crisis always strike me as a waste of time. War, by its definition, is a humanitarian crisis, and the way in which this one was prosecuted, along with the nature of Gaza — which amounts to an open-air prison from which the civilian population can not flee — exacerbated that sad fact. That’s why I am always instinctively and a priori in favor of ending wars, and also why I’m glad to see that the coincidental orders to hold fire have more or less held.

That said, there are political and strategic implications of the way in which the fighting was halted, and Mouin Rabbani summarizes my initial reaction to the Israeli announcement, in particular, of a unilateral ceasefire in this interview with Al Jazeera:

. . . [I]f a key objective of Israel is to delegitimise Hamas, it does not make sense, from an Israeli perspective, to be part of a ceasefire agreement in which Hamas is also a party.

It would be more logical, again looking at this from an Israeli perspective, to make a unilateral statement: We stop the bombing as of today or Monday or whatever; Here are the new rules; if so much as a coke can is thrown over the Israel-Gaza border, we send in an F-16 – there is no ceasefire that restrains us, so if we get intelligence that a particular Hamas leader is in a particular house, since there is no ceasefire, we send in the missiles.

You have, more or less, a situation of open-ended conflict, but the main offensive will have ended.

That essentially allows Israel to dodge the logical trap that I’d flagged here, and also significantly undermines any potential Hamas victory narrative, which could in turn impact its standing among thePalestinian people — although that remainsto be seen. For those who believe that Hamas can not or will not ever be able to coexist with Israel, this must seem like a stroke of strategicgenius.

But that’s ultimately a game of smoke and mirrors. Even if Hamas’ credibility has been fatally undermined, and that’s not at all certain, it remains the only authority with whom Israel can negotiate the initial confidence-buildingmeasures and subsequent stable truce needed to make sure thiswhole thing doesn’t repeat itself at some point in the near- tomid-term future.

It seems clear, in retrospect, that Israel’s goal has been to internationalize the border issue all along, while guarding theright to unilaterally intervene in Gaza, all without legitimizing Hamas as an international actor. Although the terms of theU.S.-Israeli agreement signed over the weekend have yet to be madepublic, and the outcome of any European or third-party participation in securing the border is uncertain, I can only imagine that the Israeli strategic command believes it got what itwanted.

But if so, the gains come at an enormous price, first and foremost to Israel’s international standing, second (and not far behind in importance) to Mahmoud Abbas, third to Hamas, fourth to Egypt, which — although it ultimately succeeded in mediating the truce — has given ample propaganda ammunition to its domestic and foreign opposition for mediating on behalf of Israel’s security concerns. And the list goes on.

If there’s one bright spot to the whole endgame, it’s that, with all the other actors dramatically weakened, President-elect Obama comes out relatively stronger, despite the enormous diplomatic and humanitarian mess he will have inherited. When the dust settles, addressing that diplomatic mess might seem less daunting than addressing the humanitarian mess. To begin with, the status quo ante wouldn’t exactly have been a cakewalk to untangle. But more importantly, and as I argued all along, the fact that the ultimate expiration date of any Israeli offensive was 11:59 p.m., Jan. 19, confirms the enormous deference Obama commands.

It also tips Obama’s stance, despite his public silence on the conflict. After all, between Rahm Emanuel and Hillary Clinton, there’s no shortage of diplomatic channels between the Obama transition team and Israeli decision-makers. So the rigorous timing of the Israeli withdrawal suggests that Obama’s commitment to an immediate end to the bloodshed was unambiguous, firm, and based on Obama’s strategic objectives, not Israel’s.

As for the humanitarian catastrophe that is now Gaza, Amjad Atallah (via Matthew Yglesias) proposes U.S. or EU/Turkish field hospitals on the Egyptian side of the Gaza border, with the IRCR guaranteeing safe transit, as a way of both saving the lives of the wounded that are still in jeopardy and demonstrating that America is not indifferent to the suffering. This has the merit of being both effective and possible.

I, for one, would like to see a bolder gesture. Obama has at times been compared to Eisenhower, who famoulsy ended the 1956 Suez Canal War through some arm-twisting that seems unimaginable today. An American naval hospital ship docked in Gaza and delivering medical services directly to the Palestinian people would communicate not only America’s humanitarian concern, but also its willingness to flex its muscle by sidestepping both Israel and Hamas to advance its interests independently. Not very likely, but a satisfying daydream nonetheless.