The latest flare-up of fighting on the Gaza-Israel front has generated the usual round of statements and bravado on both sides, but among the predictability of developments are also some important new elements.
Three of these are in the Arab world, which is not surprising, given the historic changes taking place across the region. The responses from Israelis and the U.S. government, on the other hand, appear depressingly consistent with Zionism’s history of reliance on military force as the main instrument of dealing with Palestinians and Arabs, and Washington’s structurally pro-Israel position in the conflict. The first and most important thing to say about the rekindled killing across the Israel-Gaza border is its sheer futility and waste. Neither side has the ability to completely wipe out the other, for that is what would be required to end this conflict for good. That will not happen, as both sides have proven over the past 35 years or so – since Hamas’ emergence in Palestine – that they are willing and able to keep fighting, despite the tremendous cost to their people.
More killing and destruction will not resolve this conflict, but a lack of a fair and negotiated resolution also means that more killing and destruction are inevitable. We should note three important new dimensions of the conflict on the Arab side, about the constantly improving technical capabilities of Palestinian resistance groups, the emergence of more radical Islamist groups over time in Gaza and around the region, and the impact of public opinion and the new, legitimate, governments in power in some Arab states. All three together suggest that a shift in the strategic balance of power may be under way in the Middle East, with huge implications.
The more advanced rockets in the hands of Palestinian resistance forces in Gaza that reached Tel Aviv Thursday generate a significant new dimension of psychological fear in Israel that mirrors the fear and tension that Israel’s aerial attacks have long inflicted on Palestinians and Lebanese. The ability of Palestinians today to fire rockets deeper into Israel, and, presumably, with more accuracy in due course, is just one indicator of the fact that time is not on Israel’s side. As long as the crime of dispossession and refugeehood that was committed against the Palestinian people in 1947-48 is not redressed through a peaceful and just negotiation that satisfies the legitimate rights of both sides, we will continue to see enhancements in both the determination and the capabilities of Palestinian fighters – as has been the case since the 1930s. Only stupid or ideologically maniacal Zionists fail to come to terms with this fact.
It is important to note the remarks by Gaza Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh Thursday night that Gazans and Palestinians everywhere will keep struggling for their national rights, with the key issue for them being the Palestinian right of return. His comments, and the resurgence of fighting, only remind everyone that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about what happened in 1947-48, not only what happened in 1967. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius noted correctly this week that, “It would be a catastrophe if there is an escalation in the region. Israel has the right to security but it won’t achieve it through violence. The Palestinians also have the right to a state.”
The second major new element in this round of fighting is the steady expansion of militant Islamists in Gaza, such as Islamic Jihad and other small groups, who make Hamas look like a relative softie. The rockets being fired into Israel emanate from several Salafist Islamist groups that have sprung up in Gaza alongside Hamas in the last decade. This mirrors trends across the Arab world, where Salafists are serving in newly elected and legitimate parliaments. This also should serve as a wake-up call to the reality that has reigned since the 1960s: if Israel does not come to terms with the political groups that now hold power in Palestine and Arab states, it will have to deal with more militant ones in the future.
The third new element is the changed environment in Arab public opinion around the region, where young new governments more accurately reflect the sentiments of their citizens vis-à-vis the Palestine issue. We should keep our eyes on how Tunisians and Egyptians, in particular, react to the Gaza situation. They will not go to war with Israel, but they are likely to find new and meaningful ways to express real support for Palestinians, which will increase the political pressure on Israel.
Where this combination of new elements leads us over time is not yet clear. I hope it eventually pushes all sides to acknowledge that only a fair, negotiated, resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian and wider Arab-Israeli conflicts can serve the legitimate rights of all concerned, in a way that rockets in Gaza and Tel Aviv never will.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @RamiKhouri