Friday, January 25, 2008

Gaza Siege Over, Hamas Wins

Late last week, in response to rocket attacks launched into Israel, Israel culminated its ever increasing restrictions in a full blockade of the strip, cutting off fuel, food and medical supplies. In doing so Israel earned worldwide criticism and condemnation for their willingness to violate international law by punishing Palestinian civilians for the acts of Hamas terrorists. But Hamas, in a surprising move, blasted a hole in the wall that separate Gaza from Egypt, permitting tens of thousands of Gazans to stroll into Egypt and simply buy whatever supplies they needed. Egypt has agreed with Israel in the past to control the flow of people and supplies in and out Gaza, but President Mubarak, faced with the pressure of other Arab nations, can now claim Egypt is now doing the best it can to control the border. The Palestinians have now experienced some measure of relief from the blockade imposed upon them, but more significantly Hamas, which was suffering a downturn in fortunes as a result of the earlier cut-offs in supplies that they had provoked with rocket attacks, has once again seized the initiative against Isreal. Via Laura Rozen and Helena Cobben, regional affairs correspondent Zvi Bar-el of HaAretz explains:

The border with Egypt was breached in a single moment, with no warning. It is impossible to refrain from asking whether any of our decision makers, or any of those who whisper in their ears, foresaw this scenario and prepared for it. When Vice Premier Haim Ramon boasts of the impressive decision-making process that preceded last fall's military operation in Syria, his words sound bizarre in light of what is happening in the South.

While hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are streaming into Egyptian Rafah and Hosni Mubarak is having trouble reestablishing the border, while Hamas has succeeded in ending the siege of Gaza via a well-planned operation and simultaneously won the sympathy of the world, which has forgotten the rain of Qassam rockets on Sderot, Israel is entrenching itself in positions that look outdated. The prime minister speaks about the need to continue the closure on Gaza, and the cabinet voices its "disappointment" with Egypt - as if there were ever any chance that the Egyptians would work to protect Israeli interests along the Philadelphi route [i.e., the 7-mile border between Gaza and Egypt] instead of thinking first of all of their own interests. The failure of the siege of Gaza, which the government declared only a week ago to be "bearing fruit," and especially the fear that this failure will lead to a conflict with Egypt, requires the government to pull itself together and prove that it has been graced with the ability to solve crises and to lead, not merely to offer endless excuses for its leadership during previous crises.

As hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were streaming into Sinai by car and making a mockery of Israel's policy in Gaza, the prime minister gave a speech at the Herzliya Conference that sounded disconnected from reality. There is little point in extolling the quiet on the northern border when a diplomatic and security crisis for which Israel has no solution is taking place in the South. The Qassam fire is continuing, the policy of sanctions on Gaza has collapsed and Hamas is growing stronger politically, militarily and diplomatically. It is clear to everyone that reestablishing the border along the Philadelphi route will be impossible without its consent. The confusion that characterized official Israeli responses to the international media shows that the developments in the Gaza Strip took the government completely by surprise.

In his speech, Ehud Olmert declared: "Mistakes were made; there were failures. But in addition, lessons were learned, mistakes were corrected, modes of behavior were changed and, above all, the decisions we have made since then have led to greater security, greater calm and greater deterrence than there had been for many years." Olmert was referring to the Winograd report. But he categorically ignored the fact that what was happening in the South completely contradicts his statements. If that is what learning lessons looks like, if that is what deterrence means, the Olmert government has precious little to boast about.

I'm certainly in no position to explain what Israel should have done. Increased pin-point strikes against Hamas fighters, and more engagement with Abbas maybe? But the blockade of Gaza, following the Summer War in 2006, proves that there are times when the most hawkish and hard-line response is the one that will aid your enemy the most. Retaliation against the civilian population of Gaza was not only wrong, it was the wrong thing to do strategically. And now Israel flounders for a strategy, having thrown a lifeline to Hamas.

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