And in the Middle East ... ever thus it was

Keeble McFarlane

Saturday, November 24, 2012

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It's been quiet for the past couple of nights in the Gaza Strip and its environs in Israel, after a cease-fire brokered by the new Islamist leaders of Egypt working in concert with the United States. Palestinians, who had hunkered down in their densely populated city-state for eight days of Israeli bombing, flooded into the streets a couple of days ago to view damaged or destroyed houses and government buildings. Across the border, schools in southern Israel remained closed and jittery citizens went about their business with jangled nerves after the rain of rockets had ceased. It was the worst outbreak of hostilities between Israel and the Palestinians in four years.

It was an uneven battle, with the militant Islamist group, Hamas, which rules Gaza, sending some 1400 rockets into Israel, killing two soldiers and four civilians. Israel retaliated by dropping a thousand times as much explosives into Gaza as it received. One hundred and sixty-three Palestinians, including 37 children, died during the Israeli onslaught.

Although Gaza has been a source of attacks against Israel by Hamas for years, the latest flare-up began last week when an extremely accurate Israeli strike took the life of Ahmed Al-Jaabari, military chief of Hamas. According to Israel's intelligence agency, Shin Bet, Jaabari was the mastermind of a raid launched from Gaza in 2006 in which an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, had been captured. Five years later, he helped negotiate Corporal Shalit's release in exchange for 1047 Palestinians prisoners the Israelis were holding. For this he earned praise among his fellow-Gazans, but to him it became a death sentence from Israel. And so right he was.

Jaabari was at one time a loyal supporter of the storied Palestinian leader, Yassir Arafat. The Israelis captured him from 1882 to 1995 for terrorist activity on behalf of Arafat's Fatah movement. After his release, he switched to the more militant Hamas and served as deputy to the movement's chief commander, Mohammed Deif. After Deif was severely wounded in an Israeli attack, Jaabari took charge of the armed wing of Hamas. An Israeli air strike on his house in 2004 killed six people, including his son, and left him wounded, after which he adopted a very low public profile.

Israel had long employed assassination of top Palestinian militants as part of its security strategy. Armed Islamist forces, including Hamas, say as a result they have no option but to retaliate. And so the cycle of violence continues. Israel and Hamas have been constant combatants since 1987, when Hamas was created out of the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, against Israeli occupation.

Gaza has long history but now in hard times

Gaza is one of the earliest places with human settlement - people have lived there for 5000 years, making Gaza City one of the oldest in the world. There is a hill southeast of the city with a long and colourful history. It's not very high, rising only 82 metres above the Mediterranean Sea, and has a Muslim shrine at its summit, dedicated to the entity from which its gets its name - Ali al-Muntar, or Ali of the Watchtower. The first many of us heard of the place was from the story of Samson, the biblical giant who tore down the gates of the Philistines and took them to the hill.

Situated at the south-eastern corner of the Mediterranean, Gaza has served for most of its history as an important trading post in the spice trade linking the countries around the Red Sea with those further north and east. It is one of the most congested places on earth whose population of around 1.7 million is crammed into 365 square kilometres (a little smaller than the parish of Hanover). The city itself occupies 45 square kilometres housing almost half a million people and is the biggest in all of the Palestinian territories.

Gaza was administered by Egypt for many years until 1967, when the Israelis captured it during the Six Day War. They occupied the area for 38 years during which Israeli settlements were a constant source of tension until Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers in 2005. The next year Hamas won an election in Gaza and took complete control of the strip at the expense of the more moderate faction, Fatah, led by Mahmoud Abbas, which runs parts of the West Bank. In retaliation, Israel quickly tightened a blockade, restricting the movement of people and commodities into and out of the territory.

The main economic activities are farming, fishing and light manufacturing. Agriculture takes the form of fruit, flower and vegetable growing, but farming is limited by security zones and lack of adequate water supplies. Fishing is limited to a small three nautical mile zone and much of the water is polluted by raw sewage and runoff. Industry consists mainly of textiles, food processing and furniture, but Israel has imposed severe restrictions on imports and exports which hinder progress. The population relies on extensive international humanitarian assistance, much of it from UN agencies. So the life of the average Gazan is a miserable one, and the prospects of significant improvement seem a long way off.

Israeli jitters

What scares many Israelis in the southern part of the country is the proximity of Gaza to many of its major centres - Jerusalem is only 78 kilometres to the northeast, Tel Aviv is 71 kilometres to the north, and Be'er Sheva, a city of almost 200,000 on the edge of the Negev desert, is about 50 kilometres to the southeast.

As rockets rain in from launchers in Gaza, warning sirens go off and people take cover. The Israeli army has rockets which can intercept the missiles coming in from Gaza, but these don't work every time, so citizens of these population centres are always on edge. Over the past few years the young men of Hamas have developed crude home-made rockets which are not very accurate but which can inflict considerable damage and terrify populations in their path. Recently they have been obtaining more sophisticated arms from Iran, smuggled through tunnels under the boundary with Egypt.

The area seems destined for a future which mirrors the past: attack, panic, last-minute negotiations producing a truce, then a fallback to a sullen peace during which resentments fester and violence erupts again. This time, there is a new player on the block - Egypt, which has elected a president and government from the Muslim Brotherhood. Many had interpreted this as a sign of more trouble for Israel and a tilt to increased trouble-making, but President Mohammed Morsi, while expressing solidarity with the Palestinians, is also acting as a peace broker. And overshadowing all is the United States. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton broke off a trip to southeast Asia to make the talks in Cairo, and was able to rope in the reluctant Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to at least accept a truce until something more substantial can be worked out.

But apart from the lack of flying rockets and the edgy ceasefire, there isn't much that's new in the situation. As the French would say, the more things change ...




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