7 Aug 2014

Why Gaza will prove to be a game-changing event

Rafah, Jalabiya, Beit Hanoun… these names are placeholders for a conflict that never goes away. During a month of fighting they’ve flashed up on our TV screens, or in geo-tagged tweets from citizen journalists.

Numerous UN resolutions outline their status. An entire sub-species of the human race specialises in documenting the conflict: the Middle East reporters, the NGOs, the think tankers. So the danger is, with so much expertise, so many reputations, so many PhDs sunk into the old view of the Middle East, we fail to see what is new in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Or we see only tweaks to an old picture.


Some things, however, were new in the Gaza conflict. Or had emerged and were clearly demonstrated by it. Instead of the “latest round”, it looked to me, at times, like a wholly new situation, and one whose dangers are exacerbated by our failure to see what’s new.

1.   America is weak. The USA’s failure to force Israel to show restraint, even while condemning certain of its actions, is part of the new reality that has emerged during the second Obama presidency. Weakness over Syria turned into weakness over Ukraine, paralysis over the breakup of Iraq, humiliation by the Sisi junta over the jailed Al Jazeera staff, and then humiliation during the first attempts to broker a ceasefire in Gaza.

2.   Hamas is weak. However high its reputation is flying right now with the Palestinian population of Gaza, its strategic alliances have been cut off: the Muslim Brotherhood has had its time in Egypt, the Qatar monarchy is isolated. This war, for Hamas, was a last-ditch attempt to gain something by force – namely a full or partial lifting of the siege – before all its diplomatic leverage evaporated.

3.   Isis has changed the regional dynamic. The possibility of a breakup of Iraq forced Iran to seek a limited détente with the USA over nuclear power. Isis currently holds much of Iraq, a large part of Syria and is certainly building limited, covert support both on the West Bank and Gaza, according to my sources (black Isis flags were tolerated over certain homes in both Rafah and Gaza City, my Gazan source says).

4.   The right, far-right and religious nationalists in Israel are driving its policy. Not only is the anti-war left tiny, but the liberal voices calling for restraint – both on the bombing of Gaza and the settlement of the West Bank – are increasingly treated as treacherous. When the commander of the Givati Brigade called Operation Protective Edge a “holy war” without censure, it was just the latest symptom of a cultural shift. Numerous expert voices have expressed concern that a permanent divide between liberal Zionism in the west and policy and culture in Israel has opened up, that may in the medium term lead to the end of the west’s strategic support for Israel.

5.   The technology of war has evolved. Living for 10 days under constant drone surveillance in Gaza City, it occurred to me that this might be an early foretaste of what large parts of humanity have to suffer in the 21st century: total asymmetry of force. Israel, for certain, carried out indefensible shelling into civilian areas; and its soldiers are reported to have drawn arbitary “red lines”, past which they entitled themselves to shoot civilians. However, the ability to be drone struck, or drone targeted, creates a different issue: many of the homes struck by drones, we have to assume, were targeted because of Hamas members who were alleged to live inside them. But as with the USA in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the drone strikes then killed much of the civilian families who were in those homes. This is extra-judicial killing, by any other name, and in the case of the non-combatants, murder.

6.   Social networks change our perception of war. I’ve written about this before, but seeing both journalists and Gazan citizens at work on Twitter and Facebook, spreading real-time, verifiable imagery of arbitrary killing of civilians has, most probably, been as big a shock to the global audience as, say, movie pictures of the trenches were in the first world war, and the first anti-war novels of the early 1920s. Many people say they can “feel” what it must be like: this is a big change from Iraq, where we saw the war through the nose-cameras of missiles, or satellite imagery from Centcom, or the occasional live-feed from the top of a hotel on 24-hour TV.


Because of these new elements to the situation, the Gaza war looks less like another stalemate, more like a game-changing event.  It creates, in the short term, an increased likelihood of miscalculation. Genocidal thoughts are spreading on both sides. I’ve heard secular, modern Palestinians in the Arab nationalist tradition, previously wedded to the two-state solution, say “after this we can’t live on the same planet”. Likewise, in the Israeli media, parliament and Twittersphere, the rhetoric of ethnic cleansing, “camps” and anti-Arab racism is rife.

Binyamin Netanyahu reportedly faced down a call from his parliamentary allies to occupy Gaza. This is fortunate, because given the holy war rhetoric, messages from home calling for Arab blood etc, and the determination of Palestinians to fight house by house, there would have beena  bloodbath far in excess of what’s happened to date.

Second, it creates the possibility of a rapid descent into humanitarian hell. It’s impossible to convey the extent of the destruction in a single picture: but if you add up the severe shortage of acute hospital beds and medical staff, the shortage of clean drinking water, the tens of thousands of dwellings destroyed, the lack of electrical power – and the siege and blockade – then the possibility of disease and social breakdown are high.

Third, it creates a window of necessity for a solution: it might not be strategic or permanent, but the weakened diplomatic position of Hamas, plus the rapidly deteriorating international support for Israel, means that regional players have the ability to impose a peace that stabilises the Gaza strip enough to allow in the massive medical and material aid that will be needed in the next days and months, and for the government of Gaza to become a recognised interlocutor with those who want to prevent catastrophe.


Right now, with the Cairo ceasefire talks bogged down, the dangers of a renewed conflict seem higher than the possibility of a lasting truce. But if you look beyond the short term, the dynamics of the Middle East look ominous.

Once America morally walks away from the situation it has created, during more than 70 years of foreign policy in the region, there is no lever to pull. The Palestinian youth, who thinks his suffering will “force the world to act”, suffers for nothing; the State Department official, who thought they were bringing democracy and humanitarian values to the region on the back of the dollars and arms poured into places like Israel and Egypt, finds out it was all just to fund the killing of civilians and the suppression of protest. The journalist who thinks that, by running the story of criminal behaviour – either by the IDF or Hamas – it will force restraint, is similarly disillusioned.

Without a global order, the order in the Middle East will be made by forces in which there is no redeeming feature: Isis, the racist right in Israel, Assad, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the corrupt generals of Egypt.

I am no supporter of “liberal intervention”: what’s caused this, ultimately, is the unilateral – and it turned out pointless – interventions by the USA and UK, in Iraq and Afghanistan, between 2001 and now.

The populations of the west are sickened by the results of “intervention” and have no appetite for further engagement with the region. Whether this lasts a decade or a generation will depend on whether the results of the chaos start filtering back into western countries, in the form of unstoppable migration surges or new terror groups, or high energy prices.

While everyone is patting everyone else on the back and going moist eyed over the first world war, it’s worth remembering that it was out of that carnage that the idea first arose of a global order – not imposed by a superpower but by negotiated and limited ties of mutual dependence.

It was the British Jewish socialist Leonard Woolf – husband of the more famous Virginia – who published the first serious design for  what became the League of Nations, in April 1915. Woolf, with his roots in pacifism (he’d been a colonial administrator of the British empire in Ceylon) emphasised the need to build, not a Utopia but “a duller and heavier structure placed logically upon the foundations of the existing system”.

What they actually built was imposed by the victors and, as we now know, solved nothing long term – creating in the process the “mandate” system, which produced Syria, Palestine etc.

However, if we measure the current situation in the Middle East against the desperate situation that faced the world 100 years ago, the glaring truth emerges: there is nothing remotely approaching “foundations” to build on.

The Middle East “system” is currently one of pure antagonism between rogue states, pariah states, non-state actors and out-of-control client states. No military power – be it Turkey, Iran, Egypt or Israel – is in a position to impose any kind of order on their borderlands.

This is a cause of huge fatalism among the old tribes of experts and commentators: the “order” they thought they were expert in has collapsed.

The only point of light is that, beneath the drone strikes in Gaza City, beneath the Qassam strikes in Tel Aviv, amid the executions and floggings in Tehran, and among the scattered millions of Syrians and Iraqis, exist many young people who don’t buy the hyper-religious, violent fantasies of the region. They all live the same kind of lifestyle; they all aspire to a tolerant, techno-empowered society.

In 2011 – from Tahrir Square, Cairo to the Rothschild Boulevard, Tel Aviv – they protested about things in a new way. Now their region is being torn apart in a new way, for the old reasons.

I don’t have any answers, but anybody who thinks there can be anything “permanent” in the disorder thus created is crazy.

Order – even limited order of the kind the world enjoyed between 1920 and 1933 – has to be created by acts of will and self-sacrifice, done in common between formerly belligerent peoples and their politicians.

They probably laughed at Leonard Woolf, beavering away in the New Statesman offices to produce a blueprint of a peaceful world while all around were celebrating the effectiveness of machine guns, but somebody had to do it. Who will now?

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