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gaza strip map

The plight of the population of Gaza can be summarized in a few geographical details: over 1.8 million inhabitants, 365 square km, one of the highest population densities in the world (about 10 thousand people per square km) and one of the globe's highest demographic growth rates (2.91%). Of these people, 70% of them are listed by the UN as refugees.

This data explains why any Israeli military invasion produces several civilian casualties whom, unlike in the past, have nowhere to run since Egypt has sealed the Rafah border to refugees. The fact that there are several children among the dead is yet another demographic truth: over 43% of Gaza's population is less than 14 years old, another 22% is between 14 and 24.

The people of Gaza are caught in the middle of a war they did not ask for and that is being waged regardless of their will: Israel interprets its right to defence without any limitation in the use of its force, Hamas, instead, is using the tragedy caused by the war to regain the spotlight in the Palestinian political landscape.

The struggle for physical survival goes hand in hand with economic survival. The entire economy of the Strip was linked to the smuggling of goods from the tunnels heading for Egypt. Once these were closed by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, no alternative was left for the people of Gaza to receive what they were in need for. Even fishing, one of the few remaining jobs locally, has been seriously restricted by Israeli authorities who limit fishing vessels within a 4 mile radius. The economic figures are therefore significant: 22.5% of the population is unemployed, 38% lives below the poverty line. And those who are lucky enough to have a job, like the 60 thousand government employees, haven't received their wages for months.

Waiting to explode

When dealing with Middle Eastern affair, and especially in the Palestinian issue, it is recurrent of events igniting chain reactions that go well beyond their original or intentional scope. In this case, the situation got out of hand when on June 12, 2014 three young Israelis were killed near Hebron. Hamas was not directly involved, but Israel implied it was. This heinous crime was followed by drone raids over the Gaza Strip on July 7, to which Hamas respond by firing rockets and the crescendo lead to the current conflict.

History repeats itself, a long trail of blood that feeds hate and that pushes away any chance of a negotiated solution. This is what Hamas wanted, and this is also what Israel sought following the April 2014 deal between Hamas and the Palestinian National Authority that could have put both the negotiations and the security of its country at risk. We've seen this before, cyclically, over the last 60 years as in the recent past: “Operation Rainbow” in May 2004, “Operation Days of Penitence” still in 2004, “Operation Autumn Clouds” in 2006, “Operation Hot Winter” in 2008, “Operation Cast Lead” in 2009-2010, “Operation Pillar of Defence” in 2012 until the ongoing “Protective Edge”.

As usual, the war is also played out on the media. The images of the victims in the Gaza Strip always have an impact on global public opinion and stir the consciences. And it is hence not surprising that, following the coverage of an air strike on civilians in the outskirts of Gaza, the local offices of Al Jazeera were also hit by Israeli artillery shots. The Qatar based broadcaster has been labelled by Tel Aviv's Minister of Foreign Affair, the hawk Avigdor Lieberman, as Hamas' house organ. His colleague at the Ministry of Communications, Gilad Erdan, has said he will put the chain off air (the same sort of attitude that lead to three Al Jazeera journalists being incarcerated and found guilty of supporting terrorism and putting Egypt's national security in peril).

Nor is it surprising that, following the UN's decision to open an investigation on the alleged crimes against humanity committed by both Hamas and Israel, a series of UNRWA (the UN agency for Palestinian refugees) run schools in the Gaza Strip were hit, causing yet more civilian casualties. Almost an Israeli challenge to the world. And, probably along the same lines, strikes were targeted against International Red Cross ambulances and against mosques.

After 60 years of useless wars, Israel still hasn't understood that the Palestinian issue will never be solved through the reckless and disproportionate use of force. They should keep in mind that it is the global support – with the United States in the lead – that keeps them afloat. It is therefore fair to ask what this new war is going to produce, if not more generation to generation transmitted hate, a long trail of blood guided by primitive revenge0 logics of tooth for tooth...

As far as Hamas is concerned, we should wonder why it decided to go on a head on military clash with Israel instead of seeking a negotiated solution. They know they are never going to win this war, that they are not helping the Palestinian cause and inflicting deaths and suffering on their own civilian population.

hamas militants
Hamas militants

A political calculation

Hamas' political reasoning is probably dictated by circumstances: the isolation from Egypt, the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood and their loss of appeal in the Arab world, Israel's tough line that has weakened the prestige of the ANP and that has paved the way to Hamas' radicalism, the appeals for help and solidarity that only Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah (regardless of their different views on Syria) seem to be able to respond to.

The different actors in the region have different views on who to side with in Gaza: Egypt and Saudi Arabia are against Hamas, Turkey, Iran and Qatar support them. This is because of the role played by the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab Spring and of Hamas being an offspring of the Confraternity. But, at the end of the day, Egypt has come out as a winner in the region's political turmoil. The al-Sisi lead mediation to resolve the Gaza conflict has suddenly given a general who took over power in a coup, persecuted and killed his opponents, banned the Brotherhood and its political wing, a clean sheet.

As far as Iran is concerned, unfortunately for Hamas, Hassan Rouhani is attempting to legitimate his role by negotiating a deal on Tehran's nuclear programme, while the Hezbollah are too deeply involved in supporting the Syrian regime. This means that little or no help can come from their side, while in the past it could have been possible to envisage the opening of a new front along the Israeli-Lebanese border.

The same could be said of the different Islamic terrorist groups in region, including Al Qaeda, who have not shown any support for Hamas. Actually, some tweets by a number of Jihadist factions have labelled Hamas as being an “apostate government” because of its fight for independence and freedom and not for God. The fact that they are being supported by Shiites only worsens their position in the eyes of Sunni extremists.

The conflict with Israel has also had an impact on the relationship with the ANP. President Abbas was forced to go from the criticism to both Hamas and Israel for the military escalation, to the reconciliation attempts and, finally, in having to side with then people in the Strip. Even Hamas is torn between the devil and the deep blue sea: those who want to seek a solution with Israel (and these are the same people who favoured a deal with Abu Mazen) and those refusing any compromise. The latter are the ones who are in the lead for Hamas at this stage and are competing with the radicals from the Islamic Jihad.

Hamas had recently suffered a drop in its popularity in the Strip. It now seeks to build on the consensus the war could bring to them to advance a series of requests during the negotiations: the release of Palestinian prisoners (some of whom were let free in 2011 in exchange for Gilad Shalit, but soon re-arrested), the Israeli withdrawal from the Strip, the re-opening of the border with Egypt, the possibility to build a port and an airport in its territory, the extension of the marine miles allowed for fishing, the end of the embargo on Gaza that began in 2006, the elimination of the buffer zone within the Gaza Strip forbidden to Palestinians.

In such a critical scenario, Hamas seeks the path to martyrdom and stubbornness, but it does so – and this is the most worrying aspect – by imposing sufferings and deaths on its own people. A conscious, and frightening, martyrdom pursued in the trade off between a military defeat and a political gain. On his side, the Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu is also pushed by the radicals in his government. Both parties are slave of their logics and self-serving interests.

Lessons for the future

In any useless war that doesn't result in any side winning or losing, the battle field is the only true test for weapons and tactics; a useful experience that will come in handy in the next round of the conflict. If we a look at the current stand off between Hamas and Israel from this point of view, there are a number of lessons that will be surely useful in the future.

Among the first teachings is that the Iron Dome (Kipat Barzel in Hebrew), the Israeli anti-missile system, works extremely well and is efficient in around 90% of cases, which is a great result. Furthermore, a new anti-missile system is on its way, David's Sling, and should be functioning by 2015.

The Israelis ought to worry about a number of other issues: the numerous tunnels that had been dug (over 30 were found, way more than initially envisaged) have forced the IDF to carry out a land invasion to locate and destroy them. This means that there is no technology at present capable of identifying them. Tel Aviv should also be concerned about the number of missiles in the hands of both Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. We are talking about 10 thousand rockets, 3 thousand of which have been fired. This means something in the Israeli intelligence system didn't work.

Even though Hezbollah has taught Hamas how to build its own rockets, the raw materials, the explosives and the necessary equipment to construct them have somehow entered the Strip. And this has happened regardless of the hostility of the Egyptian military that has tried to stop the smuggling coming from the Sinai. The interception on March 5, 2014 of an Iranian rockets filled Gaza bound ship coming from Iraq, that had stopped over in Yemen and was destined for Port Sudan, was probably only the tip of the iceberg.

Then come the tactics: those adopted by Hamas, and especially by its armed wing, the Izzidin al Qassem Brigade, reflect the training and the guidelines received from the Hezbollah. The building of the tunnels was part of this strategy, whereby Israel had the control of the air and Hamas of the underground. This lead to the formation of specific teams within the Brigade, known as 'Morabitoun' (the sentinels), that worked beneath the soil. And, always according to Hezbollah's teachings, the tunnels had to be diversified according to their scope: economic (as the ones going to Egypt), deposits for weapons and rockets, security for the protection of the movement's leaders and military commands, for military operations and incursions into Israel.

It wasn't a mere political choice that put a halt to the Israeli invasion of the Strip, but a military one. The fight in an urban area implies a high number of casualties among your forces and this is an option Israel cannot afford. The advantage of armoured vehicles does not exist any more. It is not sufficient to have more fire power or weapons to prevail. And the more destruction you cause with bombardments, the greater defensive opportunities you offer to those seeking shelter in urban areas. Hamas has profited greatly from the teachings of the Hezbollah in the use of anti-tank weapons in urban contexts. As it has from a renewed wave of kamikaze attacks. Israel's unilateral decision to withdraw was not a conciliatory move, but an operational need. This is something we've already seen in the past during previous invasions that lasted long enough to inflict a sufficient amount of damage to the enemy (33 days in 2006 in Lebanon, even less than that in 2012).

izzidin al qassem brigade
Izzidin al Qassem brigade

Provisional outcome

Even the latest round of the war between Hamas and Israel will, just like its previous ones, lead nowhere. There will be casualties on both sides, the wounded, the thousands of people left homeless. Regardless of this, Israel will claim it has improved its internal security at the price of more hatred and thirst for revenge.

How many 'enemies' has Israel eliminated? Government sources in Tel Aviv talk about around 900 “terrorists”. The fact is that the Izzidin al Qassem Brigade has a force of about 15 to 20 thousand men and its military force is basically untouched. The Al Quds Brigade from the Islamic Jihad can count on 1-2 thousand fighters. This means that the UN data pointing to the fact that 60-70% of all casualties were civilians are basically correct.

If Israel's aim was to destroy the tunnels, then their operation probably reached its target. But if their scope was to reduce the threat coming from Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and de-militarise the Strip, then these objectives were not attained.

On the global level, every conflict damages the external image of Israel. The UN's criticism and the accusations moved against Tel Aviv add to this. The relationship with the United States is particularly tense. The Mossad went so far as to wire-tap the mobile phone of the US Secretary of State John Kerry during his mediation attempts. This nth episode of the war will surely not solve the Palestinian issue.

On the opposite side of the front, Hamas (together with the Islamic Jihad) has inflicted an unacceptable degree of sufferings on the people living in Gaza without getting anything in return. Their political gains within the Palestinian diaspora will last as long as the ANP's negotiations with the Israelis don't reach any tangible results. Hamas will surely face a hard time in the near future: the population is now without electricity, their homes destroyed, water and sewage systems have collapsed and there is no concrete for reconstruction. They won't be able to do anything without the aid coming from Egypt and the international community.