Senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniyah sits next to the mother of Hamas military chief Ahmed Jaabari , who was killed by an Israeli air strike, in Gaza City, yesterday. RIGHT: Palestinians celebrate the ceasefire in Gaza City.
Gaza: It might not look like victory. Dozens of dead children among nearly 100 civilians killed. Hundreds more injured, some condemned to a life of struggle from terrible wounds. Houses flattened. Bridges, offices and stadiums blown to bits.
But as life returns to what passes for normality on the streets of Gaza - once again clogged with people and traffic even as the Israeli drones continue to buzz overhead - many Palestinians regard the ceasefire that put an end to more than a week of incessant bombing and shelling as an Israeli surrender document.
The victor, they say, is Hamas, which faced down Israeli aggression and has emerged from years of diplomatic isolation to be embraced, if tentatively, by the leaders of a new Arab world. The lesson learned is that standing up to Israel delivers results that years of concessions under US peace plans and drawn-out negotiations have not.
Western leaders from Barack Obama to David Cameron rushed to blame the bloody upsurge of violence in Gaza on Hamas and other armed groups firing hundreds of rockets into Israel, but Palestinians have a different take. The common view in Gaza is that the conflict was a war of choice by the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu.
Mkhaimer Abusader, a political scientist at Gaza’s Azhar University, said there was a widespread belief that Netanyahu ordered the killing last week of the Hamas military chief, Ahmad Al Jaabari, to provoke a confrontation and launch a military operation in order to make himself look strong in the runup to elections in January.
Opinion polls showed many Israelis favoured an invasion of Gaza to follow the air and sea bombardment. That Netanyahu ultimately did not order one is regarded in Gaza as evidence that he was deterred by the scale of resistance by Hamas and other armed groups, even in the face of much larger Israeli retaliation, which surprised Palestinians.
“Palestinians were very happy to see rockets landing on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the first time. It may be crazy but there’s admiration that Hamas was able to manufacture long-range missiles and deter Israel,” said Abusader. “Palestinians believe the Israelis were begging for a ceasefire. The conclusion Palestinians reach is that the way to get results is resistance, is to make the occupation costly to the Israelis.”
The ceasefire deal may not have got Hamas all that it wanted but there is a commitment by Israel to ease the blockade that was imposed to break the Islamist group, and to end the kind of “targeted assassinations” that killed Jaabari. There is plenty of scepticism that Israel will deliver or that the truce will last, but the crisis has shifted the diplomatic ground by breaking the international isolation of Hamas imposed by the US and Europeans.
Change was in the offing, driven by the Arab spring, not least in Egypt where there is a new government more openly critical of Israel than its US-allied predecessor. Israel has alienated its only real friend in the region, Turkey, over the Israeli military’s attack on the Mavi Marmara flotilla to Gaza in which eight Turks were killed.
It was no coincidence that the first stream of regional political heavyweights to visit Gaza in more than a decade was led by the Egyptian prime minister and the Tunisian and Turkish foreign ministers. Scenes of the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, shedding tears in a Gaza City hospital over dead children, and saying he stood in “solidarity with the Palestinian nation’s suffering”, were read in Gaza as evidence that they were no longer on their own.
Talal Okal was for many years among the leaders in Gaza of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinian, a secular leftwing organisation, decidedly different to Hamas. “I am anti-Hamas. I am democratic. I am secular. But I admire what Hamas has done because they showed they were working underground secretly to challenge the Israelis,” he said. “Now we are facing Israel from a better position. We don’t have a balance of power with Israel. But now, because of Hamas, we have influence in the region and that makes a better situation.”
But Okal said Hamas was still divided over how to take advantage. Its external leadership, led by Khaled Meshaal, has embraced the Arab spring as an opportunity for Gaza to declare autonomy. Hamas leaders in Gaza, led by the prime minister, Ismail Haniyah, remain allied with Iran and Syria, with an eye on extending power to the West Bank.
Okal said that from his conversations with Haniyah, he thought there was growing confidence in Hamas that it could widen its support among Palestinians. “I used to think Hamas is going to have a state in the Gaza Strip. But now I think Hamas is headed towards reuniting the Palestinian establishment pushed by the hope it will be in control of Gaza and the West Bank,” he said.
That may be wishful thinking given the growing disillusionment among many people in Gaza with Hamas before the latest fighting. “Before the war erupted, Hamas was under a lot of criticism,” said Abusader. “But that criticism has been silenced for now, and there was open support in the West Bank - where the Palestinian leadership there is often seen as weak for its emphasis on negotiation - for Hamas for fighting back against Israel.
Hamas political gains are at the expense of Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority and leader of Hamas’ rival, Fatah. He was all but irrelevant in the recent crisis, with Hamas centre stage in the Arab world. Yesterday, Abbas was forced into a humiliating call to Haniyah to congratulate him on his “victory”.
The past week has been a severe blow to Abbas’ strategy to bring about a Palestinian state. He has renounced violence and committed to a negotiated peace with Israel. He has followed the obstacle course laid out by the US and Europeans, and supervised by Tony Blair, of “institution-building” and security co-operation with Israel, with the promise of a Palestinian state dangling at some undefined point in the future.
The result, as many Palestinians see it, is that Netanyahu has ignored and humiliated Abbas and continued Israel’s expansionism with yet more Jewish settlement construction and measures to reaffirm Israeli control over all of Jerusalem and great chunks of the West Bank. The lesson many in the occupied territories have taken away from the past week is that standing up to Israel brings results. “The model that the US, Europe and Israel promote of giving the Palestinian Authority financial support to build institutions hasn’t worked. What you see is more Israeli settlement expansion, more measures to make a two-state solution more difficult,” said Abusader. The latest crisis puts pressure on Abbas over his plan to ask the UN general assembly to effectively recognise Palestinian statehood next week. Guardian News