The Gaza Strip is 140 square miles, about twice the size of Washington, D.C., and has a population of approximately 1.4 million Palestinians. In comparison, the West Bank, is 2,300 square miles and has a population of 2.5 million Palestinians. Israel occupied Gaza for 38 years until 2005, when it removed 8,500 Israeli settlers and withdrew its troops behind a wall enclosing Gaza.
The withdrawal was not intended as a step toward reconciliation. Nor was it intended as a step toward granting Gaza viable economic autonomy. Rather, it was recognition on Israel’s part that it could no longer effectively subjugate 1.4 million Palestinians without incurring untenable political and economic costs of its own, as the Israeli public was largely opposed to open-ended occupation.
For then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the withdrawal was control of Palestinians by other means. As a New York Times editorial noted of Sharon’s strategy in July 2005,
He has become so determined to show that the Palestinians will not be reaping any rewards from Israel's withdrawal that he has shunned taking simple steps that could significantly improve the quality of Palestinian life in Gaza, like paying to clean up the rubble of the settler homes Israel intends to destroy, facilitating the reopening of Gaza's airport and finding ways to make border security less humiliating and time-consuming for Palestinians.An already resentful Palestinian population turned resentment into boiling anger—and showed it at the ballot box the moment it got the chance.
Demonstrating to the Palestinians that they haven't really won anything is far, far less important to Israel's well-being than strengthening the authority and credibility of moderate Palestinian leaders like [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas by carrying out a smooth transition that improves the lives of Gaza's 1.3 million Palestinians.
Extremism Breeds Extremism: Hamas Takes Over
On Jan. 25, 2006, Hamas, the militant, Islamist Palestinian group, won legislative elections in Gaza. Israel, the United States and the European Union, who consider Hamas a terrorist organization that’s pledged to destroy Israel, cut off aid funds going to Gaza, leading to economic collapse in the strip. The United Nations continues to help feed most Palestinians in Gaza.
In June 2007, a brief, violent civil war between Hamas and Fatah exploded. Fatah, founded by the late Yasser Arafat, is the once-dominant organization of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. In a month-long war Hamas routed Fatah in the Gaza Strip, assuming complete control there and resuming periodic rocket attacks on Israel.
The so-called Qassam rockets are crude. More than half fall within Gaza after being fired. The rest, aimless and unpredictable, overwhelmingly fall where they can do no harm. A few have hit civilian targets, causing relatively marginal property damage and some loss of life—relative, that is, to the massive loss of life and destruction of Israeli retaliations.
Israel has frequently reinvaded or launched disproportionately deadly bombing raids on Gaza as a result of rocket attacks. As Israeli columnist Gideon Levy wrote following an Israeli air and ground assault that killed more than 50 Palestinians, half of them civilians, on March 2, “Israel killed more Palestinians [in that raid] than have been killed by all the Qassams over the past seven years.”
What’s Hamas After?
Hamas’ objective in firing rockets at Israel is not a matter of clarity but provocation. Hamas obviously cannot hope to gain a military advantage over Israel. Nor can it ever claim a viable military objective in bombing Israeli targets. Its attacks fit the classic definition of terrorism: they aim for civilian population centers with no other purpose than to terrorize the Israeli population while provoking the Israeli military.
In response, the Israeli military can choose to ignore the attacks, target militants in special operations within Gaza, or respond with overwhelming, deadly force. It chooses to respond with the latter, raising more questions about Israel’s motives than Hamas’.
What’s Israel After?
Hamas has little to no viable objective to gain by bombing Israel other than to provoke a full-scale war, which it cannot possibly win. But Israel has equally little or no viable objective to gain by unleashing massive retaliations on the Gaza Strip while calling it “restrained.” Israel’s recent history should have been a lesson. It appears not to be.
In 2006, Israel invaded South Lebanon after a devastating month-long air war against Hezbollah militants there. Israel’s objective was to root out Hezbollah’s missile launchers from South Lebanon. Israel not only failed to do so. Its attack strengthened Hezbollah’s standing in Lebanese and Arab eyes while, in the long term, strengthening Hezbollah’s military standing as well: as soon as Israeli forces withdrew, Hezbollah reconstituted what losses it had sustained.
Hezbollah, like Gaza’s Hamas, is an organization indigenous to its territory. Hezbollah is funded and armed by Iran, as is Hamas. But that doesn’t make Hamas or Hezbollah “foreign” organizations that can be rooted out of their territories.
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