Gaza And The Curse Of Half-Finished Wars: Why Did The War Break Out At This Time?
24 July 2014
By Amir Taheri
It took the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
two weeks to come out with a call for a ceasefire in
Gaza. A diplomatic gesture of the lowest order, the
Secretary-General's meek move reflected the
unwillingness, not to say inability, of the
international community to address the real causes of
the bloody conflict.
Of all the issues that divide the international
community, the so-called Israel–Palestine conflict is
the most charged with emotions, and thus least
suitable for clinical analysis. And, yet, without such
analysis one cannot hope that a ceasefire would
provide anything more than a lull for belligerents to
prepare for the next round.
Why did the war break out at this time? War always
breaks out when one or more parties in an adversarial
relationship find the status quo intolerable. In the
case of Gaza, Hamas was the first to find the status
quo, established after Israeli disengagement in 2005,
no longer bearable.
Several events led to this. First, the collapse of the
Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt deprived Hamas, a branch
of the pan-Islamist movement, not only of an ally but
also of a hinterland that had remained open even under
ousted president Hosni Mubarak. Next, Iran's growing
economic problems meant a reduction in Tehran's
support for Hamas. Finally, Hamas's failure to revive
the economy, combined with its authoritarian methods,
meant a loss of popular support.
To change the status quo, Hamas had to re-heat the
cold dish of rocket attacks on Israel. By doing so it
could claim it was "resisting the Zionist enemy," and
thus merited greater support from Islamic nations. It
could also silence critics within the Palestinian
community, including those in Gaza. More importantly,
Hamas hoped to seek the lion's share in the putative
"national government" agreed with Fatah. What Hamas
leaders ignored was the fact that Israel, feeling the
status quo was untenable, would seize the opportunity
to attempt changing it.
The holding of free elections and the creation of a
government of national unity could strengthen the
Palestinian position in any "final settlement" talks
with Israel. The moribund "two-state" formula could be
revived with support from Washington and Arab states.
In politics if you can't say in a single sentence what
your goal is you had better keep quiet until you can
What is Hamas's goal, in one sentence? That is not
hard to find out. For it is stated in the movement's
charter: the destruction of Israel. To be sure, the
world is full of messianic, millenarian and other
utopian movements dedicated to idealistic agendas, and
there is no reason why Hamas should not be one of
them. Hamas lives in a fantasy world. It has forgotten
that its constituency—the people of Gaza—are mostly
refugees, and more attached to Palestine, and not
necessarily any Islamist dream. If Hamas won support
among them it was because it fought for their plight,
not for a pan-Islamist agenda. On the other hand, the
fact that the Palestinian Authority had little to show
for 20 years of peace talks also strengthened Hamas.
Israel's goal, in the context of the status quo in
Gaza, is to stop rocket attacks on its territory.
Theoretically, Israel has the resources to attain that
goal. It could reoccupy Gaza, dismantle rocket sites,
destroy Hamas's command and control network, release
Hamas's jailed opponents and capture or kill Hamas
cadres. Such a scenario is more difficult to enact
than 30 years ago when Israel changed an unfavorable
status quo in Lebanon through war.
We live in a world in which war is seldom allowed to
perform its full function, which is to dismantle the
status quo and build a new one. Because the
international mood is hostile to war, it is difficult
to suggest that war has always been, and is likely to
remain, an instrument of regulating conflictual
relations among peoples. One cannot argue that, like a
surgical operation to remove cancer, war is sometimes
necessary as a last resort.
The Gaza war is likely to prove to have been futile.
Israeli and international public opinion, US pressure,
and the rising cost of modern warfare might not allow
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make full
use of war as an instrument of reshaping geopolitical
realities. Worse still, instead of chasing Hamas out
of Gaza, Netanyahu may end up by helping Hamas return
to the West Bank. For its part, Hamas is too weak to
reshape the status quo in its interest. Once the guns
have fallen silent we shall be back where we were in
the first place, with the added consequences of a
Israel is a cause—Zionism—that found its expression in
a state. Hamas, however, is a messianic movement whose
aim is the destruction of Israel rather than the
creation of a Palestinian state. The two adversaries
can't understand each other's grammar. Since 1948 we
have witnessed the rise and fall of 17 Palestinian
"liberation" movements. With one exception, all were
nationalist groups in the same mold as national
liberation outfits after the Second World War. Again,
with one exception, even with Marxist, Stalinist or
Maoist labels, all those groups included the word
"Palestine" in their identification.
The sole exception is Hamas. Seeing itself as part of
a global, thus stateless, pan-Islamist movement, it
represents a negative energy that undermines the hopes
of Palestinians for a state of their own.
The Gaza tragedy should remind us of one fact: If
there is anything worse than war, it is a
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and
educated in Tehran, London and Paris. He was Executive
Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran (1972-79).
In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday
Times. In 1984-92, he served as member of the
Executive Board of the International Press Institute (IPI).
Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the
International Herald Tribune. He has written for the
Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, the New York
Times, the London Times, the French magazine Politique
Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between
1989 and 2005, he was editorial writer for the German
daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11 books, some of
which have been translated into 20 languages. He has
been a columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987.
Taheri's latest book "The Persian Night" is published
by Encounter Books in London and New York.