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A battleground of mutual self-destruction

Date

Dennis Altman

Neither side in the bloody Gaza conflict appears motivated by rational assessment, and the people are paying the price.

Heavy smoke billows following an Israeli military strike in Gaza City.

Heavy smoke billows following an Israeli military strike in Gaza City. Photo: AFP

        

Hamas cannot wipe out Israel, and it cannot prevent thousands of Palestinians dying. Israel cannot end the existence of militant resistance on its borders; for every Hamas operative it kills it creates at least two more. It matters less who started the war than why neither seems to want to stop it.

Both sides are bent on what looks like mutual self-destruction, yet neither is willing to stop. From the outside it seems as if neither is motivated by rational assessment of its own interests, but instead are prisoners of ideology and history.

As a colleague suggested to me, both sides at some level want war, because both are motivated by a messianic view and pressure from even more extremist internal forces. The hatred, vitriol and violence on both sides is creating a spiral of ever-increasing disaster.

Partisans of both claim bad faith in peace negotiations, but it appears that each has walked away at a number of crucial moments, preferring war to peace. Israel is increasingly in the grip of people who have lost touch with geopolitical realities and believe they can dominate all of traditional Judea and Samaria for ever.

The commanders of Hamas, meanwhile, seem willing to sacrifice their own people in order to shift foreign perceptions of the conflict. They are losing the ground war, but they are clearly winning the battle for international sympathy, which is disguised in Australia by the bizarre bipartisan adoration of Israel.

Listen closely to President Obama and Secretary Kerry and it is clear they are far less supportive of the Netanyahu government than their counterparts in either major party here. But opinion polls suggest American opinion is becoming more critical of Israel; every Palestinian child killed is another wavering voice in the once near unanimous American blank cheque for Israel.

Both sides have been forced by international pressure to give lip service to a two-state solution, but neither really wants that. Israel continues to expand its grip on occupied land, Hamas and its supporters continue to preach hatred of Israel. There are voices on both sides who are now openly calling for what is in effect genocide of the other.

It is near impossible to have a rational debate on Australian policy towards the conflict, as Bob Carr discovered when he was foreign minister. This is usually attributed to the power of the ''Jewish lobby'', but I suspect it goes far beyond that. From the establishment of the state of Israel there has been a deep identification between two settler states, in which our own ambiguities about dispossession of the original inhabitants is displaced onto support for Israel as the mythical oasis of democracy in the Middle East.

I have no doubt that a Palestinian state will be far less attractive in our eyes than the current Israeli state, and the longer it takes to achieve it the nastier it will be. The whole history of decolonisation suggests that long and bitter wars and occupation do not suddenly give way to democratic states with respect for individual rights.

But the history of decolonisation also suggests that once a people have created a national identity – creatures of the 20th century for both Israelis and Palestinians – they cannot be held back indefinitely. Only where a majority supports a ruthless government, as in the case of Sri Lanka, can insurgencies be crushed. Where the majority are dispossessed and desperate the costs of denying them is too great.

Prime Minister Netanyahu predicts a long, drawn-out conflict, but this means he is accepting a permanent state of war in which Israelis will live with constant fear of attack, and Palestinians will be consigned to permanent refugee camps patrolled by young Israelis. Evidence from the United States suggests that younger diasporic Jews are becoming increasingly disillusioned with Israel and those American organisations that support it.

Israel can inflict many more casualties than can Hamas rockets. But it cannot ensure its survival as a state with a Jewish majority through a combination of military strength and continued occupation and settlement. In the long run Hamas can tough out the conflict, at great expense to Palestinians, but with the sense that international opinion will make the Israeli position increasingly untenable.

Dennis Altman is a Professorial Fellow in Human Security at La Trobe University.

27 comments so far

  • "which is disguised in Australia by the bizarre bipartisan adoration of Israel."

    I don't get this. Is it perhaps because the Israeli's opponents are those big, bad Muslims we are always told about? I certainly agree that the Israelis are losing international support very quickly, not that they'd care about that in the least, except from the US i suppose, who props up Israel financially and militarily.
    I used to have a modicum of sympathy for the Israelis and their situation but that has pretty much evaporated now. Their hypocrisy and self-righteousness is astounding. I cannot help but wonder at the mindset of a country who knows what its like for people to suffer at the hands of a superior enemy yet have no qualms doing it to someone else. They survived the Warsaw ghetto and have now created one for their 'enemies' in Gaza.

    Commenter
    Dirk
    Date and time
    July 31, 2014, 3:50PM
    • What does 'will make the Israeli position increasingly untenable' suppose to mean? Do you really think international pressure will eventually force Israel to self immolation offering itself to the Palestinians? Even if there was a UN decision to revoke the mandate, why should Israel respond? Israel is a nation now and a nation has the right to fight for its existence. A probable nuclear armed power with the legality of the UN could hardly be described as 'untenable'. How many children did the Coalition of the Willing kill in Iraq and Afghanistan? Yet their defeat was not because their position became 'untenable' but rather 'unwinable'. Not so in Gaza. Hamas has to face the reality that it cannot win. But one thing a fanatic never faces is reality.

      Commenter
      peter
      Location
      vietnam
      Date and time
      July 31, 2014, 4:28PM
      • Hamas actually has a more rational strategic objective than Israel here, if one can call any of their long term goals rational, let alone sane. What is under-reported here is the role that Egypt had in causing this conflict. Hamas actually originally arose from the Muslim Brotherhood movement, and were natural allies when Morsi came into power. Under the Sisi military government, Egypt has clamped down hard on Hamas and had all but closed the border at Rafah. Hamas has been literally starving since the coup, and in may ways is now fighting for its survival.

        Israel's entry into Gaza was unwise. It has little to gain apart from a temporary setback to Hamas' military capabilities. Having said that, Israel's northern borders have been incredibly quiescent since Israel's incursion into Lebanon smashed Hezbollah. Mostly, all it has achieved is alienating an ever larger proportion of the West.

        It is foolish however to think that Hamas could ever be a serious negotiating partner. The best that can be hoped for is that this conflict drives Fatah and Israel closer to a compromise that involves Palestinian autonomy and the dismantlement of the settlements, in exchange for true peace on the West Bank, with the hope that Gaza somehow falls into the mix at a later date. Despite its current media portrayal, there are plenty of Israeli moderates sick of war.

        Commenter
        Spaniel
        Date and time
        July 31, 2014, 4:54PM
        • All this makes sense except that I understand that Fatah and Hamas have put forward a united approach? My source is the Guardian.

          Commenter
          sangela
          Date and time
          August 01, 2014, 9:28AM
        • They did offer to form a unity government, and I agree that Netanyahu was stupid for refusing to negotiate with it.

          Commenter
          Spaniel
          Date and time
          August 01, 2014, 11:58AM
      • Excellent article.

        Neither side cares about the amount of Palestinian civilians who are wounded, killed or displaced and both are concerned about similar effects on Israeli civilians (but for obviously different reasons).

        The losers to the sociopathic attitudes of both the Israeli Govt and Hamas are going to grow in number, the question is will there be a tipping point or will the USA support Israel in the Security Council no matter what?

        Commenter
        Chaz
        Date and time
        July 31, 2014, 4:59PM
        • Gaza lands are 10 kilometres long and 6 kilometres wide. Not much space. The Israelis have kept on building on OCCUPIED land despite international condemnation. Then they choke Gaza so that they cannot move freely and have to rely on Hamas to bring in the necessities of day to day living. I am outraged at the killing of men, women and children at UN protected area. Israelis say that they use them as shields but for a country who are so called civilized you can't keep on committing genocide. The oppressed (holocaust) has now become the oppressor.

          Commenter
          commonsense
          Date and time
          July 31, 2014, 5:27PM
          • Look at this photo of Gaza City from today's paper:

            http://www.smh.com.au/world/us-un-lash-israel-over-totally-unacceptable-civilian-deaths-20140801-zz89i.html

            Observe the open space next to the built up areas. Why does Hamas only fire from the populated areas? Why do people still deny they are using their own population as shields?

            Commenter
            Spaniel
            Date and time
            August 01, 2014, 10:45AM
        • and meanwhile, Israel continues bombing schools and hospitals.

          Apart from being likely war crimes, they sure don't help them win the PR battle

          Commenter
          Paul
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          July 31, 2014, 5:56PM
          • I read a line once that can be paraphrased as follows: "Israel is a child that was abused as a child. It's father (USA) and mother (Europe) were so guilt-ridden that they gave this child anything and everything it wanted. This child has now grown up and is abusing others. Mother and father are not quite sure what to do about it, still tormented by past guilt and allowing the adult to do as it pleases". It can only end in complete disaster.

            From the article I particularly like this line: "Israel is increasingly in the grip of people who have lost touch with geopolitical realities and believe they can dominate all of traditional Judea and Samaria for ever". In the past Israel was well served by politicians who understood better. - Rabin and even Sharon come to mind. When Rabin as a former general said enough was enough, the country should have listened. Netanyahu spells disaster for Israel. The frightful thing is the more disaster he spells, the more popular he becomes.

            Commenter
            Zacharias
            Date and time
            July 31, 2014, 6:03PM

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