Writing exclusively for Slugger O’Toole the Israeli Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Daniel Taub writes about his views about the recent conflict in Gaza and the prospects for the future.
As I write this article, after a fortnight of quiet, hopes are high that the latest ceasefire between Israel and Hamas has brought two months of fighting to a close. We are now left to reflect on what has been achieved.
For many international observers, the answer is very little. Rockets once again rained down on Israel’s towns and cities. Israel conducted air strikes once again against terrorists in Gaza. Civilians—both Palestinian and Israeli—once again found themselves caught in the crossfire. At face value, this conflict between Israel and Hamas—the third in six years—might appear futile. Ordinary people have suffered, but nothing, seemingly, has changed.
Yet this conflict could yet prove to be a pivotal moment in determining which of two vastly different visions of the future of Gaza becomes a reality.
Hamas’s vision is brutal and absolute: “Israel will exist and will continue to exist,” proclaims its founding charter, “until Islam will obliterate it.” To this end, Hamas murdered hundreds of Israeli civilians during the Second Intifada, and has fired over 14,000 rockets at Israel’s towns and cities. To this end, Hamas seized control of Gaza by means of a brutal coup against Fatah, its more moderate Palestinian rival, in 2007, and, as recent reports have revealed, planned to do the same in the West Bank, overthrowing the Palestinian Authority, this year. Nothing is more important to Hamas than the violent destruction of Israel, and no Palestinian willing to entertain an alternative course of action is allowed to stand in its way.
Yet Hamas is under pressure. In the years preceding this conflict, Hamas lost the support of several backers in the Arab world who themselves feel threatened by Islamist terror and is facing the discontent of a population who have felt Gaza stagnate and suffer under its rule while watching the West Bank, under non-violent leadership, experience calm and steady economic growth. For Hamas, therefore, victory consists in showing both external and internal observers that its strategy is not fundamentally flawed. Thus, it rejected appeals from Israel to de-escalate in early July. Thus, it violated all 11 ceasefires prior to the current truce, including every humanitarian window. It has kept fighting until it could claim achievements that it could plausibly flaunt to the gallery as a reason to fight again. Or until it could fight no longer.
Israel’s vision is of a prosperous Gaza living side by side with Israel. When we withdrew from Gaza in 2005, we did so in the hope that it would flourish as an independent city. We left behind greenhouses that could have served as the basis for a flourishing agricultural economy, and looked forward to commerce with a prosperous trading partner. All this changed when Hamas seized power. The greenhouses were smashed, and resources were co-opted to serve Hamas’s own ends. Over recent years, 20% of the cement imported to Gaza—intended for civilian construction—was instead appropriated by Hamas to construct the cross-border terror tunnels.
But Hamas is now weak. It has failed to inflict serious damage on Israel. Its terror tunnels lie in ruins and its rocket arsenal is depleted. Moreover, it has not succeeded in regaining the support it craves. Far from condoning Hamas’s campaign of terror, the Arab League backed the Egyptian ceasefire proposal of 15th July, which Israel accepted—and which would have saved thousands of lives had Hamas followed suit. The same Egyptian proposal to which Hamas ultimately agreed six weeks later. And ordinary Gazans agree: a recent opinion poll found that over 90% of Gazans favoured an immediate and lasting ceasefire, and journalists report widespread anger against Hamas from people sick of being used as pawns in an eternal conflict they do not want.
There is now an opportunity, therefore, to change the paradigm. It depends on the international community working together to marginalise Hamas, demilitarise the Strip, and create the conditions for a lasting peace between Israel and an independent Gaza. That is our idea of victory. That is what we have been fighting for, and what Hamas is fighting against. The future of Gaza depends on this opportunity not being squandered.
Daniel Taub is the Ambassador of Israel to the Court of St. James’s.