As is so often the case with Middle Eastern conflicts, there are wheels within wheels in the current Israeli ground invasion of the Gaza strip, and a distinct shortage of reasons to cheer either side.
The primary blame for the current conflict must lie with Hamas, a militant organization heavily subsidized by Iran that can’t decide whether it wants to seek its goals (which still officially include the destruction of the state of Israel) through terrorism or more conventional political means.
Hamas won an overwhelming victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006 over the corrupt and ineffectual Fatah party, which grew from the old Palestine Liberation Organization.
The U.S. and most of the West were appalled at this outcome of the democratic process, and internal disputes and conflicts eventually led to Hamas gaining effective control over Gaza and Fatah maintaining shaky control over the West bank.
Hamas has never reconciled for itself the conflicting roles of ordinary governance, which came with winning elections, versus its history as a resistance movement. Soon rockets began raining down in southern Israel from Hamas-controlled territory. The effort was somewhat amateurish and did little substantial damage, but it achieved the goal of spreading fear and terror.
Last month Hamas announced it was ending a six-month truce brokered by Egypt, and soon the number of rockets aimed at Israeli cities increased. Israel responded with a fierce air attack and last weekend sent troops into Gaza.
It is certainly legitimate to question the proportionality and fierceness of the Israeli attacks when Hamas rockets had killed only a few Israelis. It is also possible to question whether Israel’s attack has a serious chance of success, depending on how success is defined. It seems unlikely that anything other than a harsh occupation involving virtually total control of the population could prevent any rockets at all from being fired, and even that might well not bring the number of attacks to zero. One may wonder whether the lesser goal of reducing attacks to a manageable number is worth the cost in Israeli blood and treasure.
Israel must also worry about the consequences of its attacks in the terms former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, in an introspective moment, once used: Are they creating more future terrorists than they are killing? Israel has killed several top Hamas leaders in the past, but that did not break the organization’s back. If Hamas is broken by the current offensive, what kind of organization might rise in its place?
Israeli supporters note there are larger issues at stake, some dictated by international events and some influenced by pending Israeli elections.
One issue that has not received sufficient attention is the economic embargo/blockade imposed on Gaza a year ago by Israel, Egypt and most of the West. This embargo has made prospects for anything resembling economic development in Gaza virtually hopeless, causing great suffering to ordinary Gazans, many of whom do not support Hamas. Israel making an offer to lift the blockade in return for restoring the cease-fire might have been more productive than moving immediately to military action.
Because of a long history of support for Israel, the U.S. is involved to some extent, even if it is difficult to see what constructive role, if any, America could play in achieving a satisfactory outcome to this conflict. The best course for the U.S. right now, especially with a new administration coming in, is to recognize there are at least two sides to this conflict and to avoid becoming more directly involved.