Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Sorry history behind today's violence

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Colin Rubenstein

January 05, 2009

Article from:  The Australian

AS we see the violent and often disturbing and tragic images from Gaza, it is important to remember what caused the present conflict.

On the one side is Israel, which for the 60 years of its existence has sought peace with its neighbours and is in the process of negotiating a two-state outcome with the democratically elected Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. On the other side is Hamas, supported by Iran, devoted to spreading its form of extremist Islam, accurately regarded internationally as a terrorist organisation now being transformed into a terrorist army like Hezbollah in Lebanon, committed to Israel's destruction and violently opposed to a two-state solution or to any peace settlement that involves Israel's continued existence.

In August 2005, to advance peace, Israel's Sharon government unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, leaving the entire territory under Palestinian rule. The Israelis left fully functioning greenhouses and other economic infrastructure. They hoped the Palestinians would establish a working civil society existing in peace alongside Israel and that this would be the prelude to further withdrawals in the West Bank and, eventually, two states, Israel and Palestine, peacefully coexisting side by side.

Sadly, the reality was somewhat different. Palestinians destroyed much of the economic infrastructure and their terror groups immediately began firing rockets and mortars at Israeli civilians across the Gaza border. About 6300 rockets and mortars have been indiscriminately launched at Israeli population centres since August 2005, including more than 600 in the past few weeks.

In January 2006, Hamas won a majority of seats in Palestinian parliamentary elections and took its place in government alongside Abbas. Israel and the international community, represented by the quartet of the UN, the European Union, the US and Russia, announced they would negotiate with Hamas if it met three preconditions.

Hamas was required to renounce violence, accept Israel's right to exist and agree to be bound by agreements previously signed by the Palestinian Authority. These are simple terms for any party even remotely interested in peace, but Hamas refused and was consequently excluded from talks.

This is not a case of punishing the Palestinians for electing the wrong side, as is often claimed. It's a matter of dealing appropriately with an intransigent party. If, at any time, Hamas had agreed to those conditions, it would have been welcomed to negotiations.

In June 2006, Hamas and other Palestinian terror groups conducted a raid into Israel in which two Israeli soldiers were killed and another, Gilad Shalit, was kidnapped.

Shalit is still a Hamas hostage and has been allowed no contact with the outside world.

In June 2007, Hamas launched a violent coup and, amid such barbarities as dropping bound Palestinian Fatah opponents from the top of high-rise buildings, took control of Gaza from Abbas's Fatah party. Israel imposed a partial blockade, but at all times ensured there were sufficient food and fuel shipments to avoid any humanitarian problems, and continued to treat sick and injured Gazans at Israeli hospitals. This led to the bizarre situation where Palestinian patients at Israeli hospitals had to be moved to the basement to protect them from Palestinian rockets.

At various times the blockade was tightened in response to rocket attacks, and Hamas never missed the opportunity to exaggerate the effect of this for maximum propaganda purposes, for example going so far as to cut power one day after Israel halted fuel shipments, even though there was enough fuel to run generators for a week.

At times Hamas itself caused shortages, either by attacking checkpoints or refusing to distribute fuel or other goods. Israel found itself in the unique situation of not only having to supply a neighbour that was constantly trying to murder its citizens but being roundly condemned whenever it didn't supply enough.

In June 2008, after an increase in rockets and mortars and Israeli responses, the parties, with Egyptian mediation, agreed to a six-month period of calm. Hamas made it clear this was a tactical decision only, and it has used the calm to dramatically upgrade its weaponry, especially the range and destructive power of its rockets.

During this period there was a marked decrease in rocket attacks, although they did not cease, and a general loosening of Israel's blockade, but in November, despite the ceasefire, Hamas attempted a raid similar to the one in which Shalit was kidnapped. Israeli forces entered Gaza and prevented this attack, killing gunmen in the process. Hamas seized on this as a pretext for resuming the rocket attacks, and on December 19, on the expiry of the six months, it announced it would not renew the ceasefire.

In the days that followed there were hundreds of rocket and mortar attacks, until Israel finally decided it had no choice but to act decisively to end these incessant attacks on its civilians, terrorising more than a quarter of a million people in its south. No other country would be expected to continue to put up with these unprovoked attacks, and neither should Israel. Tellingly, Cairo made clear Egypt's view that Hamas rockets raining on Israel was the main cause of hostilities.

In contrast to Hamas, which targets Israeli civilians while using its own civilians as human shields, Israel has only attacked the terrorist infrastructure, such as Hamas security installations, rocket-launching sites, weapons stockpiles and factories and the tunnels used to smuggle in so many weapons and explosives. Sadly, while the majority of Palestinians killed have been Hamas forces, the Hamas practice of recklessly, callously siting these facilities in civilian areas means there are inevitably civilian casualties, despite Israel's best efforts to avoid this outcome.

For the civilian deaths, as for the conflict on the whole, Hamas bears full responsibility.

The sad history of Gaza since August 2005 makes it clear that there will be no peace as long as Hamas retains the capacity to sabotage progress by attacking Israel. The international community should therefore support Israel in its efforts to diminish this obstacle for there to be a viable road map to Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Colin Rubenstein is executive director of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council. He taught Middle East politics at Monash University for many years.

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