When President-Elect Obama visited the southern Israeli city of Sderot in July, he was visibly shaken by what he saw: "The Qassam rockets fired by Hamas deliberately and indiscriminately target civilians," Obama said. "This terror is intolerable. Israelis should not have to live in terror in their own homes and schools."
After visiting the hospital bed of two brothers injured by such an attack -- one of whom an 8-year-old, who lost his leg as a result -- Obama added: "If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I would do anything to stop that. And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing."
Obama is absolutely correct. Israel has the right and the duty, to put a stop to the threat posed by Hamas -- an Iranian-backed Jihadist militia -- to its citizens. A just and proportionate Israeli response is one that strives to eliminate Hamas' ability to carry out attacks against Israel. No more, but also no less.
Israel is portrayed as the big bully using an inappropriate level of force against a vastly inferior foe. This is how it is reported and is therefore the way that it is perceived. Little coverage goes to the 10 or 15 missiles or more a day fired at Israel, only the response. But since April 2001, Israelis have been the target of nearly 8,000 rockets and mortar shells.
Usually people living within a 15-mile radius of Gaza have under 20 seconds to find shelter once a "code red" alarm is sounded. Sometimes a missile slips through Israel's warning system, depriving civilians of the opportunity to scramble for safety. The latest missiles launched into Israel have a range of around 25 miles and have been used to attack Beersheba. It should be noted that over half a million Israelis (10% of its population) live within range of these new, more powerful BM-21 Grad missiles.
Which brings us to today:
A Timeline of the Current Crisis-War as per Reuters.
June 19 - A truce begins between Hamas and Israel. It calls for Hamas to stop cross-border rocket fire and for Israel to gradually ease its embargo on Gaza.
Aug 2 - Factional fighting kills three Hamas policemen and six pro-Fatah gunmen in the Gaza Strip in the worst fighting since June 2007.
Nov. 5 - Hamas fires dozens of rockets at Israel after Israeli forces kill six Palestinian militants in an eruption of violence that has disrupted the four-month-old truce.
Dec. 14 - Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal is quoted as saying the group will not renew the six-month-old truce with Israel.
December 18 - Hamas Islamists declare the end of the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire with Israel which expires the next day with a surge of cross-border fighting.
December 24 - Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip ratchet up rocket fire toward Israel.
December 27 - Israel launches air strikes on Gaza in response to almost daily rocket and mortar fire that intensified after Hamas ended the six-month ceasefire.
December 28 - Hamas says an Israeli air strike destroys a laboratory building at the Islamic University, a significant cultural symbol of Hamas.
-- Israeli aircraft bomb some 40 smuggling tunnels in the Gaza Strip that provide a lifeline to the outside world.
December 29 - Israel steps up its air strikes and bombs the Hamas-run Interior Ministry, the first air strike targeting a government building in the offensive.
-- Israel declares areas around the Gaza Strip a "closed military zone."
-- Palestinian militants fire rockets deeper into southern Israel.
December 30 - Israeli warplanes press on for the fourth day with attacks on Hamas targets.
-- Palestinian casualties since December 27 are 348 dead and more than 800 wounded. A U.N. agency says at least 62 of the dead are civilians.
-- Three Israeli civilians and a soldier have been killed by Palestinian rockets since the air strikes began.
-- Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum urges Palestinian groups to respond using "all available means" against Israel.
-- Israel says its attacks herald "long weeks of military action."
December 31 - Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh tells Palestinians that "victory is near."
-- Emergency session of U.N. Security Council to consider resolution drafted by Arab countries calling for immediate cease-fire adjourns without a vote.
January 1 - Israel kills Nizar Rayyan, a hardline Hamas leader, in an air attack on his Gaza Strip home.
-- Palestinian casualties since December 27 are 412 dead and about 1,850 wounded. A U.N. agency says about a quarter of the dead are civilians.
-- Three Israeli civilians and a soldier have been killed by Palestinian rockets since the air strikes began.
January 2 - No sign of a cease-fire on the seventh day of the conflict, with at least 429 Palestinians killed and 2,000 wounded, but a Palestinian official says that Egypt had begun exploratory talks with Hamas to halt the bloodshed.
January 3 - An air strike on a mosque kills 11 Palestinian civilians and wounds dozens, as Israeli tanks and troops wait on the border for a possible ground offensive. Palestinian death toll rises to at least 446.
Israel evacuated Gaza in 2005, removing not only its soldiers but all Israeli settlements, despite bitter resistance from the settlers and their political allies. At great political, financial and security cost to itself, Israel removed every soldier and every single civilian from Gaza, hoping that disengagement would reduce friction, spur economic development and provide a model for peace that could be extended to the West Bank. Israel was not alone in this hope. The United States, United Nations, European Union, World Bank, the Arab League and a thousand nongovernmental organizations were poised to help Gazans build prosperity, freedom and peace. What was the response? Delivering a Hamas victory in the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections. Hamas - the organization that is listed as a terrorist organization by Canada, the European Union, Israel, Japan, the United States and is banned in Jordan, Australia and the United Kingdom.
If Hamas, with total power in Gaza, had been willing to concentrate its energies on the economic development of the region and cease cross-border attacks, the Israeli government and public would have been much more willing to make a similar withdrawal from the West Bank where the majority of Palestinians live. We could have been seeing, by now, the birth of a new Palestinian state. But I digress...
Despite the tragic deaths of civilians, Israeli's airstrikes have been precisely aimed at Hamas fighters, installations and rocket launchers. Inevitably, the use of force causes injury and death to innocents, but from initial figures announced by U.N. personnel, it appears that more than 80% of those killed were Hamas security personnel or other militants -- a ratio that might compare favourably with the use of force by NATO troops in Afghanistan. Israel has chosen its targets carefully, pursuing terrorist training camps and rocket storage facilities, and has used precision missiles to minimize civilian casualties.
Hamas has even admitted, most of the dead are terrorists.
This stands in stark contrast to Hamas' own conduct. By using heavily populated Gaza as a launching pad for its attacks and deliberately placed weapons factories and training centers in and around such civilian areas, Hamas is guilty of a double war crime. Not only does it target Israeli schools and hospitals, it also uses Palestinian women and children as human shields.
The cumulative effect on those who have had to endure such assaults is devastating, but seldom reported in the American -- let alone Arab -- press. Unlike Al-Jazeera, Israeli media shy away from inflammatory journalism, and the Israeli public tends to deal with the consequences of Hamas' attacks with introverted dignity, not photogenic rage. Israel is unfairly condemned for defending itself because the court of public opinion tends to be presented only with evidence of Israel's retaliation, not with its cause -- Hamas' aggression.
As well - it must be understood that the timing of this conflict is fundamentally linked to three elections. Israel faces a general election in February; Iran will choose its next president in June; and Obama becomes president in about two weeks. As has been noted:
But the Israeli government's objectives are not just to influence Hamas. They are equally anxious to influence Israeli public opinion. Israel is a genuine democracy. It is due to have a general election on February 10. If that election results in Tzipi Livni as prime minister with Ehud Barak, the Labour leader and former prime minister, as her deputy, the peace process has a serious prospect of getting somewhere. The attacks on Hamas are already helping Livni and Barak in the opinion polls. The international community might not approve, but if we wish to see a Palestinian state in the foreseeable future this is likely to be the best route.
An Israeli government re-elected just 21 days after President Obama takes office would create an unprecedented opportunity to relaunch the peace process. George W. Bush only seriously engaged in the issue in his last year in the presidency, when his authority was disintegrating. Obama is likely to have eight years of power ahead of him and will carry more weight with both Israelis and Arabs than any previous president for many years.
Having Hilary Clinton as his Secretary of State is an additional asset. She is a powerful figure in her own right, well thought of in Jerusalem, and respected by the Palestinians. If the new US administration is willing to engage and help guarantee any successful negotiations, the Middle East could at last turn a vital corner.
Finally, there is the Iranian dimension. Iran may not be a proper democracy but no one can predict whether Ahmadinejad will get a second term in June or be ousted by a moderate opponent. If he goes, much of his rhetoric on liquidating Israel will go with him. A peaceful resolution of Iran's nuclear aspirations would also be more likely, especially as Obama has promised a serious dialogue with Iran to try to meet its security concerns. If the United States, under Bush, has been able to do a deal with Gadaffi's Libya then a new relationship with Iran, brokered by Obama, is not inconceivable.
So the stakes are high. An Israeli-Palestinian peace will not ensure, as is sometimes asserted, that Iran will become peace-loving, that al-Qaeda will disband or that terrorism will be a thing of the past. But no one can doubt that Israel-Palestine, Iran and terrorism are linked both in the political psychology of the Middle East and in the strategy of many Western governments.
Stopping Hamas launching missiles at Israeli civilian communities will not ensure peace nor an independent Palestine. But Israel will never concede a Palestinian state unless the Palestinians provide an absolute guarantee of an end to hostilities by all Palestinian parties.
As for the rest of us who watch by the sidelines, we can only hope for peace, understanding and that people don't play hard and loose with the facts.