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January 9th, 2009
05:48 PM ET

Crisis in Gaza: Why is this happening?

Dave Schechter
CNN Senior National Editor

Any attempt to answer the question "why is this happening?" - this effort included - will be found wanting by supporters of both Israel and the Palestinians, who will decry omissions of history, over-simplification, lack of sufficient context and invalidation of truths they hold to be self-evident.

Nonetheless, for those not steeped in the minutiae of the conflict, a guide for the perplexed.

There are no good dates left on the calendar.

That's been my line for years about the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

By now every square on the calendar can be checked off as the date when one side committed what the other considers to be an atrocity.

(For purposes of this piece, we'll use a definition of atrocity from the dictionary on my desk: "An act of vicious cruelty, esp. the killing of unarmed people.")
 
There is no black-and-white, only shades of gray.

That is my other line about the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

The hard-core on both sides, of course, see matters in absolute terms.

When viewed as a zero-sum game, in which what one gains is offset by what another loses, compromise is difficult, if not impossible.
 
 
 
The first thing to keep in mind is that there are two narratives at play, narratives that began thousands of years ago.

It's as if an Israeli vehicle collided with a Palestinian vehicle but the drivers steadfastly maintain radically different versions of what happened, of who did what to whom.

And there often is little respect for the viewpoint of the other.

The storyteller Noa Baum, who performs a piece she calls "A Land Twice Promised," in which she intertwines the stories of Israeli and Palestinian women, puts it this way on her website: "I believe that at the heart of this conflict are two parallel narratives of two national movements struggling to gain sovereignty over the same piece of land. This conflict is characterized by endless layers of memories of pain, injustice and victimization. At the same time there is a lack of listening and no willingness to legitimize the narrative of the other side. I believe that acknowledgement of the other's story is the first step toward creating dialogue and relationship building, which is the foundation for healing and peace – the only alternative to the spiraling vortex of violence."
 
 
 
Right now we are in that "spiraling vortex of violence."

Why is this happening?

History can be a guide, but history is in the eye of the beholder.
 
 
 
How far back do you want to go?

In the Bible, Abraham's wife Sarah was barren and he fathered a son, Ishmael, by Hagar, who was Sarah's handmaiden (and depending on the interpretation, a gift from an Egyptian Pharaoh).

Fourteen years later, the story goes, Sarah became pregnant and bore Abraham another son, Isaac.

The book of Genesis tells believers that God commanded Abraham to expel Hagar and Ishmael, but promised to make a great nation of their people.

Isaac's people became the Jews; Ishmael's the Arabs and Muslims.
 
 
 
Too far back?

At the end of the 1800s, European Jews fleeing persecution began arriving in the land of Zion (ergo, Zionists) seeking to establish a Jewish homeland in "Eretz Israel," the land of Israel, the soil of their ancestors.

A people without a land for a land without people.

Except, of course, that wasn't the case.

While there had remained a relatively small Jewish presence in the land called Palestine, the newcomers returned "home" and found there a much larger number of Ishmael's descendants with a claim to the same soil.
 
 
 
Still too far back?

In 1947, as the British sought to extricate themselves from the land they took in war from the Ottoman Turks, the fledgling United Nations offered the original two-state solution.

At the time the population in the affected area was roughly two-thirds Arab, one-third Jewish.

The Jews were unhappy with their allotment (a majority of the land but much of it in the Negev Desert) but accepted the proposal.

Arab leaders unhappy with their portion rejected both the partition plan and the idea of an eventual Jewish nation in Palestine.

In 1948, Israel declared its independence, followed almost immediately by war with the Arab nations, in which Israel captured far more land than had been allotted in the U.N. plan.

What the Jews celebrate, the Palestinians call the "nakba," or catastrophe.

In the months leading up to the war, several hundred thousand Arabs fled their homes, beginning the refugee issue that persists today.

Debate continues over the degree to which they were forced out by the Jews or encouraged by their own leaders to leave, expecting to return when the Jews were defeated.

In the months and years following the war, several hundred thousand Jews left their homes in Arab nations, the majority settling in Israel.

 
 
Not recent enough?

In the 1967 "Six-Day War," Israel conquered the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza strip, the West Bank (as in the West Bank of the Jordan River), the eastern half of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

(For purposes of this piece, we'll call the Gaza Strip "Gaza," as distinct from Gaza City.)

Egypt had controlled the Gaza since 1948.

Now it became Israel's headache.

In a relatively small strip of land along the Mediterranean Sea (25 miles long and 4-7 miles wide, slightly more than twice the size of Washington, D.C.) was a rapidly growing Arab population (then approximately 280,000, now an estimated 1.5 million people), living in what politely could be referred to as squalor.

Gaza, as densely crowded a piece of real estate as you will find on this planet, has been a boiling cauldron.
 
 
 
That squalor is the enduring memory of my first visit to Gaza more than 20 years ago.

Sewage running down gutters in alleys and streets.

People crammed into makeshift housing that became permanent over time.

A hospital operating without air conditioning in stifling heat and without window screens to keep out flies.

One prominent family living in palatial surroundings less than a stone's throw from abject poverty.

My favorite metaphor for Gaza was the rusting freighter then stuck and decaying some 100 yards off the coast of the Al-Shati refugee camp.
 
 
 
Over the years, the leaders of Arab and Muslim nations have used protests about the plight of the Palestinians as a convenient way to let their populace blow off steam over unrelated domestic issues.

The Palestinians have reason to feel used, if not betrayed, by some of their brethren.

Expressions of this sentiment have been heard in recent days from a frustrated population in Gaza and echoed by Hezbollah's leadership in Lebanon and the authors of opinion pieces in the Arab press.

Iran, which is Islamic but not Arab, supports both Hamas and Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Islamic political and military organization that fought a 2006 war with Israel.

Israel's vaunted military may not be trying to compensate for its perceived "loss" in Lebanon but in Gaza surely has implemented solutions to the harsh lessons learned fighting Hezbollah.

It's that influence of Iran through Hamas and Hezbollah that makes the rulers of numerous Arab nations nervous about Islamic movements gaining an even greater foothold than they already have in their own countries.

The global affairs think tank Stratfor summarized this point: "With somewhat limited options to contain Iranian expansion in the region, the Arab states ironically are looking to Israel to ensure that Hamas remains boxed in. So, while on the surface it may seem that the entire Arab world is convulsing with anger at Israel's offensive against Hamas, a closer look reveals that the view from the Arab palace is quite different from the view on the Arab street."
 
 
 
And now we reach the year 2009.

Three years after forcing religious-based settlers to leave Gaza, Israel maintains tight control of the crossing points on land, the seas offshore and the skies above.

Israel is at war against Hamas, a Sunni Muslim organization created more than 20 years ago; its name an acronym for the Arabic words "Harakat Al-Muqawama Al-Islamia" meaning Islamic Resistance Movement.

Hamas is a political party and provides social services in Gaza.

It also has a military component.

Israel and the United States are among those who consider Hamas to be a terrorist organization.

Hamas has taken credit (a more boastful stance than a mere claim of responsibility) for suicide bombings that have killed hundreds of Israelis.

Hamas also has fired several thousand rockets and mortars into Southern Israel during the past several years.

The rockets are crude by modern military standards, though Israel says that Iran has given Hamas rockets with longer range and greater accuracy.
 
 
 
An Israeli blockade on relief supplies failed to pressure Hamas into halting rocket attacks.

But it did give Palestinians the chance to link Israel's tactics to the Holocaust by calling the blockade "the siege of the Gaza ghetto," a barely veiled reference to the Nazi siege of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw.

Israel and Hamas each say the other's actions precipitated the collapse a couple of weeks ago of a temporary truce brokered by Egypt.

After declaring the "tadiyeh" no longer in effect, Hamas stepped up rocket attacks that had tapered off during those six months.

Israel decided that it no longer could tolerate 1.5 million of its citizens living in fear.

Israel struck first from the air and then on land.

Palestinians accuse Israel of "genocide" and "ethnic cleansing."

Israelis are offended by the linguistic linkage to the Holocaust and point to language such as this from Hamas' 1988 convenant: "Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it."
 

  
Israel contends that while its military tries to limit civilian casualties, Hamas fires rockets from residential neighborhoods and the grounds of schools and other institutions, using the local population as "human flak jackets," Chemi Shalev wrote in the newspaper Israel Hayom.

Did Hamas underestimate Israel's willingness to hit and hit hard or count on that response?

From an Israeli perspective, Hamas is willing to suffer mass casualties among the Palestinians if it mobilizes world opinion against Israel.

Speaking in Damascus, Hamas official Moussa abu Marzouk told a reporter from New American Media that "When Israel uses these means, it doesn't decrease support for Hamas. It accomplishes the opposite. The popularity of Hamas has increased sharply among the Palestinian people and people throughout the Muslim world."

From a Palestinian perspective, the scope of Israel's air and ground assault and the mounting toll of dead and wounded in Gaza is a disproportionate response to the firing of rockets and mortars that have killed and injured a relatively small number of Israelis.

In the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharanoth, Gilad Sharon offered no sympathy: "There are those who say that we are striking at civilians and a population in Gaza that is not to blame," he wrote, adding , "This is self-righteousness; we did not elect Hamas, the public in Gaza did, in droves.If they are suffering, they should elect someone better next time".

Writing in the Arab News, Osama al Sharif lamented: "Israel's killing machine could not be reined in, and as diplomacy stumbled, or was intentionally aborted, anger and calls for action swept through world capitals. The show of solidarity with the Palestinians, and in particular with the people of Gaza, was universal in spite of a brittle resolve of governments, especially members of the Security Council."
 
 
 
The past, the present and now, the future.

Barack Obama will be sworn in as the U.S. president on January 20.

Playing the "one President at a time" card, President-elect Obama has held his tongue thus far, but promises to have much to say once in office.

Despite reiterating his support for Israel (a contentious issue during the campaign) there is wariness in Israel about how the new President Obama will handle the intractable problem that has bedeviled his predecessors.

If only in the interest of getting off on a positive foot, might Israel consider concluding its current Gaza campaign before the Oval Office changes hands?
 
 
 
President George Bush has been an outspoken friend of Israel, supportive of the Palestinian National Authority and critical throughout of Hamas.

Many Israelis and Palestinians alike were disappointed by the level of U.S. activity (or inactivity, if you choose) in American efforts to resolve the conflict during most of his eight-year administration.

Having watched the failure of President Bill Clinton's heated Camp David diplomacy, the White House initially allowed that pot to simmer on a back burner.

Toward the end of his administration, President Bush spoke perhaps too optimistically about Israel and the Palestinians concluding an agreement before he left office.

"I was the first American President to call for a Palestinian state, and building support for the two-state solution has been one of the highest priorities of my Presidency. To earn the trust of Israeli leaders, we made it clear that no Palestinian state would be born of terror," he said in a speech delivered in December.

Looking the future, President Bush predicted, "The day will come when people from Cairo and Riyadh to Baghdad and Beirut to Damascus and Tehran live in free and independent societies, bound together by ties of diplomacy, tourism, and trade."

"The day will come when al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas are marginalized and then wither away, as Muslims across the region realize the emptiness of the terrorists' vision and the injustice of their cause," he said.
 
 
 
President Obama will be an interested spectator when Israel goes to the polls on February 10 to elect a new Knesset, its parliament.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu head the slates of the three parties expected to gain the most seats, though whichever party garners the most seats likely will have to form a coalition government that includes smaller parties.

With the Israeli military at war neither Livni nor Barak (the Israeli Prime Minister at those failed Camp David negotiations) wants to appear soft when most segments of the Israeli public back the campaign against Hamas and an election battle looms with the decidedly hawkish Netanyahu.

Meanwhile, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas could call for elections this spring that would pit his more secular Fatah movement against the Islamist Hamas.

It was Hamas' stunning (to the United States, if not also Israel) victory in the 2006 elections that led to the current situation in which Abbas and Fatah control the West Bank while Hamas rules in Gaza.

The U.S. and Israel would like Abbas and Fatah to extend their governance to include Gaza, but there is no money to be made betting on that outcome.
 
 
 
Just as the Jews achieved their dream of a national homeland, the Palestinians yearn for a nationality to call their own.

But the past (how far back do you want to do?) years have embittered Israelis toward Palestinians and Palestinians toward Israelis.

Generations have been born and grown up and grown old knowing no other reality.

Until that cycle ends, there won't be many "good" dates on the calendar.


Filed under: 360° Radar • Crisis in Gaza • David Schechter • Israel
soundoff (156 Responses)
  1. Emma

    I Gaza war is as a result of collective failure of the international communities .

    January 12, 2009 at 10:26 am |
  2. W. Heijnen

    I followed the 2006 conflict between Israel and Lebanon. I saw so much destruction and bloodshed I wanted to understand the underlying motives, so I began investigating... I collided with the term "Nakba". I had never heard of it. I studied it and came to the conlusion that it is just as horrendous as the hollocaust. From that moment on I have lived with only one question: how come noone ever told me about it... Has the free press an answer?

    January 11, 2009 at 6:21 pm |
  3. Herbert Friedman

    Imagine the Chutzpah of the Israelis to have attacked five Arab countries with only a population or 250 million and humiliate them in 1948.

    January 11, 2009 at 5:59 pm |
  4. Bracket Pottle

    It used to be that neighboring nations would contest Israel's right to exist. Now they do it by proxy through terrorist gangs. They obviously can't learn from their mistakes. Since 1948, Israel has had a right to be where it is.

    Why not change tactics. Why don't the Palestinian's adopt civil disobediance? It worked for Gandhi in India against the British, and it
    might be better than hiding behind masks and shooting rockets and mortars from school yards and children's bed room windows in between going over to the Mosque for more ammunition.

    Are we looking at what happens when a gang assaults a nation state, or are we looking at the difference between the violent logic of Islam and the peaceful logic of Gandhi? The latter was successful.

    It is like the bet between the sun and the wind as to which could make the man remove his coat. If the Palestinian's would ever let the sun come out, the man might take the coat off.

    January 11, 2009 at 5:49 pm |
  5. Aleem

    The problem in midle East and particularly Gaza is the occupation. Isreal can fool the world that they left Gaza, but in fact they have created a concentration camp called Gaza. Isreal has sealed the area and with the help of Egyptian dictator who is on American payroll, have created hell on earth for the palestinians. CNN is toeing Iraeli line, sine the they are controlled and sponsored by the Isreali lobby.
    How can American citizans who bank role Isreali killing of innocent civilians, get the real facts, sine there is a total black out in American media regarding women and children being burnt alive in Gaza. The world has seen those pictures, and they know the truth. When Bush and Chenny, who are war criminals ask " why do they hate us", the answer would be the pictures coming out of Gaza. Americans should wake up and learn what their government is doing in their name.
    God bless America.

    January 11, 2009 at 1:20 pm |
  6. SS

    I always considered Anderson Cooper a great reporter with guts. I am however quite disappointed that when he was denied entry to Gaza, he just turned around and returned to Atlanta. Would Anderson have returned to Atlanta had he been denied entry to New Orleans after Bush's Katrina disaster? I think Not!

    The denial of entry is all part of the Israeli propeganda to keep people from reporting on the ongoing massacre and genocide. I just lost a relative in Gaza on January 7th. He was a Christian and a civilian, 26 years old.Certainly would not be anything related to an Islamic Militant. But if we had western reporters on the gound, it would be really disruptive to teh Israli propeganda machine that dehumanizes the victim and portrays the aggressor as the victim. Hitler did the same to the Jews in WW2 and instead of learning what not to do, they actually took notes and in some cases improved on the genocide. Hitler also stopped reporters from entering the Auwshwitz ghetto as Israel is denying reporters from entering the Gaza ghetto. Shame on you!!

    You don't have to take my word on this: Here is a link to what an Israeli soldier (with concious) is saying
    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=O0LS_La2ar0

    January 11, 2009 at 12:03 pm |
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