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Israel: winning yet losing

THERE is justified global outrage at the slaughter and maiming of innocent children, women and men in Israel’s latest ruthless military campaign in Gaza. As a Muslim, it is difficult not to feel ashamed at the indifference of most Arab and Islamic governments to the suffering of the beleaguered Gazans.

This fourth Israeli incursion into Gaza in 10 years has once again demonstrated Israel’s considerable military prowess. Hamas’ asymmetric resistance is heroic but militarily puny. Israel’s sense of impunity has been enhanced by the preoccupation of its Arab neighbours with preserving themselves from Islamist movements within their own polities. Any concessions Hamas secures will be on humanitarian grounds and at a high cost.

Yet, Israel’s military success is unlikely to yield sustainable security. There are four broad trends which portend more difficult times for the Jewish state.

Israel’s military success is unlikely to yield sustainable security.

First, Israeli extremism. Over the past decade, Jewish religious parties and the 250,000 Israeli settlers on the West Bank have emerged ascendant in Israeli politics. They believe the occupied territories are part of historical Israel — Judea and Samaria — and cannot be returned to the Palestinians. Today, Prime Minister Netanyahu, when compared to the likes of Foreign Minister Lieberman, is considered a ‘dove’!

No Israeli leader is bold enough to advocate the removal of the West Bank settlements. On the contrary, and despite US pressure, Netanyahu has allowed additional settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Palestinian towns, villages and communities there are like apartheid South Africa’s ‘Bantustans’ — separated by increasingly large Jewish settlements connected to each other and ‘mainland’ Israel by a network of roads closed to the Palestinians. Meanwhile, Gaza remains blockaded by Israel (and Egypt).

As a consequence, there are diminishing prospects for the two-state solution that all have agreed is the only basis for a settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Since Israel will not oblige the settlers to leave the West Bank, not accept East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state, nor agree to the return of Palestinian refugees expelled in past conflicts, a viable and geographically contiguous Palestinian state appears impossible to achieve. Israeli occupation is thus likely to continue indefinitely.

Second, demography. Israel will have to rule over a Palestinian population which is growing rapidly; while Jewish immigration to Israel has petered out after the post Cold War inflow of Russian and East European Jews. Controlling a growing, hostile and increasingly radicalised Palestinian population will become, literally, a bloody business.

There is a body of opinion emerging among the Palestinians which holds that a two-state solution is no longer viable and thus Palestinians should focus instead on securing equal ‘democratic’ rights within the (Israeli) state. Reportedly, even the Fatah leader, Mahmoud Abbas’ son, subscribes to this view. Were this view to gain wide support among the Palestinians, it would revive the original debate at the time of Israel’s creation — whether it should be an exclusively Jewish state or one in which Palestinians and Jews live together with equal rights.

Given that Palestinians would be in the majority in a unitary state, Israeli leaders would be hard put to respond to such demands if they cannot offer the two-state option.

Third, Palestinian and Arab radicalisation. The plight of the Palestinian people is often, and rightly, cited as the core cause for the initial rise of religious radicalism in the Arab and Muslim world. Over the past 70 years, Israel has faced ever more ideologically ‘difficult’ adversaries: initially its neighbouring Arab states; then the PLO and Fatah, now Hamas.

Israel’s declared aim is to destroy Hamas, militarily and politically. The present regime in Cairo shares this objective because of Hamas’ affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood. If Hamas is discredited in the current or subsequent confrontations, influence over the Palestinians is unlikely to revert to Fatah; it is more likely to move to even more ‘radical’ groups, similar to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham or Al Qaeda.

Today, ISIS is not only at the gates of Baghdad but also on Israel’s border with Syria. It has gained adherents in Jordan and Lebanon. Egypt’s suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood may result in the rise of more militant ISIS-like groups operating in the Sinai. At some stage, such extremist groups could turn from pursuing their largely sectarian wars in Syria and Iraq to promoting the ‘sacred’ cause of the Arab and Islamic world: the ‘liberation’ of Palestine.

In sum, Israel may have to deal with a growing and increasingly militant Palestinian population in Gaza and the West Bank which receives active cross-border support from militant groups located in every one of its Arab neighbours. As evident in Gaza, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, it will not be easy for Israel to put down such an ideologically motivated and battle-hardened insurgency.

Fourth, eroding Western support. Israel has been justifiably condemned for its disproportionate response to the largely ineffective rockets fired by Hamas from Gaza. The images of dead and wounded Palestinian children have stirred revulsion even among Israel’s staunchest Western supporters. A US poll indicates sharply reduced support for Israel among younger Americans.

If the Israeli occupation of the West Bank continues, if Gaza-like operations become endemic, if future conflicts with th e more militant Palestinian groups become even more brutal, Israel is likely to see the hitherto unconditional Western support erode dramatically. Israel could face international isolation and penalties from which it has been protected so far.

Israel’s leaders should look into the future. Do they want to consign their people, the Palestinians and the region to never-ending violence and war?

There is a narrow window of opportunity to reverse their disastrous course and agree to the concessions required to achieve a two-state solution. Fatah will obviously accept such a solution. Despite its formal refusal to recognise Israel, Hamas displayed pragmatism in the past and would accept a fair settlement too.
Israel: winning yet losing
by Munir Akram,
The writer is a former Pakistan ambassador to the UN.

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