The Gaza War: Is it All So Hard to Understand?
December 31, 2008 But why, more than one reporter from highly reputable publications has asked me, is Israel attacking Gaza now? At first, I was astonished: because Hamas cancelled the ceasefire and started massive rocket firings at Israel. No, they responded, as if I had said something rude. Isn’t it the election, or an attempt to stop the tunnels, or this or that reason? Absolutely not, I say, it’s like Pearl Harbor, or September 11. If someone announces they are going to go to war with you and then does it, you retaliate and fight. At that point, the reporters seem to lose interest and bring the interview to an end, as if clearly a person who can say such things is not going to provide any rational analysis. Yet if one cannot even understand this most basic fact, what comprehension can there be of this issue or, indeed, of Middle East politics in general. There are reasons, however, for this response. Large elements in the West find it very hard to “get,” that is to understand, Hamas or the Palestinians in general — or, for that matter, Islamists in general, or Arabs in general, or Muslims in general--albeit with all the many variations and exceptions.
The problem with pragmatism: Today, people ask, why didn’t the Jews of Poland understand the Nazis were going to wipe them out, at least in the earlier period when escape or revolt was more possible? According to contemporary and later eyewitness testimony because they didn’t think Germans would act in such an unpragmatic manner. After all hundreds of thousands of Jews were involuntarily contributing to the German war effort. They were making clothes, repairing roads, growing food. Why should the Third Reich destroy a highly effective, very cheap, and low-problem labor force, thus crippling itself and helping to ensure that it lost the war? Answer: ideology. A doctrine and belief system will make people act in a way that doesn’t fit pragmatic expectations. Why should Hamas start a war against a stronger power? Due to believing itself to be stronger and needs to mobilize mass support. Why should Palestinian leaders reject a state even if it means the end of an increasingly small degree of “occupation”? Due to belief that total victory is inevitable, that compromise is treason, and that their enemies are satanic.
The solvency of solutions: The other big question asked is: what is the solution? How can, as some say, peace be attained; how can Israel, others say, eliminate Hamas? The presumption is that the first or the second is easy, or at least possible. Answer: Wrong. This is the Middle East we don’t do solutions. Hamas is not going to disappear, nor will it be moderate. Israel, for good reasons, has no interest in occupying the Gaza Strip. Fatah is incapable of retaking control there. This situation will go on and probably most likely end in some new ceasefire. Hamas will break the ceasefire a bit every week, and smash it altogether every six to eighteen months, repeating the current situation. That isn’t the ideal outcome but it is by far the most likely one.
The unbearable lightness of gratitude: No matter how much diplomatic aid, sympathy, or money the West gives Hamas—and it has saved Hamas and the PLO over and over from their own mistakes—they will not become grateful or pro-Western. Anti-Western and anti-American sentiment is too valuable and too widespread to disappear. The Palestinians—and Iran’s regime, and Syria’s government, and Hizballah, and other Islamists—need scapegoats. Who else are they going to blame for their problems, themselves? If you save the terrorists today, they will commit more terrorism tomorrow. If you let them escape the consequences of their own extremism, you can guarantee they will stay extremist and take a lot of the masses with them.
The reality of reality: In some ways, the most important—or at least second most important—thing to happen in the Middle East this week is that Hizballah leader Hasan Nasrallah went too far, calling for the overthrow of Egypt’s government. Egypt’s Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit responded, “They have actually declared war on Egypt….” And when he says “they” he means Iran, Syria, Hizballah, and Hamas. The Saudis and Gulf Arabs are also drawing lines deeper than ever before. Publicly and loudly, they look at Gaza, and see Arabs and Muslims, and criticize Israel. More softly in public and loudly in private they look at Gaza and see the Iranian axis.
This is the Middle East of 2008 and not of 1958, 1968, 1978, 1988, or 1998. The Palestinian issue has little effect on any other issue. The real conflict is Iran-Syria against Egypt-Saudi Arabia. Islamists are seeking to conquer the region from Arab nationalists. Radical groups are not interested in happy homelands but jihad and genocide. And so the issue is not why Israel is attacking Hamas in Gaza now, but why Hamas in Gaza is attacking Israel now. Note: This article was written for Pajamas Media.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).