In 2006, Hamas won a resounding victory in the first free elections to ever be held in the Palestinian territories. Israel, the United States and the European Union have long designated Hamas a terrorist organization, and displaying a stubborn refusal to negotiate, they responded by besieging Gaza. Vital humanitarian and medical supplies, as well as goods and materials necessary for daily living, were severely restricted, turning Gaza into an open air prison in which miserable Palestinians struggled to survive in subhuman conditions. The strengthening of the blockade caused 95 percent of shops and businesses to close and brought the highest rate of unemployment in the world, a staggering 41 percent in June of 2008. Shortages of even the most basic goods and services such as fuel, electricity and food became scarce as Gazans became increasingly reliant on the tiny trickle of humanitarian aid allowed into the strip. Richard Falk, the U.N. humanitarian emissary to the Middle East, compared Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto.
Violence between the two parties continued until June of 2008, when Egypt mediated a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel. The conditions of the truce stipulated that Hamas end attacks in Israel in exchange for a gradual easing of the blockade and an end to bombings within Gaza. Hamas abided by the terms of the truce, and rocket attacks into Israel were dramatically decreased, maintained only by rogue elements unconnected to Hamas. However, Gaza remained under a brutal siege. The general state of peace was ended on November 4, when Israel killed several Palestinian militants, breaking the conditions of the truce. In response, Hamas resumed its firing of rudimentary rockets into southern Israel. After the cease-fire officially ended in December of 2008, Hamas offered to renew the truce in hope of seeing Israel actually begin to open borders and ease the embargo. Israel refused, and on December 27, Israeli Air Force planes bombed Gaza, incinerating hundreds of people. In addition to massive bombardment by land, air and sea, Israel illegally used chemical weapons in civilian areas. The results of these attacks were catastrophic. More than 1,200 Palestinians were killed (just under half of whom were women and children) and more than 4,000 were injured. Civilian infrastructure and residential areas have been turned to rubble by overwhelming Israeli violence.
Ostensibly, the goals of the operation were to stop Hamas rocket fire and destroy tunnels used for smuggling weapons (though it turns out many of these tunnels are used to transport basic consumer goods). But these goals cannot be attained using incredibly destructive but otherwise limited military means. Hamas is too entrenched in Palestinian society to be rooted out through an assault, and any Israeli violence predictably increases Hamas’ popularity. To the desperate people of Gaza, Hamas seems like the only one standing up for them, as it was elected to do. This is not to justify attacks on civilians, from which Israelis have clearly suffered—only to explain that people in desperate situations often have desperate responses. Israel has a right to security, but causing more devastation in Gaza will only radicalize or demoralize the population, most of whom are innocent victims. More likely reasons for the offensive relate to the failed war with Hezbollah in 2006 and to sabotage possible peace with Hamas, which the Israeli government continues to treat as if it had no responsibility other than terrorism.
Recently, Hamas has shown its willingness to accept a 50-year cease-fire and a two-state solution along the 1967 borders. Hamas has thus joined the resounding calls by the great majority of the international community to have an independent Palestinian state living alongside Israel. However, a two-state solution would require that Israel abandon its attempt at annexing the West Bank, a requirement which it is unwilling to accept as demonstrated by the leading candidate for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s comments that he would let the settlements expand. As extrajudicial assassination, kidnapping, torture and other human rights abuses continue unabated in the occupied territories, Israel’s only interest appears to be maintaining the status quo and denying Palestinians any right of self-determination. If these crimes end, Hamas is more likely to end its own misdirected resistance.
The main obstacle to peace in the region, then, is the refusal of Israel, backed crucially by the United States, to negotiate a peaceful solution to the conflict. In addition to the yearly vote at the United Nations to create a Palestinian state, a vote consistently opposed by the U.S. and Israel (the last tally was 161 in favor and 6 against, with the U.S. and Israel leading the rejectionist camp), the Arab Peace Initiative offers Israel the opportunity to normalize relations with its Arab neighbors in exchange for retreating to the 1967 borders. It is in Israel’s and the world’s best interests to accept this proposal while it still lasts. With every massacre, Israel further isolates itself from the world community and pushes the prospect of peace further away.