More than Gaza
As Israel pursues its "holocaust" in Gaza, America deploys a destroyer off Lebanon, Iranian President Ahmadinejad makes a historic trip to Iraq and the Arab cold war grows colder, should the region be bracing itself for the worst, asks Amira Howeidy
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ISRAEL KILLS PALESTINIAN BABIES: Israeli occupation forces shot 20-day old infant Amira Abu 'Akr in a fresh incursion in the Gaza strip on Tuesday
"Silence, massacre" ran the caption to a scathing cartoon published in the London- based Al-Hayat newspaper on Tuesday showing a line of faceless, suit-clad men watching as black smoke rises from Gaza. The illustration, a depiction of international and Arab silence over Israel's "holocaust" in the Gaza Strip, encapsulates the general mood in the Arab world where feelings of frustration and helplessness are mixed with growing apprehension over the direction of events in the conflict-ridden Middle East.
It's been almost a week since the Israeli army began operation "Warm Winter", the name it has given to its vicious military incursion in the Gaza Strip, reeling under a strict Israeli siege since last June. Palestinian casualties of an operation that purports to target the Islamic resistance movement Hamas have been high. So far 125 Palestinians have been killed. Three quarters of the victims of Israel's onslaught are children, not the Hamas cadres Israel claims it is seeking to liquidate in an attempt to oust the movement from Gaza and end resistance to occupation.
Israel's military aggression ground to a halt on Monday ahead of a regional tour by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, only to resume a day later with a "limited" incursion into Gaza which resulted in the killing of a 20-day-old infant. Bloody images of dead Palestinian children have dominated the screens of Arab TV news stations, especially the popular Qatar-based Al-Jazeera which was the first to broadcast pictures of the baby, wrapped in blood-stained cloth, killed by Israeli troops on Tuesday.
The message might have been purely humanitarian; exposing Israeli violence which the Arabs are all too familiar with, or, as some observers suggest, Tel-Aviv's failure in achieving the goals of the Warm Winter operation.
"When military operations do not achieve their objectives then it means they have failed, plain and simple," Lebanese- Palestinian observer Anis Naqash told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Operation Warm Winter has failed, and there was no exaggeration on the part of resistance factions in Gaza when they celebrated a victory following Israel's halt of the operation on Monday."
Reports published in the Israeli press have underlined the strength of the Islamic resistance's response to Israel's assault. On Monday, the Israeli daily Haaretz published a commentary by its military correspondent Amir Rababort in which he argued that the extent of Israel's failure is underlined by the simple fact that home-made Palestinian rockets have continued to fall on the Israeli cities of Sderot and Ashkelon. Rababort went on to opine that following the operation Hamas's popularity has grown, and now extends to the West Bank, hitherto a stronghold of the Palestinian Authority and Fatah.
The daily Maariv quoted Israeli soldiers from the Givati Armoured Brigade as saying that the resistance in Gaza was "difficult". Hamas fighters, they said, who "in the past would run and blow themselves up are today fighting intelligently and are difficult to monitor". This was not the case when Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, say the soldiers, but now Hamas's "terrorists" are "brave, shrewd and dangerous... they are part of an army and they have access to advanced equipment".
Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert continues to insist that Israel's military incursions in Gaza over the past week have succeeded, arguing that they have conveyed the message to Hamas that it must "rethink its strategy", though this is something the Islamic movement has shown no signs of doing. Indeed, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas seems to have been forced to rethink his strategy as Hamas stood its ground. By Sunday, Israel's massacres in Gaza had left the Palestinian president with no option but to halt negotiations with the Israelis and to reject Rice's call on Tuesday to resume talks.
If there are any winners or losers in the current flare up in Gaza, former diplomat and director of the Arab Centre for Futuristic Studies Gamil Matar told the Weekly, "then Hamas has emerged victorious and Abbas and Israel the losers".
Calls within Abbas's Fatah faction to reconsider his policy with Israel and draw a line under the ongoing refusal to deal with Hamas led to the postponement of the faction's annual convention, initially scheduled for last month. The cancellation, suggest observers, supports the view that Abbas faces growing dissent within Fatah, an impression reinforced by Israeli calls this week to open talks with "moderate" elements within the PA. Since Hamas's election victory in January 2006 the US and Israel have routinely referred to the PA and Fatah, in their entirety, as "moderates", as opposed to the "terrorist" and "extremist" Hamas.
A lengthy feature published in the American Vanity Fair magazine on Tuesday detailing Fatah's collaboration with the Bush administration to oust Hamas following its election victory in Gaza is widely viewed as yet another blow to Abbas and his party.
"Vanity Fair obtained confidential documents, since corroborated by sources in the US and Palestine, which lay bare a covert initiative, approved by Bush and implemented by Rice and Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams, to provoke a Palestinian civil war. The plan was for forces led by [Fatah warlord Mahmoud] Dahlan, and armed with new weapons supplied at America's behest, to give Fatah the muscle it needed to remove the democratically elected Hamas-led government from power," said the article.
Within the Bush administration, writes Vanity Fair 's David Rose, "the Palestinian policy set off a furious debate. One of its critics is David Wurmser, the avowed neo-conservative, who resigned as Vice President Dick Cheney's chief Middle East adviser in July 2007, a month after the Gaza coup. Wurmser accuses the Bush administration of 'engaging in a dirty war in an effort to provide a corrupt dictatorship [led by Abbas] with victory.' He believes that Hamas had no intention of taking Gaza until Fatah forced its hand. 'It looks to me that what happened wasn't so much a coup by Hamas but an attempted coup by Fatah that was pre-empted before it could happen,' Wurmser says."
The article, which supports Hamas's own version of events that led to its takeover of Gaza in June 2007, has embarrassed the Palestinian Authority and Fatah. Officials from both have been silent since the feature was published, though Dahlan has denied the magazine's "allegations". How the story will impact on Hamas's image among the Palestinian public remains to be seen.
Many Arab and Egyptian pundits argue Gaza has acted as a lightening strip for escalating regional tensions during the last week, and that events there cannot be divorced from a wider context extending beyond Palestinian casualties and Israeli aggression.
While Israeli Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai's much publicised remark about Gaza facing a "bigger shoah " -- the Hebrew word for Holocaust -- was assumed at the time to be no more than unpleasant hyperbole for plans to launch a full- scale invasion of the Strip, the comment is increasingly being viewed as indicative of the long- term direction of Israel's strategy towards the Palestinians in the occupied territories.
"The more Qassam fire intensifies and the rockets reach a longer range, they [the Palestinians of Gaza] will bring upon themselves a bigger shoah because we will use all our might to defend ourselves," said Vilnai.
Israel's Military Intelligence Chief Amos Yadlin provided a broader perspective on the situation at a cabinet briefing on Sunday. "The fact that Iran, Syria and Hizbullah are not shooting now does not mean they are out of the battle," he said. "Everyone is watching to see how the conflict in Gaza will end, to decide how to act."
"Something is indeed taking shape in the region," says Ahmed Youssef, professor of political science at Cairo University and the director of the Arab Studies Centre. The assassination of Hizbullah ground commander Imad Mughniyah in Syria on 12 February, America's deployment of the destroyer USS Cole off the coast of Lebanon earlier this week, the "open war or holocaust" in Gaza, the cold war between the Arabs, new UN sanctions against Iran approved for the first time by China and Russia are, says Youssef, "all connected and could suggest confrontation and war".
Naqash believes the presence of the American destroyer USS Cole is intended to send a message to Syria and Hizbullah that, "Israel is not alone and that we are on its side". Iran, too, he says, intended to send a message when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Iraq, the first time an Iranian president has been to the country since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. "The visit is to show who won and who lost in Iraq," says Naqash.
Conflicting messages emanating from the region are, says Matar, worrying to Egypt, whose own officials have, in response, contributed some confusion of their own. "Egyptian officials are so worried that at times they have issued confused and contradictory statements. Two weeks ago Egypt's foreign minister said Egypt would break the leg of any Palestinian that crosses the border and now they are inviting injured Palestinians to cross the border for hospital treatment."
Egypt's primary concern, says Matar, "is Hamas's powerful position and rising popularity on its north east borders".
And the real dilemma?
"That anything can happen," says Matar.