U.S. Secretary Condoleezza Rice is in the Mideast to push forward the peace process in the region, but events are getting in the way. Rice arrives in Israel today just days after Israeli forces, using tanks and warplanes, launched a major incursion into the Gaza Strip and inflicted heavy civilian losses in an attempt to knock out Palestinian rocket launchers.
Despite the violence, Rice on Monday called for talks between Israel and Palestinians to continue. “I’m hopeful that we can get through this current situation and get back to negotiations,” she said.
Rice’s visit is part of a larger strategy by the Bush administration to marginalize Hamas, a militant Islamist organization that took control of Gaza last year. The United States is lending support to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate in that part of the world, and his Fatah loyalists. The hope is that Palestinians will unite around Abbas, whose government controls the West Bank, as the man who can deal with Israel and achieve a unified Palestinian state.
But recent developments are frustrating that effort, bringing Israelis and Palestinians close to returning to an active state of war.
Long-range rocket attacks
The escalation in violence began last week when an Israeli airstrike killed five members of the Hamas’ military wing in southern Gaza. Israel said that the squad was on a mission to possibly cross the border and capture an Israeli soldier. Militants in Gaza responded by firing short-range rockets at Sderot and launching longer-range rockets at Ashkelon, about 10 miles north of the Gaza Strip. Israeli officials viewed the longer-range rocket attacks as a major escalation of the conflict and ordered the incursion into Gaza.
Earlier, a senior Israeli politician provoked outrage from Arab politicians and pro-Palestinian activists when he was perceived to be invoking the Holocaust in his warning that Palestinians firing the rockets would be punished. During the interview on Army Radio, Matan Vilnai, deputy defense minister, used the Hebrew word “shoah,” meaning catastrophe or holocaust. It’s rarely used for anything other than to describe the Nazi extermination of the Jews, and a spokesman for Vilnai said later he did not mean to make any allusion to genocide.
Vilnai’s statement may have been a political miscalculation or simply misunderstood, but Tim Butcher in Britain’s Telegraph reports that the sentiment is not out of step with the mood in Israel. “His use of the term reflects the febrile atmosphere in Israel where public opinion demands the government does something decisive to stop the daily barrage of rockets fired from Gaza over the border into Israel,” writes Butcher. “The issue dominates the media, sparking angry protests from Israelis who live within rocket range of Gaza.”
So Israel acted with the offensive into Gaza, and drew immediate widespread international criticism.
Commentators in the region were quick to point out that the offensive will be spun to Hamas’ advantage. Writing in the Jerusalem Post, Khaled Abu Toameh says that the Israeli operation will benefit Hamas and undermine Fatah: “Al-Jazeera and most of the influential TV stations throughout the Arab world provided Hamas with a free platform to air the allegations to hundreds of millions of viewers. Undoubtedly, these charges have seriously embarrassed Abbas and the Fatah-dominated PA leadership in Ramallah, turning them — in the eyes of many Arabs and Muslims — into ‘collaborators’ and ‘opportunists’ whose only goal is to return to the Gaza Strip with Israel’s help.”
Many Palestinians are buying Hamas’ argument. When Israel began pulling ground troops out of northern Gaza Monday, Hamas militants declared victory. Some 20,000 Hamas supporters attended a mass rally in Gaza City to celebrate.
Hamas fires rockets into Israel knowing that, if Israel does nothing, Hamas’ will appear heroic to anti-Israeli Arabs. If Israel strikes back, Hamas scores martyr points. If Hamas keeps up the rockets, Israel must eventually respond violently, which becomes Abbas’ dilemma. If he does nothing, he appears to be collaborating with the violent oppressor. If he responds, the effort to build trust with Israel in hopes of reaching a settlement is undermined. (After Israel’s offensive this weekend, Abbas suspended peace talks with Israel.) Helene Cooper of The New York Times points out, that by means like this, Hamas can subvert negotiations between Israelis and moderate Palestinians whenever it wants.
All of this does little to help Rice and the Bush administration’s effort to make Hamas irrelevant.
And the cycle continues. Soon after the Israeli forces left northern Gaza Monday, more rockets struck Ashkelon. And Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said today that the incursion into Gaza was not a “one-time event” and operations against Hamas would continue.
Roger Buoen is a managing editor at MinnPost.com. He can be reached at rbuoen[at]minnpost[dot]com.