A Bloody New Year in Gaza

The conflict between Israel and Hamas turned into open warfare on the 27th of December when Israeli forces launched Operation “Cast Lead.” The offensive was touted by the Israelis as a means of preventing Hamas from targeting civilians through rockets fired from the Gaza Strip towards southern Israel. The Economist referred to the present violence as yet another installment of “the hundred years war” between Arabs and Jews.

As with the previous clashes between these adversaries, the current one sparked a series of disputes worldwide. The controversial issues included proportional use of military force by Israel, Hamas’ role in intensifying the conflict, and the targeting of civilians by both sides. These questions stemmed not only from ideological differences or political sympathies but also from the specific way the current war has been conducted.

Needless to say, it has been a conflict between a state and a “non-state” player. Regarding the war in Gaza, it meant that Israel, with its elite and technologically superior military forces, fought against elusive Hamas militias, which were virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the Gaza Strip’s population. This indicates in some measure why so many civilians were killed in Gaza. But the issue of Israel’s “excessive campaign of bombardment” is only half of the gloomy picture – the other is Hamas’ steadfast strategy of hiding among civilians. As a result of these dubious – both morally and strategically – moves undertaken by both sides, over 1,300 people lost their lives and over 5,000 were injured in Gaza (10 Israeli soldiers were killed and 3 wounded, PAP reported).

This death toll, along with the asymmetrical character of the warfare, seemed to shift the so-called world public opinion towards the Palestinian side. Anti-war protests were held in a number of large cities around the globe. Most of them ? as Rzeczpospolita reflected ? condemned the Israeli offensive in Gaza, although there were also some protesters who supported Israel. Even Krakow witnessed its own anti-war rally. On Thursday January 8th, a small group of protesters gathered on the Rynek to call for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. The participants were mainly from the “STOP War” organisation and the Association of Polish-Palestinian Friendship. They held Palestinian flags and pictures of dead civilians killed by Israeli bombs. There was also a small pro-Israeli group protesting nearby. “Israel does not fight against civilians but against Hamas” declared one of them.

The protests in Krakow, though decidedly modest in scope, summarise quite adequately what supporters of the two fighting sides think about the conflict. From one side is the common accusation against Israel, claiming that it disregards the lives of Palestinian civilians. According to this interpretation, Israel uses its standard strategy of deterrence, which is based on the notion that the more damage that is inflicted upon its enemies, the less likely they will be to strike back. But this strategy, even if understandable from the standpoint of the Israelis, has been strongly contested by others, including, rather obviously, the Palestinians. This was echoed by a Palestinian observer at the United Nations. Riyad Mansour remarked that “this collective punishment is inhumane, immoral and should be stopped immediately. There is no justification for punishing 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza because of the actions of a few.” On the other hand, Hamas quartered its combatants in densely populated areas, very often using civilian infrastructure to hide its military resources. There have even been opinions indicating that the more Palestinians that die in Israel’s offensive, the better for Hamas, as it will ensure a constant flow of newcomers eager to join the organisation.

The Polish government waited until January 5th to announce its reaction. The first to address the issue of the conflict was Minister of Defence Bogdan Klich, who declared on TVN’s political show “Kropka nad i” that Poland shares the stance of the European Union, namely that there should be an appeal to both sides in the conflict to stop the violence. He added that although Israel had a right to defend its citizens from rocket attacks launched by Hamas, its military reactions were exaggerated. The Polish, or broadly European Union, reaction slightly differed from the initial American response. White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe proclaimed that Hamas “indiscriminately kill their own people,” while outgoing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that the United States held Hamas responsible for the outbreak of violence in Gaza.

But before the new president of the United States was sworn in on January 20th, the ceasefire had been announced and Israeli forces began their withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Some commentators believe that this move was deliberately made before Barack Obama’s inauguration, as Israel wanted to avoid disagreements with its most powerful strategic ally. It might also be suggested that perhaps Israel had simply achieved its military goals in Gaza, and while being aware of bearing the political cost of killing Palestinian civilians, had decided to declare victory and go home. Interestingly enough, Hamas also called the results of the struggle a success.

However, the outcome of this war seems to be much more ambiguous than both sides are willing to admit. More importantly, in the wake of the recent ceasefire, the peace process looks even more distant than it appeared a couple months ago.

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