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Friday 14 Dec 2018 | 16:42 | SYDNEY
Friday 14 Dec 2018 | 16:42 | SYDNEY

Israel-Gaza violence: Political ground shifts under the dome



15 July 2014 10:34

Coming days may well see a de-escalation of the latest confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians. I say this more in hope than with real analytical conviction.

Despite the brutal familiarity of this latest confrontation when compared with previous episodes in 2012 and 2008-09, there is no reliable guide to how long these conflicts tend to last. In 2008 the violence lasted for over three weeks. In 2012 it went for eight days.

The Israeli Government may yet decide to mount a ground assault into Gaza. The traditional mediators in this conflict, the US and Egypt, do not appear to have begun a serious effort to negotiate a ceasefire (beyond urging both sides to exercise restraint), and this may lengthen the conflict. Indeed, until a ceasefire is either negotiated or emerges by default, every new casualty adds renewed momentum to the conflict.

But if all these factors make it difficult to know precisely when this confrontation will end, it is possible to predict with much greater certainty how it will end. At some point there will be another ceasefire, formal or otherwise, that both sides will claim as a victory.

Some observers are already asking what either side will have achieved.

Many Israelis will see it as a necessary response to both the callous murder of three teenagers and to the waves of rockets fired into Israeli towns and cities. More practically, the Israeli military will have used the opportunity to once again trim down Hamas' military infrastructure in Gaza and gain a measure of deterrence.

But as in previous episodes of this conflict, all of this will have been achieved at a heavy cost in Palestinian lives and yet more damage to Israel's international reputation, despite its effort to avoid both. At the end of this military operation Hamas will still be in power in Gaza. And, as was the case after 2008-09 and 2012, Israel's deterrence will prove to be relatively short-lived.

Hamas will revel in its victimhood and 'steadfastness'. It will point in triumph at the increasing range of its rocket attacks and its ability to traumatise Israelis as far north of Gaza as Tel Aviv. But none of this will have done anything to shift the lives of Palestinians living in Gaza one centimetre in a positive direction. In fact, by firing its rockets from densely populated areas, Hamas will also bear a deep responsibility for the innocent lives lost.

At the ceasefire, when it eventually comes, casual observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will reach for the usual aphorisms about stalemates and the fruitless search for peace. Yet more bloodshed and nothing has changed, they will say.

But they are wrong. The status quo does change with each new conflict or crisis, albeit imperceptibly, like a sand dune whose movement across the desert can only be witnessed from a distance and over time.

Twenty years ago at the time of the Oslo Accords it was still possible to talk about what the two sides might be able to achieve together through a negotiated settlement of their conflict. In the decade after the failed Camp David Summit of 2000 and in the wake of the second Intifada it has only been possible to talk about what each will side do on its own, and usually to the other.

In the last decade the Israeli consensus coalesced around separation. It withdrew from Gaza and built a fence in the West Bank. More recently it added to these iron walls an Iron Dome, the military system now being used to shoot down or divert Hamas rockets fired from Gaza.

These measures allowed Israelis to develop an iron indifference to the Palestinians. After they built the wall, the suicide bombings stopped and the Israeli economy thrived (at least initially; times are more difficult again now). Support for political parties running on a peace process agenda collapsed. As Israeli journalists and editors noted to me, interest in the Palestinian question among their readers evaporated.

Of course, it seems difficult to imagine this right now as Israelis wake in fright to air raid sirens. But after the conflict ends, the Palestinian question will drift off the agenda once again. Israelis have succeeded in separating themselves both physically and mentally from the Palestinians, at least for now.

Palestinian unilateralism has been less successful. The second Intifada failed to bring Israel either to its knees or to more amenable terms at the negotiating table. Neither Hamas' rockets nor Fatah's diplomatic efforts to gain recognition for a Palestinian state at the UN, or its broader effort to further isolate Israel, have changed the equation in the Palestinians' favour.

Indeed it seems the only gains made in the last decade have been technical ones. It used to be that Hamas' crude homemade rockets made it little further than the towns neighbouring Gaza. Then they began reaching the cities of Ashqelon and Ashdod. Now it is Tel Aviv.

But if Israel's iron domes, iron walls and iron indifference are a necessary defence against the range-creep of Hamas' arsenal, they do not provide much of a future. Not for Israelis nor for Palestinians.

For one thing, domes, walls and indifference have sucked the vitality out of Israeli politics. There is no need to take risks, to use Israel's strength to take bold positions and ask even bolder questions about what it might mean to reach a negotiated end to the conflict with the Palestinians. Politics has largely become a race to the right, so much so that even an old hawk like Prime Minister Netanyahu starts to look cautious and statesmanlike relative to some of his cabinet colleagues.

Meanwhile, outside the dome and the wall, Palestinian politics is ossifying and failing. In the current environment the only two viable political positions seem to be apathy (if you have money and a job) or militancy.

Unless something changes it is only a matter of time before older-generation leaders like Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and groups like Fatah and even Hamas are replaced by more radical and more nihilistic alternatives. And there are plenty around, given the ferment in the Arab world at the moment. That too is happening gradually although, as with the seemingly rapid advances made by ISIS in Iraq, things can change quickly on the ground once momentum shifts decisively.

So no, things will not be the same after this conflict. Relative calm will return. Israel will put its Iron Dome system back in its silo. Hamas will lick its wounds and begin rebuilding its arsenal, this time aiming for rockets that can reach Haifa. The status quo will have shifted again slightly towards a future that is growing slowly bleaker for both sides.

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