The roots of the present crisis go back to January 2006 when Hamas, an Islamist movement, won a majority in the first Palestinian parliamentary elections in ten years. Within a few months Western governments imposed financial sanctions on the new government because it would not recognise the state of Israel, rival political centres emerged in Hamas-led Gaza and Fatah-led Ramallah in the West Bank, and fighting erupted between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza in June 2006. In mid-June 2007, after a US-backed campaign to replace it, Hamas seized control of the entire Gaza Strip. The Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, as well as the United States and Israel, condemned this as a coup d’etat, and Palestine became divided between two authorities — geographically, ideologically, and politically distinct.
After Hamas’s seizure of Gaza, Israel stepped up its blockade of the territory, including fuel supplies, in the hope of curtailing Hamas’s power. Although Israel had withdrawn troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005, it has continued to control most of Gaza’s borders, territorial water, and airspace. Israeli policy did not work, however. Rather, Hamas continued to fire rockets into southern Israel while the impoverishment of the 1.5 million Gazans increased.
This has been the situation for a number of years. What, therefore, precipitated the present crisis? Israel says it is simply defending its citizenry, but in order to do so it must ‘change the political equation’ — turning both the Palestinian population and Arab states against Hamas, though not necessarily toppling it. The ceasefire or ‘calm’ that had prevailed between Hamas and Israel for six months ended on 19 December 2008 when Hamas refused to renew it in response to the worsening effects of the Israeli blockade. Many suspect that timing was everything, however: unsure of what position a President Obama would take, it is likely that the Israelis decided it was better to act now while a more amenable Bush administration was still in office. The holiday period may also have insured that international attention was diverted.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
Air strikes began on 27 December in Operation Cast Lead and a land invasion began on 3 January 2009, with over 550 Palestinian and a small handful of Israeli deaths to date. Israel says it is targeting Hamas officials and infrastructure only and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has said that there is no humanitarian crisis. But international observers speak of a badly deteriorating situation with civilian deaths rising. Although there have been calls for an immediate ceasefire, neither the Israeli government nor its principal backer, the United States government, has shown any willingness to move in this direction. As with prior conflicts, a de facto ceasefire will have to be negotiated, but it is unlikely to occur while Israel deems its policy, as it does now, a success. It will certainly not accept Hamas’s pre-condition that the blockade of Gaza end, although a negotiated partial lifting of the blockade is a possibility.