Far from beaten, Hezbollah came out as the ideological winner of the war, having stood up to Israel’s military might. It was a humiliating defeat for Israel, which had vowed to crush the militant group, and influenced its plan to launch a crushing assault on the defenseless population of Gaza some two years later. Israel needed to restore its deterrence capacity; basically its ability to inflict tremendous damage and suffering on a would-be aggressor’s population.
In 2005, with much fanfare, Gaza’s illegal Israeli settler population was pulled out from the strip. Maintaining the settler population in the strategically and economically uninteresting coastal strip had cost the state much, and its nearly 1.4 million Muslims threatened the Jewish identity of the State of Israel if it were to be even ostensibly democratic. Pulling out of Gaza was in no way a sign that Israel had decided to begin abiding by international law and to stop transferring its population to occupied lands. Far from it, Israeli colonization of the West Bank only intensified. According to the Israeli Interior Ministry, the settler population of the West Bank grew by nearly 6 percent in 2006; more than quadruple the rate of the previous year.
But even with the settlers gone, Gaza was not allowed to prosper. Israel may have removed 8,000 Israeli settlers but it remained the legal occupier of Gaza as it continued to exercise effective control over the strip. Israel controls Gaza’s borders, including the sea and air, it intervenes militarily at will, and it controls Gaza’s infrastructure—water, electricity, fuel, imports and exports. As thousands of Gazans began to hope they would be allowed to create a small but affluent independent state on the Mediterranean, the opposite soon became true as Gaza was intentionally de-developed by a punishing siege.
Israel tightened its grip over Gaza after Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections. Western sanctions ensued. The Palestinians’ vote for Hamas was not a vote for terror or Islamism, but a vote against Fatah’s ineptitude and corruption. Hamas, an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, has been internationally reviled for its anti-Israel rhetoric and use of suicide bombings, but it was originally supported by Israel as an Islamic counterweight to Fatah, the secular nationalist political organization.
Since 2004, Hamas has softened its tone on Israel, stating that it would offer Israel de facto recognition in exchange for a Palestinian state on 1967 borders. Since 2002, the entire Arab world has offered Israel full recognition and normalization of relations if it withdraws to 1967 borders and finds a just settlement to the Palestinian refugee crisis. But Israel does not recognize the Palestinian’s right to exist. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party states in its platform that “The Government of Israel flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river.”
In June of 2006, Palestinians captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, in a cross-border raid. Hamas has used Shalit as a negotiating tool in an attempt to obtain the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. Shalit is the only Israeli in Palestinian custody, while literally thousands of faceless Palestinians languish in Israeli prisons. Hundreds are kept in administrative detention—detention without charge or trial. Israel launched military operations against the Gaza Strip in response to the kidnapping and violence between the two foes escalated.
In 2007, Hamas pre-empted an American-backed plan for forces loyal to Fatah to take over the coastal strip. Gunfights raged on the streets, as Palestinian fighters turned their guns on one another. Since then, the crossings into Gaza have been closed. Only a minimum of basic humanitarian goods has been allowed to pass through. A lack of fuel and electricity has devastated Gaza’s sanitation, health care and water services. Gaza has been deconstructed and its population has become wholly dependent on the black market. Goods are smuggled into the territory via underground tunnels from Egypt. And yet, the situation was to become unbelievably worse in the winter of 2008.
Since 2001, Palestinian groups had been firing unsophisticated rockets into southern Israel. The attacks indiscriminately damage streets, cars, homes and schools, and severely disrupt daily life as civilians are forced to scramble for bomb shelters, but they are rarely deadly. As of Jan. 18, 2009, a total of 28 Israelis had been killed by rockets. Rocket attacks from Gaza spiked in 2006 as Israel tightened its grip over the beleaguered strip and launched military operations against it. In 2006, only 23 Israelis were killed by Palestinians, a relatively small number compared to the 660 Palestinians killed by Israel that same year.
Rocket attacks are wholly illegal under international law since they lack the targeting capabilities to avoid civilian casualties. Israel’s siege of Gaza is also illegal as it collectively punishes the entire civilian population of the strip.
On June 19, 2008, Hamas and Israel reached a ceasefire. What happened during the ceasefire is of critical importance to understanding the context of Israel’s war on Gaza, launched later that year—a war foreshadowed when Israel’s deputy defence minister, Matan Vilnai, had threatened a Holocaust on Gaza a few months before the ceasefire came into effect.
Hamas abided by the ceasefire despite Israel’s failure to lift its siege. Rocket fire from the strip was reduced by 97 percent. The rockets that were fired were from groups other than Hamas, and in response to the killing of associates by Israel in the West Bank. It was Israel which broke the ceasefire on Nov. 4, 2008, killing 6 Palestinians. Hamas only resumed firing rockets after Israel broke the ceasefire.
Israel had been planning its attack on Gaza for months. As Israel had been preparing for a negotiated ceasefire, Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered the Israel Defense Forces to plan for war. A very close historical parallel can be drawn with the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization in Lebanon had been abiding by a ceasefire for almost a year and pursuing diplomatic methods instead of resorting to violence. The PLO’s restraint frightened Israel as it threatened to render Arafat a legitimate negotiating partner for peace in the eyes of the west. So Israel used an assassination attempt on an Israeli diplomat in London by an anti-Arafat group as casus belli to attack and invade Lebanon. Later the same year, with its troops in Beirut, the Israeli Defense Forces sent its Phalangist militia allies into the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, and watched on as the camps’ civilian population was systematically butchered. Then Defense Minister Ariel Sharon was held personally responsible by Israel’s own Kahan Commission. Sharon went on to become Israel’s prime minister in 2001.
Fast-forward to Dec. 2008, in Gaza. Hamas was pursuing diplomatic means and this terrified Israel lest Hamas be seen as an able negotiating partner. Determined to crush and delegitimize Hamas, it schemed to attack Gaza. The war’s timing (start: US election; end: Obama’s inauguration) was deliberate and impeccable. The beginning of the war also coincided with upcoming elections in Israel. Tzipi Livni, the foreign affairs minister and leader of the Kadima Party, as well as Ehud Barak, Defense Minister and head of the Labor Party, were both candidates to become Prime Minister.
On Dec. 27, 2008, Israel attacked Gaza. Some 22 days later over 1,300 Gazans were dead, including hundreds of women and children. The Israelis lost 13 people, including three soldiers accidently killed by its own military. Around 15 percent of all buildings in Gaza were damaged. Around 50,000 or more Gazans were homeless. Israel damaged or destroyed 50 U.N. facilities, 21 medical facilities, 1,500 factories and workshops, 20 mosques and 10 water sewage pipes. Schools and universities came under attack. The estimated damages at the war’s end stood at two billion dollars. Hamas remained as strong as ever.