Why the Gaza Calm Crashed

Alastair Crooke

Many have asked in the wake of Israel’s attack on Gaza, how Hamas, if it saw the consequences of ending the ceasefire — and Hamas did foresee the likelihood of disproportionate Israeli military action — nonetheless could have acquiesced to the inevitable bloodshed — bloodshed that an Israeli army, fixated on restoring its deterrence after its failed 2006 war with Hesballah, would visit on the citizens of Gaza. Some may read into this decision the cynicism of a movement that prioritises resistance; but to do so would be to misread how Hamas analyses their situation and understands the nature of resistance.

At one level, the six month ceasefire simply had failed to satisfy two key litmus tests: The circumstances of life of the Gazan people continually had deteriorated, and the ceasefire was not seen to be taking the Palestinian people any closer to a political solution. On the contrary, Hamas saw a settlement receding further into the distance.

In short, Israel — abetted by the US and Europe — had used the six month ‘ceasefire’ not as a building-block towards doing serious politics and real negotiation, but to squeeze the pips out of the people of Gaza in the hope that a desperate people would turn on their own representatives, leaving Hamas discredited and marginalised. No Israeli had died during this ceasefire, but instead of alleviating the conditions in Gaza, as agreed at the outset, Israel incrementally aggravated them. Not surprisingly, the calm eroded — and finally unravelled — following Israel’s military incursion and breach of the ceasefire with its armed incursion into Gaza on 5 November, in which six Hamas members were killed.

The Israeli objective to dismantle the movement that overwhelmingly won the 2006 Parliamentary elections in Palestine stands naked in the face of the explicit admission from Israeli officials that that Israel had begun preparing the current attacks on Gaza (cited in Haaretz 28 Dec 08)– even as the last ceasefire was being agreed. Hamas was to be either to be eviscerated by a ‘ceasefire slow-death’; or alternatively, be eliminated by massive military action.

European leaders bought into this strategy, hoping to pull-off a quickie, under-the-table deal with western protégé President Abbas that could be imposed on the Palestinians through a multi-national ‘peacekeeping’ force. This was to be achieved with the collaboration of Egypt and Saudi Arabia governments who were becoming increasingly fearful of the growing challenge to their own legitimacy in the region, and who were not adverse to seeing Hamas cornered in Gaza and ‘punished’ by the Israelis.

Any psychologist however might have advised the European and US policy-makers that putting one-and-a-half million Palestinians ‘on a diet’, as an earlier chief-of-staff to the Israeli Prime Minister described it, and shredding any plans or hopes that they may have had for their futures, does not make humans more docile or more moderate. After a while in the Gaza pressure-cooker, anger and despair boil-up: Gaza ultimately was set to explode — one way or another.

If this was not discerned by western policy-makers, it was well understood by Hamas. In other words, what is happening in Gaza was all too foreseeable. A few Israelis saw this too, but their ‘grand narrative’ of the global struggle between ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’ overrode their instincts in respect to the local Palestinian conflict.

The thesis that literally ‘everything’ must be done either to lever ‘moderates’ into power or prevent them from losing power — euphemistically called ‘supporting moderation’ — lies at the heart of the Gaza crisis.

It is a narrative that has served Israeli wider interests in garnering legitimacy for their policies toward Iran, and in dichotomising the region into ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’. Quartet Envoy Tony Blair’s proselytising around the world on this theme has been a huge asset; but his, and other Quartet members’ espousal of this doctrine, in practice has only pushed the prospect of a political solution to the Israeli – Palestine conflict beyond reach — by branding a mainstream Palestinian national liberation movement such as Hamas ‘extreme’ — despite it having won national and local elections.

Britain and the US have instead busied themselves in training a Palestinian ‘special forces’ militia around Mahmoud Abbas, which has been used to suppress political activity by Hamas, and to close-down welfare and social organisations that are not aligned directly with Abbas. A policy of political ‘cleansing’ of the West Bank, cloaked in the rhetoric of ‘building security institutions’, predictably has been met with an equivalent counter-reaction in Gaza. The paradoxical consequence of this has been to create such a schism within the Palestinian body politic that no Palestinian leader now enjoys the legitimacy to bring a political solution before the people: The West has sacrificed its wish for a political solution to its ideology of ‘moderation’ versus ‘extremism’.

Security officials have made clear that Israel will not permit fresh elections in Palestine — for fear that Hamas will win; and whereas the West probably will continue to bestow Mahmoud Abbas with the trappings of legitimacy after his term in office expires on 9 January 2009, he will enjoy no such legitimacy amongst Palestinians. Indeed the very effort to leverage such spurious legitimacy will discredit him further.

This then is the backdrop against which Hamas elected to decline a renewed ceasefire: To stand passive and cornered whilst Palestinians in Gaza were made destitute and hopeless in an extended ceasefire and to watch — acquiescent — as the Anglo-American political cleansing in the West Bank proceeded, simply was not feasible. An explosion at some point was inevitable.

The only option was to break the mould of a Gaza left ‘stewing’ in its isolated misery, and a West Bank frozen in a pattern of Israeli total control, but providing the all-important illusion of a ‘political process’ that western leaders could extol back home. This represented a formula that Israel could happily sustain for years to come, in Hamas’ view. The Israeli election campaign seemed to confirm an electorate relapsing back into ‘security’ mode — having interpreted the Annapolis ‘process’ to have demonstrated a hardening of Palestinian negotiating positions: again there was an Israeli consensus forming that there was ‘no partner for peace’.

In making such a decision, Hamas knew it could not defeat Israel’s military strength; but the ‘war’ already is shuffling the cards of both Palestinian and regional politics. If it extends, and if the resistance is perceived by Palestinians and Muslims to acquit itself well, then the structure of Palestinian leadership may fall ripe to major re-structuring. Equally the regional anger being generated by graphic scenes of death in Gaza possesses a potential for the conflict to widen geographically and is coalescing Arab and Islamic resistance against certain Arab leaderships. Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah of Hesballah has pointed to this prospect in two recent key speeches: Were such a broadening-out of the conflict to occur, it will carry important consequences. These are all big and significant ‘ifs’. But Hamas’ decision should be placed against this backdrop — rather than be painted as the callous disregard of Palestinian lives.

Alastair Crooke is a former European Union mediator with Hamas and is currently director of Conflicts Forum, based in Beirut.


  1. Mound of Sound wrote:

    Israel is bring conventional, military warfare to what Hamas has constructed as a political war. Israel’s war is being waged in Gaza. The Hamas war is being waged, and won, in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, even Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It’s a war that Israel cannot afford to lose but has no means to win because it has no means to go beyond ineffective, military warfare.

    It’s stupidity painted in layers and polished to a high finish. Next up will be Netanyahu who won’t even be able to maintain Olmert’s trappings of sincerity.

    I learned on an episode of Charlie Rose that illegal settlement in the West Bank has increased some 40% during the Bush administration and Netanyahu has no interest in dismantling that.

    Obama is going to need a very big stick indeed to deal with Tel Aviv after the 20th.

  2. Nayef Mustafa wrote:

    Unfortunately this is another proof from the zionists on how they regard Palestinian lives. This war can not bring anything but hatred and much more of it. I can not bring myself to not dream about the day when we will (The Palestinians) destroy the zionist state. I am (and many Palestinians) disparate and hopeless when I see my fellow countrymen slaughtered like bugs, with this much fire power and this many different kinds of weapons, many of which are being tested on my people. And while all of this is happening I hear the rest of the world justifying this killing. It destroys all of my ideas about a world mainly concerned with justice and human rights, and it shows me how really this world works on the law of force and power. If you are powerful enough then you can make the truth and you can make the justice with your own hands. And towards that day when we will be strong enough to carry out our justice and truth I will work hard, and so my children will do. 

  3. p.v.lichtenstein wrote:

    One could maybe propose that some international organisation should hold an international seminar/conference which would focus on the history of Palestine and the roots of today’s conflict. It is flagrant that many of the personalities engaged now in “peace-processing” are either not knowledgeable or worse are in denial of historical facts. It is unlikely that under such circumstances a peaceful solution can be found .

  4. jorge ryder wrote:

    What is missing in your analysis is the Shalit stuff. I believe some of the measures regarding Gaza (namely erratic closure regime) were more Shalit-related than Hamas-related stictu sensu, if you know what I mean.

  5. un autre wrote:

    9th of January came by, and the so-called Quartet keeps on considering Abbas as a legitimate president.
    Nothing has been achieved on the EU side, in spite of the theatrical agitation.
    Israel is wondering wether it has enough time to crush what it can of Hamas before Obama takes charge, Russia bullies elsewhere.
    But there will come a time when the West seriously asks itself if all this is worth Egypt’ destabilization, Jordan’s fossilization and, ultimately, Syria’s rise as a collateral effect of the “no Palestinian partner” mantra.

  6. Buster Brown wrote:

    “This then is the backdrop against which Hamas elected to decline a renewed ceasefire:”

    January 10, 2009-Antiwar.com

    Israel Rejected Hamas Cease-Fire Offer in December

    by Gareth Porter

    Contrary to Israel’s argument that it was forced to launch its air and ground offensive against Gaza in order to stop the firing of rockets into its territory, Hamas proposed in mid-December to return to the original Hamas-Israel cease-fire arrangement, according to a U.S.-based source who has been briefed on the proposal.

    The proposal to renew the cease-fire was presented by a high-level Hamas delegation to Egyptian Minister of Intelligence Omar Suleiman at a meeting in Cairo Dec. 14. The delegation, said to have included Moussa Abu Marzouk, the second-ranking official in the Hamas political bureau in Damascus, told Suleiman that Hamas was prepared to stop all rocket attacks against Israel if the Israelis would open up the Gaza border crossings and pledge not to launch attacks in Gaza.

    The Hamas officials insisted that Israel not be allowed to close or reduce commercial traffic through border crossings for political purposes, as it had done during the six-month lull, according to the source. They asked Suleiman, who had served as mediator between Israel and Hamas in negotiating the original six-month Gaza cease-fire last spring, to “put pressure” on Israel to take that the cease-fire proposal seriously.

    Suleiman said he could not pressure Israel but could only make the suggestion to Israeli officials. It could not be learned, however, whether Israel explicitly rejected the Hamas proposal or simply refused to respond to Egypt.

    The readiness of Hamas to return to the cease-fire conditionally in mid-December was confirmed by Dr. Robert Pastor, a professor at American University and senior adviser to the Carter Center, who met with Khaled Meshal, chairman of the Hamas political bureau in Damascus on Dec. 14, along with former President Jimmy Carter. Pastor told IPS that Meshal indicated Hamas was willing to go back to the cease-fire that had been in effect up to early November “if there was a sign that Israel would lift the siege on Gaza.”

    Pastor said he passed Meshal’s statement on to a “senior official” in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) the day after the meeting with Meshal. According to Pastor, the Israeli official said he would get back to him, but did not.

    “There was an alternative to the military approach to stopping the rockets,” said Pastor. He added that Israel is unlikely to have an effective cease-fire in Gaza unless it agrees to lift the siege.

    The Israeli embassy in Washington declined to comment Thursday on whether there had been any discussion of a cease-fire proposal from Hamas in mid-December that would have stopped the rocket firing.

  7. David in DC wrote:

    >>At one level, the six month ceasefire simply had failed to satisfy two key litmus tests: The circumstances of life of the Gazan people continually had deteriorated, and the ceasefire was not seen to be taking the Palestinian people any closer to a political solution. On the contrary, Hamas saw a settlement receding further into the distance.<<

    I think a good case can be made for:

    1) Hamas not caring about the circumstances of life deteriorating for Gazans, and even being the *cause* of such deterioration.

    2) Hamas is not looking for a political solution, only political and military breathing room to consolidate their gains and strengthen for the next round.

    Hamas’ behavior is not rational if their concerns are as you posit them. It is rational if their goals and concerns are as I state above, realizing that long term, time is on their side. I believe they are rational actors.

    Also, ‘extremist’ isn’t simply a label. What you say about the ‘extremist’ vs. ‘moderate’ ideology of the West may be true, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that Hamas *are* extremists. We can’t just wish that away because the West tries to label extremists on its side as ‘moderates’.

  8. Richard L wrote:

    No credit reflects on either side in the most recent outbreak of mutual violence. At the basic political level both responses are understandable: Israel has legitimate security concerns; the Palestinians in Gaza have human rights that demand protection; and Hamas is in the middle making political hay while its version of the sun shines.

    The mutually exclusive nature of those three separate imperatives is stark.

    The real danger (as Alistair Crooke’s post indicates) is that the infection will spread and ignite yet another round of counterproductive “West v The Rest” geopolitical problems.

    It will be interesting to see where the new U.S. administration really goes on this – whether it will genuinely remind its Israeli allies that (rightly or wrongly) it is Israel’s existence within the area generally known as Palestine that is the issue and that if Israel seeks long-term sustainable viability it must recognise the extent of the final accommodation it will have to make with the Palestinian people.

    Hamas and other players are huge rocks in the road on that score. But Israel cannot abolish Hamas as an actor, far less as an influence. Only the Palestinians can do that.

    Israel’s genuine interest and any hope of rational progress lies in building practical alliances with them and its neighbours.

    That’s not so much a work in progress as a faint hope. That’s sad. It is also a terrible continuing danger.

  9. Bill Downey wrote:

    Noting the transgressions of both sides of this conflict violating common precepts of morality I find it wrongheaded and a last act of pure stupidity obliquely initiated by the Bush administration. Fighting terrorism by suppression of all who disagree with your views; the waste of opportunities to effectively communicate the true nature of the conflict to the uneducated masses in the western world, seeing the the basic inhumanity of man towards man is revolting. Perhaps the new administration will be able to equate the supression and struggle of the Palestinians, Islamists and others throughout the world with a fight for truth, freedom and mankind as a whole. Unless all of humanity can seek common ground through honest brokers, we are all doomed. Too many times have we seen greed, falsehoods and stupidity doom what constitutes civilization to oblivion. Common ground from love of God, family and nation should spring from God’s love for man, knowledge and truth. The spirit of God should bring people together, possibly in his infinite wisdom and love for us he makes us struggle to love one another so we can appreciate the work we have done to achieve it, rather than toss it aside as a child does when accustomed to being presented with a multitude of gifts. It is hard to watch people kill one another, helpless to accomodate either side. I am able to help myself, but only with the help and by the grace of God. God’s grace–an undeserved gift. May we all appreciate God’s undeserved gifts!

  10. umer wrote:

    there is no ‘ political solution’ . the LAND belongs to the Palestinians, which israeali terrorists are trying to occupy.
    israealies are muderers

  11. revjobarker wrote:


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