Israel's deadly response on Hamas and an already beleaguered Gaza Strip is increasingly looking like retaliation for the unexpected resistance campaign headed by Hezbollah in 2006 and less like a strategic counterattack against Hamas militants. The timing of the attack, when U.S. President George Bush is leaving office, the global economy is in crisis, and many in the Western world are celebrating the new year, suggests that Israel waited to choose an ideal time to wage this unforgiving show of strength.
It can be suggested that the build-up to this crisis in the Middle East began in 1967, when Israel earned itself a reputation - regionally and globally - as a military power to be reckoned with. In just six days, Israeli Defense Forces advanced to the edge of the Suez Canal, and in one foul swoop, gained control of Gaza, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula, and the whole of Jerusalem.
It was not until the Yom Kippur War of 1973 that Israel's military would fall from grace, not by a decisive defeat or loss of land, but more symbolically in the face of a somewhat attenuating Arab military resistance.
In 2006, Israeli forces launched an unforgiving attack on Hezbollah strongholds in Southern Lebanon responding to the abduction of IDF officers both in Lebanon and in the Gaza Strip. The savvy and unexpected resistance campaign orchestrated by Hezbollah fighters during the month-long war earned the group global recognition, with the group's leader Hassan Nasrallah hailed a hero across the Muslim world.
While the Israeli government maintained that its heavy-handed response was warranted in the face of an Hezbollah uprising, the Jewish State received staunch criticism for use of unnecessarily brutal force which claimed the lives of hundreds of civilians. For Israel, the 2006 conflict bore scars far deeper than its government may have anticipated as the world watched Hezbollah fighters defiantly take on the 600-pound gorilla.
Today, Israel may have earned itself another reputation - not just as a military power, but one that might be considered particularly merciless.
The images of smoke plumes, destruction and death emanating from Gaza over the past few days are a somber reminder of the country's 2006 clash with Hezbollah and the great reality that years of neglect are wearing heavily on any hope for Arab-Israeli peace. Israel's deadly response on Hamas and residents of the Gaza Strip is increasingly looking like an attempt to regain an air of indestructibility, and less like a defense strategy. The embattled government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, still reeling from the ineffective military campaign of 2006, has but a few months left to salvage its reputation, as well as the beset image of Israel."
This point was illustrated in an analysis by Yossi Sarid, published over the weekend in Israel's Haaretz Newspaper. Sarid wrote: "A million and a half human beings, most of them downcast and desperate refugees, live in the conditions of a giant jail, fertile ground for another round of bloodletting. The fact that Hamas may have gone too far with its rockets is not the justification of the Israeli policy for the past few decades, for which it justly merits an Iraqi shoe to the face."
Gaza has already been shut to the outside world for some 19 months, making it more of an open-air prison for its 1.5 million residents. Now, according to international aid agency Oxfam, most humanitarian work in the territory has been forced to a standstill and a program that would feed 25,000 people had also been put on hold.
The repercussions of Israel's retaliatory attack on Gaza this week may come back to haunt it if it does not show mercy in the face of a humanitarian disaster. With its message now reverberating across the Gaza Strip, Israel should halt all attacks and give Hamas a hard deadline for compliance.
They say in life, timing is everything. For Israel, the timing could not be more ideal to wage this unforgiving show of strength on Hamas and with it, residents of the Gaza Strip who, in early 2006, may have cast a vote for Hamas. For one, the military campaign came sandwiched in between Christmas and New Year celebrations when much of the Western world is off from work, away from their television sets, and unwilling to acknowledge any bad news that does not directly involve them.
Further, much of the world is now busy piecing together what is left of the global economy and Washington has entered a twilight period where neither the lame duck president nor the president-elect is willing to make any significant statements or policy decisions that may alienate the other. This latest eruption of violence in the Middle East sends President George W. Bush out the door, tail between his legs, with a staunch reminder of his failed promise to revitalize his "Roadmap to Peace" plan before the end of 2008.
President-elect Barack Obama, meanwhile, has a unique opportunity to make history in the Middle East, just as he made history at home. The road to fixing the diplomatic disaster created by the Bush Administration in Iraq runs through Jerusalem. This new outbreak of violence should, if nothing else, move the Arab-Israeli conflict back to the top of the incoming administration's "things to fix in the Middle East" list. The first step toward winning the hearts and minds of people from Morocco to Pakistan lies in a fair and genuine solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
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