The Gaza Strip lies along the Mediterranean coast between Israel and Egypt. Gaza is roughly twice the size of Washington, D.C., but its population is considerably more than twice as large, giving it one of the highest densities in the world. Just 40km (25 miles) long and 10km wide, it is home to more than 1.5 million Palestinians.  The majority of its  residents are  Sunni Muslims. The shape of the territory was defined by the Armistice Line following the creation of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent war between Israel and coalition of Arab armies.  Egypt had control of Gaza Strip for the for the next 19 years. Israel captured it during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. In 2005 Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza and forced the closing of all Jewish settlements.



Gaza: Act III

Gaza is the biggest living, breathing theatrical stage there is in the world. They have the stars who play the leading roles, they have actors who play the supporting roles and they have tens of thousands of extras who make up the majority but have no say in the decision making process of how the play is going to end. It would not be so bad if not for the fact that in most theaters the actors only pretend to die, while in Gaza they die for real.

Many residents pose to TV cameras like seasoned professionals. Sometimes the injuries are faked like in the scenes where the bunch of guys carry a body of the fallen comrade only to see the same wounded comrade walk around 15 minutes later without any problems. But there are a lot of real tears because the people these tears are shed for are really dead or injured.

The Gaza theater usually starts when Hamas is in need to remind the world that they are still around or when their Iranian patron needs to divert attention from their nuclear program or from Syrian civil war where real massacres are taking place on the daily basis. When Hamas opens their play the seats are free for anyone interested to watch this drama to unfold.

But not to worry, you can bet you bottom dollar that Hamas will get paid. Nothing boosts the ratings as much as Israeli-Palestinian fight.   The conflict usually starts with Hamas raining rockets on the residents of Southern Israel. Israel is approximately the size of New Jersey, so you do not need the most sophisticated weapons to do the job. The basic low-end Iranian rocket will do the job as Hamas fighters are not really aiming at anything in particular. If the rocket hits an apartment building, hospital or a school their job is done. The Gazans will then start shooting their guns and offering sweets to each other to celebrate a lucky hit.

 Israel will tolerate the onslaught for some time with occasional retaliatory actions like hitting the underground tunnels between Gaza and Egypt from where the rockets are smuggled. When lives for the Israelis living in the South becomes intolerable the politicians have no choice but be more aggressive with their responses.

Unfortunately air strikes alone can not do the job as rockets are hidden in many private houses across the Gaza strip and retaliatory actions inevitably lead to civilian casualties. Rhetoric on both sides escalates as is the number of rockers flying into Israel. Iran’s oil money allows both Hamas and Hezbollah to have the stash of those rockets in tens of thousands. Eventually left with no choice Israel goes into full combat mode hitting rocket launching targets and Hamas government buildings all over Gaza.  

 In the beginning of the military actions many fair-minded people normally understand that Israelis have a right to defend themselves. But in Gaza, the most densely populated piece of real estate on earth, it’s very difficult to maintain the successful military campaign without the heavy civilian casualties. That’s when the real war begins. You see Hamas’s most effective weapons are not the thousands of rockets fired at Israel, it’ the number of dead Palestinians killed by Israeli airstrikes.

There is a reason why many rockets are launched from private homes and even apartments.  There is a very simple arithmetic that guides this theater. More Gazans die from Israeli retaliations more benefits are ripped by Hamas and it’s patrons. The dead bodies are carried around by the screaming mob for everyone to see the results of Israeli atrocities.  

Those scenes infuriate the Arab street, then their friends and well wishers. then Western Israel haters. The hysteria gets to the point where the above mentioned fair-minded people get swayed by the scenes of war and it’s inevitable consequences which are death and destruction. The formula of more dead Palestinians = victory for Hamas and other terrorists groups never fails. It worked for many years and will work for many more for as long as this conflict is around.

When the conflict subsides like it did this time all the major news outlets argue about the winners and the losers as if it was a football game. The only thing left is to choose the most valuable terrorist. Palestinians usually win. One would think that Israel needs to finally come to realization that their strategy does not work and would negotiate some sort of solution that would end an occupation of Gaza, as many Palestinian pundits point time and time again.

The only problem with this premise is that Gaza is not under occupation. Not since 2005 when then prime-minister Ariel Sharon, unilaterally withdrew from Gaza leaving everything behind and by force dragging the Israeli settlers from their Gaza homes to Israel proper. Some would immediately argue that Gaza is under Israeli blockade which is the same as occupation. But when most hated Israeli, Ariel Sharon, withdrew from Gaza there was no blockade. It came later when the rockets starting flying into Israel. Incidentally all these years the blockade is also in place from the Egyptian side.

Palestinians destroyed most infrastructure left behind by Israelis, celebrated wildly with gun fire and partied for weeks. Majority of Palestinians viewed the disengagement as a victory for armed resistance and Hamas was the main beneficiary of that perception just like Hezbollah was after the last war with Israel. Hezbollah celebrated the “victory” even though thousands were killed and south Lebanon was left in ruins.

A victory for Hezbollah or Hamas is not necessarily a victory for the rest of the population. Hezbollah fights Israel in order to dominate Lebanon while Hamas fights Israel to take over the entire Palestinian movement and once and for all kill any chance for peaceful resolution of the conflict.

   While I do not disagree with Sharon’s decision to pull out of Gaza, the  pullout undercut the more moderate Palestinian party Fatah, which currently leads the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. It was shut out of the process and couldn't claim credit for Gaza. Perceptions of a Hamas triumph over Israel and frustration over Fatah's alleged corruption propelled Hamas to victory in several local elections a few months after the withdrawal.

In 2006 Hamas won parliamentary election and a year later, during the Palestinian civil war, it seized control of Gaza by force, routing Fatah out and creating two Palestinian entities. The fight between two factions was pretty ugly with both sides committing atrocities. Hamas fighters routinely were throwing their “Palestinian brothers” off the hi-rise rooftops to scare the ones that were still living.  

But world does not care that much when Arabs kill Arabs. Just note how often the Syrian conflict, that has taken over 40000 lives, was mentioned during the latest Gaza-Israel conflict. Some of the same players that badmouth Israel today actually publicly support the Syrian regime both financially and militarily. Many Arab states pay a lip service to Syrian uprising but doing not much else except smuggling some weapons to Syrian opposition.  You can only imagine where we would be if Israel killed 40000 Palestinians!

 It was very telling to see the glum faced Western reporters providing play by play from Gaza. There was plenty to report as the there normally is during the war: destroyed buildings, dead bodies, wounded children. These were mostly people who have no say in this conflict as they unwillingly play the role of extras. It was in stark deference to the beaming stars of this theater, the Hamas leaders, who could not help but smile and celebrate as most analysts around the world have anointed them as winners.  

The latest Gaza-Israel conflict killed around two hundred Palestinians. Israel was able to avoid the ground invasion for now which would have produced a much higher body count. The only question is how long can this seize-fire last? The answer is for as long as Hamas and it’s sponsors find it useful. Hamas charter asks for the destruction of state of Israel and the best outcome we can hope for is an extended cease-fire. That’s exactly what Hamas’s No. 2 leader Moussa Abu Marzouk told his interviewer just three days after the hostilities ended.  

Hamas demands that Israel and Egypt lift all restrictions on the movement of goods and people in and out of the Palestinian territory. It would mean that the rockets and other weapons, including the surface-to-air missiles, that can bring down Israeli passenger jets, can easily find their way into Gaza.

The other problem is that while Hamas is a major player in Gaza they are not the only ones. There is also Islamic Jihad, Salafis and few others who are competing for a title of being the biggest Israel hater in the region. The winner of Hate Israel competition usually gets a lot of sympathy and admiration from the Arab street. All these groups are  emboldened now that they have friendly Islamists governments in Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia and Qatar while still maintaining good relationship with their major arms supplier Iran.  

In the past Hamas did not openly talk about Iranian weapons support but it changed in the recent days when Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar told reporters that he is confident that Iran will increase military and financial support to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Hamas has just turned their back on Syria who was their host and major supporter for decades. They have no such plans on cutting ties with Iran despite the fact that it’s the Iranian weapons that kill a lot fellow Sunni Arabs in Syria. 

While Iran competes with Arab Sunni states for the regional leadership, Mr. Zahar made it clear that he will take support from anyone. “Let them compete with Iran in giving us weapons and money” referring to fellow Arabs.  

Another Iran surrogate Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanese Hezbollah, who was not part of the Gaza conflict added his two cents to the subject.  Like a fading diva starved for attention he threw himself into the mix, dragging entire Lebanon with him. The venerable sheikh  made a public statement that Hezbollah's response to any attack from Israel would dwarf the attacks from Gaza he would rain the rockets on Israel from the Lebanese border to Jordan to the Red Sea, from Kiryat Shmona to Eilat.  

Leaders of the Islamist countries are jumping out of their skins these days to court Hamas. Emir of Qatar visited Gaza and pledged a 400 million dollar donation while Turkish prime-minister Erdogan is suppose to visit Gaza any day now. I am sure he is not going there empty handed ether.    

It can not possibly be easy to be an Israeli leader these days when you are listening to all this “friendly” chatter. There are a threats coming at Israel from every direction, large and small, some real and some imaginable. Unfortunately in the Middle East you never know which is which. I just hope that Israeli leaders would approach these problems with cool heads. Not invading Gaza was a definitely a smart move at this time. But we all know that this play is not over by a long shot. Not as long as this Hamas led theater is still open for business.