Thursday, January 1, 2009

Bakshi: Why Should We Care About Gaza?

After months of tension between Israel and Palestine, the end of 2008 has been more disastrous than we imagined. Now Israel’s continued strikes on the Gaza strip threaten to derail peace processes in Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria. In this article, Gitanjali Bakshi presses upon the importance of addressing the Israel Palestine conflict if we ever want to see a more tranquil Middle East.

Why Should We Care About Gaza?

By Gitanjali Bakshi

Israeli air strikes in the Gaza strip have brought a dismal end to peace efforts in the Middle East in 2008. It seemed as though potentials for peace in what many consider to be the epicentre of the region had taken a hard enough blow with: the collapse of Hamas-Fatah peace talks in Cairo, a break down of a six month cease fire between Israel and Hamas, rioting by Israeli settlers in Hebron, a humanitarian crisis due to the blockade on residents of the Gaza strip and to top it all off, constant fire of Qassam rockets into Southern Israel. But just when we thought that it couldn’t get any worse before the year’s end, we are now confronted with a shocking death toll of over 360, more pain, more suffering, more innocent deaths and - most damaging to any hope for peace - more anger.

Anger – unbridled, irrational and seething anger - is spilling into surrounding countries in the Middle East and threatens to affect overall peace efforts in the region. The recent uprisings in Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria over the air strikes in the Gaza strip are troubling. They stand as an obvious testament to the fact that the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians will affect overall stability in the region. Ultimately, an unstable Middle East will spell disaster for the United States and its allies.

So for all those who argue that the Israel-Palestine conflict is not at the centre of the problems in the Middle East, for all those that believe that it is simply a ruse set up by political despots to avoid national and local issues – The First Gaza war cannot be ignored. We must end the conflict between Israel and Hamas if we look forward to peace in the Middle East. Peace in the Middle East – a thought that seems far away from any tangible truth right now.

The Israeli air raids and a rising count of 900 injured Palestinians seem like a kick in the face to all previous attempts by Cairo to broker peace. The Muslim Brotherhood, a close ally of Hamas in Egypt, has accused the Egyptian government of complicity to Israeli injustices on their Palestinian brethren. Harsh criticism by the Brotherhood, a political group that has secured a sizeable majority in parliament and is considered a popular movement in Egypt, threatens to de-stabilise an already ailing Egyptian administration.

Hundreds of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have taken to the streets in protest of the air strikes. With over 400,000 refugees in Lebanon, this situation could prove to be extremely explosive. Peace in Lebanon is already hanging from a tenuous thread – evidenced by the Hezbollah-Israel war in 2006, the uprising in a Palestinian refugee camp -- Nahr El Bared -- in 2007 and the violent exchange between Hezbollah and the March 14th alliance in 2008. Now the swelling anti-Israeli sentiment in Lebanon after the attacks portends a hazardous condition for the country in 2009, both in terms of internal as well as external security.

As for Iraq – until now the country was still reeling from years of sectarian violence, harsh militant uprisings and its own foreign occupation. But the Israeli air raids have kindled a strong and unanticipated reaction from Iraq towards the Palestinian predicament. The attacks have fuelled anti US sentiment and Iraqis are threatening to increase resistance against US forces as a show of solidarity with the Palestinian cause. If the US continues its support of Israel in further attacks against Gaza, this will jeopardise any potential steps toward a process of normalization in Iraq and a smooth US troop pull out in 2009.

Perhaps the only peace treaty that showed signs of remarkable improvement recently was the Israel-Syrian agreement over the Golan Heights. The indirect peace talks brokered by Turkey were hailed by many as a breakthrough for peace efforts in the region. Analysts viewed the talks as a soft approach that would bring Syria back into a positive light with Western powers and end years of diplomatic isolation. Now these talks have been called off indefinitely and it would be an understatement to say that it will be hard to breach this gap between Israel and Syria once again. With Syria retreating back into isolation there is a strong potential for a return of Iranian and Syrian ties and this will not be favourable for peace in the region.

The effects of the first Gaza war will spill over and impinge on other countries in the region – Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria are particularly susceptible to escalating tensions. The United States needs to keep this in mind. Its interests in the Middle East are heavily dependent on these four countries. The Egyptian government is a close ally of the US and stands as a model for Arab peace with Israel. The March 14th alliance is considered open to engagement with the West and provides a tempering force to Hezbollah which is gaining political power in Lebanon. Stability in Iraq will allow the US to disengage from what has proven to be an extremely costly war. Lastly, a responsive Syria will weaken Iranian influence in the Middle East and reduce the possibility of another large scale battle.

The recent air strikes in Gaza and a potential ground assault will fuel further hostilities between the Arab World and Israel and the US (if America chooses to continue to stand by its Middle Eastern ally). A disproportionate use of force by Israel will only encourage the escalation of extremist measures, which in turn will pose a greater risk for Jewish state and the Middle East as a whole. How is this in any way a move to ensure a better future?

So, once again, at the end of yet another year, peace efforts in the Middle East have become a distant dream for pacifists, a cruel joke for cynics and a trifle endeavour for the millions who believe that war and violence are a necessary way to resolve conflict. And yet, inspite of this, we will simply have to pick up the pieces and keep on trying.

Gitanjali Bakshi
Strategic Foresight Group
Mumbai

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