Next to Kurds, Palestinians are the orphans of the world, with everyone, including the Arab world, paying lip service to their cause while leaving them sequestered and occupied since 1967. In a measure, Palestinians have contributed to their own misfortune by dividing themselves into the Fatah and Hamas movements. The Gaza Strip is under the latter's control and has been badgered and castigated by Israel and the West.
Essentially, Palestinians in Gaza live in a never-never land in a vast prison house controlled on land, in the sea and in the air by Israel. Israel lets in humanitarian aid in driblets when it feels like it and otherwise closes it most of the time. The Hamas variety of Palestinians vent their frustration through firing crude Kassam rockets into Israel causing some damage, a lot of panic and rare deaths. A six-month ceasefire, shakily observed by the two sides, expired and was not renewed.
And the next lot of Palestinian rockets led to a massive series of air attacks by Israel's F-16s leaving more Palestinians dead than at any time since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The world's reaction was predictable. The United States, Israel's protector and mentor, had no word of criticism of Israel's action, blaming Hamas and calling for the ceasefire being restored and fully respected.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon referred to Israel's disproportionate response to Kassam rockets calling for immediate halt to the escalating violence. The European Union called for a new ceasefire; Amr Moussa of the Arab League largely contented himself with describing the tragedy as a "major humanitarian crisis" while Syria was the only one to talk about "the barbaric Israeli aggression" in tow with Iran's strong condemnation.
The Vatican contented itself with the Talmudic comment: "Hamas is a prisoner to a logic of hate, Israel to a logic of faith in force as the best response to hate". Mahmoud Abbas of the Fatah faction condemned the attack, calling for restraint. But Khaled Meshal, the Hamas leader in exile in Damascus, called for a third intefada against Israel, despite the second uprising giving the handle to Israel to destroy Palestinian infrastructure and sequester Yasser Arafat in his battered headquarters until his death.
Why did Israel unsheathe its immense American-supplied firepower when it did? Two reasons come to mind. Israeli general elections are in February and the political parties are competing to demonstrate their macho culture. Second, the presidential transition is a period of partial paralysis in American policy making and an ideal time to act is during the fading days of the Bush presidency.
Where do Israel, Palestinians and the world go from here? No one will give second thought to the UN Security Council calling for an end to all violence in Gaza, including rocket attacks. In view of the hold Israel has on American foreign policy, the United Nations has never been a major player in the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation. It was a measure of American success in getting a carte blanche in pursuing its pro-Israel policies that it was instrumental in forming a Quartet of the European Union, the United Nations, Russia and itself whose job it has been to rubberstamp the US approach to Israel and the Palestinians.
Any number of United Nations representatives have publicised the dire plight of Palestinians in Gaza, the inhuman conditions in which they live and the arbitrary closures of entry and exit points, to little effect. Nor are leaders of the Fatah faction, coddled by Israel and the West for their own interests, getting anywhere near the promise of a two-state solution. Ironically Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, fighting corruption charges and serving in a caretaker capacity, only recently described the dire consequences of following traditional Israeli policies.
Israel, of course, has in place sufficient "facts on the ground" in terms of the expanding and proliferating illegal settlements on Palestinian land to spike the prospect of a viable Palestinian state. The nature of the debate is between those Israelis who see the writing on the wall and others - hardliners and the religious extremists - who are wedded to running an apartheid state far into the future. In the latter vision, a virtual one-state solution will be morphed into a negation of the ideal of a Jewish state.
Amr Moussa has called for a summit meeting of Arab leaders on the Israeli offensive on Gaza, but such a summit, as and when it is held, will do little to resolve the problem. There is a comprehensive Saudi peace initiative on the table with Israeli vacation of Palestinian and Syrian land coinciding with a new era in which the entire Arab world would recognise the state of Israel. Israeli leaders have nibbled on this plan on occasion without any intention of accepting it.
Barack Obama, when he assumes office, will be a prisoner of an American political system that is influenced to a great extent by Israeli interests in relation to policies on the Middle East and even the names of possible envoys being bandied about are greatly biased in favour of Israel, in addition to professing the Jewish faith. It is only when large sections of Israelis are convinced of the virtues of giving Palestinians a fair deal in the form of a viable state will the US and the rest of the world move towards giving Palestinians justice.
Traditionally, Israeli retaliation has been in the nature of taking a hundred Palestinian lives for one Israeli killed. But the proportion in the raids on Gaza has been more like one to 300. The world seems to have cheerfully accepted this asymmetry even as the post-1967 occupation of Palestinian lands and the Syrian Golan Heights continues. Some kind of calm will return to Gaza after the Strip has been subjected to further devastation and more deaths. But the end to Israeli air offensive and possible land incursions will not bring peace.
Peace is, indeed, a rare commodity in what America calls the Greater Middle East. By hitting Gaza hard Israel has further complicated, rather than helped resolve, the seminal conflict of the region: the occupation of Palestinian land and the banishment of many Palestinians from it. Generations of Palestinians have been living as refugees in different parts of the Arab world. The world does not seem to care. (Courtesy: Front Page, edited by Seema Mustafa, January 1, 2008, http://thefrontpage.in/newsmain1.html)
---The writer is a senior columnist and former editor of several newspapers including The Indian Express.