The battle for Gaza: History as context and as metaphor

This is a guest post by Eric Lee

The battle for Gaza did not begin yesterday. It is one in a long series of battles that stretches back for decades. On this point, both Israelis and Palestinians agree – even if the mass media tends to have a much shorter memory.

This battle is the latest stage of a war that is entirely about whether a Jewish state will be allowed to exist in the land of Israel. On this point, both Hamas leaders and the Israelis are in agreement.

A strong case can be made that this battle is part of the endgame in that war. The decades-long conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors is slowly coming to an end. And Israel has won.

This will sound absurd to those with short memories, but the historical process is actually quite clear.

From 1948 through 1973, repeated attempts by Egypt, Jordan, Syria and their allies to destroy the Jewish state failed. They failed when Israel was able to launch a pre-emptive strike (1967). And more important they failed when Israel was taken by surprise (1973).

The first and most important consequence of Israel’s military victories was the peace agreement with Egypt. It was the Egyptian army more than any other which posed an existential threat to Israel’s existence. Once it was taken out of the picture, an Arab victory in the long war was no longer possible.

This was followed a decade later by the PLO decision to embrace a two-state solution, which lead directly to the Oslo accords. Israel now finds itself in the extraordinary situation of having its former worst enemy, Fatah, as its strategic ally.

It is in this context that Hamas’ weakness and isolation must be understood. They are weak because they are the last redoubt of what was once a mighty enemy – an enemy that could deploy divisions across several fronts, and whose tanks and aircraft once threatened to reach Tel Aviv.

The defeat of Hamas and the re-insertion of Palestinian Authority control over Gaza – possibly enforced by a pan-Arab peace-keeping force including Egyptian troops – would the best possible outcome of the current fighting.

Were that to take place, the conditions for a renewal of the peace process in 2009 would be in place. With a Kadima-Labour government in power in Jerusalem and Obama in the White House, Fatah controlling both parts of the Palestinian territories – it would be the best chance in years for a final agreement on a two-state solution.

That’s the historical context for what is happening today in Gaza. It’s the endgame to decades of conflict and could mark the beginning of a new, much more positive, chapter in Israeli-Arab relations.

History provides us not only with context, but with a metaphor to understand this battle and this war.

In the final months of the Second World War, it was by no means clear to leaders on either side how things would turn out. Allied hopes of a swift victory in 1944 were dashed by Hitler’s Ardennes offensive. The German deployment of truly terrifying new weapons – jet fighters and V2 rockets, plus the danger of a German atomic bomb – compelled Allied leaders to continue fighting as if Germany was as strong as ever.

Even a defeated enemy could be extremely dangerous. That’s why instead of easing up, of seeking ‘proportionate’ responses to the ineffective efforts by the Luftwaffe to attack Britain, the Allies chose to intensify the strategic bombing campaign in the last months of the war. In doing so, there is no doubt that they shortened the war and saved the lives of Allied soldiers and civilians.

It didn’t take long before a strange coalition of ex-Nazis and Stalinists began denouncing the “terror bombing” of cities like Dresden, accusing Churchill and others of being war criminals.

But in balance, I think the Allies did the right thing.

Israel is today being accused of over-reacting, of applying disproportionate force to what is essentially a defeated and weak enemy.

Actually, Israel is doing what is necessary to bring the long war to an end.