Critical Currents: Seeing past Lebanon

Israelis must redirect their attention to Gaza and the West Bank before it is too late.

The Lebanese crisis and its aftermath have become so all-consuming that most Israelis are completely out of touch with events in Gaza and the West Bank. Another war is going on there - more destructive, more encompassing and more devastating than the recent one in the North. The neglect of the Palestinian issue is both inexcusable and unwise: it was, and remains, the heart of the matter. Any new diplomatic initiatives on the Arab-Israeli conflict - many intriguing ideas are currently being bandied about - must focus primarily on the Palestinian-Israeli relationship. Without some agreement closer to home, regional accommodation is inconceivable. The human situation in Gaza today is unspeakable. Its residents have been subjected to repeated Israeli attacks from the air, the land and the sea for months. After the abduction of Gilad Shalit, the stepped-up Israeli offensive has taken the lives of close to 300 Palestinians, the vast majority civilians. Many more have been injured, maimed and rendered homeless. The decimation of the infrastructure in Gaza has been systematic and thorough. The central power plant was destroyed, leaving 60 percent of the population without lights, refrigeration, fans or communications. Its reconstruction will take months. A blockade - lifted only sporadically during the past few weeks to allow in some desperately needed basic supplies such as flour, milk, medicine and fuel - has hermetically sealed Gazans off from the rest of the world. Armed militias roam the streets at will, defying the authority of the Hamas government in the name of far more extreme masters. The situation in the West Bank has also deteriorated almost beyond recognition. Alongside the nocturnal IDF forays into major Palestinian cities such as Jenin, Nablus and Ramallah, roadblocks have made mobility virtually impossible. The construction of the wall continues apace. In Jerusalem, the wall's tortuous path has wreaked havoc with the daily lives of Palestinians in and around the city. BASIC SOCIAL services in the Palestinian territories are at a standstill. Medical personnel cannot get to work; facilities are under-equipped. Teachers have not been paid for months. The central police and security forces are on the verge of revolt. The Palestinian Authority is, for all intents and purposes, non-functional: cabinet members and parliamentarians have been arrested, moneys have been cut off, and administrative capacities have been reduced to almost nil. The objectives of the current (nearly surreptitious yet distinctly pernicious) Israeli campaign in the Palestinian territories remain unclear. The stated aim of securing the release of Gilad Shalit cannot justify its sweeping nature, especially since there are multiple indications that a prisoner exchange could have achieved this result some time ago. The implicit goal of stopping the rocket attacks appears equally unattainable, when those who can impose a modicum of order have been incarcerated. Underlying the continuous Israeli pressure may be a desire to create public pressure to topple the Hamas government. There is no reason, however, to believe that a tactic that failed so miserably scarcely a month ago in Lebanon will succeed any better in the Palestinian territories, where resilience to Israeli oppression is far more robust. Perhaps, then, sadly, the relentless Israeli pressure is an emotional byproduct of the Lebanese debacle. WHAT IS by now abundantly clear is that the continuous use of force is counterproductive in the extreme: constant repression, humiliation and impoverishment only fuel resentment. This policy arouses the wrath of the international community without promoting any tangible Israeli interest. Palpably lacking is some discussion on measures for constructive change, let alone a well-thought- out strategy for its realization. The overwhelming preoccupation with the Lebanese imbroglio is not the only reason why these occurrences close to home have gone largely unnoticed. They have been ignored also because most Israelis find it convenient to do so, believing that the withdrawal from Gaza absolves them of any blame for what happens there. This is not the case: as recent experience has painfully demonstrated, Israel cannot shirk responsibility for its actions; neither can it avert their effects. Israelis must redirect their attention to Gaza and the West Bank before it is too late. A total breakdown of the Palestinian Authority poses an imminent and profound threat, one that might transform Gaza into another Lebanon. This does not have to happen. The Palestinian factions have agreed on a cease-fire and are trying hard to make it work despite the proliferation of fractious militant gangs. The National Conciliation Document - largely ignored by Israeli policymakers - provides the basis for a national unity government. It is also an open invitation for negotiations. Israel can ill afford to rebuff these overtures. No discussions, however difficult, can lead to the kind of misery that has accompanied this round of violence. Such talks may also enable the deployment of international forces to provide protection until an agreement is ironed out. The Palestinian resolve for self-determination has not been crushed by close to 40 years of Israeli occupation. Persistent Israeli efforts to do so have only generated further extremism. It is still possible to reach a just agreement. If Israelis do not concentrate on the Palestinian question nearer home, they will never achieve the human security they seek and deserve.