Taking stock of the effects of fighting on Palestine during Middle East cease-fire

by Ra'fat Al-Dajani

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With a temporary cease-fire in Gaza possibly heralding a winding down of the conflict after a month of carnage, it's time to take first stock of the casualties, damage and political results. This blog post will look at the Palestinian side while the following blog post will examine the Israeli side.

The Palestinian death toll of more than 1,900 was catastrophic. More than three-quarters of them  were civilians and 400 of them, children. In a population of 5 million Palestinians living on the land of historic Palestine, that is equivalent to 140,000 Americans dying, almost 50 times more than those who died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Half a million Palestinians, more than one-quarter of the population of Gaza, are refugees from their homes: Half are at U.N. camps and the other half are in Palestinian towns deemed safer than their own.

The infrastructure damage in Gaza was apocalyptic. Neighborhood blocks were leveled as Israeli fire indiscriminately sought out Hamas members and rocket sites. Hospitals were hit, mosques were destroyed, and the main Gaza power plant was bombed, completely cutting off power to Gaza and shutting down the wastewater plant.

In the southern Gaza town of Rafah, where Hamas fighters emerged from a tunnel Friday to attack and kill three Israeli soldiers, every structure within a half-mile radius was completely flattened in the heaviest Israeli retaliatory bombardment of the conflict. No Hamas fighters were killed, but 100 Palestinian civilians perished under Israeli fire.

Most appalling of all was the bombing of a number of U.N. schools serving as shelters and refuge for Palestinian civilians who had fled their homes. Scores of Palestinians were killed; in one instance, the casualties were children who were fast asleep when shells rained down on them in the early morning. The United Stations had passed the exact coordinates of these schools to the Israeli army dozens of times, but again, the Israeli calculation that hitting Hamas targets vastly outweighed the danger of striking civilians prevailed.

Politically, in the short term at least, the popularity of Hamas has soared among Palestinians. Prior to the Gaza conflict, Hamas' fortunes had sunk dramatically, forcing it into a unity government with its Palestinian rival Fatah in which not a single Hamas politician was represented. Election promises the organization had made to improve the lot of Gaza's population were unfulfilled.

On a regional level, its main sponsor, the Muslim Brotherhood of Morsi's government in Egypt, was overthrown and replaced by a military government openly hostile to Hamas. Hundreds of tunnels leading from Egypt into Gaza had been closed, depriving Hamas of its main source of revenue, the taxation of goods brought through the tunnels, and preventing weapons and cash destined for Hamas from flowing into Gaza.

Now, however, just as Israelis "circled the wagons" in support of their military strikes, Palestinians supported what they considered legitimate resistance by Hamas, completely rejecting Israeli arguments that Hamas was responsible for Palestinian civilian deaths. Hamas' main condition for a long-term ceasefire of an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza and the opening of border crossings resonates with and is supported by Palestinians.

Hamas never had to beat the Israelis militarily to emerge victorious politically. All it had to do was to remain standing in order for the conflict to, at the very least, be considered a draw. It inflicted surprisingly high casualties among Israeli soldiers; it demonstrated its capacity to continue firing rockets throughout the conflict; it proved its engineering capacity through a tunnel system that shocked Israel in its sophistication; and it even forced the Federal Aviation Administration to suspend flights to Israel's main airport.

The outlines of a more permanent Gaza cease-fire are beginning to emerge. Hamas would cease all rocket fire into Israel, the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority would take control of the border areas and crossings with Egypt and Israel, and a major Western donor conference would pledge funds for Gaza reconstruction.

This is a step, but only a first one on the very long and difficult road to a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Failure to address the blockade of Gaza will ensure continued support for Hamas' military wing, setting the stage for a fourth Gaza conflict in the next two to three years. Such continued conflict makes the only internationally accepted solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a two-state solution, less likely, dooming both peoples to a future of violence and insecurity.

[Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American writer and political commentator.]

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