The exchange of fire in the besieged Gaza strip between Israel’s powerful, first world military, which launched a ground invasion on July 17, and the rudimentary rockets of Palestinian militants has once again yielded an all too predictable outcome. As of July 18, more than 275 Palestinians, mostly civilians, have been killed, and countless more have been injured. So far, there have been two Israeli fatalities.
We are familiar with how this is going to wind up. There will eventually be another shortsighted truce brokered by third parties. Toward that end, on July 17 representatives from Israel and Hamas along with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Mideast peace envoy and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair met in Cairo to negotiate a comprehensive cease-fire.
However, it is important to understand that even the most durable cease-fire is but a Band-Aid on a situation whose underlying problems continue to go unaddressed. A truce is not a truce only when one side — the Palestinian militants — stops the violence, while Tel Aviv continues to perpetuate an entire system of violence against millions of people. The reality is, when the rockets stop, Israel’s military occupation, colonization and siege continues undeterred. As such, a cease-fire agreement alone is not enough. Third-party mediations may bring about a cease-fire agreement, but monitoring and enforcing its terms are far more important.
The failures of previous cease-fires provide instructive lessons to avoid a return of these horrific scenes months or years down the line. The June 2008 cease-fire brokered by Egypt — which was shattered by Israel on Nov. 4, 2008, leading to the deaths of 1,400 Palestinians, most of them civilians — offers an important lesson. First, the precise terms of the agreement were never made public. While both sides reportedly agreed to halt attacks and Israel pledged to ease the siege of Gaza, restrictions remained devastatingly tight.
This lesson was seemingly applied to the 2012 truce brokered by Egypt’s then-President Mohamed Morsi and the U.S.’s then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The terms of the agreement were announced publicly and distributed to the press as Morsi and Clinton shared a stage in Cairo. It was a step forward from the 2008 agreement, but Egypt, the guarantor, was not in a position to hold both parties to account for violations. For example, shortly after the 2012 cease-fire began, Israeli forces killed one Palestinian, injured 42 others and detained nearly 50 fishermen while conducting four incursions into the Gaza side of the fence, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The first posttruce projectile was launched a month after the cease-fire was announced. Over the course of the next six weeks, two more Palestinians were killed and 23 injured from Israeli fire. The absence of any mechanism to hold Israel accountable for these violations creates incentives for militants to respond with fire.
Security and calm cannot stand on a foundation of injustice and the denial of Palestinian rights. That is why we periodically find ourselves in a state of war, one in which Palestinians invariably suffer the most.
If Palestinians violate the agreement, Israel routinely holds them accountable on its own and at will — inflicting disproportionate civilian casualties and provoking further escalation of hostilities. If the current or a future cease-fire is to last, the dramatic imbalance of power between the parties in conflict must be taken into account. But more important, Israel’s impunity for rampant violations of these agreements must end.
The United Nations could set up a monitoring agency with a mandate to hold the two parties accountable. Any such agency must be empowered to execute its mandate. If Washington is not fully behind such an effort, the U.N. is unlikely to do much in terms of restraining Israel. Instead of always attempting to pick up the pieces after a shoddy cease-fire falls apart, the U.S. should commit to a comprehensive arrangement that could actually work.
Time and again, the world’s attention turns to Israel and Gaza when Israeli lives are at risk, but then after the smoke clears and the overwhelmingly Palestinian bodies are buried, the plight of the people who live in Gaza is forgotten. The Gaza Strip, an inseparable part of Palestine, is at the heart of the Palestinian struggle. Eighty percent of its population is refugees, denied a right to return to their towns and villages in Israel only because of their ethnic background. The latest escalation is but a part of Israel’s ongoing collective punishment against Palestinians.
Even during the lulls in violence, Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank have been routinely killed, injured, beaten, arrested, attacked by soldiers and settlers and denied basic rights while Israelis continue to live in relative peace and security. Western attention, which is often devoid of context, returns to the region only when we are on the brink of all-out war (typically when Israel cries foul about being targeted).
It is true that most Israelis and Palestinians want peace, but that means different things for each side. For the Palestinians, peace means justice and the recognition of their rights, while Israel’s preoccupation is maintaining security and bringing an end to open hostilities. The Israelis have operated under the belief that they could attain their version of peace without having to meet Palestinians’ demands. Washington’s unyielding support for Tel Aviv, including military aid and diplomatic shield in the Security Council, has given Israel the ability to maintain its conception of peace.
However, security and calm cannot stand on a foundation of injustice and the denial of Palestinian rights. That is why we periodically find ourselves in a state of war, one in which Palestinians invariably suffer the most.
As it embarked on the latest military campaign, Israel knew that only two things were guaranteed: high civilian casualties and an uneven military dynamic. Yet it moved forward with a bombing of Gaza, callously referring to the campaign as “mowing the lawn.”
The most important lesson from previous cease-fire agreements is that a hastily organized accord amounts to mere window dressing. There needs to be real, tangible progress for the people of Palestine, who live under a system of violence. This should include an immediate end to the siege and occupation of Gaza and the recognition of Palestinians’ rights.
Otherwise, it is only a matter of time — and a short one at that — before we will be back to the current catastrophic state of affairs.