On 23rd July, 15 people were killed and 200 injured by artillery shells fired on a UN school being used as a makeshift sanctuary in Gaza, Palestine. It was the fourth to be attacked in the latest conflict between Hamas and Israel. Palestinian civilian casualties are mounting steadily as Israeli ground forces tighten their stranglehold on Gaza, whilst opposition casualties are comparatively few. Images of dead and injured children fill the world’s TV screens, yet there has been no mass outcry in the Middle East, certainly nothing comparable to previous Israeli incursions into the area.
Part of the explanation is the long-running turmoil and social disintegration across the region. Thousands have died in Iraq; approximately 700 civilians die each day in Syria, Libya and large swathes of the Maghreb are in turmoil. Palestine no longer has an exclusive claim on Arab sympathies.
Apart from Qatar, Hamas is without supporters; its affiliation to the Muslim Brotherhood alienates Egypt and ensures that country’s support for Israeli blockage. Iran, formally the major supplier of arms to Hamas, particularly the rockets the group use so often, has been angered by the organisation’s support for ISIS. Iran is also moving towards an agreement to lift western sanctions in order to improve the living standards of its citizens, thus helping to ensure some form of long-term security.
American influence is waning in the wake of its failure to oust President Assad in Syria, and by the break-up of Iraq, together with their withdrawal from Afghanistan. America is also preoccupied with Russia and the Ukraine. In the near future, America and the EU could also be exercised by an even greater threat from Russia in the Baltic; Lithuania and Latvia both have significant Russian populations living within their borders.
All these shifts in international relationships have provided a unique opportunity for the hawks in Israel to attempt a decisive reckoning with Hamas, but the major players in the Middle East have neither the will nor the capacity to enforce a ceasefire.
Israel’s targeting of the Hamas leadership is largely futile. When they bomb their houses, the occupants have long gone, and many live in opulence in Doha, the rich capital of Qatar. The tunnels are difficult to find and are located underground beneath built-up civilian areas – hence the high number of civilian casualties. Hamas itself is bankrupt and both its civilian and military leadership is inadequate. Its military commanders are shadowy figures, rarely appearing, confining their efforts to producing propaganda videos on training exercises or appearing in small, armed parties on the streets in masks, talking to each other on mobile phones.
The international community is heavily dependent on Egyptian cooperation and its willingness to open its borders, but unfortunately that is something they are currently very reluctant to do. The best that can be hoped for at this point in time is a short humanitarian truce brokered by Egyptian and American negotiators.
Finally, a general power vacuum in the region, coupled with President Assad’s survival, will eventually extend Russia’s influence, and that will not necessarily be in Israel’s long term interests.
In the middle of all these shifting political sands, one sad fact remains clear: Gaza is likely to burn for a long time yet.