Feeble European Mediation For Wobbly Peace (01 Feb 2009)

A sharper contrast is hard to imagine: The images of Gaza inhabitants, shell-shocked and bivouacking on the rubble of what once were their homes, and under which their loved ones are buried, and the images produced by the wave of enthusiasm flooding Washington this week. They were produced on Sunday, January 18th, a few days before the inauguration of the first non-white president of the United States, and at the beginning of a wobbly truce between the state of Israel and the Islamitic Hamas movement.
It was also the day on which the Israeli army allowed American and British journalists to enter the Gaza strip for the first time. To quote the International Herald Tribune: “It was a day of digging and bitter discovery. Houses had lost walls, and the dead, after three weeks of war, had lost their faces. Families identified them by their clothes. Families clawed at rubble and concrete, trying to dislodge relatives who had died weeks before”.
Aside from more than thirteen hundred dead (among them hundreds of children, according to British prime minister Brown) and thousands of wounded who could sparsely be attended medically, Gaza lost the infrastructure that makes government possible. The IHT again: “Bombs had pulverized the Parliament and cabinet buildings, the Ministry of Justice, the main university and the police station, paralyzing Gaza’s central nervous system and leaving residents in a state of shock.” UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, visiting Gaza a day later, said that he had only seen a fraction of the destruction, but what he saw was “shocking and alarming”. Referring to the Israeli bombing on January 15 of the UN-entrepot, where tons of food and medicine were stored, he asked for an accounting by those responsible before judiciary authorities. Ban called the attacks scandalous and absolutely unacceptable, demanding an in-depth investigation, and an official declaration that they would never be repeated, but the highest UN official refused to meet with representatives of Hamas.
And now there is a truce, or more precise: two unilateral truces. Israel was the first to announce a cease-fire, after which Hamas launched a few rockets, but then said that it would keep the weapons silent for a week. In those seven days Israel is to withdraw and to open the border. Both announcements are first of all meant to serve the manner in which the international public is asked to picture the situation. Israel reports that it has achieved its war aims, whatever these may have been. Hamas suggested that it had the situation completely in hand: rockets could be fired at Israel at any time, and that would happen if the demands of the movement were not met.
How much did European mediators contribute to the wobbly cease-fire?
They certainly used the lame duck conditions in Washington during the transition period. In the voting for Security Council resolution 1860 Condoleezza Rice was, after having worked hard for it, the only representative among the fifteen who abstained.
How much was due to French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s eagerness to remain in the limelight? In recent weeks he was three times the guest of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak. French mediation fits the personal ambitions of this very publicity conscious president. He had been looking for a role after the French chairmanship of the European Union. So, on New Year’s Eve, when Sarkozy’s prominent European role had to be passed on to the Czechs, he offered mediation in the Gaza war.
Political credibility and legitimacy for Sarkozy’s initiative was to be derived from the French-Egyptian co-chairmanship of a new entity, the European Mediterranian Union. This is a Sarkozy brainchild with 43 states as members, accepted with some grumbling from France’s partners in the European Union. The French gesture in their direction was Sarkozy’s invitation for Gordon Brown, chancellor Angela Merkel and the Czech, Spanish and Italian government leaders to join Mubarak and himself this past weekend in the conference site of Sharm-el-Scheich. UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, Turkish president Abdullah Gül, Jordan’s King Abdallah and the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, were there too. Israel did not come but received the European delegation to this new-fangled summit group afterwards.
The Europeans, in keeping with the Security Council resolution, want an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, leading to a full Israeli withdrawal, the unimpeded provision throughout Gaza of food, fuel and medical treatment, and intensified international arrangements to prevent arms and ammunition smuggling.
Under current circumstances it would be silly to expect any agreements to last. But what is not there now, might be there in some time. An important issue for Israel is shutting down the circuit of tunnels from Egypt into the Gaza area, which besides a flow of vital necessities have also accommodated the flow of rockets that have been fired from different places at Southern Israel. France, Britain and Germany have offered Egypt and Israel an arrangement whereby – analogous to the situation involving Lebanon – a naval blockade of the coastal area should satisfy Israel’s wishes. This would reduce the potential problems for Egyptian sovereignty if the choice had been for a blockade on land.
Throughout the mediation efforts European malfunctioning was continually noticeable by disagreements among the different member states. Shortly after the onset of Israeli agression two delegations were travelling through the Middle East: the one man-show of Sarkozy and a circus like troupe with the new Czech European Union chairmanship as pivot surrounded by the European Union commissioner for international relations, the spokesperson for the foreign policy of the European council of government leaders, Solana, and the ministers of foreign affairs of previous and next chairmanship, respectively the Frenchman Kouchner and his Swedish colleague.
Many among the European political elite have focussed their hopes on the new American president, as the Italian premier Berlusconi and his Spanish colleague Zapatero again demonstrated this past weekend in Sharm-el-Scheich. It prompted Sarkozy’s tart response: On ne peut pas attendre que les Etats-Unis aient froid pour mettre un cache-nez (You should not wait with covering yourself with a scarf until the United States catches cold).
What of Europe’s public attention to all this? Neither the truce, nor the horrendous damage and Palestinian suffering, nor European mediation efforts have enjoyed much of a coverage in European media.
Attention for the tragedy in Gaza was distracted by the conflict over natural gas between the Ukraine and Russia, which has unpleasant repercussions for some European countries. In The Netherlands, ice on canals and lakes for the first time in a dozen years thick enough for skating, drove Gaza from frontpages and TV screens.
The worldwide economic crisis, with new scandals popping up, does keep audiences occupied. And then there have been the preparations for the American presidential change-over. Also in Europe these manage to affect the emotions.
Of course, absence of attention for what should have mattered most to editors was partly due to the well-organized Israeli effort to influence all media. By consistently keeping journalists out of the Gaza strip, the entire media apparatus “on the spot” was in fact embedded with the Israeli authorities. These authorities had a daily journalistic audience for their propaganda about what was happening. What actually was taking place in Gaza could only be observed, and that sparsely so, from a distance, from refugees, and from Al Jazeera broadcasts.
In that way the impression that Israel had chosen its use of arms for defending itself and was very careful in its choice of targets could continue to flourish. Hamas was accused of using the Palestinian population as a shield, while foreign audiences are hardly aware of the fact that Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas on the globe, which turns any armed intervention into a slaughtering party.
Why have the international media been such easy victims of Israeli propaganda? Is it prejudice that drives them? Is it the effect of the American filter through which we all get most of our international news which gives this news its terrible slant?
What has been kept far in the background in most analyses is that Hamas won elections, that the Palestinian Authority has kept it away from power, and that the international community has been boycotting it. Could an honest account of the circumstances of life, life ebbing away, and death in Gaza now create some compensation for that inaccurate reporting?
Sarkozy now pleads for a major international conference aimed at creating a new impulse for a durable solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His plan is reminiscent of the Madrid conference, which after the first Gulf War (for Kuwait), gave the impulse for the so-callled Oslo-process, which entirely got stuck in the sand when George W. Bush arrived on the scene.
But what can come of such an initiative if the most important facts are not taken into account. One fact is that Hamas cannot be removed from Gaza. Another is that Palestine has been split into two potential states. The Palistinian Authority on the West Bank has deteriorated into an Israeli vassal with a police force – trained by Jordan, and paid for by the United States – which in the past weeks has suppressed any expression of solidarity with the cousins in Gaza.
That is, one may gather, all to Israel’s satisfaction. The situation along the river Jordan shows how a Palestinian state after Israeli model would look like. And that is not something that European mediators, who claim to be looking for a durable solution, should in any way want to accept. In the meantime, in the European media, this tragedy that is bound to have a huge impact on European international relations to come is almost entirely lost in the hoopla surrounding the inauguration of Barack Obama.