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Israeli Attacks, Gaza Rocket Fire Strain Peace Efforts

March 3, 2008 at 6:30 PM EST
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After one of the bloodiest weekend in nearly a year, the Israel military left Gaza today after issuing a series of attacks in an effort to curb militant rocket fire. Analysts examine how the fighting may impact peace efforts in the region.
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TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: Now, the Gaza story, and to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: After a weekend of bloody fighting in Gaza, Hamas militants staged a victory celebration today to mark the departure of Israeli soldiers.

The fighting between them killed more than 100 Palestinians, including civilians and two Israeli soldiers.

It was the worst violence in Gaza since Hamas seized total control of the impoverished area nearly nine months ago and since Israel unilaterally withdrew from the territory nearly three years ago.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said there would be no respite for Hamas if Gaza-launched rockets continue shelling Israeli towns and cities.

EHUD OLMERT, Prime Minister of Israel (through translator): I will say only that we are acting and we will continue to act in a way that is painful and effective, that will bring maximum results in terms of halting terror.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet today saw another rocket attack on Israel and more Israeli air strikes on Gaza.

The weekend violence in Gaza also threatened to spread to the West Bank, which is still under control of the more moderate Palestinian Fatah Party. The town of Hebron saw a confrontation today between rock-throwing Palestinians and Israeli soldiers.

Yesterday, after donating blood for Gaza residents, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he was suspending the Palestinian Authority’s participation in peace talks with Israel.

MAHMOUD ABBAS, President, Palestinian Authority (through translator): We have contacted all parties around the world, and the U.N., the quartet, and a number of Arab leaders in order to put an end to the aggression that our people are facing. We will continue our efforts in order to end the suffering of our people.

MARGARET WARNER: Israel says it is responding to increasingly sophisticated rocket attacks onto its territory, more than 1,000 since last June.

Over the weekend, for example, rockets hit the Israeli town of Ashkelon, 10 miles north of Gaza. Last week, a resident of Sderot was killed by a rocket after Israeli air strikes killed five Hamas fighters in Gaza.

Israel’s response drew some international criticism, including from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

BAN KI-MOON, United Nations Secretary-General: I condemn the disproportionate and excessive use of force that has killed and injured so many civilians, including children.

MARGARET WARNER: But Prime Minister Olmert said yesterday Israel was fully justified.

EHUD OLMERT (through translator): No one has the moral right to preach to Israel for taking the elementary step of self-defense.

MARGARET WARNER: Despite the turmoil, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice left for the region today, hoping to advance the Mideast peace process that was launched last November in Annapolis, Maryland.

Each side retaliating on the other

Jennifer Lazlo Mizrahi
Israel Project
There's almost a no-win solution for the Israelis, because so much is in the hands of the Palestinians from Hamas, which has already said it wants to destroy Israel. So much is in their hands. But Israel is not going to take the rockets anymore.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on what's behind the stepped-up clashes and where this may lead, we go to Saree Makdisi, who writes frequently about Palestinian issues. His forthcoming book is "Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation." He's a professor of English literature at the University of California, Los Angeles.

And Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder and president of The Israel Project, it's a non-profit organization that promotes the Israeli point of view on security issues.

Welcome to you both.

Jennifer Mizrahi, why do you think we're seeing this escalation in the bloodshed, in the clashes between Israel and Hamas in Gaza right now?

JENNIFER LASZLO MIZRAHI, The Israel Project: Well, first of all, Margaret, as you know, it's been going on for seven years, the rockets that have been going into Israel. And Israel thought and really wanted it to happen that it would stop and gave up all of Gaza three years ago almost in hopes for peace.

But the rockets didn't stop. And the real change has been that Hamas knocked down the border between them and Egypt. And when that happened, when that border was broken recently, more sophisticated weapons from Iran and others, along with trained terrorists, moved into Gaza, which enabled the terrorists in Gaza to shoot these longer, more precise missiles and rockets into Israel, putting 200,000 Israeli lives at risk.

MARGARET WARNER: But right after Israeli soldiers left, for instance, today there were more rocket attacks. What does Israel think it can achieve with these retaliatory strikes and these sort of limited ground incursions?

JENNIFER LASZLO MIZRAHI: It's a very difficult challenge. There's almost a no-win solution for the Israelis, because so much is in the hands of the Palestinians from Hamas, which has already said it wants to destroy Israel. So much is in their hands.

But Israel is not going to take the rockets anymore. These thousands of rockets that are coming down onto the communities, intentionally targeting kindergartens and hospitals, they can't take it anymore. And they're going to do everything they can to defend their people.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Makdisi, what do you think explains the escalation to this point right now?

SAREE MAKDISI, UCLA: Well, I mean, I think it's important to bear in mind that the Israeli occupation began not eight years ago or seven years ago or three years ago, but 41 years ago. So Israel's response in the past two days or the past two weeks or months is an escalation of a strategy that's been continuing for decades.

It's important to understand that it's not just in response to the rocket attacks and that however illegal and immoral those rocket attacks are -- and I think they are -- it's important to be able to understand what they're coming from and what they're in response to and also, most importantly, how to stop civilian deaths on both sides of the border, in Israel and in Gaza, and in the West Bank, for that matter.

Neither side recognizes the other

Saree Makdisi
University of California, Los Angeles
What that means is that actually Hamas isn't in control of Gaza. It's in control of some things on the ground within Gaza, but Israel remains the occupying power. Israel, therefore, is responsible, for example, for the welfare of the population.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask the counterpoint to the question I asked Ms. Mizrahi, which is, why is Hamas continuing these rocket attacks now that it's in full control of Gaza?

SAREE MAKDISI: Well, remember, it's not actually in full control of Gaza. Gaza, according to international law, is still under Israeli occupation, because Israel controls the borders, the air space, territorial waters, and all access to Gaza, essentially.

So what that means is that actually Hamas isn't in control of Gaza. It's in control of some things on the ground within Gaza, but Israel remains the occupying power. Israel, therefore, is responsible, for example, for the welfare of the population.

Why Hamas is doing this -- I mean, there are two or three reasons. One is partly in order to reassert that Hamas can't be excluded from the political process between Israel and the Palestinians, which is essentially what Israel and the U.S. would like to have happen. In fact, that's what they have done.

And, secondly, they're trying to show internally to Palestinians that they are capable of doing what Fatah leadership in the West Bank is incapable of doing, which is standing up to Israel.

Now, that doesn't justify firing rockets at civilian targets. I don't think anybody is justified in firing rockets at civilian targets.

But the important thing is to understand where the rocket attacks are coming from and what needs to be done to stop them, which is to stop a 41-year-old illegal occupation.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you say to that?

JENNIFER LASZLO MIZRAHI: There's not a single Israeli in Gaza. I was in Gaza when Israel gave it up. Nine thousand Israelis lived in Gaza. All of their homes were given up. All of their places of business, their places of worship, their schools were all given up.

Not a single Israeli was left inside Gaza. Still to call it an occupation is not a fair assessment at all.

MARGARET WARNER: But what I'm also asking you is what the professor said about why Hamas is saying they want to be -- they want to have a seat at the table, they want to be included, that they're continuing these attacks in a way in a bid to be recognized as players.

JENNIFER LASZLO MIZRAHI: I think everyone would love for Hamas to be a player. It's such an easy thing for Hamas to be at the table. All they have to do is recognize Israel's right to exist in freedom, in peace, in security, and then start to negotiate without trying to be a power that just wants to clearly eliminate Israel.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Professor, Hamas won't agree to those conditions, is that right?

SAREE MAKDISI: Yes, but the question is, will Israel recognize Palestine? In other words, what the Israelis are asking for is for Palestinians to give them all the recognition they're asking for without giving any recognition in turn, which, if you think about it, it's sort of illogical.

The second thing is, in terms of recognizing Israel's right to exist, the question is, which Israel exactly? As you know, Israel declared its independence in 1948 in what had been until then Palestine.

The 1949 partition plan created one kind of Israel. The 1967 war created another kind of Israel. The wall that Israel is building in the West Bank is yet another kind of Israel.

Abbas withdraws in due to violence

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi
Israel Project
The fact that Abbas has suspended the negotiations is obviously a challenge. But the fact, as we all know, Margaret, you can't move forward on the negotiations as long as rockets are being shot into Israel.

MARGARET WARNER: But, Professor...

SAREE MAKDISI: East Jerusalem -- yes, go ahead.

MARGARET WARNER: ... could I just interrupt and try to drill down a little more here? I guess what I'm asking here is that Abbas has been in these peace talks now with Israel for a few months. And there have been, as you both said, other skirmishes, no doubt.

Yet he's stayed in the talks until now. Why did he pull out now? And what do you think this means for this peace process?

SAREE MAKDISI: I mean, I think the big question is, what is the peace process meant to accomplish? If you think about the fact that the Israelis all through the peace process, from the 1990s on, have continued to expand their settlements and to expand the extent to which they control the West Bank and East Jerusalem and to continue increasing their settler population in the occupied territories, one has to ask, well, what is it that's being negotiated exactly?

At this point, according to the U.N., 40 percent of the West Bank is off-limits to Palestinians. It's under Israeli control, just institutionally and demographically and in terms of infrastructure and so forth. So what exactly is there left to negotiate?

MARGARET WARNER: But Abbas has thought there is something to negotiate. So what I'm asking you is, why is he now pulling out?

SAREE MAKDISI: Because it would be -- I mean, if you just think about it from his standpoint, for him to go on negotiating with the Israelis while they're starving and bombing his people in Gaza would be, to say the least, ungentlemanly, basically.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you think this is meaning for the peace process? Do you think now -- I mean, you've got Condi Rice going over there trying to keep it going, but one of your two main actors is no longer at the table.

JENNIFER LASZLO MIZRAHI: Well, first of all, I reject the other guest's premise that Israel doesn't want there to be a Palestinian state. Israel deeply wants there to be a Palestinian state and wants Palestinians to have a better future.

They're eager to move the peace process forward. They're in negotiations.

The fact that Abbas has suspended the negotiations is obviously a challenge. But the fact, as we all know, Margaret, you can't move forward on the negotiations as long as rockets are being shot into Israel.

This is a problem that must be solved. Because once that problem is solved, it will be so much closer to a Palestinian state and a better future for both sides.

Each side wants the other to move

Saree Makdisi
University of California, Los Angeles
I don't think there should be any rocket attacks. I mean, the rocket attacks are in response to an ongoing situation. The situation is determined by the occupation. If the occupation stops, everything else will stop, as well.

MARGARET WARNER: I'm going to ask you both to answer this fairly briefly in our remaining time. And I'll start with you, Ms. Mizrahi. So what will it take to solve this immediate -- I'm talking about the immediate issue now -- of this escalating violence between Israel and Hamas in Gaza and right outside of Gaza?

JENNIFER LASZLO MIZRAHI: It's very simple. If the rockets stop going into Israel, there will be no need for the Israelis to go into Gaza. That's all that needs to happen.

Then I'd like to see -- and I think all Israelis would like to see -- there to be progress on the peace front, because what all the Israeli government leaders are looking for is a two-state solution that will make it better for all in the region.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Professor, what would it take for Hamas to agree to stop the rocket attacks?

SAREE MAKDISI: I think Hamas should stop the rocket attacks irrespective of an agreement. But what it would take, really, to end this conflict is for Israel to abide by international law, by Geneva Convention, by Security Council resolutions, to end its occupation of the occupied territories, including East Jerusalem and the West Bank and Gaza, and to allow the rule of law to prevail, which is something it's resisted doing for four decades now.

MARGARET WARNER: But are you saying that, in the meantime, the rocket attacks will continue?

SAREE MAKDISI: No, I mean, it's not for me to say, but I don't think there should be any rocket attacks. I mean, the rocket attacks are in response to an ongoing situation. The situation is determined by the occupation. If the occupation stops, everything else will stop, as well.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Professor Makdisi and Ms. Mizrahi, thank you both.

JENNIFER LASZLO MIZRAHI: Thank you for having me.

SAREE MAKDISI: Thank you.