Analyzing the Israel-Hamas High-Stakes Poker Game, Where the Chips are Human Lives and Nobody Wins
Both sides deserve a lot of blame, but the contributions of Israel’s structural violence should not be eclipsed by Hamas’ physical violence, or, (almost) everything you need to know about Gaza in one article
Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse July 28, 2014
Available in eBook format:
This article was majorly updated several times from July 29th-August 5th, with minor edits made the following week. It was originally published as one single article but due to technical issues on LinkedIn’s end I was forced to break it apart into three part parts. Here are the LinkedIn links for Part II and Part III.
“Yes, indeed, the gods do not give everything to the same man. You know how win a battle, Hannibal; you do not know how to use the victory!”—Maharbal to Hannibal after the battle of Cannae, 216 BCE, as quoted by Livy, From the Founding of the City 22.51
I.) Introduction: Setting the Discussion
If you read any kind of an opinion piece or analysis that does not blame both Israel’s government and Hamas (note I did not say equally, we will get to assigning proportions for the blame later later) for this unfolding, obscene fiasco, you should make a mental note to not take that author’s analysis or commentary seriously. Cheerleaders and myopia have been making this conflict worse, not better, for years. If an article does not present this as ugly vs. less ugly, it is way off. There are few heroes, just a decent number of well-intentioned people without the power to be heroes and plenty of villains with power. Spectating in this conflict is like being at a soccer/football match where no one ever scores, there are lots of dramatic arguments and pushing and shoving, lots of diving and faking injuries, lots of yellow and red cards given, and you are stuck in an endless progression of overtimes with no penalty shootouts (think Uruguay vs. Italy, with more biting and fewer goals). Or, the conflict resembles a comic-book, movie, or TV show that features bad guys vs. bad guys and no good guy is in sight. It is deeply depressing and incredibly infuriating for anyone who cares even a little about the Palestinian or the Israeli people, least of all because large segments of both Israelis and Palestinians, like their many of respective leadership, are not helping themselves in the long-run and are even encouraging violence or behavior that would make things far worse, not better. And in the end, little to nothing will change, each side repeating the same deadly mistakes it made the last time this happened with the same foreseeable, tragic consequences, with the same predictable, avoidable, and in-vain-deaths as the only real “achievement” for either side. And in a matter of months or a few years, this sordid Greek tragedy will be put on ghastly display yet again for an encore performance, with the parties to the conflict more or less doing their best to ensure that the show will go on between now and then that and that we can safely expect a similar curtain call.
Part of the Story Can Be Worse than None of It
The problem with a lot of conflicts, and this one is no exception, is that people will tune in at any given moment, unaware of the events which led to one thing or another, and begin to pass judgment based on the most salient events, identifying causes as symptoms or symptoms as causes. I am not speaking of necessarily going back to the very beginning of a conflict; sometimes conflicts span generations, and the sins of one set of opposing fathers cannot fully absolve the sins of an opposing set of sons. Despite the common forgetting of it, a simple truth is that many people are to a high degree independent actors possessing agency; individual leaders matter, but so do their people. And more on this agency later, in my conclusion. But, to return to time, it is common and somewhat understandable for people to forget or muddle the prime roots of a conflict, which can go back to before they were born. What is also common but less understandable is to forget the context of recent months, weeks, years. And with this latest round of hackneyed, near-pointless hostilities between Israelis and Palestinian—namely, between the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas, but also between both Jewish and Arab terrorists/militants/vigilantes—it is clear that many people, including those in the media and positions of power, are reaching understandings of these events which miss a lot of the context from even just the past few weeks, understandings that misinform about and confuse an already quite convoluted situation. And a lot of this has to do with the news sources from which people are getting their information about this conflict.
Quality of, and Amount of Quality, Israel-Palestine Coverage Improving, but a Lot Is Still Not Good Enough, Lacks Context
When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one of a scarcity of silver linings is that the U.S. news media has gotten much better at covering this conflict since beginning of the Second Intifada. I would say that, among the best newspapers and magazines (online and print), the quality of coverage has actually grown quite dramatically. Even television news, which is behind, has gotten much better. Whereas before it is fairly obvious that there was a pervasive bias in favor of Israel—Israeli deaths would be featured on front pages, Palestinian deaths buried behind them—now outlets like The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate and CNN all avoid painting the conflict as one-sided and regularly highlight the suffering of Palestinians as major showpieces and regularly show Israel’s policies to be what they are: deeply flawed, often brutal, often illegal, and amounting to the collective punishment of millions of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem(but policies that at least in part stem from a deep insecurity, a stifling paranoia, and a state-perpetuated sense of victimhood among Israelis, parts of which stem from a unique culture of persecution and near-extermination, parts of which stem from recent history, some parts of each more legitimate than others for explaining current behavior and mentalities). Today, individual Palestinians who have been deeply wronged or attacked by the occupation, Israeli security forces, the Israeli government, or Israeli settlers are given ample coverage, something that was not common before the Second Intifada. The New York Times was even recently accused of having a pro-Palestinian bias by TheNew York Observer, and such accusations are hardly limited to just the Times or only come from the Observer. Still, much of the television coverage, as with so many other issues covered on television, falls short not from an inherent agenda or a blatant bias so much as it falls short because of attempts to try to appear objective by creating false equivalency after false equivalency, trying to present most things as a 50-50 problem when it comes to assigning blame and giving equal airtime to arguments of unequal quality.
The brutality and sheer disproportionality of Prime Minister/General Ariel Sharon’s response to the Second Intifada, of Israel’s 2006 invasions of Lebanon and Gaza, and of 2008-2009’s Operation Cast Lead have made it easier for news professionals from a country inclined to support Israel to become more reluctant to feel that such support is justified and to increasingly question Israel’s actions. Of course it is easy (and appropriate) in the case of Hamas to revile those who would use rockets to indiscriminately and deliberately target civilians, who would send suicide bombers to civilian buses and discos to kill commuters and young adults, and to revile the tactic of suicide bombing itself (for years only on Hamas’s shelf and not in its active repertoire, but now apparently back on the table as of a this month, according, at least, to the IDF); that Israel does not unquestionably have the moral high ground over such an opponent is notso much a measure of any sort of anti-Semitism (which is in decline in some but not all places) as it is a measure of how awful its own policies—policies carried out over decades, not just years or months—actually are. In addition, if there are extremely few positive things to come out of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, one positive thing is that I think over the course of that long war, our experience working with so many Iraqi Arabs as allies (even if some just temporarily) and spending so many years hoping for Iraqis’ success in rebuilding their society (hopes that were dashed, creating even more sympathy in at least some Americans) made Americans care more about Arabs and their perspectives as individual human beings than they did before. And the coverage today reflects this. In addition, reporting in the age of Twitter and Facebook makes the both anchors and their reports “more visceral, more emotional;” now when a war happens, the casualties are shown in graphic detail in almost real-time, making for more powerful public reactions and raising the component of public relations as an aspect in modern warfare to new heights.
Those who allege some sort of deliberate Zionist-American skewing of the coverage would at least have been right to question the balance of the coverage roughly a decade ago; but today, Chomskyesque denunciations of such a massive, deliberate agenda today are more evidence of the myopia, blinding cynicism, selective intake, and oversimplified world view of those espousing them. Apart from entities like Fox News, of course. There are some quality, serious reporters who actually attempt objectivity working for Fox; but in general, Fox can be dismissed as “so fantastically terrible, so obviously low-rent,” that when we discuss the general quality of the American news media, we can simply remove Fox as an outlier to get more a more accurate idea of how mainstream journalism is trending. Or, we can grade the media with a curve with Fox in mind. All this is to say that I am pleased that there are a good number of quality journalists who write a good number of quality articles for a good number of quality news outlets, articles that are pretty objective when it comes to this conflict and that any American with at least internet access can easily find in major publications with a minimal amount of effort (this may partly help to explain why today’s young American Jews feel increasingly less attached to Israel, its politics, and its policies, and are against the occupation and Israel’s way of dealing with Palestinians).
Still, there are too many pieces that lack context and balance, and especially that explain how both the longer-term context and all the recent events leading up to this hot-phase of the conflict tie into what we are seeing on television and reading in the paper or online. So below is my attempt to cover that gap regarding Israel and Gaza. First we’ll examine the longer-term context in these next sections, then the shorter-term context much later.
II.) Longer-Term Context
A Brief Survey of Israel’s Abusive Love-Affair with Gaza
A Young Israel not yet even twenty years old, prior to the June 1967 Six-Day War, felt a sense of dread and doom about the impending war with its neighbors. This fact only made its stunning victory all the more miraculous in the eyes of Israelis. It was celebrated with a near messianic fervor, and many Israelis, even those not particularly religiously inclined, saw the hand of Yahweh and of destiny playing a role in their victory. A level of hubrisemerged within Israel that enabled it to believe it could occupy the West Bank and Gaza with its many Palestinian Arabs, and not just occupy, but occupy indefinitely and aggressively colonize and settle both lands with many thousands and thousands of Jews, all the while continuing to deny basic freedoms to the Palestinians, governed through the military boots of Israel’s army, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). And not only was the hubris so high that Israelis believed they could do all this, they believed they could do all this indefinitely with no actual long-term plan for what to do with the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, people for whom Israel was now fully legally responsible since the moment it took the territories from Jordan and Egypt, respectively.
This is not only stunning in hindsight, but in real-time as well. It is perfectly understandable that Israel felt it needed to hold onto these territories as some sort of security barriers between a hostile Jordan and a hostile Egypt. But peace was reached with Egypt in 1979, and with Jordan in 1994 (let us also remind the reader here that Israel never lost a war to either of these countries). Thus, the main legitimate rationale for holding onto Gaza disappeared in 1979, and for the West Bank in 1994. Yet Israel still continued to occupy, colonize, and settle Gaza for more than a quarter-century after making peace with Egypt, and today, twenty years after reaching peace with Jordan, Israeli is still engaging in its colonialist settling and occupation of the West Bank. And while at first this was not government policy, but fervent individuals settling the land on their own, eventually both of Israel’s main political parties, Labor and Likud (though Likud more so), wouldsupport, protect, add to, and expand the settlement enterprise, so that, twenty years after the 1993 start of the Oslo “peace” process, Israeli’s population in the territories it had occupied by force in 1967 had more than doubled to well over half a million settlers.
One can argue, in a chicken-vs.-egg debate, whether the political forces behind Palestinians’ violence or the political forces behind Israel’s settlement movement and the occupation were the primary instigators of the current cycle of violence, but today the obvious truth is that these forces reinforce and perpetuate each other. I would suggest that, since there was no mass, popular violence or violent resistance for the first twenty years of the Israeli occupation and that the Palestinians were frustrated and stymied in their attempts to non-violently achieve rights and freedom, and that mass violence and resistance began after twenty years of oppression, those twenty years of oppression had an awful lot to do with why there was eventually a tremendous amount of violence from Palestinians. As Israeli historian Benny Morris wrote in his landmark Righteous Victims, after the 1967 war,
Israeli thinking was to some degree governed by the notion that the Arabs of the territories, starved of land and resources (primarily water), and denied the possibility of industrial development, would gradually drift away. Though never clearly enunciated, this was the government’s aim—especially after 1977. And, indeed, over the decades, a steady trickle of West Bank and Gaza Arabs left their homes to find an easier life abroad… (339)
Extreme forms of censorship and political repression were common, as were military courts that usually only acted to further Israeli interests, often brutally; “[t]here was a clear lesson for the inhabitants of the territories and the Palestinian diaspora in these events: Israel intended to stay in the West Bank, and its rule would not be overthrown or ended through civil disobedience and civil resistance, which were easily crushed. The only real option was armed struggle” (341). For Morris,
[t]he war and its aftermath of occupation, repression, and expansionism swiftly reignited the tinder of Palestinian nationalism, propelling thousands of young men, especially from among the dispossessed and hopeless of the refugee camps in East Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, into the burgeoning resistance organizations. At the same time, much as the Zionist enterprise had helped trigger early Palestinian nationalism, so the daily contact and friction with Israel and the Israeli authorities inside the territories now reawakened it. (343)
The settlement movement really picked up steam in the 1980s, with Ariel Sharon becoming its father and patron from within the government. Morris writes that “[b]y 1987 the 2,500 Israeli settlers in the [Gaza] Strip—or 0.4 percent of the territory’s total population—had control over some 28 percent of its state lands” and dominated the use of Gaza’s water resources (565). Through the First Intifada, Oslo, and the Second Intifada, hostility with the local Palestinians grew, as did Gaza’s settler population.
As Oslo petered off into a mere piece of paper in the face of a degenerating reality, deliberate sabotage by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the settlers, Hamas, and other militant groups, and reluctance to compromise by many other major players, hope was injected into the process again by Ehud Barak’s defeat of Netanyahu in 1999 elections, culminating in the Clinton-Administration-sponsored Camp David Summitin 2000 (a myth regarding which has sprung up in the U.S. and among supporters of Israel that Yasir Arafat blindly walked away from a “generous” Israeli offer, when the reality was actually far more complicated) and even more so during the less-publicized Taba Summit of January 2001. Taba was put on hold for upcoming Israeli elections, in a climate of increasing unrest over the Second Intifada, which Ariel Sharon had helped to spark in September of 2000 with a very provocative, armed-guard-filled-visit to the Temple Mount, home to Islam’s holy Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, in East Jerusalem’s Old City. Barak would fall, Sharon replacing him, and he was not as keen to negotiate.
Over 8,000 Jewish settlers lived in Gaza in 2005, surrounded by over 1.3 million Palestinians. Sharon—now Israel’s Prime Minister—decided to make a huge change to this situation after crushing the Palestinians’ Second Intifada uprising, realizing the madness of having to have thousands of IDF troops protect some 8,000 Israelis living among over a million hostile Arabs in a tiny piece of land with limited resources was not in Israel’s interests. Sharon was already laying the groundwork for an Israeli withdrawal and an evacuation of the settlements in Gaza even as Arafat’s health was deteriorating in 2004.
Fast forward to 2005: Yasir Arafat had only died (possibly from poisoning) the previous year after decades of leading his people. After Oslo began in 1993, Arafat was no longer the exiled swashbuckling terrorist; he was now partially in charge of territory and population, and it would be clear that he was more suited to the role of freedom fighter than that of governor. Under Arafat’s leadership, and with sheer complicity on the part of Israel and U.S., Arafat bled the Palestinian economy dry through a combination of corruption, incompetence, and nepotism, severely retarding the process of building a Palestinian state; under Arafat, Palestinians stayed weak and divided, not that Israel minded this at all.
In the first half of 2005, Hamas was already starting to best Fatah in local Gazan elections, as Sharon proceeded with his preparations for his already announced unilateral disengagement from Gaza by aggressively going after militants/terrorists in Gaza. Throughout this period, Sharon stressed the unilateral aspect of his plan; this was going to be an “explicitly unilateral” Israeli choice, not a victory for the Palestinian resistance, and he did not want to cooperate with and thereby legitimize Mahmoud Abbas, who was elected to succeed Arafat as President of the Palestinian Authority(the sort-of government of the Palestinians established by the Oslo process), run by Arafat’s and Abbas’s political party, Fatah. Sharon liked the Palestinians nice and weak, fighting among themselves as they were at the time. But by undermining Abbas and shunning serious cooperation and coordination, despite U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s pleas for Sharon to work with Abbas, Sharon paved the way, along with Fatah’s corruption, for the rise of Hamas. Thus, Sharon went forward with his plan more-or-less unilaterally, leaving Abbas stranded and Hamas claiming victory as the resistance. For Sharon, this was not about continuing the peace process or empowering the Palestinians; in fact, it was about the opposite: it was about stopping the peace process. According to a top Sharon advisor, who at the time was tasked with running the disengagement from Gaza, it was designed to “prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state…[and to supply] the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.” It was also designed to help Israel keep most of its larger settlements in the West Bank. Just before the plan was implemented, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quit his post in Sharon’s Cabinet in protest of the disengagement, instead wanting to retain control of Gaza and maintain its Jewish settlements.
After the Divorce, Still Plenty of Action in the Israel/Gaza Relationship
Just days after the Gaza pullout was completed, Israel began expanding a buffer zone it had been creating in Gazan territory, warning Gazans that if they approached it they would be shot. Even before the pullout it was clear to some that this growing buffer zone was being put in place, in part, to serve as a mechanism of control and not just defense. Israel also severely limited what goods and supplies could enter into and out of Gaza, and began closing Gaza’s entry and exit points. Violence also resumed between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza within a few weeks of the pullout. In an attempt to clamp down on militants and reduce violence between Israel and Gaza, the PA’s Fatah tried to suppress armed actions from Hamas and other militant groups, setting off clashes between Palestinians.
January 2006 began with chaos and would provide several tremendous shocks for the region: early in the month, Ariel Sharon suffered from a massive, incapacitating stroke, from which he would never wake, and was succeeded by Ehud Olmert, while near the end of the month, Hamas won Palestine’s parliamentary elections, earning a 72-seat-majority, while Fatah only won 45 out of the 132 seats. The elections were considered free and fairoverall by international observers, although the U.S. quietly attempted to aid the PA, run by Fatah, with several programs to boost its image before the election; while technically not helping a political party per se, the aid was definitely intended to counter Hamas. Hamas, very new to politics, caught many—including Rice and Bush—off-guard with its victory. The vote was not so much a vote by the Palestinians for Islamic governance so much as it was a vote against Fatah’s endemic and systemic corruption and its inability to provide a semblance of law and order (something Bill Clinton understood, too; so do not let anyone tell you that the people of Gaza voted for “terror” or “terrorism” or to “destroy Israel”). Mahmoud Abbas would remain president, but Hamas would run the government. In response, the US and EU essentially boycotted Hamas and the government, withholding aid and support. Almost immediately, violence broke out between Hamas and Fatah.
The Gaza from which Israel “withdrew” was devastated after Arafat’s plundering and Sharon’s smashing. The Brilliant Bush White House Team thought the best thing for Gaza after all these horrors was to have elections, when the most obvious and really only choices were the perpetually corrupt and parasitic Fatah, bereft of their charismatic Arafat to give them any real appeal, and the militant terrorist resistance movement Hamas, which had been providing many social services, like education and health care, that Fatah had failed to provide. A college student with a few classes of background on Israel and the Palestinians could have guessed that Hamas would have won and Fatah would have fallen in the absence of any time to develop political parties, any serious rebuilding, and any serious cooperation or concessions from the Israelis to give the people of Gaza a sense of normality and to help rehabilitate Fatah, but not the blindly, naively optimistic U.S. Secretary of State and her President. So it was that Condoleezza Rice—Soviet specialist extraordinaire—and George W. Bush—a specialist in nothing related to foreign policy—thought the best thing for Gaza immediately after nearly forty years of occupation, colonization, and corruption was elections. Commenting on the Administration’s failure, Rice noted, in a gross understatement, that “It does say something about us not having a good enough pulse.” Yes, it did. Perhaps even more disturbing was when she said “I don’t know anyone who wasn’t caught off guard by Hamas’s strong showing. ” Perhaps not surprising that she literally did not know one single person who had a clue about the Palestinian people’s mood and views on their leaders since the Bush Administration was characterized by an almost limitless hubris coupled with a startling ability to be so dead wrong about so many of its assumptions underlying its major policies; this is certainly one of the best examples of the Bush team’srampant myopia.
Furthermore, in February, before Hamas’s government was even sworn in, the U.S. hosted Israeli and PA Fatah officials for a meeting that focused on ways to isolate and weaken Hamas. In particular, Israel and the U.S. had an had an ongoing discussion about developing a policy of tightening the noose around Gaza and more or less sealing it off, severely limiting what could come in or out in the hopes that the suffering of Gazans would turn them against Hamas and amounting to what could only be called a strategy of collective punishment. A semi-secret plan was adopted on February 18th by Israel and the US to go through with these and other measures designed to weaken Hamas and the soon-to-be-Hamas-run-PA (such as preventing the PA from collecting its tax revenue and denying Gaza the ability to construct a seaport) unless Hamas renounced violence and recognized Israel’s right to exist (Hamas refused). Hypocritically, it would seem, Rice publicly called for the opening of Gaza in July, even as the administration of which she was a primary part had been privately seeking the opposite for months. The U.S. would even try to get a nervous Abbas to dissolve the government and call for new elections, Rice pushing for this to happen in a matter of weeks.
Shortly after Hamas had assumed power, the UN began warning of shortages of essential, basic items, including food, as the de-facto blockade of Gaza expanded when Israel closed more crossings and intensified the sealing-off of Gaza. These conditions in Gaza persist today, with various loosenings and tightenings of certain aspects here and there, in what amounts to a form of low-level siege warfare and a blockade (an act of war under international law) of dubious legality. Israel maintains that it needs to have this blockade to prevent Hamas from acquiring weapons, but there are clearly many aspects of the blockade that are just punitive in nature, with many goods that are banned that have nothing to do with weapons. These measures even included severe limits on fishermen in terms of where they can fish, with the Israel Navy firing on fisherman if they go past what Israel has decreed are the limits for Gazan fisherman. Soon after these policies were put into place, Hamas ran out of money and could not even pay the salaries of government workers, and Gaza was in dire straits (Iran, though, would step in and fund Hamas eventually). The main US-EU-UN-Russian joint envoy to the Israelis and Palestinians even resigned in protestover this policy of cutting off and strangulating Gaza.
Late in June, in response to increased military attacks by Israel, Hamas and its allies attacked IDF troops, killing two and capturing one named Gilad Shalit. Israel’s response to this almost boggles the mind for its sheer disproportionality: before the end of the month, Israel launched a massive operation to rescue Shalit and hit Hamas, with extensive use of artillery and air-strikes, but also explicitly sough to punish the people of Gaza, blowing up Gaza’s only power station and flying jets directly over houses and apartments at low altitude to use sonic booms as a punitive tactic to frighten the population. The operation killed hundreds of Palestinians before it ended in November, and during the operation Hamas and Fatah personnel ended up fighting and killing each other. Also during this operation, Israel would simultaneously become embroiled in an invasion of Lebanon (also quite disproportionate, which would kill over 1,000 Lebanese civilians) in response to an attack that saw two Israeli soldiers captured and seven killed, similar to the attack in which Shalit was captured.
The U.S. Plays at Having a Coup Against Hamas
Having insistently pushed for the Palestinians to hold elections, then making a decision to boycott and undermine the winner of those elections when they did not like the result, Bush and Rice were now basically trying to support, arm, and train an armed force to overthrow the party that had won the very elections on which they had insisted.
That December the U.S. began redirecting the aid it had withheld from Hamas towards building up Abbas’s security personnel in the hopes that they would take on Hamas. What would follow is astounding. Having insistently pushed for the Palestinians to hold elections, then making a decision to boycott and undermine the winner of those elections when they did not like the result, Bush and Rice were now basically trying to support, arm, and train an armed force to overthrow the party that had won the very elections on which they had insisted. Incredulously, Rice, ever suffering from “grand illusions” and trapped in viewing almost everything through the experience of the Cold War, defended her push for elections several years after the failure of them was obvious. This is even more unbelievable when you consider that Bush and Rice did not put their money where their mouths were and do much of anything substantive, save for giving speeches, to try and pressure Sharon to work with Abbas and shore up him and his Fatah party with some progress towards a Palestinian state for them to show their people; Rice even ignored the advice of her deputy to try just this (but we saw before that Sharon was not really committed to a Palestinian state anyway). Both and Rice and Bush were also told that Fatah was not ready for elections, with Israel and the then-Fatah-run-PA recommending delaying the elections, but their advice was ignored.
This new secret plan of the Bush Administration’s was about as successful as all of its others for Israel and the Palestinians, as the newly-U.S.-backed Fatah forces “provoke[d] a Palestinian civil war” and “inadvertently provoked Hamas to seize total control of Gaza.” Hamas may not have been planning to seize Gaza, but maybe felt compelled to do because of Fatah’s aggression. One unnamed Pentagon source recalled that “We sat there in the Pentagon and said, ‘Who the fuck recommended this?’ ” The Second Intifada had left Fatah’s security services degraded and nearly destroyed, and thus very vulnerable. As Hamas escalated its violence against Fatah, Fatah began trying to intimidate Hamas’ security forces through kidnappings and torture, hoping this would deter Hamas from action against it in its current vulnerable position. As 2006 drew to a close, the killing and torture going on between the two Palestinian factions was increasing, and early into 2007 there was on-again, off-again, hostilities between them, turning Gaza into a war zone. Israel also resumed strikes in Gaza response to Palestinian rocket attacks. That December, weapons and ammunition from Egypt began being delivered to Fatah’s security services as part of the overall U.S. plan which would go through a number of other Arab states, a plan which aroused a lot of dissent from the ranks of the Bush Administration officials tasked with implementing it. Some of these Arab states sensed that the U.S. was hesitant about this, and did not follow through fully with their commitments, so the program was under-resourced from the start.
Then things escalated severely between Hamas and Fatah in February, 2007. Abbas was fearing a civil war and so caved into pressure from Saudi Arabia’s king to form a unity government with Hamas, against express U.S. desires to avoid doing this; in return, the Saudis would bankroll the PA, now to be run by both factions. Rice was furious, and intense American pressure was applied for Abbas to have a plan to scrap the unity government—even if he could not do so legally—if Hamas did not accept the conditions previously laid out by the U.S. to renounce violence and recognize Israel. Together, with Jordan, Egypt, and Abbas’s men, the U.S. came up with a detailed security plan for improving, training, and equipping existing PA Fatah-led security units and creating several new ones, increasing the overall number of armed forces by about 25 percent, all to the tune of $1.27 billion over five years. Plus, the Palestinians would be made to look as if all this was their plan, the U.S. staying in the background.
One unnamed Pentagon source recalled that “We sat there in the Pentagon and said, ‘Who the fuck recommended this?’ ”
But the plan was leaked to a Jordanian newspaper at the end of April, and for Hamas it was clear what was going on: the U.S., Abbas, and neighboring regimes were trying to overthrow Hamas even though it had won the election. Violence broke out again between Fatah and Hamas, and the unity deal collapsed. A new unit of 500 Fatah security troops, fresh from training in Egypt with shiny new weapons and uniforms, raised a lot of eyebrows when they arrived, especially Hamas’ and the Western press corps’. Hamas fighters attacked the new Fatah troops, but they were repulsed. Feeling threatened, Hamas went all out in its attacks that May. When June 7 saw an Israeli paper leak that there was a request for Israel to approve the largest weapons shipment from Egypt so far–including armored vehicles, rockets, grenades, and millions of bullets—Hamas held nothing back. Even though they had won the elections, their own government was not only refusing to give Hamas control of the Palestinian security services, it was using them to try to overthrow Hamas itself.
Hamas’s people insist that without this U.S.-Fatah attempt to overthrow them, they would not have carried out their own sort-of-coup in June (it’s hard to call it a coup when they were the ones who were legitimately elected; in the words of Vice-President Dick Cheney’s former primary Middle East advisor David Wurmser, “It looks to me that what happened wasn’t so much a coup by Hamas but an attempted coup by Fatah that was pre-empted before it could happen.”). Fatah wasn’t even fully behind its party’s war against Hamas, as the decisions regarding this were largely coming from one longtime Fatah security chief, Muhammad Dahlan, whom Bush referred to as “our guy.” Israeli military intelligence was of the opinion that Fatah’s position in Gaza was “desperate.” So it was no surprise to Israel’s intelligence services that in just five days, Hamas’s own fighters had routed Fatah’s security people who were challenging them, chasing many of the survivors down and executing them, taking over all of Fatah’s buildings in Gaza (including Abbas’s Gaza residence), and destroying much of Dahlan’s home. Hamas even secured most of Fatah’s weapons and supplies in Gaza, including a lot of the weapons with which U.S. had been hoping to arm Fatah. The peace process was dealt a severe blow, and unlike Fatah, Hamas would allow frequent barrages of rocket fire to be unleashed at Israel, though it also would have periods of many months where it would refrains from doing so and would try to stop other militant groups from unleashing volleys. “[T]he Bush [A]dministration blundered at every turn in its dealings with the Palestinians,” and “was utterly incompetent at foreign policy;” the failure of Bush and Rice was complete and total.
For its part, and in typically short-sighted fashion, Israel apparently at this time looked forward to a Hamas takeover of Gaza; leaked diplomatic cables from WikiLeaks stated that Israel “would be “happy” if Hamas took over Gaza because the IDF could then deal with Gaza as a hostile state,” at least according to its military intelligence chief at the time. Israel, then, did not seem to be behaving as a good faith partner in the peace process.
Some Fatah people could not believe how stupidly the Bush-Rice plan was executed, to the degree that they believe those two deliberately set the plan up to fail and wanted Hamas to be in power. People that suffer from our failures often think this way, not realizing that incompetence is not uncommon in American foreign policy, and find it hard to believe the U.S. could be so stupid. Enter Bush and Rice…
For its part, and in typically short-sighted fashion, Israel apparently at this time looked forward to a Hamas takeover of Gaza; leaked diplomatic cables from WikiLeaks stated Israel “would be “happy” if Hamas took over Gaza because the IDF could then deal with Gaza as a hostile state,” at least according to its military intelligence chief at the time.
Death and Stalemate, Rinse and Repeat
In response to Hamas’ taking control of Gaza, Israel tightened its blockade of Gaza even further, which created severe shortages of essential goods and food. In order to alleviate the suffering of Gazans, Hamas offered to turn Gaza’s crossings over to Abbas or any international body, just not Israel; both Abbas and Israel rejected the offer, and Israel increased and maintained military pressure on Hamas throughout 2007, even allowing Fatah gunmen into Gaza to take on Hamas and generate opposition. Israel also began using electricity cuts as punishment and curtailed imports into Gaza to just “the minimum amount of food and medicines necessary to avoid a humanitarian crisis” and further increased “the near-total closure” of Gaza, with hundreds of thousands of Gazans having little or no access to safe drinking-water or running water. This siege of Gaza was strengthened ever further in 2008, and Israel then also brought in bulldozers to extend its buffer zone in Gaza. Violence continued until June 2008 saw the beginning of a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, which began with a rocky start but then held steady for some months, though Israel chose not to respond with any significant extended lifting or moderating of its siege of Gaza. Hamas used this time to violently repress Fatah activists in Gaza. Israel would dramatically break the cease-fire with a major incursion into Gaza in November and the siege was tightened even further when Hamas retaliated, with the result being that “Gaza’s humanitarian conditions reached a tipping point.” UNRWA even had to stop food distribution for half of all Gazans, a first in sixty years of operation. Israel even prevented the delivery of children’s vaccines, and the PA prevented the transfer of medical supplies from the West Bank. Later in November, the IDF completely sealed off Gaza. Hamas halted almost all attacks for a week, after which a trickle of emergency supplies were allowed into Gaza. But Israel was already planning a major offensive operation for Gaza. December saw more escalation, and the cease-fire reached in June, set to expire on December 19, was not renewed. Yet while Israel was building up support for a major military operation, Hamas then reached out to offer another cease-fire agreement in exchange for a major reduction in the intensity of Gaza’s siege, but Israel rejected this offer and instead went ahead with Operation Cast Lead, the largest single military operation against Palestinians since 1948. It lasted less than a month but killed well over a 1,100 Palestinians, mostly civilians, while Israel’s losses were ten soldiers and three civilians. A controversial, major UN report on the fighting, known as the Goldstone Report and released in the fall of 2009 (which was over a year later sort ofpartly retracted by one of its four authors under questionable and odd circumstances; its other three authors stood by the original report and rejected the retraction), found ample evidence that both sides had committed serious war crimes during the operation and had, at times, an utter disregard for the lives of civilians, accusations repeated by other organizations as well. In any event, Israel had failed to destroy or dislodge Hamas or even weaken Hamas’ hold on Gaza, while Israel’s and the IDF’s image was deeply tarnished. Conversely, sympathy for Gazans and Hamasonly grew among the Palestinian population in Israel and the West Bank as a result of Cast Lead, actually empowering Hamas and increasing its legitimacy.
Sympathy for Gazans and Hamas only grew among the Palestinian population in Israel and the West Bank as a result of Cast Lead, actually empowering Hamas and increasing its legitimacy.
Before Cast Lead, Abbas and Olmert were perhaps closer than any other two Israeli and Palestinian leaders ever were to reaching a comprehensivepeace deal. But Olmert ended up announcing his future resignationbecause of a corruption scandal, making himself something of a lame-duck, and then launched Cast Lead, derailing the process. After months of stalemate, Benjamin Netanyahu, who seems to not even seriously believe in the “Two-State Solution,” took over as Israel’s prime minister in a remarkable comeback at the end of March, 2009, by forming a coalition with an extremist right-wing party and giving the post of foreign minister to its leader, Avigdor Lieberman, and by eventually winning over other partiesafter this move. Netanyahu is still Israel’s leader today.
As for the rift between Fatah and Hamas, there were several attempts to reconcile, but even when an attempt began in a promising way, it would eventually stall. However, in perhaps the most hopeful attempt yet, a unity agreement was reached in April, but that will be discussed later.
After the intense violence of Cast Lead, things remained at a low level of violence for the next several years, but peaked again in the fall of 2012 with predictably banal results. 2013 was the quietest year in terms of violence between Israelis and Palestinians since before the Second Intifada. And yet, no major easing of the siege of Gaza occurred on Israel’s end despite what can only be termed Hamas’ best year in terms of its behavior towards Israel. Escalation of violence began again just this spring…
No major easing of the siege of Gaza occurred on Israel’s end despite what can only be termed Hamas’ best year in terms of its behavior towards Israel.
Below is what was Part II
III.) The Current Violence
A Principled Assessment of the Violence of the Parties in this Current Round of Fighting
A more than 600 to 1 ratio, which may only become even more imbalanced as the fighting continues, between the deaths from the response to the rockets and the deaths from the rockets themselves, means that this response failed to pass the proportionality test a long time ago.
As I write this, the over 2,900 rockets fired from the Gaza strip have managed to kill only three civilians and wound roughly two dozen, while Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” in Gaza has killed over 1,800 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and wounded over 9,000. This is a stunning, and stunningly obscene, disparity: over a 600 to 1 kill ratio between the intervention in response to the rockets and the rockets themselves. Amid the lively (to say the least) debate on this conflict, there are several key points to be made here. 1.) Israel most definitely has the right to defend itself. No country would ever tolerate rocket fire from across its border without some sort of a response. However, 2.) such a response needs to beproportional to the threat, and Israel’s actions certainly raise “the question of proportionality,” as former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright said on Wednesday. In addition to the human losses, the invasion of Gaza has apparently “completely destroyed”over 5,200 buildings and caused $4 billion in damage, or almost three times Gaza’s GDP. A response is in danger of becoming an illegitimate, disproportionate response and an act of aggression in and of itself if it is taken too far. And a more than 600 to 1 ratio, which may become even more imbalanced as the fighting continues, between the deaths from the response to the rockets and the deaths from the rockets themselves, means that this response failed to pass the proportionality test a long time ago. If one kid in a playground punches another in the stomach a few times, the other kid cannot punch the initial aggressor kid twenty times in the head, then break his arms and legs and claim he is only acting in “self-defense” and is justified because the initial aggressor did not fully stop all resistance. So 3.) once it becomes clear that aggression on the part of the responder has passed any sense of proportionality, the initial aggressor, too, has a right to defend himself, especially in his own territory, as do others affected by the reactive aggression. In this case, one should distinguish between casualties caused by Hamas’ and others’ rockets, fired wholly indiscriminately, and Hamas’ and others’ attacks on Israeli troops assaulting Gaza or massing outside Gaza to do just that. Over sixty IDF soldiers have been killed during Israel’s assault on Gaza, over 320 wounded, but those casualties are hard to argue against being at least partly defensive in nature. In fact, it is likely that many non-Hamas local Gazans would take up arms against IDF incursions, defending their very homes from aggression, as opposed to the idea of large numbers of “normal” Gazans undertaking the firing of rockets into Israel. However, this should most certainly not be used to justify the targeting of civilians or to claim that there are no “innocent civilians” in Gaza.
Also, when assessing any form of violence in a conflict, 4.) three main criteria must be examined.
*(A digression on doctrine is useful here: as it is, there is considerable and ongoing debate involving a wide variety of views regarding tactics and noncombatants since this is a grey area of international law. Here are some of Israel’s official rules regarding combat and civilians. Thomas Smith, writing in 2008, noted that U.S. tactics earlier in the Iraq War were killing higher levels of civilians and alienating Iraqis, mentioning that U.S. consultation with the IDF (as reported late in December 2003 by Dexter Filkins, Julian Borger, and Seymour Hersh) may have been a factor that actually brought about a deterioration of both tactics and the relationship between Americans and Iraqis, or, as he termed it, brought about the “Palestinianization” of Iraq. He also noted that Gen. Peter Chiarelli’s installment as a major commander beginning in January 2006 and, in January 2007, the appointment of Gen. David Petraeus as overall commander in Iraq led to a distinctly different approach that took far more care to prioritize Iraqi civilians’ needs and safety and produced some better results. It was Petraeus who had been responsible for revising, improving, and co-authoring the U.S. Army’s own counterinsurgency manual [2014 edition here] at the time, wisely writing in one heading “The More Force Used, the Less Effective It Is” and also writing that “An operation that kills five insurgents is counterproductive if the collateral damage or the creation of blood feuds
Short-term thinking must be avoided because it is likely to lead to behavior that will generate widespread resentment and lead to a more insecure operational area in the future. Over time, units focused entirely on their own protection are likely to adopt a pattern of maneuvering aggressively, firing weapons indiscriminately, threatening civilians, and causing unnecessary CIVCASs [civilian casualties]
and that “Aggressive measures to protect the force in the short term can place units at greater risk in the future if resulting CIVCAS incidents alienate the population.” Not so much out of a moral principle, then, but out of consideration for the prospects of the Army’s own long-term success and safety and American national interests, it seems the U.S. military’s doctrine would allow exposing soldiers to more risk in the short term to better protect civilians because high civilian casualties over the medium and long-term can make an operating environment even more dangerous for the Army if a population grows increasingly hostile and/or becomes more inclined to support the enemy because of such civilian casualties. Essentially, it means that one must, at least to a degree, think strategically even when acting tactically. This is a wise policy, and, as it seems there is not this level of strategic consideration in Israel’s official military literature in terms of its tactics, Israel would do well to consider adopting a similar approach, not only for the sake of Palestinians and other Arabs that Israel could be fighting again in the future, but for the sake of the safety of Israeli military personnel in the long-run and for the sake of Israeli national interests. Thus, Israeli doctrine differs considerably from American doctrine, and, in fact, it is often counterproductive to Israel’s long-term interests and actually prevents it from making strategic gains or resolving conflicts, causing Israel to suffer from the “institutionalization of temporary solutions.” It is a telling flaw of Israeli thinking that the U.S. military was able to see many of its mistakes relating to civilians and adjust its tactics and strategy after only a few years of occupying Iraq and Afghanistan while Israel has been occupying Palestinians for almost fifty years and has been unable to see the need make similar adjustments to its tactics or strategic thinking. Rather than the other way around, then, it would seem that Israel could learn a lot from America’s recent evolution of its military thinking and practice. Col. Tony Pfaff, while recognizing and embracing the utilitarian arguments, argues that there are also ethical and moral responsibilities not to transfer an excessive and high amount of risk to noncombatants and to pursue alternatives to options that would do so, since soldiers essentially exercise sovereignty over where they operate, sovereignty that makes them partly responsible for area civilians. For him, the challenge is one of balancing risk between the soldiers themselves and noncombatants, not a transfer of the maximum possible to one party or the other; with this, I would agree. Finally, a cautionary note: as is always possible, there may be differences between official doctrine and practice [This digression later became the basis for a future article]. Now, back to the criteria of assessing violence in a conflict…)
It is a telling flaw of Israeli thinking that the U.S. military was able to see many of its mistakes relating to civilians and adjust its tactics and strategy after only a few years of occupying Iraq and Afghanistan while Israel has been occupying Palestinians for almost fifty years and has been unable to see the need make similar adjustments to its tactics or strategic thinking.
Another part of the intent behind the choice of Israel’s tactics is very political, so force is applied in a very Clausewitzian way for Israel here: the father of Israel’s military doctrine (termed Low Intensity Conflict) for most of the last few decades made it clear that this doctrine was designed “To undermine the adversary’s determination and to lead to the adversary’s abandoning his objectives, through a cumulative process of inflicting physical, economic, and psychological damage, and to lead the adversary to realize that his own armed engagement is hopeless.” Thus, force is directed at the population as a whole not in order to kill them but with the intent to make them submit to Israeli political designs over time through attrition. This strategy actually reveals an unwillingness to compromise or even attempt a political settlement, and helps to explain why Israeli political leaders like Sharon, Netanyahu, Lieberman, and others have actively tried to undermine the peace process. It is also worth noting that if this approach fails to break the enemy into submission it will only serve to increase violence and prolong the conflict.
The second main criterion for assessing violence in conflicts is b.) assessing the types of tactics used and their immediate likely effects. Regardless of what actual final outcomes occur, certain tactics are much likelier to kill more innocent people (say, firing artillery or using gunboats to shell an area, which are very imprecise tactics), while other are much more likely to spare lives (e.g., using smaller, precision weapons, or sending in disciplined ground troops as opposed to aerial bombardment). And likely, all of these tactics are being used at different times, which can make an assessment complicated: the use of precision weapons in one instance does not “cancel” out the use of artillery in another, or vice versa, when talking about a densely populated civilian area. All tactics must be factored into a final analysis, and the fog of war often makes it difficult to know which commanders are closely following guidelines that try to minimize civilian suffering and casualties, and which are doing so only loosely or not at all. If a military claims that certain rules are the norm, but it turns out they are not followed, those unsanctioned actions are still the responsibility of the military and the government in question. The fact that such regulations exist matters little if they are not seriously enforced. As with many things in life, then, here the rulebook matters much less than the actual practice.
Save the complaints because it just makes you look bad when you say “Awwww, but the terrorists are making it harder for us to avoid killing civilians.” Tough.
Israel likes to complain that it is not fair that Hamas does things like store weapons and ammunition in schools or among civilians, and that Israel ends up being blamed for the civilian casualties. To me, it is ridiculous on one level for Israel to complain about this (Netanyahu just the other day said that “All civilian casualties are unintended by us, but intended by Hamas. They want to pile up as many civilian dead as they can…it’s gruesome…They use telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause. They want the more dead the better.”) because in asymmetric warfare, each sidehas advantages and disadvantages specific to their positions of power or lack thereof. The more powerful party has fun things like tanks and jets and the Iron Dome, but has to play by the rules of war and just deal with the fact that the other side probably will not play by those rules, factoring this reality into how it approaches the conflict and still taking great care to minimize civilian casualties in spite of the enemy’s foul play; the weaker party lacks big weapons but can get away more with breaking the rules and endangering civilians because that is just how asymmetric warfare works and has always worked. If the tradeoff for having tanks and jets is that you have avoid some things that make military sense because your enemy, say, stores weapons in an orphanage for disabled children, well, that’s still not a bad deal and it still gives your side a huge advantage over your weaker enemy. So save the complaints because it just makes you look bad when you say “Awwww, but the terrorists are making it harderfor us to avoid killing civilians.” Tough.
William Saletan, writing for Slate, has written a number of very thoughtful and serious pieces examining this very issue of tactics as currently being employed by Israel’s military in Gaza and by Hamas. Saletan points out in a piece written early on in this round of hostilities that, on the one level, the tactics used by Israel show that, at least in a significant proportion of their strikes, Israel is actually undertaking serious efforts to avoid high levels of civilian casualties, especially compared with Hamas (and lest you think he is “pro-Israel,” his previous piece condemned Israel’s collective punishment of, well, all Palestinians). In certain situations, Israel attempts to warn civilians of impending/imminent attacks through text messages, leaflets, and very small “roof-knocking” bombs intended to warn/scare off residents, especially when targeting the homes of terrorists or militants. Yet Saletan also notes that the targeting of civilian homes, whether the homes of terrorists or not, is questionable. The warnings have been confirmed by Hamas and Gazans. Hamas, in contrast, fires rockets indiscriminately into Israel, declaring that “all Israelis” are fair game; they are deliberately targeting civilians for the sake of targeting civilians and killing them.
Hamas, in contrast to Israel, fires rockets indiscriminately into Israel, declaring that “all Israelis” are fair game; they are deliberately targeting civilians for the sake of targeting civilians and killing them.
However, other civilians say they received no warning before their houses were hit. In a subsequent piece, Saletan goes deeper: he mentions that there questions about how consistent Israel is with this policy since there are clearly times when there have been no warnings. There are also issues of timing: some warnings come five minutes or less before the attack, and some targets clearly had no military value, such as a beachside café that was showing World Cup matches or a beach where only children were playing. The latter attack was carried out with shells from an Israeli gunboat, which are not exactly precision weapons. Vice News, in a video entitled “Nowhere Safe in Gaza,” shows, starting at about the 10-minute mark, that even an area right near a hotel specifically designated as a safe zone and where many journalists were staying was not off limits. The only power plant for the more than 1.8 million people who live in the Gaza Strip has also been targeted. The plant had already been hit and was operating at a severely reduced capacity, and this latest strike has completely knocked it out. This has “threatened to turn the deprivations in Gaza into a humanitarian crisis. The facility powers water and sewage systems as well as hospitals, and it had been Gaza’s main source of electricity in recent days after eight of 10 lines that run from Israel were damaged,” and, indeed, conditions have become even more awful than normal for the residents of Gaza. Then there is this video that shows a sniper killing a wounded civilian. Hospitals, mosques, and schools have also been repeatedly hit, though it is not always clear if the fire comes from Israel or misfired Hamas rockets; the latest Israeli fatal shelling of a school sheltering civilians was a location UNRWA had notified the IDF about a full 33 times, and even the U.S. said it was “appalled” by this “disgraceful” attack on the part of Israel. In one attack, it seems Israel killed twenty-five people to target one militant, hitting a house filled with his family during a Ramadan iftar, the meal that breaks the Ramadan fast. Another strike on a full apartment building—possibly the deadliest single Israeli strike in Gaza many years—killed thirty-five people at home with their families, , and wounded another twenty-seven people. Other similar strikes that cause heavy civilian casualties are not uncommon. Fred Kaplan sarcastically quipped “Who knew there were 1,500 militarily legitimate targets in that tiny, impoverished strip of land?” when Israel had hit that many targets at the time he was writing; up through today, Israel has hit nearly 3,300 targets in Gaza. Multiple reports on multiple days further note extensive use of artillery, very imprecise as far as weapons go, and apparently the IDF is using flechette ammunition in some of these artillery strikes, ammunition designed to increase, not decrease, casualties. And it is also using area artillery bombardment in Gaza as “an attempt to encourage the population’s evacuation,” a tactic which seem extremely likely to cause heavy civilian casualties; in this situation, Israel’s military is firing an imprecise weapon into an area where it knows civilians still are present not to target combatants but in order to induce an exodus. Here, whether the intent is to kill or not seems moot because civilians arebeing deliberately targeted by artillery and will die as a result anyway. Human Rights Watch likens Israel’s artillery use to Hamas’s firing of rockets in terms of its fairly “indiscriminate” nature. Clearly, then, there are issues of targeting and tactics, even if in some instances Israel is taking, to use Saletan’s phrase, “exemplary” measures to avoid killing civilians, for in others it is clearly not and the balance is not in Israel’s favor. In the attacks overall, the UN says roughly 75 percent of the deaths have been civilian.
UNRWA has said that nearly 260,000 Gazans (over 14 percent of all Gazans) who have fled their homes are sheltered in over 90 of their schools, and, overall, about one-quarter of Gaza’s population has been displaced by the fighting. Israel’s creation of a buffer zone from which it is driving out the population has, in fact, become so extreme that it now encompasses a full 44 percent of the Gaza Strip.
There is also the issue of forced migration and the displaced. Before its ground invasion, Israel ordered over 100,000 Palestinians to evacuate from parts of the densely populated Gaza Strip. The UN agency that helps Palestinians, UNRWA, has said that over 260,000 Gazans (over 14 percent of all Gazans) who have fled their homes are sheltered in over 90 of their schools, and, overall, over one-quarter of Gaza’s entire population has been displaced by the fighting and over 10,000 houses destroyed. There is a sad irony in Israel ordering evacuation, because it is mainly Israel that forcibly keeps almost all Gazans in Gaza, which is very small; Israel keeps most of the crossings closed to travel most of the time, with Egypt keeping its single crossing closed most of the time as well. This, in effect, makes Gaza, even in the eyes of some Israeli Jews, a giant prison. And people are fleeing one location only to come under attack in another. They ask “Where are we supposed to go?” A headline from the parody news site The Onion is, sadly, almost totally accurate: “Israel: Palestinians Given Ample Time To Evacuate To Nearby Bombing Sites.” Israel’s creation of a buffer zone from which it is driving out the population has, in fact, become so extreme that it now encompasses a full 44 percent of the Gaza Strip. This means that the population is becoming even more concentrated as people are herded into less space, increasing the risk for even more casualties during hostilities.
Then there is the issue of human shields: Israel accuses Hamas of using civilians as human shields, but it is actually a complicated situation. Some people are voluntarily acting as human shields, something that has been an issue before. There is no evidence yet of Hamas forcing people into harm’s way, which is the legal international law definition of a human shield, but Hamas has encouraged Gazans to ignore Israel’s warnings about imminent strikes and it regularly operates in crowded civilian areas; in addition, in this latest round of fighting found Hamas has been found storing rockets in UNRWA schools three separate times, and the group also operates in or around mosques and hospitals. So while Hamas is not helping and its actions certainly place civilians at higher risk, not less, it is not accurate to say that Hamas is forcing people to be human shields against their will. Israel is not an angel when it comes to this subject either, as it has also used Palestinian civilians as human shields, forcing them into dangerous situations like walking immediately in advance of IDF troops in while they are advancing in combat zones and/or while they are clearing houses and examining potential booby traps, and this was a policy set at the highest levels of the IDF; Israel’s High Court of Justice ordered this tactic to be stopped, but there is evidence that Israel has continued the practice anyway.
Another tactical aspect which must be considered is how both are going about the business of cease-fires on behalf of civilians. Some cease-fires have been agreed to, but over the weekend each side rejected a cease-fire offer from the other. Hamas even offered a 10-year truce earlier in the conflict in exchange for an opening of the Gaza border crossings to more goods and services, international supervision of Gaza’s sea traffic to replace the Israeli Navy, and the re-release of prisoners who were just re-arrested but had been freed in a deal reached in 2011, whereby Hamas freed Gilad Shalit, captured in 2006, in exchange for Israel freeing over 1,000 Palestinians prisoners. Hamas’ offer seemed a decent one, at least worth exploring, but Israel did not take it seriously. Now Hamas, feeling an existential threat from this invasion, is insisting any longer-term cease-fire include ending/easing trade/travel restrictions and economic and infrastructure investment for Gaza; this, too, is hardly unreasonable, but is not being considered by Israel, which says it wants to downgrade Hamas’s military capabilities even further. In fact, 86.5 percent of Israelis just surveyed said they opposed a cease-fire. So the chorus of condemnation abroad is matched inversely by overwhelming Israeli public support at home; thus, on his domestic front, Netanyahu even has free reign to expand the operation. But while bombs are falling and people are dying, you take whatever ceasefire you can get. For Hamas, active hostilities is not the time to gain political points when you are in the far weaker position; the actual cease-fire is a great time to discuss any and all these issues.
Netanyahu places any and all the blame for any civilian casualties squarely on the shoulders of Hamas, which is irresponsible with the lives of Gazans. But this is nonsense, because bad behavior on the part of Hamas does not mean that Israel “is free of moral responsibilities”(or legal responsibilities, for that matter) for the consequences of its choices. Either way, both sides are clearly “deeply negligent in their responsibilities to avoid causing Palestinian civilian casualties,” the misdeeds of one side cannot justify the misdeeds of the other, and the UN is, appropriately, going to investigate both Israel and Hamas for war crimes.
Either way, both sides are clearly “deeply negligent in their responsibilities to avoid causing Palestinian civilian casualties,” the misdeeds of one side cannot justify the misdeeds of the other, and the UN is, appropriately, going to investigate both Israel and Hamas for war crimes.
Whatever precautions Israel does take—and Israel does deserve credit for the use of these tactics when they are actually used, as well as for the intent behind them—the frequent use of tactics that are extremely likely to cause many civilian casualties more than outweighs such precautions in an overall assessment. To be sure, many more would die without these precautionary practices intended to spare civilian life, but the massive numbers of casualties the less discriminate tactics inflict are, ultimately, the defining feature if only by virtue of the large number of civilian casualties; thus, Israel’s efforts to spare civilians overall “are failing.” If Israel wants to be viewed differently, it should increase use of the precautionary tactics and decrease the use of, say, mass artillery bombardments. Such is the nature of war that if twenty military units exercise exemplary restraint but a single artillery unit kills hundreds in minutes, the attention and weight go to the artillery unit. And a military and government are not judged by their individual parts, but how they operate as a whole. This is not to suggest Israel should take any of these tactics completely off the table, but perhaps the best thing Israel could do militarily to both reduce civilian casualties and improve its own image is to be more discriminating and selective with what weapons it uses when, where,and how often. Not every operation requires ground troops and tanks and helicopters and jets and drones and artillery and naval gunboats. If just one of these is used poorly, the entire operation is threatened with being characterized by such use. In particular, the frequent use of artillery and naval gunboats in one of the most densely populated areas on earth, especially when all those other weapons and options are available, seems particularly gratuitous, callous, and careless. It seems there is actually considerable variation in the quality, cohesion, and structure of the IDF, which is at least one plausible and partial explanation for some of these problems with inconsistent performances and contradictory tactics and approaches.
Israel could be more discriminating and selective with what weapons it uses when, where, and how often. Not every operation requires ground troops and tanks and helicopters and jets and drones and artillery and naval gunboats. If just one of these is used poorly, the entire operation is threatened with being characterized by such use.
However, when assessing violence in a conflict, as important as intent and tactics are, in the end c.) the most important criterion is what are theactual effects of the violence irrespective of intent and tactics, for even with the best of intent and a discriminating approach to tactics, it is the effects the violence in the real world which will have the most lasting impact. So even if the intent is noble and the best possible tactics are chosen, failure and chaos are always possible, and, in the end, the results are what will be primarily judged, not intent or tactics. That is why the use of force by a powerful military is a decision that carries so much weight and should not be undertaken other than as a near-last or last resort. The actual effects must especially be measured against the level and nature of what the violence is in response to, as well. In looking at the effects of any particular action, operation, campaign, or war, there are further subdivisions that must be considered, and for each, one must ask what are going to be the shorter term effects, and, more importantly, what are going to be the longer term effects?
Keeping this in mind, i.) one must ask what are the likely shorter and longer-term political ramifications of these violent acts, for, as von Clausewitz famously put it, “War is the continuation of policy [or politics] by other means,” and (less famously) is “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.” Fred Kaplan summed up Israel’s operation nicely when wrote for Slate that “Israeli ground troops are moving into Gaza. From a purely tactical and short-term view, it makes sense. From a strategic and medium-to-long-term view, it’s crazy.” The subtitle of his article states (correctly) that “The Israeli government has lost the ability to think strategically.” In fact, as we discussed earlier, one can say that it generally has not had or even attempted to exercise that ability much in the last few decades. Regarding Israel’s military operation, Kaplan asks “what’s the point?”
Fred Kaplan summed up Israel’s operation nicely when wrote for Slate that “Israeli ground troops are moving into Gaza. From a purely tactical and short-term view, it makes sense. From a strategic and medium-to-long-term view, it’s crazy.” Kaplan asks “what’s the point?”
Specifically, Israel wants to weaken Hamas (what Israel refers to as “mowing the grass” so it does not become overgrown, Hamas being “the grass,” Israel’s attacks being the “mowing”), and, in general, it wants to be safer and more secure. That much is obvious. That is what is so vexing, “because in the medium-to-long-term-view,” this operation will have the opposite effect, even though, for now, it is clearly devastating Hamas and making Israel safer (for now) on the Gaza front, where there will almost certainly be fewer rocket attacks and fewer rockets to fire, as well as far fewer tunnelsfrom which Hamas can operate. But the real questions revolve around the longer-term effects.
In the longer term, in many ways, this will end up being a repeat of Lebanon in 2006 (and in the 1980s for that matter) where Israel won the battles but created far worse problems for itself over the longer-term. The Sabra and Shatila massacres, and the thousands of Lebanese civilians who died during Israel’s siege of Beirut, generated a tremendous amount of support for the Palestinians and Lebanese in the 1980s, and Israel was seen as “the bad guy,” even earning condemnation from U.S. President Ronald Reagan(Israel did such a bad job in Beirut that an international peacekeeping force that included American troops was brought in, but was short-lived, especially after suicide truck bombings of a barracks killed 241 American and 58 French servicemen). And, in the process of invading Lebanon, Israel helped to birth terrorist Hezbollah. Israel’s attempt to cripple Hezbollah in 2006 through an(other) invasion of Lebanon, even for all the casualties inflicted against, it, only saw the world focus more on the many civilian casualties and saw Hezbollah’s stature and power grow. Today, Hezbollah, far from isolated, is a major partner in the governing coalition of Lebanon’s parliament, and in many ways this is because of the 2006 Israeli invasion. Fast forward to today and Gaza, and a similar outcome to the two Lebanon wars—Israel loses the public relations war, and its very target in the conflict becomes far more empowered in the long-run—seems quite possible. Israel needs to consider that if its long-term goal is to weaken Hamas, it seems to already have failed in that regard. As an aptly titled piece suggests, with military force, “you can’t kill Hamas, you can only make it stronger,” because ultimately, dealing with Hamas will require a political solution. It is very possible to destroy a military unit, but Hamas is a committed movement(those tend to be harder to destroy) that is “capable of taking a punch.” Before this latest round of fighting, Hamas was weak and unpopular among Palestinians and isolated, even after reaching a unity deal with Fatah’s and Mahmoud Abbas’ PA, which it did so after a seven-year dispute out of a position of weakness. It had recently lost the support of its three most powerful foreign sponsors: Iran and Syria because it had voiced support for the “the will of the Syrian people,” and Egypt because the pro-Hamas Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi is long-overthrown (his Muslim Brotherhood is at once cousin/brother/father to Hamas) and the secular generals who don’t like Islamist movements are firmly back in charge under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. And, in general, the regional Arab governments have tacitly supported Israel with their lack of support for the embattled Hamas. But now, thanks to Israel’s attack, coupled with Israel’s refusal to throw Abbas and the PA any kind of a substantive bone, Hamas is now seeing a surge in support, and even in the West Bank, Fatah’s apparent stronghold. In fact, Israel is actually helping Hamas with its approach to the Palestinians. And, inversely, Abbas’s and Fatah’s support is apparently shrinking because of their inability to reap any rewards from the non-violent, negotiation-oriented approach with Israel, even creating sharp division within the upper echelons of Fatah. Abbas himself is being criticized for cooperating closely with Israel and getting “nothing” from Israel in return.
As an aptly titled piece suggests, with military force, “you can’t kill Hamas, you can only make it stronger,” because ultimately, dealing with Hamas will require a political solution.
Israel’s government’s lack of commitment to a serious peace process in which Israel actually makes major concessions to Palestinian leaders and the Palestinian people as a whole (and, as we have seen, the Gaza pullout was not such a concession) has created a political calculus in some Palestinians who, having seen the non-violent, cooperative faction Fatah get “nothing” from Israel, embrace violence in the style of Hamas as the only alternative available to them. More so than any single factor, Israel’s unwillingness to reward Abbas and Fatah for cooperation and nonviolence since Abbas first came to power in 2005, or even to reward Hamas for its reigning in other militant factions and practicing and contributing to a level of nonviolence in 2013 and early 2014 that was unparalleled since the year 2000, has created the situation on the ground today where non-violent Abbas is weak and losing support and Hamas is growing in power and gaining support as it pursues violence. If Israel stupidly continues to not reward non-violence and thus encourages violence, it will have to look in the mirror when it wants to point fingers. Whatever Israel does militarily, it is its political choices more than anything else that will affect Palestinians’ willingness to engage in violence. The idea that “most Palestinians” only want to kill “Jews” because they hate them is utter-self-serving-nonsense that justifies Israeli militarism, political cowardice, and a policy aimed at preserving the status quo and nothing more. To be fair, given Jews’ uniquely tragic history and the rhetoric coming from Palestinian extremists, it is understandable that Israeli leaders are reluctant to take risks, however measured, but that is the job of leaders: to take measured risks that are in in the long-term interests of their people even when the easy and popular choices lead in different directions.
More so than any single factor, Israel’s unwillingness to reward Abbas and Fatah for cooperation and nonviolence since Abbas first came to power in 2005, or even to reward Hamas for its reigning in other militant factions and practicing and contributing to a level of nonviolence in 2013 and early 2014 that was unparalleled since the year 2000, has created the situation on the ground today where non-violent Abbas is weak and losing support and Hamas is growing in power and gaining support as it pursues violence…Whatever Israel does militarily, it is its political choices more than anything else that will affect Palestinians’ willingness to engage in violence.
But, for the sake of argument, let us say that it is likely and realistically possible that Israel could destroy Hamas or weaken it to the point of its toppling or irrelevance: again, the issue of myopia rears its familiar head because one has to wonder if Israel has seriously given any thought as to what could realistically replace Hamas. The fact of the matter is there are groups in Gaza far worse than Hamas, and apparently now some of themare establishing ties to ISIS, or The Islamic State (of Iraq and al-Sham/Syria/The Levant), now wreaking havoc in Iraq and Syria. These groups in Gaza are more hardline and have been criticizing Hamas for being too “moderate.” Hamas also faces the regular challenge of preventing these groups from launching their own attacks against Israel even when Hamas is able to secure cease-fires; Islamic Jihad, just to name one of these groups, has been able to derail cease-fires between Hamas and Israel before. Ironically, Hamas even fears some of these groups could muscle them out of power in Gaza, just like it was able to do to Fatah in 2007. As a result, Hamas is often cracking down on these groups and arresting their members, while, conversely, these groups are often protesting against Hamas. And some of them are gaining public support at the expense of Hamas. Needlessly to say, the rivalries between Hamas and these groupscan be intense and sometimes violent. And if Israel weakens Hamas too much, it is conceivable that one of these more violent, more extreme groups could take over Gaza or even roll out the red carpet for ISIS.
But there are other factors to consider. In this situation, what can make this an even more dangerous fiasco for Israel is that West Banker Palestinians are protesting (rioting?) in large numbers, and there has been a very unusual amount of unrest and street violence from the normally quiet Palestinian-Israelis/Israeli-Arabs (one-fifth of Israel’s citizens) as tensions have been mounting slowly over a number of issues, from Israeli shootings and killings of teenage protesters during demonstrations on this May’s “Nabka Day” (“Day of Catastrophe”, or, for Israelis, their Independence Day), to Israel’s questionable, massive crackdown in the West Bank that involved the arrests of hundreds of Palestinians, arrests that were themselves a provocation, though they were (nominally) in response to the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers. In a purely tactical situation, Israel may deal Hamas a lot of physical damage, but Israel may also face the prospects of increased violence from Palestinian-Israelis/Arab-Israelis and from West Bank Palestinians, a risk which increases every day that its incursion into Gaza continues. And even if this does not happen now, the current operation may make that more likely in the future, with a “Third Intifada” just waiting to erupt (even as I have been writing this article, and I began this article early last week, Hamas has called for a “Third Intifada,”and protests and violence and killing are spreading to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which is exactly what I predicted Hamas would probably try to do and what would transpire in the West Bank and East Jerusalem). The uproar from Israel’s own Palestinian Arab citizens is perhaps the most troubling issue that Israel now must confront. And it raises the question: how effectively could Israel face unrest and even resistance from 20 percent of its own citizens, West Bankers, and Gazans all at the same time? Whatever the answer to that question, one thing is certain: Israel’s actions in Gaza will not only make things more difficult with Gaza, but also with the West Bank and inside Israel itself.
Another thing which Israel needs to consider is that this operation in Gaza will already further erode support for Israel globally, even among its strongest and probably only ally in which the population still supports Israel over the Palestinians. I am, of course, talking about, the United States. Incredibly lopsided operations like this one, the nature of social media and how it is affecting coverage of this conflict, changing demographic trends in America, and an American news media that is increasingly less pro-Israel have all been combining to weaken formerly unwavering U.S. support for Israel, especially among young Americans, who actually blame Israel more for the violence and have more sympathy for the Palestinians than Israelis. Support is even weakening, quite surprisingly, among American Jews. Yes, Jews! Also, no longer can Israel just assume strong bipartisan support from both Republicans and Democrats; there are signsthat Israel is beginning to lose the Democratic Party as well. As mentioned earlier, young Jews are especially
Israel not only is becoming increasingly isolated from the rest of the world, it is also isolating itself from Palestinians.
As far political results of Hamas’s actions, the likely shorter-term consequences are apparent already: Israel will be even less likely to award Gaza or Hamas any concessions as a result of violence. In the longer term, each new round of fighting makes it less likely that any serious peace deal will be reached. Yet what should be clear from some of the preceding paragraphs is that, politically, anyway, Hamas could be able to make up some of its losses for being perceived as “too moderate” by its rival Islamist movements in Gaza and having been unable to deliver any relief from Israel’s blockade, since Hamas now at least seems to be putting up a decent fight, inflicting notable losses on the IDF. It seems possible that Hamas could benefit in the longer-term either by gaining support for having put up such a good fight against the Israelis and/or by leveraging the international outcry against Israel’s invasion to get Western and regional powers to push Israel harder to loosen its blockade of Gaza. Conversely, it is also quite possible that the Gazan people might be so angry at Hamas after all the death and destruction that if there is not some sort of material gain for them in terms of a relief of the blockade, and if all that Gazans will get out of Hamas’ rocket fire is just death and destruction at the hands of Israel, Hamas could find itself in serious trouble with Gazans (and as mentioned already, this is not necessarily going to mean a better replacement). Abbas echoed the concern about the pointlessness of Hamas’ rocket fire when he rhetorically asked in a TV interview “What are you trying to achieve by sending rockets?” In another appearance, he pleaded: “We are the losing side, and every minute there are more and more unnecessary deaths. … I don’t like trading in Palestinian blood.”
Naturally, the ii.) other question one must ask is what are the shorter and longer-term tangible/material consequences, as in people and property. Right now, as already mentioned, the short term consequences are a tremendous amount of death and destruction meted out by Israel, and a dramatically smaller amount of death and destruction meted out by Hamas, except IDF casualties are significant by its sensitive standards. In the longer-term, the actions of each are likely to increase violence, death, and destruction in general on the part of the other, though, of course, the rockets of Hamas are unlikely to become dramatically more effective anytime soon, and thus the balance of the violence, death, and destruction suffered will be on the Palestinian side, delivered by Israel’s military.
Below is what was Part III
IV.) Shorter-Term Context
How/Why Did This Latest Round of Fighting Start?(or, What Was Going on Just Before All This Happened?)
Now that we have assessed the violence, one of last things we need to do before making any kind of final judgment is to look at just how and why this latest round of violence started.
As noted earlier, 2013 was a record year for peace and quiet (always a relative thing in this conflict) in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank as far as violence. There were a few minor incidents which broke the calm in the first few months of 2014, but nothing major; calm was still the norm. The “peace” process negotiations between the Netanyahu-led Israeli government and Abbas’s PA—a process pushed on the reluctant parties by an invigorated and hopeful U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in July 2013 after a nearly three year hiatus—were at this point on life support and “going nowhere,” to use the words of The Economist. The talks were agreed to under a general framework negotiated by Kerry in which the Palestinians would refrain from joining specific UN bodies, including the International Criminal Court (ICC), from which they could legally challenge Israeli actions and initiate investigations of war crimes. Abbas, in defiance of Israeli and U.S. wishes, had pressed for a vote in the UN General Assembly late in November 2012 to upgrade Palestine’s status at the UN from non-member “Observer Entity” to non-member “Observer State”—a status shared with the Vatican/Holy See and Kosovo—and the vote was overwhelmingly in favor, 138-9 with 41 abstentions; Abbas’s move was met with condemnation and punitive moves by Israel, which were added to the U.S. Congress’ withholding of funding for Palestinians even before the vote; this move enabled the Palestinians to have the option join the ICC and other bodies, but they held off because of a combination of threats and pressure from the U.S./Israel and also to use the potential moves as leverage against Israel. In terms of Kerry’s framework for jump-starting the talks in July 2013, in exchange for the Palestinians not joining these UN bodies, Israel would release some Palestinians prisoners (but the details over how many and when were vague and became disputed).
After many months, little progress had been made and the talks were at an impasse in March 2014; Abbas wanted the last of the prisoners released as a condition for extending talks, while Netanyahu wanted Abbas to extend talks in return for Netanyahu considering to putting their release to a difficult, uncertain Cabinet vote. Behind it all, the U.S. was exerting a lot of pressure on the parties, particularly on Netanyahu. During this impasse, tensions were further heightened by an IDF raid in the West Bank that killed three Palestinians and wounded at least seven more. Netanyahu wanted to delay the scheduled March 29 release of the final batch of Palestinian prisoners in part because a miscommunication between him and Kerry led him to have a different understanding of what was supposed to happen and when (although now that we know Israeli intelligence was spying on Kerry’s phone calls, there are questions as to how genuine Netanyahu’s confusion really was); Abbas threatened to resume his efforts to join the UN institutions if the prisoners were not voted to be released by 7 PM on April 1. He waited and was told that the Israeli Cabinet would vote before noon that day. Yet that morning, Israel’s Housing Minister, Uri Ariel, who is deeply opposed to the negotiations and to a Palestinian state and eagerly seeks to plant more Jewish settlers in the West Bank, approved over 700 new Jewish settlement housing units to be constructed in East Jerusalem—occupied in 1967 illegally by Israel and regarded by Palestinians as their hopeful future capital—in what was seen as a deliberate move to sabotage negotiations. Noon passed, and so did 7; finally, just before 8, Abbas gave up and moved forward with the process to join the UN bodies. There was a chance to delay the paperwork after more assurances about the prisoner release, assurances that had been given before, if Abbas would agree to nine more months of talks, but the previous nine months had gotten the Palestinians nowhere while Israel kept building settlements, and, at that point, and under pressure from others in his Cabinet who also felt Israel was not serious and that negotiations would go nowhere (not an unjustified feeling, given Netanyahu’s history of obstructionism and delaying tactics), Abbas went forward with part of his “Plan B” and submitted his paperwork to the UN.
Kerry seemed to place the majority of the blame for the failure of the peace talks on Israel as well. And most importantly, this view is apparently shared by President Obama and the White House, too, though publicly, the President places blame on both sides more-or-less evenly.
Tzipi Livni (the only person in the current Israeli government with any power who could even remotely be termed a “dove”), who led the negotiations for Israel (but was kept on a tight leash by Netanyahu), blamed Uri Ariel and Israel’s settlements for the collapse in the talks; indeed, throughout 2013, when Palestinians were exhibiting good behavior, the rate of new settlement construction in the West Bank more than doubled from the rate of 2012, increasing 123 percent. Martin Indyk, the U.S. special envoy to both the Israelis and the Palestinians during the peace process, publicly tried to lay the blame evenly, but reading between the lines and in more off-the-cuff and private remarks, he too seems to place the blame more on Israel and its settlement expansion. He also noted that the Israeli announcements of more settlement construction with the release of each batch of prisoners made it seem as if Abbas was trading land for prisoners, severely undermining him among Palestinians and infuriating Abbas. Other officials echoed that the primary blame belonged with Israel and the settlements on the condition of anonymity. Even more importantly, Kerry seemed to place the majority of the blame for the failure of the peace talks on Israel as well. And most importantly, this view is apparently shared by President Obama and the White House, too, though publicly, the President places blame on both sides more-or-less evenly. At the very least, the continued settlement announcements and building on land that was supposed be part of a future Palestinians state all throughout the negotiations made Abbas feel that Netanyahu was not a serious partner for peace.
A growing power imbalance between the parties left unaddressed by the United States—either by putting real, substantive pressure on Israel to seriously accommodate Palestinians or by significantly empowering Palestinian leadership—made an agreement even more unlikely and elusive throughout the whole process. Additionally, there were severe issues of trust between both sides, and even personally between Abbas and Netanyahu, which also hurt the process. And since each side fears the influence and rise of the other side’s extremists, this trust deficit is worsened by the fact that Hamas’ official charter calls for the destruction of Israel, by the fact that Hamas refuses to recognize Israel as a state, and by the fact that multiple senior Israeli officials, including members of Netanyahu’s Cabinet, publicly stated that they are against the establishment of a Palestinians state, some even calling for the annexationof the West Bank or an increase in the level of military occupation there. There is even serious doubt as to Netanyahu’s commitment to the concept of a Palestinian state, even more so after some very recent comments(remember, he had played lip service to Oslo while deliberately undermining that peace process, too, in the 1990s). As one prominent Israeli was quoted as saying by The New Republic:
“I see it from a mathematical point of view,” said Avi Dichter, the former chief of Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency. “The American effort will always be multiplied by the amount of trust between the two leaders. So if Kerry’s pressure represents the number five, and then Obama’s help brings the American effort to ten, it really doesn’t matter. You’re still multiplying it by zero. The final result will always be zero.”
Furthermore, both Abbas and Netanyahu were under serious pressure from their respective political rights—Abbas had already lost Gaza to Hamas and was even vulnerable in the West Bank, while Netanyahu’s last stint as Prime Minister ended precisely because right-wing parties left his coalition over the peace process.
Still, negotiations about extending the seemingly-doomed negotiationscontinued. Meanwhile, the Palestinians’ “Plan B” had a second element: reconciling with Hamas. On April 23, Abbas shocked both Israel and the U.S. by announcing a unity deal with Hamas, hoping to end their roughly seven-year dispute, a move that generated considerable debate and was no small task to bring to fruition in light of the bitterness and bloodshed that had characterized their dispute. In response, Israel ended negotiations with Abbas and the PA the next day. The unwillingness of Hamas to recognize Israel is matched by Israel’s unwillingness to negotiate directly with Hamas. By May, it was clear that the peace process had failed and, at least for now, was dead. Still, it has been pointed out that the unity deal was nothing that should have immediately sent Israel into committing rash actions; after all, neither Fatah nor the Hamas would be running the interim government before a new slate of elections, scheduled as part of the deal; rather, independents and technocrats would form the government and would have to be approved by both factions. In other words, no Hamas members would be part of the new government, but that did not matter to Israel. Former former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski said he thought that Netanyahu was “making a very serious mistake. When Hamas in effect accepted the notion of participation in the Palestinian leadership, it in effect acknowledged the determination of that leadership to seek a peaceful solution…with Israel. That was a real option. They should have persisted in that.” The odds, then, did not look bad that the unity government would be a partner that was able to work with Israel, yet Israel did not even consider that as an option, let alone try.
In mid-May, another incident occurred that only further inflamed Palestinians: Israeli security forces shot and killed two Palestinian teenage protesters during lightly violent demonstrations on Israel’s Independence Day, or “Nabka Day” (“Day of Catastrophe”), as Palestinians see it. Video from surveillance footage subsequently released by human rights activists did not corroborate Israel’s version of events, and the two boys were shown being shot in the back while walking away from the disturbances, which had by then quieted down and were not violent. A key witness to the incident subsequently reported that he was detained, harassed, and threatened by Israeli security personnel, who were angry with him, he said, for sharing his version of events with the public. Thus far, one soldier has been suspended for the shooting, but nothing else has yet come out of the investigation. Human Rights Watch called the incident a “war crime.”
Even though the new government seemed to address core Israeli concerns by recognizing Israel, renouncing violence, and excluding Hamas from the Cabinet, Israel condemned the U.S.’s willingness to work with it in extremely strong, bitter language that was a highly unusual for its relationship with America, saying that “American naivety has broken all records.”
Though the biggest story in May was Pope Francis’ visit to the West Bank and Israel, that same month, Abbas finalized his plans for a new, non-partisan, technocratic, and temporary unity government, which would run the PA for roughly six-months until elections could be held. At the beginning of June, Abbas swore in the new government; several ministers were absent because Israel would not let them travel from Gaza, even though they were not members of Hamas. In response the swearing in of the new government, Netanyahu proclaimed that “Today, Abu Mazen [Abbas’s nickname] said yes to terrorism and no to peace.” But this seemed to be a gross mischaracterization. The U.S., unlike Israel, realized that its previous condemnation of the unity deal had been premature, recognizing that the fact that Hamas would not actually be running the new government was a window of opportunity, especially since the new government was committed to non-violence and recognition of Israel. Thus, the U.S. (as well as the EU) made clear its willingness to work with the new government. Yet even though the new government seemed to address core Israeli concerns by recognizing Israel, renouncing violence, and excluding Hamas from the Cabinet, Israel condemned the U.S.’s willingness to work with it in extremely strong, bitter language that was highly unusual for its relationship with America, saying that “American naivety has broken all records.” Israel also said that it would consider the new government responsible for any attacks coming out of the West Bank or Gaza.
So when three Israeli teens from West Bank Israeli settler communities–Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrach—disappeared and were feared to have been kidnapped on the night of June 12th, Netanyahu immediately criticized Abbas and the new technocratic government, saying that Abbas was responsible for the safety of the teens and telling Kerry that “This is the result of bringing a terrorist organization into the government.” This disappearance and probable kidnapping of the three teenagers was not treated as a criminal investigation; instead, the response was a massive military operation of the IDF in the West Bank, the largest IDF operation there since the Second Intifada. The focus of the heaviest IDF activity was Hebron, the West Bank’s largest city and home to over 250,000 Palestinians, as well as its surroundings, with the IDF increasing checkpoints, limiting entry into and exit from the city, and engaging in house-to-house searches. Within a few days, Netanyahu had put the blame squarely on Hamas, but also held the Abbas and the PA responsible because of the unity government move; those initially arrested included “Hamas members of Parliament, former ministers, imams and professors,” taken “in night raids across West Bank cities, villages and refugee camps.” Additionally, over fifty of the prisoners released in the Shalit deal—which Netanyahu himself had orchestrated—were re-arrested. Even a non-violent, secular NGO that had helped work out the reconciliation deal had its offices “ransacked.”Palestinians even doubted if the kidnapping was real, or if it was staged as excuse to crack down on Hamas and ruin the unity government, and also noted that Hamas did not claim responsibility for the kidnappings and that it had normally taken responsibility for kidnappings it had carried out in the past. Many of the arrests were aimed at punishing and suppressing Hamas, and not specifically undertaken to find the missing boys. Israel also virtually shut down access to Hebron and Gaza (Gaza even more so than usual), the week-long shutdown of Hebron costing the city about $12 million a day in lost business, while non-Hamas militants began firing small numbers of rockets into Israel from Gaza, and Israel would respond with airstrikes.
When three Israeli teens disappeared and were feared to have been kidnapped, Netanyahu immediately criticized Abbas and the new technocratic government, saying that Abbas was responsible for the safety of the teens and telling Kerry that “This is the result of bringing a terrorist organization into the government.”
On the Israeli side, the whole nation was gripped by the fate of the three missing boys, with thousands praying, holding rallies and vigils, and avidly checking the news for any new developments; Jews around the world offered their emotional support, too. A “semiofficial” social media campaignwas even started by Israelis: #BringBackOurBoys; it was quickly turned and used against Israel by Palestinians in reaction to young Palestinians being detained by Israel during the West Bank crackdown, and also in reaction to the many young Palestinians detained and killed in general by Israeli forces over the years. As the arrests grew to be in the hundreds, protests erupted in the West Bank, and Israeli troops shot and killed four Palestinians over the course of several days, including a 15-year-old-boy; more were wounded. Livni came out during the crisis and said that Netanyahu was wrong to criticize and blame Abbas at the beginning of this situation; in fact, Abbas had constructively aided the investigation after Israel had demanded his aid, even though just by doing so he was criticized at an “unprecedented”level for aiding the “enemy,” painted as a “traitor,” and sent death threats by more than a few Palestinians. Hamas, for its part, stupidly and unproductively praised the kidnappings as an act of resistance, but at the same time (first implicitly, then explicitly) denied it was the culprit; other claims of credit from other groups were questionable. It is doubtful as to whether Netanyahu would have taken a different course of action if Hamas had offered cooperation and a sympathetic tone, given Netanyahu’s reaction to Abbas even after the PA was aiding in the search for the boys, but it is still a possibility that Hamas could have avoided more confrontation by taking different public stances; it certainly did not do everything it could to avoid confrontation in its selection of words that it used publicly.
The massive operation to find the three boys—which by the end of June would leave five Palestinians dead and more wounded in confrontations with Israeli security forces, would lead to unrest and protests, would lead to thousands of homes being searched, would lead to suspects’ homes being demolished, would lead to the arrests of over 400 Palestinians who were mostly Hamas-affiliated and included much of Hamas’ top leadership, and would bring Israeli-Palestinian relations to their worst level since the Second Intifada—finally turned up their dead bodies on June 30th. Netanyahu, who kept up his accusations against Hamas throughout the operation even though he provided absolutely no evidence of its involvement in the crime, was unequivocal: “They were kidnapped and murdered in cold blood by beasts…Hamas is responsible, and Hamas will pay.” Regular TV programming—including World Cup broadcasts—were interrupted to share the fate of the boys with the Israeli public, who were grief-stricken and outraged.
Before continuing with this narrative, it is important to make several points about Israel’s operation: the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli youths was awful and tragic, but is more of a crime than a massive military act or escalation. At this point, Israel’s response to deal with the lives of three of its own had ended up killing more Palestinians than the number of lives it was trying to save; it had collectively punished the West Bank’s largest city and its hundreds of thousands of Palestinians for a week; it had arrested over 400 Palestinians using the military without due process (Palestinians do no really have much of a due process when it comes to being arrested by Israeli authorities); it had aggressively targeted the Hamas movement, and not just its terrorist/militant wing, even though no evidence was provided to implicate Hamas as an organization or its leadership; it had severely undermined Mahmoud Abbas and derailed his unity deal with Hamas; and it had inflamed tensions to level not seen in almost a decade.
I would not be the first to question the massive, aggressive, ongoing collective punishment of a large amount of Palestinians (now well over a million, if you count the current fighting) as a response to the kidnapping/murder of three Israeli teenagers; and I would also not be the first to suggest that Netanyahu cynically and obscenely used the tragic events surrounding these three innocent Israeli teenagers to pursue a wider agenda against Hamas, Abbas, and the PA in response to their unity deal. As head researcher at a the Interdisciplinary Center based in Israel noted, “Netanyahu wants to use this kidnapping as a way to accomplish something which he wanted to accomplish anyway, which is the serious degradation of Hamas activity in the West Bank.” Former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski echoed similar thoughts even more explicitly, noting that “Instead [of working with the new unity government pledged to non-violence] Netanyahu launched a campaign of defamation against Hamas, seized on the killing of three innocent Israeli kids to immediately charge Hamas with having done it without any evidence, and has used that to stir up public opinion in Israel in order to justify this attack on Gaza, which is so lethal.”
Netanyahu’s actions after the disappearance of the three boys seem to truly be a master class and clinic on Churchill’s famous maxim “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
It is no secret that Netanyahu was incensed at Abbas’ unity deal and international (and especially American) support of it. Netanyahu’s cynicism is hardly disputed, and his willingness be both extremely shrewd and harsh in his actions are not in dispute either. I have been following politics closely for almost a decade-and-a-half, and I have to say the Benjamin Netanyahu is one of the shrewdest, most gifted, and most effective politicians I have ever seen. As one political academic in Israel notes, “Bibi [Netanyahu’s nickname] continues to be the consummate politician in the short term, but things could come back to spite him in the long term.” His ability to rally public opinion—both Israeli and American—is remarkable; he knows just what to say, just how to pull on a heart’s strings; he also knows how to play almost any situation to his advantage politically in the short-term (and to be fair to him, Israeli politics are notoriously volatile and unstable, which can often make-longer term political considerations a secondary concern). This is not to say that I agree with whathe does, just that he is very good at getting what he wants done, done. Netanyahu’s actions after the disappearance of the three boys seem to truly be a master class and clinic on Churchill’s famous maxim “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
I am here going to ask the reader to keep this next point in mind throughout the remainder of this article: even at the time, Israeli authorities involved in the investigation into the disappearance, then murder of the boys acknowledged that whoever was behind it might have been acting as a lone cell, without any direction, authorization, or support from Hamas as an organization or its leadership, and no evidence has yet been provided demonstrating anything to the contrary. Those suspected of the act are from a clan—the large Qawasmeh clan—that, while affiliating with Hamas, at times acts independently and even against Hamas’ aims and directives, trying repeatedly to derail cease-fires Hamas has agreed to in the past. In fact, we now know from the Israeli police that it actually was a lone cell, apparently Hamas-affiliated (of which there must be at least a little doubt, given the clan’s history of acting both against Hamas and for it) but acting independently and not acting on Hamas orders. All this means that what we have so far is an extremely aggressive operation in the West Bank that targeted Hamas for something for which it was not directly responsible and in which it was not involved as an organization; at this point, Israel would clearly have to be said to be the aggressor and instigator, especially after so long a period of quiet from Hamas and its support for a unity government that did not include its members in the Cabinet but instead renounced violence and recognized Israel as a state, even if Hamas itself did not explicitly endorse those principles.
We now know from the Israeli police that it actuallywas a lone cell, apparently Hamas-affiliated but acting independently and not acting on Hamas orders. So, what we have so far is an extremely aggressive operation in the West Bank that targeted Hamas for something for which it was not directly responsible and in which it was not involved as an organization; at this point, Israel would clearly have to be said to be the aggressor and instigator.
According to unnamed Israeli officials, even while this was going on, Hamas was—as it had all throughout 2013—working to reign in the smaller militant groups that were trying to engage (and sometimes succeeding) in firing rockets, and refrained from firing rockets itself. Under severe pressure from Israel despite its extended period of generally non-violent behavior, Hamas continued to deny responsibility after the teens were found dead and threatened to retaliate if Israel continued to attack Gaza. The same day the boys were found, and in response an Israeli strike, Hamas itself launched rockets at Israel for the first time since November 2012 that Monday, and Israel responded on Tuesday by escalating its air attacks, carrying out 34 strikes in Gaza. Israel made it clear that it was going after Hamas once the boys were found dead, and that is what it did. And things were only about to get worse, with more heartbreak on both sides.
If this series of events brought out some of the worst in Palestinian society—praising the kidnapping of three innocent teenagers and vilifying Mahmoud Abbas for trying to help Israel save their lives—the second phase of all this ugliness would certainly bring out some of the worst in Israeli society. Even as the funerals for the three boys were underway, right-wing mobs numbering in the hundreds hit the streets of Jerusalem, demanding revenge and chanting “Death to Arabs!” as they tried to attack people. A Facebook campaign called “The People of Israel Demand Revenge” emerged, garnering 35,000 supporters before it was taken down; it highlighted people calling for violence against Arabs, including active-duty IDF soldiers holding their weapons. This incitement was condemned by Justice Minister Livni. And even worse, a Palestinian teen named Muhammad Abu Khdeir was abducted close to his home and killed in Jerusalem the day after the funerals for the unfortunate Israel boys. In contrast to the rush to judgment of the Israeli government after the three Israeli teens’ abduction, Israeli authorities called for calm and patience and for people to await the results of an investigation. Palestinians in East Jerusalem, in a rare outbreak of violence for that area, rioted and confronted Israeli authorities in response to the killing. The suspects for the kidnapping and murdering of the three Israeli Jewish teens were called “terrorists,” their houses demolished; but the Jews suspected of killing the Palestinian Arab teen were “Jewish extremists,” and hypocritically being treated by a different set of procedures. (Just a quick aside: Hamas should be held just about as responsible for the acts of a lone cell acting without authorization as the Israeli government should be held responsible for the killing of Khdeir by lone Jewish “extremists.” And both societies and governments are quite clearly guilty of ongoing incitement and extremism, even if not to totally equal degrees). William Saletan wisely called for the house demolition to apply equally to these Jewish suspects, or to have the policy of house demolitions be terminated. Violent riots, incitement, protests and clashes between Jews and Arabs in Israel only worsened and spread when it was revealed that Khdeir was likely burned alive; furthermore, Khdeir’s Palestinian-American cousin, visiting on vacation, took part in a protest and video footage of him being savagely beaten by Israel police, even when he was not resisting, surfaced on YouTube. Tensions continued to rise, including rocket-and-airstrike exchanges between Hamas and Israel in Gaza, as Khdeir was given a martyr’s funeral that became a public rally against Israel. Violence continued, and Israeli troops began to mass around Gaza as the Israeli government approved a call-up of 40,000 reservists on July 8th.
If this series of events brought out some of the worst in Palestinian society—praising the kidnapping of three innocent teenagers and vilifying Mahmoud Abbas for trying to help Israel save their lives—the second phase of all this ugliness would certainly bring out some of the worst in Israeli society.
And, that, weary and exhausted readers, is how we got to this latest round of death and destruction.
Who Really Controls Gaza? (or, Does Israel Still “Occupy” Gaza?)
(This section later became the basis for a future article)
The final thing we must reckon with before we delve into our final assessment of blame and responsibility is to look at who controls Gaza, because the degree of control matches the degree of responsibility for the welfare of the people of Gaza and for what happens in Gaza.
Israel and its supporters are fond of claiming that it totally withdrew in from Gaza 2005, that there is no more occupation, that Israel has no obligations to Gaza as an occupier under international law, and that Hamas is fully responsible for Gaza. Some go as far as to claim Israel’s control never even amounted to legal occupation, even from 1967. However, Israel’s position is incredibly misleading. While people may debate the reasons for, and the justification of, and the exact degree of Israel’s control over Gaza, there can be no debate that Israel still exercises a significant amount of control, and that with that significant control comes significant responsibility.
Israel’s position is incredibly misleading. While people may debate the reasons for, and the justification of, and the exact degree of Israel’s control over Gaza, there can be no debate that Israel still exercises a significant amount of control, and that with that significant control comes significant responsibility.
Let us break down the specifics of that control:
Israel has complete control over Gaza’s airspace. Gaza’s airport was only built in 1998, but Israel closed it in 2000 with the outbreak of the Second Intifada and later bombed it in 2001. The only aircraft going into Gazan airspace are Israeli military aircraft.
Israel also has total control over Gaza’s coastal waters. It does not allow goods to move by sea into or out of Gaza (with only very rare exceptions), and imposes severe restrictions on Gaza’s fishing industry. And Israel also maintains a naval blockade. It destroyed Gaza’s nascent port facilities in 2001, and has prevented new facilities from being established ever since.
Israel also maintains full control over all land crossing between Israel and Gaza. It often keeps most, and sometimes all, of the crossings closed. Sometimes, some of the few crossings that are open are open only for humanitarian situations or urgent medical situations. Only a few thousand of Gaza’s 1.8 million people are allowed to cross, on average, each month. Israel has total control over which good are allowed in and out and when, exercising an enormous influence over the economy, zoning, and urban planning of Gaza. Israel also has some control over the one crossing between Egypt and Gaza, as anyone who travels through it must be pre-approved by Israel via the population registry. Egypt’s crossing saw a lot more movement of goods and people under Morsi, but this movement shrank dramatically after his ouster, and after clashes with militants in the area in August 2013, it was closed by Egypt’s military government, but has just been reopened “sporadically” during the past few weeks of conflict to allow a trickle of Gazans injured in the fighting (140 as of August 1st) to seek medical treatment in Egypt.
Israel also still has complete control over the Palestinian population registry. Any changes to birth, marriage, divorce, or death records, in addition to official address changes, must be approved by Israel. The issuing of official ID, including passports, must also be approved by Israel. Since the beginning of the Second Intifada in 2000, Israel has not allowed Gazans who have been living for years in the West Bank to change their official addresses to reflect this.
Israel also controls most of Gaza’s taxation. It sets the international customs rates and Value Added Tax (VAT)—which is included in the price of any goods—for all goods sold in Gaza and the West Bank. Israel collects the VAT or customs fees from the merchants, and then it has the power to transfer these taxes to the Palestinian Authority. When Israel chooses, it can (and often has) withheld these taxes when it has disputes with the Palestinians. Hamas has gotten around some of this by levying its own taxes on goods smuggled into Gaza from Egypt through tunnels (not to be confused with the tunnels Hamas built for military reasons). Most of these tunnels were destroyed recently by Egypt, crushing Gaza’s economy, and in the past, Israel has also taken action against these smuggling tunnels.
On the ground inside Gaza, do not let anyone tell that Israel completelywithdrew; Israel actually controls several buffer zones inside of the Gaza Strip, totaling 17 percent of all Gaza’s territory and one-third of all of its farmland. These zones include an officially off-limits zone, and a further zone which is a “grey-area.” Any Palestinians in either zone risk being shot, and shootings are not uncommon. Furthermore, Israel destroys crops and structures within this zone multiple times a week, on average. Israel also says it maintains the right to militarily enter all of Gaza at will, which is clear from its repeated invasions and military operations conducted after the 2005 disengagement.
Israel actually controls several buffer zones inside of the Gaza Strip, totaling 17 percent of all Gaza’s territory and one-third of all of its farmland.
Israel controls most of Gaza’s civilian and utility infrastructure. Israel supplies most of Gaza’s power through eleven power lines running into Gaza from Israel. Though Gaza has a power station that was built in 1998, it was severely damaged in 2006 and has not been fully repaired since, and was just hit multiple times by Israeli forces in this last round of hostilities, completely shutting the plant down. Israel had also previously restricted the importation of resources needed to run the power station. Gaza’s dependence on Israeli-supplied electricity also means that most water and sewage utilities are also dependent on Israel, since they need electricity for their pumping actions. Internet, wireless and wired communications services are also all run through Israeli networks, and Israel obviously controls the importation of materials necessary to repair, maintain, and expand them.
Israel also controls all travel of Palestinians between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and to anywhere else. This is not just because Israel separates the two territories; Israel also controls all entrances into and exits from the West Bank, including its border with Jordan, and does not allow those with Gaza residencies to travel into the West Bank, even for academic reasons.
Given that all this amounts to “effective control,” when it comes to international law and treaties which Israeli is a signatory to, Israel still has legal responsibilities under international law, including under Article 42 of the Hague Regulations, as it is still an occupying power governed by the Law of Occupation, even if its ground forces have generally withdrawn from 83 percent of Gaza. Despite the partial withdrawal of ground forces, then, the Gaza Strip must still be considered for all practical and legal purposes an occupied territory and under Israeli military occupation from 1967 through today for all of the reasons mentioned above. Gaza has not had one day of full sovereignty, or anything even close to it, since the 2005 Israeli “disengagement.”
Gaza has not had one day of full sovereignty, or anything even close to it, since the 2005 Israeli “disengagement.”
All this means that yes, while Hamas exercises a major degree of control, so does Israel, and under international law, both have responsibilities for the Gazan people and for what happens in Gaza. It could even be argued that Israel bears most of the responsibility, but even if it does not, it still bears a major portion of it, and Hamas itself can only held responsible for the people of Gaza and what happens inside Gaza to the degree that it can exercise full control over Gaza. The sad reality for Gazans, then, is that they are the joint legal responsibility of two entities—Hamas and Israel—that do not directly communicate with each other, that hate each other, that want to destroy each other, and that rarely put the interests of the Gazan people over their own.
The sad reality for Gazans, then, is that they are the joint legal responsibility of two entities—Hamas and Israel—that do not directly communicate with each other, that hate each other, that want to destroy each other, and that rarely put the interests of the Gazan people over their own.
V.) Assessing Responsibility
How Should We Assess Blame?
It must be stated that we cannot judge the actions of the current Gaza fighting in isolation from the other events and long-term context of this conflict, and not just in relation to the physical violence. That is not to say the events of the past necessarily do or do not excuse actions in the present, but they certainly can make them more understandable. If two peoples live side-by-side in peace, harmony, and equality, and one of the peoples attacks another with rockets without provocation, that situation is easy to judge. And that situation would not be the one we are discussing in this article.
We have seen the history of Gaza going back to 1967. We could have discussed the previous period, but the more recent past has far more bearing on the present than that which is more distant, just as the more distant past has more bearing than the even more distant past, and 1967, as such a watershed year in the history of this conflict and the region, seemed the best place to start for this discussion. I have provided links to many quality sources should the reader wish to explore further, and I encourage the reader to do so; and if the reader does do so and sticks to quality sources that make an attempt at objectivity and are not cheerleading, then I am confident that the reader will not dispute my overall characterization of the events up to this point.
Having seen the history of Israel’s relationship with Gaza going back to 1967, then, I feel confident that you will be on the same page when I quote John Judis to sum up a bit of the long-term reasons for why this fighting is happening now:
What matters to me, and what is often ignored, is the overall moral and political context in which this and past conflicts have occurred.
Israel is one of the world’s last colonial powers, and the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are its unruly subjects. Like many past anti-colonial movements, Hamas and Fatah are deeply flawed and have sometimes poorly represented their peoples, and sometimes unnecessarily provoked the Israelis and used tactics that violate the rules of war. But the Israeli government has continued to expand settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and to rule harshly over its subjects, while maintaining a ruinous blockade on Gaza. That’s the historical backdrop to the events now taking place.
… ultimately the colonial power bears a great deal of responsibility for the continuing conflict.
So it is clear that to argue that Hamas’s rocket attacks were unprovoked or an act of aggression, full stop, period, is not accurate. And here, we must begin a discussion of violence, behavior, and structures.
What Israel, amazingly, does not seem to understand is that such extreme collective punishment is likely to generate more hostility, not less, that could lead to more violence, not less, so that, in the process of going after and killing however many militants or terrorists, Israel ends up creating at least as many terrorists and militants as—and probably more than—it actually kills.
When Kerry said to Netanyahu that “it is worthwhile to try to understand what life looks like from the Palestinian point of view,” Netanyahu’s response summed up what he thought of the relationship between Israeli policies and Palestinian violence: “This has nothing to do with the occupation and the settlements.”
Israel views the problem with the Palestinians as behavioral, one requiring a stern hand to punish bad behavior, but does not look at the problem as structural, or stemming from the systemic oppression, colonization, and dispossession that are hallmarks of Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories; when Kerry said to Netanyahu that “it is worthwhile to try to understand what life looks like from the Palestinian point of view,” Netanyahu’s response summed up what he thought of the relationship between Israeli policies and Palestinian violence: “This has nothing to do with the occupation and the settlements.” In this analysis, Israel does not need to change its policies as the behavior and individual choices of Palestinians and their leadership are what leads to violence, not any unjust structures that Israel has created and forced upon the Palestinians. This myopic view strikes me a bit like looking at Spartacus’s revolt in the Third Servile War against the Roman Republic as if the fault of that war lies entirely with slaves who “initiated” violent “behavior” in “choosing” to attack their masters and not to submit to their masters or Roman armies and Roman authority. Clearly, the dehumanizing conditions of Roman slaveryand the cruelty inherent in much of its practices would be a fairer place to lay the blame instead of blaming the slaves suffering under that system for taking up arms to secure their basic human rights. So when we look at Palestinians using violence against Israelis, is there any doubt as to the dominant role of the occupation and the settlements? Whether Spartacus and his slaves or the Palestinians today (and that is not to equate the Palestinian condition with slavery), we can say they both were/are suffered/suffer from structural violence. And structural violence cannot be viewed as any less violent or any less awful than physical violence* [I have since evolved on this, see note on the bottom]. This truth was echoed by the Roman statesman Cicero, who was a contemporary of Spartacus’s revolt, when he himself wrote that “wars should be undertaken for the one purpose of living peaceably without suffering injustice” (On Obligations 1.35). In other words, you can fight when you are being either physically attacked or suffering from structural violence. This represents a conception of peace going back over 2,000 years that is not merely the absence of physical violence, but also of structural violence as well. Thus, peace and justice are inextricably linked, and structural violence is, if nothing, the perpetuation of the suffering of injustice through the imposition of unjust structures and systems.
Structural violence cannot be viewed as any less violent or any less awful than physical violence.* This truth was echoed by the Roman statesman Cicero when he himself wrote that “wars should be undertaken for the one purpose of living peaceably without suffering injustice” (On Obligations 1.35). In other words, you can fight when you are being either physically attacked or suffering from structural violence. This represents a conception of peace going back over 2,000 years that is not merely the absence of physical violence, but also of structural violence as well.
I hope that it is obvious to the reader at this point that the nearly half-century of Israeli occupation “was always a brutal and mortifying experience for the occupied” (Morris 568) and clearly a major form of structural violence. Does this mean that Hamas should be sending rockets to Israel in order to kill Israeli civilians? No. But it does mean that, in general, we cannot put the blame for the overall conflict squarely or even primarily on the shoulders of Hamas or the Palestinians. If American slavery or Jim Crow still existed in the U.S. today, would not those suffering under those institutions have the right to fight for their freedom if those imposing these institutions upon them did not cease and desist to do so after non-violent attempts to get them to stop had failed? The first American patriots who felt justified in taking up arms against the British Empire did so because of the structural violence of “taxation without representation” and of other particulars enumerated in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. One can only imagine how the American Founding Fathers would react to the conditions imposed upon the Palestinians by the Israelis. But Hamas is no Continental Congress, Khaled Meshal no George Washington. And Hamas has certainly engaged in more than its fair share of unproductive behavior.
Hamas, in this case of renewed fighting in Gaza, undertook a course of action that makes sense only if you think that trading the lives and limbs and houses of thousands of Palestinians is an appropriate bargaining chip in a hardcore game of deadly poker in which it is not guaranteed that those “chips” will win you anything, but there is a guarantee of massive suffering, destruction, and death. As we already saw Abbas poignantly asking, “What are you trying to achieve by sending rockets?” Violence only makes Israel less likely (compared to its already low likelihood) to grant Hamas and Gaza (and the Palestinians in general) any concessions; even Livni, the Palestinians’ best friend within the current Israeli government, was just recently quoted as saying, in reference to Hamas and the fighting, “You want to talk about lifting the siege? Not with us, and not now.” Hamas had a choice as to how to respond, and it chose to fire its rockets, to the detriment of its people.
In the end, Hamas must be blamed for its indiscriminate tactics, its rejection of cease-fires, and its willingness to use Palestinian civilians as bargaining chips in its political duel with Israel. There seems to be something perversely obscene when your side is the one incurring almost all the casualties, and the vast majority of those casualties are civilians under your protection and care, and you reject a cease-fire proposal so that you can push for terms more to your liking as bombs and bullets and missiles and shells rain down on your people. A battle is not the time for negotiations when a cease-fire is already being offered, which is what an actual cease-fire is for. To re-quote Abbas again, “We are the losing side, and every minute there are more and more unnecessary deaths. … I don’t like trading in Palestinian blood.” Additionally, whatever Israel does, blindly and deliberately targeting civilians is not a justified response, and Hamas’ deliberate targeting of civilians gives Israel a moral edge over Hamas in its intentions, a moral edge Israel uses to justify to both the world and to its own people its own questionable choices in tactics; you constantly hear Israeli spokespeople claim “We Israelis value our lives and the lives of Palestinians; Hamas does not, it deliberately targets Israeli civilians and deliberately puts Palestinian civilians at risk.” In regards to the welfare of the people of Gaza, that means that much of the time spent on the public international debate is consumed by Hamas’s choice of tactics, and not spent highlighting the actions of Israel’s that are also worth condemnation. In addition, Hamas encouraging people to stay in the line of fire, and telling Gazans to ignore Israeli warnings, suggests a very diabolical plan indeed: it would not be crazy to suggest that Hamas’s main goal here was to goad Israeli into a massive assault which would kill many innocent Gazan civilians and spread images of dead children and women all over Twitter, Facebook, and the global news media, further isolating and generating outrage towards Israel, and allowing Hamas to be portrayed as the heroic defender of its people, which it clearly is not (one should note the eerie similarity to the playbook of Osama bin-Laden and al-Qaeda, whose explicitly stated goals were to use the 9/11 attacks to goad the U.S. into a disastrous war against a Muslim country and use that war to rally international support for al-Qaeda, tarnish public opinion of the U.S., and hurt the U.S. economically). Unlike Abbas, Hamas seems all too willing to trade in Palestinian blood to achieve its goals.
Very shrewd of Hamas, indeed, if the lives limbs and homes of thousands of your own people are to be viewed as acceptable bargaining chips for you to gain political points at the expense of your rivals and for you to posture yourself better in your prime-time showdown with the hated Zionist enemy. One truly wonders, beyond all the propaganda, how many of the dead, mangled, and displaced would have given their consent if asked beforehand to be used in such a way.
Rather than serve the interests of its people, Hamas is using the people to serve its interests. And, having just reached a deal with apparently-erstwhile rivals Abbas and Fatah on a unity government from a position where it had little or nothing to lose, Hamas may also be seeing a chance to gain at Fatah’s and Abbas’s expense, which has already started happening in West Bank. Very shrewd of Hamas, indeed, if the lives limbs and homes of thousands of your own people are to be viewed as acceptable bargaining chips for you to gain political points at the expense of your rivals and for you to posture yourself better in your prime-time showdown with the hated Zionist enemy. One truly wonders, beyond all the propaganda, how many of the dead, mangled, and displaced would have given their consent if asked beforehand to be used in such a way. After that fact, it is more likely to be given, if only for the very human reason to want to be able to say your loved one died, or you lost it all, for some meaningful reason. One poll taken in the middle of this latest fighting in Gaza showed that Gazans wanted both a cease-fire and Hamas to stop its violent actions. If the results of every single other round of violence between Israelis and Palestinians is to be even a remotely decent indicator, the actions of Hamas will all very likely very much be in vain.
Hamas must also be blamed for much of the general suffering of the people of Gaza; if Israel exhibits little willingness to alleviate Gazans’ suffering and to loosen the siege/blockade of Gaza, Hamas’s behavior makes it almost certain that Israel will have no willingness to do so now. And instead of putting more funds into alleviating the deep, pervasive poverty of most Gazans, Hamas’s leadership focused, relatively, on building a series of expensive tunnels from which it could attack Israel and on acquiring an arsenal of rockets. And Hamas is far from blameless for Gaza’s siege/blockade itself, which is justified by Israel primarily because Hamas does not recognize Israel’s right to exist and does not renounce violence and terrorism. Were it to do these things, especially to recognize Israel’s right to exist and remove the language in its charter calling for Israel’s destruction, it would be exponentially harder for Israel to justify its blockade/siege and the international pressure for Israel to end it would be overwhelming. Yes, Hamas does not want to “give” Israel something for nothing, and recognition is one of the things Israel most ostensibly wants from Hamas. Nevertheless, these position could have been changed at any time since Hamas was voted into power eight years ago; they were not, and maintaining these positions makes it much easier for Israel to justify its inexcusable collective punishment of all Gazans, and much harder for the rest of the world to get Israel to end it. Instead, the people of Gaza are stuck with the “double imprisonment” of “Hamas rule” and Israel’s siege. And Hamas’s constant and vile incitement, extreme rhetoric, and positions refusing to recognize Israel and calling for its destruction are the Israeli right-wing’s best justifications and excuses for its own extreme behavior and positions, and the best source of its empowerment. In short, the distasteful and provocative extremist Avigdor Lieberman would not be Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs without Hamas or its equivalent. Hamas’ words and actions also fill ordinary Israelis with fear that an entity sworn to destroy them controls Gaza and would be one of two major political parties in any future Palestinian state.
However, we must remember that in firing rockets Hamas was acting in response to what was politically motivated Israeli aggression in response to kidnapping/murder in which all current evidence shows Hamas as an organization was not involved. One of the standard Israeli narratives is that if Hamas would just stop firing rockets, Israel would stop its offensive. There is some truth to this, but such a statement implicitly supposes that Hamas initiated this, and that Israel was simply reacting in self-defense. While I am loth to call firing rockets at Israel indiscriminately as any sort of “self-defense,” this round of rocket-firing can only be properly viewed as an (improper) response to Israeli aggression against Hamas. Firing rockets was far from its best option, but Israel’s extremely aggressive actions towards Hamas in June led to the rockets of July after over nineteen months in which Hamas had shown exceptional restraint, nineteen month in which Israel did nothing to significantly reward such behavior, or even to bolster Hamas’ rival, the Fatah of Abbas and the PA, during nine months of farcical “peace” talks; instead, Netanyahu’s utter intransigence, greatly increased settlement building and aggression from settlers, and a continued blockade/siege were the only rewards for the Palestinians. That is not to excuse the rocket attacks, but we must also not excuse Israel’s relatively unprovoked action against Hamas, coming so soon after the collapse in the talks. Israel then proceeded with its extremely violent actions in Gaza, all based on more-or-less false pretenses, when calm had been the norm on the Gaza front since November 2012. Israel, then, is the party most (but hardly solely) responsible for escalation in the past few months.
Israel definitely gets a moral victory over Hamas’s tactical intent—it does not target civilians in order to kill them like Hamas does—but that is basically where its moral victories over Hamas in tactical choices end. Yes, Hamas operates among the population, which is certainly putting people at risk, but that is both a given in asymmetric warfare and how virtually all guerrilla armies for thousands of years have operated, and Israel’s planners clearly did not take that into account in its choices of its overall tactics. And Israel’s tactics—even if Israel calls ahead of time and warns civilians to evacuate (even if sometimes just minutes before), which is certainly more than Hamas does (but is still certainly not enough)—are still brutal and show deep negligence on Israel’s part regarding its obligations to protect innocent life, as has been demonstrated earlier. A nation that prides itself on Western, democratic values and that is the number-one recipient of U.S. aid must do better than to set the bar at Hamas’ level and say “See? We’re better than they are.” In addition, Israel is so much more powerful than Hamas that it also carries more responsibility with this power to exercise it more carefully. Again, asymmetric warfare is not pretty, and it is not fair, but I imagine that Israel would much rather be in its position that in the position of Hamas or the Palestinians, and being the more powerful party does carry certain additional responsibilities.
A nation that prides itself on Western, democratic values and that is the number-one recipient of U.S. aid must do better than to set the bar at Hamas’ level and say “See? We’re better than they are.”
Then, of course, there are the structural issues. Israel, as just mentioned, is far more powerful than Hamas, and also than the Palestinians. This power imbalance extends in the same way to all of Israel’s Arab neighbors. This has been the case for decades, if not since Israel’s founding. More so than any other party since 1967, then, Israel has had the power to shape Gaza, Hamas, the West Bank, and the Palestinians. And its policies in these areas and towards these people have been defined by three things: a military occupation that denies them even the most basic rights and freedoms, a settlement policy that is itself an aggressive, violent act of dispossession and theft that makes Palestinians distant second-class citizens in their own land, and a conscious attempt to derail Palestinian nationalism and break the will of Palestinians to resist. Some argue that Israel deliberately uses the so-called “peace process” to simply stall while it continues to further expand into and divide the West Bank, a process in part designed to divide the Palestinians not only physically but also politically. If Israel was serious about peace, the argument goes, it would reward the PA, Abbas, Fatah, and West Bank Palestinians for recognition, non-violence, and cooperation by making serious concessions to them and allowing major progress on the road to Palestinian statehood in the West Bank; this would show Hamas and Gazan Palestinians that it is non-violence that gets rewarded, while violence is only punished and achieves nothing. If anything, Israel’s own behavior has done the opposite: two decades of peaceful protests and attempts at politics were crushed and ignored by Israel from 1967 until 1987, when in December of that year the First Intifada erupted, which was also a rebellion against Arafat’s Fatah for its inability to improve the lives and conditions of Palestinians. Hamas played a key role and gained a lot of power in the Intifada, at Arafat’s and Fatah’s expense (does this seem familiar at all? It should, because you are watching a rerun today). By denying the Palestinians any progress through peaceful means, Israel was giving Palestinians a choice: submit, defeated and humiliated and on their knees, to Israeli domination, or, engage in violence. So the Palestinians chose the latter instead of submission, contrary to Israel’s hopes.
Israel even helped create and supported what would become Hamas as a way to weaken support of Fatah, even more evidence that Israel was not seeking a partner for peace so much as pursing a British-style “divide-and-conquer” strategy. In this case, the Islamists were seen as a way to undermine and counterbalance the main Palestinian faction of Fatah.
Israel even helped to create and supported what would become Hamas as a way to weaken support of Fatah, even more evidence that Israel was not seeking a partner for peace so much as pursing a British-style “divide-and-conquer” strategy. In this case, the Islamists were seen as a way to undermine and counterbalance the main Palestinian faction of Fatah. The Israelis succeeded in weakening Arafat and Fatah, but helped create a Frankenstein in Hamas. It was only after the First Intifada that Israel agreed to relinquish some control of Palestinian territory with the Oslo Accords of 1993, and this only after twenty years of ignoring Palestinian pleas for self-rule. Instead of self-rule, though, Palestinians got a rivalry between a Hamas trying to derail the Oslo peace process and corrupt Fatah on the one hand, and on the other hand, less than a year after Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination in 1995, it got Benjamin Netanyahu as Prime Minister, who gave his own best effort to derail the Oslo peace process, cater to right wing Israelis, and continue to colonize, settle, and expand Israeli control in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Netanyahu, ever the obstructionist, was opposed to Oslo, like Hamas, albeit for different reasons, of course.
It was David Ben-Gurion himself, the founder of Israel and its longtime leader, who said that “the most dangerous enemy to Israel’s security is the intellectual inertia of those who are responsible for security;” and it was a Palestinian journalist who said that “the legal father of the suicide bomber is the Israeli checkpoint, whilst his mother is the house demolition.”
As one paper states, “Israel’s general strategic goal has always been that of maintaining the status quo by deterring major attacks against it.” This in and of itself is essentially a strategy that lacks strategy, or a strategy that is a prescription for a merely tactical approach. A cynicism bound both by almost two millennia of Christian anti-Semitism and the Holocaust mindset is hardly a way of thinking that is likely to lead to a brighter future. That Israel’s leaders may be resigned to an inevitability of the status quo is both a failure of imagination and a danger to the future of Israel. It was David Ben-Gurion himself, the founder of Israel and its longtime leader, who said that “the most dangerous enemy to Israel’s security is the intellectual inertia of those who are responsible for security;” and it was a Palestinian journalist who said that “the legal father of the suicide bomber is the Israeli checkpoint, whilst his mother is the house demolition.” Thus, Israel can be said to have created violent mass resistance through twenty years of occupation that ignored Palestinians’ peacefully expressed aspirations for freedom and dignity; it helped to create the second round of mass resistance in 2000 when it failed to be a genuine and committed partner in the Oslo process; it empowered and paved the way for Hamas’s rise with its disengagement plan designed to undermine Abbas, Fatah, and the PA, along with America’s inane coup attempt and Fatah’s corruption; and has since undermined the moderate, non-violent Abbas, Fatah, and their PA by giving them nothing to show for their efforts in a near-pointless peace-process and thus, conversely, encouraged violence by showing the fruitlessness of non-violence and cooperation. By creating the conditions for the rise of a violent resistance movement and then giving that resistance movement no reason to not resist, Israel has done more to create the current crisis and overall state of affairs than any other single party in this conflict. Or, to relate all this to the quote about Hannibal in the beginning, Israelis have been able to “gain tactical success that they were unable to translate into strategic success.”
By creating the conditions for the rise of a violent resistance movement and then giving that resistance movement no reason to not resist, Israel has done more to create the current crisis and overall state of affairs than any other single party in this conflict.
Something must also be said about the U.S. here: in many ways, the U.S. has never been treated so poorly by an Israeli government or leader. Having engaged in a big push for diplomacy that has now failed, the U.S. is still aiding Israel’s military with roughly $3 billion in official aid per year in recent years (over 16 percent of Israel’s defense budget in 2013), among other types of aid and strong diplomatic support, especially in the UN Security Council, support that continues even now. It is far past high time that the U.S. use and the threat of the loss or reduction of that aid as leverage to encourage Israel to change its course, since asking nicely has so far gotten nowhere. Reaching a long-term settlement with the Palestinians should not be viewed by Israel as “favor” to America or as a “concession” to Palestinians; it is vital to Israel’s national security and its preservation of its identity as both a Jewish and a democratic state. If the U.S. keeps enabling Israel to engage in policies that are both criminal towards Palestinians and self-destructive for Israel, it will be acting as if it is Israeli’s drug dealer and should be rightly blamed when its customer harms itself and its neighbors. If the U.S. does not apply substantive pressure to Israel to change its course, especially on settlements, the U.S. will be even more complicit in this disaster of a situation than it already is, and will deserve a decent chunk of the blame should a real “Third Intifada” erupt, if we are not seeing that happen already.
In a very sick way, Hamas and Israel’s current government need each otherto justify their most questionable behavior; they each almost gleefully point their finger at the other whenever justifiable criticism is lobbed their way. Israel and Hamas thus are each other’s political Iron Dome, each empowering the other to feel confident in pursuing their most reckless and reprehensible policies and actions. Caught in the middle as casualties are the Gazans, the Palestinians in general, Abbas, Fatah, the PA, and, to a much lesser extent, the Israeli people. Oh, and, of course, the peace process and any chances of peace.
In a very sick way, Hamas and Israel’s current government need each other to justify their most questionable behavior; they each almost gleefullypoint their finger at the other whenever justifiable criticism is lobbed their way. Israel and Hamas thus are each other’s political Iron Dome, each empowering the other to feel confident in pursuing their most reckless and reprehensible policies and actions.
Hamas and Israel are agents; Israel does not “force” Hamas to fire rockets, and Hamas does not “force” Israel to invade Gaza. The actions of each are decisions made by the individual parties, and as independent agents, they both bear a lot of responsibility for these decisions. But people also make decisions because of the circumstances they are in and because of the long and short-term behavior of other parties influencing them. These forces are not ones that simply begin or end with any specific round of fighting, but are generally present long before and long after any particular set of hostilities. In this sense, Israel and Hamas can also be said to be negatively influencing each other into committing even further acts of stupidity and violence; they truly bring out the worst in each other. Sometimes, one wonders if this is the goal; it would be so much better if, for once, they would try to bring out the best in each other, however drastically short that would be of anything even resembling an ideal.
Conclusion: Means vs. Ends
By now what I stated in my article’s title should be obvious: the people of Gaza (and to a far, far lesser degree, the people of Israel) are bargaining chips in a high-stakes poker game between Israel and Hamas, not at all ends in and of themselves, but means to Israel’s and Hamas’ own ends.
In the case of Hamas, these ends are staying in power and some vaguely defined freedom in some distant future, no matter the cost in human lives. This freedom will involve the destruction of Israel as a state and the liberation of all of historic Palestine, righting the wrongs of the British imperialists, undoing the Nabka, and redeeming the pride of Palestine. The Jews, perhaps, can stay and be well treated to a degree, but under Palestinian control and under a Palestinian state, absent the blight of the Zionist entity now called Israel.
To the Israeli leaders, the ends are the short-term politics of coalitions and elections and suppressing the Palestinians enough so that their national aspirations will never be a threat to Israel’s status quo of power and control over Gaza and the West Bank (or Judea and Samaria, as Israel officially calls the West Bank, almost as if it is just a normal part of Israel); in their cynical worldview, the oppression of Palestinians is necessary and only by teaching them that submission is their only choice in the long run can they diffuse the Palestinian threat to Israel’s existence. Palestinians must accept a large degree of Israeli control, leave, or die fighting it. Perhaps after realizing this, someday Israelis and Palestinians can live in a degree of peace and freedom, but under Israeli domination and with Jews clearly in charge, as Netanyahu has indicated he believes deep down.
This is not to sound entirely cynical; both Hamas’ and Israel’s leaders surely believe they are the best leaders for their people, that the alternative leaders are terrible, and that they are justified in sacrificing human lives in order to stay in power and do the most good in the long-run.
That there are large numbers of Israelis and Palestinians who want this should not make people forget that there are also large numbers who would settle for a lot less (and even within Hamas and the current Israeli government). If there is to be any hope in this miserably depressing, tragic conflict, it is with the idea that the people on both sides who are willing to settle for a lot less in the interests of peace can find common ground.
That common ground seems pretty obvious: Hamas must renounce violence and terrorism, and recognize Israel as legitimate state, while Israel must lift the siege of Gaza and end its occupation in the West Bank. After this, Israeli and Palestinian leaders must each pledge to work out details of final borders and pledge to work closely together to protect the other side from their own extremists. This will require the current Israeli government and Hamas to each made drastic changes in their policies, approaches, and attitudes.
It was the great philosopher Immanuel Kant who wrote that you should “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”
It was the great philosopher Immanuel Kant who wrote that you should “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” If there is ever to be true peace and coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians, between Arabs and Jews in this troubled region, Israeli and Palestinian leaders will need to treat their own people and each other’s not just as means for the leaders’ own ends, but as ends in and of themselves.
The alternative? Copy and paste this article, but add a different date when the next round of fighting starts, and repeat this action until they get it. Then, we may finally be able to write a different story, one that is long overdue.
Several weeks after this piece was published, hostilities in the Gaza area finally ceased on August 27th, leaving 2,104 Palestinians, 72 Israelis, and 1 Thai guest-worker working in Israel dead. Little if anything has changed for the better overall, and many would argue things are getting or are about to get worse in terms of a chances for real peace.
*December 5, 2018: I would, in hindsight, have said my views have evolved as regards this statement: “And structural violence cannot be viewed as any less violent or any less awful than physical violence.” I would now argue that you very much can grade non-physical structural violence as being of a degree of severity that is less than physical violence, but it is still a terrible thing.