By Issa Khalaf
Israel’s recurring, furiously gratuitous wars on the Palestinian people—for example, from 1982 Lebanon to 2014 Gaza—is profoundly wrong on every level, committed with self-destructive defiance and confounding attempts at rational political analysis. In addition to its numerous Gaza attacks from 2006 on, it had launched military operations in the West Bank four times between 2000 and 2005 and of course again in summer 2014 as a prelude to Gaza. Like all the previous attacks, Israel wanted and provoked the Gaza 2014 onslaught, violently and cavalierly violating truce agreements and its commitment to ease up its inhumane stranglehold on the people of Gaza. The purpose of this madness is Palestinian surrender, submission to the power of Israel, the inexorable colonization of the remainder of historic Palestine, that is, the 22 percent that constitutes the occupied territories (OT). So far, Israel formally or effectively annexed at least half of “Judea and Samaria,” including Palestinian East Jerusalem.
With Gaza’s land crossings, sea, and air under Israel’s control, its economy deliberately pauperized and its people literally put on near starvation diet, Israel never stopped occupying Gaza nor is this about Hamas. To make the morally and legally correct concessions the Palestinians require, or even interposing UN or international forces as a buffer in Gaza, implies having no territorial claims on any part of the OT, of conceding that this is not a territorial “dispute” but an illegal occupation. Such a precedent is intolerable. Israel pretends not to be occupying Gaza thereby abdicating its responsibility as an occupying power. This fiction, it believes, allows it to routinely pummel Gaza to hell as if it’s in an equal war against a neighboring state, or some independent entity thereof.
Tel Aviv’s dearest hope is Gaza’s pacification, perhaps including joint PA-Egyptian cooperation on Gaza, leaving it free to concentrate on West Bank colonization. Astoundingly, on August 31, the military occupation’s civil administration announced the confiscation of nearly 4000 dunums south of Bethlehem.
Some, including the Palestinians, are cautiously optimistic that this time, in light of the horror and barbarity of Israel’s attack on Gaza for the world to see, will end the status quo. They point to Palestinian unity and common position in post-Gaza negotiations. It does seem a truism that a unified group has a much better chance at success to achieve its goals and protect its interests and needs, to realize Palestinian rights and freedom, than a factionalized one. It seems resistance of any kind, standing one’s ground, is likely to get you what you want than not. Perhaps the peace process farce since the early years of Oslo may have expired and the Palestinians have a clearer, unified strategy about ending occupation.
In a context of overwhelming asymmetry of power between Israel and the Palestinians, Hamas’ deterrence, like that between Hizballah and Israel since 2006, may not be a joke after all. The “war” forced insecurity in Israel’s south and ended in a draw, perhaps pushing Tel Aviv to relieve the siege (“closure”) on Gaza and talk serious diplomacy. That is why Israel is frustrated: while its indiscriminate assault, its collective punishment, managed to inflict great death and destruction, it is a strategic failure.
Israel’s total war on Gaza weakened it politically and diplomatically, isolating and increasingly delegitimizing it. It attracted international opprobrium and disgust, and calls for investigations into war crimes. It caused great problems for the American position in the Middle East and Tel Aviv’s (temporary) alienation from the Obama administration. It has failed to “eradicate” Hamas but may well have strengthened it. Determined, well-trained Hamas fighters inflicted an unbearable level of casualties on Israeli soldiers. Israeli analysts point to a new phenomenon: a majority of Israelis think neither side won this war.
Hamas unified the Palestinians and emboldened civil society in the West Bank. Most of all, it brought attention to the fundamental issue, occupation and cruel siege; its resistance restored the logic that the siege must be lifted without preconditions; it made clear that Israel is an occupier that has responsibilities to those it occupies; it has Israel negotiating with Palestinians representing a government of which Hamas is a member.
All the aforementioned “positives” presumably resulted in a favorable strategic outcome for the Palestinians, if one can speak sanguinely in light of the civilian carnage. I am not hopeful, however. The Palestinian Authority, which continues security collaboration with Israel, is in a tight rope act to demonstrate its nationalism while suppressing authentic mass organization and empowerment of civil society. What brought it along in particular, that is, to assume an apparently unified Palestinian position, is the sharp contrast between longsuffering and sacrificing Gazans and comfortable PA officials in the West Bank.
Along with Israel, the PA did all it could to weaken even destroy Hamas since 2007. The PA more than acquiesced in Israel’s summer 2014 rampage through the West Bank attacking Hamas organizational infrastructure and leaders preceding the assault on Gaza. The reality is that Hamas is a Palestinian Islamist-nationalist organization with a broad base of support and led by pragmatists. These have been willing to accept a two state solution for many years and repeatedly tried to negotiate a long truce along Gaza’s borders and to keep the calm with Israel.
Backed by its impressive list of allies—Washington, the EU, key Western states, and key Arab states—the PA emphasizes that, while Hamas is one Palestinian group among others, the Authority is the only legitimate “national” body representing the Palestinians. This despite the fact that Hamas was denied governing the OT after its Palestinian Legislative Council election victory in 2006, that it was forced to fight and expel PA security forces who would not concede its right to govern Gaza, and that PA leaders and legislators, including Mahmoud Abbas, remain unelected. Already, the PA has started fabricated accusations against Hamas, including that it’s forming a “shadow government” in the West Bank.
The ubiquitous possibility is that the PA will take advantage of the situation in Gaza, centered round rebuilding, to weaken, de-legitimize, and even disarm Hamas. What the PA could not do democratically, it may do deviously, for it has the recent conciliation agreement to legitimate its control of Gaza, rendered palpable by Israel’s destruction of the Strip. The PA is not above using reconstruction funds, relief for the homeless and destitute, opening of commercial crossings, and salaries of Gaza government employees to assert its authority in Gaza. Hamas officials may continue to be banned from travelling via the Rafah crossing by the Egyptian security services. Some 3000 PA presidential guards are expected to take over Rafah crossing followed by PA security forces to police Gaza’s borders.
The enduring curse of Palestinian elite politics for a century is its inveterate factionalism and localized pettiness, its unrelieved hostility to democracy from below and a new, fresh thinking generation of leaders who will replace Fatah and Hamas. Will the Palestinian factions surprise themselves and maintain their unity and pragmatism? Will the PA surprise the Palestinians by cooperating with rather than excluding Hamas in Gaza? Will the Palestinian peace initiative, taking advantage of the post-Gaza conditions, be sustained and principled, demanding a specific timeframe for the end of Israeli occupation? Will they break out of Washington’s grip and engage UN resolutions and international law on behalf of Palestine? Will Washington use this unique opportunity to exert indirect pressure on Israel or return to business as usual, unconditional support of Tel Aviv? Will Abbas keep his promise in calling for elections? The great hope of the Palestinian people is freedom and self-determination, the perceived successes of Hamas’ resistance to Israel having induced a mood of optimism.
Achieving calm and security for Gaza and Israel’s south can happen overnight if the siege is lifted, Rafah crossing (an Egyptian-Palestinian matter) is opened on a daily basis, the fishing zone is expanded to the legal limits, a seaport and airport are opened as specified in interim agreements after Oslo. Ending the occupation, or else granting Palestinians basic rights and equality in a unified state in historic Palestine, achieves permanent peace and security. The Palestinians of Gaza, much less all Palestinians under occupation, must have their freedom and dignity or nothing will change.
If Israel can help it, this is not going to happen; again, Tel Aviv, backed by Washington, aims to disarm Palestinian resistance in Gaza (“demilitarization”), extend PA rule over Gaza and the PA’s unbroken collaboration and proxy security with the occupation, and return to business as usual.
Left to Israel, one can forget notions of Palestinian nationhood, expressions of Palestinian nationalism, an independent state, the will to resist, or controlling your own destiny. Forget Palestinian national reconciliation and the sovereign unification of Gaza and the West Bank. If it means giving up the OT, Israel wants neither to be recognized nor a two state solution, apparently not even a feeble rump of a Palestinian state. Tel Aviv’s intransigence and lies are blamed for the failure (by April 2014) of John Kerry’s peace initiative despite Kerry’s acceptance of Israel’s framework and preconditions. Israel demands normalization of relations with the Arab and Muslim world, in fact righteously insists on it, and on being recognized as a “Jewish state” to boot, but only if it’s left free to do what it wants with the Palestinians in the OT.
The Palestinian national movement, under Yasser Arafat’s tutelage, effectively recognized a two state solution, hence Israel’s “right to exist,” by the late 1970s, and formally in 1993. The PLO also accepted UNSC 242 and 338 and renounced violence and terrorism. The Arab League has had the eminently reasonable Arab Peace Initiative on offer since 2002. Israel has yet to reciprocate these concessions or accept the Arab states’ offer of peace.
The Palestinians, geographically atomized in the West Bank and penned in like animals in Gaza, are living tormented lives of control and oppression devoid of hope, normality, and future; Israelis are also sick and tired of the constant state of insecurity and fear. Israel’s leaders, however, are effectively threatening the survival of the state and the future and well-being of a younger generation of Israelis. Unfortunately, most, if not the vast majority of Israelis do not clearly perceive that the heart-of-the-matter is occupation and suffering on the other side, and therefore see the solution not in an end to occupation but concentration on the Israeli south as the front line in the project of annihilating Hamas. The Palestinian victims after all are accused of bringing devastation and human misery on their own heads by electing an organization that allegedly wants to destroy Israel and kill all Jews. Nor do Israelis understand that the occupation is unsustainable. Very few recognize that peace, redemption, and survival are located not in maximalist Zionism, but in justice for Palestinians.
Israel’s colonization of the OT is not about security or mutual failings to reach agreement; it’s ideological, a shockingly ruthless determination to dispossess the Palestinian people and make them disappear. From the British Mandate until this very day, the prevailing Zionist ideological dictum is maximum land, minimum to no Palestinians and separation of Jews from Palestinians.
If you puzzle why Israel’s behavior seems crazy, lacking “political strategy”—war, after all, is supposed to be a political act whose goal is peace—it’s because rationality doesn’t apply here, only the Western-enabled culture of impunity. Thus genocidal violence—Ilan Pappe dubs it incremental genocide—is the only “policy” in Tel Aviv town. Gaza, and all Palestinians under occupation, must simply capitulate to everything Israel wants and does.
Depressingly, I believe little will come out of the killing of Gaza: the Israeli state will not change course, the PA will continue to undermine genuine Palestinian unity and democracy while maintaining a pacified West Bank, and Arab regimes such as Egypt will brutally use external bogymen such as Hamas to tighten their authoritarian grip on the state.
–Issa Khalaf has a Ph.D. in political science and Middle East Studies from Oxford University. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.