Battle of Wrongs: Israel and Gaza

An inhumane and flawed Israeli policy literally had holes blown into it in Gaza. The reverberations of that policy and its failure are only beginning to be felt, and all the while, qassam rockets continue to rain down on southern Israel.

Some are trumpeting the destruction of the barrier separating Gaza from Egypt as the uprising of an oppressed people who finally threw off the yoke of an occupying power and took for themselves what they were entitled to and had been deprived of. While the image is romantic and alluring, the reality is that this was not a popular action, but one that was very much enacted by the ruling party in Gaza, Hamas.

The ordinary people of Gaza have found themselves even more in the middle of fighting between Hamas and Israel since the election of Hamas in 2006. Hamas has encouraged, and occasionally perpetrated, rocket attacks on southern Israel towns almost from the day of the elections. Apologists call the rockets retaliation, but there is no escaping that they are targeting innocent civilians for purposes that cannot be reasonably connected to self-defense.

The response to that 2006 election, which, it must be noted, was universally judged to be free and fair, began a chain of failed responses that came from most of the world. And the rockets, on the one hand, and the international isolation and increasingly draconian closure of Gaza by Israel and Egypt on the other, took the already impoverished Gaza Strip down the road to complete economic collapse, while international and Israeli isolation of Hamas only increased the risk to Israeli civilians.

The decision to isolate the Hamas government after the 2006 election was not limited to Israel. Indeed, had Israel taken the course that some commentators (this one included) advocated and resigned itself to negotiating with the duly elected Palestinian leadership, however objectionable it found that leadership to be (with good reason), that decision would have faced opposition not only from many sectors in Israel, but also from the United States, the European Union and the majority of the Arab League, particularly from the most moderate Arab states. Even if support for the idea had been substantial in Israel, which it was far from, it would have been virtually impossible for Israel to pursue it. No doubt, much of this was an outgrowth of American leadership and the doctrine of the “war on terror” and the simplistic “with us or against us” approach to global politics, but Israel, the Arab world and, in this regard at least, the EU were on board in any case.

That sort of broad unity among governments is rare. It demonstrates the threat that all of those bodies perceive in Hamas. The Sunni Islamic group is the first of its kind to come to power; unlike the Iranian Shi’a rulers and countries that use their definition of Islam in their rule like Saudi Arabia, Hamas is a populist movement born in the dominant strain of Islam, spawned by the long-established Muslim Brotherhood which has branches and allies throughout the Arab world and was elected by popular vote. If it was able to successfully govern the Palestinian Authority, this could inspire and strengthen not only the Brotherhood, but Islamic groups throughout the Arab world. That is the prospect that caused Fatah, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other states to join with Europe, Israel and the US to form a united front against Hamas.

Hamas Entrenched

I must admit, I was wrong about how long Hamas could last. After the election in January ’06, I believed that the cut-off of aid by the US and Europe, the withholding of tax revenues by Israel, the efforts at undermining the government by Fatah and the lack of support from the Arab leadership would doom Hamas. I said they wouldn’t last to September. While the Israeli assault on Gaza in June of that year, in response to the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit (a response which was ill-advised, explicitly targeted the civilian infrastructure of Gaza and never had any hope of retrieving Cpl. Shalit) and the onset of the Lebanon war shortly thereafter clearly gave Hamas a respite, I still thought their fall would be only slightly delayed. I was obviously mistaken.

Hamas has not impressed with their ability to govern, though perhaps they have done better than I and some others might have expected. No, that was not the factor that was missed. What I didn’t count on was the foolishness of the Israeli and Fatah tactics employed against Hamas.

After their stinging defeat, Fatah did not heed the call of its people for reform, for rooting out the corruption and nepotism that had destroyed its credibility among Palestinians. Instead, it rushed into the waiting arms of Condoleezza Rice and George W. Bush, accepting arms from them in the hopes of confronting Hamas with superior strength. The escalating clashes between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza eventually erupted into a battle for control of the Strip, a battle for which Hamas was far more prepared than Fatah and was, from Fatah’s point of view, premature as it had not yet had the time to establish its own military foothold in Gaza and integrate the arms it had acquired from the US. Indications were that Hamas correctly perceived the growing strength of Fatah, as well as their own ideological inability to deal with Israel with anything other than bluster and rockets was threatening to unseat them, so they launched a pre-emptive strike and took over the Strip. Whether it was this sort of prescience or simply the chain of events, Hamas triumphed and took Gaza.

Little has been reported in the past two years of conditions inside the Strip except on the macro level, where the sanctions imposed by Israel are most visible. The shortages of food, fuel and medicine have been amply documented, even before the recent months, when Israel has ratcheted up these sanctions. But Hamas’ own difficulties in governing the Strip were evident early on and could well have led to its demise had Israel, the US and Fatah acted with more tactical thought and foresight.

While Hamas has not imposed a full Islamic rule in Gaza, its government has encouraged the more religiously inclined in Gaza to step up their efforts and it has enacted a few changes in schools, public norms and other public arenas that did not sit well with many secular Gazans and the non-Muslim minority there. Hamas had problems with administration as well, having been largely unprepared for its victory in the election, although as they remain in power and learn more about governance, this issue diminishes. Hamas has chosen to work with, rather than try to control, the various militias of both ideological groups and clans, and this has led, along with continuing tensions with Fatah, to periodic outbreaks of violence between various Palestinian factions in Gaza. Most of all, exit polls after the election showed overwhelming Palestinian support (usually upward of 70%) for Hamas changing its ideological refusal to talk with Israel, which they failed to do.

These factors contained the potential downfall of Hamas within them. But harsh conditions imposed on all of Palestinian society after the elections diverted Palestinian discontent from Hamas to Israel, a direction it is apt to go in any case due to the realities of occupation. Moreover, whatever dissatisfaction Palestinians had with Hamas, it paled before the fact that Israel and the US, two countries which extol the virtues of democracy, were unwilling to respect the Palestinians’ democratic decision. Add to this the fact that the only alternative offered to the Palestinians was the same Fatah, largely unchanged, that they had just voted out and you have a mix that reinforces Hamas rule, despite the flaws in that rule.

Gaza In The Crossfire

In the wake of Hamas’ takeover of Gaza, Israel eased sanctions on the West Bank and strengthened them on Gaza, exacerbating the split between Fatah and Hamas. This course was pursued with the full backing of the Fatah-led government in Ramallah. The obsession, shared by all the forces opposed to Hamas, with defeating Hamas was and is understandable. But in the near term, and quite possibly in the long term as well, it also renders moot any peace negotiations, as Hamas represents too big a chunk of the Palestinian population to be completely excluded.

But this course was pursued, and Hamas played its part with its murderous and pointless campaign of rocket fire against Sderot. Incredibly, left-wing apologists argue that qassam rockets have killed “only” thirteen Israelis. Leaving aside the fact that the only reason that figure is as low as it is is that the various groups firing at Sderot and other Negev sites do not possess the capability to increase the number, it should be clear that one death is too many and targeting and killing civilians is as immoral for one side as it is for the other. Apologists for qassam fire and their doppelgangers on the other side offering similar apologetics for the collective punishment of Gaza’s civilians are a major cog in the engine of perpetual violence.

The ongoing qassam fire was offered as the justification for Israel’s increasing sanctions on Gaza, and the escalation of those rockets similarly provided the justification for Israel’s decision to cut off fuel supplies and stop almost all traffic of goods into Gaza in mid-January.

This set the immediate stage for the dramatic shattering of the Rafah wall, but the political situation was an odd configuration that raises all the complications from this event.

Egypt’s Dilemma

While Israel controls most of the crossings into and out of Gaza, since most of them lead into Israel, the Rafah crossing, which traverses the Gaza-Egypt border, is administered by a combination of Egyptian presence, Israeli supervision and international monitoring. The crossing is a major point of contention, as its control is a central Hamas demand which Egypt and Israel oppose, as they see such control as legitimizing Hamas control of Gaza.

But as sanctions starved the people of Gaza, and humanitarian conditions there continued a decline from already poor conditions, the Egyptian government had to contend with growing resentment among its own populace, which saw the government as complicit in the oppression of the Palestinians by Israel. Matters were complicated by Israeli complaints about weapons being smuggled into Gaza. Yet Israel refused to allow an increase in Egyptian troop power in the Sinai (a matter governed by the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty). No doubt, some Egyptian troops, sympathetic to Palestinian deprivation in Gaza, turned a blind eye or were willing to be bribed to allow smuggling (which included cash, foodstuffs, and cigarettes as well as arms). But smuggling is a problem for virtually all countries and no one has been able to solve it effectively. The Israeli complaints (which were even followed up by lobbying in Washington that led to withholding of $100 million in aid to Egypt) were not particularly reasonable and they put a severe strain on Israel’s relations with Egypt, a country it has had a durable peace treaty with for a quarter-century.

Egypt finds itself in a very difficult position. The Muslim Brotherhood is the leading opposition force within Egypt, and current events play very well for the Brotherhood. This is something Israel needs to consider, but apparently is not, when dealing with Egypt on the matter of the Gaza border.

A little-reported meeting in Gaza after the wall was breached must have sent shivers down the spine of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Representatives of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood were now able to go to Gaza to meet with their Hamas counterparts. This simple show of solidarity is precisely what Egypt fears, as it portrays the Brotherhood as supporting Palestinians under siege while casting Mubarak in the role of Israeli agent.

Mubarak had little choice but to accept the breach in the wall for at least a few days, and allow the Gazans to stock up on goods. He moved as soon as he could to re-seal the wall, but the delay clearly displeased Israeli leaders. Israel needs to adopt a more reasonable posture here. They may have an agreement with Egypt regarding the border, but they can’t expect Egypt to put Israeli concerns ahead of their own. Israel would also do well to bear in mind that Egypt is just as worried, albeit for different reasons and in a different way, about Hamas’ rising prestige as Israel is. A more cooperative and understanding posture would go a long way toward helping both countries find more effective ways to deal with Hamas, something that recent events only enhance the importance of.

In The Wake Of The Rubble

Egypt has now managed to patch up the wall. Israel is maintaining its closure policy, although it has relented to allow a bit more supplies of food, fuel, and medicine in on a regular basis. So how do we view this event?

Recalling where we started, the picture of a popular uprising against the siege is somewhat distorted. This was an action led and pulled off by Hamas. Given the conditions in Gaza, any breach in the wall was sure to lead to a massive flow of people into Egypt. This was no popular action, but rather the result of hungry people taking advantage of an opportunity that Hamas provided them. Reports indicate Hamas was working to plant the explosives that blew a hole in the stockade wall for some time.

Israeli officials almost immediately issued a warning that Hamas was sending its militants into the Sinai so they could launch attacks on Israelis now that there was a route through Egypt from Gaza to Israel. The reports, apparently, were based on assumption, not intelligence data, but it is not an unreasonable assumption to make. It certainly seems logical that Hamas would do just that to open their options up.

But if Hamas follows up with some attack inside Israel’s borders from Sinai they would undermine much of the gain they just made. Hamas, known so well for its suicide bombings and other attacks on Israeli civilians, used explosives here to open a path for those under its rule to get the food and supplies they need. This is a very different tactic and one that can greatly enhance Hamas’ standing and make it much more difficult for others to ignore them. It is far too much to hope that this action will really convince Hamas that other paths are more useful (let alone more ethical) than attacking civilians, but if such is an option they pursue at least on some occasions rather than attacking Israelis, this is all to the good.

Of perhaps greater importance is that this action was perfectly timed to coincide with a convoy of Israeli peace activists protesting the siege on Gaza and attempting to bring supplies into the Strip. A light has been shone on the policy of closure and what it has done to the people of Gaza.

There have been some technical arguments advanced by supporters of Israeli policy as to whether or not Israel’s sealing off of Gaza constitutes a violation of international law and can properly be defined as “collective punishment.” I will not engage those arguments here. What is more important is that whether or not those arguments hold water, it is axiomatic that the total closure of Gaza, the barring of Gazans’ use of their airspace and coastline and the complete cutoff of all routes for export and import do, in fact, impact the civilian population of Gaza severely. What these actions have not proven themselves effective at is in diminishing Hamas or slowing down rocket fire on southern Israel. If they are permissible under international law, then international law needs to be revised.

Defenders of Israel’s current policy on Gaza claim that the belligerence and aggression of Hamas is to blame for the suffering of the people of Gaza and that Israel is merely responding. Even if one were to accept that argument (a dubious one at best) you still have a situation where the Israeli policy is causing great hardship to innocent people while doing nothing to advance Israel’s security, defend its civilians in the Negev or retrieve its kidnapped soldier. Thus, even if one can justify the policies as defensive, they remain stupid and immoral.

Some will argue that Israel cannot simply stand by and do nothing as Sderot is shelled, and that everyone complains when Israel launches attacks on Gaza, especially if civilians get hurt in those raids. Thus, Israel is doing what it can to protect the citizens of Sderot.

Nonsense. Both the rockets from Gaza and the siege of Gaza do nothing to deter the other. They are seized upon by the other side to justify their own actions, but they have conclusively proven that they deter nothing. They can, however, lead to escalation. A particularly bloody raid by Israel, after many smaller ones had done nothing to stem the flow of qassam rockets from Gaza, prompted two days of accelerated missile launchings at the southern Negev, which in turn prompted Israel’s intensification of closure on Gaza. On both sides, nothing was gained but more terror and misery on the other side. If that is all you can accomplish with your action, then yes, stand by and do nothing rather than kill people for no reason or gain, but simply out of a need for reprisal and vengeance. But there are options, as we’ll see below.

While, to be sure, the hysterical rantings of many in the anti-Israel camp (who not infrequently used the obviously untrue term “genocide” to describe what was happening in Gaza) vastly overstated the case (and, as is typical, caused a reaction that helped minimize what should have been the intense visceral impact of what actually was happening in Gaza), the bursting of the Rafah wall (Rafah is the city that is divided between Gaza and Egypt) put Israel on the defensive. Internal criticism of the closure policy has increased as has global criticism.

The policy of choking off all of Gaza’s economic avenues and compromising its ability to receive international aid has failed, and failed dramatically. It is understandable that Israel refuses to negotiate peace with a faction that refuses to consider true peace. But Israel owes it to its citizens, to itself and to its erstwhile allies to find a way to work out a cease-fire with Hamas and figure out how the Palestinian Authority can pursue a genuine settlement through negotiations that are representative of the full Palestinian population, including Hamas supporters, to work toward a real peace.

This is not impossible, either from the Israeli or the Hamas point of view. Hamas has held to a cease-fire in the recent past. Israel’s reluctance, based on the idea that Hamas would use a cease-fire to entrench its hold on Gaza and enhance its own military capabilities is not unreasonable. But one might note that the current situation isn’t doing very much to stop Hamas from pursuing those same objectives, but Sderot is seeing missiles coming at it on a daily basis. It seems sensible to gain what security can be gained in the short term when it is not costing anything significant in the long term. The alternative, as we have seen, is continued dire poverty and misery in Gaza and ongoing terror in Sderot, and perhaps more of southern Israel going forward.

Epilogue

One last point should be considered in light of recent events. One of the bases of the two-state solution has always been, in the words of Yitzhak Rabin, “Us here and you there.” The idea sounds simple, but it isn’t. Before 1948, there were, in essence, two economies in Palestine, one Zionist and one Palestinian. Though the two overlapped and interacted to some extent, they were largely separate. Once Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip, however, it created something very different, a single, stratified economy.

The economy of the West Bank and Gaza quickly became dependent on Israel. At first, this could be viewed as a positive development for the Palestinians there, as employment and the concomitant standard of living rose sharply in the 1970s. But it also meant that the Palestinians became economically dependent on Israel, a condition most occupying powers usually try to avoid by developing local institutions and creating local economic elites.

Israel had captured territory in 1967 that it wanted, but that territory came with a population that Israel did not want. This is the fundamental paradox of the occupation for Israel. By the time any serious thought was given in Israel to ceding occupied territory, the complete economic dependence of Palestinians on Israel was established. One of the reasons for the precipitous decline in Palestinian standards of living since the signing of the Oslo Accord in 1993 is the fact that there is no alternative to extensive Palestinian employment in Israel, and Israel, in the wake of the first intifada, has moved aggressively to replace Palestinian labor with foreign workers.

A compliment of this issue is the fact that some 40% of Israel’s water supply comes from aquifers that are either completely or significantly under the West Bank.

The recent events in Gaza highlight this issue. Israel may have withdrawn its settlements and military installations from within Gaza, but it still has supreme power over the territory. Israel controls the airspace and shoreline and the population of Gaza remains dependent on Israel for its electricity and water.

This puts me in mind of an incident I experienced at a conference I spoke at in 2007. I made the point that separation from Israel is not so simple a matter for Palestinians because the Palestinians do not have the economic, or for that matter, the political and institutional infrastructure to stand on its own at this point. One of my fellow speakers, a Palestinian-American minister, said words to the effect of “just give us the land and we’ll manage on our own.” This sort of impractical approach is present on both sides and ignores the basic realities on the ground. It is no put-down of the Palestinians to point out that they simply do not have the infrastructure, the tools, which they need to build their own state right now.

On January 30, the Jerusalem Post even reported that Benjamin Netanyahu, of all people, pointed out that the situation can be improved by Israel helping to build a strong Palestinian economy. True, Netanyahu made the point in order to advance an alternative to actually giving the Palestinians a sovereign state, but the point still holds.

In Gaza, there is no denying that Israel controls indispensable resources. This is not a tenable situation, while the conflict is growing more violent and Gaza, in particular, is both the nexus of attacks on Israel and the focus of Israeli retribution. There needs to be a sustainable Palestinian economy in the West Bank and Gaza together, and this is true whether the occupation ends tomorrow or years from now.