An Israeli on Failure in Gaza and the Way Out

Assaf Sharon, a philosophy professor at Tel Aviv University, has an article in the New York Review of Books concerning the recent violence in the Gaza Strip and the only realistic way to resolve the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Below are extended selections from “Failure in Gaza”, which is available in full here:

“In Israel, endless controversy over Gaza has overlooked one question: How did we get here in the first place? Why, after a considerable period of relative calm, did Hamas resume rocket fire into Israel?”

“Before the current operation began, Hamas was at one of the lowest points in its history….In these circumstances, Hamas agreed last April to reconciliation with its political rival Fatah, based on Fatah’s terms. For example, the agreement called for a government of technocrats largely under the control of the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas.”

“But Benjamin Netanyahu viewed the reconciliation as a threat rather than an opportunity….He saw the reconciliation with Hamas as an opportunity to criticize the Palestinian president…. As soon as the reconciliation was announced, Netanyahu launched a public offensive against Palestinian unity and demanded that the international community oppose it….”

“Netanyahu could have chosen a different path. He could have used the reconciliation to reinforce Abbas’s position and further destabilize Hamas. He could, in recognition of the agreement, have encouraged Egypt to open its border with Gaza in order to demonstrate to Gazans that the Palestinian Authority offered a better life than Hamas. Instead, Israel prevented the transfer of salaries to 43,000 Hamas officials in Gaza, sending a clear message that Israel would not treat Gaza any differently under the rule of moderate technocrats from the Palestinian Authority.”

“The abduction of three Israeli youths in the West Bank on June 12 gave Netanyahu another opportunity to undermine the reconciliation…. Despite the statement by … the Hamas political bureau chief, that the Hamas political leadership did not know of the plans to carry out the abduction, Netanyahu was quick to lay the blame on Hamas, declaring that Israel had ‘unequivocal proof’ that the organization was involved in the abduction.”

“As yet, Israeli authorities have produced no such proof and the involvement of the Hamas leadership in the kidnapping remains unclear. While the individuals suspected of having carried out the kidnapping are associated with Hamas, some of the evidence suggests that they may have been acting on their own initiative and not under the direction of Hamas’s central leadership. Regardless of this, Netanyahu’s response, apparently driven by the ill-advised aim of undermining Palestinian reconciliation, was reckless.”

“Determined to achieve by force what he failed to accomplish through diplomacy, Netanyahu not only blamed Hamas, but linked the abduction to Palestinian reconciliation, as if the two events were somehow causally related. ‘Sadly, this incident illustrates what we have been saying for months,’ he stated, ‘that the alliance with Hamas has extremely grave consequences’. Israeli security forces were in possession of evidence strongly indicating the teens were dead, but withheld this information from the public until July 1….”

“On the prime minister’s orders, IDF forces raided Hamas’s civil and welfare offices throughout the West Bank and arrested hundreds of Hamas leaders and operatives. These arrests did not help to locate the abductors or their captives. Among the arrested were fifty-eight Palestinians previously released as part of the deal to return the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who had been a captive of Hamas since 2006.”

“As part of this ill-conceived operation against Hamas, Israel also mounted air strikes on Hamas facilities in Gaza. Apparently, Hamas did not take an active part in firing rockets for more than two weeks, although it did not prevent other factions in Gaza from firing. Only on June 29 or 30 did Hamas restart the rocket bombardment of Israeli territory, which it had not engaged in since November 2012. Israel retaliated against Hamas in Gaza and a vicious cycle began. Netanyahu lost control over an escalation he had instigated. In his badly misjudged eagerness to blame Abbas and punish him for reconciling with Hamas, Netanyahu turned a vicious but local terrorist attack into a runaway crisis….”

….

“Israel’s conduct throughout the crisis has been based directly on Netanyahu’s philosophy of ‘conflict management’, whose underlying premise is that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians cannot be solved, but can be effectively ‘managed’ for a very long period of time. This feeble, not to mention defeatist, assumption is not only wrong but also dangerous, trapping Israel in an illusion that is shattered time and again. ‘Control’ and ‘stability’ only exist between each inevitable round of violence. In fact, recurring rounds of violence are inherent to this approach.”

“’Conflict management’ means continued Israeli control over the Palestinians in Gaza and in the West Bank, with the inevitable reality of organizations and factions struggling to overthrow that control. Under the illusion that the conflict is being managed, opportunities for change provided by calm periods are squandered….” 

“So long as Hamas is willing to use terror against innocent Israeli civilians and so long as it refuses to recognize the State of Israel, it will not be a ‘partner’ for peace. But it could be partner to interest-based agreements requiring it to modify its behavior, as many academic and security experts claim. In fact, despite Netanyahu’s being the most vocal opponent of dialogue with Gazan terror organizations, it was he who reached two agreements with Hamas: the 2011 Shalit deal and the 2012 agreement that ended Operation Pillar of Defense…” 

“A long-term resolution with respect to Gaza requires changing its political predicament. The only sensible way of doing this is to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, a state whose existence would be negotiated with the Palestine Liberation Organization under Abbas’s leadership. As part of a comprehensive political agreement, Hamas is very likely to agree to a long-term truce, as its representatives have repeatedly said.”

“In 1997, its founder and spiritual leader Ahmad Yassin suggested a thirty-year hudna (truce) with Israel. In 2006, one of its leaders, Mahmoud al-Zahar, proposed a ‘long-term hudna’. Earlier this year, Sheikh Hassan Yousef, a senior Hamas functionary in the West Bank, reiterated the organization’s willingness for a hudna and said the organization was willing to accept a peace agreement with Israel if a majority of Palestinians supported it. In 2010, in an interview with a Muslim Brotherhood daily circulated in Jordan, Hamas’s political leader Khaled Mashal expressed pragmatic views and willingness to reach an agreement with Israel. In late July, he [said] ‘We want peace without occupation, without settlements, without Judaization, without the siege’.”

“All these proposals were contingent on ending the Israeli occupation and establishing a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. They received no response from Israel. Although a Palestinian state contradicts Netanyahu’s ideological commitments and conflicts with his own political interests, a state is clearly in Israel’s interest….”

“The historic conflict with the Palestinians will not be settled by a single agreement. Reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians—overcoming decades of bloodshed and hatred—will require a long process of acceptance and forgiveness spanning years and probably decades. The armed conflict, however, can certainly be ended. Israel has already ended armed conflicts with several neighboring countries: with some, like Egypt and Jordan, it achieved comprehensive peace agreements; with others, it agreed to other kinds of accords.”

“An agreement can be reached with the Palestinians, too: the terms are known and the price is fixed. Whether it is reached or not is a matter of political will on the part of Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Unfortunately, Israel’s current leadership will do anything to avoid this choice, to the detriment of both peoples.”

“The war in Gaza is, fundamentally, not about tunnels and not against rockets. It is a war over the status quo. Netanyahu’s ‘conflict management’ is a euphemism for maintaining a status quo of settlement and occupation, allowing no progress. The Israeli opposition must distance itself from this hopeless conception and other countries need to reject it. Both must be done forcefully and before violence erupts once more, and force becomes the only option—yet again.”