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.”

The New Islamic State (aka ISIS or ISIL)

I haven’t been paying much attention to the latest crisis in the Middle East. That’s the one involving the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The Levant, by the way, includes Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Cyprus and part of southern Turkey.

As of now, the Islamic State is more of a military force than a nation. They’re fundamentalist Sunni Muslims, mainly funded by sympathizers in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. Their apparent goal is to create a new Muslim empire or “caliphate”. So far, they control significant portions of Iraq and Syria. Lately, they’ve been putting extreme pressure on the Yezidis or Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking ethnic group in northern Iraq. The Yezidis aren’t Muslims. They practice an ancient religion related to Zoroastrianism. To protect the Yezidis, the United States is now carrying out airlifts and airstrikes. President Obama doesn’t see a quick end to this latest conflict or American involvement.

Here are excerpts from an article by Patrick Cockburn in the London Review of Books:

As the attention of the world focused on Ukraine and Gaza, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captured a third of Syria in addition to the quarter of Iraq it had seized in June. The frontiers of the new Caliphate declared by ISIS on 29 June are expanding by the day and now cover an area larger than Great Britain and inhabited by at least six million people… In a few weeks of fighting in Syria, ISIS has established itself as the dominant force in the Syrian opposition….The Caliphate may be poor and isolated but its oil wells and control of crucial roads provide a steady income in addition to the plunder of war.

The birth of the new state is the most radical change to the political geography of the Middle East since the Sykes-Picot Agreement was implemented in the aftermath of the First World War. Yet this explosive transformation has created surprisingly little alarm internationally or even among those in Iraq and Syria not yet under the rule of Isis. Politicians and diplomats tend to treat Isis as if it is a Bedouin raiding party that appears dramatically from the desert, wins spectacular victories and then retreats to its strongholds leaving the status quo little changed. Such a scenario is conceivable but is getting less and less likely as Isis consolidates its hold on its new conquests in an area that may soon stretch from Iran to the Mediterranean.

The very speed and unexpectedness of its rise make it easy for Western and regional leaders to hope that the fall of ISIS and the implosion of the Caliphate might be equally sudden and swift. But all the evidence is that this is wishful thinking and the trend is in the other direction, with the opponents of ISIS becoming weaker and less capable of resistance…

With weapons taken from the Iraqi army and the seizure of Syrian oil and gasfields, ISIS no longer needs so much outside help. For America, Britain and the Western powers, the rise of ISIS and the Caliphate is the ultimate disaster. Whatever they intended by their invasion of Iraq in 2003 and their efforts to get rid of Assad in Syria since 2011, it was not to see the creation of a jihadi state spanning northern Iraq and Syria run by a movement a hundred times bigger and much better organised than the al-Qaida of Osama bin Laden.

Calling the rise of ISIS or ISIL “the ultimate disaster” for the United States and Europe sounds more like overstatement than British understatement, but the creation of a fundamentalist Islamic state that aims to forge a new Muslim empire intolerant of religious minorities certainly isn’t good news. The vacuum we created by getting rid of Saddam Hussein seems to be filling up. 

Criticizing Israel and the Fundamental Problem

Max Blumenthal is the 35-year-old son of former Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal. The younger Blumenthal published his second book in October. It’s called Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel.

In an interview at Salon, he discusses the right-ward shift in Israeli politics, the rise of some scary racism and the reaction to his book. The Amazon reviews indicate the reaction the book is getting:

5 stars…………71
4 stars…………..7
3 stars…………..3
2 stars…………..4
1 star…………..65

That’s what’s called a “distinct pattern”.

What interested me most about the interview was Blumenthal’s description of Israel as a “settler colonial ethnocracy”. That is, after all, an accurate description of colonial America’s treatment of both the native population and African slaves. It’s doubtful that the Indians or slaves would have considered the United States to be a straightforward constitutional democracy.

Blumenthal points out an important difference between America and Israel, however. He says that the Israeli government’s official policy is to maintain a Jewish population in the country of at least 70%. The United States has controlled immigration, but has never had a policy aiming at a specific percentage of the population being, for example, white Christians.

This demographic policy, Blumenthal argues, leads to oppressive policies toward Palestinians, non-Jewish Africans and, most recently, Bedouins:

The Jewish state requires [holding non-Jews] in detention centers like the Saronim, where thousands of non-Jewish Africans are staying right now in shipping containers in the Negev desert; or the Prawer Plan, which mandates the removal of 30- to 40,000 veteran [Bedouin] citizens of Israel to Indian reservation-style communities from their ancestral lands; or the fact that Palestinians face constant home demolitions — we’re talking about 26,000 home demolitions since 1967. The Jewish state mandates the creation of the separation wall, which is said to prevent “demographic spillover”; and it requires the Gaza Strip to be under siege perpetually, because 80 percent of its population is refugees who have legitimate claims to the land and property inside what is now the state of Israel.

(Note: Demonstrations against the Prawer Plan were in the news recently.)

I haven’t been able to confirm Israel’s 70% demographic target, but did find an article by Israel’s most respected demographer, Sergio DellaPergola, a professor at Hebrew University. He lays out the basic existential issue Israel faces (putting aside any threats from its neighbors):

…it has been suggested that [Israel] faces a conundrum because it has three fundamental goals, but can achieve only two of the three at the same time. The three goals are to preserve the Israeli state’s Jewish identity, democratic character, and territorial extent.

Thus, Israel can choose to apply a Jewish cultural identity to the whole territory and population between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, but in that case it cannot be a democracy. Israel can opt for the same territorial extension and apply to all residents the democratic principle of “one man, one vote,” but in that case it will not be a Jewish state. Or Israel can choose to be a Jewish and democratic state, but in that case it will have to withdraw sovereignty from significant parts of the territory and population.

Professor DellaPergola points out that 1947’s U.N. resolution 181 called for the establishment of a Jewish state, an Arab state and a U.N.-administered area around Jerusalem (in the diagram below, the proposed Jewish state is yellow and the Arab state is gray). The 1948-49 war resulted in Israel expanding its borders beyond those in the U.N. resolution. DellaPerfogla believes that “the real bone of contention is what happened in 1947-1949, not the outcome of the Six Day War in June 1967”.


If the non-Jews living in Palestine and surrounding regions back in 1947 had welcomed the creation of Israel, the Middle East would be a much calmer place today. They didn’t and it isn’t.

Responding to the Use of Chemical Weapons (3rd Edition)

Getting killed or maimed by a chemical weapon isn’t necessarily worse than being killed or maimed by a bullet or high explosive. Being aware of their terrible effects, however, almost all countries have agreed not to use chemical weapons. And despite the fact that we’ve been lied to before by our political leaders (for example, regarding the Gulf of Tonkin incident and Iraq’s weapons program), it seems likely that President Obama is telling the truth and correctly interpreting the evidence that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons — to devastating effect.

Before the President spoke yesterday, I would have bet that he was going to tell the Navy to launch cruise missiles against targets in Syria. Other presidents have made similar decisions, without Congressional approval and certainly without a declaration of war. That can be the right thing for a President to do in extraordinary circumstances. Yet I was hoping that Obama would wait for the report of the U.N. inspectors and also seek approval from Congress. If it’s clear that the Syrian government launched this attack, there should be a response, but that response doesn’t need to be immediate. It should also be a response supported by Congress, since we’re supposed to be a democracy.

Now there will be a debate in Congress. as well as a continuing debate in the media. We’ll hear many good reasons why the United States shouldn’t do anything, and some very good reasons for doing something. Maybe this will be one of those cases in which the “wisdom of crowds” will result in a good decision, even an improvement on what the President wants to do. Unfortunately, Congress, especially this Congress, rarely does anything wise.

This is the third time I’ve written this post, after deleting it twice. There is a strong moral case for doing something to stop the Syrian government and other governments from using chemical weapons, even though that may be a difficult thing to do and there will be unforeseeable consequences. We can’t know yet whether those possible consequences tip the scale toward doing nothing. 

The truth is that I don’t know what I’d do if I were Obama or a member of Congress. What’s happening in Syria (and Egypt, Iraq, etc.) may be so sick and so irrational that there is nothing for the rest of us to do but watch, hoping that these people will get tired of hating and killing each other or that someone will eventually exert control over the situation. One of those things might happen, probably after we’re dead and gone.