Gaza On My Mind: Old Hopes, Mistaken Assumptions, and New Ideas on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

At the point of departure they left me with thorns of remembrance and never returned.

—Mahmoud Darwish

Hopes for peace were soaring in 2004 when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel began evacuating 8000 Israeli settlers from Gaza. As Western newspapers depicted wailing Israeli settlers, bemoaning their betrayal while waiting for government checks to soften their move from Gaza, the evacuation was accompanied by nearly universal acclamation. It seemed like the first step in the creation of a Palestinian State. Only a year later, however, those hopes have vanished. Control was kept by Israel over the roads, air-space, electricity, and borders of Gaza. With the approval of the United States, 12,000 more Israelis settled on the West Bank thus effectively freezing the political process that would lead to the creation of an independent Palestine. The Palestinians were not fooled: the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza was not the prelude to a peace deal with the Palestinian Authority but to further Zionist expansion and redrawing the borders of a “Greater Israel.”

Peace now looks even further away than ever. Western media has embraced the Israeli version of events: that it had no choice but to invade Gaza in response to consistent violations of a cease-fire by Hamas, a cease-fire that this “terrorist” organization refused to extend, and that it was acting in the name of an international assault against terrorism. But the deal was that, if Hamas ceased its rocket fire, Israel would ease its embargo: Hamas did radically reduce its attacks and Israel only strengthened its blockage; Hamas declared itself willing to rekindle negotiations; Israel closed the door. Hamas may have acted less out of calculation than bravado, and crude organizational self-interest, but Israeli leaders were motivated far less by international concerns with opposing terror in order to further the pursuit of peace than gaining ground against their right-wing rivals in the February elections. [1]

With the Israeli aerial assault on Gaza in December of 2008, following the closing of its borders, a humanitarian crisis has occurred that many feel has eradicated the possibility of a “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 1,300 Gazans have been killed including well over 200 children as against 13 Israelis and 3 civilians.  1.5 million Gazans are now cramped into a coastal strip of 140 square miles of land that is bereft of resources and infrastructure. 49% of Gazan citizens are unemployed; the World Food Program estimates that 35-60% of Gazan agriculture has been destroyed; 80% earn less than $2 per day; 100,000 have abandoned their homes; 22,000 buildings have been destroyed, and the damages according to UNICEF now amount to roughly $2 billion. Electricity food, fuel, water, medical supplies, and sanitation services have been dramatically reduced. Gaza is in ruins and its citizens are living in what is tantamount to an outdoor prison. [2]

There is no need to stoke the flames with misplaced historical analogies that compare what is happening in Gaza with the “holocaust.” Things are bad enough and many Gazans are undoubtedly feeling a sense of déjà vu. Most of them are descended from those who experienced the catastrophic expulsion (nachba) from Israel in 1947-8. That was the first time Israel invaded Gaza; it happened again in 1956 and 1967 and, most recently, in 2006. But today is not yesterday. Palestine is now both geographically and ideologically divided. Elections that had been called by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah party controlled the West Bank, wound up giving Hamas power in over the Palestinian National Authority Legislature with 43% of the vote. In March 2007, Hamas and Fatah formed a national unity government that was ready to negotiate a long-term ceasefire with Israel. But the Gazans had apparently voted the wrong way. Israel and the “quartet” of allegedly concerned peacemakers – the European Union, United Nations, Russia, and the United States – refused to recognize or engage in negotiations with a government that included a “terrorist” organization. Attempts to form a unity government between these two branches of the Palestinian Authority collapsed amid fighting in the streets between Hamas and Fatah in Gaza that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia termed “more dangerous than Israeli aggression.”[3] Fatah is notorious for its corruption and Hamas has taken toward assassinating “collaborators” in Gaza. Conflict between the two organizations has raged over the interminable character and negligible results of negotiations with Israel, and – perhaps most importantly — a profound division concerning the future of Palestine. Hamas was not invited to the Annapolis Conference that President George W. Bush put together in 2008 to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.[4] Suspicion concerning the quartet’s commitment to peace was only compounded by its tacit endorsement of Israel’s blockade that gradually tightened after a truce was established in June of 2008 that was accompanied by a suspension of suicide bombings, and even rocket fire into Israel.

The cease-fire failed. Desperate to assert its organizational interests as the representative of the Palestinians, provoked by the killing of its partisans and the mass arrests of its supporters in the West Bank, Hamas once again began its rocket-fire on Ashkelon, Beer Sheva, and Siderot. More is involved than the military ineffectiveness of the strategy. This problematic decision on the part of Hamas and its allies like Islamic Jihad demonstrates how the current Palestinian state in waiting lacks the most essential element of any modern state: a single set of institutions that retains what Max Weber termed a “legitimate monopoly over the means of coercion.” Three states – not two – define the current crisis in Israeli-Palestinian relations –thereby dramatically complicating the pursuit of a just peace and a “two-state solution.” Israel could have renegotiated the truce by opening the borders of Gaza to humanitarian aid and the basic necessities of life. But its decision on Gaza was shaped by its broader tactic of stalling and delaying negotiations with Fatah on the fate of the West Bank and a Palestinian state. These deadening peace negotiations with Fatah enervated the peace movement. With elections in February of 2009 coming up, the trio running the present government – Ehud Barak of the Labor Party and Tzipi Livni and Ehud Olmert of the centrist Kadema Pary—knew its primary threat was Binjimin Netanyahu of the staunchly anti-concession and militarist Likud Party. This trio of leaders saw an opportunity and took it. Responding to the rocket fire of Hamas seemed a way for Labor and Kadima to undercut their right-wing rival. They had little to lose in mounting an attack. To be sure: the United States and the rest of the Quartet publicly chastised Israel for expanding its settlements and publicly praised Fatah for its “moderation.” But the Israel government knew that it would suffer no practical curtailment of economic or military aid. Its leaders also knew that an invasion would secure the division of Gaza from the West Bank, compromise the character of the existing Palestinian state in waiting, and shatter the (always fragile) unity of the Palestinian enterprise for national self-determination. Perhaps they even anticipated the added benefit: preoccupation with the savagery of the assault and the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza would actually deflect concern with the creation of an independent Palestine.[5]

Israel cannot be simultaneously treated as having lost a battle and decimated its enemy or the infrastructure of its enemy: moralism doesn’t help in making sense of the conflict and numbers don’t lie when it comes to determining the “loser.” Abolishing Hamas was, I think, never a serious objective. But Israel did wish to weaken the military power of Hamas—and that it did. Israeli losses were insignificant, by contrast, both in terms of casualties and infrastructure. Some have suggested that Israeli actions have imperiled its most basic strategic needs: the protection of its citizens, its deterrent power, its international support, and the prospect of peace. But this is rather naïve – and it certainly doesn’t take into account the assumptions of right-wing Zionists and their allies. Israeli citizens are protected at least relative to the Palestinians. And, even should Hamas rockets strike deeper into Israel, this will only build national resolve and unity. Outbreaks of genuine anti-Semitism like the arson attack against the main synagogue in Caracas, meanwhile, are grist for the propaganda mill of reactionary Jewish organizations. As for deterrence: Israel has always relied on its ability to launch pre-emptive strikes and military interventions– and, concerns over international support notwithstanding, there is no reason to assume that its behavior will change given what has occurred in Gaza. Saudi Arabia has refused attempts to place an embargo on Israel and, in spite of the turbulence, relations with Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey remain firm. These countries may have balked in response to pressures from their citizenry, but they have grown remarkably quiet. That Qatar and Mauritania have suspended relations will surely not produce sleepless nights in Israel. If it were the United States, of course, that would be another matter entirely—and there is finally some debate over the level of spending for Israel. But the Obama Administration will surely not cut off aid, the various boycotts are more symbolic than real in their impact, and Israel has already been the subject of countless resolutions by the United Nations. With respect to international support, moreover, right-wing Zionists have always assumed that the goyim are untrustworthy (if not latent anti-Semites) and that the creation of an independent Palestine will burden Israel with an enduring security problem. This kind of thinking simply takes the Israeli establishment at its word—and ignores the obvious reality: its political mainstream has no real interest in an equitable peace with the Palestinians.

Everything becomes clear once the image of Israel as the nation intent upon securing peace is called into question –and Hamas is seen as (for its own purposes) playing into the hands of the imperialist enemy. Saudi Arabia put forward a plan that would have given formal recognition from all members of the Arab League in exchange for withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders, a partition of Jerusalem, a halt in settlement construction, and recognition of the “right of return” by Palestinians living in exile.[6] Virtually every activist and scholar concerned with establishing a two-state solution knows that these are the parameters in which it will take place. The basis for any future “security” of Israel lies in the formal recognition of the country; Jerusalem is already partitioned de facto and its religious diversity requires formal expression and guarantees;[7] land swaps with relatively tiny amounts of territory involved can deal with current settlements but, obviously, the possibility of bringing about a sovereign Palestine must preclude further settlements; and, as for the contentious “right of return,” plans could bad developed that would exchange monetary compensation for making the choice not to return. The point is that the basic issues underpinning a settlement have already been articulated both specifically and in an integrated fashion. But Israel refused even to discuss, let alone endorse, the Saudi proposal. The Israeli right has no wish to see a Palestinian state: Zionist settlements are viewed as steps toward building a “greater Israel” and supporters of this vision often threaten armed violence against the state in the face of demands for expelling settlers and transferring territory to the Arabs. But this “greater Israel” lies far in the future. Thus, the only tactic for the Israeli right in the present is to delay all progress in reaching an agreement with the Palestinians

Exploding the possibility of peace is the real motive behind the Gazan invasion – and Israel is the primary culprit for what transpired. Its callous disregard of international law, its imperialist arrogance, and its disproportionate use of violence in seeking “security” are undeniable. It is Israel that began the attack; it is Israel that has engaged in what the late Baruch Kimmerling has termed “sociocide;” and it is Israel that must bear responsibility for its actions. There is a legitimate case to be made that those who authorized the outrages in Gaza should be forced to stand trial for crimes against humanity. Legitimate fear that the Saudi proposal has no chance of success combined with genuine outrage over the ferocious assault on Gaza has, perhaps predictably, produced a swing in world opinion to Hamas along with more than a bit of exaggeration and posturing by those concerned with the plight of Palestinians. Too many well meaning people have begun to praise Hamas as the vanguard of the “resistance;” condemn moderation as “treason;” and treat the “two state solution” as an anachronism. Hamas was also undoubtedly the recipient of popular support among Gazans disgusted with Fatah and policies of the Bush Administration that crudely intervened in the electoral process, tacitly endorsed an expansion of Israeli settlements, imposed sanctions on Syria, discouraged negotiations, and essentially proved complicit in the embargo of Gaza.[8] Having said that, however, does not justify romantic nonsense about the “resistance” – especially by those safely at a distance from the action — or the usual claims that Hamas is at least “doing something.”

The question remains: what is Hamas actually doing? It has indeed provided social services for the residents of Gaza—that have now been obliterated by the invasion. It has represented the spirit of Palestinian resistance – that has been undermined by its internecine warfare with Fatah. It appears as the principled opponent of an imperialism –but its vacillation on recognizing Israel and its ambivalence on the two state solution, coupled with its moral justification of violence and anti-Semitic rhetoric, has fostered the kind of distrust and uncertainty that legitimates the Israeli right. Hamas has strengthened its hand in the Palestinian Authority as surely as the Israeli right has secured control over its country’s political landscape. Both dance around the need to recognize the other and the “two state solution” by essentially claiming that they will come on board if the majority of the citizenry endorses it – even as each does everything possible to undermine the possibility of achieving that consensus. Hamas is objectively playing into the hands of the Israeli right. If the Israeli government has shown itself as composed of unprincipled imperialists impervious to the suffering of Gazan citizens, however, then Hamas has acted like a shyster lawyer grabbing the limelight while his increasingly impoverished client is made to bear the costs of a seemingly endless trial. Its policy of launching rockets into Israel as a symbolic continuation of the “resistance” not only undermined Fatah, and provided its enemy with a pretext for military action, but also disrupted the formation of a Palestinian state in waiting and any latent prospect of peace.

Since it was formed in 1987, the identity of Hamas has rested on its Islamic convictions and its opposition to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It has refused to recognize the existence of Israel; explicitly embraced violence as a morally justifiable tactic and — more important– denied the legitimacy of all precedents for settling the Israeli/ Palestinian conflict (including United Nations Security Council Resolution #242). Neither Israel nor the United States, it is perhaps worth noting, should be giving lectures on the dangers of missionary zeal, violence, or the sanctity of UN resolutions. Hamas is not monolithic and there are clear openings for negotiations. Hamas has never tried to impose Sharia law; it has (in fact) often negotiated with Israel in the past; it is willing to consider a ceasefire of up to 50 years with Israel; and its leadership has openly stated that a two-state solution is acceptable should the majority of Palestinians agree in a free vote. Hints that project a new and more pragmatic attitude, however, are always balanced by outbursts of the more old-fashioned rhetoric. Should Hamas supplant Fatah, (which is entirely possible), the new outlook might take hold. Until then, however, Hamas has its identity to protect; its fight with Fatah to win; and its own interest in delaying any resolution to the conflict. What Hamas now seeks could have been gained without a rocket being launched against Israel or a bomb being dropped on Gaza. Were there something more to the policy of Hamas than organizational self-interest, indeed, it would not now be willing to re-engage Fatah and cease its rocket-fire in exchange for a partial opening of the Gazan borders and a withdrawal of Israeli troops – or, to put it more simply, re-establish the status quo ante.[9]

Many analysts have noted that there is no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: but what if delaying a solution is itself seen as the solution? That is the strategy of both the Israeli right and Hamas – and Gaza has made abundantly clear how they reinforce and legitimate one another. Each is defined by what it opposes. Each also pursues its organizational interest with self-righteous zealotry and without the slightest regard either for its own base or the broader Palestinian constituency. Each has contributed to creating the roadblock that undermines the possibility of peace beyond the stated desires of majorities in both Israel and Palestine that seek an end to the conflict and the creation of two sovereign states. It is as if radicals unwilling or unable to articulate a strategy linking means and ends somehow had a veto over the will of the majority and a meaningful policy.

Neither the Israeli right nor Hamas, however, is going away. The roadblock that they constitute calls not merely for a new intervention by the United States, but a re-evaluation of mistaken assumptions and failed policies.  Such a rethinking is required both for the pursuit of peace and for the regional interests of the United States. As things now stand, though the United States has publicly expressed support for a Palestinian state, Mousa Abu Marzook – a high-ranking official of Hamas—put it well when he wrote that …”when Palestinians see an F-16 with the Star of David painted on its tail, they see America.”

Kant once wrote that: “who wills the end necessarily wills the means thereto.” If the creation of a Palestinian state is truly the strategic goal of the United States then it must employ tactics that will further its creation – or, at least, buttress the Palestinian state in waiting. Two implications derive from this: 1) American foreign policy must envision a Palestinian state, which involves fostering cooperation between Hamas and Fatah, and 2) American foreign policy must insist not merely upon the security of Israel, but of Palestine as well.  Drawing these implications would mark a dramatic shift in outlook: Hamas has traditionally been branded as a terrorist organization, and excluded from all negotiations sponsored by the Quartet, while preserving the security of Israel has been used to justify its military control over Palestine and its interventions that take place with regularity and impunity.

Commitment to these two aforementioned goals rests on the willingness by the United States to articulate economic incentives for Hamas and sanctions on Israel. Only in this way is it possible to think about altering political behavior that has become entrenched and that undermines the prospect of peace. So far, however, American policy in the Middle East has rested on the opposite set of assumptions: placing economic sanctions on Hamas and giving economic incentives for Israel. Such an approach only fortifies the existing imbalance of power between Israel and Palestine –and, just as important, the most reactionary tendencies within the two camps. These same consequences – ironically — are generated by the calls of numerous non-governmental actors on the international scene for boycotting Israel, engaging in solidarity with Hamas, and withdrawing recognition of Israel. Threatening a boycott confirms right-wing Zionist beliefs that Israel is being singled out and that it is a nation under siege; insisting upon uncritical solidarity with Hamas simply endorses its behavior relative to both Israel and Fatah; while withdrawing recognition of Israel undercuts a two-state solution and the Saudi plan that, for better or worse, is the only meaningful proposal on the table.

None of these proposals offer positive incentives for changing behavior with an eye toward securing peace and a Palestinian state. Better to focus on foreign aid as providing incentives for political change among the combatants in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A new aid policy can obviously be pursued in connection with new diplomatic initiatives by the United States toward establishing better relations with Iran and Syria. Support for Hamas is provided by both these nations. But their control over their ally is as indirect as the control exercised by the United States. Economic and military aid is a specific tool for exerting influence and influence and, to that extent, rethinking the conditions for its employment becomes important for establishing new connections between American strategy and tactics in the region. According to the Congressional Research Service’s 2007 report “U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel,” $6.8 million dollars per day is being spent on military aid to Israel – not to mention another $1.4 billion yearly in guaranteed loans. A 12% increase in aid to Israel was demanded by the Bush Administration in 2008. As for Palestine (or, better, Fatah), by contrast, it received $ 3 million. Worth considering is that Israel essentially was given this aid without any preconditions whereas adherence to non-violence, the recognition of Israel, and the “two-state solution” was demanded of Fatah. It is also worth considering that Egypt received roughly $2 billion in military-economic aid while Jordan was given about $500,000,000. Both Egypt and Jordan have negotiated separate peace treaties with Israel, refused to support an oil embargo on Israel, and have been complicit in isolating Gaza.

Would Israeli behavior change if American aid were tied to achieving certain benchmarks in securing peace and the creation of an independent and sovereign Palestine? Perhaps, or perhaps not, but the likelihood is far better than if Israel is simply given carte blanche by the United States to act as it wishes. The same question can be asked with respect to Hamas. Would its behavior change if it were offered economic aid and integrated into the peace process undertaken by the Palestinian state in waiting? Perhaps, or perhaps not, but the likelihood is far better than if Hamas is treated as it has been by the United States. Some believe that the United States should simply cut aid to Israel or –without simply referencing Israel – refuse to provide aid for any nation or movement whose actions contradict international law. There is a certain moral power to these last two arguments. That is also the case with the decision by the Obama Administration to provide $300 million in humanitarian aid for non-governmental organizations working in Gaza– should Israel choose to open the border – and another $600 million to the Palestinian Authority.[10] All these proposals, however, leave Hamas out of the mix and without a material reason to alter its outlook and behavior. Far worse are suggestions to give scuttle the two state solution by giving Egypt and Jordan authority over Gaza and the West Bank. This would create the seeds for conflict within these states, effectively abolish the only workable plan on the table, and render utopian any hope for achieving peace in the foreseeable future. But, still, there are now three actors not two – Israel, Fatah, and Hamas – that will determine the fate of Israeli-Palestinian relations. The United States and the Quartet need to recognize this reality. They will have to shape their policies with an eye not merely on the “security” of Israel but that of Gaza and the West Bank. Perhaps negotiations in the future will involve three “states” rather than two. Rethinking the use of foreign aid in the region by making it available to all the major regional actors, and linking aid to specific and achievable benchmarks in pursuit of peace, is one way of addressing this issue. It bridges the chasm separating strategy from tactics and ends from means in American foreign policy.

How realistic is any of this? Determining the benchmarks is nothing more than a technical matter if the Saudi plan is used as an objective point of reference. Also, there has already been a marked change in the relatively unqualified support that Israel has received from the United States since 1967. Criticism of Israel has increased along with awareness of the terrible plight experienced by the Palestinians. In spite of powerful lobbying organizations like AIPAC, and the uncritical support offered Israel by politicians in both parties, Democratic voters overwhelmingly oppose the Israeli invasion of Gaza (31-55%) though Republican oveters support it (62-27%).[11] Public opinion is clearly shifting on the Middle East, but the current debate in the United States is still focused more on Israeli than on American interests. Articulating those interests offers an opportunity for progressives in the political establishment. Something more is needed, however, than sending yet another special envoy to the region or a congressional delegation to Gaza. President Barack Obama might take a page from the book of President George W. Bush: create a Palestine Study Group headed by someone like former Secretary of State James Baker but comprised of intellectuals with views different from those that have failed so miserably over the years. There is a need for new ideas –and initially, for better or worse, these ideas can only take speculative form.

STEPHEN ERIC BRONNER is the Senior Editor of Logos as well as Distinguished Professor (PII) of Political Science and Director of Global Relations at the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights: Rutgers University. He is the author of more than a dozen works on contemporary politics and culture including Peace Out of Reach: Middle Eastern Travels and the Search for Reconciliation. 

[1]Note the excellent discussion by Henry Siegman, “Israel’s Lies” in London Review of Books 1/28/09.

[2] Note my essay, originally published in 2005, included in Stephen Eric Bronner, “Withdrawal Pains: Gaza, Peace, and the Future of Palestine” in Peace Out of Reach: Middle Eastern Travels and the Search for Reconcilation  (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007), pg. 75ff.

[3] The Economist (January 24, 2009), pg. 51.

[4] Stephen Eric Bronner, “Who Are the Palestinians Today?” in Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture Vol. 7 No. 1 (2008)

[5]Avi Shlaim, “How Israel brought Gaza to the Brink of Humanitarian Catastrophe” in The Guardian 7 January 2009.

[6] Note the discussion in Stephen Eric Bronner, “States of Despair: History, Politics, and the Struggle for Palestine” in Blood in the Sand: Imperial Fantasies, Right-Wing Ambitions, and the Erosion of American Democracy (Lexington: University press of Kentucky, 2005), pgs. 60ff.

[7] Menachem Klein, Jerusalem: The Contested City (New York: NYU Press, 2001).

[8] Hussein Agha and Robert Malley, “How Not to Make Peace in the Middle East” in The New York Review of Books (January 15, 2009), pg. 42.

[9] The New York Times (February 14, 2009).

[10] The New York Times  (February 24, 2009).

[11] Glenn Greenwald, “More oddities in the U.S. ‘Debate’ Over Israel/Gaza” in Salon (January 2, 2009).


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