Why A Gaza Ceasefire Is So Difficult

July 16, 2014 § 1 Comment

There was a strong expectation in Israel yesterday once the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire terms were announced that Hamas was going to accept the deal. Even after Hamas rejected the terms and launched 80 more rockets at Israel yesterday morning, some prominent voices, such as former Israel national security adviser Giora Eiland, were predicting that Hamas would ultimately accept the deal today. While anything may still happen, it is highly unlikely given Hamas’s vociferous objections to terms that are essentially a replica of the 2012 ceasefire agreement and Hamas’s release of its own offer this morning, which calls for an end to the Gaza blockade, the release of any prisoners swept up over the last month who had been released in the Gilad Shalit deal in 2011, building an airport and seaport in Gaza, expansion of the Gaza fishing zone, and the opening of all crossings into Gaza, including the Refah crossing into Egypt. Like the Egyptian deal was to Hamas, these terms are unpalatable to Israel and will not be accepted. Unlike in 2012, when a ceasefire was brokered relatively easily and put an end to hostilities, this time around things are proving to be far more difficult, and it isn’t just a matter of Israel and Hamas meeting halfway.

For starters, there are no good brokers for a truce. The problems with Egypt are well-known; Sisi and the Egyptian government want to isolate Hamas, and Hamas does not trust Sisi any more than they trust Bibi Netanyahu. Egypt’s ceasefire deal was negotiated without any Hamas input or even prior notification to Hamas before the terms were made public, and was likely more of an effort on Egypt’s part to isolate and weaken Hamas even further by having the entire Arab League and Western countries line up behind a deal that Hamas was almost certainly going to reject rather than a true effort at brokering an end to fighting. At this point, it is difficult to envision a situation in which Egypt plays a role in mediating between the two sides. The U.S. cannot do it alone given that it has no ties to Hamas, and that leaves aside the reporting in Haaretz that Israel specifically asked Kerry to stay out of it to avoid the impression that the U.S. was pressuring Israel and thus granting Hamas a win. I wrote last week about the potential for Turkey and Qatar to step in so no need to rehash the variables there – and indeed Mahmoud Abbas and Meshal are meeting with President Gül and Prime Minister Erdoğan in Turkey on Friday –  but both countries are deeply flawed due to their lack of successful experience in wading into Israeli-Palestinian fights, and Israel for good reason does not exactly trust either of them (particularly after Erdoğan yesterday compared Habayit Hayehudi MK Ayelet Shaked to Hitler).

Second, Hamas is an organization fractured between the Gaza leadership and the international leadership based in Qatar, and so it is unclear what it actually wants and who has the authority to make a deal. Signs point to Khaled Meshal following the military leaders right now than the other way around, and the military guys in Gaza appear to be averse to ending the fighting anytime soon. The atmosphere is very different now than it was in 2012, and while I will for the second time in a week emphasize that internal Palestinian politics are not my expertise, I have the sense that Meshal will be subject to the Gaza leadership’s veto on any deal he is involved in brokering. There is also the complicating factor of Gazans wanting a ceasefire and whether this will create any pressure on Hamas’s Gaza wing to at some point acquiesce.

Next, there is the fact that there is enormous political pressure on Bibi coming from his right flank to not accept any ceasefire – even one, like yesterday’s proposal, that is almost entirely on Israel’s terms – and to instead send the already-mobilized ground forces into Gaza. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman yesterday gave a press conference during which he advocated the IDF invading and retaking Gaza, and after Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon – who has long been a thorn in Netanyahu’s side within Likud – trashed Netanyahu for supporting the Egyptian ceasefire proposal, Netanyahu immediately fired him from his ministerial post. The ostensible reason was that it is unacceptable for a deputy defense minister to so harshly criticize the government’s defense policy in the midst of a war, but Netanyahu has been looking for ways to cut Danon down to size for awhile, and so he seized the opportunity once it presented itself. The larger point here is that Netanyahu has been isolated within his own party for some time as it moves further and further to the right, and his instinctual conservative behavior when it comes to sending troops into battle is not lauded by Likud members but is instead distrusted and viewed as weakness. I don’t think that Bibi wants to get involved in a ground war in Gaza, which entails lots of messy fighting, larger casualty numbers on both sides, guaranteed international opprobrium, and which last time led to the Goldstone Report following Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9. Nevertheless, the longer that rockets come flying from Gaza and the longer ground troops sit idly by waiting for orders, the more the rightwing is going to yell and howl about the need to take stronger military action rather than accepting a ceasefire deal that will only guarantee a few years of quiet at best.

There is also the factor of international support, and each side’s delusions about where it will lie as this drags further on. Israel made it very clear in the aftermath of the Hamas rejection of the Egyptian ceasefire that it views Hamas’s refusal to lay down arms as granting legitimacy to an eventual Israeli ground invasion, and the Israeli government believes that much of the world agrees with this position. I find it hard to believe that this logic will hold up in the face of mounting Palestinian deaths and a continued lopsided body count, even if the one-sided casualty numbers need to be viewed in the context of Hamas’s failure at killing Israelis not being for a lack of trying. It is also generally the case that world opinion does not work in Israel’s favor, and I do not think that structural feature is going to change as Operation Protective Edge continues. On Hamas’s side, it believes that world opinion will turn against Israel as things progress, which is in my view correct, and that the Israeli public will eventually get fed up and pressure Netanyahu to stop fighting, which in my view is comically incorrect. Furthermore, world opinion and international support are two different things, and at the moment Israel does not lack for support. In fact, yesterday Congress approved more funding for Iron Dome, and Hamas underestimates how much support in 2012 was driven by Arab countries that have since abandoned Hamas wholesale.

Finally, there is the balancing act that Israel is trying to play with the eventual outcome regarding Hamas itself. Israel’s goals are delicately balanced between weakening Hamas and taking out its capabilities to launch long-range missiles at Israeli cities while still keeping Hamas alive and viable to the point of it maintaining its rule over Gaza. Israel recognizes that while Hamas used to look like the most radical group in the neighborhood when compared to Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, Hamas now routinely gets pressured from Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other even scarier jihadi groups. That basic fact is what led Hamas to escalate things in the first place, as it has its own internal politics with which to contend. The Israeli government knows that until last week, Hamas has largely been trying to keep rockets from being launched out of Gaza rather than themselves doing the launching since the 2012 ceasefire, and it also knows that it is a pipe dream to hope for the PA to regain control of Gaza. Israel needs Hamas to run Gaza and keep it from spiraling even further out of control, so any ceasefire agreement that Israel signs will have to keep Hamas in power but assure Israel that Hamas’s military capabilities remain degraded following the fighting.

The upshot of all this is that Gaza in 2014 is a lot more complicated than Gaza in 2012, and assuming that the U.S. or Egypt can just swoop in and put an end to things when both sides have had enough is naive. There is lots of politics, both international and domestic, involved here, and while I still hold out hope of some combination of the U.S. and Turkey/Qatar being able to bridge the various gaps, the problem is that the gaps look more like chasms.

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The IDF’s Counterproductive Social Media Campaign

November 16, 2012 § 1 Comment

This article was originally published in Foreign Policy yesterday, and I am reposting it here.

Ever since the Israel Defense Forces launched Operation Pillar of Cloud on Wednesday with the killing of Hamas military chief Ahmed al-Jabari, the official IDF Twitter feed has been working overtime to publicize Israeli military exploits.

As of this writing, the feed has published 88 tweets since Wednesday. It began with the announcement over Twitter that Israel had launched a military campaign against Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad targets in Gaza, continued with posting video footage of Jabari’s car being blown up by an IDF missile, and then moved on to taunting Hamas fighters not to “show their faces above ground in the days ahead.”

This prompted a response from Hamas over Twitter that Israel had “Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves” and that Israeli leaders and soldiers would be targeted no matter where they were, lending new meaning to the term cyberwarfare. The IDF’s utilization of Twitter became such a big story that there were rumors, which turned out to be uncorroborated, that Twitter had suspended the IDF’s account over terms of service violations for posting the Jabari assassination video. All in all, it is clear that using Twitter to encourage its supporters and drive media coverage is a purposeful component of the Israel’s public diplomacy strategy while it is fighting Palestinian terror groups in Gaza. The strategy certainly has its supporters, as it has been described as an effective way to explain “the morality of the war it [the IDF] is fighting” and as “the most meaningful change in our consumption of war in over 20 years.”

But the IDF’s barrage of tweets indicates that it has not learned some important lessons from its last major incursion into Gaza. Operation Cast Lead, carried out in December 2008 and January 2009, was a tactical military victory that came at a costly price. The large numbers of Palestinian civilian casualties and images of destruction led to a renewed and vigorous effort to isolate Israel in the international community. The highest-profile example was the United Nations’ Goldstone Report, conducted by South African judge Richard Goldstone, which damaged Israel immeasurably. The report was such a disaster for Israel that in 2009 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it one of the three biggest threats Israel was facing, alongside a nuclear Iran and Palestinian rockets. The aftermath of Cast Lead also brought a renewed fervor to the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement, which seeks to isolate and delegitimize Israel, and generally placed a harsher spotlight on Israeli efforts to deal with Hamas. In all, Israel beat Hamas on the battlefield but lost the war of public opinion, which in some ways was the more important one. And while Israel always faces an uphill battle in winning the world’s approval for reasons that are beyond its control, there are some lessons it has not absorbed.

The IDF is doing two things through its Twitter campaign that are replicating the same public relations mistakes it made the last time around. The first is a strategy of playing to its own base. In posting a video of Jabari’s car exploding in a fireball or issuing blustery warnings to Hamas to stay hidden, the IDF is trying to galvanize its supporters and mobilize the pro-Israel community into retweeting and posting messages on Facebook that bolster Israel’s case and create the impression that Israel will be able to rout Hamas and eliminate the rocket fire coming from Gaza. This is an effective way to rally those who are already with you, but it is unlikely to win any new supporters. People inclined to criticize Israeli military action are not going to be swayed by such appeals, and the evidence suggests that Israel is not trying very hard to target this demographic. Mobilizing your own supporters is great, but ultimately widening your circle rather than deepening it is going to be needed in order to blunt some of the criticism that is bound to come once Operation Pillar of Cloud has concluded.

Second, and more saliently, the reason Israel suffered so badly in the court of public opinion following Cast Lead is because there was a perception that Israel was callous about the loss of Palestinian life that occurred during that operation. Partly this was fueled by the sheer number of casualties — a number that was deeply tragic but also unsurprising given Hamas’s strategy of purposely embedding itself in the civilian population — but partly it was fueled by things like T-shirts depicting Palestinians in crosshairs, suggesting disgustingly poor taste at best and a disregard for the terrible consequences of war at worst.

Publicizing posters of Jabari with the word “Eliminated” do not rise to the same level, but do not send the message that Israel should be sending. The IDF in this case is trumpeting the killing of an unapologetic terrorist leader, and nobody should shed a tear for Jabari for even a moment, but the fact remains that many people, particularly among the crowd that Israel needs to be courting, are deeply skeptical of Israeli intentions generally and tend not to give Israel the benefit of the doubt. They cast a wary eye on Israeli militarism and martial behavior, and crowing about killing anyone or glorifying Israeli operations in Gaza is a bad public relations strategy insofar as it feeds directly into the fear of Israel run amok with no regard for the collateral damage being caused. Rather than convey a sense that Israel is doing a job that it did not want to have to do as quickly and efficiently as possible, the IDF’s Twitter outreach conveys a sense of braggadocio that is going to lead to a host of problems afterward.

Israel is proud of its ability to hit Hamas where it most hurts, and understandably wants to make Hamas leaders think twice before escalating rocket attacks against civilian population centers. Nevertheless, the IDF Twitter feed over the past two days is going to great lengths to inadvertently ensure that Israel once again wins a tactical military victory but loses the overall battle, further contributing to its own international isolation and a fresh round of vociferous condemnations once the dust has cleared.

Guest Post: Egypt’s Gaza Conundrum

November 15, 2012 § 1 Comment

After I analyzed the Israeli decision making calculus on Gaza on Monday, Zack Gold, who is an astute Middle East analyst and tweets from @ZLGold, rightly took me to task for neglecting to examine the Egypt angle. I asked Zack if he’d be willing to write a guest post filling in the large gap that I had left, and between now and then Israel has launched Operation Pillar of Cloud in Gaza and Egypt has responded, making Zack’s post all the more timely. In addition, I argued in the Atlantic that Egypt is likely to be more active in pressuring Israel over the Palestinians, but Zack has a different view contrary to mine and comes at it from an interesting angle, and I like to air as wide a debate as possible here at O&Z. So without further ado, here is Zack on the Egyptian reaction to Israel’s operations in Gaza.

The recent flare-up in tit-for-tat violence between Israel and Gaza, and especially the launch of Operation Pillar of Defense yesterday, has had me watching for reaction across the border in Egypt. Michael wrote a post on Monday on the likelihood of a wider Israeli operation in Gaza. I agreed with many of his points, but I was surprised that a post on Israeli policy towards Gaza didn’t take into account the reaction of a post-revolution Egypt. Michael graciously invited me to write a guest-post on the topic.

The theory that Israel lost its strategic depth on the Gaza front with Egypt’s January 25 Revolution, and the downfall of Hosni Mubarak, is two-fold. First, a democratic leader of Egypt will have to be more responsive to public opinion; and whether Islamist, liberal, revolutionary, Nasserist, Muslim, or Copt, pretty much the only thing that all Egyptians agree on is animosity towards Israel.

In addition to the pressure from the street, it was likely that any Egyptian leader not from the ancien régime would view Gaza differently than had Mubarak. This is not because Mubarak was an American-Zionist stooge, but his regime viewed Hamas in the same light as he viewed his most powerful opposition: the Muslim Brotherhood. That Egypt’s post-revolutionary president, Mohamed Morsi, hails from the Brotherhood is all the more reason to assume the Egyptian government would not sit still during a major Israeli operation in Gaza, as Mubarak’s had during the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead.

So the Israeli government has gambled that Egypt will not react as a changed nation or decided that even if it does the reaction is worthwhile because the threat from Gaza is too great. More worrisome would be that Operation Pillar of Defense is a short-term political decision: acting against an immediate threat to the homeland, right before an election, in a way that may damage longer-term strategic interests.

As of this writing, Egypt has not acted in the tempestuous way one might expect. It is possible that—the Israeli operation so fresh—the Egyptian government has been able to issue harsh statements, to recall its ambassador, and to call for discussions at the United Nations, but not had enough time to plan a more thorough response. Indeed, the “street” has not even had a chance to mobilize yet: small gatherings of leftists and revolutionaries have rallied and marched in Cairo, but the Muslim Brotherhood has called for nationwide demonstrations this afternoon (a public holiday) and tomorrow.

At the same time, there are several reasons the Egyptian government may not react as expected. First is the issue of proximity. Unlike Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s response to Cast Lead, it is difficult for Morsi to be a champion on the “Arab street” when his actions will have important consequences for his own nation. He may refuse to utter the word “Israel,” and his Muslim Brotherhood seeks to quietly diminish relations, but the Egyptian president has continued to stand by the peace treaty. Max Fisher speculated that Egypt could open up the Gaza border: breaking the blockade and allowing in necessary aid. But opening the border is a two-way street, which could allow a portion of 1.5 million Palestinians to flow freely across the border: giving Egypt more responsibility for Gazans’ wellbeing.

An overflow of Palestinian refugees would also exacerbate Egypt’s own economic woes, which also limit its actions towards Gaza. At the very moment the situation unfolds across the Gaza-Israel border, in Cairo the government is sitting down with IMF officials to negotiate a much need $4.5b loan. Egypt just secured $6.3b from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, but that money will be tied to IMF approval. Not to mention the $1.5b annual contract with the Americans. In addition to government loans and grants, Egypt needs private investment. But if Egypt breaks its post-revolutionary commitment to maintain the peace treaty with Israel then investors are less to risk whether it will stand by other commitments.

Finally, post-revolutionary Egypt is still struggling to make the transition to a post-revolutionary system. Morsi is also held back by the Egyptian military and interior ministry, which are “chasing ghosts” in the Sinai: smugglers and Salafi jihadis with links to Gaza. Indeed the Egyptian president’s first attempt to change the status quo was cut short by the August 5 attack that left 16 soldiers and guards dead near the border with Israel and Gaza.

Morsi is trying to raise Egypt up as a regional powerbroker, but he is stunted by domestic problems. For now, it seems, Morsi has settled on statements and for calling on others (namely the United States and the United Nations) to halt the violence. As he meets with members of his cabinet and security apparatus—and as Egypt’s population mobilizes in support of Gaza—it has yet to be seen if Egypt’s first post-revolution president will act any differently from his pre-revolution predecessor.

Random Thoughts, Gaza Edition

November 15, 2012 § 1 Comment

I have a bunch of interconnected things to say about Gaza and Operation Pillar of Cloud, so here we go.

First, on Monday I wrote that I thought Israel was likely to go into Gaza eventually with ground forces, and three days later I see no reason to alter that prediction. Taking out Ahmed al-Jabari was guaranteed to elicit a response from Hamas, and now that three Israeli civilians were killed when a rocket from Gaza hit their apartment building in Kiryat Malachi, the IDF is going  to ramp up military operations even further. Over 200 rockets were fired out of Gaza yesterday, and the Israeli cabinet has authorized the army to call up any reserve units that it needs, on top of the earlier authorization to call up reservists serving in the Home Front Command, so I am relatively confident that it is only a matter of time before ground forces are ordered into Gaza.

Second, nobody should be shedding any tears for al-Jabari, and I do not begrudge for a second Israel’s right to kill terrorist leaders who target civilians. That said, the Hamas problem is not going to be solved militarily. Cast Lead was not able to do away with Hamas, and Pillar of Cloud is likely to meet the same fate of quieting things down in the immediate aftermath but not solving the overarching problem of Hamas controlling Gaza and still not being willing to negotiate a permanent end to its war with Israel. As Jeffrey Goldberg and Brent Sasley have both pointed out, this type of operation is all about short term tactics in an attempt to ignore a long term strategic conundrum, and until Israel figures out a way to address this, the next Cast Lead or Pillar of Cloud is only four or five years away. Already there have been Palestinian civilian casualties, and much like Israel faced the Goldstone Report and a renewed BDS push following its last incursion into Gaza, no doubt it is going to deal with a fresh round of condemnations and pressures when this is over. As much as Israel can hit Hamas where it hurts, this is no successful way to operate.

Third, Pillar of Cloud makes the Foreign Ministry’s threats earlier this week to collapse the Palestinian Authority over its UN bid an even stranger move than it already was. The fact that Israel is now engaged in its second major military operation against Hamas in four years while collaborating with the PA security forces in the West Bank over the same time period demonstrates the absurdity of Avigdor Lieberman’s position that the PA is just as bad, or even worse, for Israeli interests than Hamas. If the PA collapses in the West Bank, it is a near guarantee that Hamas takes over, and then Israel’s security situation is vastly worse. Pillar of Cloud is going to damage Hamas militarily but may very well strengthen it politically, and so in tandem with a strategy of weakening the PA, it means that a Hamas-controlled West Bank is ever more likely. Lieberman obviously knew Pillar of Cloud was coming and just didn’t care, and it is also evident that Bibi Netanyahu either has limited control over what Lieberman is doing at the Foreign Ministry or doesn’t see it as a problem. The operations in Gaza make reneging on the UN bid impossible for Mahmoud Abbas, since he cannot back down in the face of Israel pressure while Palestinians are being killed in Gaza and retain any shred of credibility. What this all means is that Israel’s right hand and left hand are essentially working at cross purposes, trying to forestall a UN bid while also making it more likely, and trying to eliminate Hamas while giving it the West Bank on a silver platter. Someone in the upper echelons of Israel’s decision making hierarchy needs to take a step back and look at the big picture here.

Finally, Turkey’s response to all of this has been interesting. It was well behind Egypt and the Arab League in condemning Israel yesterday, waiting hours to say anything and then issuing a Foreign Ministry statement close to midnight (and one that has still not been posted on the ministry’s English language website). Ahmet Davutoğlu had some harsh words for Israel when talking to reporters but the overall Turkish response was not as fast and furious as one might have expected. Egypt, in contrast, was way out in front and has been keeping up the pressure rhetorically while recalling its ambassador back to Cairo. I have some thoughts at the Atlantic on why this might be and what we can expect from Turkey and Egypt going forward, and here is a teaser:

Since Israel’s last major foray into Gaza with Operation Cast Lead in 2008, no country has been more vocal about the plight of the Palestinians than Turkey. Prime Minister Erdoğan has made it a priority to keep the world’s attention on Gaza and has repeatedly called out Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians while attempting to bolster Hamas. The Palestinian issue has been so important to the Turkish government that it has made ending the Gaza blockade one of its three conditions, along with an apology and compensation, for restoring full ties with Israel following the deaths of nine Turkish citizens aboard the Mavi Marmara. Erdoğan recently announced plans to visit Gaza, which would undoubtedly go a long way in the campaign to legitimize Hamas.

Becoming the champion of the Palestinian cause is one of the primary reasons that Erdoğan has had such high approval ratings in the Arab world. It has not only made Erdoğan personally popular but also enhanced Turkey’s international stature, contributing to Turkey’s efforts to be seen not only as a regional leader but as a leader of the wider Sunni world as well. In essence, the resulting deterioration in relations with Israel has in some sense been well worth the cost as Turkey’s reputation and soft power has been enhanced. In light of all this, the expectation following Israel’s new military operations in Gaza today is that Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu are going to be leading the charge to condemn Israeli military actions, which would be consistent with Turkey’s position over the past few years.

But Turkey’s situation has changed in a very important way since Cast Lead. In 2008 and in the aftermath of the flotilla in 2010 Turkey was dealing with a quieter Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Kurdish separatist group. Today, that is no longer the case. Since this summer, Ankara has been waging a full-blown war with the Kurdish terrorist group, inflicting hundreds of casualties and suffering many of its own.

For the rest, please click over to the original at the Atlantic’s website.

 

Exposing the Lie of Hamas Moderation

June 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

Hamas seems to be begging Israel to launch Operation Cast Lead, The Sequel. 45 rockets were fired by Hamas into Israel on Tuesday following the cross-border attack from Egyptian territory on Monday, confining much of southern Israel to bomb shelters. There is never an excuse for rockets directed toward civilians, and Hamas is barely even pretending to have a justification this time around. Hamas claims that the rocket barrage is a response to Israeli airstrikes, but the real reason Hamas is now returning to its strategy of indiscriminately targeting Israeli civilians is that it is beginning to feel squeezed by other groups that are questioning Hamas’s commitment to armed resistance. As pointed out in the New York Times, Islamic Jihad’s more militant approach has garnered it growing popularity and Hamas does not want to be eclipsed by its smaller competitors. More saliently though, the attack on Monday coming from the Sinai and for which a group claiming to be affiliated with al-Qaida has claimed responsibility put even more pressure on Hamas, since it cannot afford to be seen sitting on the sidelines while an outside non-Palestinian group carries the banner of resistance against Israel. Hamas is madly trying to reestablish its credentials of taking the fight to Israel, and it does so by firing rockets from Gaza because it has no other long term strategy and no interest in a productive solution. It is being tarred as too compliant and willing to live with the status quo, and so Israeli civilians have to bear the brunt of it reflexing its muscles. Let’s also not pretend that any of this is a “legitimate response to Israeli aggression” since it’s pretty clear who made the first move here, not to mention that purposely targeting civilian communities with rockets is never a legitimate response to anything.

Hamas is gambling that with Israeli tanks moving toward the Egyptian border and Iran presumably occupying the Israeli defense ministry’s attention, the IDF will have neither the time or the inclination to bother with a large scale response to rocket fire that has thankfully not killed any Israelis yet. This is a bad miscalculation on Hamas’s part. Israel’s first priority is protecting its citizens from attack, and should this rocket fire continue, I fully expect to see an IDF incursion into Gaza. Israel is not going to be frightened off by a Morsi victory in Egypt, and is also unlikely to sit back and absorb rocket fire as a favor to the Egyptian military, which does not want to be pressured by public opinion into fighting Hamas’s battles. This is not destined to end well for Hamas should it provoke a real Israeli response, and yet Hamas is bafflingly more concerned with not being outshined by smaller resistance groups.

In this vein, the most important takeaway from this episode is that it is time to lay to rest forever the idea that Hamas is moderating or will moderate. When Israel pulled out of Gaza and Hamas took control of the strip from the Palestinian Authority, I thought there was a small but legitimate chance that Hamas would begin to transition away from terrorizing Israeli civilians and start focusing on governance. Any hopes I had on this front have been thoroughly dashed. Despite the recent relative quiet, it is clear that Hamas is not changing. It remains a revanchist group dedicated not to building a state but to seeking the elimination of Israel entirely, and it continues to be a hostage to small bore thinking without seeing the larger trends at work in the region. Islamist groups throughout the Middle East, from Ennahda in Tunisia to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, are devoting their attention to governing, and while they are not necessarily forces for moderation or social progress, they recognize that the key to long term survival and relevance is basic party politics and the nitty gritty of learning how to run a state. Hamas evinces zero interest in following this path, which should permanently kill the notion that it is a legitimate Islamist political party that also happens to have a military wing. It is everlastingly obsessed with the idea of resistance above state building, purity above compromise. Is there anyone left still so naive as to think that a complete and total Israeli pullout from the West Bank would put an end to Hamas rockets, attacks on civilians, and efforts to abduct Israeli soldiers? Rather than prepare its constituents to live with the inevitability of Israel and attempt to improve their lot, Hamas is more concerned with looking tough and whether other groups are damaging its street cred. What a terrible and pathetic representative for the people of Gaza.

Look at the revolutionary trends rocking the rest of the Arab world, and then compare that to the stale stasis that grips Hamas as it remains impervious to change or adaptation and refuses to embrace any new role other than resistance in the form of barbarism. It is as it always was: an opaque organization with a super secretive process for selecting its leaders and making decisions, with the only difference that it now shoots rockets at Israeli civilians rather than blowing them up on buses or in cafes. I desperately think that Israel needs to deal with the Palestinian Authority to end the occupation of the West Bank and establish a Palestinian state, but Hamas is an altogether different breed and its actions yesterday were the latest abundantly clear demonstration of this. The attack from the Sinai and the rockets from Gaza are an important reminder that Israel lives in a nasty neighborhood and that there are some things which it will never be able to inoculate itself against no matter how it resolves the Palestinian issue. Nobody argues that Israel is threatening or occupying any part of Egypt and yet it still faces attacks coming from the Sinai, which pose a terrible dilemma for Jerusalem since it does not want to enter into any hostilities with the Egyptians but cannot afford to just let these provocations continue. This is where the double standard that governs all things Israeli kicks in, since every country in the world has the absolute right to respond to cross-border attacks (and this applies both to Egypt and Gaza) but by doing so Israel walks into an inevitable public relations trap. If Israel goes back into Gaza, every Palestinian civilian life that is lost will be an unqualified tragedy, but it will be entirely on Hamas’s head.

Not All Unilateral Withdrawals Are Created Equal

May 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

There has been lots of buzz in Israel lately about the idea of a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank. Ami Ayalon and his colleagues at Blue White Future wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in April arguing that a unilateral approach would lay the groundwork for a two state solution by allowing settlers to voluntarily relocate west of the Green Line and reducing tension on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides while establishing a preliminary border based on the security fence. Then yesterday at the annual Institute for National Security Studies conference, which draws nearly every important Israeli politician and defense heavyweight, Ehud Barak said that a unilateral withdrawal must be considered by the government if negotiations with the Palestinians remain at an impasse. Barak immediately came under fire from the Palestinian Authority, which said that a unilateral Israeli withdrawal would destroy any hopes for a negotiated two state solution, and from other Israeli government ministers such as Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who called Barak’s suggestion a dangerous idea and accused him of naivete. The prime minister’s office also distanced itself from Barak’s remarks and made it clear that Barak was speaking for himself rather than for the government.

There are two major objections to a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank, one from the left and one from the right. The one from the left is that Israel has committed itself to negotiations with the Palestinians on the contours of a Palestinian state, and any moves to sidestep a negotiated solution are a violation of the Oslo Accords. I find this argument to be unpersuasive for two reasons. First, the Palestinian Authority has itself embraced unilateralism when it finds it to be convenient, such as its efforts to have the UN recognize an independent state of Palestine outside any negotiating framework with Israel. If unilateralism is ok for one side, then it is ok for the other. Second, and more importantly, the party that is currently refusing to return to the negotiating table is not the Israelis but the Palestinians. I have written before about the strategic foolishness of setting negotiating preconditions but the additional problem here is that whatever one may think of Bibi Netanyahu’s policy on settlements or his actual desires regarding an independent Palestinian state, he is not currently the obstacle to restarting negotiations. If the Palestinians were willing to sit down tomorrow, the Israelis would meet with them immediately, so the PA blasting unilateral moves as an unwillingness to negotiate when they themselves are refusing to hold talks smacks of hypocrisy of the highest order. There simply cannot be a negotiation when one side refuses to enter the room.

The objection to a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank from the right is that the Gaza withdrawal was a terrible mistake that created a terrorist enclave, emboldened Hamas, and subjected Israel to a constant barrage of rockets raining down on southern Israeli towns. These are all valid concerns, but I think the comparison to the Gaza withdrawal is not the correct one to make since the circumstances are different in a few important ways. To begin with, Israel withdrew from Gaza completely and not entirely on its own terms. In contrast, an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank would still leave Israeli soldiers in the Jordan Valley and Israel has determined the precise spot to which it would withdraw by constructing the security fence. Furthermore, while Gaza was a Hamas stronghold before Israel pulled out, the West Bank is under the firm control of the Palestinian Authority and that control has only increased in recent months as Mahmoud Abbas has cracked down on dissenters. The Palestinian Authority is far from perfect, but no serious observer would suggest that there is not a large qualitative difference between the PA and Hamas, both in terms of temperament and willingness to coexist with Israel. In addition, while Hamas has been able to smuggle rocket parts and weapons into Gaza through the Rafah tunnels along the border with Egypt, a tunnel system in the West Bank would be impossible since it shares a border with Israel and the Jordan River. Even if Hamas were to come to power in the West Bank or the Palestinian Authority reversed course and decided to launch a rocket war, the means to do so would be extremely limited as any smuggling taking place would be above ground and far easier for Israel to detect and stop.

There is also an important difference between Gaza and the West Bank in terms of environment and incentives. Gaza has always been more crowded and impoverished than the West Bank, and when Israel withdrew there was an argument embraced by many that there was little left to lose by taking the fight to Israel. There was also the fact that Israel wasn’t holding any more cards; it had withdrawn completely and Hamas was not interested in any negotiating toward a state anyway, so until Israel carried out Operation Cast Lead, there was little incentive for Hamas not to shoot rockets over the border. The West Bank, however, is not Gaza. The economy is much better, the quality of life is much higher, and Palestinians in the West Bank have a lot more to lose by risking a large scale Israeli military incursion. In addition, a unilateral Israeli withdrawal does not mean that the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has nothing left to gain through negotiations. There will still be an IDF presence in the Jordan Valley, and the Palestinians will still not have a state along the borders that they desire and certainly will not have any part of East Jerusalem as their capital  (and unlike Hamas, the PA’s stated goal is establishing a viable state). In short, the incentive structure for West Bank Palestinians following a hypothetical Israel withdrawal is vastly different than it was for Gazan Palestinians following the Israeli disengagement in 2005.

An Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank certainly is fraught with dangers both known and unknown. That does not, however, mean that it will automatically carry with it the same consequences as the Gaza withdrawal did. Barak is right in noting that Israel at some point is going to have to do something, since holding onto the West Bank indefinitely is not a real option and Palestinian intransigence in negotiating needs to be met with some sort of response. The immediate PA attack on the idea itself gives you a good idea of whether Palestinian officials think that a unilateral withdrawal is in their best interests, and perhaps the credible threat of withdrawal will give them the kick they need to resume negotiations. In any event, the idea of unilateral withdrawal should not be so casually dismissed with facile comparisons to Gaza.

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