How the West Chose War in Gaza: Crisis Tied to Israeli-U.S. Effort to Isolate Hamas & Keep the Siege
Democracy Now! interviewed Crisis Group senior analyst Nathan Thrall about the current violence in Gaza, and the obstacles to ending the conflict.
The International Crisis Group is an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organisation committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflict.
How the West Chose War in Gaza | Nathan Thrall
Nathan Thrall is a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group covering Gaza, Israel, Jordan and the West Bank.
As Hamas fires rockets at Israeli cities and Israel follows up its extensive airstrikes with a ground operation in the Gaza Strip, the most immediate cause of this latest war has been ignored: Israel and much of the international community placed a prohibitive set of obstacles in the way of the Palestinian “national consensus” government that was formed in early June.
That government was created largely because of Hamas’s desperation and isolation. The group’s alliance with Syria and Iran was in shambles. Its affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt became a liability after a July 2013 coup replaced an ally, President Mohamed Morsi, with a bitter adversary, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Hamas’s coffers dried up as General Sisi closed the tunnels that had brought to Gaza the goods and tax revenues on which it depended.
Seeing a region swept by popular protests against leaders who couldn’t provide for their citizens’ basic needs, Hamas opted to give up official control of Gaza rather than risk being overthrown. Despite having won the last elections, in 2006, Hamas decided to transfer formal authority to the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah. That decision led to a reconciliation agreement between Hamas and the Palestine Liberation Organization, on terms set almost entirely by the P.L.O. chairman and Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas.
Israel immediately sought to undermine the reconciliation agreement by preventing Hamas leaders and Gaza residents from obtaining the two most essential benefits of the deal: the payment of salaries to 43,000 civil servants who worked for the Hamas government and continue to administer Gaza under the new one, and the easing of the suffocating border closures imposed by Israel and Egypt that bar most Gazans’ passage to the outside world.
Yet, in many ways, the reconciliation government could have served Israel’s interests. It offered Hamas’s political adversaries a foothold in Gaza; it was formed without a single Hamas member; it retained the same Ramallah-based prime minister, deputy prime ministers, finance minister and foreign minister; and, most important, it pledged to comply with the three conditions for Western aid long demanded by America and its European allies: nonviolence, adherence to past agreements and recognition of Israel.
Israel strongly opposed American recognition of the new government, however, and sought to isolate it internationally, seeing any small step toward Palestinian unity as a threat. Israel’s security establishment objects to the strengthening of West Bank-Gaza ties, lest Hamas raise its head in the West Bank. And Israelis who oppose a two-state solution understand that a unified Palestinian leadership is a prerequisite for any lasting peace.
Still, despite its opposition to the reconciliation agreement, Israel continued to transfer the tax revenues it collects on the Palestinian Authority’s behalf, and to work closely with the new government, especially on security cooperation.
But the key issues of paying Gaza’s civil servants and opening the border with Egypt were left to fester. The new government’s ostensible supporters, especially the United States and Europe, could have pushed Egypt to ease border restrictions, thereby demonstrating to Gazans that Hamas rule had been the cause of their isolation and impoverishment. But they did not.
Instead, after Hamas transferred authority to a government of pro-Western technocrats, life in Gaza became worse.
Qatar had offered to pay Gaza’s 43,000 civil servants, and America and Europe could have helped facilitate that. But Washington warned that American law prohibited any entity delivering payment to even one of those employees — many thousands of whom are not members of Hamas but all of whom are considered by American law to have received material support from a terrorist organization.
When a United Nations envoy offered to resolve this crisis by delivering the salaries through the United Nations, so as to exclude all parties from legal liability, the Obama administration did not assist. Instead, it stood by as Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, called for the envoy’s expulsion on the grounds that he was “trying to funnel money” to Hamas.
Hamas is now seeking through violence what it couldn’t obtain through a peaceful handover of responsibilities. Israel is pursuing a return to the status quo ante, when Gaza had electricity for barely eight hours a day, water was undrinkable, sewage was dumped in the sea, fuel shortages caused sanitation plants to shut down and waste sometimes floated in the streets. Patients needing medical care couldn’t reach Egyptian hospitals, and Gazans paid $3,000 bribes for a chance to exit when Egypt chose to open the border crossing.
For many Gazans, and not just Hamas supporters, it’s worth risking more bombardment and now the ground incursion, for a chance to change that unacceptable status quo. A cease-fire that fails to resolve the salary crisis and open Gaza’s border with Egypt will not last. It is unsustainable for Gaza to remain cut off from the world and administered by employees working without pay. A more generous cease-fire, though politically difficult for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, would be more durable.
The current escalation in Gaza is a direct result of the choice by Israel and the West to obstruct the implementation of the April 2014 Palestinian reconciliation agreement. The road out of the crisis is a reversal of that policy.
ORIGINAL COMMENTARY (New York Times)
Photo: Israel Defense Forces/flickr
Gaza and Israel: New Obstacles, New Solutions
Jerusalem/Gaza City/Brussels | 14 Jul 2014
To break the violent impasse, Israel must change its policy toward Hamas and work toward a lasting ceasefire, recognising how much its own stability depends on the stability of Gaza.
After rounds of pyrrhic victories and weak ceasefires, Israel and Hamas are again locked in combat, with at least 168 Palestinian deaths, mainly civilian, in less than a week and Israeli civilians seeking shelter from rocket salvos. The policy of isolating Hamas has proved counterproductive and made reviving Gaza not just a humanitarian necessity but a requirement for calm and stability. In its latest briefing, Gaza and Israel: New Obstacles, New Solutions, the International Crisis Group examines scenarios that could result from the fighting and outlines the conditions necessary to ensure a more stable cessation of violence.
The report’s major findings and recommendations are:
“Given the choice between being slowly squeezed to death and going down fighting, and that between waiting for Israel to eliminate the stockpiles on the ground or shooting them into Israel, Hamas will take the latter both times. Knowing that it cannot best Israel militarily, it has opted for a psychological war of attrition”, says Nathan Thrall, Middle East Senior Analyst.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu is caught between Realpolitik and electoral considerations. Realpolitik dictates a controlled escalation followed by a renewed ceasefire, but any concession he makes to Hamas will be used against him by competitors to his right, who advocate a more extensive campaign and more ambitious objectives in Gaza”, says Ofer Zalzberg, Senior Analyst for Israel/Palestine.
“The policy of trying to topple or weaken Hamas was misguided when designed and remains so”, says Robert Blecher, Middle East and North Africa Acting Program Director. “The sooner it is reversed, the sooner Gazans can resume something like a normal life, Israelis can come out of bomb shelters and Palestinians can repair their internal affairs and prepare to enter a reformed peace process”.
CNN’s Becky Anderson spoke with Issandr El Amrani, Crisis Group’s North Africa Project Director, about the domestic limitations that the Sisi government in Egypt is facing when formulating policy in Gaza.
Egypt Silent as Neighbors Wage Battles | Kareem Fahim
Again and again over decades, Egypt has leapt in to play the role of mediator during hostilities between the Palestinians and the Israelis, including the time two years ago when Egypt’s president, Mohamed Morsi, helped broker a cease-fire after eight days of bloodshed in the Gaza Strip.
But in the latest battle, the Egyptians appear to be barely lifting a finger, leaving the combatants without a go-between as the Palestinian death toll mounts.
Officials with Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement in Gaza, said on Wednesday they had seen almost no sign of an Egyptian effort to defuse the crisis, in sharp contrast to previous conflicts under Mr. Morsi and President Hosni Mubarak. Making matters worse, according to Palestinian officials, Egypt continued to keep its side of the border all but sealed on Wednesday, barring even humanitarian aid.
FULL ARTICLE (New York Times)
Israel’s Hamas Challenge: The Third Way | Ofer Zalzberg
Ofer Zalzberg is the senior Middle East analyst of the International Crisis Group’s Arab-Israeli project.
The kidnapping and murder of three Israeli yeshiva students — and the extensive Israeli military campaign against Hamas, members of which Israel presumes to have perpetrated the act – illustrate the urgency of revisiting Israel’s policy options toward the Islamist group. Largely ignored since the last outbreak of violence, the issue is today again on the public agenda. How should Israel deal with Hamas?
The three principles set out by the Quartet (the EU, US, UN and Russia) – that Hamas renounce violence, recognize Israel, and accept previous PLO agreements – are unlikely to prompt a reexamination within Hamas — not only because they are theologically unacceptable, but because the Islamist group believes the PLO’s acting in accordance with them failed to deliver anything meaningful to Palestinians. Hamas’s own proposal of a decades-long term hudna is considered a non-starter by Israel; not only would it not end the conflict, but it is conditioned on Israel accepting an array of impossible demands: Palestinian statehood based on the 1967 borders and a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, without any land swaps and with unqualified choice for all Palestinian refugees whether to return to their original homes or villages.
PM Netanyahu’s most likely course of action is to seek a respite from violence through what he calls “quiet for quiet”. More ambitiously, there are two alternative approaches, advanced by members of his cabinet, that would seek to fundamentally transform the conflict with Hamas. The first, advocated by FM Avigdor Lieberman and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett — dubbed “Let the IDF Win” — is for the Israeli army to retake Gaza for a sustained period in order to “dismantle the terrorist infrastructure”. This would involve directly confronting Hamas militants, arresting the movement’s leadership, confiscating weapons, eliminating production capacities, closing down its associations and charities and either enthroning another Palestinian ruler or continuing direct Israeli military rule. PM Netanyahu and the Israeli defense establishment believe the costs of this option are too high.
The second approach, supported by self-defined centrists like Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, also in effect envisions Hamas’s ultimate disappearance from Palestinian life, by cooperating with those she identifies as moderates – such as Palestinian Authority’s President Mahmoud Abbas — while striking Hamas. The Palestinian public would then, the argument goes, come to see that the moderates as the only ones who can deliver. But to date, they have delivered little more than limited material-economic benefits, far less than necessary to defeat Hamas. What would be required to see whether this strategy could succeed are gains truly appreciated by their society – viable Palestinian statehood in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem – which would require that the Israeli government give up much more than it is willing to, certainly in advance of a final status agreement. Nor are Hamas’s roots and infrastructure – which are not physical or organizational but societal, religious and emotional – likely to disappear from a conservative society.
A third approach is needed. While protecting Israel’s civilian population militarily, Israel should try to catalyze Hamas’s ultimate transformation to an unarmed political party in a Palestinian state. For theological reasons, even in a best case scenario Hamas will remain at arm’s length from a final status agreement. So it should be brought to accept, post-facto, what others will have accepted for it explicitly and de jure.
This strategy could include the following three components.
- Israel could encourage Palestinians – for instance, by welcoming PLO reform – to establish a legal ratification mechanism for a final status agreement that would commit Hamas to abide by the majority’s decision even where it is not to the movement’s liking (for example, even should, hypothetically, the State of Palestine accepts the Quartet principles or recognizes Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people).
- Israel could reply positively to the Arab Peace Initiative, possibly with minor and negotiable reservations, to lay the basis for a peace agreement supported by Hamas’s sponsors (e.g. Qatar and Turkey), strategically critical neighbors (Egypt) and countries representing an important Islamic voice (e.g. Saudi Arabia) that Hamas would find hard to brush away.
- In the Islamic arena, Israel could promote interreligious dialogue and cooperation with Islamic groups that, unlike Hamas, do not consider Israel’s existence a violation of Islamic law or principles. The southern branch of Israel’s own Islamic movement, members of which serve in Knesset, could perhaps be a relevant interlocutor. Its founder, Sheikh Nimr Darwish, supports the two-state solution and the Arab Peace Initiative. Rather than blocking all Islamist factions from activity on the Holy Esplanade, might publicly or tacitly granting a consultative role there for the southern branch lead to positive cooperation with Israel? Could Jordan’s or Egypt’s Grand Mufti be a relevant interlocutor on the esplanade’s management or on other issues? Are there potential partners in the non-Arab Islamic world? Palestinians, including the many varieties of Islamists among them, will need to establish their national movement’s positions toward Israel, but Israel could help shape this debate by encouraging engagement with Muslims not theologically opposed to its existence.
Taken together – ultimately combined, of course, with progress in negotiations toward a Palestinian state — these and other steps could help transform Hamas within a (likely non-militarized) State of Palestine, which, after its establishment, would collect and store Hamas’s weapons in internationally monitored depots within or outside its territory.
Netanyahu’s government is likely to muddle through, and eventually fight another round, rather than pursue any of these three options. But now is the time for Israelis to rethink. Hamas, with its regional position greatly weakened, might be open to considering new paths. With violence likely to increase, the recent kidnappings and murders should prod all seeking the well being of Israelis and Palestinians to re-visit long held assumptions in order to head off future tragedies .
ORIGINAL ARTICLE (Times of Israel)
Photo: Synne Tonidas/flickr
Whose Palestine? | Nathan Thrall
For a moment in early June, it seemed to many Palestinians that their political leadership was on the verge of making a historic shift. On June 2, seven years of political division—between the unelected government in the West Bank dominated by Fatah, and the elected government in Gaza controlled by the Islamist party Hamas—formally came to an end. Hamas ministers in Gaza resigned, surrendering their authority to a new government of national consensus that would rule over both Gaza and the West Bank. More important, the new government pledged to adhere to the three principles long demanded by the US and its European allies as conditions for receiving vital Western aid: non-violence; adherence to past agreements; and recognition of Israel.
FULL ARTICLE (New York Review of Books)
Photo: Flickr/World Economic Forum
Islamic Jihad Gains New Traction in Gaza | Jodi Rudoren
Shortly before midnight, seven black-masked young men in camouflage stood in a field of waist-high weeds, Kalashnikov rifles pointed toward the Mediterranean Sea a half-mile away.
No Israeli soldier has set foot in Gaza City in five years, but the 25-year-old commander of this band of Al-Quds Brigades — the armed wing of Islamic Jihad — said his troops stand vigil here nightly to “protect the Palestinian people” from any “incursion.” Every few minutes, in what may have been a nightly ritual or an effort to broadcast to the world their readiness to fight, the radio on the commander’s shoulder crackled with warnings: drones in the east, F-16s overhead, gunboat movement at sea.
“You are the men; you, the Al-Quds Brigades, are the real men,” the voice said after reciting verses from the Quran praising jihadist militants and martyrs. “God protect you in the field.”
Smaller and less known internationally than the militant Islamic Hamas faction that has ruled since 2007, Islamic Jihad and its Al-Quds Brigades are having something of a renaissance. Last month the group captured global headlines by firing a barrage of 100 rockets toward Israel in less than an hour. Polls show that support for Islamic Jihad among residents of Gaza remains far below that of the leading political factions but has seen an uptick as the group has lately built health clinics, opened schools, and expanded its family-mediation services.
FULL ARTICLE (New York Times)
Peace talks over, Israelis and Palestinians push on as solo acts | Joshua Mitnick
With nine months of negotiations in the rear-view mirror, Israelis and Palestinians are now left with unilateral options.
In Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu will likely face calls for dramatic moves such as the annexation of West Bank settlements, while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will be pushed to renew international bids for statehood recognition.
They have both warned of their willingness to abandon talks entirely, but despite the bravado, analysts expect the two leaders to move cautiously as they test the new political environment after the collapse of US-brokered peace talks.
"The unilateralism will build up slowly," said Nathan Thrall, an Middle East analyst for the International Crisis Group. "None of that will be the end of the world."
FULL ARTICLE (Christian Science Monitor)
Photo: Fastfissions/Wikimedia Commons