Israel and the U.S. Miss Many Chances to Avoid War
Alongside the toll of death and broken lives, perhaps the saddest reality of the latest Gaza war, like the Gaza wars before it, is how easy it would have been to avoid. For the last eight years, Israel and the U.S. had repeated opportunities to opt for a diplomatic solution in Gaza. Each time, they have chosen war, with devastating consequences for the families of Gaza.
Let’s begin in June 2006, when the University of Maryland’s Jerome Segal, founder of the Jewish Peace Lobby, carried a high-level private message from Gaza to Washington. Segal had just returned from a meeting with Ismail Haniyeh, whose Hamas faction had recently won free and fair elections and taken power in Gaza. Hamas was seeking a unity government with the rival Fatah faction overseen by Mahmoud Abbas.
The previous year, Israel had withdrawn its soldiers and 8,000 settlers from Gaza, though its armed forces maintained a lockdown of the territory by air, land, and sea, controlling the flow of goods and people. Gazans believed they were trapped in the world’s largest open-air prison. For generations they had lived in overcrowded refugee camps, after their villages were depopulated by Israel and new Israeli cities built on their ruins in the years that followed Israel’s birth in 1948. By voting for Hamas in 2006, Palestinians signaled their weariness with Fatah’s corruption and its failure to deliver an independent state, or even a long-promised safe passage corridor between the West Bank and Gaza. In the wake of its surprise election victory, Hamas was in turn showing signs of edging toward the political center, despite its militant history.
Nevertheless, Israel and “the Quartet” -- the U.S., the European Union, Russia, and the U.N. -- refused to recognize the outcome of the democratic elections, labeling Hamas a “terrorist organization,” which sought Israel’s destruction. The administration of George W. Bush strongly pressured Abbas not to join a unity government. The Quartet suspended economic aid and Israel severely curtailed the flow of goods in and out of Gaza.
“It’s like meeting with a dietician,” remarked Dov Weisglass, a top aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. “We have to make [Gazans] much thinner, but not enough to die.” Only years later did researchers prove that Weisglass was speaking literally: Israeli officials had restricted food imports to levels below those necessary to maintain a minimum caloric intake. Child welfare groups began to report a sharp rise in poverty and chronic child malnutrition, anemia, typhoid fever, and potentially fatal infant diarrhea. Human rights organizations denounced the measures as collective punishment. Avi Shlaim, a veteran of the Israeli army, author of numerous books on Middle East history, and professor of international relations at the University of Oxford, wrote:
"America and the EU [European Union] shamelessly joined Israel in ostracizing and demonizing the Hamas government and in trying to bring it down by withholding tax revenues and foreign aid. A surreal situation thus developed with a significant part of the international community imposing economic sanctions not against the occupier but against the occupied, not against the oppressor but against the oppressed. As so often in the tragic history of Palestine, the victims were blamed for their own misfortunes."
These punitive measures were to remain in place until Hamas renounced violence (including stopping its cross-border rocket attacks), recognized Israel, and accepted all previous agreements based on the Oslo peace accords.
Which brings us back to that Washington-bound letter from Gaza. In the wake of the elections, Hamas was no longer the militant opposition to a ruling Fatah party, but a legally elected government operating under siege. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, suddenly responsible for governing and facing a mounting economic, humanitarian, and political catastrophe, sought to defuse the situation. In his June 2006 hand-written note to President Bush that Jerome Segal delivered to the State Department and the National Security Council, he requested a direct dialogue with the administration.
Despite Hamas’s charter calling for the elimination of Israel, Haniyeh’s conciliatory note to the American president conveyed a different message. “We are so concerned about stability and security in the area that we don't mind having a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders and offering a truce for many years,” Haniyeh wrote to Bush. This essentially added up to an offer of de facto recognition of Israel with a cessation of hostilities -- two of the key U.S. and Israeli demands of Hamas.
“The continuation of this situation,” Haniyeh wrote to Bush, “will encourage violence and chaos in the whole region."
A few lonely voices in the U.S. and Israel urged that the moment be seized and Hamas coaxed toward moderation. After all, Israel itself had been birthed in part by the Irgun and Stern Gang (or Lehi), groups considered terrorist by the British and the U.N. In the years before Israel’s birth, they had been responsible for a horrific massacre in the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin and the Irgun bombing of the King David Hotel, killing 91 people. Leaders of the two organizations, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, later became prime ministers of Israel. Similarly, Yasser Arafat, whose Palestine Liberation Organization was considered a terrorist group by Israel and the West, recognized Israel’s right to exist in a pivotal 1988 speech, paving the way for the Oslo peace process.
“I believe there is a chance that Hamas, the devils of yesterday, could be reasonable people today,” declared Efraim Halevy, former director of the Mossad, Israel’s CIA. “Rather than being a problem, we should strive to make them part of the solution.”
The Bush team, however, chose to ignore Hamas’s overture, opting, with Israel, for violence and chaos. The Obama administration would follow the same path years later. In this way, a pattern of U.S. acquiescence in ongoing, ever worsening humanitarian disasters in Hamas-run Gaza was established. Direct American political and material support for the indiscriminate killing of thousands of Gaza’s civilians, including hundreds of children, became Washington's de facto policy.
A U.S.-Israeli Military-Industrial Alliance
Three weeks after Haniyeh’s unanswered letter was delivered, Hamas abducted an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, and fired rockets into Israel. Israel launched a massive retaliation, Operation Summer Rains, returning to a fearsome and bloody history in Gaza that would repeat itself with greater intensity in the years ahead. Israeli missiles and fighter jets destroyed the offices of the prime minister and interior minister, the American International School, more than 100 other buildings, and heavily damaged Gaza’s only power station, the sole source of electricity for hundreds of thousands of Gazans.
During that operation, many Palestinians were limited to one meal a day, eaten by candlelight. More than 200 Palestinians were killed in the first two months of the conflict, at least 44 them children. Eleven Israelis died during that period. And yet, bad as it was, the death and destruction then would prove small compared to what was still to come.
Since Summer Rains, more than 4,200 Gazans, including nearly 1,400 non-combatants, including more than 600 children, have been killed by missiles, bombs, and other munitions -- some launched from offshore by Israel’s navy, some from land by Israeli tanks and ground forces, and some from the air by American-made F-16 fighter jets and Apache attack helicopters, part of the $3 billion in annual U.S. military aid to Israel. This includes the $276 million in bombs, grenades, torpedoes, rocket launchers, guided missiles, howitzers, mortars, machine guns, shotguns, pistols, cartridges, bayonets, and other battlefield weaponry that the U.S. has exported to Israel since January 2012.
This U.S.-Israeli military-industrial alliance has provided little incentive to explore peaceful or diplomatic alternatives. In 2007, Hamas and Fatah again discussed forming a unity government. The U.S. responded with heavy pressure on Mahmoud Abbas. American officials, through Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, had already been facilitating military training and arms shipments to his Fatah faction in Gaza. They wanted to bolster its capabilities against Hamas, allowing the U.S.’s favored Fatah leader in Gaza, strongman Mahmoud Dahlan, to take control.
This scenario, laid out in “The Gaza Bombshell,” a 2008 Vanity Fair piece by David Rose, and elsewhere, was confirmed to me by an American official stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv at the time. Eventually, said Norman Olsen, a former State Department official and 26-year foreign service officer, the unity talks collapsed, “but not before Dahlan's undisciplined fighters engaged in months of open protection rackets, extortion, kneecappings, car-jackings, and abductions.” Olsen knows the territory: he spent four years at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv covering the Gaza Strip, making hundreds of daily trips there, and later served as chief of the Embassy's political section, and as special advisor on the peace process to the U.S. ambassador.
Word of the American plan was leaked to an Arabic-language newspaper. Street battles between Fatah and Hamas erupted in Gaza. The “Battle of Gaza” took more than 100 lives. In the end, Hamas police and militants, according to Olsen, “drove Dahlan's fighters from the Strip, established order, and restored the ability of Gaza residents to move about safely.”
Taken in by Dahlan’s bravado, American officials were initially encouraged by the fighting. “I like this violence,” a senior American Middle East envoy told his U.N. counterpart, Alvaro de Soto, according to a confidential “End of Mission Report” leaked to the Guardian. Israeli officials also saw opportunities in the de facto Palestinian civil war. Israel’s director of military intelligence, according to a State Department cable later published by WikiLeaks, told the American ambassador in Tel Aviv that a Hamas victory would allow Israel "to treat Gaza" as a separate "hostile country," and that he would be “pleased” if Abbas “set up a separate regime in the West Bank.”
Indeed, as Hamas routed Dahlan’s Fatah forces, taking full control of Gaza, the two Palestinian sides -- and their populations in the West Bank and Gaza -- were physically separated and politically weakened. Despite the language of peace negotiations, ostensibly meant to create a “viable, contiguous” Palestinian state, the fractured reality appeared to be part of a deliberate Israeli strategy. Statehood for Palestinians seemed ever more a mirage.
In the coming years, the prospects of Palestinian unity -- both physical and political -- remained bleak. U.S.-brokered peace negotiations focused only on the fragmented West Bank, while Israel did indeed treat Hamas-controlled Gaza as a separate, “hostile country.” It countered Hamas rocket attacks with repeated air strikes and assassinations of Hamas leaders and lower-level operatives.
The two sides agreed to a ceasefire in 2008. Again, a lonely voice in Israel’s security establishment urged engagement with Hamas. Retired Brigadier General Shmuel Zakai, former commander of the Israeli Defense Force’s Gaza division, urged his country “to take advantage of the calm to improve, rather than markedly worsen, the economic plight of the Palestinians in the [Gaza] Strip… You cannot just land blows, leave the Palestinians in Gaza in the economic distress they are in, and expect Hamas just to sit around and do nothing.”
Ignoring such advice, Israel broke the truce on November 4, 2008, Election Day in America, by bombing tunnels on the Gaza-Egypt border, the only means for Gazans to secure goods during the years-long Israeli blockade, and killing six Hamas operatives. The back and forth of rockets and retaliation led to Operation Cast Lead, in which Israel killed more than 1,300 Palestinians, including 14 children taking refuge in a U.N. school and several dozen police cadets marching in their graduation ceremony, and destroyed or damaged 22,000 buildings in Gaza. Thirteen Israelis died, three of them civilians. Tzipi Livni, Israel’s foreign minister and a candidate for prime minister, declared, “Hamas now understands that when you fire on its citizens [Israel] responds by going wild -- and this is a good thing.”
The American-Israeli alliance, meanwhile, continued to strongly oppose any attempts to move in the direction of Palestinian unity. This, despite sporadic efforts at reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, and the desire of ordinary Gazans and West Bankers alike to end their isolation through a long-promised corridor between the two disconnected territories.
By early 2014, Hamas’s motivation for forging a unity pact had grown stronger. War and political change in the region meant it could no longer rely on financial or military support from Iran, Syria, or especially Egypt, whose new military rulers had realigned policy in a way that put them closer to Israel than Hamas. As a result, in April, Hamas and Fatah signed a unity agreement. Hamas was again sending a clear message of its willingness to engage in political compromise, this time agreeing to turn over unprecedented power in the reconciliation government.
It was an opportunity for Israel. As analyst Nathan Thrall of the International Crisis Group pointed out in a July 17th op-ed in the New York Times,
“[T]he 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.”
This was far more than Hamas leader Haniyeh had offered in his 2006 overture to Bush. It met the core Western and Israeli demands of Hamas almost to the letter. Implementing it could have led to a new kind of “quiet” between Hamas and Israel, a stronger Palestinian government, and a stronger, if still fleeting, chance for a viable Palestinian state including both Gaza and the West Bank, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Israel was not interested. The day after the unity accord was announced, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suspended already moribund peace negotiations, declaring that Hamas was “a terrorist organization bent on the destruction of Israel.”
A few weeks later, after three Israeli teenagers were abducted and murdered on the West Bank, Israel blamed Hamas and launched Operation Brother’s Keeper. The Israeli military searched 2,200 West Bank Palestinian homes and arrested more than 400 Palestinians, mostly Hamas members, holding at least 150 people without charges. Yet reports indicated that less than 10% of those taken in were even questioned about the kidnapping.
Given accounts indicating that the Israeli authorities knew within a day that the teens had been murdered (though they didn’t announce it for two weeks), it appears that Netanyahu’s government was simply using the pretext of the kidnappings as yet another attempt to crush Hamas. Meanwhile, that organization uncharacteristically denied any involvement in the act and Israel has yet to offer evidence Hamas leaders ordered it or knew about it in advance. On the contrary, an Israeli police spokesman appeared to confirm reports that Hamas leaders had no prior knowledge of the plan.
By the time this was revealed, however, Hamas had already responded to the Israeli incursions on the West Bank with rockets from Gaza, and Israel, in its typically disproportionate way, had unleashed an unprecedented assault on Hamas -- and on the people of Gaza. Again, Israel had chosen war over any other possible path, with full American backing and military hardware.
On July 30th, amid growing calls in the international community for war crimes investigations, and four hours after the Obama administration itself condemned the Israeli shelling of a U.N. shelter and the deaths of 20 civilians, the Pentagon approved a restocking of American-made ammunition for Israel’s arsenal. “It is deeply cynical for the White House to condemn the deaths and injuries of Palestinians, including children, and humanitarian workers, when it knows full well that the Israeli military responsible for such attacks are armed to the teeth with weapons and equipment bankrolled by U.S. taxpayers,” said Brian Wood, head of Arms Control and Human Rights at Amnesty International.
In all of this, of course, Hamas is far from blameless. Its launching of thousands of rockets is a clear violation of international law. However, in 2014, as in 2006, 2008-2009, and 2012, the sheer volume of destruction and death on each side is incomparable. In 2014, Israeli’s sophisticated lethal power, in the form of tens of thousands of tons of bombs, missiles, and artillery shells rained down on Gaza, killing nearly 1,400 civilians by U.N. estimates. Sixty-four Israeli soldiers and more than 530 Gaza militants have also died. Hamas’s mostly primitive rockets, some homemade in Gaza metal workshops and others relying on Soviet-era technology, have managed to terrorize Israelis, but that country’s civilian death toll in the Gaza war of 2014 has been three.
Trauma and Cold-Eyed Calculation
It is hard to imagine how Israel’s behavior could possibly make the country safer in the long run, given the eternal enmity it has been sowing, no matter how many Hamas tunnels it destroys in the short term. Given this, why do such indiscriminate attacks continue? The answers, I believe after years spent in the region, lie in the psychology of the Israeli state, as well as in the cold calculations of its leaders.
Israel remains a deeply traumatized society whose profound anxieties are based in part on genuine acts of horror perpetrated by countless terrorist attacks over decades, and partly on an unspeakable past history in Europe. The Holocaust and its teaching in Israel have forged an existential fear of annihilation in Israeli Jewish society. (Twenty percent of Israel’s population, it’s important to remember, is Palestinian Arab.) This is true even among the large percentage of Sephardic Jews, whose families came from the Middle East and the Balkans. In recent images of terrorized Israelis crouching in shelters and by roadsides, we can see that the post-traumatic impact of the past lives on.
Israel’s leaders have not been shy to exploit these fears. Yet as the late Palestinian intellectual and Columbia University professor Edward Said asked 20 years ago in The Politics of Dispossession:
“How long can the history of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust be used as a fence to exempt Israel from arguments and sanctions against it for its behavior towards the Palestinians? How long are we going to deny that the cries of the people of Gaza... are directly connected to the policies of the Israeli government and not to the cries of the victims of Nazism?”
Tragically, Israeli fears have created a national justification for a kind of “never again” mentality gone mad, in which leaders find it remarkably easy to justify ever more brutal acts against ever more dehumanized enemies. At the funeral for the three slain teens, Benjamin Netanyahu declared, “May God avenge their blood.” An Israeli Facebook page, “The People of Israel Demand Revenge,” quickly garnered 35,000 likes. A member of the Knesset from a party in the nation’s ruling coalition posted an article by Netanyahu’s late former chief of staff that called for the killing of “the mothers of [Palestinian] martyrs” and the demolition of their homes: “Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there.”
On NPR, Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., decried the “culture of terrorism” in Palestinian society, adding: "You're talking about savage actions... In the case of Israel, we take legitimate actions of self-defense, and sometimes, unintentionally, Palestinian civilians are harmed." That day, the Palestinian teenager Mohammed Khdeir was abducted and burned alive, and soon afterward, Israel began bombing Gaza.
Within Israel, the act of dehumanization has become institutionalized. These days, Israeli newspapers generally don’t even bother to print the names, when known, or the stories of the children being killed in Gaza. When B’tselem, the respected Israeli human rights organization, attempted to take out an advertisement on Israeli radio naming names, the request was denied. The content of the ad, censors declared, was “politically controversial.”
Yet all of this is still not sufficient to explain Israel’s violent abandon in Gaza and previously (to a lesser extent) in the West Bank during the Second Intifada. Netanyahu, and before him Ariel Sharon, have been bent on destroying any possibility of a future Palestinian state. In 2002, Sharon used the pretext of an especially horrific suicide bombing to launch Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank, which, in the words of New York Times reporter Serge Schmemann, “devastated… the infrastructure of life itself and of any future Palestinian state -- roads, schools, electricity pylons, water pipes, telephone lines.”
As Edward Said wrote at the time:
“What antiterrorist purpose is served by destroying the building and then removing the records of the Ministry of Education, the Ramallah Municipality, the Central Bureau of Statistics, various institutes specializing in civil rights, health, and economic development, hospitals, and radio and television stations? Isn’t it clear that Sharon is bent not only on ‘breaking’ the Palestinians but on trying to eliminate them as a people with national institutions?”
In a similar fashion, Israel’s recent attacks on Gaza hospitals, schools, the area’s only power plant, U.N. schools and other facilities housing refugees with nowhere else to go, and tens of thousands of civilian buildings have set back any future statehood efforts by years, if not decades.
In other words, Israel’s decisions in Gaza can be seen partly as the response of a traumatized country, but also as its leaders’ cold-eyed pursuit of a larger strategic objective -- what the Israeli writer Meron Benvenisti calls a “splintering strategy.” Destroying Hamas, or at least the basis for the unity agreement with Fatah, would assumedly help guarantee that the West Bank and Gaza will remain isolated, unconnected by the corridor promised during the Oslo process.
With Gaza in ruins, the West Bank is ever more “splintered” itself. There, Israeli state policies encouraging settlement expansion -- including a series of financial incentives that make it cheaper to be a settler than a city dweller -- have served to isolate Palestinians in ever more cutoff cantons, controlled by hundreds of roadblocks, checkpoints, and roads reserved for settlers and VIPs. Meanwhile, Israel’s hardening position in negotiations with Abbas, the weak and unpopular leader of a rump Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, has placed huge swaths of settlement blocs and miles of the Jordan Valley off limits for a future Palestinian state -- unless the U.S. or another party intervenes to change the status quo.
In other words, the destruction of Gazan neighborhoods and significant aspects of the area’s infrastructure should be seen as part of Israel’s larger objective: dividing Palestinians from one another and so deep-sixing the possibility of genuine self-determination. As early as 1973, Ariel Sharon, one of the founders of the Likud party and a champion of the settler movement, described his aim as putting so many settlements on the West Bank that they would become impossible to remove.
Three decades later, Sharon and his advisors had essentially realized that strategy. In a 2004 letter to Sharon, President Bush wrote that, “in light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers [i.e. settlements], it is unrealistic” to forge a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders between Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza.
Three years later, Sharon disengaged from Gaza and turned his full attention to protecting the West Bank settlers by making sure the peace process went nowhere. “By freezing the peace process,” explained top Sharon aide Dov Weisglass, “you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders, and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda.”
On July 11th, Prime Minister Netanyahu more formally clarified Israel’s intentions. “There cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan,” Netanyahu stated. For anyone weak on his or her Middle Eastern geography, that is an area that includes all of the West Bank. In other words, Israel, finally, officially has no interest in a two-state solution.
Did Hamas Win the Gaza War of 2014?
Throughout much of its history, Israel has made a practice of engaging in overwhelmingly disproportionate response -- “going wild,” to quote Tzipi Livni -- in response to threats real or perceived. In recent years, this strategy has also had a way of backfiring, notably in 2006, when Hezbollah emerged stronger after Israel’s invasion of Lebanon.
With its latest onslaught in Gaza, Israel may again be emboldening an enemy while creating worldwide sympathy for the Palestinian people, momentum for global boycotts, and an embittered generation of young Palestinians with, undoubtedly, revenge in their hearts.
At this writing, the outcome of indirect negotiations between Hamas and Israel is impossible to predict. Hamas’s hand was strengthened, however, by calls within Israel for direct talks with the Islamic organization and by increasing international calls for an end to Israel’s blockade. Fatah leaders, meanwhile, have spoken out recently in support of the unity agreement, thus strengthening prospects for long-time reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah -- the very condition Israel went to such lengths to destroy.
In other words, Hamas could end up “winning” the Gaza war of 2014, though the losers, as always, are the people of Gaza.
Sandy Tolan, a TomDispatch regular, is author of The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, and the forthcoming Children of the Stone, about the building of a music school under occupation in the West Bank. He is an associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at USC.