The ICC Decides to Investigate War Crimes in West Bank and Gaza

The International Criminal Court at The Hague
The International Criminal Court at The Hague

As Israel moves toward its third round of elections in less than a year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is desperate to find a way to hold on to power. More than vain self-interest motivates him now, as he hopes that being a sitting (and re-confirmed) prime minister will make it impossible for him to be tried, convicted, and eventually jailed for the corrupt dealings with which he has been charged.

Netanyahu was doubtless overjoyed to hear that the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague has decided there was sufficient cause to investigate whether war crimes had been committed by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza Strip over past five and a half years. The announcement provided him with exactly the kind of target he likes best, one that allows him to claim that Israel is being singled out, persecuted, held to an unfair standard, and all because of antisemitism.

That assertion is absurd on its face, and hardly worth examining. Israel’s human rights record is open for all to see, and it’s not pretty. Moreover, the ICC isn’t investigating Israel; it is investigating the conflict in the occupied territories, and that investigation includes all parties involved. That’s just one of several key points that need to be understood regarding the ICC investigation. Read more at Responsible Statecraft

Ways to Help the People of Gaza

Since Israel began its mass slaughter of civilians in Gaza last month, many people have approached me asking how they can donate to 3224345539_263f7ca588_zhelp the masses of innocent victims in the Strip.

Understandably, a lot of Americans and European are concerned about giving to the “wrong” charity, given the fact that good people have found themselves under the investigative eye of the FBI and similar agencies for what they thought were mere charitable donations in the past.

I’ve been recommending three organizations. Today, there was a new cause (contact for the other three will be included below). This one is an Israeli initiative spearheaded by the well-know Israeli peace activist, Gershon Baskin. He found a very large quantity of potatoes in Israel that were going to be destroyed in order to manage the market price for them. So, he’s trying to raise money to buy as much as he can of them and send them to Gaza. It’s a smart initiative, and it would send a message, at least to some of the beleaguered people of Gaza that there are still people in Israel who are concerned about the loss of life in the Strip. Obviously, no matter what one thinks of Israel’s actions these days, that is a message that needs to get out there.

Baskin’s initiative is simply entitled Emergency Food Aid for Gaza. That’s one way to donate.

The other three organizations I have been recommending:

The Middle East Children’s Alliance is running an emergency fund for Gaza. MECA is has been doing the hard work to build life on the ground in the occupied territories for many years. They are a dedicated and eminently trustworthy bunch.

UNRWA USA directly supports the work of UNRWA, the UN refugee agency that is the main source of life-sustaining food, shelter, clothes, medicine…pretty much everything. All donations go directly to aid.

ANERA is the third organization I know well that works well in Gaza. They are funded in part by USAID, and have a great reputation for helping on the ground.

It’s true that none of us can do enough to help the people of Gaza. But there are ways to safely do something. If you can, please take advantage of one of them.

Is Hamas Winning?

An edited version of this piece first appeared at LobeLog

When Israel, or any country, engages in armed conflict with a guerilla group, even if that group controls significant territory and resources, it is a virtual truism that the longer the fighting goes on, the greater the gains for the non-state actor. In Gaza, Hamas’ quasi-governmental position still leaves it in the role of the guerilla enemy. And with the events of the past few days, it is worth asking if Israel is not losing this “war.” Continue reading

The Lying Game: Failing in Gaza

The fighting in Gaza will continue for some time, as a ceasefire agreement brokered by Egypt fell apart. Despite the bellicose language Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has employed over the past week, it was Hamas and not Israel that rejected the proposal. This was, to be sure, the direct result of that proposal not meeting any of Hamas’ demands for a ceasefire and, because as one Israeli official put it, “…we discovered we’d made a cease-fire agreement with ourselves.” The dynamics of this turn of events are important and tell us much about how the ground has changed in the region. We first must ask why Hamas rejected the Egyptian proposal. They have been rather clear about their reasons:

  1. Hamas felt, quite correctly, that Egypt had essentially negotiated this deal with Israel, then presented it as a fait accompli to Hamas. In fact, they said they first heard about it through social media.
  2. Hamas has declared that they intend to come out of this round of fighting with some gains. In particular, they want to end the siege that Israel has imposed on the Gaza Strip since 2007, the release of all the prisoners who had been re-arrested recently after being freed in exchange for Hamas freeing Gilad Shalit in 2011, and the negotiation of a long term truce, as was agreed in 2012, but never acted upon. The terms of the proposal offered no such relief, or any real change to the status quo.
  3. Many among Hamas and other groups believe this proposal was deliberately put forth by Egypt as one Israel would accept and Hamas would reject, in order to legitimize further attacks on Gaza. The way things have unfolded, they may be correct.

Those reasons may show a certain rationality in Hamas’ refusal to accept a ceasefire. Wisdom and real concern for the innocents suffering under Israel’s bombings are far less apparent, however. In fact, Hamas’ refusal to accept the ceasefire completes the process of wiping from the memory of much of the world the fact that Israel initiated this round of fighting.

Rarely has Netanyahu been more accurate than earlier yesterday, when he said “[If Hamas] doesn’t accept the ceasefire proposal…Israel will have all the international legitimacy to broaden its military activity in order to achieve the necessary quiet.” Indeed, Hamas’ decision does exactly that. There will still be expressions of concern from various quarters, but for the most part, pressure on Israel to stop its onslaught from the US, EU, UN and even many Arab states will diminish essentially to zero. It is hard to imagine that the refusal is going to lead to a better deal. The only thing that might, and only might, do that is a massive uptick in civilian deaths from where the number is at now. Hardly something anyone would wish for. So, while Hamas may have had very good reason to reject this deal, it does not seem that rejection is a better option.

Indeed, one may argue that accepting the ceasefire deal with certain reservations may have put Hamas in a better position. At least the massive uptick in death and destruction in Gaza would have been stemmed, even if temporarily.

Egypt’s New Position

Hamas has issued a statement rejecting further Egyptian efforts to mediate a ceasefire. They will now accept only Turkey or Qatar in that role. Those are, not coincidentally, the only two significant states who support the political goals of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the new Egyptian regime joins Saudi Arabia and many of the Gulf States in despising.

Egypt has now demonstrated that not only has its position on Hamas hardened since the ouster of the Brotherhood and President Mohamed Morsi, it is even more antagonistic to Hamas than former President Hosni Mubarak. Given this, it is likely that the role Mubarak frequently played as a broker between Israel and Hamas is not one that the current General/President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi can assume, and this was a failed attempt to show that he could.

This will please Netanyahu, who is surely seeing the new Egyptian regime as much more to his liking than anything that ever came before it. But it is going to complicate matters for the United States, all the more so as Israel is not likely to accept Turkey or Qatar as an intermediary. Without Egypt as a broker, the US is going to have a much harder time stabilizing these periodic escalations between Israel and Hamas. This, again, may suit Netanyahu, who believes US President Barack Obama is much too quick to try to end conflicts. But it also makes Israeli decisions as to when to back off more complicated, as the US will not be able to give Israel a way out that shields its leadership at least a little from the political fallout of ending these operations while Hamas is still in control of the Strip.

Hamas’ Weakened Position

Hamas is facing serious isolation. Egypt was surely never very sympathetic to Hamas, even when Morsi was in office. It is now even more firmly in the US-Israeli camp. Hamas’ support for Syrian rebels and the slow thaw of relations between the United States and Iran has (to Netanyahu’s chagrin) cooled the Hamas-Iran relationship, and Qatar has had to back away to some degree from its support of the Brotherhood and its affiliates like Hamas due to pressure from other Gulf states. This is why, despite the forecasts by many that this latest round will end with the status quo more or less maintained, Netanyahu, and probably also Mahmoud Abbas, believes a severe blow can now be struck against Hamas.

Netanyahu believes, not without reason, that this can be done without resorting to the kind of all-out assault, and even re-occupation, which is being pushed by his right flank in Israel. Consider the Islamist group’s current position. It was already struggling to pay workers in Gaza and had been arguing with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah about who bears the responsibility. Egypt’s harder line has been stifling the “tunnel economy,” which was the only method for bringing many goods and supplies into Gaza that Israel would not permit to pass through its blockade. Hamas seemed to have nothing but rhetoric to offer to deal with the situation, and it was losing standing among the Palestinians, both in Gaza and the West Bank.

Islamic Jihad and other, more radical Palestinian factions, which Hamas was generally preventing from taking violent actions against Israel from Gaza, were accusing Hamas of abandoning its revolutionary ideals. Add to this the loss of much of its support from the rest of the Arab and Muslim world, in the wake of the decline of the Brotherhood throughout the region, and it’s not hard to see why Netanyahu believes that, even if the outcome of the current fighting is merely an agreement to go back to the way things were, he will still come out a big winner.

He may be right. But it is more likely that Israel’s continued attacks will cause the various factions to rally together, as they have in the past, strengthening Hamas’ position. It is also more likely to exacerbate the already dire predicament Abbas is in, as he has cracked down in the West Bank to prevent anti-Israel protests during the fighting, sacrificing what little respect and confidence the Palestinians had left in the PA President.

To Cease or not to Cease

Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other factions fighting in Gaza can certainly make the case that they have successfully stood firm under Israel’s attacks while demonstrating that they can shoot their missiles throughout Israel. The rockets being used in many cases were actually made in Gaza, along with what they have been able to smuggle in from outside. The fact that the locally made rockets include some of the medium range ones that have been penetrating farther into Israel than ever before is one reason Hamas is perhaps in less of a rush than one might think to stop the fighting.

The calculus, though, is cold and fails on a number of levels. The most obvious failure is the suffering of the people of Gaza. Over 190 Gazans have been killed, the vast majority civilians. These deaths do raise a great deal of anger among Palestinians against Israel, but to what end? There does not seem to be any victory, or even small gains, on the horizon for which these people are dying. When the fighting dies down, Israel will be the same villain in Gaza it always was, but people are surely going to wonder why the fighting went on for as long as it did with no gains in sight. And that is really the nub of it — there seems to be no hope for Hamas to achieve any of its goals, such as lifting the maritime blockade on Gaza or easing the border crossings. If they are hoping that other forces — such as those in Lebanon, which have lobbed a few projectiles across the border and to which Israel has responded quite forcefully — will be opening another flank against Israel, they are not paying attention to events in Syria and Iraq, which are occupying the efforts of Hezbollah and other parties that might be willing to engage Israel.

There simply isn’t an endgame that represents progress for Hamas. In 2012, when then-Egyptian President Morsi brokered an agreement, Hamas could claim a few minor concessions from Israel (which never really materialized once there was no pressure on Israel to follow through with them). There will be nothing of that sort here, but Hamas seems to be desperately clinging to the hope that it can extract something to base a claim of victory on.

That’s a terrible gamble. It is much more likely that the refusal to agree to a ceasefire is giving Netanyahu exactly what he wants: the chance to deliver a blow to a weakened Hamas regime in Gaza. Hamas has given Netanyahu the means to do this without having to overcome the global opposition that was apparent at the beginning of the current fighting. Their refusal is understandable. Israel has repeatedly failed to live up to prior agreements, and this entire thing does look very much like a setup cooked up by Egypt and Israel.

Still, it seems like the rejection of the ceasefire plays into Netanyahu’s hands even more than going along with it would have. Hamas was faced with two bad options. Some may say they chose the lesser of two evils, but they seem to have opted for the path of salvaging some pride while losing more innocent lives and gaining nothing.

Was the Palestinian Reconciliation Deal a Mistake?

At +972 Magazine my friend and colleague, Larry Derfner, a former columnist for the Jerusalem Postsays he believes that by deciding to go forward with a third unity agreement with Hamas at this time, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas “has shot the cause of Palestinian independence in the foot.” Put bluntly, I disagree completely, and I told Larry so publicly on his Facebook page.

Larry basically argues that the recent collapse of the peace talks has been almost universally blamed on Israel, and that this created an opportunity for Abbas to build some real support in the international community, including from major powers. But the distaste for Hamas’ policies undermines that opportunity, so why couldn’t Abbas have waited until after he made some hay out of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s obstructionism?

Larry is correct in saying that a unified Palestinian government, if that is what results from this agreement (far from a sure thing) carries certain problems, and most of them are based on how the world sees Hamas. The Saudis and the al-Sisi government in Egypt certainly don’t care for Hamas, and neither does much of Europe or Russia. But when Larry says that Hamas is considered “anathema” he is vastly overstating the case outside of Israel and the United States, two parties which most Palestinians have realized are working day and night to keep the occupation going. Abbas may have finally acknowledged that reality as well.

In any case, my argument here is an edited and somewhat fleshed out version of what I said to Larry on Facebook, which involved a brief dialogue.

The reconciliation move was not primarily about Israel, it was about Palestine, and the very drastic need there for a legitimate government. That tank has just about hit zero for both the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas.

Secondarily, it is also about the long-delayed realization that Israel will never sincerely pursue peace with the Palestinians, and that this is not because of Netanyahu-Bennett-Lieberman, but because of simple political realities wherein Israel has little compelling reason to make peace and tons of political pressure not to. It is also about the fact that U.S. President Barack Obama has demonstrated, in a more overtly “pro-Israel” way than George W. Bush did, that the United States will never, ever be a help in this regard, and rather only a hindrance.

However, the Israel-U.S. part, remains secondary. Their obstructionism is why considerations of Israeli and U.S. reactions aren’t stopping Palestinian reconciliation — but that is not the reason reconciliation is happening. This reconciliation is a dire Palestinian necessity. That is so primarily for reasons of having a legitimate and representative leadership, which Palestine has not had since 2006, when the elections and their aftermath robbed the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) of that legitimacy and left both Fatah and Hamas without it. A unified Palestinian leadership will involve what is currently missing from both parties in terms of how they work on the international stage — popular support.

For Fatah, the timing is particularly advantageous because the shift in Egypt has weakened Hamas and, combined with Iran’s growing rapprochement with the West and the loss of Hamas’ base in Syria, Abbas finds himself in a position where he believes he can bring Hamas into the PLO but maintain Fatah’s superior position in that organization.

The US may well cut off funding. The Saudis have indicated in the past that they will boost their own support in such a case, but Saudi pledges to the Palestinians are notoriously unreliable, and they are also deeply unfriendly to Hamas. But the intra-Palestinian conflict is also one of several stages where the Saudi-Qatar rivalry plays out, with Qatar backing Hamas and the Saudis supporting the PA. This surely leads Abbas to believe that the Saudis are more likely than usual to make good on their promises to the PA.

But even if the Saudis fall short on funding, the risk here is what? That the PA will collapse? If that comes about due to reconciliation, but is also accompanied by a stronger PLO, Fatah is better off, and quite likely in the long run (though certainly not the short), so are the majority of the Palestinians. Hamas, for its part, recognizes that it is very isolated and the horizon only looks worse for it in the Arab world. The Muslim Brotherhood has suffered a huge setback, focused in Egypt but also throughout the region, and its opponents are pressing their advantage.

Obviously, Hamas is a target in this regard, being generally viewed as a branch of the Brotherhood. It therefore desperately needs to reinforce its identity as the Palestinian resistance movement. It also needs to renew its connections and focus on other Palestinians movements as opposed to other Arab movements.

These are all reasons for Palestinian reconciliation, and why this moment is a good time for it. Meanwhile the reactions of Israel and the United States don’t really figure into Palestinian motivations for this decision. Indeed, given the visceral, and, it should be noted, not unmerited hatred for Hamas in Israel (and this is not at all confined to the right-wing) and the hysteria it receives in the United States, where Congress has legislated far stronger measures against any dialogue with Hamas than Israel, the reactions from Washington and Jerusalem would be the same whenever an agreement was signed. The European Union and United Nations have always expressed support for Palestinian reconciliation. After all, it was Israel itself that argued that Abbas couldn’t make a deal that would stick because he didn’t represent all Palestinians. So, everyone outside of the US and Israel wanted this to happen. But it happened for Palestinian reasons. The moment was helped along by the United States reaching new heights of prevarication and fecklessness under John Kerry’s watch, and by Netanyahu’s refusal to even pretend to be interested in an agreement; those events merely made it easier for reconciliation to happen.

All of this pre-supposes that this deal will actually be implemented, which is by no means certain. I think there’s basically a 50-50-percent chance that Abbas was sincere about this (I think it’s overwhelmingly likely that Hamas is serious for the reasons I just stated, and also because this involved the Gaza-Hamas leadership rather than the Khaled Meshal, exile branch). If Abbas wasn’t sincere, and if he does not intend to move forward with implementation and with elections in due course, he has forever sacrificed any chance of reaching a deal with Hamas, because they will never trust him again. Of course, at 79, Abbas won’t be there much longer in any case.

So, that would be one outcome. If Abbas does not intend to implement, then this is likely a strategy to try to convince the US and EU that he will take steps in the international arena, specifically at the UN and the International Criminal Court (ICC), if the West doesn’t exert serious pressure on Israel. If that is what he’s doing, that’s not very wise, because he will have burned the Hamas bridge, which he needs to cross at some point, and because no matter what the Palestinians threaten to do, there is no circumstance where they can ever hope to see serious positive action from the U.S. until the domestic political waves shift. The U.S. isn’t likely to change any time soon and it can’t be realistically affected by Abbas anyway.

In either case, Israel and the U.S. have made their own positions on Palestinian freedom clear: they will only impede it. Therefore, such concerns only need to be taken into account due to the balance of power, but allowing those concerns to stop action will only deepen the problems faced by the Palestinians.

On the most basic level, if we agree that ending the occupation in the near future is, for whatever reasons, not going to happen, then shouldn’t the Palestinians take a long-term step toward that possibility? The criticisms have mostly centered on timing, but anyone who wants to see a peaceful resolution of this conflict must agree that at some point, the Palestinians must have one clear leadership. Therefore, I can’t see how this hurts the goal of ending the occupation.

Any step the Palestinians take is going to be met with Israeli financial reprisals. But should they do nothing? There is a clear and obvious benefit here: No deal, even if one is reached, can possibly hold unless it includes agreement by legitimate representatives of the Palestinians. Just like in Israel, where its legitimate representatives are representing both those who want peace and those who want Greater Israel, the Palestinians’ body politic must also be legitimately represented. So, what better time is there to take such a step than now, when the Israeli government has clearly shown that it’s not interested in a 2-state solution and the US has also made it clear that it will (or can) do nothing to aid a sustainable solution no matter how obnoxiously Israel behaves?

If this is truly the beginning of Palestinian reconciliation, and that is a very big “if,” then this move will also push the Palestinians away from dependence on U.S. mediation and Israeli “largesse.” That’s a completely positive outcome. The problem in the talks, ultimately, is not Bibi’s obstructionism or the lack of a U.S. backbone. It is the fact that making peace is a huge political and ideological risk for both Israelis and Palestinians. While Palestinians have a compelling reason to take that risk, the potential benefits for Israel do not nearly match the potential risk, both perceived and actual. Israelis, even many who support a mutual peace, feel they are risking their very lives with a two-state solution. In that situation they will certainly be making territorial compromises, losing some water resources, and compromising their historical narrative.

In order to make those risks politically worthwhile, there must be carrots for positive action and sticks for failure. Both exist for the Palestinians, but Israel only sees some carrots, and even those are rather abstract and uncertain. The U.S. is not going to provide the sticks for the Israelis, as Yasir Arafat and, later, Abbas, once hoped. If Palestinian reconciliation makes way for another path in the international arena for them to find a few sticks, anyone who supports peace should support this move. The EU and UN know it. Even the Obama administration seems to hold some glimmer of this thought. More than a few in Israel understand that Palestinian reconciliation is a good thing for Israel as well. Only the Israeli right thinks otherwise, and the fact that they think this is a victory for them only reveals the bankruptcy of their analysis.