The Cold Realities of US Policy in Israel-Palestine

During the summertime war in Gaza, the two most progressive members of the US Senate stirred up controversy among their backers with 7258702972_d11e56b4ea_z (1)expressions of uncritical support for Israel. At a town hall meeting, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the lone Senate independent, responded to a questioner that Israel had “overreacted” with its 52-day bombardment and ground incursion, but then proceeded to justify Israel’s actions with the usual pro-Israel talking points about “missiles fired from populated areas” and “sophisticated tunnels.” An audience member began to shout objections, to which Sanders said, “Shut up.”

Elizabeth Warren, the Democrat from Massachusetts, went further in her defense of Israel at a meeting with constituents on Cape Cod. She said it was right for the United States to send $225 million in aid to Israel, a “democracy controlled by the rule of law,” as the bombing continued. She ventured no criticism at all of the extensive damage to civilian lives and livelihoods in Gaza. When another constituent suggested that future US aid be conditioned on Israel halting settlement construction in the West Bank, Warren replied, “I think there’s a question of whether we should go that far.” Read more at the Middle East Research and Information Project

Richard Falk and the Russell Tribunal on the Question of Genocide in Gaza

I was not surprised that my recent article which, in part, discussed Mahmoud Abbas’ assertion that Israel committed genocide in Gaza caused russell-tribunal-on-palestinesome controversy and discussion. Indeed, I was gratified by it.

This is an important question, one that goes well beyond the rhetorical issue and one that I did not delve nearly as deeply into as I probably should have in my piece. Richard Falk’s article in The Nation has now done that job for me. I don’t always agree with Falk, but in this case, I think he and the Tribunal got it exactly right. I see this even though I get the sense from this piece that the Tribunal, and possibly Falk as well, believe in their hearts that genocide was committed in Gaza, while I do not.

One point bears some stress. Falk points out that genocide is regarded as “the crime of crimes.” Some of the debate over the use of this word to describe not only the Gaza horror of 2014 but the occupation more broadly has centered on the legal definition of genocide. I maintain that Israel’s crimes do not reach that level. But beyond the legal semantic question is the very important colloquial understanding of that word.

When people hear “genocide” they think of the Nazis, Rwanda, the Khmer Rouge and the Armenians. These were all incidents where huge numbers and huge percentages of particular populations were exterminated. As Falk points out, the legal definition actually holds a higher standard, where intent to annihilate a particular group must be proven. But colloquially, the understanding most people have of genocide plainly doesn’t fit Gaza. That’s the biggest reason I disagree with the use of that word.

But there was also a demonstrably “genocidal atmosphere” in Israel over the summer, whether it be tweens proudly stating that killing Arabs is a good thing, to plans put forth by Knesset members to empty Gaza of Arabs to statements by another MK that all Palestinians are legitimate targets. That makes the accusation worth investigating. So does the fact that the attack happened in the context of an ongoing blockade of Gaza which left Gazans nowhere to flee to, either outside their borders or within the sardine-can-like Strip.

When the Tribunal did so, they came to this conclusion, as described by Falk: “Despite these factors, there were legal doubts as to the crime itself. The political and military leaders of Israel never explicitly endorsed the pursuit of genocidal goals, and they purported to seek a ceasefire during the military campaign. The tribunal convincingly documented the government’s goal of intensifying the regime of collective punishment, but there was no clear official expression of intent to commit genocide. The presence of genocidal behavior and language, even if used in government circles, is not by itself sufficient to conclude that Protective Edge, despite its enormity, amounted to the commission of the crime of genocide.”

I think that’s right. You make your own decision, but I strongly urge us all to hold the accusation of “genocide” to the highest standard, because there is nothing worse.

Changing Course: Mahmoud Abbas At The UNGA

Reaction to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ speech to the UN General Assembly today was swift and sharp. One of the most incisive

Mahmoud Abbas addresses the UN general Assembly, 9/26/14

Mahmoud Abbas addresses the UN general Assembly, 9/26/14

Israeli columnists, Chemi Shalev of Ha’aretz, broke it down very well. He considered Abbas’ speech to be a welcome gift to the Israeli right. And I agree with him. But that’s not really the point.

Abbas has often used the UN podium as a way to be more direct and combative than he usually is regarding Israel, de-emphasizing the “partner for peace” charade and instead being more of an advocate for and leader of the Palestinian cause. But this time, he really turned up the heat. His reference to the attack on Gaza as “genocide” was calculated to play very well in Ramallah and Gaza City, and he willingly sacrificed the rest of the world’s approval. Continue reading

Is This the Real Gaza Ceasefire?

Israel and Hamas have agreed to another ceasefire, and there seems to be some sense that this one will last. The terms of the 14777243476_4f4b3f01b0_z-620x350agreement leave many issues up in the air, which tends to work strongly in Israel’s favor. It’s worthwhile to look at who might have won and lost, under the assumption that this ceasefire will actually hold.

The tragic reality after fifty days of bombings, rockets and ground invasions is that neither Israel nor Hamas comes out of this with gains. Israel has gained a ceasefire, but at this point, they have nothing else to show for their efforts. Hamas has gained another episode where they were able to survive Israel’s onslaught, but at the cost of thousands of lives and the destruction of infrastructure that, even for Gaza, is unprecedented. Both sides are looking toward the extended peace talks that are supposed to take place within a month, but counting on such things is often a frivolous effort in the Middle East.

Benjamin Netanyahu

Whatever arguments might be made for the proposition that Israel won this conflict, they cannot apply to the prime minister. Benjamin Netanyahu’s approval ratings can make one seasick: they rose to over 80% at the end of July only to fall to 36% now. While people in Gaza are celebrating the end of the ceasefire, Israelis are relieved but wondering what it was all for.

Netanyahu does not relish this sort of military operation and one can see why. He doesn’t handle them well, as evidenced by the constant shifting of his goals. He started with “quiet for quiet,” moved on to harming Hamas and eliminating its tunnels, then to disarming the group, and finally, when those goals were clearly unattainable, he went back to “quiet for quiet,” jumping at an agreement of that nature as quickly as he could.

Netanyahu is now going to face international pressure to seriously engage in peace talks through Egyptian mediation. His preference, and that of his right flank in Israel, will be to stall on such talks, but with the United States and Europe increasing their support for a resolution to the issue of Gaza, Netanyahu will find himself in the middle of a tug o’ war battle. With that same right flank becoming increasingly alienated from and hostile to him, he may be forced to the table.

That table will house yet another massive failure on Bibi’s part. Back in June, he seized upon the murders of three Israelis, lied to the Israeli public when he knew they were dead, whipped the country into a frenzy and started a process in motion that he could not control, which eventually led to the probably unwanted outcome of “Operation Protective Edge.” Bibi’ purpose in all of this was to rend asunder the Palestinian unity government.

Now the United Nations, the European Union, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and crucially, the United States, are pushing for that same unity government—currently composed of technocrats led by Mahmoud Abbas—to take over in Gaza. This was certainly evident in Secretary of State John Kerry’s words supporting yesterday’s ceasefire announcement.

Speaking about the urgent need to get construction and humanitarian supplies into Gaza Kerry said:

We are also prepared to work with our international partners on a major reconstruction initiative, with appropriate measures in place to ensure that this is for the benefit of the civilian population in Gaza, not Hamas and other terrorist organizations. We look forward to coordinating closely with President Abbas and the Palestinian Authority on these critical efforts

That is a clear statement of support for the current PA to take over Gaza. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon was even more clear.

“Gaza must be brought back under one legitimate Palestinian Government adhering to the PLO commitments,” he said. “The blockade of Gaza must end; Israel’s legitimate security concerns must be addressed. The United Nations stands ready to support efforts to address the structural factors of conflict between Israel and Gaza.”

The plan is to circumvent Hamas as the rulers of Gaza, but there is no hint of any further action against them, and they are already part of the new PA. In many ways, this is Netanyahu’s worst nightmare.

Israel

No one in Israel does or should like the way this has turned out. The small radical left opposed the attacks from the beginning. The Zionist left, as represented by Meretz Chairwoman Zehava Gal-On, welcomed the ceasefire but criticized Netanyahu for going to war and ending up where he could have gotten without violence.

The right is furious over the ceasefire, with four of Netanyahu’s cabinet ministers, including key figures on the right, Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman, publicly stating their opposition. The failure to achieve the disarmament of Hamas or knock the group from its perch atop the ruins of Gaza is widely seen as a failure throughout Israel.

Ha’aretz correspondent Barak Ravid summed it up aptly:

Netanyahu just wanted to return to the status quo that has become a personal ideology, but the reality is that Israel has regressed. That regression is encapsulated in the 69 Israeli fatalities, 2,000 Palestinian fatalities, the bulk of them innocent civilians, thousands of projectiles on the communities in the south, hundreds of missiles on the center of the country, deserted communities, the loss of trust in the IDF and the government among the residents of the south, economic damage amounting to billions and diplomatic and PR damage that is impossible to quantify.

Hamas

Despite its bravado, Hamas hasn’t gained much and has likely lost a lot in this conflict. Much will, of course, depend on whether the planned talks in Cairo ever happen and what, if anything, comes from them. But as things stand now, Hamas is riding a positive wave in Gaza because it has again survived an Israeli onslaught. But beneath that euphoria is a bitter reality.

The devastation wrought in Gaza is well beyond Hamas’ rebuilding means. This raises a question that I have brought up before: Will Hamas be willing to let the PA run Gaza? They should, but giving up power, even in so meager a sphere as an occupied territory, is never easy.

Hamas will not be able to pay salaries, an issue that was dogging them long before this cataclysm, and in fact, was a major reason they agreed to the unity government in the first place. They will need international assistance and lots of it, and that is only going to come through the PA.

But there is a great deal of anger among Palestinians toward Mahmoud Abbas over his behavior during this crisis. While Hamas leader Khaled Meshal has been recently meeting with Abbas to come to an agreement on a ceasefire, the leadership in Gaza, battered and bruised, may find themselves less able to stomach Abbas, who continued security cooperation with Israel during this crisis, than the considerably more acceptable Meshal.

Still, the PA doesn’t exclude Hamas specifically. It’s currently a technocratic government led by Abbas, pending new elections. But will those elections ever happen and, when and if they do, can Hamas trust that it will be allowed to compete fairly and fully? It was allowed to do so in 2006, but when it won, the United States and Israel immediately moved to undermine the election results, even backing a Fatah coup attempt. So, on the one hand, that’s a lot of trust to expect from Hamas, but on the other, that is also what it agreed to risk when it signed on to the unity government. The choice rests with Hamas.

The Biggest Losers

As always, it is the people of Gaza who, whether the Palestinian cause is aided or not, always endure the brunt of these conflicts. With over 2,100 dead and many thousands injured, infrastructure further battered, and tens of thousands of structures and homes destroyed, the suffering of these people is almost unimaginable. It may well be that they will end up with a much more open border, and that will matter. But the shattered families, the death and destruction, and the scars from all of this violence are going to haunt Gaza, and Israel, for many years.

There’s another big loser here, and it is, as cliché as it may sound, peace. Once again, Israel has demonstrated to the Palestinians that force is the language in which it speaks and the only one it understands. Even the marginal, immediate gains for Gaza—the easing of movement for humanitarian and construction supplies, and according to many reports, the extension of the zone in which Gazans can fish to six miles—were won by aggression, not diplomacy. For comparison, Palestinians can look at what two decades of negotiations got Abbas—lots of settlements.

Many in Israel, even some among the moderate right, understand that this is what Israel has communicated. Unfortunately, that understanding does not extend to Netanyahu, who drones on and on about how he has “hurt” Hamas.

In the end, there may be some good that comes out of this for the Palestinians, though as always, the hope is a thin one and the price is terribly high. But nothing at all here bodes well for Israel.

A Proposed UNSC Ceasefire Plan For Gaza

The attempt to resolve the ongoing, albeit highly uneven, exchange of fire between Israel and Gaza has now reached the United Palestine_election_mapNations Security Council (UNSC). The draft proposal, initially pushed by the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, bears many of the same hallmarks as the most recent Egyptian ceasefire proposal. The United States came late to the game, but at least so far, it appears supportive of the idea. It remains to be seen how this will play out as the proposed resolution nears Security Council consideration.

The goals of the West are clear. One, resolve the current violence. Two, remove the difficult blight of the assault on Gaza, which is a much more powerful motivator for people to join pro-Palestinian protests than the more banal occupation of the West Bank. And three, bring the Gaza Strip back under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

This last goal implies actualizing the unity government that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saw as a casus belli. The actions he has taken—especially in June with the so-called “Operation Brother’s Keeper,” a massive sweep through the West Bank—were intended to destroy the agreement the PA and Hamas had struck earlier in the year.

The reason for stopping the violence is self-evident. With ongoing talks with Iran on the nuclear issue, and, most especially, the new recognition that the Islamic State is a threat that cannot be ignored, the last thing the EU and US need is ongoing turmoil between Israel and the Palestinians. Indeed, what they really need is the return of the peace process. Peace is not necessary, but the spectacle of diplomacy tends to lower the volume on protests in the West over the plight of the Palestinians.

Why Israel Will Dislike the Resolution

Those points address the first two goals, but the real meat is in the third one. Here we need to consider what the “elements” of the proposed UNSC resolution would say. Ha’aretz reported the following:

  • The return of control of the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian Authority.
  • Security arrangements to prevent the resumption of hostilities.
  • The prohibition of the sale or supply of all weapons and munitions to the Gaza Strip, unless authorized by the PA.
  • A commitment to preventing the financing of terrorism.
  • The lifting of “economic and humanitarian restrictions” on the Gaza Strip in order to enable the reconstruction, economic rehabilitation and development of the territory.
  • The full reopening of all border crossings with the Gaza Strip, “taking into account the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access.”
  • An international mission monitoring and verifying implementation, investigating and reporting violations to both parties and to the Security Council, facilitating the movement of people and goods to and from Gaza and serving as a liaison between the parties.
  • Asking the UN Secretary-General to draft a plan to help the PA establish “effective governance” in Gaza.
  • Urging UN member states to contribute to Gaza’s reconstruction and help the PA to pay the salaries of civil servants in Gaza and increase the capabilities of its security forces.
  • A call for a return to the talks aimed at a two-state solution

The resolution would seem to enable a lifting of the seven-year long blockade of Gaza while addressing Israel’s security concerns, though it’s not at all certain that the Israeli government would agree with that evaluation of the draft’s terms.

At the same time, this resolution would restore the status quo ante of years gone by when the West Bank and Gaza were regarded as a single territorial unit, the building blocks of the state of Palestine. Netanyahu would undoubtedly regard that as a serious setback, and all the more so because it would mean not only that his ambition to destroy the Palestinian unity government had utterly failed, but also that the unified PA would have some degree of international imprimatur. It would, in short, become a fact of life.

But that particular fact is one even the United States wants to actualize. Netanyahu may have a very hard time convincing the US to employ its UNSC veto power on that basis; he may just have to swallow it.

Many in Israel will recognize the sense of it, but they are represented almost entirely by the opposition, including the Labor Party. Netanyahu’s right flank will be up in arms, to an extent that could threaten his ruling coalition. But he will not be able to do much if the UNSC approves this resolution.

A Conundrum for Hamas

For Hamas, the question becomes whether or not they still want to be part of a unified Palestinian government. The pressures that led them into unity still exist, many of them intensified in the wake of the massive destruction Israel has wreaked upon Gaza. And, with the possibility of lifting the blockade, there are new reasons for Hamas to feel pressed to accept such a resolution.

But things have changed a great deal since the unity agreement was signed. The PA, under Mahmoud Abbas, continued its close cooperation with Israel in maintaining security in the West Bank throughout Israel’s massive West Bank operation in June and the bombardment and invasion of Gaza later in the summer. Abbas’ public standing was reduced to almost zero, and Hamas accordingly has reason to distrust his leadership.

Hamas can easily make the case that continued cooperation with Abbas after such collaboration would be yet another betrayal of the Palestinian people. More than that, though, they will be faced with a stark choice: abandon their identity as an armed resistance movement and hope there will be elections in the near future that will give them a secure place in the government; or, defy the will of the United Nations and escalate their struggle against not only Israel, but also the Palestinian Authority. Given the circumstances of recent events, neither of those options can be very palatable for Hamas.

Hamas’ resources and structural ability to govern Gaza have been crippled, and they simply have no means to address Gaza’s current economic and humanitarian devastation. If they refuse to cooperate with a UNSC resolution like this one, which seems to be gaining momentum, they will need to tell the Palestinian people why they are preventing the lifting of the blockade and refusing the sort of political unity that most Palestinians have considered a top priority for years.

Weakening Hamas is undoubtedly a driving force behind this resolution. If implemented, it would effectively de-fang Hamas while rescuing Abbas from political oblivion. After more than two decades of a fruitless “peace process” that only brought more destruction and Israeli settlements to the Palestinians, and Abbas’ cooperation with Israel, which has made him look like the worst kind of collaborator, the West is probably facing its last chance to keep its reliable partner in place.

Like past international peace plans for this region, the resolution is very advantageous for Israel. It omits any notion of investigations, much less charges, over Israel’s actions in Gaza, provides a solid system to ensure Israeli security, and addresses everything the Israelis have publicly said they were seeking from the bombardment of Gaza. It seems likely that, despite the Israeli public’s heavy rightward tilt, much of it would regard this plan as a good deal.

Fortunately, this resolution is also good for the Palestinian people. There are, to be sure, a huge number of pitfalls here, but an end to the territorial split between the West Bank and Gaza and to the split in the Palestinian leadership is an essential ingredient for any progress. Allowing the Gazan economy to start growing again is also imperative. Rebuilding the strip is an urgent necessity, especially since the shortage of water there, which was already a massive threat, has been greatly exacerbated by Israel’s onslaught.

It’s hard to see how those factors could outweigh the best interests of Hamas in the minds of most Palestinians. If this resolution is submitted and ultimately approved, Hamas will have to confront reality and ask whether it is fighting for itself, or for the Palestinian people.