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How the US Willingly Blew a Chance to Prevent More Wars in Gaza

Alongside the toll of death and broken lives, perhaps the saddest reality of the Gaza war is how easy it would have been to avoid.

| Tue Aug. 12, 2014 6:22 PM EDT
The aftermath of Israeli shelling in the Gaza Strip in 2008.

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

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 US 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The previous year, Israel had withdrawn its soldiers and 8,000 settlers from Gaza, though its armed forces maintained a lockdown of the territory by air, land, and sea, controlling the flow of goods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.

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Nevertheless, Israel and "the Quartet"—the US, the European Union, Russia, and the UN—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 US 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 US 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 UN. 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 US 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 US-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 US 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 US has exported to Israel since January 2012.

This US-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 US 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 US'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 US 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 US 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 US 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 UN 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. US-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 UN 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.

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