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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 5:22 PM EDT

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 UN 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 US 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 UN 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 US, 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, UN 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 US 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. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from here.

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