An Honest Conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

11 03 2009

Posted at the Huffington Post & Middle East Online

Virtually nothing about this conflict was changed with Israel’s military operation in Gaza.  Nothing on the surface, nothing lurking in the shadows, nothing for the history books.  Yet the fundamentals of this conflict that have existed since 1967 are somehow becoming more obvious and less accessible every day.  As rhetoric bleeds into strategy, sobering arguments are polluted by perverse distortions and the only thing that makes sense is confusion.  As a humble remedy, perhaps, the following conversation is a synthesis of hundreds of hours of candid discussions (and screaming matches) between Israeli and Palestinian colleagues and friends.  It offers no solutions or common ground, but only pain. Until we get through the meat of this war, the bones will never heal.  Here is how these enemies think and argue.

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Ahmed: Why do you humiliate us every day, with your checkpoints, your raids, and your occupation?  Why won’t you leave us alone?

Avi: Because we believe that you would continue terrorizing us even if we give up the West Bank.  If you were eager to kill Israelis long before any of us ever lived in the West Bank or East Jerusalem, how could we possibly believe that you would be satisfied by anything short of our expulsion from the region?  You can talk about peace accords, but at the end of the day, which occupation do you want to end?  The one in that started in 1967, or the one you say began in 1948 when the State of Israel was established?

Ahmed: Well, I’ll answer that question with another one: You always talk about how important it is for Palestinians to recognize Israel, but which Israel do you want us to recognize?  The Israel with pre-1967 borders?  Or an Israel that occupies the West Bank and controls our movement with nearly 500 checkpoints on any given day?  Or maybe an Israel that has been “converged” behind the “security barrier” wall/fence, which would almost guarantee a permanent separation between a Palestinian homeland and our most sacred religious sites?  But to answer your question honestly, yes, your suspicions are correct: it is the 1948 occupation that we want to end, just like the Jews would love to have the West Bank as well.  But we know Israel is here to stay, and we can tolerate you as much as you can tolerate us.  But what we cannot tolerate is your occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Avi: Look, we don’t enjoy occupying the West Bank any more than you enjoy being occupied; it puts our soldiers at risk, it’s a drain on our military and it hurts our image abroad.  We continue the occupation because we want to be safe from terrorism.

Ahmed: But you are creating more resentment and terrorism with the occupation.

Avi: That’s definitely true, but we know that if we withdraw from the West Bank, the terrorism will not stop and is likely to get worse.  After disengaging from Gaza nearly 4 years ago, the only thing we got in return was strengthened resistance in Gaza.  And now, because of the continuous barrage of Qassam rockets, we are evacuating our homes inside of Israel itself, not just in the territories.  Gaza was your test.  You proved that when given the chance to function peacefully on your own, you failed miserably.

Ahmed: Of course we failed in Gaza. You still control our airspace, our coastline, our borders and our economy.  You pretended to take the moral high road with your “test,” but you did it for strategic reasons and with no follow-through.  And it has nothing to do with Hamas.  Our economy was already dead before you made Gaza a giant outdoor prison. For years you have made Palestinians dependent on the Israeli economy so you could control us as much as possible.  Even before Hamas took over Gaza, farmers were stuck at border crossings for days, watching their vegetables rot while your soldiers closed border crossings at random just to frustrate us.Israeli Security Barrier and Settlements in the West Bank

Avi: So you take no responsibility for your inability to promote peace in Gaza?  And what difference does it make if we evacuated Gaza for strategic reasons?  You should want to prove to the world that you can function peacefully.  Granted, we set the terms for the pullout, and you can only do so much with severe sanctions and closed borders, but we gave you Gaza—we gave you something—and you failed to take advantage of it.

Ahmed: You did not “give” us anything.  You returned it.

Avi: Fine, we returned it.  It was a public relations coup for us.  We should have negotiated Gaza back to you, but we didn’t; we evacuated it, and we ruined the credibility of the moderate Palestinians.  But it was still something.  Why aren’t you openly furious with the Gazans who confirmed everyone’s suspicions when their first response to our evacuation was a whole-sale pillaging of every building in sight and an increase in rocket/mortar attacks against southern Israel?  Don’t you want to persuade us (and the rest of the world) that you are not just another group of thugs and terrorists?

Ahmed: Why should we?  Palestinians have gotten almost nothing from negotiating with Israelis, and we cannot imagine why it is we who have to prove anything to anyone.  The real question is: How can you persuade us that you are serious about peace when you took those uprooted settlers from Gaza and gave them new homes in the West Bank?  Is that what you call a “confidence-building measure”?  No, of course not—your unilateral evacuation was a public relations stunt.  Gaza is not strategically important to Israel, and Sharon knew that abandoning it could ensure an even tighter grasp of the West Bank, which is really what you wanted all along.

Avi: Look, I think it was a terrible decision to transfer any of the Gaza settlers to the West Bank, and I think the settlers should not be in the West Bank or Gaza at all.  But occupying the West Bank militarily is strategically important because it protects Israel’s dense population centers.  Heavily occupying East Jerusalem (and a few other parts of the West Bank) provides a crucial buffer zone protecting our vulnerable spots from terrorists.  So even if we stopped being hypocritical in every way you claim we are, then, as the more powerful party, we still have to be convinced that a free and shared Jerusalem will actually be a city of peace, and that the fighting will stop.  If we had any sense that you would actually stop resisting once we ended the occupation of the West Bank or even East Jerusalem, most Israelis would gladly hand it over everything except the Old City. Read the rest of this entry »

Splits in Hamas and a ‘Bi-Unilateral’ Ceasefire

18 01 2009

During an email exchange with my colleague Mark Perry at Conflicts Forum, I asked him about the incessant rumors and claims by the Israeli government that the leadership of Hamas has suddenly split along the conveniently familiar lines of “moderates” and “radicals.” According to numerous reports in the Israeli press (dutifully dispersed across the globe), the Hamas leaders in Gaza have become uncharacteristically humbled by the newly-scorched earth around them. And as a result, Hamas’ leadership in Gaza have blamed their equivalents in Damascus for refusing to renew the ceasefire in December and again for refusing Israel’s ceasefire offers this past week.

As usual, Mark Perry puts rumors like these to bed with a healthy dose of logic and insider information, as he is known for his expertise on and relationships with Hamas’ leaders in Gaza and Damascus. So why, I asked, is he the only voice insisting that Hamas is battered but hardly divided? Essentially, because the Israeli government is playing us for fools, he says. (Hyperlinks added by me).

The reason people don’t believe me is because they believe what is printed in the Israeli press. That is to say, no one seems to ask Hamas, the primary source of my material, for their position. What is interesting about this is that reporters and analysts on the telephone with me talking about the differences in “the Gaza leadership” and the “Damascus leadership” of Hamas. They tell me that the Hamas leadership in Gaza represents the moderate wing of the party and that Khalid Meshaal represents the “radical” wing of the party.

If that is true, I ask, why did Israel invade Gaza — why didn’t they try to kill Meshaal and negotiate with the “moderate” wing of the party? And if that is true, why do Israelis (like Mark Regev) describe the Hamas leadership in Gaza as nihilists? The head of the political/military bureau of Hamas is Khalid Meshaal, who has been on the telephone constantly with the senior leadership in Gaza telling them to take more practical steps with Israel.

Are there divisions in the leadership of Hamas? Certainly there are. They have disagreements, it’s not the politburo of the communist party. There are differences and debates in the Democratic Party also. Does that mean there is a split?

Israeli officials would like us to believe that they really know what they’re talking about when it comes to Hamas. In fact, they don’t have a clue. And so they repeat what they did in the 1980s: they told the world that the Tunis leadership of the PLO represented the terrorist wing of the organization, while the insiders were more moderate. It was bullshit: the inside people were much more radical — as you might expect if you live under an occupation. The Tunis leadership as it turned out was moderate: and Israel made a deal with them.

Let us suppose for just one moment that Israel is right — the moderates rule in Gaza. Let’s take it as a given — even though it is not true. What do you suppose the leadership in Gaza thinks now? Does Israel think they are even more moderate? Was the late great Said Sayyam a moderate — in comparison to say, Khalid Meshaal, Mohamed Nasser, Usamah Hamdan, or Mohammad Nizzal? Do we now, as a result of Israel’s line about a split in Hamas, suppose that their own reports that the Gaza leadership had been taken over by radicals is false, and that their new report is true?
There is one truth about a lot of media reports on Hamas in Israel. The truth is that the media gets their information from Ehud Barak and Yuval Diskin. They are fools. Their intelligence services, highly respected by the US public, are dismissed by intelligence service people here [in the US]. And for good reason.
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On a different note, it is still unclear if the ‘bi-unilateral’ ceasefire will hold, but if Jerusalem is actually right where it wants to be (having secured vapid promises from Washington to help allies in the region crack down on smuggling), then it doesn’t seem like much has changed, nor that much was even supposed to change. All the rhetoric, tactics and strategy emanating from of Jerusalem over the last three weeks seemed to point to something much more resolute than a unilateral ceasefire. It seemed obvious that Israel had had enough with all things ‘unilateral’, like the Gaza withdrawal in 2005, which Jerusalem now condemns as a terribly weak decision.

Equally bizarre, Jerusalem’s effort–detailed by Mark–to play Hamas’ leaders and their mediators off of each other seemed to demonstrate that Israel hoped to force its enemy into making painful concessions at the negotiating table, as is frequently the custom in violent conflicts. And even if Jerusalem didn’t want to “legitimize” Hamas with negotiations, Israel seemed likely to use the conflict to bind Egypt to…well, anything. Even officials in Cairo were caught off guard by Israel’s sudden indifference to securing (even the facade of) a short-term “lull” in violence. After all, if “enough” really “is enough,” why are we seeing a resignation in Jerusalem to Hamas’ “nihilism” and the status quo? To drive the point home, the head of Shin Bet has conceded that Hamas will be rearmed in just a few months.

The answer, remarkably, is that the Israeli government is playing its own population as much as the rest of us. Losing 10 Israeli soldiers just so Jerusalem could ‘make a statement’ seems a bit pointless–though, admittedly, the statement contains more than 1300 Palestinian footnotes. But why, if Israel has now re-established its deterrence, would Jerusalem feel so hopelessly impotent as to resign to the previous state of affairs, minus a few Hamas lieutenants? With this outcome, Israel is left only with the knowledge that when Hamas wants to fire rockets/mortars in the future, the militant group will expect Israel to unleash hell in response. And if Hamas attacks anyways in three months, because the blockade is still in place? What then? How will Jerusalem re-explain this latest operation, or the next one?

Tunnel Vision beneath Gaza

12 01 2009

Asia Times
12 January 2009

No matter who is to blame for the recent escalation of violence in Gaza—no matter which side is morally righteous—it should be obvious to everyone that Hamas is now even less likely to abandon violent resistance any time soon.  Even if Operation Cast Lead will make Hamas think twice about attacking Israel in the future (doubtful), Hamas will still do whatever it takes to prepare for the day when it is ready.  And the 18-month blockade of Gaza—put in place by Egypt and Israel after Hamas’ localized coup—has only made Hamas more protective of its arsenal.

As a result, Jerusalem believes that the only way to protect Israelis is to secure the Philadelphi Corridor, the nine-mile border between Gaza and Egypt, beneath which lie an estimated 300 makeshift tunnels used by Hamas and entrepreneurial Palestinians to smuggle (among other things) foodstuffs, cigarettes, livestock, gasoline and (in the case of Hamas) enormous amounts of explosives, firearms, ammunition and well-trained teachers/students of militant resistance.  Without these tunnels, Israel insists, Hamas would not be able to stockpile and fire rockets and mortars against Israel with impunity.  And with talk of a ceasefire in the air, Jerusalem has made the permanent monitoring and destruction of these tunnels a key sticking point to ending its assault.

But what would that effort require, and would it actually make Israelis safer?

The ideas are neither new nor particularly promising, as the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) explored and discarded most of them throughout the years it occupied Gaza.  One suggestion was to build a moat filled with seawater that would drown any smuggler who breached it, but the proposal was abandoned due to the threat of contaminating the aquifer beneath Gaza.  An underground wall was also considered, but unless it is made of titanium, Hamas would need only a chisel and a little patience.  Another idea was to destroy all the buildings within a kilometer of the border (houses frequently conceal entrances and exits to the tunnels), but this could smell an awful lot like ethnic cleansing, and without a heavy occupation, the houses could always be rebuilt.

Read the rest of this entry »

How Propaganda Hijacked Israeli Strategy in Gaza

5 01 2009

Huffington Post
5 January 2009

Something had to be done in Gaza.  Something.  Anything, really.  So why not a Hail Mary?

Since the beginning of the second intifada in 2000, more than 8000 rockets and mortars have been fired into southern Israel from Gaza.  And who could blame Jerusalem for trying to put an end to it?  After all, as every single Israeli security expert reminds anyone proffering an alternative to F-16s, would any other country tolerate attacks on its civilian population with the patience and dexterity Israel has shown?  What if Houston or Atlanta were being attacked like this?

Even Israel’s President and ‘elder statesman’ Shimon Peres found himself wondering, what does Hamas hope to accomplish by constantly firing rockets? “What do they expect, that we won’t respond?”  And it’s a great question, but it’s also painfully simplistic.  This is not merely a matter of broad principle about patience in the face of incessant attack.  There’s a reason Israeli talking points this past week have focused almost exclusively on the big picture of the last seven years—because the last seven months have demonstrated a painfully inconvenient fact: whatever its demerits (and there are many), Hamas has discipline.  Period.

Far more so than the PLO ever did, when Hamas pledges to reduce tensions, it does just that.  One need not believe that the group’s leadership is virtuous or courageous simply to admit that their ranks follow orders.  In the months that followed the June 19 “lull” (tahadiya) in fighting between Israel and Hamas, the number of rocket and mortar attacks plummeted and stayed down for nearly five months—creating the very climate that the IDF now claims to seek with Operation Cast Lead.

If Hamas had no discipline, this argument wouldn’t fly and a Hail Mary like Cast Lead might be strategically worthwhile, but the best case scenario by any metric is a long-term version of the lull that put Israelis at great danger only after Israel launched an attack on Gaza on November 4th, effectively ending Hamas’ restraint.

While the explicit goal of this latest operation is to cease all rocket and mortar attacks on southern Israel, senior IDF and intelligence officials have privately signaled in a disparate chorus that this goal is unrealistic anyway, even with a ground invasion.  Israelis couldn’t even prevent rocket/mortar fire when they occupied Gaza before 2005, and back then Hamas was plagued by Fatah’s rivalry and amateur rocket technology.

‘But nevermind that,’ Jerusalem insists.  ‘Details will only confuse you. Would you or would you not just sit by and do nothing in response to rocket fire on your homes?’  Apparently, it’s that simple.  It’s irrelevant that Israel was benefitting tremendously from the lull and the near-deafening silence (.pdf) it produced in the southern Negev desert.

Source: Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (Israel)

Rocket fire alone was reduced from a monthly average of 179 to less than 3—with the remainder attacks being attributed (according to Israeli intelligence) to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, no less.

Yet like any country, when Israel launches a military operation, especially a controversial one, the public relations and propaganda offensives rely on any and every rhetorical ploy to garner support, even when Israeli security officials are privately saying—usually “on background”—that the southern Negev will not be completely calm until Hamas wants it to be completely calm, and the closest Israel has ever come to that was during the above lull.

Read the rest of this entry »

Missing the Point in the Middle East

23 10 2006

Yediot Aharonot (Israel)
23 October 2006

When anyone talks about resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, every argument seems to revolve around two crucial questions – one dovish and one hawkish – that neither side ever really tries to answer.

Doves essentially ask the hawks, “How do you know that the best protection against Palestinian terrorism is incessant occupation, raids, imprisonment, and assassinations?” Meanwhile, hawks ask the doves, “How do you know that the terror will stop if we give up the West Bank, the Golan, and/or Shebaa Farms?”

If either side could give even a semi-adequate response to these questions, then the other would willingly change viewpoints. The two camps have far more common ground than most will acknowledge; they simply disagree about which methods work and which don’t.

Despite their polarization, the doves are not doves because they are against killing per se; if there was any evidence that Israel’s heavy-handed counterterrorism efforts could actually reduce the long-term threat to the State of Israel, the doves would naturally migrate in droves to the right.

Likewise, if there was any indication that Palestinian militants really would finally end their resistance in exchange for pre-1967 borders, a Palestinian state, compensated refugees, and a shared Jerusalem, there would be an equally dramatic shift to the left across the board.

But there is no logical reason for either the hawks or the doves to be persuaded by one another. Every argument is fundamentally circular – only capable of persuading the already-persuaded. Read the rest of this entry »

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