Gaza: Background and Context
By far the best place to get a real background understanding for Israel’s current war on Gaza is Jerome Slater’s superb analysis of the 2008-2009 war, which appears in the current issue of Harvard and MIT’s jointly published journal, International Security. Here are some salient excerpts, which provide the kind of context one doesn’t receive from the American political class or most of the American media. They only capture a few of Slater’s many profound points; those interested should read the whole piece.
By 2004 Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had become convinced that the economic and military costs of continuing to defend the settlements were too high—unlike the case of the West Bank and Jerusalem, Israel had little or no re- ligious or nationalist claims on Gaza—so in August 2005 he ordered their withdrawal. Even after the withdrawal, Israel continued to wield overwhelming power over Gaza’s economy and external trade; it maintained control of Gaza’s water, electricity, and telecommunication networks; refused to allow Gaza a function- ing airport, seaport, or commercial crossing on its border with Egypt, thus radically cutting Gazan trade and commerce with the outside world; restricted the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza; prevented farmers from tending to and harvesting their aelds and crops; placed severe restrictions on the importation of water for drinking as well as irrigation purposes; and re- served the “right” to launch military incursions at will, periodically bombing and shelling Gaza’s electrical generating system, roads, bridges, farms, and olive orchards. Consequently, even before Cast Lead, the Gazan economy was on the verge of collapse; nearly 95 percent of all factories operating in Gaza had closed down; unemployment ranged from 45 to 60 percent; and 80 percent of Gazans were estimated to be below international poverty lines.31 Outright starvation was averted by outside assistance, but malnutrition was rampant; the minimal imports of food supplies allowed by Israel were carefully calibrated to prevent a famine, but not more than that.
The continued Israeli de facto or, as it was sometimes called, “indirect occupation” of Gaza was so repressive that it was common for Israeli journalists, academicians, human rights organizations, and even former high government ofacials such as Shlomo Ben-Ami to describe Gaza as “an open air prison” whose population is subject to “collective punishment” and “strangulation.” Jessica Montell, the executive director of B’Tselem, explained Israel’s overall purpose in repressing the Gazan population: “The suffering of the civilian population is not merely a byproduct of Israel’s attacks against militants. . . . It is an intentional part of Israeli policy. . . . The clear intention of the practice is to pressure the Palestinian Authority and the armed Palestinian organizations by harming the entire civilian population.”
The Israeli strategy, however, failed: the repression produced a rise in Gazan popular support for the militant Islamic Hamas movement. In early 2006 Hamas won Gaza’s legislative elections, and in June 2007 it forcibly took full control of Gaza. In response, Israel imposed an economic blockade over the area, which in turn led to an escalating pattern of Hamas or Islamic Jihad rocket and mortar attacks aimed at nearby Israeli towns, followed by Israeli military raids into Gaza, precipitating further Palestinian attacks, and so on. Each side claimed that it was retaliating for the other’s transgressions (al-though the number of Palestinians, including innocent bystanders, who were killed by the Israelis far exceeded the number of Israelis killed by the Palestinians), but the ongoing tit-for-tat process made such claims meaningless.
Israel claimed that because it ended its occupation of Gaza in 2005 by with- drawing the Jewish settlements, continued attacks against it demonstrated Hamas’s true purpose: the destruction of the State of Israel. Therefore, the argument goes, the Jewish state had no other choice but to defend itself. Most of the critics of Cast Lead have not challenged this argument, focusing instead on the moral unacceptability of Israel’s methods.
Nonetheless, the Israeli claim to have had a just cause is unconvincing. First, as already described, Israel maintained both direct and indirect control over Gaza after its 2005 “withdrawal” and continued to inoict severe suffering on its inhabitants. Consequently, the inference that Hamas’s goal of destroying Israel was the only explanation for its attacks is baseless. Second, even if Israel had genuinely ended its occupation of Gaza, its inhabitants would have retained their right to continue the Palestinian struggle against the Israeli occupation and repression of the other Palestinian territories. As the 1992 Oslo agreement states, the West Bank and Gaza Strip are “a single territo- rial unit.” To believe otherwise is the equivalent of believing that, if in the 1770s, the British had withdrawn from New Jersey but continued to occupy the other twelve colonies, the residents of New Jersey would no longer have had the right to take up arms in support of American independence. The right of resistance against aggression, occupation, or repression is inherent in just war morality and, for that matter, in the common morality of mankind.
But did Israel have any opportunity to make peace with Hamas?
By the end of 2008, there were substantial reasons to believe that Hamas was ready to go beyond cease-fires and join with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank in supporting a political settlement to end the Israeli-Palestinian conoict. As had been the case with Yasser Arafat’s PLO, which gradually be- came more moderate (especially once it had a de facto government and a po- tential state to run in the West Bank), there were growing indications that Hamas was moving toward a pragmatic, if reluctant, acceptance of the realities of Israeli power and was becoming increasingly amenable to a de facto if not de jure two-state political settlement.
The record makes clear that Israel made no attempt to explore the possibility of a negotiated settlement. First, shortly after winning the January 2006 Gazan elections, Hamas sent a message to President George W. Bush, offering Israel a truce for “many years,” in exchange for a compromise political settlement; neither the Bush administration nor Israel replied.67 Soon afterward, Hamas began to go public with its new position. In February 2006, Khaled Meshal said that Hamas would not oppose the uniaed Arab stance expressed in an Arab League summit conference, which offered Israel full recognition and normalized relations in exchange for full Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and a solution to the refugee problem. In April 2006, a senior Hamas official stated that Hamas was ready to discuss a possible two-state solu- tion with Israel. In May 2006, senior Hamas members imprisoned in Israel joined with Fatah leaders and issued the “Prisoner’s Declaration,” which went further than the earlier Hamas overtures. It called for the establishment of a Palestinian state “in all the lands occupied in 1967” and reserved the use of armed resistance only in those territories. In August 2006, Gaza’s prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, in effect accepted and incorporated the Prisoner’s Declaration into the Hamas position, especially its crucial distinction between the occupied territories and Israel within its 1967 borders, telling an American scholar: “We have no problem with a sovereign Palestinian state over all of our lands within the 1967 borders, living in calm.” In January 2007, Meshal stated that Hamas would consider recognizing Israel once a Palestinian state was es- tablished; a Haaretz story noted that “this is the arst time that a Hamas ofacial has raised the possibility of full and ofacial recognition of Israel in the fu- ture.” Prime Minister Olmert of Israel “shrugged off” Meshal’s statement. Throughout 2008 Hamas’s political position, including that of its hard-liners, continued to evolve. In particular, Meshal publicly reiterated in April 2008 that Hamas would accept a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders—meaning Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem.
Israel ignored all of these overtures, terming them “verbal gymnastics.” Without doubt, Hamas’s position prior to Cast Lead contained many ambiguities and inconsistencies. First, Hamas had not—and still has not—repudiated its anti-Semitic founding ideology and 1988 charter, which explicitly states thatMuslims have a religious obligation to eliminate the State of Israel and expel the Jews from the Islamic holy land. Second, Hamas called only for a truce rather than a permanent settlement; at various times, however, Hamas ofacials had suggested that the truce “would be renewed automatically” and extended indeanitely. Third, Hamas ofacials sometimes said that they would accept Israel as a “fact” but would not recognize its legitimacy; on other occasions, however, they strongly implied that their formal position had no practical im- portance and could eventually change. One day a Hamas ofacial would sound particularly conciliatory, but other ofacials would then back away. Sometimes Hamas stressed its commitment to the return of all Palestinian refugees to Israel—one of the most difacult obstacles to a permanent settle- ment—but at other times it downplayed the issue. And so on.
Yet well before Cast Lead, the direction in which Hamas was moving was clear; and in historic terms, the evolution had been rapid, as some former high- level Israeli government ofacials acknowledged. For example, in late 2006 Yossi Alpher, a former deputy head of the Mossad and a pillar of the Israeli es- tablishment, wrote: “Hamas’ conditions for a long-term hudna or ceaseare . . . are almost too good to be true. Refugees and right of return and Jerusalem can wait for some other process; Hamas will suface with the 1967 borders, more or less, and in return will guarantee peace and quiet for ten, 25 or 30 years of good neighborly relations and conadence-building.”
Ami Ayalon, a former head of Shin Bet, and Ephraim Halevy, a former head of Mossad and national security adviser in Ariel Sharon’s 2002–03 govern- ment, also argued strongly for negotiations with Hamas. In particular, in several Israeli newspaper articles before Cast Lead, Halevy argued that it was absurd to think of Hamas as if it were an ally of, or even modeled on, al-Qaida: Hamas militants, he wrote, have recognized that “[their] ideological goal is not attainable and will not be in the foreseeable future.” Instead, they are ready and willing to see the establishment of a Palestinian state in the temporary borders of 1967, and “they know that the moment a Palestinian state is established with their cooperation, they will be obligated to change the rules of the game: they will have to adopt a path that could lead them far from their original ideo- logical goals.” Halevy concluded, dryly, that “Israel, for reasons of its own, did not want to turn the ceasefire into the start of a diplomatic process with Hamas.”
I’ve cut Slater’s footnotes from the original, but they exist with full academic citations to both the quotations and elaboration of many of the ideas. It’s an extraordinarily timely and profound essay, and we are fortunate that the opportunity for more than a superficial understanding of the current conflict lies, so to speak, at our fingertips. Whether we will make use of it is another matter.