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Who Bears More Responsibility for the War in Gaza?

David Buimovitch/AFP/Getty Images

Like almost all conflicts that have occurred in Israel, this latest war in Gaza has provoked a furious debate. Was Israel’s ground and air assault on the Gaza Strip justified by Hamas’s rocket attacks? Or were Hamas’s rocket attacks a justifiable response to Israel’s arrest of hundreds of Hamas supporters and officials? I am not going to defend Hamas’s charter, which describes Israel and the occupied territories as an “Islamic Waqf,” nor its strategy of hurling rockets at Israel, but I am also not going to defend Israel’s response. What matters to me, and what is often ignored, is the overall moral and political context in which this and past conflicts have occurred.

Israel is one of the world’s last colonial powers, and the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are its unruly subjects. Like many past anti-colonial movements, Hamas and Fatah are deeply flawed and have sometimes poorly represented their peoples, and sometimes unnecessarily provoked the Israelis and used tactics that violate the rules of war. But the Israeli government has continued to expand settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and to rule harshly over its subjects, while maintaining a ruinous blockade on Gaza. That’s the historical backdrop to the events now taking place.

The Occupation 

Israel’s founding in 1948 began to address the terrible wrongs that Europe’s Jews had suffered. It provided a state and what seemed like a safe haven. But Palestine’s Arabs, who had made up the overwhelming majority of the region, and who believed after the promises of World War I that they would gain their own state, came instead under Jordanian and Egyptian rule after Israel won its independence. And after the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel annexed Jerusalem, occupied the West Bank and Gaza, and turned the Palestinians who lived there into colonial subjects. The Israeli government encouraged and subsidized Jewish settlements in the territories in violation of the fourth Geneva Convention that prohibits an occupying power from transferring its population into the territories it has seized. 

Israel’s settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem now number over 500,000. Palestinians are allowed to build on only about 40 percent of the West Bank. Settlers enjoy Israeli citizenship and rule of law. The Palestinians are under harsh military rule. No Palestinian may travel abroad without Israeli approval. There are 542 roadblocks impeding the movement of Palestinians, but not of settlers on the West Bank. Water rights are restricted. The settlers consume about six times more water than the 2.6 million Palestinians. Settler attacks on the Palestinians, which the police often ignore, have steadily increased. The number of “price tag” attacks spiked by 300 percent this last spring during the peace talks.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for the failure to end the occupation through a two-state solution, but Netanyahu and his administration undermined the negotiations. That was the initial conclusion that Secretary of State John Kerry’s negotiators conveyed to reporter Nahum Barnea immediately afterwards. As Ben Birnbaum and Amir Tabon recounted, Netanyahu made some concessions to Kerry last winter, but he still wouldn’t agree to any limits on an Israeli military presence in a future Palestinian state; and he wouldn’t budge on East Jerusalem or on the borders of a Palestinian state. And while the negotiations were occurring, Netanyahu and his administration reneged on a promise to release Palestinian prisoners and accelerated housing development in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. His administration announced plans for almost 14,000 housing units, or 50 a day, during the nine months of negotiations. 

The current Netanyahu government has issued far more tenders for housing units in settlements and East Jerusalem than have previous governments.

These were indications that Netanyahu was not serious about achieving a two-state solution. But he removed any doubt whatsoever during a press conference in early July. During the negotiations, Abbas had acceded to Israeli troops remaining in Jordan Valley for three and then five years, but Netanyahu now insisted on a permanent occupation of the lands he called by the Biblical names of Judea and Samaria. “I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say,” he said. “There cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.” That meant that he and his administration foresaw a permanent colonial status for the West Bank and the Palestinians who live there. David Horovitz, the editor of the Times of Israel, wrote in a column about Netanyahu’s statement, “He wasn’t saying that he doesn’t support a two-state solution. He was saying that it’s impossible. This was not a new, dramatic change of stance by the prime minister. It was a new, dramatic exposition of his long-held stance.”

Colonial regimes breed anti-colonial resistance. It has been happening since Biblical times. Sometimes, the resistance takes an ugly form. Think of the Algerian or Irish resistance. And that has certainly been the case with the Palestinian resistance—from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) plane hijackings and the murder of the Israeli Olympians in Munich to the Hamas suicide bombers during the Second Intifada or Hamas and Islamic Jihad’s launching of rockets on civilian targets. At each particular juncture, the colonial power may be justified in striking back at its adversaries. But ultimately the colonial power bears a great deal of responsibility for the continuing conflict.

Palestinians and the Two-State Solution

In Israel, even some old-line Zionists like the political philosopher Shlomo Avineri—the author of a truly outstanding book on Karl Marx—have placed the blame on the Palestinians for the prolongation of the conflict. Avineri claims that the root of conflict is Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist. The truth is, to say the least, much more complicated than that. 

The PLO, the main political body representing Palestinians, has recognized Israel’s right to exist since 1988, and negotiated on that basis. (Indeed, as Kai Bird’s new book, The Good Spy, reveals, the PLO leadership had realized by 1973 that Israel was “here to stay” and communicated that to American officials through the CIA but had failed to gain the assistance of the American Secretary of State in easing the conflict. The Israelis, for their part, assassinated the PLO contact with the CIA.) In Abbas, the Israelis had their most pliable negotiating partner ever.

Two Israeli governments made peace proposals to the PLO and later Palestinian Authority. In 1993, Yitzhak Rabin’s government negotiated an agreement with Yasser Arafat that included the PLO recognition of Israel and the creation of the Palestinian Authority. At Camp David in 2000, Ehud Barak, who had sharply increased settlements, unexpectedly offered a two-state solution to Arafat, which the PLO chairman, wary of Barak, reluctant to accept a remaining Jewish presence in East Jerusalem and holding out for a Palestinian right of return, refused to sign. (American negotiators Dennis Ross and Robert Malley have published conflicting accounts of who is to blame for the failure at Camp David.) In 2008, as Bernard Avishai has recounted, Ehud Olmert began talks with Abbas, who rejected his initial offer, but planned to continue negotiations after the American and Israeli elections.   Olmert was, however, replaced by Netanyahu who refused Abbas’s proposal to continue what Olmert had begun.

If viewed over the last two decades, Israelis and Palestinians have been moving in opposite directions. Israeli governments have become less amenable to genuine compromise. In the last Israeli election, the Jewish Israeli parties that ran on a pledge to seek a two-state solution got eight out of 120 seats. The growth of settlements and the rise of a radical Jewish right constitute a growing obstacle to any genuine agreement. On the other side, the PLO has moved toward greater commitment to a two-state solution, and a greater willingness to compromise on settlements and even on the presence of Israeli troops in the Jordan Valley.

There have always been dissenting voices within the Palestinian movement just as there have been strong rightwing dissenting voices among Israeli parties. In the 1970s, the PFLP, worried about what it correctly perceived as creeping accommodation with Israel, formed a “rejectionist front” against the PLO. And Hamas rode a similar rejectionist wave to power. But as happened from 1973 to 1988 with the PLO, Hamas has shown signs of being willing to accept Israel’s existence. It has repeatedly offered Israel a long-term “hudna,” or truce, in exchange for an end to the occupation. It has deferred to Abbas and the PLO in the recent negotiations, and agreed to abide by a pact with Israel if it were accepted by a popular referendum. And in its unity agreement with Fatah, it explicitly accepted the PA’s leadership in negotiations with Israel. If anything, Hamas showed far more willingness to defer to the PLO leaders in two-state negotiations than two-state opponents in Netanyahu’s coalition members had shown to Netanyahu in his negotiations. Hamas’s charter can’t be used as an excuse by Israel to prolong the occupation.

The Gaza Strip

The Israeli government has also been quick to blame Gaza’s troubles on Hamas, as if Israel had no responsibility for what has happened in this narrow overpopulated stretch of land. That, too, is a conviction that lacks context. Ariel Sharon pulled the Israeli military and settlers out of Gaza in 2005, but according to the United Nations and the U.S. State Department, Israel, which continues to control Gaza’s coastline and airspace, remains an occupying power. Israel, along with the United States, has helped create a political and humanitarian nightmare in Gaza.

In January 2006, the Palestinian Authority, at the urging of George W. Bush’s administration and with the grudging support of the Israelis, held elections in Gaza and the West Bank. To their surprise, Hamas won a majority of seats. The U.S. responded by trying to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority, while the Israelis withheld tax revenues they had collected on the Palestinians’ behalf. The U.S. encouraged Abbas to consolidate his power and discouraged any cooperation between Hamas and Fatah. Then, in the fall of 2006, as I described in a New Republic article, the Bush administration incited Fatah and its military chieftain Mohammed Dahlan (who has been angling to succeed Abbas) to attempt militarily to oust Hamas from leadership in Gaza. Fatah was defeated in battle, and Hamas took charge in Gaza. 

The U.S. refused to talk to the new government even though the United States has had relations with other governments that did not recognize Israel. Israel began its blockade of Gaza. The blockade, a base and immoral tactic that was intended to discredit Hamas by starving Gaza’s citizenry, wrecked Gaza’s economy. By 2011, per capita income had dropped 17 percent from 2005. Unemployment and malnutrition became rife. Israel blocked exports, including those to the West Bank. By 2011, only three percent of goods exported in 2005 were being allowed out of the country. Thirty-five percent of farmland and 85 percent of fishing waters (a main source of food) were declared off-limits by the Israelis. Gazans were denied passage to the West Bank. The Israelis turned Gaza into a kind of Palestinian Devil’s Island.

During the wars over Gaza, Hamas has displayed a willingness to kill off frightening numbers of Gaza’s citizenry, including women and children, in order to embarrass the Israelis internationally. Hamas’ rockets are not really weapons of war, but of terror and propaganda. They provoke the Israelis into brutal reprisals that Hamas hopes will discredit the Israelis abroad and portray Hamas among Palestinians and Arab states as brave freedom fighters. Gaza’s citizens become unwitting suicides. The fact that in spite of this, Hamas retains support in Gaza and has become increasingly popular in the West Bank testifies to the intense anger that Palestinians feel toward continued Israeli rule and toward the blockade.

There is no moral justification for Hamas firing rockets against Israeli cities, but what initially sparked the current conflict was Israel’s determination to undermine the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. By that agreement, Hamas actually subordinated itself to the Palestinian Authority and to a new government that was to be staffed by technocrats who had no affiliation to either party. As Nathan Thrall from the International Crisis Group wrote in The New York Times, that agreement could have served the interest of an Israeli government committed to a two-state solution:

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.

But from the beginning, Israel set out to undermine it. That was consistent with Israel’s denial of Palestinian self-rule, and it helped to provoke the current conflict.

The Recent Provocations

After Abbas announced an agreement with Hamas on April 23, the Netanyahu government tried to get the United States and European governments not to recognize the new unity government. The United States did help to block payments to Hamas public workers in Gaza, but the U.S. and European countries didn’t accept Netanyahu’s plea to shun the new government altogether. In May, the Israeli government took steps in Gaza that seemed designed to draw Hamas into breaking the 2012 ceasefire. It reduced from six to three miles the offshore limit on Gaza fishing (severely limiting the catch) and fired on boats that exceeded the limit and arrested the fishermen. When the new government was sworn in on June 1, the Israeli government countered by announcing 3,300 new housing starts in the West Bank.

On June 12, two men affiliated with Hamas kidnapped and killed three Israel teenagers. While Hamas leaders unconscionably applauded the kidnapping, they denied any direct knowledge of it. The two men, as the Israeli government quickly discovered, were associated with a rogue Hamas family that had defied the organization’s leadership. The Israelis also strongly suspected that the boys had been killed, but they used the pretext of searching for the boys to arrest around 500 Palestinians, including Hamas’s West Bank officials and activists. There was sporadic rocket fire on Israel during June that seems to have come from non-Hamas Islamist groups, although the details are murky. Then on July 1, in the wake of the discovery of the three teenagers’ bodies, the Israelis launched 34 airstrikes on Gaza. On July 6, it bombed a tunnel in Gaza, killing six Hamas militants. On the next day, Hamas began taking responsibility for new rockets attacks, and the Israelis then launched Protective Edge.

Some reports have said that Hamas wanted this battle; others that it never would have happened without Israeli provocation.  In any case, The war began in earnest at this point, and the air raid sirens blared in Tel Aviv and the casualties mounted in Gaza. On July 14, the Egyptian military ruler Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, in consultation with the Israelis, proposed a ceasefire deal that would have ended the fight without addressing any of the issues that divided Hamas from the Israelis. For humanitarian reasons, Hamas should have taken the deal, and found some other means of resisting Israeli domination, but they rejected it, and continued to fire rockets, leading to the Israeli ground invasion.

Hamas did issue a set of proposals that included a ten-year ceasefire in exchange for ending the blockade and the siege of Gaza (which was supposed to have been negotiated after the November 2012 ceasefire) and freeing the Hamas prisoners the Israelis had rounded up in the West Bank. Ha’aretz columnist Gideon Levy enjoined his readers to “read the list of demands and judge honestly whether there is one unjust demand among them.” But the Israelis have rejected them. And in responding to the rocket attacks, the Israelis have once again displayed inordinate and indiscriminate force against their colonial subjects. Those who argue that Netanyahu had to respond to rockets being fired on Israeli cities—even if the Iron Dome intercepted almost all of them—are certainly right. He would probably have lost office—and to someone even less disposed to conciliation—if he had turned the other cheek. On a purely day-to-day basis, one can make a case for Israeli reprisals, but in the big picture, Israel and not the Palestinians are primarily to blame for the continued conflict.

The American Role

The Obama administration, disillusioned by the failure of the peace talks, initially tried to stay out of the conflict. While the rockets were flying and the bombs were dropping, Kerry was in China, and Obama was preoccupied with Ukraine and with Central American children sneaking across the U.S. border. Obama and Kerry deferred to el-Sisi, who, as a mortal enemy of the Muslim Brotherhood, would seem an unlikely candidate to adjudicate the conflict between Israel and Hamas, which is an arm of the Brotherhood. Obama and Kerry continued to insist on Israel’s right to defend itself. They clearly felt private misgivings about Israel’s actions—as Kerry’s sarcastic comment to his aide, overheard on an open mike, about Israel’s “pinpoint operation” revealed—but like other American administrations, they were reluctant to criticize the Israeli government publicly.

Kerry has finally entered the negotiations. Whether he’ll succeed remains unclear.  Some kind of ceasefire is likely, but the question is whether Hamas and the Israel government can agree to terms that will prevent future outbreaks. There is a fairly obvious deal to be made.  It would consist of Hamas agreeing to the internationally-observed demilitarization of Gaza in exchange for Israel removing the blockade and freeing the prisoners arrested in June.  Also included would be international aid to rebuild Gaza.  But Hamas leaders are likely to balk at demilitarization, and the Israeli cabinet at removing the blockade and freeing the prisoners.  The ceasefire terms will be fuzzy, as they were in 2012.  And the occupation of the West Bank will continue.

In Israel, the prospects for the occupation's end remain distant.  Whatever Israeli prime ministers have said, or polls have shown, the trend over the last 40 years has been rightward—toward a growing Jewish intransigent presence in the West Bank backed by militant right-wing parties and organizations. Every new settler and settlement is a living rejection of Israel's willingness to abandon the occupation. Israel could well become more like its neighbors—an increasingly authoritarian state ruling over restive minority or eventually majority populations. The Palestinain trajectory is uncertain—toward increasing accomodation or militance. Under continuing occupation, the Palestinians could confirm Israelis' worst fears.

American Jewish support for Israel’s stance on the occupation has somewhat diminished—witness the rise of J Street—but the slippage of support among liberal Jews has been made up by the rising support of right-wing Christians, many of whom are aligned with the Israeli right. The European Union, which might have played a constructive role, has been crippled by the Eurocrisis. It would be nice to say that in the long run, justice will prevail, and that Israel will redeem its democratic promise and that the Palestinians will get their state, but looking backwards over the last century of protracted conflict, it doesn’t look at all promising.