The war in Gaza is really about Israel stopping a fledgling Palestinian unity government of Fatah and Hamas that might have paved way for a two-state solution in Israel Palestine.
But before delving into that, let’s contemplate what might happen once the violence subsides and there is a return to the status quo of continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) in Israel’s occupied West Bank and a bystander during the hostilities in Gaza, has “one last ace in the hole,” says Michael Lynk, a labour law professor and writer on international legal issues with the Israel-Palestine dispute.
As a result of the 2012 elevation of membership status for Palestine at the UN, PA president Mahmood Abbas has no choice but go the legal route of drawing public attention to Israel’s violations of its legal obligations in war under international law (re: war crimes) before the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The U.S. Congress has threatened to withdraw financial support for the PA if that happens, but Abbas might decide that’s a risk worth taking says Lynk.
High on the list at the ICC will surely be criticism that Israel has so far indiscriminately killed 1,000 Palestinians and injured even more in a military campaign that has included bombing and a ground invasion.
Of particular concern, says Lynk, is Israel’s showering of anti-personnel devices, or fleschettes, which can both wound or kill anybody in their range both during the attack or afterward lying unobtrusively on the ground.
Israel and its supporters will counter that Hamas has also committed war crimes in its indiscriminate, albeit largely ineffective, sending of rockets over Israel and its alleged use of Gaza’s 1.8-million Palestinians in an enclave half the size of Toronto as “human shields.”
Lynk says while both are possible charges to make under the circumstances, international jurisprudence will appreciate that Israel bears greater responsibility for its actions in the conflict because it is both the occupying power in Gaza and the predominate power in the Middle East region. Israel is equipped with a European-style economy and has one of the largest militaries in the world, in terms of sophisticated weaponry like jets, tanks, drones and the Iron Dome air defense system.
“Hamas does place some of its military weapons in civilian neighbourhoods — although a military analyst might say: (i) there isn’t much space in Gaza to have a military base that is protected from Israeli planes; (ii) Hamas is not a regular army, but rather a militia that is intimately part of the Gaza population; and (iii) Israel does the same, as its central [Israeli Defense Forces’] headquarters in Tel Aviv, is surrounded by office buildings, shopping centres and the usual trappings of civilian life,” Lynk explains.
Also relevant, continues Lynk, is that Palestinians fleeing lethal attacks by the Israeli military are stuck inside Gaza with no other place to seek safety as neither the Israelis nor the Egyptians will allow refugees to cross their national borders. That is also a “war crime” and a violation of the “cornerstone” of international refugee law, he says.
But at the core of the Israel-Palestine problem is the settlement of 600,000 Jews on Palestinian land that Israel has occupied following the seizure of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem in the 1967 war.
Most countries including Canada recognize that the settlement of civilian populations by the occupying power into the territory it is occupying is a “war crime,” Lynk says.
But lawyers have been stymied in getting Israeli courts to recognize this interpretation of their country’s responsibility.
“Israeli courts have refused all invitations to rule on the legality of the Israeli settlements even though the world community accepts them as illegal under international law,” says Lynk.
Keep in mind that Gaza is a special case because it was seized in the 1967 war from Egypt and occupied by Israel until 2005 when both Jewish settlements and its military were withdrawn. Hamas took over sole administration in 2007.
Nevertheless, says Lynk, “most countries including the United States [and the International Red Cross] accept that Gaza remains as an occupied territory, because its access to the sea, its access to land crossings, and in the air are all are controlled directly or indirectly by the occupying power.”
Furthermore, the international Israeli-inspired blockade of Hamas-led Gaza since 2007 may be considered illegal under international law if there is no defined purpose.
“A blockade could itself be legal and lawful, but it also has to be conducted in a lawful manner. Same thing is true with respect to occupation,” Lynk notes.
The raft of underground tunnels that Hamas has built to connect Gaza to the outside to break the blockade represent a grey area, Lynk says. Israel has the legal right in a war to destroy those underground passages that are being used primarily for military purposes such as the storage and transportation of weapons.
But there are other tunnels which are primarily economic in nature and allow Palestinians in Gaza to bring in goods and supplies that are necessary for their survival, Lynk adds.
A number of commentators are suggesting that Israel turned down the opportunity to avoid war and instead engage in more fruitful negotiations with the Palestinians.
Why that didn’t happen is explained here.
The countdown for war in Gaza has its roots in the failure of Israel and the PA to reach a deal on a two-state solution in April under U.S. auspices. What made the situation untenable for Abbas was the continued Israeli construction of illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem during nine months of diplomatic activity this year.
A record 14,000 units were announced in that period according to the independent Israeli NGO, Peace Now.
So, it looked like setting up the two state solution of Israel and Palestine side by side — the officially stated goal of Israel and the international community — appeared dead in the water.
But hold on a minute, writes Nathan Thrall, who argues that a Palestinian “national consensus” government had been formed by both Fatah and Hamas, where Hamas, a much weaker party economically and politically since its takeover of Gaza in 2007 was agreeing to a number of items that actually benefit Israel in the long run.
Up to now the major stumbling block to talking to Hamas has been its history of violence and refusal to accept Israel’s existence as a state — in contrast to the PA under Abbas which supports a two-state solution and a peaceful resolution of the conflict. In fact, Hamas is legally designated as a “terrorist,” group by a number of countries, including Canada.
But in order to function within a Palestinian unity government that is made up largely of technocrats and where Hamas has no cabinet representation, Hamas has had to accept the same kind of legal arrangements that the PA and Fatah now have with Israel, the U.S. and the European Union, says Thrall.
“[The unity deal] 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 [in the PA]; and, most important, it pledged to comply with the three conditions for Western aid long demanded by [the U.S.] and its European allies: nonviolence, adherence to past agreements and recognition of Israel,” says Thrall.
But just as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put a cold shoulder to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s effort to bring about a deal earlier this year, so there was also plenty of hostility directed by the same Israeli government towards the new Palestinian unity government.
What especially unnerved Netanyahu and his cabinet was that both the U.S. and the European Union demonstrated that they were not opposed to the new arrangement by the Palestinians, says Rex Brynen, a McGill University political scientist.
And so when three Jewish teens were kidnapped and murdered in the West Bank, the stage was set for war with Hamas and Gaza.
“I think there is no doubt that the [Israeli] government jumped into the opportunity to go after Hamas and damage the reputation of the unity project on the Palestinian side,” says Brynen.
One interpretation for the Israeli action is simply mistrust for the motives of Hamas and the scepticism that a “moderate” Hamas is actually possible.
However, there was also a time when Israel, during the Oslo talks in the early 1990s, came to terms with the more secular Fatah, which, as the controlling party at the PA today, polices the Palestinian communities in West Bank in co-ordination with Israel.
“There are people in Israeli security who feel one must deal with Hamas. These are very bright people and they have a much more nuanced view of Palestinian politics. It is not impossible; they felt [once] they could not deal with Fatah [and the Palestinian Liberation Organization] either. [But] that nuance is not going to be found in the Israeli government, with the exception of one or two cabinet ministers,” says Brynen
Another explanation from independent analyst Mouin Rabbani argues that senior Israeli political and military figures prefer having separate and mutually antagonist Palestinian forces in Hamas and Fatah. And that there are many advantages to having a demonized Hamas control Gaza that inadvertently gets invaded from time to time by Israel military incursions.
He says frankly that the last thing that Israel wants is any Fatah-Hamas reconciliation because that could mean grappling with some of the thorny issues that have kept the Israelis and Palestinians apart.
“The schism between Hamas and the PA [has been viewed] as an opportunity to further its policies of separation and fragmentation, and to deflect growing international pressure for an end to an occupation that has lasted nearly half a century,” says Rabbani.
Rabbani also seems to suggest that the kidnapping and murder of the three Jewish teenagers in the vicinity of Hebron on the West Bank — a site of sheer tension between extremist Jewish settlers encamped on top of an Arab market on the main road and local Palestinians — served as a useful pretext to bulldoze that unity government into the ground.
Following the kidnapping and before news of the murders came out, Netanyahu unleashed the arrests of hundreds of Hamas supporters and elected politicians in the West Bank. Some of their houses were demolished and formerly released detainees under previous negotiations were put back in jail. Calls for revenge by Israeli politicians seemed to encourage the appearance of mobs of youth calling for the “death to Arabs,” and hence a retaliatory killing of the 16 year Palestinian in east Jerusalem and beating up of anti-war protesters.
The Israeli government claims that the kidnapping had been ordered from the top Hamas leadership, however, it appears more likely to have been done by local and unconnected cadres in Hebron without any ransom conditions announced, says University of Ottawa professor Costanza Musu. “The fact that the kids were killed so quickly. Certainly, not a much planned operation [and] Hamas doesn’t control all of its components.”
Musu questions the future of the Palestinian unity government, since it was just getting off ground when the current war in Gaza started. “I think there is considerable risk that the unity government might not exist [after the conflict ends].”
Brynen doesn’t see any circumstances where Israel will agree to Hamas’s key demand that the blockade on Gaza be lifted.
And it is more likely, he adds, that the Israeli military will be less careful in avoiding hitting Palestinian civilians on the ground in Gaza with deadly force.
“I suspect that a lot of regular IDF soldiers will be checking their targets less [and] we know what happens when a military takes [more] casualties. It becomes less careful.”
Paul Weinberg is a Hamilton-based freelancer writer who has written for IPS since 1996. He is also a regular contributor to local weekly magazine NOW and specializes in Canadian politics, in particular foreign, security and defence policy. Paul is currently writing a book on the RCMP’s spying on academics in Canada during the 1960s.
Photo: flickr/DAVID HOLT