The Israeli government’s insistence on maintaining the political and diplomatic status quo in Gaza and the West Bank guarantees many more years of violence and suffering – especially for the Palestinians.
Three days into the Israeli attack on Gaza, it seems that a political window for a ceasefire could have emerged. Israeli casualties are still limited, and unlike in previous rounds of escalation, there isn’t a public demand to remove Hamas from power, nor other unrealistic goals (like the promise to release Gilad Shalit during Operation Cast Lead). Netanyahu can claim victory today, stop the bombing and save much suffering from both sides. As Daniel Levy’s excellent analysis shows, Hamas can also present itself as the winner after hitting Tel Aviv and the greater Jerusalem area. This conflict is a zero sum game only from the perspective of the casualties – the immediate political interest of both leaderships could be served at the same time. Still, we may just the same be heading toward an escalation. As I write, Israel is drafting 75,000 reservists and preparing the public for “a prolonged confrontation” whose goals are unclear at best.
Whether a ground invasion starts or a ceasefire is reached, it remains clear that another escalation, somewhere in the future, is all but inevitable. The fundamentals of the problem remain unchanged: the Israeli closure on Gaza, the separation of the Strip from the West Bank, the absence of a political horizon. Between 2006 and now, very little has changed.
Contrary to Israeli statements about the deadly status quo in the south that “no country would have accepted,” the current Israeli government is characterized by its addiction to the status quo. The twist and turns in the last two decades have led to a strange situation in which quasi-autonomous leaderships in Gaza and the West Bank are running the daily operations of the occupation for Israel. When pressured from their public, Hamas and Fatah turn to some forms of resistance (Hamas through rockets and attacks on IDF soldiers along the strip, Fatah through diplomacy); when pressured by Israel, they move back to obedience.
This situation can at times be uncomfortable from an Israeli point of view, but it’s still preferable in the eyes of the political leadership to all other alternatives. A popular complaint these days is that Israel does not have a Gaza policy. But Israel does have a policy, and that’s keeping things as they are. The reason for it is simple. Ending the occupation, opening the Strip, removing the blockade – giving the Palestinians their independence – will carry an enormous political price, not to mention certain security risks; other forms of power sharing – most notably, giving the Palestinians their political rights within the state of Israel – are even less acceptable to the Israeli mainstream. Israelis, and even more so, Israeli leaders, prefer to stick to the status quo and deal with the Palestinians’ attempt to challenge them one by one. Thus, diplomatic initiatives are blocked with the help of the U.S. and the European Union, and armed attacks are met with heavy retaliation. Each Israeli response carries its own internal logic – I certainly don’t expect my government to accept attacks on Israeli civilians – but taken together they cannot be justified, morally or strategically.
If history has taught us something, it’s that in those rare occasions when the other party is able to inflict too much pain and discomfort on Israelis – thus making the status quo “less tolerable” – concessions are finally made. This is the way the First Intifada led to Oslo and the second one to the disengagement (much in the way the 1973 war led to the peace treaty with Egypt). In all these cases, the Palestinians (or Egyptians) paid a heavy price – much heavier than Israel – but they were able to move Israel out of its comfort zone. Israeli leaders often express the desire to “teach the Palestinians a lesson against the use of violence” or “to burn it into their consciousness,” as Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon famously said. But in reality the terrible lesson we have taught them is that in order to get something out of Israel, violence is not enough – one needs a lot of violence. It seems that the world understands that, and after two decades of diplomatic efforts, the latest escalation is met with indifference (which Israelis wrongly interpret as support).
Israel had chances to explore other options. Hamas could have been dealt with politically after its election victory. Negotiations on the Shalit deal could have been a platform for other form of contacts, as many security officials advised. Egypt, which has a real interest in stability in Gaza, could have helped. But talks only made sense if Israel was ready to back them with adequate actions. Clearly, it wasn’t.
As bad as Hamas might be, one can be certain that any regime in Gaza would stand the same pressure from the population to challenge the blockade and reunite with the West Bank. All the self-righteous cries on “Israel’s right to defend itself” won’t change the basic fact: Israel cannot go on holding three million people as its prisoners. The situation is not symmetrical. Reports of a ceasefire that could have been reached had Israel refrained from carrying out the Jabari assassination might be accurate for all I know, but this story shouldn’t divert our attention from the heart of the matter, which is the Palestinian right to freedom, dignity and justice. Only then will we have peace.