By Yousef K.B.
The question: What is Israel’s fundamental policy towards the Palestinian question, and based on that where does the current actions fall?
The current Israeli onslaught on Gaza if assessed objectively and with reason is clearly a violation of international law, violation of the duties of an occupying power, as well as a violation of basic moral principles. Viewed from a human perspective the ongoing Israeli atrocity is a throwback to settler colonialism with its political, economic, cultural repercussions, unsettling what even the optimists amongst us saw as a post-colonial time. These however are easy conclusions to come by, which could only be ignored by the misinformed, the Israeli propagandist, or one blinded by Zionist ideology. The confusing thing to answer is why is Israel doing this, why in this fashion, and why now?
Israel’s current strikes on Gaza was preceded by firstly a blockade of all of Palestine since Hamas’s election victory that was followed by a narrower absolute blockade of Gaza after Hamas’s retreat from the West Bank to its popular base in Gaza. These recent actions have opened up Israel to criticism from a wide array of people from throughout the political spectrum, in places where such criticism would not be tolerated before or unheard of (Israeli Forces Acting Like Nazis , Bishops calling to end in violence , Aid groups criticize Israel, Turkish PM criticizes Israel , Criticism of Israel across the globe , other such stories about previously silent groups are plentiful). The obvious question gets posed of what is Israel’s strategy in what seems to be an increasingly tarnished image in world public opinion? Is this not hurting Israel more than benefiting it, costing it political capital with everyone except for the US? Will this not make Hamas even more popular in Israel? These questions at times get hasty responses that Israel is bent on genocide and is attempting to kill as many Palestinians as possible or drive them out of Gaza, thus it does not care. This position is satisfied by the notion that Zionists’ vision for Palestine intrinsically calls for such continued violence. Another position sees the current goal to terminally disrupt Hamas and those who support by any means, and the US political cover allows Israel to sacrifice world opinion in this regard. Still others argue that Israel is simply trying to push the envelope as far as it can possibly push it, and diplomatic pressure has not yet reached the adequate threshold to politically justify to Israeli leaders to stop its attack. These positions do not get to the entire picture because they are either simple as the first explanation is, or are looking only at the short-term time-line. In order to speculate about the Israeli strategy and to better understand its actions, it is important to take a longer time-frame in mind.
Israeli positions as it relates to the Palestinian question go beyond immediate political positions of those in control over the Knesset. Hence the idea that the current crisis is an effort by Labor and Kadima to gain popular support in the face of a reemerging Likud is only partially explanatory. We need to ask what is Israel’s fundamental policy towards the Palestinian question, and based on that where does the current actions fall?
Israel’s New Goal: A Palestinian State
Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians has changed over the years becoming more pragmatic and successfully sidelining its more ideological Zionist players. With the onset of the Oslo accords Israel has moved towards the position of a “two-state solution.” This has gained more traction to the point where Sharon’s Kadima party pushed this strongly at the expense of Sharon’s more conservative traditional constituency. Moreover the US, as exemplified by the Bush administration position has been working towards the same strategy with the Israelis. The “two-state solution” is not a humane realization by the Israelis and US allies, but rather the fulfillment of the Zionist dream. This dream is to have a Jewish state in the land of Palestine, that is recognized and its existence unquestioned by all including those that surround it. In saying its existence is to be unquestioned I mean to say that Israel wants to erase the memory of Palestine before the declaration of Israel, it wants to erase the notion that there was a time prior to Israel. It wants to instill that Israel was always as it is today, since the time of Biblical stories, hence affirming its nationalist myth of a Jewish people on a Jewish land. Standing in the way of this dream is the Palestinian national liberation movement, which holds as one of its essential demands the right of return for Palestinian refugees.*
The Palestinian refugee question and the Palestinian demand for the right of return is an essential cry of the Palestinian movement; house keys of the refugees’ former homes that they were driven from in 1948 and subsequent Israeli actions often symbolize this Palestinian refugees even more than 50 years later have preserved their land deeds and keys to their former homes not only as a reminder of their rights and their homes, but also in direct opposition to Zionist mythology of a land without a people, and Israeli policy to erase the land conquered and settled from any memory of its former inhabitants and to give it a new identity. In fact many of the Gazan refugees are originally from Ashkelon and Beersheba, the cities now famous in news coverage of them as targets of Qassam rockets by Hamas (Basic Definitions by Rashid Khalidi).
Israel wants to rid itself of this issue. It aims to do this by transforming the Palestinian question from one of a national liberation movement call to a conflict between two sovereign states over borders. Within the “two-state solution” paradigm Palestine will be given sovereignty over its land and be recognized as a state. This state will have pre-defined borders that were developed by Israel and clearly demarcated by Israel’s “security wall.” The wall already outlines the borders of the Palestinian state, one that is based on Israeli wishes, and outside of the negotiation paradigm. In fact if the Palestinians will want to push back any part of the borders behind the wall to 1967 lines, it will only be agreed to by Israel upon pricey concessions by Palestinians. Moreover Israeli and US “two state solution” calls for a Palestinian state that ends the refugee question as something that the Palestinian state and other Arab states have to resolve (Right of return explained).
Therefore, to recap, Israel’s strategy is to recognize a Palestinian state within the parameters of the current borders demarcated by the Israeli wall, and without dealing with the refugee question. With Palestine becoming a state, the national liberation movement will have come to an end, the refugee question will be a mute one, since Palestine is a country and if any refugee wants to back to their home they should just go to Palestine, and any further problems with the Palestinians becoming problems between two states, rather than between an occupier and occupied, colonizer and colonized, a state and a national liberation movement.
How Israel aims to create a Palestinian state:
The Israeli strategy is a tall order. So much so that the former Palestinian president Yasser Arafat, someone who was willing to compromise so much of the Palestinian aspirations away, was still not willing to make those concessions. This was because Arafat understood that making those concessions will have meant the end of the heroic Palestinian movement without it having achieved its main goals. He did not want that to be a part of his legacy. It is for this reason that Israel essentially stopped recognizing Arafat, putting his office in Ramallah under siege in the latter part of his life, claiming that he was no longer a “partner in piece” (Arafat besieged in Ramallah , here is a helpful timeline of Arafat’s latter days: Arafat Timeline). This was followed up by the US president’s explicit call for an end to Arafat’s presidency, another example of Tel Aviv and Washington’s convergence in dealing with the Palestinian question. Israel and the US attempted to remove the roadblock to their “two state solution,” namely Arafat and the legacy of the PLO, by introducing a new person, Mahmoud Abbas: “in 2003, under pressure from the United States and members of his own Cabinet, Arafat appointed Abbas to the new position of prime minister, a move designed to decentralize power.” Abbas would later resign because Arafat did not give him enough power. With Arafat’s death in November of 2004 the circumstances changed, and with the election of Abbas as Palestinian president the “two-state solution” became an achievable goal. The positioning of Abbas as the leader of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Fatah was pre-meditated by Israeli government, which had cleared the way for Abbas by removing through incarceration and assassination other prominent Fatah leaders who could replace Arafat. Most notable of these leaders is Marwan Barghouti, former leader of Fatah’s military wing, the Tanzim (Some sites introducing Barghouti: Wikipedia, BBC, FreeBarghouti.org). Mahmoud Abbas is a key figure because he is one of the few people along with his cadre who are willing to make the necessary concessions that will actualize Israel’s “two state solution” as it sees fit. The “two state solution” necessitates a Palestinian authority willing to accept it and cannot be done unilaterally by Israel.
The opening that presented itself for Israel with Abbas replacing Arafat was short-lived with the surprise victory of Hamas in January of 2006. This highlighted the importance of neutralizing Hamas and its influence, in order to reaffirm Abbas and his government. Israel along with the quartet (US, EU, Russia, and the UN) attempted to undermine Hamas by cutting off aid to occupied Palestine. Since Palestine does not have a normal economy due to the occupation and depends heavily on foreign aid, cutting off aid meant preventing Hamas from carrying out any of its domestic plans, and basically disabling it from governing. Hamas in the face of efforts by the quartet, Israel, and Fatah to undermine its authority continuously took control over Gaza ousting Fatah, which was followed up on by Fatah ousting Hamas from the West Bank. This allowed the boycott of the Palestinian territories to be focused on Gaza, and negotiations began again with Abbas touted as the moderate and model Palestinian leader by the US and Israel. Having ousted Hamas from the West Bank, Gaza became the Alamo, the last place to drive Hamas out of. It is here that we currently find ourselves in, and it is here where the current Israeli campaign fits within.
Israeli Objective in Gaza:
The ruthless Israeli assault on Gaza has two main objectives: deterrence and unifying Gaza and the West Bank under Abbas’s Fatah. Israel as it did with Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006 wants to ensure that everyone is sure of its “readiness to fight, and to inflict enough death and destruction so that foes think twice about attacking” . In this way it wants to move the situation where it takes out military confrontation as a means for any force be it state or non-state actors. It is within this objective that Israel has concentrated its PR campaign, legitimizing its brutal and inhumane activities as somehow civilized and rational. However the more important objective, I believe is the latter one. Through its vicious bombardment of Gaza, Israel aims to set back Hamas militarily, severely damaging Hamas organizationally putting it on the defensive and making it more difficult for it to respond to the changing political situation. Moreover it attempts to send a message that even though people can agree with Hamas rhetorically, the repercussions of allowing it to govern are too severe. In this way Israel does not want Hamas to come out of this current situation as looking like it is able to govern, and it wants it weakened to the point that will enable Fatah to regain control over Gaza. The latter it hopes can be achieved through either brute force by installing Fatah in Gaza, or through a negotiated settlement between Hamas and Fatah that can be facilitated by Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.
If it is able to bring back Fatah’s dominance over both Gaza and West Bank, Israel will move to restart negotiations. It will also push its allies in the quartet to strengthen Abbas’s position within Palestine by providing him much needed aid. This will occur through the creation of donor programs in the name of rebuilding Gaza, much like it was done after Israeli destruction of southern Lebanon. The money pledged will be given to Fatah, further increasing their position. Moreover through this Israel can satisfy its objective, and transnational capital interest can introduce economic foundations for the Palestinian economy even at this weak stage. Having done this, with greater US engagement on the part of the Obama administration, Israel will move to bring about a Palestinian state under Abbas. Israel’s timing partially is due to the fact that it knows the Bush administration will provide much more political cover for its actions than an Obama administration that it can only speculate about currently. However it knows that the Obama administration that is comprised by many of the Clintonites will aid them in negotiating with Palestine something similar to the Camp David negotiations that took place between Ehud Barak, Yasser Arafat, and Bill Clinton. Obama administration can be better suited to facilitate these negotiations since it does not have the tarnished image of the Bush administration, which lacks the necessary diplomatic capital.
Let’s recap: Israel used the last days of the Bush administration and the political cover it was afforded it, to attack Hamas in Gaza. Its attack, it hopes will slow it down militarily and organizationally, and to show that Hamas is unable to govern. As Gaza becomes hidden in the rubble with Hamas temporarily weakened, Israel hopes to bring back Fatah into Gaza, followed by foreign money to “rebuilt Gaza” channeled through Fatah. This will set the stage for Israel and its next likely Prime Minister Livni, and help from the Obama administration to negotiate with Abbas the “two state solution.” In this way the strategy is to have a Palestinian state within the next 4-8 years. With the jettisoning of a Palestinian state according to Israeli whims, it will have transformed the demands of the Palestinian national liberation movement into quibbles between two states. Having reached this point, Israel would finally be able to say that it has actualized fully its Zionist dream.
Threats facing Palestine
If we understand the Israeli strategy to be the one explained above, then the Palestinians have much to fear even after the bombs stop falling on them in Gaza. Beyond Israel and the US the most dangerous enemies and roadblocks to Palestinian aspirations are the Arab states who do Israel’s bidding (due to their convergent interests), namely Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, and Fatah in its current manifestation under Mahmoud Abbas.
This does not mean that Hamas is somehow unproblematic and the solution for the Palestinian people. I simply aim to show how problematic Fatah has become to the dreams of the Palestinian people that they once championed, and the hypocritical position of the Arab states that call for Arab nationalism when it benefits them and turn a blind eye to massacres the following month.
The Palestinian national liberation movement itself is important, and its demands sacrosanct. Even though I do not think it is my place to say what the Palestinian people should agree to, especially knowing the great oppressions and criminal behavior that they have had to endure, I believe that the national liberation movement itself and its continuance is a leverage that the Palestinians have. The movement should be ended only upon concessions made by the Israelis.
*In questioning Israel’s legitimacy to exist, I am not condoning Hamas’s position, nor saying that Israelis currently living in Israel need to leave. Rather I am saying that the Zionist position is wrong and its nationalist myth false. I personally see the one state solution, albeit highly improbable due to the political positions taken, as the only just solution to the problem. Israel’s presence should only be recognized because of its de facto position and not due to historical, ideological, or political necessity.