01 August 2014

Contrarian Notes on the Gaza Debacle

I was getting ready to post the rest of my Netanyahu series when the latest Gaza episode began. As I was about to embark on a brief tour de France, I postponed all postings and left.

When I returned, the Gaza situation had become too catastrophic to allow me to continue with the posts I had prepared earlier. So I decided to register my views on what is happening in Gaza before I return to my regularly scheduled programming.

In a nutshell, I think the responsibility of the grotesque humanitarian disaster falls in equal measure on all the regional players, namely, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, Israel and Turkey. If you have pro-Israeli views, you might wish to add Hamas to that list but I did not for reasons I will discuss in a minute.

First, let me explain why several Arab countries are topping my list.

With Friends Like These

At the core of the Gaza problem is a massive economic and social deprivation. Even before the 2007 Israeli siege, Gaza had always had a very high unemployment rate. In May 2014, it reached a five-year high of 41 percent. A month ago it rose to over 45 percent. If you remember Machiavelli's advice to the Prince about the dangers of depriving people of their livelihood ("because men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony"), this is a situation that creates a lot of desperate, nothing-to-lose Palestinians.

You might argue that Israel and its suffocating blockade is the main culprit. While I am not denying Israel's large responsibility in all this (as I will outline shortly), I believe that its measures would not be nearly as crippling if its policies were not aided and abetted by the Arab states in the region.

To begin with, the siege is not just Israel's, it is also actively reinforced by Egypt's new rulers. General al-Sisi closed the tunnels and the Rafah port as soon as he toppled the Mursi government. If he wanted it, he could pretty much render the Israeli embargo ineffective.

Moreover, my argument goes beyond the negative effects of the Israeli and Egyptian embargo.

I read someplace that Walid bin Talal, one of the richest men in the world, made roughly $5 billion by simply buying Citi Bank shares at a deep discount after the 2008 financial meltdown.

That windfall is about the size of the Gaza strip's entire economy. In other words, if those oil-rich Arab countries really wanted to help Palestinians, they could simply provide them with generous economic assistance. It is pocket change for them. In fact, just one person, with the money he made from this one deal, could singlehandedly transform Gaza from being the land of the wretched to a prosperous and happy place.

Instead, Arab states are doing what they have always done since the creation of Israel. They keep Palestinians impoverished, desperate and angry and refuse to help them in any meaningful way. For decades they kept them in makeshift refugee camps and quietly worked to transform them from a highly educated liberal community into radical Islamists.

And now, in their all-consuming hatred of Iran and the Shia, they simply formed a silent alliance with Israel to make Palestinians suffer more. If you think this is an exaggerated statement take a look at a recent piece in the New York Times:
After the military ouster of the Islamist government in Cairo last year, Egypt has led a new coalition of Arab states — including Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — that has effectively lined up with Israel in its fight against Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls the Gaza Strip. That, in turn, may have contributed to the failure of the antagonists to reach a negotiated cease-fire even after more than three weeks of bloodshed.
In short, the reason Arab states are at the top of my "guilty list" is because, they refrain from helping Palestinians, preferring to maintain the status quo as a way to whip up antisemitic sentiments and rile up Muslim masses.

What About Israel?

Having said that, I am not letting Israel off the hook. I believe that what they have been doing to punish the population of Gaza is simply unconscionable. Just to take a few recent examples, they knocked down Gaza's only power plant, making an already miserable life unbearable. They attacked a UN-run school housing refugees killing scores of women and children. And they dropped a mortar on a crowded market killing 17 civilians and wounding hundreds.

If you look at the statistics, almost all Israeli casualties are military personnel and a very large percentage of Palestinian casualties are civilians.
Since Israel began its offensive in Gaza on 8 July, 1,422 Palestinians have been killed, most of them civilians, according to Gaza's health ministry. 
Fifty-six Israeli soldiers and two civilians have also died.
And in case you wonder, I am not a lone radical voice claiming all of that. Israel's closest ally has just made the same point.

Moreover, as we know from the dubious practice of "roof knocking," IDF is capable of pinpoint bombing. Consequently, these "oops" instances seems to have been deliberately set up to terrorize and demoralize the civilian population.

But I am not a moralist and, acknowledging the human suffering aside, to me, condemning a nation state for using violence is a little like criticizing a heavy metal band for being loud. That's who they are and what they do.

What is more enlightening from my perspective is the intricate and complex relationship between Hamas and the conservative forces in Israel. And how they continuously make each other possible.

Let's begin with a fact that everybody would like to forget. Israel helped spawn Hamas. I wrote this before and it shocked my friends. Israel did it to weaken the Fatah movement. Hamas was supposed to ingratiate themselves to Palestinians by providing humanitarian assistance. And they were to simultaneously attack Arafat's secular nationalism from an Islamist position.

It was kind of like the brilliant American idea of supporting political Islam to weaken the Soviet empire. And we all know how well these plans turned out.

More importantly, it is not just a question of miscalculated origins. Israel has no interest in getting rid of Hamas. As an Israeli journalist recently noted:
Paradoxically enough, Israel has no interest today in toppling Hamas. It knows that the vacuum that will be created will turn into a magnet for a more radical organization. And that's why, as a high-ranking Israeli diplomatic official told me this week, Israel pounds Hamas with one hand while helping it with the other. It continues to supply electricity, water, vital products, food, cash and medicine to Gaza.
Hamas is also important in providing Israeli government the strategic pretexts to stay away from the negotiating table. It can be used in many creative ways.

When Hamas took control of Gaza, leaving Fatah the West Bank and dividing the Palestinian Authority in half, Israel stated that it cannot negotiate with only one half of Palestinians since the other half might not agree to the resulting settlement. Conversely, when, in recent months, a reconciliation deal was worked out between Hamas and Fatah, Netanyahu said to Mahmoud Abbas that his government cannot negotiate with Palestinians if Hamas is part of the equation. Because, as we all know, Hamas is a terrorist organization.


That, in turn, strengthened the hand of Hamas' military wing. Most of its militants had agreed reluctantly to a national unity government because at the time, they assumed that they had no choice.
While Hamas' decision to join was driven by its isolation, it also indicated Hamas' readiness to consider a political path out of the impasse. 
With Hamas' consent, the national unity government upheld the three conditions the international community had set for engagement with Hamas: recognition of Israel, abidance by previous diplomatic agreements, and renunciation of violence. 
But Israel changed all that by first refusing to negotiate with Hamas despite these very significant concessions and then by collectively punishing the Gaza strip for the kidnapping and murder of three teenagers (which turned out to be unrelated to Hamas).

Hamas' military wing and the militants amongst its political leadership had serious misgivings about the national unity government and dissenting voices were evident.
But the fact that Hamas had formally agreed meant that there was enough support to make a start. 

Against this backdrop, Israel's and Fatah's clampdown on Hamas, so soon after the establishment of the national unity government, signalled the futility of a political route at this stage, thus strengthening those favouring a military response. 
That is what I mean by Hamas and the conservative forces in Israel are making each other possible. In that sense, Hamas represents the best hope of the settler movement in Israel. And that is why Netanyahu government wants to preserve the status quo whereby Gaza strip is barely surviving with just enough aid and supplies and money making it in, all fully controlled by Israel.

The problem is that, it is no longer possible to maintain that situation.

Netanyahu: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

This is what Netanyahu underestimated when he thought that some pinpoint bombing could demoralize the population and motivate them put pressure on Hamas. The previous conditions were so bad that, it seems, people in Gaza prefer to die in droves rather than going back to status quo ante.
While we do not know what levels of popular support Hamas has for continuing its fight, anecdotally, people seem to be resigned to more suffering because the status quo has become intolerable. 
As a reputable source wrote in a recent email from Gaza, "people are suffering in Gaza. People are very, very tired. But even those who hate Hamas do not want to return to the situation before the war. People want to change the situation."
This is why Hamas insists on the end of blockade as the sine qua non clause of any ceasefire agreement. They know that it is very popular with the people of Gaza.

In that context, Netanyahu is in a very serious bind.

While the latest Gaza war is highly popular at home, every passing day, images of civilian carnage and wounded children are creating a serious anti-Israeli sentiment in the world.

The UN and even the US are no longer mincing their words. Sooner or later the cost will become too steep for Israel.

In that sense, a prolonged ground war works for Hamas, especially if the civilian population in Gaza is willing to continue to die in large numbers. And apparently, they are.

Secondly, the threshold for death and suffering seems much higher among Palestinians. Whereas it is much lower in Israel, which is a reasonably affluent society with much higher and diverse expectations from life than its immediate neighbors. Fighting Hamas in a tight urban setting with thousands of tunnels and booby traps all over the place is likely to lead to a higher number of casualties. And at some point, they may become too much for the Israeli society. I get that this not Vietnam for them. But if there is no accompanying sense of winning the war, people will eventually balk.

A corollary to that is the importance of not leaving behind any soldiers for Israel. Remember Gilad Shalit? He became a huge issue that dogged successive Israeli Cabinets. And finally to free him, Netanyahu had to release 1000 Palestinians.

Early in the conflict, Hamas claimed that they captured a soldier and even though it turned out to be false, it highlighted Israel's vulnerability in that respect. And now Hamas has just announced that it captured another soldier, Hadar Goldin.

If it turns out to be accurate, Netanyahu will be in a very, very tough spot.

Thirdly, the Gaza operation signaled a major weakness in Israeli military strategies.

Because Netanyahu and his cabinet were so obsessed with Iran and the bogus nuclear threat it represented, they seemed to have failed to keep an eye on what Hamas was doing with its tunnels. They only realized the threat when 13 Hamas soldiers pop out of a tunnel near Kibbutz Sufa.

This is a huge blunder and Netanyahu must know that when things quiet down, there will be many questions and damning answers.

But this also means that he now has every reason to go all in.

Especially if Hadar Goldin is actually taken.

Both sides with nothing to lose, this is not going to end well.

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