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Gaza: The Failure of Non-Negotiation

Entrance to a smuggling tunnel in Gaza.

Entrance to a smuggling tunnel in Gaza.

The renewed turmoil in Gaza — the third such clash since Hamas seized power there in 2007 — has elicited a great deal of commentary, as it deserves to do. Much of it, however, focuses on the facts of the moment rather than the underlying causes. Indeed, even the fairly numerous demands to address the underlying issues generally ignore the actual underlying issues.

On the Surface: A War No One Planned

The facts on the ground are fairly clear. A series of events shattered the status quo that had prevailed for the past few years: Another U.S.-led effort at peace talks had failed to achieve results. Fatah had renewed its coalition with Hamas and formed a “technocratic” Palestinian government — supported by both parties but representing neither — in anticipation of long-delayed elections. Prime Minister Netanyahu denounced the coalition, declaring that a continuation of the (already collapsed) negotiations was not possible if Hamas was in any way connected to them.

At that point three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped on the West Bank. Netanyahu immediately blamed Hamas and suggested that this was somehow a consequence of the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation. (By calling the connection obvious, he apparently absolved himself of the responsibility of explaining exactly what he thought the connection was.) He held Fatah responsible for not controlling Hamas, demanded that Fatah find the perpetrators, and insisted that the coalition be dissolved. The Israeli authorities, in a purported effort to find the three victims, arrested 400 Palestinians, most of whom had Hamas connections, and killed six. According to later reporting, however, the authorities knew the boys were dead nearly from the beginning and that the perpetrators, the so-called Hebron branch of Hamas, was essentially a crime family with a history of acting without the knowledge of Hamas leaders and even counter to the organization’s interests. The masquerade was another way to undermine Hamas. When the bodies were found, however, there was a rash of attacks by Israelis on Palestinians. A Palestinian teenager was kidnapped and killed. Many assumed that this was a revenge killing, but Netanyahu now saw the wisdom on not jumping to conclusions and cautioned others not to.

Netanyahu did not necessarily intend to move on Gaza, having come to rely on Hamas to control the even more radical factions there. He was focused on dismantling Hamas in the West Bank and breaking the Fatah-Hamas coalition. Yet the anxiety built up by both the kidnapping-murder and the ostentatious search for the victims generated pressure to act, especially among Netanyahu’s allies and supporters on the right.

The Palestinians in Gaza did not wait for what they had already decided was coming. With anger growing on their side of the street as well, Hamas opted to stop constraining the smaller, more radical groups, such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Rockets began firing into Israel from Gaza. These were small, home-made rockets of a sort used by both Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The Israeli air force began strikes against suspected rocket sites and infiltration tunnels, and then Hamas let loose with its own, larger rocket arsenal. Apparently, it frequently happens that Islamic Jihad starts such barrages and Hamas then joins in, either before or after Israeli retaliation begins, in order not to lose its carefully cultivated image as a stalwart opponent of Israel, a concern for reputation that must make it a relatively easy mark for manipulation by rival groups. Israel responded to the rocket fire with more air strikes, quick ground assaults, and then on July 17, a full-scale ground intervention. At the same time, it counters the rocket attacks with its Iron Dome missile-defense system whenever a rocket approaches a populated area.* At the time of the intervention, 220 Palestinians and one Israeli had died. (Overall, since 2000, Palestinians were roughly 15 times as likely to die in these clashes as Israelis, with the ratio increasing considerably in recent years.) The rocket fire continued unabated. Neither side went into the war with clear-cut objectives. The fight arose out of reactions to acts committed by others and then manipulated by both sides. Both appear to be continuing the fight out of a general refusal to be the first to stop.

Beneath the Surface: Apparent Stability Masks a Slow Slide into Disaster

The Netanyahu government likes to say that no country can stand back and allow itself to be attacked by rockets without responding militarily. It is hard to argue against that position, as far as it goes. The problem is that, between the periodic clashes, Netanyahu makes no effort to prevent the next one. Apparently, his notion of a long-term solution is to eradicate the rocket supply (which then gets replenished) rather than to address the underlying conflict.

Netanyahu and his supporters seem to view the status quo — apart from the periodic eruptions of violence — as satisfactory. As much as they talk, at times like this, about the need to assure the survival of Israel, its survival has not really been threatened for more than 40 years. The past few years have been among the most peaceful in Israel’s history. Fatah effectively polices the West Bank most of the time, and Israeli settlements there expand without hindrance. Even when Hamas attacks, as it is doing now, Israeli casualties are quite modest. The current situation is something that Netanyahu can live with, and there is little in it that presses him to seek, or tolerate, change. His vision of a permanent solution is either this or the recognition of a disarmed nominal Palestinian state that has no more rights or powers than the existing Palestinian National Authority. Indeed, he describes a potential Palestinian state in essentially the same terms he used in the 1990s to describe the PNA. (To be sure, there are people to his right, including some in his governing coalition, who would like to go further and annex much or all of the West Bank outright. There are some who would have the Palestinians expelled.)

The U.S. administration occasionally presses Israel to meet with the Palestinians for negotiations, but in recent years talks have produced few results. Netanyahu begins by asserting that freezing construction in West Bank settlements as a condition for negotiations is “a nonstarter,” even though the fate of those settlements and of West Bank lands in general is supposed to be a key issue to be negotiated. He did issue a one-year moratorium on new West Bank construction in 2009, but that amounted to a simple delay in the issuance of new building permits. Ongoing projects were uninterrupted, East Jerusalem was exempted, and there was no suggestion that the moratorium would be extended beyond its initial year.

Sometimes the failed talks are followed by frustration and an uptick of violence, which some critics then blame on the United States. Netanyahu claims that the talks fail because he has no true partner in negotiation, that the Palestinians are either unable or unwilling to come to an agreement and make it stick. Yet other Israeli leaders have not had that problem. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, once a member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, held secret negotiations with Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas in 2008 and reportedly came close to a settlement. It failed to come to fruition, but perhaps it would have if the time for negotiation had not been cut short by Olmert’s indictment on unrelated corruption charges. President Shimon Peres says he actually achieved an agreement with Abbas in 2011, but Netanyahu, as prime minister, rejected it. In 2001 Netanyahu bragged to a group of settlers that he personally had manipulated the United States and stopped the Oslo peace process in his earlier term as prime minister in the 1990s. He disrupted the most recent peace talks by constantly announcing new settlement plans, deeper and deeper into the West Bank, as the negotiations were going on and did so in a way that implied that Abbas had agreed to it. It is Netanyahu who cannot come to an agreement, and he shows few signs that he wants to.

Although Netanyahu may be satisfied with the status quo and feels no real pressure to change it, the situation is not stable. Rather, it is moving toward an explosion. In the view of the Palestinians, the whole territory should have been theirs, but after World War II the Jews were “kicked out of Europe” and took over their country instead. This is hardly a fair description of what happened, but it suits people who believe themselves to have been dispossessed and abused for 70 years, and plenty of absurd things have been said about the Palestinians as well. After half a century of fighting and losing, Yasser Arafat and other leaders of Fatah reconciled themselves to the fact that they would not get 100 percent of the land and would have to settle for the 20 percent that was the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Those were the terms laid out by the 1993 interim Oslo Accord. Then, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who had signed the accord, was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli. The talks stalled, especially with Netanyahu in office. The culmination of the process came in 2000 with Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The offer on the table, however, gave the Palestinians full control over about 12 percent of the territory — not 12 percent of the whole thing, 12 percent of the 20 percent, in isolated, unarmed pockets surrounded by the Israeli army. After considerable fretting over whether this could be the basis for building a more viable state later, Fatah rejected the offer.

Palestinian frustration has only grown since then. Both the Palestinians and the Israelis increasingly believe that the other will never agree to a settlement. Support for a two-state solution is fading on both sides, although no one has come up with credible alternative. Palestinians increasingly view Fatah as a corrupt, collaborationist organization that follows Israeli orders and gets them nothing in return. The next generation of Palestinian leaders may not bother to negotiate with Israel at all. Meanwhile, while anti-Arab sentiment has not necessarily grown among Israelis, tolerance for anti-Arab groups has. Many Israelis believe that the Palestinians cannot be trusted with a state, and yet it is in relations with its neighboring states — the very ones that truly threatened its existence in its first 25 years — that Israel’s successes have been the greatest. And while the Israelis have failed to reach a settlement with Fatah, Hamas has fed on the frustration growing in the occupied territories. If the Israelis had settled with Fatah 20 years ago, Hamas might never have become a meaningful movement. If they wait for Hamas to moderate before negotiating with it, or at least with Fatah, then some other, more radical organization will rise to take its place — and potential contenders already exist. This is not to say that negotiation will be easy or that there will be no spoilers who try to undermine the process. It is to say that not negotiating a final settlement is guaranteed to be a losing proposition.

*Hamas’s arsenal includes home-made rockets with a range of one to 10 miles and a smaller number of larger rockets, presumably provided by Iran, with a range of up to 70 or 80 miles. While deadly, both types are highly inaccurate. About 80 percent of the rockets fired fall harmlessly in the desert. Of the rest, Israel reports that it shoots down about 90 percent with its Iron Dome defense system.



Scott Monje

Scott C. Monje, Ph.D., is senior editor of the Encyclopedia Americana (Grolier Online) and author of The Central Intelligence Agency: A Documentary History. He has taught classes on international, comparative, and U.S. politics at Rutgers University, New York University (SCPS), and Purchase College, SUNY.