Foreign Policy Blogs

Candid Discussions: Noura Erakat on the Conflict in Gaza

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Noura Erakat is a human rights attorney, activist, educator, and an outspoken critic of U.S. policy in the Middle East. She is an Assistant Professor at George Mason University, teaching international human rights law in the Middle East. She is also a co-editor of Jadaliyya, an online magazine focused on the Middle East produced by the Arab Studies Institute (ASI). Professor Erakat has served as Legal Counsel for the Domestic Policy Subcommittee of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee in the House of Representatives. Prior to her time on Capitol Hill, she received a New Voices Fellowship to work as the national grassroots organizer and legal advocate at the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, where she helped seed BDS campaigns nationally as well as support the cases brought against two former Israeli officials in U.S. federal courts for alleged war crimes.

Professor Erakat has helped initiate and organize several national formations including AMWAJ-Arab Women Arising for Justice and the U.S. Palestinian Community Network (USPCN). She currently serves on the board of the Institute for Policy Studies; is a policy advisor to Al-Shabaka; and is a founding member of the DC Palestinian Film and Arts Festival.

Professor Erakat makes regular appearances on leading TV news networks in the U.S. and Europe. She recently sat down with Reza Akhlaghi of the Foreign Policy Association to discuss the current conflict in Gaza and shed light on the Palestinian side of the conflict.



The killing of three Israeli teenagers appears to be the trigger point of this conflict, which was followed by a retaliatory killing of a Palestinian. What should we consider the trigger point of this conflict and what is Israel’s strategic calculus in launching a full invasion of Gaza?

It’s misleading and indicative of how uncritical media has been of Israel to accept that the trigger point was the killing of the three settler boys. From the beginning Hamas denied the allegation and Israel knew that these boys had been murdered very early on. Nonetheless, without producing a shred of evidence, it continued to propagate the story that it was searching for the boys. Once they found the bodies, Israel continued to fan racist and war-mongering flames that it would retaliate against Hamas, and not one outlet questioned the State’s lack of evidence.  Israel never produced such evidence and police investigations have since found that individuals, independent from Hamas, kidnapped them.

Under this misinformation Israel launched a campaign in the West Bank, where it killed nine Palestinians and raided 1300 sites, residential, commercial, and public buildings. Also in the West Bank Israel re-arrested more than 800 Palestinians, most of whom were released through the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange.

Hamas from the very beginning denied that they were involved in the kidnapping, and they are not the ones to deny something like this. It’s just it’s not in their interest to do something like this at a time that they have entered into a unity government with Fatah, when their economy is crippled, when they face hostilities from El Sisi regime in Egypt, and have few options of rehabilitation so it was not in Hamas’ interest at all. Notwithstanding evidence, facts, and contacts, the story in the mainstream media has accepted this fiction as fact.

Worse, this narrative belies the fact that Israel’s structural violence against Palestinians has not abated for a single day in ways that violate the November 2012 ceasefire agreement as well. Regarding children specifically, Israel had killed 4 Palestinian children with live ammunition before the settler boys were kidnapped. As of August 2nd, the number of murdered Palestinian children stood at 329 in the Gaza Strip alone.

You recently opined that “a state cannot simultaneously exercise control over territory it occupies and militarily attack that territory on the claim that it is foreign and poses an exogenous national security threat”. Can you elaborate on this by taking into account Israel’s emphasis on the fact they handed over Gaza to Palestinians and withdrew from it in 2005?

Yes, that’s central to this discussion, so what I say in the above quote is about the legal status of the occupied territory. In short, under the law of war there are two stages: one is the right to launch a war (jus ad bellum), the other is about how a war should be fought, or the regulation of ongoing hostilities also known as jus in bello. Israel launched a war in 1967, emerged the victor, and occupied the Gaza Strip. Its military occupation is regulated by occupation law under the framework of law that regulates ongoing hostilities or jus in bello. Occupation Law obligates the Occupying power to protect the civilians under its occupation.

Israel argues that because it unilaterally withdrew 8,000 settlers and the military infrastructure that protected the illegal presence of those settlers from the Gaza strip in 2005, that it is no longer the Occupying Power. But upon withdrawing, Israel did not relinquish control of the Gaza Strip to Palestinians. On the contrary, they maintained control over airspace, the naval space, of the ground water, of the electromagnetic sphere. They maintained the ability and the right to reinvade at any moment. Under Article 42 of the Hague Regulations Israel, maintains effective control of the Gaza Strip; therefore it remains an occupying power. Military presence is not a requisite to establish occupation; effective control is the proper test.

So now Israel maintains its occupation thus usurping the police power of the Palestinians to govern and protect themselves and simultaneously declares war upon the population it has an obligation to protect. It can use force to maintain order but it must be a law enforcement force and not military force- the latter offers far less protection to civilians.

Israel’s evasion of international law, however, is not new. Since 1967, Israel has denied applicability of occupation law. Israel has said that UN Security Council resolution 242 doesn’t apply in full force because it lacks the preposition “the”, so it’s not “the” occupied territories, but occupied territory more generally, leaving it to Israel to decide what is occupied and what is not. The UN Security Council, the General Assembly, as well as the International Court of Justice and the Israeli High Court have all refuted Israel’s claim. The problem is that there did not exist the political will necessary to hold Israel to account. That political will is still lacking.

Is Israel benefiting from a strategic decline of Hamas due to what appears to be region-wide anti-Muslim Brotherhood sentiments among the leadership of key Arab states?

I would say Israel is both benefiting and not benefiting. Hamas’ diminished power within the region motivated Hamas to enter a unity government with Fatah, which does not benefit Israel.

In addition to removing an obstacle to national unity, the unity rehabilitation agreement demonstrates that Hamas is a political player. Unlike the popular conception that Israel would like to propagate of Hamas, as an irrational militant force hell-bent on the destruction of Israel, Hamas clearly wants to play political game. It makes the political calculations that serve its interests and bolster its standing. Its political maneuvering is not beneficial to Israel as it pokes holes in Israel’s propaganda about what Hamas is and is not. In fact, Netanyahu’s inability to thwart the unity government, among other things, motivated him to explicitly provoke this war and deflect attention from his failed domestic policies and Israel’s waning international standing.

Now let’s see how it helps Israel. Today because of regional wars and bids for power, there is no rush to aid Palestinians amongst the Arab states. There is no outrage expressed. This is not new but the difference is that, in addition to regional considerations that have influenced the behavior of states, today there are internal fractures that influence their response or lack thereof.

Rather than respond to the attack on Palestinians in the Gaza Strip as a humanitarian crisis, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for example, have responded politically i.e., Hamas as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood which they oppose. The Sisi regime in Egypt has gone farther than the Mubarak regime arguably ever went by colluding with Israel to present a ceasefire that had no terms of reference to lift the siege on the Gaza Strip and was not shared with Hamas directly.

With the exception of Qatar and Turkey, not much effort has been made to mediate in the conflict and bring about a viable solution. Jordan has only pledged its humanitarian support but has made no other diplomatic gestures. This stands in stark contrast to several South American countries that have withdrawn their ambassadors from Israel and expelled the Israeli ambassadors in protest. The one silver lining is that this time, unlike during Operation Cast Lead, Fatah seems to be affirming its unity with Hamas and condemning the attacks publicly. Internally it has coordinated with Israel’s military and police forces to quell protests.

What could Hamas possibly achieve by engaging Israel militarily; something Israel is vastly superior to it? Hamas knows what kind of military power it is up against. Doesn’t it?

This is plainly evident. Hamas cannot hurt Israel at all militarily and as demonstrated by the impact of its rocket fire from 2004 to the present which has killed 40 Israeli civilians. Israeli citizens enjoy relative security. In contrast, Palestinians are enduring an all-out massacre. The death of more than 1,500 Palestinians, 80 percent of them civilians, approximately 300 children, and the destruction of approximately 10,000 homes, the demolition of 64 mosques and two churches, and the incapacitation of six hospitals and so on. I mean the devastation is not even comparable.

So one has to ask what motivates Hamas to continue its operation? Well Hawks and uncritical mainstream media would argue oh this is just part of Hamas’ irrational calculations, willing to fight to death because it hates Israel. And that’s quite racist to think that anybody would sacrifice an entire population at harm based on this lack of rationality. Hamas is a rational player, however much we may disagree with its decisions.

For Hamas, it is does not have many other options. It has no allies in the region that can meaningfully assist it to rehabilitate a crumbling economy. It is the target of the Sisi regime in Egypt, which has incapacitated hundreds of its tunnels and thus cut off its access to tax revenues generated from those goods. It entered into a shallow unity agreement with Fatah and transferred control of the Strip in the hope of transcending this impasse, but the U.S. has threatened reprisal for Fatah for making this agreement more meaningful. It was already in a predicament before Israel began its assault and upon that provocation it responded with the hope that something would come out of the confrontation as was the case in November 2012.

Despite the tremendous death toll and destruction, Palestinians support this as well because if the status quo continues, Palestinians will not be able to survive in the Gaza Strip. As a result of Israel’s siege, the World Health Organization says that the Gaza Strip will be unlivable by the year 2020. We’re talking about a situation in which Israel is turning Gaza into Mars, a place that humans cannot survive.

So Palestinians will not be able to survive even if rocket attacks by Hamas are stopped. That’s why Palestinians say that they do not want to enter a ceasefire until the siege is lifted and the conditions change. This is what’s at stake.

The fact that we’re in a tragic situation wherein Palestinians are willing to endure this carnage until they are guaranteed the right not only to live, but to survive, reflects the failure of the international community to lift the siege. Despite the uproar following Israel’s raid on the flotilla that killed nine Turkish civilians, one of whom also a US citizen, nothing has happened. Even the United States has called the siege inhumane and yet has exacted zero leverage to change its course.

In contrast, in response to its rocket fire in November 2012, Israel entered into a ceasefire agreement wherein it pledged to ease the siege and ultimately lift it. Israel violated these terms immediately, but it still demonstrates the utility of using force relative to the futility of empty diplomatic gestures. Palestinians should be given another choice besides surrendering to a fate of domination and certain death or asymmetric and devastating warfare.

And is the onus always on the U.S. to do something? How about other countries? What can they do?

Holding Israel to account is the responsibility of all high contracting bodies to the Geneva Conventions, which means all states, to participate in lifting the siege. The siege is an act of aggression and collective punishment and constitutes a war crime.

That said, the U.S. is not just one of many states. The U.S. is a complicit third party in this conflict because of the unequivocal financial, military, and diplomatic support it provides to Israel. It has protected Israel from all forms of legal accountability including within the UN Security Council and the International Court of Justice. The U.S. has protected Israel from accountability even from U.S. laws that condition the provision of aid with the furtherance of human rights as captured by the Arms Export Control Act and the Leahy Law.

By providing Israel with $3.1 billion in aid a year that is subject to absolutely no conditions, the U.S. has enabled Israel to systematically violate U.S. and international law with zero consequences. This is to say nothing of the America’s ongoing provision of military technology and precise weaponry or of irresponsibly brokering a counterproductive peace process for over twenty years. So while it may be all states’ responsibility to resolve the conflict, the U.S. is not one of many: it is a direct party in the conflict.

Other states should nonetheless take a principled position to sanction Israel i.e., cease trade, cease weapons transfers, withdraw its diplomatic officers, among other things and to demand that the siege be lifted without conditions.

Can Mahmoud Abbas play a role in cooling things off? What are his potential options?

Mahmoud Abbas has little leverage to resolve this current crisis. The Palestinian Authority remains under the tutelage of the United States. Any opposition to its policies risks millions of dollars in aid that the U.S. provides to the Palestinian National Authority, which would risk not being able to pay 40 percent of Palestinian population in the West Bank employed in the public sector.

Breaking out of this holding position requires searching for different allies as well as diversifying and enriching a liberation strategy based on resistance.

Despite all opposition, Abbas must flesh out the contours of the unity government. Hamas will either emerge as a beleaguered survivor of Israel’s onslaught and therefore as a symbol of resistance, or it will actually prevail by achieving new terms in a ceasefire that alter the status quo. Either scenario threatens Fatah’s relative standing. More theoretically, by separating the fate of Hamas and the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip from that of Fatah and the Palestinians in the West Bank and beyond, Abbas would be shortsightedly undermining a national liberation movement (yet again).

What is happening in the Gaza Strip is not just a military onslaught of its population but a reconfiguration of the 360 square kilometer strip that Israel is now in control of 44 percent of it in the form of a “buffer zone” and it has displaced, yet again, 475,000 Palestinians. I think Israel intends for this to be the new status quo wherein Palestinians are further concentrated into pockets of land surrounded by Israeli military and settlement infrastructure. This is precisely what Israel succeeded in doing in the West Bank since 1993.

Abbas’s options are limited politically unless he finds ways of countering the U.S.’s influence and lessening his crippling dependence on it. That means establishing new relationships with other power bloc like the BRICS rather than placing all its eggs in the U.S. basket.

There’s a lot of work that the Palestinian leadership can do and it is just not doing.

Ideally, Abbas could abandon the Oslo framework for being structurally flawed. Short of that he should at least challenge its debilitating terms. Palestine must pursue accountability in the International Criminal Court (ICC) as a tactic among a robust legal strategy. The PLO needs to engage in a full court diplomatic press that seeks to impose sanctions on Israel, in accordance with the ICJ’s 2004 Advisory Opinion.  More importantly, the PLO should resuscitate its democratic organs so that the Palestinian people can productively evaluate political solutions to the conflict in light of the destruction of the two-state solution.

What could be the implications of the current conflict in Gaza for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East?

The U.S. seems to pursue the same Middle East foreign policy regardless of whatever dark rabbit hole that takes it into. This moment is unlikely to impact that short-sighted stance in part because of a lack of a broader regional strategy and also because domestic politics and special interest groups severely limit the behavior of Congress. This will not be a reflective moment and juncture to reevaluate its Middle East foreign policy. In fact, the U.S. will be doing more of the same but at the cost of further diminishing its relevance in the region.

Over the past three weeks there’s been a fair amount of literature on the coverage of the war in Gaza in social media. Many observers and journalists believe that Israel’s international image has been seriously damaged. What is your take on the reaction to the war in the social media sphere?

Social media has been incredibly useful in narrating the story of Israel’s gruesome war against the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip. Because of the unfettered access of foreign correspondents in Gaza and the world together with citizen journalism, Israel is unable to whitewash the disproportionate and criminal nature of its response. This has dramatically shifted support for Israel in the U.S. as indicated by a recent Gallup Poll where respondents were nearly equally split in support and opposition to Israel’s military operation (42 percent felt it was justified and 39 percent felt it was unjustified).

Still, most mainstream networks have continued to treat Israeli talking points with moderate scrutiny at best despite the information provided by social media. Those that have taken Israel to task have said that Israel has gone too far, but no one has explained that Israel should not have gone to war at all. The context of Israel as a dominating colonial power is still missing despite all the headway made by new social media.