The good news in the Middle East this week, and good news from the region can sometimes seem in short supply, is that Hamas and the Israeli government reached a cease-fire agreement to stop the escalating violence between the two that left six Israelis and 168 Palestinians dead in the course of a week.
Upon announcement of the cease-fire, Gazans streamed out into the streets to celebrate, while Israeli public opinion was decidedly cooler towards the news.
One poll showed that 31% of Israelis approved of the cease-fire while 49% were opposed.
Though Hamas paid a heavy price during the bombardment—the destruction of main government buildings,the death of its military commander Ahmed Al Jabbari, as well as, according to estimates, more than 50 other fighters and an unknown amount of munitions destroyed in bombings—it was also able to point to the cease fire as a concrete victory.
The text of the cease-fire reads in part, “Israel should stop all hostilities in the Gaza Strip land, sea, and air, including incursions and targeting of individuals,” that means no more operations like the one that killed Jabbari. And Israel is to commence:
“Opening the crossings and facilitating the movements of people and transfer of goods and refraining from restricting residents’ free movements and targeting residents in border areas, and procedures of implementation shall be dealt with after 24 hours from the start of the ceasefire.”
Which is widely seen as a commitment to loosen the onerous restrictions Israel has placed on all movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza. In other words: if the cease-fire holds, and that’s definitely an IF, it represents a net benefit to the estimated 1.7 million people living in the Gaza strip.
For example, Israel has already reportedly eased restrictions on fishermen in the waters around Gaza, allowing them to go twice as far out as they could before the latest hostilities.
Human rights organizations, Palestinian groups, and members of the international community have been calling for easing of these restrictions since the effective siege of Gaza was first initiated in 2006. After international pressure in 2007, and again in 2010, some reforms were made.
But after firing roughly 1,500 rockets at Israel and killing 6 people, Hamas can credibly claim that their military tactics worked: that they brought about a change in Israeli policy.
And this isn’t the first time that Hamas has emerged from a violent confrontation with Israel with a concrete policy victory.
In 2006, Hamas kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and held him for more than five years before the Netanyahu government,through back-channel negotiations, secured his release in exchange for the release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners.
Now, you might say, this isn’t a perfect world and realpolitik requires dialogue with Hamas, even negotiations with them, and I’d say you’re absolutely right! But it also requires the same with respect to the body that represents Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, the Palestinian Authority.
And the posture of the Israeli government towards the government of Mahmoud Abbas—a posture either explicitly endorsed or tacitly tolerated by our own government—makes for an extremely disquieting contrast. As head of the PA, Abbas has: renounced violence and even used the security forces of the PA to go after militants. He accepts and recognizes Israel and its right to exist, and even gone so far in recent interviews to more or less admit that Palestinians would concede their right to return to the land they or their families held before 1948 inside what is now Israel. In return he has seen….basically nothing except for continued settlement growth. When Abbas took over the PA there were a little more than 250,000 settlers in established settlements in the West Bank, today there are 350,000.
Assume for the sake of argument that Hamas targets Israeli civilians not solely because of some inalterable cult of death, but that it also adopts this as a tactic—however morally abhorrent—to achieve certain aims. This idea that terrorism is a tactic adopted by certain groups at certain times was articulated by young, state Senator Barack Obama at a book event back in 2004:
Ultimately, terrorism is a tactic. It’s not, we’re not fighting terrorists, we’re fighting people who engage in terrorism, but have a whole host of rationales and excuses for why they do this. And to the extent that we can change the sense of opportunity in many of these countries, we can change the manner in which we function in these countries in more positive proactive ways, then we’re not going to eliminate terrorism entirely but we’re at least going to be able to make more of a dent than if all we’re resorting to is military firepower.
Though you’re unlikely to hear the current incarnation of Barack Obama articulate this point of view, I happen to think it’s pretty sound analysis, and so the question is: what message is the Israeli government (and the US government that supports it) sending when it makes choices that result in Hamas being able to point to its many victories and leaves Mahmoud Abbas and his government totally impotent and humiliated, roundly viewed as feckless and failed?
Here’s the lesson as far as I can tell: If you recognize Israel and are credibly committed to non-violence, you will get rolled, marginalized, undercut and left looking like a loser. But if you fire rockets into the heart of Israel, if you kidnap their soldiers, well then, they’ll negotiate, and adjust their policies. How perverse is that?
And believe me, everyone I’ve talked to on the Palestinian side sees this disparity. In fact, none other than Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal explicitly cited Abbas’ sorry situation in an interview with Christiane Amanpour on Wednesday, saying:
Mahmoud Abbas, whom the world welcomed, he gave this opportunity to Israel and to the international community. What did they do? They made him fail. They let him down.
In allowing this to continue, in refusing to pressure the Israeli government to take concrete steps towards peace in the West Bank such as stopping all settlement growth, in turning a blind eye while unarmed protesters in towns like Budrus and Nabi Saleh are imprisoned, tear gassed and in some cases shot and killed by IDF soldiers, away from the eyes of American cameras, with no condemnation from our government, we in the US are creating the conditions in which terrorism—that great evil that we have pledged ourselves to vanquish—brings strategic benefits, while the path of non-violence leads to a dead end.
What a sorry legacy for everyone involved in helping this come to pass.