Nov 27th 2012

Gaza: Clarifying Israel's Intentions

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

Sometimes wars, even little ones, can become clarifying moments in which the clouds of propaganda are blown away and motives of the antagonists come into clear focus. This appears to be the case with the recent hostilities in Gaza.

In the midst of the short but deadly Gaza War, one statement by an Israeli spokesperson struck me as a particularly disturbing distortion of the truth. He claimed that Israel's goal in the conflict was "to finish [Hamas] off, so we can sit with moderates and talk peace".

On so many levels, this was not the truth: Israel did not seek to destroy Hamas; Israel has no interest in working with "moderate" Palestinians; and this current government in Israel has no interest in negotiating a lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I believe that despite the moaning and groaning of some Israeli leaders, the Netanyahu government is, in fact, satisfied with the outcome of this last round of hostilities. Hamas has not been destroyed. In Israel's view, Hamas has been tamed and has assumed the role of "policeman" insuring that Gaza's more radical groups will be controlled. This is a situation that Israel can live with.

From the earliest days of the occupation, Israel viewed Gaza as a burden that it would have been more than happy to unload. When then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon unilaterally "withdrew" from Gaza, he refused to negotiate an orderly hand-off so as not to strengthen the role of Palestinian Authority (PA). He evacuated troublesome settlers from the unwanted Strip, while maintaining near complete external control over the area. In the years that followed, it was not an exaggeration to describe Gaza as a massive open-air prison.

The Hamas takeover, the digging of tunnels which led to the development of an economy based on the smuggling of goods and the importation of arms were the result - as were the three wars between Hamas and Israel that followed in 2006, 2008/9, and the most recent one that ended last week.

Despite its bellicose rhetoric, Hamas, too, appears satisfied with the outcome of the conflict. It has secured international recognition and is now seen as the de facto "authority" in Gaza", assuming a role not unlike that of its West Bank rival, the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.

The only price Israel was asked to pay was to refrain from further assassinations of Hamas leaders and the promise to discuss with Egypt, in the future, a regime that might ease restrictions on the flow of goods across the border into the impoverished Gaza Strip. Thus with the backing of Egypt and its minions in Gaza, Israel now hopes to have bought itself at least some years of relative peace on its southern border.

If Israel never intended to "finish Hamas", then what of the claim that it wants to work with "moderate" Palestinian leaders to "talk peace"? That, too, is a clear distortion of the truth. In the midst of the Gaza conflict, Israel announced the construction of hundreds of new housing units in the Occupied Territories, coupled with renewed threats against the Palestinian Authority should its President, Mahmoud Abbas, proceed with plans to seek limited U.N. recognition later this month.

What has long been clear is that Prime Minister Netanyahu's acceptance of a "two state solution" and his offer to "negotiate without preconditions" was a feint designed to keep his U.S. patron at bay. To an extent, it has worked. Ignored, however, by Israel's supporters are Netanyahu's own "preconditions": he will never surrender occupied East Jerusalem or the substantial area of the West bank that Israel has annexed into what it calls "Greater Jerusalem; he insists on keeping control of the massive settlements and network of connecting "Jewish-only" roads Israel has built in the West Bank—laid out with the intention of "making impossible the establishment of a contiguous Palestinian State"; and he maintains that he will not surrender control of the Jordan Valley—which Israel claims is vital for its security. All of which make negotiations and peace impossible.

Netanyahu's goal is not a lasting peace based on two states. It appears that he has never surrendered the Revisionist Zionist goal of a Greater Israel, with an autonomous and pacified Palestinian population that submits to Israel's diktat. And, in his way of thinking, he's almost there. The Palestinians (and the international community), he believes, have been sufficiently subdued to allow for continued settlement expansion. The PA areas are now more or less self-policed and dependent on international largess—and threatened with losing some of that financial support should they be defiant and go through with their push for U.N. recognition. And now Gaza may be tamed, as well. It will be policed by Hamas and it, too, is financially dependent on international patrons - with more moderate Qatar, Turkey, and Egypt having replaced Iran and Syria.

Israel sees these developments as short-term gains. They are, however, illusory and are not sustainable.

Strengthening Hamas, while weakening the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority, is, at best, a mistaken strategy. Hamas is playing for time—its ideology has not changed. And weakening the PA only serves to delegitimize and sideline the only real negotiating partner Israel has. Palestinians in the West Bank have been protesting both their deteriorating economic situation and the PA's passivity during Israel's assault on Gaza. Add to this the humiliation caused by Israel's "in your face" behavior as it continues to consolidate its hold over the Occupied Territories and the PA's vulnerability becomes painfully clear.

In the early years of the British Mandate, some Zionist writers were wont to refer to the indigenous Arab population of Palestine as "Red Indians"—an obvious indication of their future intentions. Eighty years later, the colonial enterprise has continued unabated, without the acquiescence of the Palestinians. The current crop of Israeli leaders may still share the vision of their ancestors, but the majority of Israelis and Palestinians desire a different future—which can best be achieved in a just and equitable two-state solution. The path that Netanyahu continues to take is making that impossible. By pursuing the vision of his father's generation, still seeing Palestinians as "Red Indians" to be corralled and tamed in "reservations", he is only paving the way for conflicts yet to come.  

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