The latest round of violence between Israel and Hamas instructs us that this time around, the warring parties have little interest in establishing a ceasefire similar to previous ones. Hamas, at its nadir in terms of financial and political support from the Arab world, is in a corner and sees no reason to show flexibility toward Israel. Israel, driven by a policy of managing rather than solving the conflict, is committed to ensuring that the Palestinians remain politically and physically divided. After so much death and destruction, a permanent solution to the conflict is immensely distant, and current circumstances are bound to exist until an effective third party can push both sides away from persistent conflict.
For Hamas, the return to violence represents a struggle for its very existence, both to justify its continued rule over Gaza and to reach out for support from the wider Arab world. The latter has been sorely lacking; its erstwhile ally Egypt, under the new leadership of dictator General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has dismantled Hamas’s tunnels and sealed its border with Gaza, Iran has diverted its attention to supporting Hezbollah and the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, and the attention of the “moderate” Arab states has shifted to the rise of extremist groups like Islamic State (formerly known as ISIL or ISIS).
Hamas and the Palestinian People
As the self-proclaimed standard bearers of armed Palestinian resistance, however, the group derives the majority of their support from crises and by displaying a stubborn willingness to stare down a far deadlier enemy. Though inherently a rational actor, the religiously-fueled ethos of Hamas drives the group’s determination to face Israel regardless of any practical considerations. While Hamas is the governing force in Gaza, it is misleading to suggest that Hamas and the Palestinians within Gaza are one and the same.
Polls taken in the past year show declining popular support for Hamas given its mismanagement of the territory (though the blockade is a major contributing factor to this as well), and many within Gaza seek a permanent negotiated settlement to the conflict just like their West Bank counterparts. An environment of fear, however, prevents open criticism of the organization, and during periods of conflict it would mean certain death to publicly criticize Hamas for its operations against Israel.
As a result, the people of Gaza pay an enormous price for being caught between Hamas’s authoritarian rule and Israel’s unrelenting occupation. Even absent bouts of violence, the pre-existing humanitarian crisis in Gaza made bare survival an arduous task. The territory is cut off by land, air, and sea, and an onerous blockade ensures that a meager existence is the only option; Israel went as far as putting Gazans on a “diet” to meet minimum humanitarian standards, part of an overall Israeli philosophical approach to the Palestinians that Israeli journalist Amira Hass refers to as “sadism, sanctimoniously [disguised] as mercy.”
Though Hamas was elected in a free election in 2006 (to the chagrin of “democracy promoters” in Israel and the U.S.), the results were so egregious that there was no choice but to punish the Palestinians for voting the wrong way. The punishment was two-fold: first through international isolation, and second through Hamas’s disproportionate expenditures on military infrastructure at the expense of desperately needed social programs.
David and Goliath
What separates this conflict from others is the extreme disparity existing between the two sides. According to Middle East historian Avi Shlaim, the (present) conflict conjures the “biblical image of David and Goliath [...] except that the roles have been reversed: a tiny and vulnerable Palestinian David faces a massively armed and overbearing Israeli Goliath.” Undoubtedly this is the reverse image of what Israel and the West project regarding Hamas, which is routinely depicted as a terrorist organization bent on Israel’s destruction. Whatever their declared intentions may be, words alone mean very little if there is no possibility of acting on or realizing such a goal in the real world.
Much is made of Hamas’s charter, an infamous document replete with explicit incitement against Israel. But even here Israel’s argument cannot be sustained; the Benjamin Netanyahu government contains two parties, Likud and Jewish Home, which expressly deny (in their charters, statements, and actions no less) the creation of an independent Palestinian state. While Hamas’s charter is clearly indefensible, major parties in Israel are suggesting similar themes, the key difference being that the latter are in fact acting upon their stated principles with a far greater possibility of achieving them.
The Occupation of Gaza
To be sure, Israel’s relationship to Hamas as an organization and Gaza as a territory need to be properly understood. It is important to recall that as an occupying power, Israel has only responsibilities, not rights, and is bound by international humanitarian law, among other legal considerations. Israeli spokespeople continue to suggest that Gaza is not occupied, but in the real world this is simply not the case. The territory known as Gaza is defined as occupied according to international law, unanimously affirmed in 2004 by the International Court of Justice regarding their case on the illegality of Israel’s annexation wall.
Moreover, the onerous restrictions imposed by Israel on Gaza amount to collective punishment, wholly illegal under international law. In fact, the total blockade of Gaza is in many respects worse than outright occupation, which at least tacitly implies some level of care or responsibility, however meager, for the occupied population. For Gaza, it is nothing more than the complete humiliation and subjugation of a repressed people, and it keeps getting worse; according to Sarah Roy, a leading specialist on Gaza, the damage to Gaza’s economy may mean that “Palestinians in Gaza will face starvation for the first time in their history, and the violence that will ensue from their deepened agony and abandonment will be calamitous.”
Yet, Israel continues to behave as if the occupation doesn’t exist in the first place, as if the occupation is not the root cause for the extreme enmity hurled against Israel by the Palestinians. Whenever their conflict flares on the battlefield, the disparity of power is so apparent that avoiding its discussion takes true discipline. Hamas rockets, if they can be called that, are poorly constructed and erratic, leading Hamas to a strategy of indiscriminate firing in the hopes of hitting anything, itself a major war crime.
While Hamas’s tunnel network took Israel by surprise due to its level of greater sophistication than previous conflicts, the Israeli Defense Forces quickly undid years of work by Hamas, and it is unlikely Hamas will revert back to such a tactic given Israel’s ability to root out and dismantle tunnels leading into its territory. While Israel touts the ability of its Iron Dome missile defense system, its effectiveness is questionable, and much of Israel’s “missile defense” can just as well be attributed to the performance of inferior rockets from an inferior enemy as enormously costly technology.
Proportionality is also a major overarching factor contributing to the gap between the two sides; a simple glance of Gaza’s destruction compared to Israel’s damage tells the whole story. The recent round of violence saw Israeli shells hit UN schools, hospitals, media centers and other obvious non-military targets, killing civilians in the process. Israel claimed to be responding to fire emanating from those areas, but international law is quite clear on this: the commission of war crimes by one side does not grant authority to the opposing party to violate the law in response. Though Hamas reprehensibly fires from civilian areas with the full understanding that Israel will overwhelmingly target the area in reaction, Israel has no right to then commit war crimes in response.
If Israel wanted to win this argument, it could take a very simple step: it could use the resources it undoubtedly has by sending Special Forces to take out the rocket team that is firing near clearly-defined civilian infrastructure. The fact that it does not primarily stems from politically-motivated concerns over excessive loss of Israelis soldiers, wholly intolerable in Israeli society and would serve to chip away at Netanyahu’s political fortunes. Hiding behind civilian infrastructure is indefensible, but Hamas is not going to placate Israel by standing in open fields to serve as IDF target practice.
Israel affixes the title of “the most moral army in the world” to its military, so naturally such a brazen statement deserves the strictest scrutiny. The damage in Gaza reveals that if Israel is in fact taking pains to avoid unnecessary destruction, we should hope never to see what it would look like without “restraint.” The use of artillery fire alone in a densely populated area reveals a lack of regard for precision, and given the above-stated reluctance to put Israeli soldiers in further danger, reliance on air attacks (against an enemy lacking such power) also weakens the moralistic arguments of the IDF. To top it off, the ever-present hum of drones ensures that the Palestinians will continue to suffer the psychological damage of wondering whether the next second will bring about certain death.
Israel’s position on Hamas is difficult to take seriously. Back in April, the Palestinians finally corrected a long-standing issue that Israel used as a point of criticism: they united politically by creating a technocratic government that had the tacit backing of Hamas, whose involvement is critical to any future negotiated permanent settlement as they represent one-half of the Palestinian body politic and cannot simply be wished. Despite supportive words for the unity government from Europe and the U.S., Israel’s firm opposition to it ensured that the Palestinians would be unable to sustain their joint cabinet. It now appears that a desperately weakened Hamas, seeing that the unity government would not make it very far, sought to overthrow the Palestinian Authority in a coup plot that has since been exposed by Israeli intelligence. While the technocratic government contains no Hamas members, Israel is likely to use this revelation as further “proof” that the unity government is not a legitimate partner with which to negotiate.
At the heart of it all, it is important to remind ourselves that occupation and elementary moral values are incompatible. Every occupying power in history behaves in the same way: expressing shock when met with resistance, dehumanizing its subjects and using every defense in the book to maintain the status quo. It is simply incredible to watch Israel carry on in the manner it does, knowing full well that the path it is taking is unsustainable and poses a serious threat to the country’s future.
Violence almost rarely deters terror, as violence is the very fuel of terror; if Israel was serious about ending the conflict with Hamas, it would seek to undercut the very environment that allows Hamas to perpetuate itself as a resistance organization. Knowing full well that it cannot flatten Gaza without unprecedented international condemnation, Israel, already acknowledging that Hamas is an entity to be dealt with through indirect negotiations, will have to take away Hamas’ excuse for existing in the first place. This is entirely possible through peaceful means, and it places enormous responsibility on Israel to cease its actions in the occupied territories and begin to think seriously about how to end its conflict with the Palestinians in a way that guarantees a future for both sides.
Gaza, Hamas, Israel, Palestine, Peace