The Endless Fantasy of American Power
Neither Trump Nor Biden Aims to Demilitarize Foreign Policy
Given the intensity of the ongoing war between Hamas and Israel in Gaza, it is easy to forget that the current crisis began in a different part of Palestine. The kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank led to a severe Israeli crackdown on Hamas, which responded with a barrage of rocket fire at Israel from Gaza. Meanwhile, the murder of a Palestinian teenager by Jewish extremists sparked several days of violent protests by Palestinians in East Jerusalem and elsewhere. The shift in venue served Israel’s interests, diverting the conflict away from sensitive and strategically vulnerable areas. For Israeli policymakers, another concentrated war against Gaza was preferable to the possibility of another West Bank uprising against Israel, akin to the so-called intifadas that occurred in the late 1980s and the early 2000s. Contrary to what Israelis may have hoped, however, the present war has made a third intifada more, not less, likely.
For most of the past decade, Israel’s de facto policy has been to deepen Palestinian geographic and political division by maintaining the schism between the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Although the current Israeli government has made no secret of its opposition to any Palestinian government that includes or is even accepted by Hamas, which it views as a vicious terrorist organization that is beyond the political pale, Israel’s policy of isolating Gaza from the West Bank began before Hamas’ rise to power. In fact, it was the closure of Gaza’s borders in late 2005 shortly after Israel unilaterally removed its settlers and soldiers from Gaza that helped pave the way for Hamas’ election and created the conditions for the endless cycle of violence in Gaza that we see today. As Dov Weissglas, chief of staff to Israel's former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, put it at the time, Israel's disengagement from Gaza would serve as “formaldehyde … so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.” By cutting Gaza loose, along with its 1.5 million Palestinians, Israel could then focus on consolidating its control over and colonization of the West Bank.
Since then Israel, with U.S. and international backing, has treated Palestine as two separate conflicts, rather than one. By maintaining security cooperation and a diplomatic relationship with Fatah in the West Bank, Israel hoped to maintain calm in areas adjacent to its main population centers as well the settlement project itself. At the same time, by treating Hamas-controlled Gaza as a perpetual “enemy entity,” subject to air, land, and sea blockades, Israel reserved the right to periodically go to war against Gaza, a process that Israeli military officials refer to as “mowing the grass.” In this way, Israel would free itself from having to deal with the underlying causes of the conflict, most notably its 46-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This has produced the worst of all possible outcomes, simultaneously increasing the likelihood of violent confrontations with Hamas while decreasing the likelihood of resolving the conflict with Abbas’ PA.
For a time, the divide-and-conquer strategy seemed to be working, thanks in large part to the United States and other Western powers who refused to accept Hamas’ participation in Palestinian while effectively backing the siege on Gaza. The myth that Israel could somehow make peace with one set of Palestinians while at the same time making war on another was finally shattered in April, when Fatah and Hamas struck a new reconciliation agreement, which, for the first time in seven years, established a single, unified Palestinian government in both the West Bank and Gaza. Despite the nominal unity between Palestine’s two largest political factions, however, the political agendas of each remain largely mutually exclusive. Fatah has disavowed political violence and is committed to a negotiated settlement with Israel; Hamas -- as the current crisis shows -- maintains the right to engage in armed resistance. The inability of Palestinian factions to agree on a common strategy is one reason that we have not yet seen the eruption of a full-blown Palestinian uprising.
Even amid the current fighting in Gaza, neither Fatah nor Hamas sees the present moment as propitious for an uprising in the West Bank. The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, who has referred to the previous Palestinian uprising as “one of our worst mistakes,” understands that a return to armed struggle by Fatah would incur a harsh response from Israel, akin to the devastation wrought by the second intifada a dozen years ago, and jeopardize its long-sought relationship with the United States, if it abandoned cooperative diplomacy for armed struggle. Hamas, for its part, may be seeking to lick its wounds after its extended confrontation with Israel and rebuild its position in Gaza, rather than extend its efforts to the West Bank.
Both groups, however, might soon have to lose their reluctance. Israel’s massive military operation in Gaza -- its third in under six years -- has already claimed the lives of more than a thousand Palestinians, the vast majority of them civilians, while 44 Israelis, most of them soldiers, have also been killed. Anger over the plight of Gaza’s battered population has sparked protests by their fellow Palestinians in the West Bank and in Israel. Last week’s mobilization outside Jerusalem, the largest the West Bank has seen decades, renewed predictions of an imminent third intifada. Hamas’ relative success on the battlefield has boosted the group’s popularity while highlighting Abbas’ perceived impotence. According to one recent poll, since the Gaza crisis began, popular support for Hamas has outstripped support for Fatah for the first time in several years. Even so, most Palestinians understand the limitations of engaging in armed struggle against a formidable military power like Israel. As a result, despite the recent collapse of U.S.-led peace talks, Abbas’ negotiations agenda remains relevant.
More significantly, the ongoing devastation in Gaza has forced all Palestinian factions for the first time in many years to close ranks on a major political issue (as opposed to procedural or administrative matters, which were at the heart of the recent reconciliation agreement). Indeed, one of Hamas’ chief demands was that Israel respect its reconciliation agreement with Fatah. During previous conflicts in Gaza, the leadership in the West Bank had been reluctant to side openly with Hamas. Those calculations clearly no longer apply. A strongly worded statement delivered by the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s Secretary-General Yaser Abed-Rabbo, a staunch leftist not known to be a Hamas ally, heaped praise on Gaza’s “valiant resistance” and fully backed Hamas’ demands for a cease-fire and a full lifting of the seven-year-old economic blockade on Gaza.
That doesn't mean that Fatah will join an armed struggle of the sort that Hamas has been waging from Gaza or that Hamas will soon join Fatah in endorsing peace negotiations with Israel. But it may mean that both factions, having accepted the inherent limitations of their respective projects, are prepared to cooperate on the development of a new national agenda that meets halfway, for example by mounting a campaign of nonviolent civil resistance in both the Occupied Territories and the diaspora. In other words, the ongoing war in Gaza may have finally convinced both factions of the futility of continuing to work at cross purposes. If not, Palestinian elites have every reason to expect that the next intifada will be directed as much at them as the Israeli occupation.
In that sense, it would be futile for Israel and the United States to oppose Palestinian unity and political cooperation between Hamas and Fatah. In fact, doing so has been harmful not only to Palestinians but to Israeli interests and the goal of a two-state solution as well. The human and material costs borne by Gaza’s Palestinians have been unacceptably high. But the moral, political, and perhaps even legal consequences of isolating and periodically pummeling Gaza may someday prove equally costly for Israel. Although it is not yet clear how or when the latest Gaza crisis will end, a return to the status quo without addressing any of the underlying issues of the current crisis would only be setting up the next Gaza war another year or two or three down the road. Ultimately, the issue of Israel’s security cannot be delinked from its continued occupation, including the ongoing siege of Gaza.
Any meaningful cease-fire agreement should include a concrete plan for opening Gaza's borders; Gaza’s 1.8 million residents have suffered for far too long and they should not have to wait for a final peace settlement to enjoy normal economic relations with the outside world. This would also provide an opportunity for Abbas’ Palestinian Authority to reestablish a presence in Gaza and to consolidate Palestinian unity. Because neither Israel nor Egypt trust Hamas, any normalizing of Gaza’s borders will require the PA to police Gaza's border crossings. The details of such an arrangement must be worked out on a multilateral basis between Egypt, Israel, Hamas, and Abbas’ PA. In order to avoid the perception that the PA is returning to Gaza on the backs of Israeli tanks, however, the actual terms of the arrangement should be enshrined in an internal agreement between the PA and Hamas, for example as an amendment to the Palestinian reconciliation agreement, rather than as part of the cease-fire agreement with Israel. This is the only way to ensure both that all parties get something in the deal and that each has a stake in the others getting something as well.
Achieving such a deal would be extremely difficult, particularly in the context of war and after much bloodshed. But it is not impossible. Perhaps the greatest challenge lies in convincing the American and especially Israeli leaders of the need to overcome their resistance to Hamas’ involvement in Palestinian politics. But both countries should recognize that the status quo of divided leadership has only made violent conflict more likely and more frequent, which is likely to be even more costly for all sides the next time around. At the same time, if they hope to avoid a third intifada, they will need to get serious about ending the Israeli occupation once and for all.