Israel's Gaza illusions


Four young boys running on the beach one moment and then they are lying lifeless on the sand. The next day, three children playing on a rooftop are killed by a "warning" missile. Elsewhere, at least 18 students who recently passed the university entrance exam (tawjihi) will never attend classes as entire families are erased to "frighten" Hamas. After a weekend of intense shelling and incursions, the "stench of death" pervades eastern Gaza City as bodies lie in the street or under the rubble. Meanwhile, the Israeli military deliberately destroyed Gaza’s only rehabilitation hospital, even though they acknowledged there were no weapons inside. These are the terrible scenes and tragedies accompanying Israel's latest invasion of Gaza, its fourth in eight years. To date, at least 437 Palestinians have been killed, including 112 children, with over 3,100 wounded. As with the previous attacks, Israeli leaders offered the rationale of a limited operation to degrade or defeat Hamas, destroy tunnels, and end rocket fire. Yet none of the prior offensives succeeded in their stated goals and in spite of Israel's macabre statements about Hamas' "map of pain," neither will this one. But civilians, especially children who comprise a majority of the 1.8 million Palestinians in Gaza, will pay the heaviest price as Israel tries to maintain a failed policy and its military casualties mount.

In 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza without negotiating with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and imposed a siege. It was heightened after Hamas' surprise victory in the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections and tightened further a year later, when the organization took over Gaza in fighting with Abbas's Fatah faction. All of Gaza's border crossings are controlled by Israel and Egypt in coordination with the U.S. and the Abbas-led Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. The siege policy is based on the hope that suffering Palestinians in Gaza will eventually overthrow Hamas. That has yet to occur.

Instead, Hamas has remained in control of Gaza and its missiles have only increased in number and range. It is telling that Israel has only been able to reduce rocket fire by negotiating with the organization. After the 2012 cease fire was implemented, Hamas did not launch rockets on Israel for 18 months. Israeli officials concede that Hamas also intervened to prevent other Palestinian factions from firing rockets and maintained the agreement in spite of Israel's repeated violations. As last week's unsuccessful cease-fire attempt by Egypt and Israel demonstrated, it will be difficult to impose a new agreement on the organization. As in 2012, what remains is when not if Israel will negotiate with Hamas — especially for a prisoner exchange — and how many more lives will be lost in the interim.

While Israel has claimed that it is attacking Gaza in response to the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens last month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has more cynical motivations. Netanyahu used the kidnappings as a pretext for the Israeli army to rampage throughout the occupied West Bank, far away from where the teens were abducted and their bodies were eventually discovered. The raids left six Palestinians dead, hundreds arrested, and millions of dollars in property was damaged or stolen. Afterward, Netanyahu stoked talk of revenge on Hamas, whom he blamed for the kidnappings without providing evidence. Hamas, however, denied involvement. Netanyahu's actions and rhetoric contributed to a violent and racist atmosphere, which led to a number of attacks on Palestinians inside Israel and the occupied West Bank, including the lynching of a Palestinian teen. That atmosphere has not abated.

Netanyahu's real goals are to scuttle the recently announced unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas and deflect the Obama administration's criticism over the collapse of negotiations with Abbas. Further demonstrating his true intentions, Netanyahu declared last week that rocket fire from Gaza proves Israel can never withdraw from the occupied West Bank. This latest statement follows revelations by former Israeli President Shimon Peres that Netanyahu undermined secret negotiations with Abbas three years ago which would have satisfied all of Israel's demands, including recognition as a Jewish state. With congressional midterm elections in a few months and Obama's lame-duck period to follow, Israel knows that Washington will support its Gaza invasion and there will not be renewed pressure for negotiations. Netanyahu — who once privately bragged about derailing the peace process — has succeeded in placing the long-dead two-state solution in a formaldehyde jar.

Israel's attempts to undercut Palestinian unity and the peace process may work, but they will be self-defeating. Although Abbas was strengthened by the unity agreement, his ineffectual response to the events of the past month has renewed criticism of his extra-legal rule and security coordination with Israel. Meanwhile, the attack on Gaza has bolstered Hamas. The movement was floundering after the overthrow of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi last year and the loss of its base in Syria. In addition, its oppressive and increasingly corrupt rule was virtually indistinguishable from that of Abbas and Fatah in the West Bank. Many Palestinians were already looking past these discredited organizations and leaders for a new movement to achieve their rights — that will only increase. And they will find greater support internationally. As Secretary of State John Kerry told Netanyahu in February, unless Israel's policies change, the United States may no longer be able to hold back the drive for boycott, divestment and sanctions. Attacking Gaza will spur those efforts further.

For far too long, Israeli and American policymakers have portrayed Gaza as a badlands populated and ruled by irredeemable terrorists and their human shields who are undeserving of basic human rights. The continued attempts to dehumanize Palestinians, however, are proving less successful as the reality of Israel's occupation is exposed. Like parents and children everywhere, Palestinians have hopes and dreams for a better future where they can live in freedom without an occupation or under siege. As Israel's occupation enters its 48th year and its invasion of Gaza expands with impunity, these dreams may seem improbable. Yet it is not inevitable that another generation will be lost to violence and retribution. A more just and peaceful future where Palestinians and Israelis live as equals is possible, but it requires abandoning, rather than embracing, delusional politicians and their policies.

Khalil is an assistant professor of U.S. and Middle East History at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also a co-founder of Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network.

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