Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced that the Israeli offensive against Gaza will continue. The target is now the destruction of Palestinian tunnels into Israel from the Strip rather than Hamas missiles. We have of course been here before, in ‘Operation Cast Lead’ (2009) and Operations ‘Returning Echo’ and ‘Pillar of Defence’ (2012). The Israeli strategy of regularly collectively battering the Gaza Strip to check Hamas, without seeking to quite remove its rule over the territory, is charmingly referred to as “mowing the grass”. The lofty condescension of the phrasing speaks volumes about how Israeli officialdom really perceives the threat of militants from Gaza, despite their rhetoric to foreign journalists about the mortal threat to Israel from the governing Hamas movement and others. Palestinian armed factions operating out of Gaza are a containable menace to be penned up in the Strip until such time as political conditions change. In the meantime they are a useful propaganda tool to shield Israel from international criticism as it tries to achieve its long-term goals in the region.
The spark for this episode of “grass mowing” was the abduction and murder of three settler youths by kidnappers suspected to be members a Hamas cell of the Hebron-based Qawasameh clan. Hebron is of course a West Bank city, inside the territory of the rival Palestinian Fatah party, not at all under the Gaza-based Hamas leadership’s control. The Qawasameh dominate the Hamas cadres in Hebron and were prominent militants in the second intifada. They are also notorious for repeatedly sabotaging Hamas ceasefires and political pacts with freelance terrorist attacks. These facts are also well-known to the Israeli government but it is too politically useful an opportunity to go after Hamas again to acknowledge that “logically” it is the occupied West Bank that Israel should be bombing.
The fact is that Israel has never reconciled itself to the emergence of Hamas as a serious political force following the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. Israel has refused to acknowledge the Palestinian elections of 2006 that brought Hamas to power and helped plan a coup against the Hamas government in the West Bank (which succeeded) and Gaza (where it did not). With Hamas entrenched in Gaza, the Israelis imposed a collective blockade on the territory in 2007 as punishment, and the grass mowing strategy was adopted instead. The status quo has served Israel well for the past seven years but came under threat recently when a weakened Hamas agreed to form a unity government with the usually supine Palestinian Authority (PA). The idea of a united Palestinian government was a direct threat to Netanyahu and Likud’s visions of a colonised West Bank carved up into so many Palestinian Bantustans. The excuse to stop it was swiftly seized on.
Ironically from the realist point of view if there was ever a time that the Israelis could exert maximum pressure on the Palestinian leadership for a deal weighed unprecedentedly in its favour it would be now. All the factors are in their favour. In America the strongest candidate to take the Democratic nomination for the 2016 Presidential elections looks to be the unabashedly pro-Israeli Hillary Clinton. The Republican Party, dependent as it is upon the Religious Right, can be counted upon to pick a reflexively hard-line Zionist. Internationally the Europeans are preoccupied with the Ukraine crisis. The Arab and Islamic world is weak, preoccupied with other matters and divided amongst themselves. Netanyahu’s bête noir Iran finds itself cut off from its allies and proxies in Lebanon and Syria by events in Iraq. Tehran’s “Shi’a Crescent” is mired in civil war even as it’s liberal (by Iranian standards!) President is engaged with a delicate domestic struggle with conservatives over the economy and the nuclear question. Egypt’s new military government is vehemently anti-Hamas, as it pursues political Islamists within its own borders and beyond.
Conditions amongst the Palestinians also could favour a peace treaty. Hamas had already alienated its former patrons in Syria and Iran by abandoning them after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011. With the reassertion of the deep state in Cairo it lost any outside sponsors and became totally strategically encircled. A major motivation for the unity deal was the fact that it could no longer pay its own members’ salaries. Fatah’s aging Mahmoud Abbas has completely failed as PA leader to reverse the Israeli colonisation of the West Bank. His term as President ran out years ago, and he mainly continues to operate because there is no-one to replace him as a figurehead with. Alternative Fatah leaders like Marwan Barghouti remain in Israeli jails. In fact the inter-Palestinian accord was worked out inside the Israeli prison system. Fatah and Hamas are struggling to remain relevant at this time and a peace treaty that offered even a shred of dignity to Palestinian aspirations would have a good chance of passing.
Only a hard-right ideologue like Netanyahu could miss the point that this is the moment when Israel’s political capital is at its highest and seek to cement the strongest possible gains for the settler movement that elected him. However both they and he would treat any such proposal with scorn and will continue struggling to uphold the status quo until the moment Israel’s political capital is exhausted and the settler enterprise collapses on its own contradictions. That is unfortunate if you have to pay the human cost as Gaza does now, but it will probably buy the Palestinians a fairer deal in the longer run. Imagine if Apartheid South Africa had struck a deal with the African National Congress, when things were running overwhelmingly in its favour, to partition South Africa into black and white republics back in the 1960s. It might have ended Apartheid sooner, but it would not have been as just the eventual outcome. The Apartheid government instead fought to the bitter end to preserve white rule in as much of southern Africa as it could. Exhausted, it delegitimized itself into oblivion. With his refusal to negotiate when Israel is strong and its enemies are weak, and by his continual sabotaging of trends towards any kind of peace, Netanyahu is leading his base of ultra-nationalists and religious extremists down the same road. Future history will not regret his movement’s political passing and neither should we.