Israel's failed-state strategy

Olmert's smashing of Gaza reveals his greatest fear: A viable Palestinian government he'd have to negotiate with.

Published July 7, 2006 11:20AM (EDT)

On Thursday, Israeli tanks and troops invaded northern Gaza, encountering fierce small-arms fire and some rocket attacks from armed Gazans. Twenty-one Palestinians, mostly militants, and an Israeli soldier were killed. It was the largest Israeli troop presence in the territory since the unilateral Israeli withdrawal of August 2005. Late Thursday, Palestinian Interior Minister Said Siam called on Gazans to "prepare to repel the Israeli attack" -- the first time a Palestinian governmental official has called Palestinians to arms since the crisis erupted.

The day's battles continued the cycle of violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians that has simmered for months but exploded during the past two weeks. Israel's grossly disproportionate response to a tit-for-tat Palestinian guerrilla raid during which two Israeli soldiers were killed and a third abducted has pushed the impoverished Gaza Strip to the edge of a humanitarian crisis, smashed the barely functioning Palestinian Authority, and threatened the Middle East's fragile peace. The actions of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seem intended to create a failed state in Gaza and the West Bank, thus rendering the Israeli claim that "we have no one to talk to" a self-fulfilling prophecy and allowing Israel to continue with its unilateral, annexationist policies, free of the need to even pretend to negotiate.

This shortsighted "strategy," which both the United States and, to a slightly lesser degree, the strangely docile Europeans have signed off on, is a recipe for continued hatred, extremism, bloodshed, injustice and festering grievances. Unless Israel and its patron summon the wisdom to take the long view and hammer out an agreement that will give the Palestinians a viable state, rather than simply trying to smash them into submission, the world's most dangerous conflict will continue to rage, with dangerous consequences for all.

It would be one thing if Olmert, head of Israel's governing Kadima Party, ordered the Israeli Army (the IDF) to conduct simple, targeted search-and-destroy missions, the logical response to the kidnapping by Palestinian guerrillas of an Israeli soldier or the firing of small homemade rockets from Gaza into nearby Israeli towns. Instead, he has launched a wide-ranging attack on the Gaza Strip, sending tanks and troops over the border, destroying Gaza's only electricity plant, and firing missiles at militants without regard for innocent civilians in the area. He even ordered Israeli jets to create terrifying sonic booms throughout the night, as if 1.4 million persons, many of them children, were being subjected to the sleep deprivation techniques applied by U.S. interrogators at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib. As Patrick O'Connor has pointed out, Olmert told his cabinet last Sunday that he wanted "no one to be able to sleep tonight in Gaza."

The destruction of the electricity plant has produced a humanitarian crisis of significant proportions. Hundreds of thousands of people have been plunged into darkness at night. It is impossible to operate hospitals and emergency rooms, refrigerate food, pump or purify water, or handle sewage in the cascading heat of midsummer.

Then, this past Wednesday, the Israelis struck at the offices of the Palestinian Ministry of the Interior in Gaza for the second time, wounding three persons. Why? The strike on the Interior Ministry building offers eloquent testimony to Kadima's goals, since that organization oversees police and security. At a time when Israeli spokesmen decry lawlessness in the Palestinian territories, which they say threatens Israel itself, they are actually destroying the only infrastructure -- Palestinian policing -- that has any hope of establishing law and order there.

As usual with outbursts of violence between Palestinians and Israelis, tracing the logic of attack and counterattack is like chasing the paradox of the chicken and the egg. The Israelis justify the invasion of Gaza as a response to the kidnapping of Cpl. Shalit, and as needed to stop the ramshackle homemade Qassam rockets (frankly, of the sort a teenager might construct with a science kit) fired from the Gaza Strip by Palestinian guerrillas of the Ezzedin Qassam Brigades at the nearby small Israeli town of Sderot. The rockets seldom do any real damage, though a few have harmed Israeli civilians. The Palestinians, for their part, counter that the Israelis have replied to the mostly ineffective Qassam attacks with hundreds of artillery strikes, which killed 30 Palestinian civilians in the weeks prior to the present crisis.

But as Jonathan Cook of Media Lens points out, the larger context for this violence is Palestinian grievances over Israeli attempts to isolate Gaza and cut its Hamas government off from monetary resources, moves that have harmed Gazan society and hurt healthcare and even nutrition. (Some 17 percent of children in Gaza suffer from malnutrition.)

The Israelis, along with the Americans and Europeans, have refused to have any dealings with Hamas, arguing that it is a terrorist organization. Hamas has declined to recognize Israel, and its military wing has carried out many terror attacks inside Israel on Israeli civilians. The Israelis and the Americans immediately cut the Hamas government off from monetary aid and even attempted to sidestep it in delivering the tax monies that run ministries and hospitals. Inevitably, and despite Israeli assurances to the contrary, the boycott of the Hamas government has harmed the quality of life of ordinary Palestinians, adding to the miseries of poor healthcare and unemployment, with many government employees suffering long arrears in the payment of their salaries. Government is among the biggest employment sectors in Gaza.

But from a Palestinian point of view, the fundamentalist Hamas Party is a legitimately elected government that had made a truce with the Israelis during the previous 18 months, and largely adhered to it. Some small guerrilla groups, such as the Qassam Brigades, as well as guerrillas loyal to Hamas' military leader in exile, Khalid al-Mashaal, did not share the civilian Hamas Party's commitment to the truce. They have been responsible for provocations, including the rocket attacks on Sderot.

In any case, Israel is itself largely responsible for the rise of Hamas. The Israelis withdrew from Gaza unilaterally, making no arrangements with any Palestinian negotiating party for security in the aftermath. Israel's then- Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had insisted that he had no one to talk to, despite the long-standing commitment of the Palestinian Authority, led primarily by the secular Fatah Party, to a negotiated peace. Fatah is weak in Gaza, however, where most Palestinians support the Islamist Hamas Party. Sharon had undermined Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, helping derail the Oslo peace accords, continuing to expand Israeli colonies on the West Bank, and attacking and weakening the P.A. security infrastructure. P.A. officials also behaved locally in a corrupt and arrogant manner, turning many voters against them.

It should not have been so surprising, then, that the Palestinian population, seeing the Israelis usurp Palestinian land on a grand scale and suffering from Israeli checkpoints and the carving up of the West Bank into small cantons, swung against the secular Fatah in this year's elections.

Sharon and Olmert's refusal to allow the development of a genuine Palestinian state, while desperately trying to avoid ruling as colonial masters over millions of Palestinians, has produced a dead end for Israeli policy. By unilaterally withdrawing from Gaza and unilaterally building a wall on Palestinian territory that usurped more Palestinian land, the Israelis during the past year have created a failed state all around them. The Hamas victory was as unacceptable to many Fatah supporters as it was to the Israelis, and there have been riots and gun battles between the two. The place is beginning to look like Somalia. While Israel may reap a temporary tactical advantage from the split between Palestinian factions, in the long run chaos and armed anarchy next door is not in its best interest.

If the Israelis had negotiated with the Palestinian Authority and built up its security capabilities -- and, above all, charted a clear path toward a viable future state -- they might have been entitled to expect it to police the territories and deal with groups such as the Qassam Brigades. As the Israeli analyst Aluf Benn recently pointed out in Haaretz, strong leaders and states with return addresses -- Hezbollah's Nasrallah, Syria's Assad -- have a much better track record of controlling militants than weak leaders. But as it is, the resentful Palestinians have neither the motivation nor the capability to provide security.

The paradoxes of Kadima policy created a powder keg, and it was set off on June 9 when an Israeli artillery barrage, replying to the Qassam rocket attacks, went astray and hit a Palestinian family picnicking on the beach. The image of the survivor, little Huda Galia, orphaned and weeping hysterically at the sight of her relatives' bloody remains, touched the entire world. (The Israeli military, as usual, denied responsibility, saying that the Palestinians themselves had mined their own beach, but Human Rights Watch and most European newspapers who looked into it did not find the Israeli denials plausible.) The Israeli newspaper Maariv buried the story. But it was front page news for weeks in the Arab press.

What happens in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank has consequences in the rest of the region and the world. On June 22, Al-Jazeera reported that an Iraqi guerrilla group attacked a U.S. Humvee in the name of Huda Galia. As the situation in Gaza becomes more explosive, the possibility for it to exacerbate tensions in Iraq and elsewhere only grows. On last Friday, 3,000 Egyptians demonstrated at al-Azhar square in Cairo after Friday prayers against the Israeli actions.

After the beach horror, passions ran high in Gaza and the West Bank. On June 25, a coalition of tiny guerrilla groups launched an attack on an Israeli military outpost on the Gaza-Israel border, killing two Israeli soldiers and capturing a third. There is no reason to think that the Hamas government was involved; its cabinet members were nearing an accord with President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah on a formula that would involve de facto recognition of Israel. One of the three guerrilla groups behind the attack was a splinter group from Hamas, but it is probably loyal to militant Hamas dissident Khalid al-Mashaal, in exile in Damascus, who rejects the civilian Hamas Party's willingness to adopt Abbas' formula for negotiating with Israel.

On Tuesday, June 27, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas announced his acceptance of the negotiating platform proposed by Abbas. The same day, another Palestinian guerrilla group kidnapped, and later killed, an Israeli colonist on the West Bank. On Wednesday last week, the Israelis made their first incursion into Gaza and destroyed the electricity plant. They have since struck at remaining generators. On Thursday they detained dozens of Palestinian lawmakers, cabinet members and activists. The lawmakers had been freely elected at the polls, and there is no obvious legal basis for Israel to detain them, nor is it likely that they were directly involved in any of the guerrilla actions. They were in essence kidnapped and held for ransom.

The only logical explanation for Olmert's actions, aside from tough-guy posturing, is that he wants to continue to degrade the Palestinian government and radicalize the population. The Israelis cannot get law and order in the territories this way, of course. Nor is there any reason to believe that these massive and disproportionate acts of violence against the Gazans will increase the chance that their captured soldier will be returned.

But Olmert clearly has something else on his mind. His actions indicate that his ultimate goal is to ensure that no Palestinian state emerges any time soon that can challenge Israeli plans to annex more of the West Bank and keep its stateless residents divided and weak, prone to outbursts of ineffectual violence and easy to label as "terrorists." If the elected Hamas government falls over the crisis, all the better. But the Israelis had a PLO government until this year and would not negotiate with it, either. The point is not to negotiate. The larger issue, that such a policy will prevent this terrible conflict from being solved, and will inevitably create blowback against Israel and the United States, does not seem to concern Olmert, the U.S. government or the U.S. media.

By Juan Cole

Juan Cole is collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He runs a news and commentary webzine on U.S. foreign policy and progressive politics, Informed Comment. His new book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires (Nation Books), has just been published.


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