The Forward has my latest column on how Israel and Hamas stumbled through a series of accidents and misunderstandings into a war nobody wanted. Because it’s written for print (unlike this blog) it has limits on length, and even though the paper generously lets me run way over my limit every week, there are inevitably things left out that need to be said. Permit me to add.
First, the current blowup began with a kidnap-murder of three Israeli teenagers, two of them 16-year-olds who just finished 11th grade. As the father of a son who is the exact same age — and is in Jerusalem right now on a summer program — I can just begin to guess at the feelings. But I can only begin to guess.
Second, the Israeli government suppressed the fact that the boys were dead, as it knew on Day 2, with the apparent motive of dismantling the Hamas infrastructure in the West Bank. The prolonged, fabricated uncertainty had the collateral effect of inflaming Jewish emotions in Israel and the Diaspora, and the tension may well have intensified the resulting anger after the bodies were found. On the other hand, it also provided cover for Israel to round up and dismantle, with barely a shot fired, a network operating in territory it controls that openly preaches destroying Israel and murdering its citizens. I don’t know that such a roundup is a bad thing.
Moreover, if it allows for a new Fatah-Hamas unity government with Hamas in a seriously weakened position, and a PA that can openly embrace the Quartet conditions and peace process with greater authority — including the ability to speak for and deliver Gaza — then it just might be something even hardcore doves can celebrate.
Third, regarding the current mutual bombardment. Here’s where the series of accidents and misunderstandings kicked in. When Israel began rounding up Hamas-West Bank, amid declarations from Bibi that Hamas “will pay,” the Hamas leadership in Gaza went underground and began gearing up for a renewed Gaza war that they feared — incorrectly, I believe — that Israel was planning. Going underground meant abandoning their earnest-but-not-always-competent enforcement of the 2012 cease-fire. The result was a sudden, drastic increase in rocket fire from PRC, Islamic Jihad and the Qaeda-style jihadis to its right. Israel responded with several aerial attacks on rocket crews.
Mourners at the fresh grave of Naftali Fraenkel, one of three Israeli teens murdered, allegedly by members of the Hamas-linked Qawasmeh family of Hebron. / Getty Images
Now that the bodies of the three kidnapped Israeli teenagers have been found and laid to rest, the crisis is rapidly turning into a wickedly complex, five-sided tug-of-war with enormous stakes on all sides. One axis pits hawks against doves inside Israel, with cries from the public for revenge backed by right-wing cabinet ministers while the military, backed by government doves, urges cautious, calibrated measures, to avoid an escalation into war. Prime Minister Netanyahu is caught in the middle, immobilized by indecision.
The debate erupted into angry verbal confrontations at security cabinet meetings on Monday and Tuesday, reaching a climax at one point when IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz praised the cabinet for adopting a temperate set of counter-measures that avoid escalation into full-scale war. In reply Gantz received a tongue-lashing from economics minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home Party, the cabinet’s strongest advocate of harsh measures. Bennett angrily told Gantz he had no authority to “critique” the ministers’ actions.
The second line of tension is a tug-of-war between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas over Abbas’s month-old unity pact with Hamas. A Hebron-based Hamas cell is believed responsible for the kidnap-murders, and Netanyahu is demanding that Abbas break off ties with the Hamas leadership in response. Abbas is holding off, deterred by doubts over the involvement of Hamas leaders — Hamas officials in both Gaza and Damascus continually deny any involvement or knowledge — and by popular pressure from below not to be identified too closely with Israel. But Israel anger and Hamas recalcitrance may leave him no choice.
The third and perhaps most significant line of confrontation is the growing tension between Hamas leaders in Gaza and Damascus and the local Hamas organization in Hebron. The Hebron organization, dominated by one of the city’s oldest and largest clans, the Qawasmehs, has effectively operated for more than a decade as an independent franchise within the fundamentalist movement, and frequently as a radical opposition force and spoiler. The Shin Bet has identified Marwan Qawasmeh, 29, and a family hanger-on, Amer Abu-Eisha, 33, as the kidnappers of the yeshiva students.
Several detailed accounts of the Qawasmeh family’s alleged spoiler role in Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire efforts have appeared in several Israeli and international publications in the last day, claiming, based on Palestinian and Israeli intelligence sources, that the clan staged the kidnapping in order to sabotage the Fatah-Hamas unity pact and reignite armed conflict.
Israeli troops search for evidence at site where the bodies of 3 kidnapped youths were found near village of Halhoul. / Getty Images
Israel’s security cabinet was due to convene at 9:30 pm (2:30 New York time) to discuss Israeli responses to the murder of the three teenagers whose bodies were found just before 6 pm in a shallow grave near the village of Halhul, north of Hebron. And a heated debate has already broken out over the proper steps to take.
As usual, politicians on the right are pushing for a maximalist response, while military figures are warning against letting emotions guide policy and urging “focused” and “targeted” responses. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly blamed Hamas for the kidnapping, and pointed to the Fatah-Hamas unity pact concluded last month as contributing to the terrorist act.
Military and security figures have quietly cautioned since fingers began pointing at Hamas that there was no concrete evidence the kidnappers were operating under instructions from Hamas higher-ups. Today for the first time they began speaking not quietly but openly, warning that attacking Hamas as an organization in response to the kidnapping would backfire, fail to deter future terrorism and serve Hamas’s goal of isolating and delegitimizing Israel internationally.
The three boys, Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gil-Ad Shaer, 16, and U.S. citizen Naftali Fraenkel, also 16, were kidnapped at around 10 p.m. June 12 while trying to hitchhike home for the weekend from their West Bank yeshivas. The area, under Israeli military administration, has been the scene of Palestinian violence for decades but has been relatively quiet for the past few years. They were apparently killed shortly after they were taken.
Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein called for Israel to launch a “war on terrorism.” Knesset member Miri Regev, one of the hardest-line members of Likud called for a wave of “targeted eliminations” of Hamas leaders in Gaza.
On the other hand former Mossad director Danny Yatom urged carefully distinguishing between terrorists responsible for the murders and politicians whose ideology may or may not have inspired the murderers.
Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Mahmoud Abbas in 2010/Getty Images
Israel’s decision today to suspend peace talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization, in response to yesterday’s Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement, is really three distinct decisions. One is sensible. The second is understandable if questionable. The third is inexcusable.
The first decision is the actual suspension of talks, pending formation of the new Palestinian Authority government. The second is to suspend transfer of tax revenues that Israel collects on the Palestinians’ behalf, in retaliation for Palestinian actions. The third is to launch an international media campaign to “blacken the name” of PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas in international public opinion.
The first, suspending talks, sensibly reflects the gravity of the Palestinian step and the delicacy of Israeli domestic politics. Israel isn’t alone in viewing Hamas as a rejectionist, irridentist and terrorist organization; that’s the assessment of the international community.
The Middle East Quartet — the diplomatic partnership of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — laid out three conditions back in 2006 for Hamas participation in the diplomatic process: recognizing Israel, swearing off terrorism and accepting previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements. To date it has met none of them. There have been unofficial trial balloons, never formally confirmed, about Hamas possibly accepting peaceful coexistence on some basis. And Hamas has largely observed a cease-fire across the Gaza border since taking a whipping in Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012. But it has flatly refused to give up terror in principle, and the only thing preventing Hamas attacks in the West Bank, where no cease-fire exists, has been Israeli-PLO security cooperation.
Under the circumstances, then, it’s reasonable for Israel to suspend negotiations until it sees whether the new Palestinian unity government meets minimal international norms — in effect, whether unity means Hamas following Fatah toward coexistence or Fatah following Hamas toward endless war. It’s not merely reasonable — it’s the least Jerusalem can do to show its voting public that it’s doing its job.
The second Israeli decision, to suspend the monthly transfer of Palestinian tax revenues, is a longstanding tactic for retaliating over Palestinian provocations. It does seem to be useful as a political safety valve, to let the Israeli public know that their government is on its toes and not giving away the store. Like Palestinian-led boycotts of Israel, it’s a way to pressure (read: beat up on) the other side without actual bloodshed. Like those boycotts, its usefulness in encouraging Palestinian good-faith adherence is a lot less clear. Still more unclear is whether or not it’s legal under Israel’s signed agreements.
Palestinians in Gaza City on Wednesday celebrating Hamas-Fatah unity pact. / Getty Images
Old Jewish joke: The beggar of Chelm goes to the rabbi’s house and pleads in a most pitiful tone: “Please rabbi, I haven’t eaten in days. Won’t you please give me a ruble to buy some food?”
The rabbi is touched and gives the beggar a ruble.
An hour later the rabbi is walking downtown when he sees the beggar sitting in a café, eating a thick slice of cake. Incensed, he rushes across the square and accosts the beggar: “Scoundrel! I gave you a ruble to buy food because you were in need, and now I see you’ve wasted it on cake. How dare you?!”
“Excuse me,” the beggar replies indignantly. “Yesterday I had no money and I couldn’t eat cake. Today I have money and you say I shouldn’t eat cake. Tell me, rabbi, when can I eat cake?”
So it is with Hamas, Fatah and Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Last week there was no point in Israel closing a deal with the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority because it could only speak for the West Bank half of the Palestinians, given that Gaza is controlled by Hamas. Today there’s no point in closing a deal because the Palestinian Authority is finalizing an agreement for joint rule with Hamas, which will put it in partnership with a terrorist organization sworn to Israel’s destruction. So tell me, rabbi, when will there be a point in closing a deal?
Conventional wisdom offers two possible answers to the question. One is that the economic blockade of Gaza is intended to weaken and eventually topple the Hamas government so that the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority can regain full control. That would allow it to speak for all Palestinians and become a viable negotiating partner—assuming, that is, that you believe Fatah could ever be a viable negotiating partner.
The Palestinian daily Al Quds reported on its website Monday afternoon, quoting a “knowledgeable source,” that the Palestinian leadership had decided to return to the negotiating table for two more months, with the aim of laying out the borders between Israel and a potential Palestinian state, according to Walla! News reporter Amir Tibon.
The source “ruled out the possibility” that the Palestinians would reverse their decision to sign 15 United Nations conventions, but added that the Palestinians have “no intention” of joining any more international bodies “in the near future.”
Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is scheduled to meet Tuesday in Cairo with Arab League foreign ministers to seek their backing for the Palestinian position. In advance of that meeting, the Jerusalem Post reports, the Arab League’s deputy secretary general said in a statement issued Monday that the United States still “has a role to play in pushing the peace process forward.”
Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas told a visiting group of Knesset members on Thursday that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement will mean an end to Palestinian demands from Israel, and that Palestinians did not aim to return to “Haifa, Acre and Safed.” As the British Guardian newspaper reported:
In remarks possibly aimed at reassuring Israelis who believe a peace deal with the Palestinians will be followed by further claims, Abbas said: “You have a commitment from the Palestinian people, and also from the leadership, that if we are offered a just agreement, we will sign a peace deal that will put an end to the conflict and to future demands from the Palestinian side.”
He also said that the Palestinian state did not need a military capacity, but only “a strong police force.” He was speaking in Ramallah to the members of the Meretz Knesset caucus.
Abbas said critics had misunderstood his July 29 statement in Cairo that “in a final resolution” to the conflict there would not be “a single Israeli – civilian or soldier – on our lands.” Right-wing groups including the Zionist Organization of America and the Simon Wiesenthal Center jumped on the remark as evidence of anti-Semitism, and the Knesset’s anti-Semitism caucus discussed it at a meeting the following day. Abbas said his point had been that the Palestinian state would be established as a newly sovereign entity and would not agree to inherit prepositioned Israeli soldiers or settlers on its territory as relics of occupation.
This is not a new position. Abbas and other Palestinian leaders have said in the past that once their state is established, Jews would be welcome like anyone else to apply for residency or citizenship in a Palestinian state. They describe leaving settlements in place as risky because many settlers are committed to Israeli sovereignty over the territories and are considered likely to resist Palestinian rule. Still, Abbas told the Knesset members he would be prepared to discuss leaving individual settlements in place if Israel brought it up in negotiations.
Abbas’s remarks seem intended to dispel the Israeli right’s laundry list of reasons for believing the Palestinians are not prepared to make peace. Skeptics claim Abbas and his Fatah movement are not ready to declare a final end to the conflict, that they’re unwilling to give up future claims to Israeli territory, abandon the Palestinian refugees’ right of return to their former homes or accept limitations on sovereignty such as demilitarization. Abbas dismissed all those claims, one by one.
He further told the visitors, Haaretz on Friday, that he was “unhappy with the slow pace of the negotiations” and that there had been “no advances” in the first three rounds of talks, which were predictably devoted to presenting existing positions. But he voiced hope that the pace would pick up. According to Haaretz, he said:
Fresh from her controversial April 3 paean to Palestinian stone-throwing, Haaretz’s Ramallah-based bad girl Amira Hass is making new waves with her Friday May 17 report about a group of “senior Fatah members” (the headline called them “senior officials”) who are calling for “the establishment of one democratic country in the area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.”
The group reportedly gathered May 15 in El Bireh, outside Ramallah, to sign a document, “the culmination of two years of discussion,” that was titled “the popular movement project for one democratic state in historic Palestine.” It’s sparked a furor on the Internet, been tweeted hundreds of times and been posted to Facebook upwards of 2,200 times as of Saturday night, which is about 100 times the pace of the other top stories in Haaretz on Friday. It’s been posted to dozens of blogs, ranging from right-wing Jewish blogs that see it as proof of malign Palestinian intentions to left-wing Jewish, Arab and non-sectarian blogs that see it as a hopeful new beginning.
From all the fuss, you wouldn’t know that the “group of senior Fatah members” in question was a grand total of 22 individuals, of whom the most prominent were a former deputy prisoner affairs director, a former local district governor and an Israeli, Uri Davis, who now lives in Ramallah and describes himself as a Muslim. What’s more, the statement was issued four days after the actual Central Committee of Fatah met in Ramallah to endorse the Arab League’s call for land swaps and border modifications in an Israeli-Palestinian two-state peace agreement. An actual Fatah official told the Jerusalem Post after the committee meeting that the party maintains its “full commitment to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the context of a two-state solution.”
Much more startling, though it’s gotten far less attention, was an endorsement of a single, binational state in Israel-Palestine with equal rights for Jews and Arabs published on May 12, the day before the Fatah Central Committee rejected the same idea, by—wait for it—Moshe Arens, the former three-time Israeli defense minister, former foreign minister (Bibi Netanyahu was his deputy minister) and certified grand old man of the Likud.
The statement by Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh mourning Ben-Laden and condemning his killing is getting a lot of internet traffic. It’s instructive; optimists make much of the group’s occasional hints at softening and its conflicts with Al Qaeda. Worth remembering that it still sees itself as part of Jihad International. Here is Ynetnews.com’s report of what Haniyeh had to say.
By contrast, the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority is calling Ben-Laden’s death a good thing. Ghassan Khatib, director of the Palestinian Authority’s Government Media Center (and co-editor with Yossi Alpher of bitterlemons.org), is quoted on Ynet as follows:
Eliminating Ben-Laden is good for the peace process. We need to overcome the violent methods that Ben-Laden created, together with others around the world.
I’ve seen a few references already to the Hamas statement as showing how you can’t trust Fatah, including one in a comment on my last post. Strangely enough, I haven’t seen any references in English to Khatib’s statement on behalf of the P.A., which puts things in a very different light. I guess it’s too off-message.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has instructed his cabinet ministers to stick to a single message regarding the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement, Israel’s Channel 10 News reports on its Nana-10 website. The message: “there is no possible positive component in the reconciliation agreement.” That’s right:Cabinet ministers are forbidden even to speculate on any conceivable upside.
You can tell he cares about this, because he rarely makes any effort to rein in his cabinet. His foreign minister, alert readers recall, got up in front of the United Nations General Assembly last fall and laid out a foreign policy vision radically at odds with the prime minister’s, including exchanges of population in a future peace agreement, which he said was decades away. He didn’t even get a slap on the wrist—just a laconic statement from Bibi’s office that the prime minister, not the foreign minister, articulates the country’s foreign policy. Which is a weird thought in itself. Moreover, the interior minister repeatedly attacked the settlement construction freeze that the prime minister had imposed last year.
So this is something Bibi cares about. Unlike gestures toward peace which he makes in response to American pressure, and which his ministers attack mercilessly without consequences. He really doesn’t want it suggested that there could possibly be an upside to the Palestinian reconciliation agreement.
It’s not like he can keep the lid on things forever. Abu Mazen, a.k.a. Mahmoud Abbas, has said repeatedly in the last few days that he, not Hamas, is in charge of foreign policy, that he still wants to negotiate and make peace with Israel, he still sees Bibi as his partner. He’s even said that the pact calls for elections in a year; if Fatah wins, it should end Hamas control of Gaza. Bibi can’t keep that from the Israeli public, but maybe he can prevent his ministers from smiling when they hear it.
Well, maybe you can’t keep Abu Mazen’s words totally concealed from the public, but you sure can try. David Bedein, an American-born settler activist and head of what he calls the Israel Resource News Agency (and very nice guy and good friend when he’s not talking politics), sent out a mass email tonight furiously attacking the JTA for its report on what Abu Mazen is saying. He’s mad that JTA reported the news without spinning like a good Jew should.
Boy oh boy, Jews say the darnedest things, don’t they? You’ve got to love it. We’ve been hearing for years now that the Palestinian leadership under Mahmoud Abbas isn’t capable of making peace with Israel even if it wants to because, among other things, it doesn’t speak for Hamas, which controls Gaza (see here, here and here, for example).
It’s a bit confusing, I know, but life is like that. For the moment, the best response would be to make sure they put air-sickness bags in front of the seats in shul alongside the chumashim tomorrow morning, in case congregants start to experience vertigo from the sudden, abrupt shifts in position..
It’s like the old joke about the beggar who asks the rabbi for a ruble to buy a meal. Later that day the rabbi walks past the inn and sees the beggar eating a big slice of cake. “This is how you waste my money?!” the rabbi demands. “Excuse me,” the beggar replies. “Yesterday I couldn’t eat cake because I had no money. Today I have money but you tell me I shouldn’t eat cake. Tell me, rabbi, when can I eat cake?”
Now, as soon as the deal was announced yesterday, my mailbox started filling up with evidence that it had killed any hopes for the peace process, which presumably was thriving up to now. Exhibit A was this statement by Mahmoud a-Zahar, the Hamas foreign minister, who said it would “not be possible for the interim national government to participate or bet on or work on the peace process with Israel.” The morning after (today) reinforcements started arriving in the form of links to this statement by Zahar’s boss, Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, calling on Fatah to renounce its recognition of “the Zionist entity.”
On second thought, though, this actually indicates that stopping the peace process was not part of deal. If it were, Haniyeh wouldn’t need to be asking for it now.
One of the most important news stories of the week was also one of the least noticed. According to a Saudi newspaper quoted in the Jerusalem Post and in Ynet, Israel may be ready to free Marwan Barghouti as part of a prisoner swap for Gilad Schalit.
Barghouti is the most popular leader on the West Bank, bar none. He emerged during the Oslo years as one of the young, home-grown leaders of Fatah, imprisoned during the first intifada, fluent in Hebrew and outspokenly in favor of a two-state solution. He’s been in prison since 2005, serving five life sentences for murder during the second intifada. Since the day of his arrest there’s been open speculation that Israel was going to hold him to build up his street cred and then dramatically release him to become a sort of Palestinian Mandela. It turned out he was going to be tried, sentenced and incarcerated as a terrorist chieftain, not a potential partner.
But the speculation hasn’t let up. Here’s Uri Avnery in 2007 calling him Mandela, here’s Jerusalem Post leftist-in-residence Larry Derfner in 2004 calling him a thug and no Mandela, and here is uber-pundit Ron Ben-Yishai writing in Yediot in 2008 that freeing Barghouti would be a win-win for Hamas, Fatah and Israel alike, because he’s the only one who could bring Hamas to heel, unite the Palestinians, sign a peace treaty and make it stick.
Bradley Burston called last winter for Barghouti to be released summarily, without a Schalit deal, so as to strengthen Fatah and embarrass Hamas. Netanyahu & co. don’t seem to have been smart enough to pick up on that. Still, if they’re going ahead and reluctantly freeing him to Hamas as part of a swap, it could still be a serious game-changer.
Here is a 9-minute YouTube clip of Barghouti giving a rare filmed interview in January 2006 in prison, in English, to Lindsey Hilsum of Britain’s Channel 4 news (and here’s the transcript of the interview).