Monthly Archives: July 2014

Israel’s rhetoric exposes some disturbing moral grey areas

Israel’s rhetoric exposes some disturbing moral grey areas
Rescue workers carry the body after removing it from under the rubble of a home following an Israeli air strike on Khan Yunis in the southern of Gaza strip. Israel insists it “does not target” civilians and civilian sites, even if history tells us otherwise. Said Khatib / AFP

In the ongoing Gaza campaign, Israel and its supporters have once again fallen back on the shopworn idea that civilian casualties are justifiable because its primary intention is not to specifically target non-combatants.

Israel’s arguments – that this can all be explained by either error or Hamas’s use of innocents as “human shields” – simply cannot be squared with the huge proportion of civilian and children’s deaths. More than 1,000 Palestinians have died in the conflict, the vast majority of them civilians, according to the UN.

Israel insists it “does not target” civilians and civilian sites, even if history tells us otherwise. For the sake of argument, let’s stipulate that Israel really has never or very seldom actually targeted civilians. There’s still a crucial missing category between intention and culpability: that of inevitable consequence.

Israel’s rhetoric focuses entirely on primary intentions, without acknowledging the problem of responsibility for civilian deaths when they are a predictable and inevitable result of voluntary, calculated actions.

The Israeli military has been very reluctant to explain its conduct, even when asserting there was no mistake. Entire families have been wiped out in the recent campaign in attacks that remain not only apparently indefensible but also inexplicable. In some cases, Palestinians have suggested that a neighbour or relative might have been a Hamas employee or operative possibly targeted by Israel for assassination. But that often doesn’t rationally explain the decision to take or risk so many innocent lives.

International courts have been increasingly ruling that a decision to carry out a strike on what might otherwise be considered a legitimate military target, despite knowledge of the potential for a huge number of innocent and civilian deaths, constitutes an example of unlawful dolus eventualis (recklessness or negligence). This principle isn’t mentioned in either the Statute of Rome or the Geneva Conventions, but it’s making its way quickly into international law through these rulings.

Courts are thereby undermining the traditional categorical differentiation between “unlawful” murderers, who deliberately seek to cause civilian casualties, versus “lawful” regular armies that foresee and expect, and are willing to accept, the deaths of innocents.

Israel’s incongruous actions and rhetoric highlights uncomfortable moral grey areas between those who may hope to hit a military target with a random weapon versus those who hope not to hit civilian ones with more sophisticated and guided tools (especially when both are almost certainly hoping in vain). There is a clear ethical difference between the two.

But it is precisely the contrast with those who deliberately want to kill civilians that indicts soldiers who are also knowingly responsible for non-combatant deaths. If the effect is the same, even when the primary intention is distinct, can those intentions really exonerate the conscious decision to produce that same effect?

The principle of “proportionality” would be the primary recourse under such circumstances. But in almost every practical case, proportionality boils down to a subjective value judgement. Is the military objective “worth” a given number of innocent lives? That certainly depends on whether one identifies with the military or the people who are the potential “collateral damage”.

Similarly subjective are efforts to establish “responsibility” – for putting civilian lives at risk in the first place – as the essential criterion to defend militaries that might otherwise be seen as acting with disproportionate force or reckless disregard for human life. But, again, subjectivity rules the day. Who “started it?” It’s almost never clear-cut.

No wonder, then, that both “proportionality” and “responsibility” have fared so badly in the proceedings and rulings of international tribunals into war crimes since the end of the Cold War. Fascinating in theory, they are virtually useless to an actual trier of fact.

Which brings us back to intentions.

If it really were a matter purely of intent, to pluck only one random incident out of today’s headlines, whoever shot down the Malaysian civilian airliner over rebellious parts of Ukraine couldn’t be held particularly culpable. Their evident intention, after all, was almost certainly to hit some sort of military aircraft. The minute one starts interrogating what they were doing firing surface-to-air missiles at vaguely identified targets in international flight paths, one abandons the question of direct intention and raises those of recklessness, negligence and the likely consequences of calculated actions. The principle of intentionality, unattenuated by that of predictable consequences, might actually absolve these murderers.

Intentions are important. People instinctively understand this.

But they also instinctively understand, unless taught to think otherwise, that inevitable and unavoidable consequences of an action are important as well and have a major impact on the question of culpability. Simply asserting that one had a legitimate overriding intention (killing an “enemy combatant”), and that this renders moot the predictable if not inevitable consequences (the deaths of non-combatants), is repugnant to reason and universal human values.

Although obviously “better” than deliberate mass murder for its own sake, the moral validity of such arguments will be rejected by most people with indignation and contempt. Predictable, inevitable consequences are an essential criterion for culpability in the deaths of innocents.

Israel’s latest self-inflicted wound

The incredible level of human suffering and civilian casualties in Gaza will haunt Israel for years to come

A Palestinian woman carries her daughter past rubble from a home which police said was destroyed in an Israeli air strike in Beit Hanu, in the northern of Gaza Strip on July 9 2014 (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)


Israel’s latest offensive in Gaza has brought with it two things that are disturbingly familiar: first, huge numbers of civilian casualties; second, endless protestations by Israel that it is not only trying to do everything it can to reduce those casualties, but that it has “the most moral army in the world,” no less. The horrors being meted out on the innocent people of Gaza are bad enough, but they are compounded by Israel’s endless and fatuous claims of unique morality, which are entirely inconsistent with the known facts.

At least 600 Palestinians have been killed in the violence so far. The UN has estimated that over 70% of them are civilians. Even if the UN is overestimating, that still means an enormous percentage of those killed by Israeli fire are civilians. I haven’t seen any estimate in which the number of child victims was less than 100. The death tolls on Sunday and Monday both reached over 100 Palestinian dead, a shocking figure in any conflict.

Israel cites two reasons for these deaths. Either they are the consequence of “regrettable mistakes,” which Israel has acknowledged on a small handful of occasions during this campaign, or they are the result of Hamas using the Palestinian population as “human shields.” As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cynically and cruelly put it, Palestinians, including Hamas, seek “telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause.”

I have been very critical of Hamas’s rule in Gaza and its role in the current conflict, but it’s just not possible to dehumanize the 1.8 million innocent Palestinians of Gaza as being simply “human shields” for Hamas. Even if Hamas does have a practice and policy of seeking to deter attacks on strategic targets by ensuring that civilian deaths will occur, it doesn’t explain numerous instances in which Palestinian civilians, and indeed children, appear to have been deliberately targeted for death. And it’s not logistically possible for Hamas to actually make the entirety, or even the majority, of the Gaza population into literal “human shields.”

What never gets mentioned is that Israel’s military had a deliberate policy of using Palestinian civilians as, literally, human shields, in its operations in the occupied territories until this practice was made illegal by the Israeli Supreme Court in 2005. The Israeli military protested that ruling, arguing that the use of Palestinian civilians could “defuse tensions.”

The dozens of disturbing and inexplicable incidents in which civilians have been killed either deliberately or with wanton disregard for their lives during this campaign appears to have struck Secretary of State John Kerry. Appearing on the Fox News Sunday television program, Mr. Kerry mumbled during a break, “It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation, it’s a hell of a pinpoint operation.”

Among the incidents that led to this widespread international reaction was the killing of 24 members of the Abu Jamaa family in a single airstrike. Israel says it ordered the evacuation of the area, and many others, but in Gaza there is often nowhere to go. The UN says its facilities are full to the brim with over 100,000 internally displaced persons, and that they have no more space for those fleeing the conflict.

Other targets include various health centers, mosques and a home for the handicapped. Hamas is cynical enough, to be sure, to have placed some of these targets in danger. And they have urged Palestinians to stay put when they were better advised to try to flee, if possible. But none of that explains or excuses the extraordinary proportion of civilian and child deaths in this bombardment.

Hamas can be criticized for refusing an Egyptian-sponsored ceasefire proposal that would have been politically difficult for the organization but also would have brought relief to the innocent people of Gaza. When the dust settles, they will have to explain to the Palestinian and Arab public why they preferred to keep fighting when the cost was so extraordinary.

But that will not exempt Israel from having to explain how, if their forces follow even the elementary rules of warfare, let alone the elevated ones it claims, so many of the dead are civilians, women and children. Israel’s international reputation, already badly battered, has now suffered another grievous, self-inflicted wound. Even its friends around the world are deeply disturbed by what distinctly appears to be a wanton disregard for innocent life, a willingness to engage in indiscriminate attacks, and a lack of accountability when its forces deliberately target noncombatants. Israel, too, will have difficult questions to answer.

Gaza crisis reveals regional splits

The American biologist Barry Commoner famously observed as a fundamental law of ecology that “Everything is connected to everything else”. That truism has rarely been more applicable than in the contemporary Middle East. Hostilities between Israel and Hamas may superficially appear to be a limited conflict, but powerful regional and international forces are expressing their influence in both the fighting and the diplomatic wrangling over a ceasefire.

One of the most significant regional fault lines clearly at play is the sharply diverging attitudes towards the Muslim Brotherhood.

To put it crudely but accurately, there are essentially pro- and anti-Muslim Brotherhood factions among states in the region. This context is having a major impact on Hamas (the Brotherhood organisation in Palestine), the Palestinian Authority and Israel in their unhappy triangulation. Egypt, several key Gulf states and Jordan are the most significant in opposing the Muslim Brotherhood, and hence sceptical about Hamas.

This does not, of course, mean that these states are insensible to the tragic death and destruction being meted out by Israel primarily against the civilian population of Gaza. But they view Hamas’s willingness to place that population at risk by engaging in a desperate and bloody confrontation with Israel partly in the context of the regional fortunes of the Muslim Brotherhood movement as a whole.

The most obvious manifestation of this perspective is Egypt’s barely concealed sense that Hamas rule in Gaza, along their troubled border with Sinai and its various insurgents and terrorist groups, is a significant national security concern. Hence Egypt’s ceasefire proposal that offered Hamas “calm for calm” and, crucially, the people of Gaza immediate relief from Israeli bombardment, but denied Hamas any major political or strategic gains. “Had Hamas accepted the Egyptian initiative, at least 40 Palestinian souls would have been saved,” Egyptian foreign minister Sameh Shukri bitterly complained when it was rejected.

On the other hand, Turkey and Qatar, the regional champions of the Muslim Brotherhood, have attempted to bolster their allies. Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Israel of “genocide”. Qatar has a standing aid package to salvage Hamas’s budget, but the transfer of these funds is being blocked by Egypt physically and the United States and Saudi Arabia in terms of financial institutions.

Hamas has been attempting, without success, to bring Turkey and Qatar into the diplomatic process regarding a potential ceasefire. The United States appears to have some interest in trying to leverage Qatar’s influence with Hamas, but as a practical matter Egypt remains the decisive player in any potential ceasefire, because of its political importance and geographical location.

Another major regional fault line that is rippling through the conflict concerns the role and influence of Iran. The once solid patron-client relationship between Iran and Hamas has been shattered by the Syrian conflict, which cost the Hamas politburo its headquarters in Damascus and its primary funders in Tehran. Yet Hamas’s paramilitary wing, the Qassam Brigades, never fully broke with Iran. There were also Hamas political leaders that, early on, wanted to try to recuperate as much of the relationship as possible.

In the run-up to this current phase of violence, splits within Hamas – between factions who wanted to focus on repairing relations with Iran versus others who wanted to see what could be done about mending fences with Egypt, Jordan and some Gulf states – were clearly discernible.

They still are, in spite of considerable wagon-circling in the face of a massive Israeli onslaught. And while most of the rockets being fired from Gaza into Israel (and sometimes the occupied West Bank) are made in Gaza itself, the expertise and some of the material that makes this possible are indisputably Iranian in origin.

Yet if Hamas is perceived by some Arab states, including some presently sympathetic to Hamas, as once again leaning too closely towards Tehran, there will certainly be a cost for that. However, the rise of even more extreme non-state actors, particularly the so-called Islamic State, in the short term at least, may offer a counterintuitive form of protection for Hamas. Israel, for all its fury, ultimately does not want Hamas to fall from power in Gaza, fearing the rise of anarchy or Islamic State-style extremists far more radical than Hamas, and perhaps to keep Palestinians divided.

And it’s even conceivable that the threat from the Islamic State and similar next-generation takfiri hyper-radicals will prove so threatening to mainstream Sunni states and societies (as well as to Shiites including Iran), that the common peril may undermine the starkest of sectarian suspicions.

That could open the space for Hamas to resume closer ties with Iran while mitigating outrage in some Arab capitals. Alternatively, the rise of Islamic State could cast all armed non-state actors, including Hamas, as part of a universal menace.

The Middle East is in a radical state of flux, characterised by instability, disintegration and the rise of militias and armed gangs to local power. Significant question marks hang over most established alliances and sources of regional order. The fate of Palestine, including Gaza, will depend on, and affect, how these questions are answered. In the Arab world today, everything is connected to everything else as never before.

A Pox on All Their Houses

Neither Israel nor Hamas can win in Gaza, but the PA could be the biggest loser

With Israel having launched a significant ground operation in Gaza following Hamas’s refusal of an Egyptian cease-fire proposal, the latest wave of Israeli-Palestinian hostilities is intensifying yet again. To what end and from what beginning, however, is unclear. While both Israel and Hamas have publicly stated and implicit objectives, neither side seems poised to achieve any significant strategic gains.

In the meanwhile, more than 260 Palestinians in Gaza, many of them civilians, including children, have been killed — as well as at least two Israelis — and the grim tally of death and destruction is only likely to increase as long as the seemingly pointless fighting drags on.

Israel’s stated goals to “restore deterrence” and degrade — if not eliminate — Hamas’s rocket capabilities are straightforward, but unachievable unless the country were to fully reoccupy Gaza and reverse the “unilateral disengagement” enacted by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2005. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has called for such a reoccupation, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed these ideas as “background noise.” There appears to be no real possibility that Israel’s military will once again police the streets of Gaza as an army of direct occupation. Under such circumstances, even given the significant ground operations launched on Thursday, all Israel can really do is single out stores of rockets, secure or demolish launching sites, destroy tunnel infrastructure, and target the homes and offices of Hamas officials and members.

At first glance, such an imperative might seem rational, since Hamas and other extremist groups in Gaza have been firing missiles at not only southern Israel butvirtually the whole country and even parts of the occupied Palestinian territories. However, each time invasion has been the response to missile attacks from Gaza, Israel has failed to find a long-term — or even a mid-term — remedy. And each time, Hamas has emerged better equipped and more technically capable.

The implausibility of Israel’s avowed goal of destroying Hamas’s rocket capabilities (some officials even speak in terms of Gaza being “demilitarized”) is all the greater given that most of the missiles Hamas is currently using are actually manufactured in the Gaza Strip rather than imported from Iran. Iranian expertise and spare parts are undoubtedly crucial, but since Hamas (and possibly other militant groups in Gaza) is manufacturing its own rockets — even when Egypt has ensured that smuggling is more difficult than ever — there’s every reason to expect that more can be manufactured locally and in short order.

Israel’s conundrum gets even more complicated when one considers that while it wants to degrade Hamas’s capabilities and strike a blow at the organization, it does not wish Hamas to fall from power in Gaza. Israel fears the potential for anarchy or more extreme groups emerging in a power vacuum were Hamas to collapse. So, in addition to pursuing a strategy that has proven to be ineffective, Israel has goals in Gaza that are greatly circumscribed by its counterintuitive, but undeniable, preference for a weakened Hamas to remain in power.

Hamas, too, has a long list of goals, all of which also seem to be out of reach. A key demand is that Israel release “security prisoners” who had been part of the Gilad Shalit swap but were rearrested in a West Bank crackdown a few weeks ago. It’s virtually impossible to imagine Israel agreeing to this.

Most of Hamas’s other key demands are aimed at countries other than Israel. For Hamas, this conflict is about trying to break out of an impossible situation in which it has found itself in recent months. It is broke. It is isolated. And internal divisions and its growing unpopularity in Gaza bedevil the group. Hamas may have hoped that the “unity government” agreement with Fatah would strengthen its hand and give it a new foothold in the West Bank. But as it happened, Hamas gained nothing from the agreement.

But to understand the root of Hamas’s current frustration, one must look not northeast from Gaza, but west. The epicenter of Hamas’s growing desperation lies in the policies of the new Egyptian government. Following the ouster of former Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian military swept into Sinai and the border area with Gaza. They reportedly killed up to two dozen Hamas operatives in Sinai whom they believed were operating in cahoots with insurgent groups, and virtually shut down Hamas’s smuggling tunnel network. In the ensuing weeks, as the new government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi cracked down on its opponents, it treated Hamas as an unindicted co-conspirator in a terrorist campaign in Egypt being conducted by the extremist group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis and, according to the government, the Muslim Brotherhood itself. The Egyptian government sees itself as being at war with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas ss the Brotherhood group in Palestine. The relationship between Egypt and Hamas is therefore distinctly unfriendly, if not outright hostile.

In addition to seeking Egyptian and American support for the transfer of promised funding from Qatar to pay its employees, Hamas wants Egypt to permanently open the Rafah crossing and effectively end the blockade of Gaza, at least insofar as the movement of people is concerned. But for Egypt the crossing and the whole border area is a major national security issue and its level of trust in Hamas is nil.

However, the question of Rafah has major implications for Ramallah, which has brought the beleaguered Palestinian Authority (PA) and the sidelined (and seemingly impotent and irrelevant) President Mahmoud Abbas to the fore. The only real prospect for reopening Rafah on a permanent basis is an old idea now suddenly revived: that PA security forces, along with international monitors, would control the Palestinian side of the crossing rather than Hamas.

Whether Egypt would be willing to agree to this is not clear, although Abbas has expressed interest. In light of Cairo’s cold shoulder, Hamas has attempted to bring its current patrons, Turkey and Qatar, into the center of diplomatic activity to help secure a cease-fire, to little avail. The centrality of Egypt to a potential cease-fire is simply unavoidable. It is the only Arab state that borders Gaza, and therefore has a direct influence on what does and does not happen there.

But Egypt’s priority is not, as some mistakenly think, to preserve its allegedly coveted role as the go-to mediator and broker of Israeli-Hamas truces. Instead, the Egyptian government is determined to ensure that Hamas is not able to coerce it into modifying what Sisi regards as key national security policies regarding Gaza. Hence its initial proposal, essentially of “calm for calm,” offered Hamas no major gains. It was predictably, if not inevitably, rejected.

But now, Cairo has brought Abbas and the PA back into the talks, center stage. The Egyptians have grasped, even if Israel and some others have not, that the long-term political impact of the conflict probably depends more on restoring and enhancing the credibility of the PA than any other factor.

The PA has been badly damaged by the failure of the last round of peace negotiations and the lack of a viable ongoing diplomatic track towards Palestinian independence. Other strategies, such as U.N. recognition initiatives, have demonstrated limited impact and a prohibitive cost. Meanwhile, in the West Bank, the improvements in governance, reforms, economic development, and public services achieved by the state- and institution-building program led by former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have been stagnant, at best. In many cases, the palpable, measurable successes of that program are fraying.

There is no question that Abbas and the PA were suffering a crisis of legitimacy in recent months, at the same time that Hamas was enduring an even greater crisis at virtually every register. But now, at least, Hamas has seized the initiative, albeit at a hideous cost. It alone appears to wave the Palestinian flag, however speciously. It alone claims to have a strategy for national liberation — armed struggle and “resistance” — no matter how implausible.

The danger is that the bloody and reckless hostilities between Israel and Hamas at least constitute something, which a PA armed with nothing may find difficult to counter politically. With each successive flare-up of violence between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist group has taken more blame from both Palestinian and broader Arab public opinion for the deaths and destruction. Hamas’s political “bounce” from nationalist sentiment against Israel has been more fleeting. But if the PA still appears ineffective, marginal, and irrelevant, even the heaping of public blame on Hamas might not stop it from gaining significant ground in the Palestinian political landscape.

If we are, as it appears, looking at a lose-lose scenario between Israel and Hamas, the biggest loser of all could be the PA. That loss of legitimacy will be good for no one — not Egypt, not Israel, and certainly not for the cause of peace. Thus, even as Israeli tanks roll into Gaza, regional and international powers must move quickly to help the PA restore its diplomatic and political relevance. This means ensuring that Ramallah, not Gaza, remains the primary address for Palestinian issues, and that a clear and credible contrast in both governance and the consequences of their policies can be drawn by each and every Palestinian who compares the PA and Hamas. Otherwise it will be hard for Palestinians and others not to conclude that Hamas is right when it claims that armed struggle and violence yield dividends — albeit at a high cost — while negotiations, diplomacy, and security coordination are a pointless dead end.

Bibi’s First War

The best description of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political style is that he is risk-averse. His entire career has been defined by careful calculation, caution, and a steadfast commitment to the status quo. Few in Israel seem to love him, but they do regard him as safe and reliable. And that has been a remarkably effective formula for staying in power in a country whose governments rarely serve out their full term.

Yet suddenly, Netanyahu has found himself well outside of his comfort zone. His government has been sucked into a major conflict with Hamas and other extremists in Gaza, and it has no clear strategic goal or even an obvious exit strategy. Netanyahu is thus in the very position he’s least at ease with: he is at the mercy of events and other actors outside his control. He might hope that when tensions calm he will end up where he wants to be — the familiar status quo that he has always found politically comfortable. But that status quo, characterized by occupation and radical inequality in the Palestinian territories, is unsustainable and exceptionally dangerous for Israel, Palestine, and the region as a whole.

Netanyahu’s remarkable rise to prolonged political power in Israel, particularly in his extended second term, has been based on his impressive ability to position himself between Israel’s two poles: those who want peace with the Palestinians and those who want to consolidate control over the occupied territories. He is a supporter of the settler movement, but not a rabid one. Settlers and their leaders have frequently accused him of “silent” or “de facto” building freezes, and his government has demolished a number of wildcat settlement outposts (although it has also recognized many others).

He professes to be a proponent of a two-state solution, but both his policies and his rhetoric leave grave doubts about his commitment to that outcome. At a recent press conference, Netanyahu undermined any hopes that he is truly open to a real two-state solution. “I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan,” Netanyahu said, effectively ruling out the establishment of a truly independent, sovereign, and viable Palestinian state. In other words, his vision of the long-term future between Israel and the Palestinians is the status quo, defined by occupation and the rule over another people deprived of rights and citizenship, extended indefinitely.

Netanyahu seems content to leave things basically as they are, tinkering on the margins with new settlements and other small changes that may have a profound cumulative effect, but only in the long run. Anything else would be too risky. To restrain the settlers would mean a confrontation with the far right. To go in for annexation would provoke a massive diplomatic crisis. Netanyahu prefers, instead, to just allow the possibility of a two-state solution to fade away slowly, but inexorably. Indeed, in spite of widespread psychological speculation about the influence of his late father, a noted anti-Arab extremist, and his wife, whose cantankerous personality has been well documented, Netanyahu seems very much to follow his own counsel, which is apparently driven by a belief that the less done on major issues, the better for him.

Netanyahu does have some history of recklessness, but only when it comes to other people’s fortunes. Supporters of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated in 1995, bitterly accuse Netanyahu of orchestrating a campaign of public vilification that led to Rabin’s murder. And there is plenty of evidence that he did: Netanyahu appeared at rallies featuring posters of Rabin in Nazi SS uniforms and with crosshairs over his face. Netanyahu fulminated that Rabin’s government was “removed from Jewish tradition … and Jewish values” by seeking peace with the Palestinians. Rabin warned that Netanyahu was promoting a climate of violence, an evaluation that proved apt when Rabin was soon after gunned down by a young Jewish extremist.

Another risky political move was merging his Likud party list with that of the far-right party Yisrael Beytenu in the last elections. It was a personal and ideological mismatch from the outset, and seemed to cost both parties at the polls. The merger recently fell apart, which has probably only reinforced Netanyahu’s risk aversion.

With all his caution, Netanyahu has managed during his time in power to avoid leading the country in a major conflict. He was prime minister during a significant eight-day flare-up with Gaza in November 2012, but that couldn’t be characterized as a fully fledged war in the same way that the current conflagration must be because it was short and contained, and Netanyahu always appeared to be in control of events as they unfolded.

By contrast, the current conflict seems to embody Netanyahu’s deep aversion to unpredictable politics. It began with the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers in the occupied West Bank by militants that were associated with Hamas but had quite possibly gone rogue. The Israeli authorities knew all along that that the teenagers had been killed soon after the kidnapping, thanks to a phone call that they made to the police in which their murder could clearly be heard. But the authorities withheld that information from the public in order to carry out a massive crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank, disguised as an effort to rescue the boys.

When their bodies were discovered after 18 days, Netanyahu’s government seemed ready to call it a day. He signaled that he wasn’t interested in a major escalation in Gaza; Israelis had been down that road before, twice in a significant way, and had learned that blowing up buildings and killing people doesn’t change Hamas’ behavior or the strategic situation on the ground. But because Netanyahu’s government had deceived the public, the recovery of the boys’ bodies unleashed a fresh wave of anger. When Jewish Israeli fanatics nabbed, tortured, and burned alive a 16-year-old Palestinian boy in Jerusalem, and then video emerged of the Israeli border police brutally beating his 15-year-old cousin, events took on a life of their own. Unrest spread throughout the West Bank and in Palestinian areas of Israel. The Israeli crackdown intensified. Rocket attacks from Gaza increased, and Netanyahu ultimately felt politically compelled to act, despite evident misgivings from the military.

And so now, for the first time in his career, Netanyahu finds himself presiding over the chaos of a war that seems very much outside his control. Hamas has launched countless rockets at Israel, including parts of the country previously beyond its range, and Netanyahu has unleashed an enormous barrage against a vast range of targets in the Gaza Strip, including the homes and neighborhoods of Hamas leaders. Israeli airstrikes have left more than 200 Palestinians dead, and the United Nations estimates that 80 percent of them are civilians. An intensified fear hangs over Israel as Hamas and other groups demonstrate the reach of their latest rockets. Although the Hamas rockets have been largely ineffectual, several Israelis have been injured and at least one has been killed.

It would’ve taken real courage, and a willingness to embrace political risk, for Netanyahu to listen to wiser counsel and avoid this pointless exchange of violence. It isn’t clear whether Israel can achieve any major objectives in this war beyond killing people and blowing up civilian property and paramilitary installations, which is unlikely to achieve any major political or strategic goals and could do significant further harm to Israel’s international and regional reputation. And the conundrum is made worse by the fact that Israel actually wants Hamas to stay in power in Gaza, both because Hamas is a known quantity that can be held accountable for its transgressions and because Israel fears the anarchy or the other, more extreme, groups that could rise in its absence. So Israel can go only so far unless it decides to, once again, assume wholesale responsibility for what happens in, and who controls, Gaza.

In recent days, a number of influential Israeli voices have advocated just that. On Tuesday Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman criticized Netanyahu’s “hesitation” and declared that the current offensive should end with “a full takeover of the Gaza Strip” by Israel. Netanyahu responded by saying that he would ignore “background noise,” a clear rebuke to Lieberman. And after coming under severe criticism by Likud leader and Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, Netanyahu curtly dismissed him. The far right continues to push for a major ground operation in Gaza, but Netanyahu seems determined to stick to aerial bombardments and small-scale ground incursions if he can.

As things stand, this conflict bears all the hallmarks of a classic lose-lose scenario, at least in the short run. Netanyahu might calculate that the price of being sucked into a pointless and bloody attack on Gaza was worth paying to avoid the political harm that would come from doing nothing in the face of enormous public pressure. But the risk-averse and cautious Israeli politician cannot be comfortable this week. The most Netanyahu can hope for is that when the dust settles the new normal in Gaza looks comfortingly like the old normal, something both Netanyahu and the Israeli public believe they can live with, at least for now. But with everything in the region in flux, that expectation may be unrealistic. In a worst-case scenario, Hamas could emerge from this conflict bloodied and battered, but with much greater political and nationalist clout and credibility throughout Palestinian society, including the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority has been systematically weakened and looks utterly irrelevant and ineffectual.

Under Netanyahu’s leadership, Israel is treading water, both in the Gaza campaign and with regard to the biggest questions it faces about its future. It is postponing the day of reckoning, putting off decisions about the occupied territories and the Palestinians, and pretending everything will somehow be all right. Avoiding the toughest issues, which most Israelis don’t want to deal with and about which they share no consensus, may be an excellent strategy for Netanyahu’s personal political ambitions. But it is a terrible abrogation of his broader national duties: making the hard and necessary decisions, taking prudent and wise risks, and putting the country’s interests above his own political career and fortunes.

Did Netanyahu close the door on peace?

Was the Israeli PM posturing last Friday or is his outlook as bleak as it seems?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech during the inauguration of the Bar-Ilan University Faculty of Medicine in Tsfat, north of Israel, on October 30, 2011 (AFP Photo/Pool/Jack Guez)


As the latest round of violence and attacks between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza was raging, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemingly ruled out any real prospect that he would ever support a two-state solution. As reported by David Horovitz of the Times of Israel, Netanyahu told a press conference last Friday: “I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.”

In effect, this means “no” to any sovereign, viable Palestinian state. It seems to vindicate those who never believed Netanyahu was sincere in his June 2009 Bar-Ilan speech and subsequent declarations that he now supports peace based on a Palestinian state after years of opposing it. Such critics recall that in a private talk to Israelis in 2001, Netanyahu boasted that in his first term as prime minister he had “de facto put an end to the Oslo Accords.”

So, is Netanyahu, the consummate political survivor and deal-maker, posturing again? Are his comments from last week, which are so devastating to all Palestinians, Israelis and others committed to a viable Israeli-Palestinian peace, to be read in the light of the passions of the moment, of the conflict that contextualized them?

Or are they, as so many will both fear and with the deepest reluctance finally conclude, a sincere and solid commitment to the Israeli public that, under his watch, Israel will never accept a genuinely independent Palestinian state no matter what Netanyahu has said or hinted in the past?

The deep history of the man himself, his politics, and those of his country at the moment are not encouraging. They all militate towards the second, dark and depressing reading.

But Netanyahu did not offer any vision of the future beyond this statement that Israel would never relinquish security control in the West Bank. Indeed, does he have a vision at all? It seems not, unless it’s simply the indefinite continuation of the status quo.

If that is what he has in mind, at least for the remainder of his own political career, then his statement can be understood in an instrumental sense. The conflict with Hamas has given the Islamist group momentum in Palestinian political life, at least in the present instant, despite the devastation being wrought on the long-suffering and innocent people of Gaza. In this light, Netanyahu’s comments deal yet another body blow to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and indeed to all those committed to peace based on two states.

As such, the logic of those who argue that Netanyahu’s approach is to damage, but not overthrow, Hamas in Gaza; marginalize and emasculate the PA in Ramallah; and bamboozle the United States with false pledges of interest in peace seems to be greatly vindicated by recent events and statements. Indeed, Amir Oren of Haaretz goes as far as to argue that Netanyahu now seeks three states for two peoples: Israel, and two disempowered Palestinian mini-states; one in Gaza and the other in Area A of the West Bank. That’s certainly what is emerging now, and of the three, the PA – which seems to be the only one with a clear commitment to peace – is the most politically weakened, disempowered and vulnerable.

But what does Netanyahu’s statement about security control imply? Only one of two things: either Israel will end up incorporating a vast number of new Palestinian citizens, to the point that it is no longer a Jewish state even in theory; or Israel will take the temporary “separate and unequal” arrangement it oversees in the occupied Palestinian territories and make it permanent. The Statute of Rome provides a clear definition of such a permanent arrangement, as opposed, for example, to a temporary occupation. It’s called the “crime of apartheid.”

So Netanyahu wants security control, which means ruling land, which means no Palestinian state. But neither he nor any other Israeli has been able to propose any formula other than two states that would end the conflict and allow Israel to remain either Jewish or democratic, let alone both. So, his answer is, in the long run, no answer at all.

It’s possible that Netanyahu was either pandering to the public at a time of war, or was staking out a strong position that can be negotiated down. Everyone with any hope for a better future must fervently wish this to be the case, and the door should never be closed to that reading. Calculations and positions, after all, change as circumstances do.

But, unfortunately, it’s also possible that last Friday Netanyahu really did openly announce that he cannot imagine a real peace agreement, at least for now. While neither he nor anyone else has any viable alternative, peace based on two states remains the only solution to further conflict such as currently on gruesome display in Gaza and beyond.

Palestinians die in the most cynical of all military games

Lost amid the carnage, the key fact about the latest Israeli-Palestinian conflagration remains largely unrecognised: Egypt’s new and pivotal role. Egypt has always been the default broker between Israel and Hamas, since it is able to deal with Hamas without according it any greater international and diplomatic legitimacy.

But this time it’s different. It’s no longer about Egypt playing a crucial mediating role. Instead, Hamas is mainly seeking to extract concessions not from Tel Aviv or Ramallah, but from Cairo.

Hamas, or more likely loosely affiliated rogue elements based in Hebron, deliberately lit a fire by kidnapping and murdering three Israeli teenagers. This unleashed a brutal series of tit-for-tat attacks between Israelis and Palestinians that spiralled out of control.

Certainly, the Palestinian Authority based in Ramallah had no control over what was going on in occupied East Jerusalem, let alone unrest among Palestinian citizens of Israel.

The Israeli government, too, clearly lost control of the situation when fanatics grabbed an innocent teenager and tortured and burnt him to death. Even Israel’s security forces seemed to be acting beyond any bounds of restraint as they brutally beat a 15-year-old Palestinian-American cousin of the murder victim.

Passions ruled the day. Years of incitement and frustration on both sides boiled over.

As rocket attacks on southern Israel from Gaza increased, it also seemed that Hamas leaders perhaps didn’t control their own military, and certainly not that of other, more extreme groups like Islamic Jihad.

Yet Hamas sought some kind of benefit in the chaos.

As Israeli forces carried out a brutal crackdown in the West Bank aimed at severely degrading the Hamas presence there, rounding up hundreds of captives and terrifying villagers across the area, Hamas attempted to whip up a third intifada in order to gain a greater foothold beyond Gaza. This failed, largely because most Palestinians didn’t want another uprising because they still recall the consequences of the last one.

So Hamas was dealt a serious blow in the West Bank but remained in the parlous condition in which it had begun. It was broke. It was isolated. It had instituted an agreement with Fatah, but gained nothing. It was smarting under a major and unrelenting crackdown from Egypt. It was experiencing “an identity crisis”, and a tactical and strategic dead-end. Hamas had to do something.

So it fell back on its most familiar territory: rocket attacks against Israel designed to provoke an overreaction. The Israeli military knew better. They recalled previous violent exchanges with Hamas as strategically useless, and indeed highly counterproductive for Israel’s international image and strategic posture. But prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu allowed himself to be sucked into a brutal bombardment campaign with no clear endgame.

Now ordinary people in Gaza are dying again in large numbers. More than 160 have been killed, mostly civilians and many of them children. And significant apparent atrocities sear the conscience.

Some argue that the innocent people of Gaza are all Hamas’s “human shields”. But 1.7 million people living in wretched poverty in one of the most overpopulated places on earth cannot be reduced to that kind of instrumental dehumanisation.

Hamas has three public demands, and if it doesn’t achieve any of them when a ceasefire is finally secured, it will have suffered a massive political and military defeat, although Israel, too, will not benefit. It’s a perfect example of a lose-lose scenario.

Hamas seeks the release of “security prisoners” rearrested by Israel. But more importantly, Hamas has demands on Egypt. It wants the permanent reopening of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt. And it wants Egypt to facilitate the transfer of badly needed funds from Qatar and other sponsors. Simply, it wants to force Egypt to change its policies.

But why would Abdel Fattah El Sisi, the new Egyptian president, charge to the rescue of Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine?

The Egyptian authorities, and much of the population, view Hamas as co-conspirators in the terrorist campaign in their own country. The Egyptian military has virtually shut down Gaza smuggling tunnels. They reportedly killed some two dozen Hamas operatives in northern Sinai who were allegedly acting in cahoots with the terrorists there.

So Mr El Sisi and company are showing no interest in Hamas’s demands on them. Egypt is very slowly inching toward its familiar role of mediator and ceasefire broker due to humanitarian impulses, public pressure and a prudent concern about containing the growing chaos in Gaza.

Mr El Sisi met the Middle East Quartet envoy Tony Blair recently to begin to explore the prospects. But Cairo certainly doesn’t seem to be rushing to bail out Hamas, or Mr Netanyahu for that matter, for now.

Mr Netanyahu and Israel are probably as interested in a rapid ceasefire as is Hamas, since they achieved what they wanted to strategically in the West Bank before they found the bodies of the teenagers (who they knew all along were dead).

But Israel, like Hamas, is trapped in a conflict neither probably wanted and neither seem likely to gain anything from. Meanwhile, the price is paid in blood, misery and suffering by the innocent Palestinians of Gaza, playthings in the most cynical of vicious games.

Mainstream Arabs must push against the Islamic State

It was bound to happen. Since the Salafist-Jihadist ideology emerged during the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, its adherents have typically maintained a radical disconnect between their strategic aims and practical tactics.

Whether the wild frenzy of the Algerian civil war, the megalomaniacal global terrorism of Osama bin Laden or the savage butchery of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the takfiris could always be relied upon to sabo­tage themselves. Dysfunctional levels of extremism and overreach defined behaviour that consistently backfired.

Yet, since the emergence of the “Arab Afghans” following the Soviet defeat, close observers of the Middle East have been asking when a less irrational – and therefore infinitely more dangerous – Salafist-­Jihadist entity would arise to menace the region.

The newly designated Islamic State, formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), may be just such a phenomenon.

Rash, self-defeating behaviour is hardly absent from the Islamic State’s conduct, to be sure. But in both Syria and Iraq its firestorm of seizing territory – including strategic and symbolic locations – evinces some rational calculation. Rather than being merely a terrorist group focused on destruction, the Islamic State seeks – and is acquiring – territory to rule.

In Syria, both the Islamic State and the Bashar Al Assad dictatorship have cynically and intelligently gone to considerable lengths to avoid directly confronting each other. Instead, the Islamic State has focused on seizing territory already outside of the government’s control and asserting its power over other opposition groups and, of course, the hapless population. Meanwhile they happily sell oil from the reserves they have seized back to Damascus.

Undoubtedly, good luck and timing have strengthened the Islamic State’s hand. In addition to its unspoken partnership with the Syrian regime, it is serving as a vanguard for a much broader set of Iraqi Sunni militias and constituencies. Alone, they could not have achieved their recent territorial gains.

Herein lies the deepest challenge the Islamic State poses to Sunni-majority states in the Arab world: it claims to represent all of the Muslims of the world. It doesn’t matter how ridiculous such pretensions patently are; identifiable constituencies will be tempted to admire, and possibly eventually support, such grandiose bombast precisely because it is so extravagant.

If what has to this point been merely a wild-eyed and bloodthirsty ideology at last has an organisation capable of seizing and maintaining power in specific strategically and politically significant areas in the heart of the Arab world, then the threat defines itself.

The Islamic State is at least as disastrous for the regional strategic landscape as for individual states. Its rise has been the key to Mr Al Assad’s survival in office. For Iran, the Islamic State is creating a situation that seems almost certain to produce major and sustained strategic gains.

Mainstream Arab societies and states would be well advised to move urgently and forcefully to defang this monstrosity. The Islamic State has created a reality – and, even more dramatically perhaps, also an illusion – of sudden and unexpected success. The reality on the ground must be changed and the illusion (that the Islamic State leads and represents most Sunnis in Iraq, northern Syria and beyond) must be broken.

That means backing their most reasonable Sunni rivals. In Iraq, especially, an eventual power struggle with other Sunni groups that are presently allies of convenience, and mutual outrage over the political marginalisation of the community, is probably inevitable. Although a repetition of the Sahwa (“Awakening”) against Al Qaeda in Iraq a few years ago is unlikely, especially if Nouri Al Maliki remains prime minister, a struggle in which the Islamic State finds itself targeted and seriously degraded is plausible.

Overreach and miscalculation are evident in the Islamic State’s recent moves, including its statehood declaration and preposterous designation of its leader, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, as “Caliph Ibrahim ibn Awwad”, complete with the demand of obedience from all Muslims.

The October 2006 announcement of an “Islamic State of Iraq” was probably the last straw that made the Sahwa possible. Therefore, it ought to be possible to encourage Iraqi Sunnis to view these latest announcements in a similar light.

The new Caliph’s scandalous proclamation that “Syria does not belong to the Syrians and Iraq does not belong to the Iraqis” certainly ought to provide a basis for pitting national and local identities against this virulent jihadist internationalism. Rage against Mr Al Maliki and other Shiite leaders shouldn’t, and indeed mustn’t, be enough to reconcile most Iraqi Sunnis to outrageous pronouncements that harm their interests.

The childish extremism and childlike ambition of the Islamic State will undoubtedly hold a certain romantic appeal for some Muslim constituencies. However, in both Syria and Iraq, ample opportunities are already evident to undermine the Islamic State, expose its hollow fanaticism, demonstrate that it is an endless boon to Mr Al Assad and Iran, and roll back its recent successes. More opportunities will emerge shortly.

These existing and unfolding vulnerabilities for the Islamic State must be immediately targeted, and new ones created, by the judicious application of incentives and disincentives. The Islamic State organisation may be around for many years, but Arabs can and should work together to ensure it returns to the fringes.