Indispensable but Elusive: Palestinian National Reunification

With the latest round of Israel-Hamas hostilities giving way to a tense truce and cease-fire negotiations in Cairo, the Palestinian national-unity agreement has suddenly, and unexpectedly, become central to the thinking of all major players. What had looked strongly like a pro forma and essentially failed political initiative may be salvaged and transformed by the Gaza war into a centerpiece of the post conflict scenario. It will not, in reality and in the short term, involve full Palestinian political reunification. That would require a merging of the security and armed forces of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas and, in effect, the disarming of Hamas’s paramilitary wing, the Qassam Brigades. There is no chance Hamas would agree to this unless the organization were truly broken, and nothing in the foreseeable future appears likely to achieve that result. However, a degree of Palestinian political transformation now appears possible.

Why Hamas Signed the Unity Agreement

Since the split between Hamas’s rule in Gaza and the PA’s rule in the West Bank in 2007, nearly all Palestinians have regarded this national division as a political disaster. It has meant that much of what both parties do is defined by their competition rather than the cause of national liberation and the goal of ending Israel’s occupation. Hamas, in particular, has been guided almost entirely by its determination to try to marginalize Fatah and either eliminate or take over the PA and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Much of what the Ramallah leadership does is also guided by the goal of fending off this challenge. However, both parties may now feel obliged to maintain the new unity government established on the basis of the agreement they reached on April 23, 2014.

Knowing that most Palestinians desperately wanted and indeed demanded an end to that division, Hamas and Fatah had made several earlier aborted attempts at reconciliation, most notably the agreements in Doha and Cairo. But in neither case were they implemented. None of the issues that destroyed the brief period of cohabitation in 2006-07 between a Hamas-led parliament and a Fatah-led presidency had been resolved. It was not possible to fit the square peg of Hamas’s strategy of armed struggle to secure the liberation of all of historical Palestine into the round hole of the PA/PLO strategy of seeking to establish an independent Palestinian state in the occupied territories through diplomacy, nonviolence and, especially, an agreement with Israel. Moreover, the two parties had incompatible visions of the nature of their society, the role of religion in state and society, the status of women and religious minorities, and virtually everything else.

Hamas entered into the most recent agreement through a complex process of increasing desperation. It suffered a series of devastating blows over the past three years, which led it to completely rethink its strategy. Hamas had, incongruously, long been both a core Muslim Brotherhood party, and hence Sunni Islamists, yet at the same time a key member of the mainly Shiite pro-Iranian alliance. This political feat was accomplished through the mythology of an “axis of resistance” that seemed to transcend sectarian differences. However, as sectarianism became a dominant narrative in the region over the course of the so-called Arab Spring, the space for such a complex, and increasingly counterintuitive, position collapsed.

The Syrian rebellion, in particular, forced the issue. Because the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood was not only a core member of the opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but at the early stages of the uprising perhaps the most important political grouping opposed to the dictatorship, Hamas found itself in an untenable position. Hamas’s dominant political bureau was headquartered in Damascus, and its primary funding, arms supplies and military training came from Iran. The Syrian situation forced Hamas to choose between its essential identity as a Muslim Brotherhood party and continuing good relations with its main patrons in Syria and Iran. Hamas could not but choose to maintain its core identity, and key Hamas leaders had to leave Syria (in the process abandoning large amounts of property and investment belonging to both the organization and its leaders). Funding from Iran also dried up, and Iran’s attention in Gaza began to focus much more on Hamas’s rival, Islamic Jihad.

All was not lost, however, despite this heavy blow. Hamas remained optimistic; like many others, it believed that post-dictatorship dynamics in an emerging new Arab world would bring Muslim Brotherhood parties to power in many Arab states, especially Egypt. Hamas’s hopes were encouraged by the election of Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamed Morsi in June 2012. Although Hamas did not gain any specific tangible benefits from having an ideologically sympathetic Egyptian leader during Morsi’s actual presidency, nonetheless they could console themselves with the notion that, eventually, Morsi’s policies would lead Egypt in a more friendly direction. They saw Morsi’s election, along with the (also short-lived) triumph of the Brotherhood-oriented Ennahda party in Tunisia, as harbingers of a broad trend of political victories for the Brotherhood movement. They were confident they were part of the wave of the future.

Those hopes were dashed by the July 3, 2013, ouster of Morsi by a military-led coalition after an unprecedented public outcry against his rule. The new Egyptian government, under the guidance of the military, launched a massive crackdown against the Brotherhood, including the violent suppression of protesters involving hundreds of deaths, the jailing of most of its key leaders, and other harsh measures. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was accused of being a terrorist organization and of collaborating with established terrorist groups operating out of the Sinai Peninsula, especially Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (Supporters of Jerusalem), which had been openly conducting a terrorist campaign against the Egyptian military in Sinai.

The accusations did not stop at the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. They were, in many cases, extended to cover Hamas as well. Shortly after the ouster of Morsi, the Egyptian military swept into northern Sinai in a massive crackdown against insurgents and rebel groups there. They claim that they discovered Hamas forces operating on the Egyptian side of the border in collaboration with bandits, terrorists, insurgents and others. Indeed, they claim to have killed some two dozen Hamas cadres in the initial operations. Hamas denied all of this, but to no avail. Egypt implemented a massive crackdown on Hamas, which it now treated as a hostile entity.

Egypt has always regarded the Gaza border area and the Rafah crossing as more of a domestic and national-security issue than a foreign-policy challenge. This sense was heightened by the perception that Gaza was governed by an entity, Hamas, that actively supported subversion and even terrorism inside Egypt itself. Following this logic, Egypt moved to shut down smuggling tunnels, make it much harder for anything or anyone to pass between Egypt and Gaza, and close the crossing except for humanitarian purposes or other special exceptions.

Gaza had never in its history been this cut off. The Egyptian blockade was, if anything, tighter than the Israeli blockade. And Egypt was in no way constrained, as Israel is, by the responsibilities accruing to the officially designated (by the UN Security Council) occupying power in Gaza. Israel has both the rights and the responsibilities of an occupying power in all of the Palestinian territories seized in 1967; Egypt’s lawful prerogatives are much more elastic. Hamas soon found itself politically isolated, diplomatically squeezed and economically strangled at a whole new level, even considering that the blockade had existed since the 2007 split with the PA in the West Bank. Every survey, poll and other evidence suggested that, not only was Hamas itself now experiencing unprecedented woes, its popularity in Gaza was suffering a precipitate nosedive. Goods were unavailable, electricity and water were unprovided, and salaries were unpaid.

What Hamas Hoped to Achieve

This was the context under which Hamas agreed to the unity deal, signed in Gaza City on April 23, 2014, between its de facto “prime minister” in the Strip, Ismail Haniyeh, and a PLO delegation representing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. At first glance, the provisions of the agreement appear to be highly disadvantageous to Hamas. The government that was eventually formed under its provisions contained no Hamas members. It was led by Abbas as president and, more directly, the incumbent Abbas appointee, Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah. Most of the key ministers in the existing PA government in Ramallah were simply transferred into the new “unity” government.

Moreover, from the outset, Abbas pledged, and in practice the new government affirmed, that it would strictly abide by three conditions demanded by the United States and other key actors in the international community: recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence, and affirmation of the inviolability of existing Palestinian treaty commitments. These amount to the conditions laid down by the Middle East Quartet (United States, European Union, Russia and the UN Secretariat). Hamas had refused them. In other words, the new Palestinian government embraced the policies of the PLO towards both Israel and its approach towards Palestinian national liberation.

However, while the advantage in the arrangement seemed, at least at a superficial level, to be entirely with the PA and the PLO, Hamas had its own interpretations and its own intentions. It had secured Fatah, PA and PLO acceptance of the biggest single requirement from its own point of view: the issue of the Hamas Qassam Brigades was not raised or dealt with by the accord. Therefore, even in the context of the “unity” agreement and government, Hamas would retain its large, independent and powerful paramilitary force. Therefore, it would continue to be the dominant presence in Gaza, especially at crucial moments, and would continue to practice, in effect, its own security and foreign policies. Hamas had not compromised its trump card.

Moreover, ceding nominal authority over most aspects of governance in Gaza to the PA might have been humiliating, but it held certain key benefits for Hamas. It promised, for example, to potentially open the way for an influx of cash from Ramallah, and, via Ramallah, from Arab states and the international donor community. Hamas could leverage the international reputation and diplomatic standing of the PA and the PLO in order to resuscitate the Gazan economy and claim some credit for that in the process. Moreover, Hamas was never particularly interested in, and failed abysmally at, the workaday chores of local governance. The PA has a better, though mixed, record of governance in Area A of the West Bank, peaking with a heartening performance during Salam Fayyad’s tenure as prime minister.

Hamas may have concluded that Gaza had become more of a political a trap than a useful base for them. Inside the narrow Strip, they were contained, indeed quarantined, by Israel and a now-hostile Egypt. In terms of governance, the territory was as much a burden as an asset. With 1.8 million people crammed into a tiny area and subjected to an unparalleled blockade — particularly regarding exports, which were almost entirely prohibited by its two neighbors — Gaza was proving ungovernable, nonviable and increasingly restive. The idea of handing governance and economic responsibility to somebody else must have had a certain appeal.

Furthermore, Hamas seems to have concluded that its long-term campaign to seize dominance within the Palestinian national movement, its primary goal since its founding, was simply not possible to accomplish using Gaza as a base. Hamas was not only diplomatically isolated and financially impoverished, it was far away from the Palestinian heartland in the West Bank, and the epicenter of Palestinian political life and aspirations: East Jerusalem. There is every reason to believe that Hamas leaders decided that giving up a degree of power and authority in Gaza would be worth it — if the agreement would allow them to operate more freely, openly and effectively in the West Bank.

Why the PA/PLO Signed the Unity Agreement

The leadership in Ramallah was also naturally disinclined to implement any real power-sharing agreement with their rivals. At least two other major unity agreements had been signed but not enforced, in April 2011 in Cairo and in February 2012 in Doha. The terms of both of these earlier agreements were similar to the 2014 accord. Both parties had thereby proven their sensitivity to public pressure, but also their profound reluctance to actualize these agreements. However, unlike the two earlier false starts, the 2014 agreement did, in fact, lead to the creation of a new government.

As Hamas was facing an unprecedented meltdown in Gaza during 2013-14, the Ramallah leadership was also in a severe, albeit less extreme, crisis of its own. Like Hamas, its leaders lacked a popular mandate; no elections had been held since early 2006. Its policy of negotiating with Israel had not produced any tangible benefits in years, but had occasioned significant frustration. Its controversial policy of security coordination with Israel helped to secure law and order and stability, but in the absence of diplomatic progress, it often was painted as simply providing calm for the occupier. The sense of patriotic duty and national purpose was being weakened both within the security services, and, especially, in the public perception of their role.

Abbas and the PLO had faced down the West and Israel twice at the United Nations, first in a failed 2011 attempt at the Security Council to gain full UN membership. This produced a series of punitive measures, including a reduction in aid, but because the attempt failed, the backlash was manageable. A year later, in 2012, however, the PLO was able to successfully upgrade its UN status, via the General Assembly, from “Observer Mission” to “Non-Member Observer State.” This did not change Palestine’s prerogatives or responsibilities in the General Assembly much, but it demonstrated the PLO’s willingness to use its very solid majority in any global body that conducts its business on the basis of one state, one vote. This development is also significant because every entity that has attained the status of UN Non-Member Observer State has eventually become a full UN member, either on its own or as part of a larger national entity. The sole exception is Vatican City, which does not wish to be a UN member state.

In addition to signaling a PLO willingness to defy Israel, the United States and some European states, and to “internationalize” diplomacy on the issue, the second, successful, UN initiative also hinted at further potential Palestinian measures to join other multilateral organizations and treaties based on the same international majority. Israel was particularly alarmed at the prospect of Palestinians acceding to the Statute of Rome and thereby joining the Assembly of Parties at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Through such means, Palestine could potentially not only be a party to the statute, but invoke its provisions in complaints against Israel, providing that the Palestinian non-member UN observer state was ruled to be sovereign in the territory in question, most notably Gaza (Israel is not a signatory to the statute). This prospect potentially threatened Israeli officials and military officers with war crimes investigations, and possibly prosecutions, over the long run.

The United States, while also opposed to a Palestinian ICC initiative, faced potential concerns of its own. Still binding, although profoundly anachronistic, American legislation mandates that the United States defund any international agency that recognizes or admits Palestine as a member. The validity of this law was already tested in the case of UNESCO, which Palestine joined in 2011, and seems to be as applicable as when it was passed in the 1990s. The United States withdrew all funding from UNESCO in 2011 and in November 2013 was stripped of its voting rights in the organization. Americans worried that they could be forced out of key multilateral agencies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, the centerpiece of global nonproliferation initiatives (currently focused on Iran), and the World Intellectual Property Organization, through which the United States protects the copyrights, patents and trademarks held by Microsoft, Apple, Disney and other U.S. companies, particularly in the information-technology and entertainment fields.

For all these reasons, the backlash against the 2012 Palestinian UN initiative was intense and had profound and extremely negative consequences. American aid was, in effect, cut by three quarters, while European aid was similarly reduced. Israel withheld the Palestinian tax revenues it collects on imports and exports and is bound, under the Paris Protocol, to hand over to the PA. These alone constitute at least 50 percent of a typical monthly PA budget, and often much more. Most of that budget is used to pay public-sector employees. As a consequence of this economic backlash, the PA experienced its own fiscal meltdown and found itself unable to pay salaries or fund programs. Fayyad’s institution-building program, which had been so promising and had exceeded all expectations, was virtually halted. The prime minister himself came under an unprecedented barrage of personal and vitriolic attacks, particularly by angry Fatah cadres, on the pretext of the economic situation. Ironically, Fayyad was the only prominent Palestinian official on record about the cost-benefit ratio of the UN initiative, pointedly asking Abbas and others what they were going to do about the potential budget shortfall. They, of course, had no answer. When that inevitable shortfall began to severely undermine the PA fiscal status and the economic conditions in the West Bank, Fayyad took the blame.

On April 13, 2013, Fayyad had enough. He resigned, refusing to reconsider even under enormous pressure from many quarters, especially U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. But the damage had been done. When properly supported politically and funded internationally, the Fayyad-led state and institution-building initiatives had indeed served, as they were supposed to, as an invaluable bottom-up support structure for top-down negotiations. But without its leader in the premiership, and without much interest in the program from other Palestinian leaders, Israel or the United States, the project began to atrophy. Some of its achievements, particularly regarding reform and governance, were even somewhat reversed. The idea that improving conditions for Palestinian daily life was important to the overall project of achieving a two-state solution, buttressing diplomacy and creating conditions for successful statehood had, at least temporarily, been abandoned. The conditions of daily life not only stopped improving; they began to deteriorate.

The most recent American-led peace initiative, operating under a nine-month deadline established by Kerry, held out some hope for diplomatic progress, although almost everyone except the secretary of state appeared highly skeptical. Even President Barack Obama was on record expressing doubts. Israelis and Palestinians at every level were dubious. Nonetheless, no American diplomatic initiative can be casually dismissed, and as long as the talks continued, PLO diplomacy remained a politically viable proposition.

By March 2014, however, it was becoming increasingly clear that Kerry was getting nowhere. He was being stonewalled by Israel, which was pressing forward aggressively with settlements in a manner that seemed intended to humiliate the U.S. government in general, and Kerry in particular. Palestinians were even more exasperated. For the PA, the prospect of another looming collapse of diplomacy with Israel and the United States was profoundly alarming. For years, its approach had been dealt repeated blows because of the apparent inability to achieve progress with Israel on core final-status issues or towards Palestinian national liberation. Public confidence in not only PLO diplomacy, but PA governance and, even more alarmingly, the viability of a two-state solution with Israel, was being severely undermined.

This formed the essential backdrop to the PA/PLO interest in another agreement with Hamas, which this time seemed to have a better chance of being implemented. While most of the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring demanded regime change or government reform, this was not the case among Palestinians. The popular protests that erupted in both the West Bank and Gaza in the aftermath of the downfall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak instead called for national unity and reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. One of the reasons for this is that the worst governance failure, in the perception of many Palestinians, was the 2007 split between the two major parties and between the two major parts of Palestine — far more serious misrule than the lack of accountability, arbitrary abuses, corruption and one-party rule that drove protests in many other Arab societies. Another often overlooked, but vitally important, reason was that the reforms being pursued by the PA under Fayyad-led state-building initiatives actually anticipated many of the demands of the Arab Spring. They had certainly not been completed, but had they continued, the reforms might have constituted a model for other Arab societies.

However, when the most recent American peace initiative collapsed, the leadership in Ramallah faced few attractive options. It could intensify diplomatic efforts to secure greater recognition in multilateral agencies and UN bodies, but that did not actually change realities on the ground. While it might produce a brief spike in popularity, the costs were potentially significant in terms of aid and cooperation from Western states, as well as Israel’s potential retaliation. The PLO was also not receiving the encouragement of Arab states to take this route, or promises that Arab support would replace Western shortfalls (pledges that had been made in the past but often not fully implemented). Promoting another intifada has been ruled out by the PA for the entire Abbas era, and a solid majority of Palestinians in the West Bank do not appear to want anything to do with the repetition of a bitter experience. Boycott campaigns aimed at Israel in general appear to do as much harm as good, and while European efforts to target the occupation were welcome and helpful, they were easily absorbed by the Israelis as an affront and a nuisance.

Yet something had to be done to regain the initiative and to move beyond the impasse with Israel. Therefore, an agreement with Hamas, despite deep reservations and significant costs, became much more attractive to Abbas and other Ramallah-based leaders. At the very least, they were hoping to shore up their legitimacy and popularity by once again demonstrating they were more sincere about national reunification than Hamas was, and by taking bold steps to prove it. In the past, Fatah has expressed much more serious interest in elections, for example, than Hamas has (the Hamas position being that unification had to precede elections, an excuse that distracts no one from their generally abysmal poll numbers). Moreover, the PA was obviously interested in an agreement that might give it more of a foothold back in Gaza than it had had since 2007. The goal of both parties, ultimately, is to marginalize each other in their respective areas of control. The PA and PLO seek to consolidate their longstanding but threatened control over the mainstream of the Palestinian national movement, while Hamas seeks to gain control of it.

PA/PLO interest in the agreement was obviously intensified by the perception that Hamas was negotiating from a position of weakness and was likely to agree to, and perhaps even implement, terms advantageous to Ramallah. In the event, that is what happened, particularly given that the PA never expected Hamas to discuss, let alone agree to, anything regarding the Qassam Brigades. But an understanding in which Abbas could remain president and be authorized as PLO chairman to conduct negotiations with Israel; retain his prime minister and most of his serving, and all of his key, ministers; and in which the new government would adopt the longstanding PLO positions of recognizing Israel, renouncing violence and upholding existing Palestinian obligations, proved very appealing.

Israel’s Reasons for Opposing the Unity Agreement

The response from the Palestinians’ key interlocutors was mixed. The United States laid down its core positions reflecting the Quartet principles, and, when they were met, Washington announced it was prepared to work with the new Palestinian government. Israel took a much harder line. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others insisted that they would never recognize or negotiate with any Palestinian government approved by Hamas. The general Israeli government line was that, by concluding an agreement with Hamas, the PA and the PLO had “chosen terrorism over peace,” and that Palestinian nationalists could either negotiate with Israel or cooperate with Hamas, but not both.

This extreme stance seems to reflect a general lack of interest on the part of the Netanyahu government to seriously negotiate, let alone reach an agreement, with the PLO on core final-status issues. The Israeli prime minister has a long history of opposing a two-state solution in theory, as well as in principle. However, in his June 2009 speech at Bar Ilan University, Netanyahu declared himself a supporter of a two-state solution, at least in theory. Since then, there has been a widespread debate about his sincerity in this stance, which was essential for maintaining good relations with the United States. These doubts persisted throughout the negotiating process, reinforced by each impasse, whether fairly or unfairly. However, Netanyahu’s undisguised commitment to the settlement project spurred Palestinian fears about his intentions at every stage. And his July 14, 2014, comments, as hostilities with Hamas were intensifying, that Israel could never give up security control in the occupied West Bank seemed to solidify the idea that Netanyahu would never agree to a fully-realized two-state solution with the Palestinians.

Some in the Israeli government at the time of Hamas’s founding clearly hoped that dividing the Palestinian national movement between competing nationalist and Islamist camps would weaken the other side and strengthen Israel’s hand. Indeed, this may still be a strong feature of the strategic thinking in some Israeli circles. It would reflect an attitude that fundamentally does not distinguish between the nationalists in the PA/PLO who have been pursuing a strategy of nonviolent diplomatic efforts to secure Palestinian independence and end the occupation — even extending to security coordination with Israeli occupation forces in the West Bank — and Hamas, which continues to both preach and practice the doctrine of armed resistance and rejects in principle recognizing Israel in a two-state solution. Such a conflation almost certainly arises only in the context of the rejection of a two-state solution as either undesirable or unattainable, or both, on the part of those Israelis who share this perspective.

Therefore, Israeli attitudes towards Hamas are frequently shaped by underlying attitudes towards a two-state solution and the acceptability of Palestinian statehood. Those who are fundamentally opposed to Palestinian statehood as a security threat to Israel and/or incompatible with a long-term Greater Israel agenda tend not to distinguish between Hamas and the PA. And, where there are such distinctions, the impulse is to erase them at the slightest provocation. The instinct is to see all Palestinians as fundamentally part of the enemy camp and therefore as suspect and probably hostile. The same is true in reverse for Palestinians. Those who are committed to a two-state solution tend to recognize the significant differences that exist in the Israeli political spectrum. Those who do not believe such a solution is either attainable or acceptable dismiss these distinctions and view all Israelis as simply the occupiers.

Many members of Netanyahu’s governing coalition openly oppose a two-state solution and give every appearance of reflecting the thinking outlined above. Although the political center and left in Israel did better in the last parliamentary elections than anticipated, this was probably a consequence of the focus during the campaign on economic and other domestic political issues to the exclusion of national security, the Palestinians or the occupation.

Given these political realities and the ascendance of Israel’s territorially aggressive political right, it’s not surprising that the Israeli response to the Palestinian national-unity agreement of 2014 was so hostile. Those Israelis who are genuinely fixated on security saw the threat of Hamas’s potential greater reach into the West Bank, using the same logic Hamas leaders did. Those who are committed to the settlement project, eventual annexation or even simply the indefinite extension of the status quo, often value the political division between Palestinians as a form of “divide and rule.” The split between Hamas and Fatah or the West Bank and Gaza or, indeed, any major division within the Palestinian ranks in this zero-sum logic automatically accrues to the benefit of Israel and to the detriment of the Palestinians. Israel, after all, can — and indeed often does — question the logic of diplomacy when there is a national division on the Palestinian side. “Why should we talk with Abbas,” the argument goes, “when he cannot deliver the whole Palestinian people?”

The Palestinian political division also allows Israel to enhance its longstanding policy of creating a multiplicity of legal and political statuses for Palestinians living under Israeli jurisdiction, another form of divide and rule. The split between Gaza and the West Bank adds yet another distinction on top of the already vast array of differences in Israel’s relationship with Palestinians, including those who are citizens of Israel; residents of occupied East Jerusalem; and those living in Areas A, B or C of the occupied West Bank, all of whom are distinguished from each other. There are a minimum of six distinct legal categories defining the relationship of the approximately six million Palestinians who live under Israeli rule. On the other hand, even the most lawless and renegade West Bank settlers face no legal distinctions or discrimination by the Israeli government.

Therefore, the Israeli government’s hostile response to the Palestinian unity agreement met little resistance in the cabinet or Knesset. Few noted that, had the Israeli government been more forthcoming in peace talks or even less aggressive about new settlement activity — if not towards the Palestinians, at least towards the United States — the PA might not have felt compelled to enter into the agreement with Hamas. In Israel and even the United States, internal Palestinian political dynamics are rarely considered seriously, even as demands are made on Palestinian political leaders to take bold and politically risky steps in pursuit of peace and to accommodate Israeli security concerns. When it was first promulgated, the Palestinian unity agreement was declared a non-starter by Israel; it was, in effect, an excuse to reject the prospect of any further negotiations with the Palestinians until they abandoned the popular and widely supported initiative.

The Future of the Unity Agreement

The calculations of all parties regarding the unity agreement were reshaped by the hostilities in Gaza, the subject of an uneasy truce and uncertain negotiations. Indeed, the Hamas-Israel war appeared to breathe new life into an arrangement that once seemed, in effect, to have reached the limits of its potential with the establishment of the new government led by Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah (already serving that function for the PA before the agreement). Hamas, in particular, appeared profoundly disappointed in the early lack of results of the “reunification” process. At the very least they had expected the PA to begin to pay the salaries of approximately 40,000 public employees hired by Hamas since 2007, who had been unpaid for several months (in addition to the approximately 70,000 civil servants in Gaza who have been continuously paid by the PA treasury in Ramallah). Such payments were not forthcoming in a timely or sufficient manner from Hamas’s point of view; their hires continue to remain largely unpaid.

Moreover, Hamas did not experience an opening up of space to operate more freely in the West Bank, although little time had passed in order to test that. They might have been willing to be patient, but either they decided that they could not afford to wait, or their hand was forced by internal factions or rogue elements. On June 12, 2014, three Israeli teenagers at an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank were kidnapped. The Israeli government told the public they were being searched for, although it was later revealed that a phone call to the police from one of the kidnapped youths left little doubt about their fate. On a recorded call, one of the youths is heard telling police he had been kidnapped, followed by gunshots and other unmistakable indications that the teenagers were killed during the call. The Israeli government used the purported search to break up Hamas cells in the West Bank and arrest hundreds of Palestinians suspected of being connected with Hamas. Those arrested included 55 Hamas cadres who had been released in the October 2011 prisoner swap for the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. So, whatever progress Hamas might have made in the West Bank during the brief life of the unity agreement was more than reversed.

Israel’s heavy-handed response in the West Bank, and the July 2 kidnapping and burning alive of a 16-year-old Palestinian teen in occupied East Jerusalem by Israeli extremists, led to widespread protests in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The unrest even spread to Palestinian areas of Israel. There was more tension between Palestinian citizens and Israeli authorities than at any time since early in the second intifada when, in October 2000, 13 unarmed Palestinian citizens of Israel were killed by Israeli police during a protest. Worse, all of this was taking place during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Despite repeated Hamas calls for “days of rage” and similar efforts to stoke the flames by Israeli and Palestinian hard-liners, another uprising did not explode. Most Palestinians, it seemed, did not wish to repeat the devastating experience of the second intifada. And swift action by PA security forces helped to cool the anger at certain key moments, apparently allowing the public to more carefully consider the best course of action.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this dynamic occurred on July 24, during a protest of the Israeli offensive in Gaza, on the eve of Laylat al Qadr (Night of Power), one of the holiest days in the Islamic calendar. An estimated 10,000 Palestinians marched on the Qalandia checkpoint near occupied East Jerusalem. In the confrontation with Israeli occupation forces, at least two Palestinian protesters were killed and an estimated 100 injured. PA security forces prevented some large groups of Palestinians from Area A joining the march to Qalandia, helping to contain the incident. Although many rushed to announce the outbreak of a third intifada, since this was by far the largest demonstration in the occupied West Bank since the second Palestinian uprising against Israeli rule, that did not occur. Hamas and its allies, and other groups in the West Bank, attempted to maintain the momentum by calling for and attempting to organize additional protests in subsequent days, but they met with little popular enthusiasm.

Although this most dramatic of incidents happened after tensions had already shifted from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where they had begun, to Gaza, it illustrated several key points. First, the ongoing volatility of the situation in the West Bank and Gaza. Second, the fact that another Palestinian intifada, if one occurs, will almost certainly start in the West Bank, and even more probably in East Jerusalem, but not in Gaza. Third, that the biggest barrier to the eruption of a third intifada is the lack of popular enthusiasm. Fourth, that such an uprising will be violent, particularly since the Israeli occupation relies entirely on force to subdue the disempowered Palestinians living under its control. Fifth, that PA security forces continue to be an effective barrier between Palestinian passions and better judgment. And sixth, that Hamas and other groups seeking to shape the future of the Palestinian national movement can only do so effectively on the ground in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, not from Gaza.

But all of these lessons had been understood by Hamas before the Qalandia incident on Laylat al Qadr. Its efforts to encourage a popular uprising against Israeli occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem had decisively failed by the time hostilities with Israel boiled over into full-fledged conflict on July 8, 2014. For its part, Israel had appeared satisfied with its crackdown on Palestinians in general, and Hamas in particular, in the occupied West Bank during the purported hunt for the kidnapped (and murdered) Israeli teenagers. Hamas, on the contrary, could not allow the situation to continue as it was. They remained trapped, isolated and impoverished in Gaza, dissatisfied with the results of the unity agreement with the PA, and severely degraded in the West Bank by Israel. The situation was apparently perceived to be intolerable.

During the fighting, Hamas and its allies launched a sustained barrage of rocket attacks not only on their traditional targets in southern Israel, but on most of the country and even parts of the occupied West Bank. These attacks were largely ineffective in causing deaths and destruction (although three Israeli civilians, one of them an Arab, were killed), both because the rockets are relatively primitive and unguided and because Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system is apparently capable of shooting down a percentage of rockets that would otherwise hit an identifiable target. The Israeli response was predictably harsh and punitive. Almost 2,000 Palestinians, most of them civilians and many of them children, according to the United Nations, had been killed at the time of drafting this paper, and something approximating a quarter of the population of the Gaza Strip had been displaced. Numerous incidents involving significant civilian casualties that could not be rationally explained by Israel, including seven attacks on six UN schools being used as housing for displaced Palestinians, seared the conscience of the world. The seventh attack on a UN school even drew heavy condemnation and criticism from senior American officials and the State Department.

At the time of writing, both parties appear to have reached the point of diminishing returns, at least in the short term. As the parties began looking beyond the immediate exigencies of what amounted to the third, and in many ways the largest, Gaza-Israel war, which may in fact not yet be over, the Palestinian unity deal began to take on a different shape in all of their perceptions.

Hamas continued to see the unity agreement as a potential back door into the West Bank and East Jerusalem. More important, they needed the unity agreement and the “new” (although extremely familiar-looking) PA government to secure diplomatic concessions in the cease-fire negotiations from Israel, or from Egypt. Although Fatah-Hamas tensions continue to run very high, the PA and the Gaza factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, formed a joint delegation to negotiate directly with the Egyptians and, indirectly, with the Israelis. Palestinians agreed that their main aim must be easing the blockade of Gaza in some significant manner.

Given the Egyptian national-security concerns outlined above and Israel’s profound reluctance to allow Hamas anything that could be spun as a “victory” and an explanation for why the group persisted in fighting despite numerous Egyptian cease-fire proposals, Palestinians could not expect the other parties to agree to simply open the crossings without fundamentally changing the underlying realities. Palestinians are demanding the creation and maintenance of a port in Gaza. More realistically, they are also demanding the opening of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, along with the extension of fishing rights off the coast of Gaza. In the case of both the port, and, more immediately, the Rafah crossing, the Palestinian unity agreement becomes crucial as a vehicle for a potential agreement that all parties could live with.

It has long been proposed, and long ignored, that the Rafah crossing be reopened, but with PA security forces instead of Hamas fighters on the Palestinian side of the border, along with international monitors and inspectors. In the past, this has appeared to be something of a pipe dream. However, the 2014 Gaza hostilities have made Egyptian and Israeli acquiescence to such an agreement far more imaginable. Unnamed Israeli officials hinted as much when they reportedly said that Rafah was a matter between the PA and Egypt. This was repeated by Fatah officials, with the apparent tacit agreement of Egypt. Such an arrangement could also be applied to a potential Gaza port, and, indeed, to reconstruction efforts generally.

To Palestinians, this has appeal for both sides. Hamas could bear the humiliation of ceding control of a crucial part of the territory under their de facto rule since 2007 to their rivals as part of a broader plan that already seemed to anticipate downgrading its control in Gaza in order to upgrade its presence in the West Bank. If, in the process, the Gaza economy could be revived and the Hamas coffers restored, all the better. For the PA, such an arrangement would reconfirm its centrality as the diplomatic representative of the Palestinian people and give it a new foothold in a part of Palestine from which it has been almost entirely excluded for the past seven years.

Israel, too, could find such an arrangement a useful means of decoupling its policies towards Hamas, which have been and are likely to remain fundamentally hostile, and its harsh and counterproductive policies towards Gaza and its innocent population. These policies have provoked sustained and strong international condemnation and, apparently, only strengthened Hamas’s control of the area by intensifying public dependency on the group. Israel’s repeated demands that any adjustment of the blockade regime be developed in the context of the “demilitarization” of Hamas and other groups in Gaza are probably not expected to be literally realized, assuming they are not simply designed as a demand that can never be satisfied. Israel, like the PA in the national-unity negotiations with Hamas, surely realizes the group will not give up its trump card, the paramilitary Qassam Brigades. However, Israeli leaders may be using the rhetoric of “demilitarization” as code for an intensified regime of very strict inspection and monitoring of all “dual use” imports into Gaza. Duality, in this context, and especially in light of the extensive Hamas tunnel networks discovered and destroyed during the course of the 2014 Gaza war, can refer to such a vast range of commodities that it includes all the basic materials for reconstruction, including cement, and all forms of metal and other basics.

Egypt, too, might find such an accommodation acceptable. It could allow Egypt also to decouple its policies towards Hamas on the one hand and the population of Gaza on the other, and to begin to ease the blockade without incurring, from its perspective, unacceptable national-security risks. This would be highly popular with the Egyptian public and in the Arab world generally. It could be presented as a triumph of Egyptian diplomacy and strategic vision and a clear boon to the Gaza population after years of Egyptian policy stagnation under prior regimes in Cairo. Moreover, since it would give Egypt’s allies in the PA a strong foothold in Gaza, and a day-to-day working relationship with Egyptian forces in the border region, it could be seen as greatly enhancing Egypt’s security stance in northern Sinai and promoting greater stability in that volatile area. There is no doubt that the Egyptian government and public would be much more comfortable with people and goods going to and from Gaza via a normal, regulated and secure border rather than surreptitiously through an unknown and shadowy network of underground tunnels. Like Israel, Egypt, too, would probably want a stricter inspection and monitoring regime for imports into Gaza, and this commonality of purpose could serve as another reassurance to Israel not to try to derail such an understanding.

An arrangement along these lines, should it prove to be the key, in the short or medium term, to ending this round of hostilities between Israel and Hamas, would fundamentally change the basic arrangements that define, not just the triangular relations between Gaza City, Ramallah and Tel Aviv, but also more broadly between Israelis and Palestinians, and, indeed, even among Palestinians themselves. There are many other potential scenarios for ending the current spasm of violence between Gaza and Israel. Almost all of them — except the distinctly possible eventuality of a return to the status quo ante — involve deploying the Palestinian unity agreement as a practical and formal vehicle to facilitate cooperation between Hamas and the PA. Simply put, Israel and, especially, Egypt are going to insist on continuing to work primarily with the PA and will not enter into arrangements that depend on Hamas’s sincerity or enhance its diplomatic status, particularly at the expense of the PLO. And Cairo has been diligent in maintaining that the PLO remains the diplomatic address for all of Palestine and the Palestinians, including the territory and population of Gaza. Israel and Egypt, and their allies, have an interest in doing their best to prevent Hamas from emerging from the hostilities in a strong position to argue that it has won a “victory” and that its strategy of armed struggle has, once again, proven its efficacy, particularly in contrast to the PA/PLO commitment to nonviolent strategies like international diplomacy and negotiations with Israel.

Any such agreement or analogous arrangement would, in effect, determine the political outcome of the 2014 Gaza war by structuring the perception among the Palestinian public of its cost-benefit ratio. If Palestinians, especially in Gaza, perceive Hamas to have gained for them an acceptable benefit, which could be symbolic or tangible, deliverable or a matter of national morale, then Hamas’s political position and standing will undoubtedly be substantially enhanced. If, however, most Palestinians conclude, as the dust settles and costs and benefits are calculated, that Hamas recklessly gambled with lives and property in Gaza without achieving anything significant, the political damage to the organization could be enormous.

The PA, too, faces a dangerous situation. During the months of fighting so far, it has appeared largely marginal and ineffective, as Hamas’s rocket attacks and other armed actions defined the Palestinian side of the conflict for all practical purposes. Hamas did not succeed in forcing other parties to treat it as if it were the diplomatic representatives of, and address for, Palestinians in Gaza. Egypt’s policies ensured that the PLO remained the primary Palestinian interlocutor. However, the PA/PLO face the prospect of Hamas’s policies being perceived by many Palestinians as dynamic and proactive, albeit dangerous or even reckless. The Palestinian public is one that, given the reality of seemingly unending occupation, can sometimes be moved by arguments involving an implicit message of “nothing left to lose.”

If such an agreement about Rafah or an analogous arrangement regarding reconstruction is achieved, the PA and Hamas would both find themselves in unenviable circumstances, but with a case to make. The PA and PLO could assert, without danger of contradiction, that without its strong relations with Egypt, track record of security coordination with Israel, widely respected security forces, and international diplomatic legitimacy, this breakthrough regarding the blockade could not have happened. Hamas could retort, all of that notwithstanding, the PA and PLO had been demanding an easing of the blockade for many years without result. It could point out that until its 2014 conflict with Israel — which demonstrated a significantly enhanced military capability, including the ability to target, however imprecisely, almost all parts of Israel, and the use of ambushes and improvised explosive devices to kill considerably more Israeli troops than they had in the last major ground confrontation in 2008-09 — no one was seriously talking about changing the blockade regime. Both Palestinian factions would face the potential for roughly equal amounts of credit and blame from the Palestinian public, and neither can be confident about what public perceptions will, ultimately, conclude.

The only obvious scenario for the end of the 2014 Israel-Hamas conflict in which the Palestinian unity agreement is not, at least temporarily, strengthened and enhanced, is a return to the status quo ante, with no agreement whatsoever. Even then, both Palestinian parties would have significant practical and political reasons for continuing to uphold and perhaps even further implement the national-unity agreement. After the formation of the new Palestinian government, which has already been accomplished, the next phase mandated is the holding of both presidential and parliamentary elections six months after the signing of the agreement on April 23, 2014.

This date may now be considered aspirational under the circumstances of the Israel-Hamas conflict. In any event, its implementation was always doubtful. Palestinians desperately need national elections, but neither party has a clear incentive to engage in them, given that their rule in their respective areas of control is virtually uncontested. Hamas, however, as noted above, may have concluded that retaining governance authority in Gaza is, ultimately, less important than making significant progress on the ground in the West Bank. The PA and Abbas himself may see elections as essential for gaining the legitimacy to continue their policies. However, both of these considerations could just as easily militate in the opposite direction. There is no guarantee that either party, let alone both, will in reality want anything to do with Palestinian national elections in the next year or so.

Nonetheless, the Gaza hostilities could well mean that the unity agreement has a much longer shelf life than was originally anticipated by most observers. If there is an arrangement involving PA security forces replacing Hamas fighters on the Rafah crossing or elsewhere, Israel will have to change its implicit, and perhaps even explicit, position towards the unity agreement. It could well be argued that Israel has already done so, by signaling a willingness to go along with such an arrangement if it is coupled with a “demilitarization” regime of greatly intensified inspections and monitoring of imports to Gaza. If Israel does not adapt its policies towards the Ramallah leadership, it can virtually guarantee that Hamas will eventually and plausibly insist that the 2014 war with Israel constituted a “victory” for the Islamist organization and its policy of armed struggle — if not over Israel, at least over the PA and PLO. If Israel does decide to adapt its policies in order to deny Hamas that opportunity, this will require a new approach to the PA and, if there is an explicit understanding on a lasting cease-fire or reconstruction, perhaps also to the Palestinian national-unity agreement.

Turning point against the Islamic State?

Arab states should have a vested interest in following through to the demise of the most fanatical and dangerous movement in modern Middle Eastern history

A Kurdish peshmerga fighter flashes the sign for victory as they head to the front line near Mosul Dam on the outskirts of the northern city of Mosul on August 18, 2014 as fighting continued with Islamic State militants for control of the strategic site  (AFP Photo/Ahmad al-Rubaye)


It’s a turning point. Or at least it should be. Kurdish guerrilla fighters, aided by the Iraqi Army and American airstrikes, have managed to retake the crucial Mosul Dam from Islamic State (IS) extremists. They have delivered these bloodthirsty fanatics their first major strategic setback in many months. The fundamental vulnerability of Islamic State forces has been demonstrated. And one method by which they can be defeated, particularly by an array of different forces working together, has been successfully realized.

Indeed, the initial reports were considered by many too good to be true. Doubts were fueled by the lack of video footage demonstrating that the Dam was back under the control of Kurdish and Iraqi government forces. However, when President Barack Obama interrupted his family vacation at Martha’s Vineyard on Monday to publicly confirm the development, and defend the use of American aircraft in the fighting, virtually all doubts were put to rest.

Assuming Islamic State fighters really have been routed and their hopes of controlling the Dam are permanently crushed, the momentum must be seized. It would be almost criminally negligent to allow the Islamic State to regroup, lick its wounds and prepare to fight another day. Instead, this dramatic reversal of fortunes needs to be relentlessly built on, both on the ground and at the symbolic register of narratives.

Kurdish forces were hardly ideally suited to this task. For decades they have been focused on defending the largely mountainous regions now governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq. They have become exceptionally effective and adept at doing this. However, the operation at the Dam required these fighters to project their force far beyond their normal area of operation, in very different terrain and under very different circumstances than they are used to, and to take on an offensive posture.

The support they received, particularly from punishing American airstrikes, were undoubtedly crucial to their success. But it’s still striking that Islamic State militants appear to have crumbled when confronted with a concerted military opposition. Even an unlikely and jerry-rigged combination of forces demonstrated that these extremists are highly vulnerable to any robust challenge.

That fact needs to be communicated in no uncertain terms to the Islamic State’s constituency and target audience, who often seem primed to believe that its military and political success is divinely ordained. And it needs to be reinforced by a series of additional defeats, even if they are less dramatic and indeed perhaps modest, in fairly short order.

The ultimate goal of a concerted campaign against the Islamic State must be to drive it out of Iraq, if not altogether, then at least in the main. This will obviously have to be done in stages and over time. Patience is as important as determination in such a mission. However, a combination of incentives and disincentives is urgently required to isolate the Islamic State. The Islamic State’s appeal to both its core constituency and its allies of convenience such as Sunni tribesmen and former Baathists is its reputation as an effective, if not invincible, fighting force.

That mystique, precisely, is what needs to be smashed to pieces. It has just been badly cracked. Clearly, the current moment provides a crucial opportunity to inflict further damage on this mythology.

But that’s going to require all serious parties to put their differences aside and work together, or even independently, towards the same goal. Given that, for one reason or another, it’s in all of their interests, this should certainly be possible. Acting in their own interests, Kurdish groups and the United States are now leading the battle against the Islamic State. The key missing element is the Arab world.

Arab states have an obvious and urgent interest in obliterating the Islamic State. The raison d’être of the organization, after all, is not merely to become a state to rival existing ones. That would be bad enough. Instead, it is a far more serious challenge: the Islamic State sees itself as the alternative to the existing Arab state system. Its goal is to eliminate that system altogether and replace all existing states with itself writ large.

Attitudes that may have once existed towards the Islamic State in the past, whether disinterest, ambivalence or even perhaps some vague sympathy, given that they were perceived to be fighting obnoxious regimes in Syria and Iraq, should have been dispensed with long ago. At this stage, there is simply no intelligible argument for anything other than alarm among Arab states and mainstream societies.

The Islamic State threatens everyone simultaneously. Therefore the response to it should be similarly mutual.

The process of ridding Iraq of the Islamic State cancer is probably going to be complicated and protracted. Even greater patience will be required when it comes time to confront the Islamic State in its redoubt in Syria, especially since strengthening the Bashar al-Assad dictatorship must not be a byproduct of a necessary and unavoidable campaign against IS terrorists. But none of this is beyond the ability, assuming they wish to fight back, of those targeted by the Islamic State, either at present or in some aspirational future.

The Mosul Dam defeat is likely to be a defining moment for the Islamic State. Either this will set off a chain of events that ultimately leads to its collapse, even if that’s a relatively slow process, or it’s a defeat that demonstrates the limits of the ambitions, but not the inevitable defeat, of the IS.

Arab states will play a crucial role in determining whether or not this is the beginning of the end for what is by far the most fanatical and dangerous movement in modern Middle Eastern history. They must, in simple self-defense, become part of a concerted campaign to rid the Middle East of the Islamic State, or live to rue the day.

Does the Islamic State pass the test of statehood?

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) recently renamed itself merely the Islamic State and declared its government a “caliphate”. All other considerations aside, just how much of a “state” is this Islamic State anyway? What state attributes does it have and which does it lack?

The first and most important attribute of statehood that the Islamic State shares is its determination to be a state and conviction that it is a state.

The American comedian and filmmaker Woody Allen reportedly once said that showing up is 90 per cent of anything. It’s also a frequent adage among the devout that one should act as if one had religious belief, in order for that belief to grow organically.

This public and private insistence that it is a state and behaviour commensurate with a state distinguishes the Islamic State from other highly successful – indeed, perhaps more successful – non-state groups in the Arab world.

Hizbollah, for example, does not claim to be a state. However, it almost always acts in the name of Lebanon and the Lebanese state. As a practical matter, in the areas under its control it practices some of the key attributes of sovereignty, particularly having a private military and the ability to work independently of the rest of the country. But, rhetorically at least, Hizbollah does not claim to be a state.

On the contrary, when it does exercise direct governance in those parts of Lebanon it dominates, Hizbollah frequently does so in coordination with the Lebanese authorities, and sometimes even pretends subordination to them. It’s all a complete act, of course.

In reality, Hizbollah does what it likes. Trying to dominate Lebanon is part of that. Denying and attempting to obliterate Lebanon is not.

States are typically held to require a permanent population, a fixed geographical area of control or sovereignty, a single government and the ability to enter into relationships with other states.

The Islamic State can certainly claim to have a permanent population, although its attitude towards that population is almost as dismissive as its disregard for Iraq and Syria as countries worth preserving. The Islamic State insists that the areas it controls are no longer part of Syria or Iraq, and it says that Muslims from around the world have a religious duty to come and settle there and contribute to the development of this totalitarian entity. Under the Islamic State, foreign fighters typically have the most important jobs and roles.

The areas under complete and total Islamic State control in northern Syria and western Iraq creep like a spider’s web across the landscape. But if you add in the areas in between that are largely dominated by the Islamic State, the area becomes far larger. Millions find themselves living under its rule in some of the most important towns and cities in the areas, including Mosul.

It is in Raqqa, Syria, that the governing style of the Islamic State has been most clearly illustrated. Raqqa is the regional capital of the group and is by far its most advanced experiment in direct control.

And there, the Islamic State is definitely trying to behave like a state. It is the model for what is likely to be eventually attempted in Mosul and other newly ­acquired areas.

The single government practices a thoroughgoing totalitarianism. It imposes strict religious law, including through courts and a special “religious police”, its own extensive religious outreach programme, and other extreme measures designed to impose order on what had been a chaotic situation and to terrorise any critics into silence. The Islamic State is also trying to brainwash its first generation of citizens through intensive indoctrination and “Islamic” education that focuses almost entirely on literalistic fundamentalism to the exclusion of all other ­subjects.

The Islamic State has proven adept at making populations dependent through social services, including subsidised bakeries, but has had less luck with more complicated service-orientated activities. It has continued to struggle to deal with water and electricity services, although it has been operating a thermal power plant near Aleppo that requires significant organisation and expertise.

Perhaps the area in which it is most lacking is the ability to enter into relationships with other states. This implies strongly that states exist because of, and through, the recognition of other states. But the Islamic State doesn’t want relations with any other government – especially not in the Islamic world – because it sees itself as the radical alternative to all of them. It shows neither any interest nor ability to enter into such arrangements.

There also real questions about how stable its rule is in the areas now under its control, and it has suffered military setbacks as well as military expansions in recent months. Therefore, the precise area under its control remains ever-changing.

However, clearly the Islamic State sees itself as, and is behaving as, a state. In this sense, it has already won half of the battle. This is an organisation, after all, committed to the idea that narratives create self-defining realities, especially among its supporters, and the unfortunate populations that fall under its control.

Is the Islamic State a state? Not really and not yet. But it is much closer to being one than most people would guess, or that anyone should be comfortable with.

Baghdadi Denial Syndrome

The IS should provoke profound introspection in the Sunni Arab world. Instead, various forms of Baghdadi Denial Syndrome are getting all the attention.

An image made available on the jihadist website Welayat Salahuddin on June 11, 2014 shows militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) posing with the trademark Jihadists flag after they allegedly seized an Iraqi army checkpoint in the northern Iraqi province of Salahuddin. Jihadists are pushing toward Baghdad on June 12, 2014 (AFP Photo/HO/Welayat Salahuddin)


One of the most alarming features of Arab responses to the rise of the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq is a persistent pattern of neurotic denial in the form of conspiracy theories and other escapist fantasies. But running away from the truth will only complicate the ability of Arab states and societies to comprehend where the IS came from, how it has unexpectedly managed to surge into so much power so quickly, and how it can be effectively countered.

One of the most persistent and widespread delusions is that the IS did not, in fact, emerge from Sunni Muslim communities in Iraq and Syria over the course of the wars there in the past decade. Instead, it is increasingly asserted, the IS is a creature of, and was established by, intelligence services such as the CIA or the Israeli Mossad. An extraordinarily large number of Arabs, Muslims and others appear to have taken refuge in these conspiracy theories. Call it Baghdadi Denial Syndrome.

The most outlandish version circulating online holds that IS leader and “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is, in fact, a Jewish actor named Elliot Shimon, or some such plausibly-Jewish name. Shimon, it’s laughably alleged, was trained for a year by the Mossad in various skills, including theology and rhetoric.

Even some who don’t embrace this detailed self-parody are still clinging to the notion that Baghdadi and the IS are, somehow, foreign impositions on the Sunni Muslim social and political landscape of Syria and Iraq. An astounding number and range of Arabs, in my own experience in recent weeks, embrace some version of a conspiracy theory holding that the IS and Baghdadi are not what they seem and are, in fact, the creations of Western or Israeli intelligence services.

In a way, this thinking reflects a positive impulse. There is a desire to reject Baghdadi and the IS, and an unwillingness to accept the fact that such vicious malefactors could actually have been organically produced by elements of Syrian and Iraqi society under extreme pressures. Like Arab and Muslim 9/11 conspiracy theories, it begins with a disavowal – “that can’t have had anything to do with any of us” – that, rather than producing serious introspection, gives way to denial through conspiracy theory and a terror of the truth.

And, indeed, the truth is terrifying. For the reality is that Baghdadi and the IS are not the products of the CIA or the Mossad or anything like that. They have arisen, and gained power, in the heart of the Sunni Arab world. Accordingly, they cannot but be recognized as reflecting a profound crisis in the culture and hierarchies of moral and religious values that have taken root in parts of those societies.

Of course it’s true that Baghdadi and the IS would not have arisen without the ill-conceived and disastrous American invasion and occupation of Iraq a decade ago. And they would not have swept to power but for the concerted policies of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Assad relies on the IS to help defeat the Syrian opposition by making the IS appear more horrifying than himself, and has promoted their role in the opposition at every stage. And Maliki’s outrageously sectarian and abusive policies created the space for the IS to operate successfully within Sunni communities in Iraq that otherwise probably wouldn’t have existed.

And yet, while one cannot hold the entirety of Iraqi or Syrian Sunni communities responsible for the IS and its depredations, one cannot exculpate them entirely either. Without significant public support the IS would not have been able to seize and control the amount of territory it has acquired in recent months. If its message did not resonate, the group would not have grown so quickly. At the very least, Sunni tribes and other Sunni militias have stood aside while the IS has seized victory after victory in Iraq. Whatever they thought they were accomplishing by either supporting or not opposing the IS, they must bear some responsibility for its outrageous conduct.

Christians have been forced out of newly-acquired IS territories, apparently without any pushback from their Sunni Muslim neighbors. In some cases, there appears to be popular collaboration in this cleansing. Even worse, the murderous assault on the Yazidi minority has also gone apparently unopposed on the ground.

Is it expecting too much to wonder why people are not standing up to these savages when they have the guns and many others don’t? Perhaps. But there don’t appear to be any real signs that these communities are stricken, or even upset, by IS abuses against their neighbors.
As long as there is a way of blaming others – whether it’s the CIA and/or the Mossad via conspiracy theories, or implicating the United States, Iran, Assad or Maliki by emphasizing the context of the IS rise, rather than the rise itself – the true meaning and impact of the Islamic State will be denied. In fact, there is no way to look at the fact of the surge of these extremists without seriously questioning the cultural and moral health of the Arab Sunni Muslim communities in which they are operating and which they claim to represent. It cannot but be a manifestation of the most profound crisis.

And this spiritual and moral crisis cannot be analyzed until it is accepted as fact, and cannot be addressed until it is analyzed. So as long as many Sunni Arabs hide behind conspiracy theories or point the finger elsewhere, the real meaning of the horrifying IS phenomenon will remain unexamined, and a serious response aimed at correcting the social and cultural distortions that have produced it will be unattainable.

And, in turn, that will ensure that the pushback against the IS and similar fanatics is, at best, delayed or ineffective. The Islamic State itself should be delighted. Nothing could be better calculated to facilitate a continuation of their string of successes than Baghdadi Denial Syndrome.

ISIS and its Success Narrative Must be Broken

Barack Obama’s decision to order limited air strikes against Islamic State terrorists in Iraq must be the first salvo in a coordinated, long-term and broad campaign by a large, even if undeclared, coalition to attack and ultimately break this monstrous evil. A key target must be Islamic State’s powerful messaging and aura of success.

Arab states cannot afford to be bystanders while Americans, Kurds and the Iraqi government confront this deadly menace. A broad campaign is required, involving many states working, independently if necessary, towards the same goal: a determined effort to degrade, discredit and ultimately eliminate this cancer.

Arab governments should put their differences aside, recognise that the Islamic State is an unprecedented threat to their interests, societies and futures, and act accordingly. If it is allowed to continue to grow in prestige and power, the danger is that it could become a defining feature in an evolving Arab political landscape. Its strength must be systematically degraded and its mystique shattered.

Challenging the Islamic State’s marketing is crucial. The group has a clear, simple and readily digestible ideological message that taps into its target audience’s deepest fantasies with alarming precision. It’s basically just another regurgitation of standard Salafist-Jihadism. However, it’s not the novelty of the ideas, but the slickness, simplicity and accessibility of Islamic State online propaganda that has been uniquely effective with its target audience.

These messages have succeeded in drawing thousands of foreign fighters, first to Syria and now to Iraq, to pursue a goal that is explicitly anti-Syrian and anti-Iraqi. Islamic State propaganda is not just well-calculated and produced, it has successfully popularised the mythos of an “Islamic success story”.

By coupling extreme rhetoric with apparently stunning battlefield successes, the Islamic State has captured the imagination of an international constituency of young fanatics hungry for “martyrdom”.

Fighters enthusiastic about dying are formidable enemies who strike terror into the hearts of their foes. By promoting this theme to both its own cadres and potential enemies, the Islamic State has greatly magnified the effectiveness of its relatively small forces.

Their line is so simple that it might be, and in many ways actually is, aimed at children. Muslims every­where, they say, are besieged by everyone else. Muslims suffer these abuses because they have not been sufficiently rigid, literalistic and merciless. The restoration of a “caliphate” is a religious duty – as are the draconian laws and vicious terrorism – that the Islamic State practices. It presents a diagnosis for real and imagined Muslim woes and a prescription: to embrace its assault on Syria, Iraq and, eventually, all other Muslim states. “Syria does not belong to the Syrians and Iraq does not belong to the Iraqis,” thunders self-appointed caliph Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi. Instead, the Islmaic State offers the vision of a utopian Muslim universalism in an undifferentiated and gigantic caliphate across the Islamic world, without distinctions among individuals except their degree of zealotry.

This simple message resonates because it is coherent, idealistic and fills a void. But most of all, it promises, and appears to be delivering, tangible and striking political and military successes. All that is required, Islamic State rhetoric implies, is unrelenting extremism and patience. It’s the political equivalent of clerics who preach that giving money to them or their institutions will prompt God to reward the credulous faithful with even greater income in recompense. It’s a familiar and dastardly scam.

But the Islamic States’s message taps into deep-seated ideals among some Muslims, including enraged young men, such as restoring the long-lamented caliphate; radical Muslim egalitarianism (but only for those who embrace its most extreme iteration); an alleged return to purported originary Islamic virtues; and a supposed purification of religion and society.

Its vision of replacing the current state system with a putative re-created pan-Islamic empire is utterly preposterous. But it resonates deeply with some who are disgusted with the present circumstances and yearn for a return to what they imagine had been a golden age. This propaganda is not being sufficiently challenged by other, more healthy narratives and success stories about how Sunni Muslims can defend their rights and protect their interests.

Breaking Islamic State’s narrative spell requires two key manoeuvres.

First, because in society and culture something will always beat nothing, this message must be countered with alternative models of empowerment. This answer cannot be “less radical” forms of Islamism such as the Muslim Brotherhood, since their ideology has provided a crucial conceptual basis and a prime training and recruiting hub for Salafist-Jihadist groups.

Second, serious measures to attack the Islamic State both from the air and on the ground by its enemies in Syria and Iraq, must be promoted and supported with urgency and intensity in order to debunk the Islamic State’s promises of divinely ordained success.

There is no excuse for failing to act now. As things stand, if a sufficient kinetic and ideological campaign – the elements of which are all in place – is pursued with indispensable determination, the Islamic State and its mystique can be broken, perhaps more quickly than most imagine. But if it is allowed to continue to grow, not only will the cost and difficulty of opposing it multiply, the damage it does before it is finally destroyed may be unimaginable.

What Does Hamas Do Now?

In its war with Israel, the Palestinian group has accomplished none of its aims.

Palestinian children wave Hamas flags on top of an abandoned Israeli vehicle. (Khan Younis/Reuters)

With a tense three-day truce on the ground in Gaza having expired Friday morning with rocket fire from Gaza and Israeli airstrikes, Hamas faces a series of extremely difficult choices. On the one hand, a month of fighting with Israel has left the organization, so far, with no credible achievement. On the other hand, the level of death and destruction in Gaza—most notably the deaths of at least 1,800 Palestinians, mostly civilians and many of them children, according to the United Nations—made it politically impossible for Hamas not to go along, for about 72 hours, with a ceasefire that delivered them no results.

The situation is particularly humiliating and frustrating for Hamas because the “calm for calm” arrangement they briefly accepted was practically identical to the one offered to them by Egypt, and accepted by Israel, at the very earliest stages of the hostilities. Even though Hamas probably did not plan, or particularly desire, a confrontation with Israel this summer, both parties found themselves dragged into a tit-for-tat that exploded into a full-fledged and apparently unintended conflict. But once the fighting started and took on a life of its own, both Israel and Hamas had to craft strategic goals to define the conflict both politically and militarily.

Israel fell back on its long-standing doctrine of “mowing the grass” in Gaza—a non-policy of periodic spasms of violence in which Hamas’s capabilities are degraded, and the people of Gaza severely punished or killed, so that Israel can supposedly “re-establish deterrence” by demonstrating the costs to both the group and Gaza in general of Hamas using force. The problem is that this approach does not change the reality on the ground in Gaza, and explicitly and consciously does not seek to unseat Hamas from its rule over the territory. Although Israel’s commitment to allowing Hamas to stay in power there has atrophied recently, the alternatives—generally seen as either anarchy or the rise of an even more extreme Islamist movement—look even worse to Israeli decision-makers. So what Israel buys itself through its deeply destructive behavior toward the civilian population of Gaza is simply a period of calm before the next round of carnage. In addition to degrading the moral fiber of Israeli society, the cost is the outrage and indignation of the world.

Still, just because Hamas has yet to achieve anything from this round of fighting doesn’t mean it has concluded that its strategy of armed struggle is fundamentally incorrect. On the contrary, internally and particularly in the paramilitary Qassam Brigades, Hamas may be largely satisfied with its military performance, despite the horrifying civilian toll. In 2008-2009, during the last major Israeli ground incursion into Gaza, nine Israeli soldiers died, four of them from friendly fire. This time, Hamas has killed 64 Israeli soldiers. Similarly, Hamas has demonstrated a greatly enhanced rocket and missile capability, with the ability to reach virtually any part of Israel, even the occupied West Bank. Hamas’s rockets remain crude and unguided, and almost entirely ineffectual, but they did kill three Israeli civilians and prompt many international carriers to stop flights to Ben-Gurion International Airport for two days. Hamas’s tunnel capability, particularly those tunnels running from northern Gaza into southern Israel, was apparently much greater than the Israelis had understood. Although Israel has now destroyed most if not all of the tunnels, Hamas could dig more, and additional innovations in the future are likely. Hamas’s leaders must be saying to themselves, “This time we did better, and next time it will be better still.”

However, none of these actions translated into any exchangeable asset, such as a captured solider, nor did they yield any political or strategic benefit. Hamas has accomplished none of its aims. Not one. For example, Hamas sought recognition as the primary diplomatic representative of Palestinians in Gaza. But the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) have kept that role, including on matters regarding Gaza, despite the fact that Hamas has held the territory since 2007. Indeed, the recent “unity deal” between Hamas and Fatah, which led to the formation of a new government with no Hamas ministers that adopted the PLO’s policy of seeking peace with Israel, did nothing to enhance Hamas’s international standing either.

Hamas also failed to conduct any kind of dramatic attack on an Israeli target, notwithstanding repeated efforts. It failed in several infiltration attempts by land and sea, and none of its rockets hit any major target, whether civilian or military. Hamas was not even able to capture a single Israeli soldier whom it could exchange for prisoners. It did execute a few successful ambushes in Gaza in which it killed Israeli soldiers. But dead Israeli troops don’t translate into a direct benefit for either Hamas or any group of Palestinians.

Meanwhile, Hamas’s efforts to foment unrest in the West Bank, perhaps in the hopes of sparking another intifada, similarly failed, although several tense moments demonstrated that such an uprising could either be engineered or erupt spontaneously given the wrong conditions. But it’s almost impossible not to conclude that the main reason there was no generalized uprising in the West Bank, despite all the necessary elements being in place, is that the majority of the public there does not have any appetite for repeating bitter past experiences. And Hamas’s effort to gain a greater foothold in the West Bank was severely undermined by the crackdown Israel orchestrated there under the pretext of looking for three teenagers the Israeli government knew had been murdered. Four hundred individuals affiliated with Hamas, including approximately 60 major figures who had been part of the prisoner swap for the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, were arrested, and many cells were disrupted.

Finally, Hamas’s demands—in this case shared by most if not all Palestinians—for an easing of the blockade of Gaza have also not been met. The talks Cairo convened this week could ultimately result in a formula that is being widely discussed: that Egypt would open its Rafah crossing into Gaza for human and some commercial traffic, but with PA security forces, not Hamas, and international monitors on the Palestinian side of the border. Egypt closed the border except for humanitarian purposes after the ouster of former President Mohammad Morsi, when Cairo concluded that Hamas was, in effect, a hostile entity because of its links to the Muslim Brotherhood and activities along the border. Israel has indicated it could live with Rafah’s opening, including through a statement that the crossing is an “Egyptian-Palestinian Authority matter.” Israel could also extend the rights of Gazans to fish off their own coast, and allow more material to be brought into Gaza, but probably with a much stricter regime of inspection and monitoring.

Such a development would be a double-edged sword for Hamas. On the one hand, their arch-rivals in the PA would gain a new security foothold in Gaza. On the other hand, Hamas could claim a relaxation of the blockade as a significant victory and another demonstration of the efficacy of armed resistance. Both Palestinian parties would have a plausible case to make. The PA could maintain that without its good relations with Egypt, security coordination with Israel, internationally respected security forces, and diplomatic standing, the Cairo negotiations would not have been possible. Hamas could counter that the PA has been asking for an easing of the blockade through diplomatic channels for years, but that it was only armed conflict that prompted anyone to seriously consider it. There is a good chance that such a development would be a political wash, with both parties taking relatively equal amounts of credit and blame for it, if it were to happen.

Hamas also faces the strong possibility of a return to the status quo ante, but perhaps with an even harsher blockade and strangulation by the Israelis. The political perils are enormous. The Gaza public, which may have rallied to Hamas’s cause during the actual fighting, could well start asking pointed questions about what so much devastation achieved. At present, Hamas has no answer. If Hamas negotiators do not get a tangible benefit either for the group itself or for the people of Gaza from the Cairo negotiations, the political damage could be considerable. From Hamas’s perspective, that could be mitigated if the PA also emerges from the talks discredited and marginalized. All of this will depend on the diplomatic and political fallout that develops, mainly in Cairo, in the coming weeks.

Hamas remains committed to armed struggle against Israel as its primary tactic. Right now, it almost certainly cannot sustain the public backlash in Gaza and the rest of the Arab world that would result if it resumes full-fledged hostilities now that it has ended the ceasefire. But, equally, it may not be able to live with a reality in which it paid such a high price for no achievement whatsoever. Given that nothing fundamental has changed in the structural relationship between Hamas and Israel, or in Hamas’s ideology and strategy, another round of violence with Israel ultimately may be inevitable.

There are already clear signs that Hamas is internally divided between those who want to lick their wounds, regroup, and try to find some kind of political advantage or at least avoid political catastrophe, versus those eager to return to the battlefield and determine what can be accomplished by more fighting. If Hamas does not emerge from the conflict with any kind of benefit that can be spun as a victory, no matter how hyperbolic and pyrrhic, internal pressure for an early resumption of hostilities in order to try to rectify the situation will mount. Yet any resumption of sustained, wide-scale hostilities with Israel—beyond some inevitable containable and brief flare-ups—in the near future would be a colossal political gamble by Hamas. There’s every danger that the Palestinian public in Gaza and the West Bank, and the Arab states as well, would consider it the last straw, particularly if Hamas once again did not succeed in producing anything resembling a victory. In short, it could be political suicide. But, given their desperate situation, Hamas may find such a drastic gamble irresistible.

The future of the organization depends entirely on the extent to which, in the long run, it can claim its strategy of armed struggle is more successful than the PA and PLO approach of negotiations. If there is no progress toward peace through diplomacy, Hamas will almost certainly find a ready audience for the line that, painful though it might be, their militant approach is the only one that offers Palestinians any hope of liberation.

Why is no one acting against ISIS?

The apathetic regional and international response to ISIS is mysterious and alarming

An image downloaded on June 9, 2014 from the jihadist website Welayat Salahuddin allegedly shows militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) taking position on a street in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul (AFP Photo/HO/Welayat Salahuddin)


The rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) – now grandiosely renamed simply the Islamic State and declared a “caliphate” – raises a series of the most perplexing questions to have emerged in the Middle East in recent decades. At least as extreme as the most radical incarnations of Al Qaeda, this Salafist-jihadist group now controls a swath of territory approximately the size of Belgium across northeastern Syria and western Iraq. In the process, they have gained control of several key oil installations and major cities, including Mosul. Worse, their expansion appears virtually unchecked, and every setback they suffer seems offset by a new advance.

But who, exactly, are they? It’s not a question of identifying the individual local and foreign fighters who have been drawn into their midst. The real question that is so pressing, yet few are asking, and even fewer trying to answer, is: who is backing this group? It’s true that ISIS has effectively functioned as a well-oiled crime syndicate for many years. But it’s hard to imagine that foreign backing – private if not governmental – hasn’t been a key factor in their ascendance.

It might be argued that at this stage ISIS has achieved financial independence, given the resources they have commandeered, especially in petroleum. But it doesn’t explain how they got to this stage in the first place, and who helped them do that and why. Anyone who believes that backing ISIS was a radical but either necessary or clever idea is bound to rue the day, if they haven’t yet.

In Syria, they charged, in effect, to the rescue of the dictator Bashar al-Assad, and are one of the most important factors keeping him in power in those parts of the country he most values. After all, if the choice is between the rule of a monstrous gang of lunatics who smash Sunni mosques and shrines, as well as those of other faiths and denominations and ancient artifacts; chase religious minorities out of the areas under their control; impose the most misogynistic and draconian restrictions against women; and enforce barbaric systems of “justice,” on the one hand, versus a vicious but well-understood mafia regime, the latter suddenly looks less intolerable.

In Iraq, anyone who thought using the black banner of ISIS to terrify Shiites and others was a brilliant strategy to get rid of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and reassert Sunni prerogatives in their own areas made a criminal mistake. Maliki will probably go, but given the behavior of ISIS in Mosul and elsewhere, two key illusions must have been shattered: first, that they are simply a front for many other groups who will dispose of them when they have achieved their aims, and second that their presence is an overall benefit for the Sunni cause in Iraq. In fact, they are quite out of control and are a catastrophe, as all the people under their rule are quickly discovering.

The landscape of history is littered with monsters whose creators hoped they would do some small service and go away, but who ultimately proved more dangerous to their authors than anyone else. Who those authors are, precisely, isn’t clear. Syria and Iran have clearly benefited from ISIS’s rise, but in the long run the group does pose a major threat to them. As for most of the Arab states and the state system, ISIS is a terminal cancer. It is starting to intrude into Lebanon and possibly Jordan. It lurks on the borders of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

As Arab state disintegration and systemic failure continues to metastasize, ISIS and similar groups are a mortal peril. They not only bring death and destruction, mayhem and chaos, and the worst kind of vicious obscurantist rule imaginable, they threaten to replace the existing state system with substate actors that are autonomous criminal gangs ruling over little fiefdoms – the Hezbollah and Hamas model writ large and spreading fast, but in a much more savage and extreme form. The Arab world has entered into a growing phase of terrorist warlordism. It’s a calamity hitherto unimaginable.

And, of course, it’s a major threat to countries beyond the region, as well. ISIS has attracted countless foreign fighters, fanatical Muslims or converts from around the world, who have gathered in Syria and Iraq only to become even further radicalized, and worse, battle-trained and hardened. They can easily return to their home countries primed for mayhem, even though ISIS shows no interest at present in international terrorism. Instead, they have decided to seize and control territory and create their own de facto state. If anything, that’s even more terrifying. And, in time and if they can consolidate their rule in those areas, international terrorism is potentially a logical move for them. Even if it isn’t, there’s nothing to prevent their protégés from turning to it.

So the deepest question is: why isn’t anybody doing anything serious about this mind-boggling peril? At present only Kurdish fighters, with some Iraqi government support, are really taking on ISIS on the ground. They don’t appear to be receiving much international or regional support. The Arab states purport to be alarmed, but in practice their response to the creation of the ISIS mini-, petro- and terrorist-state in their midst has been a shrug of the shoulders. If that’s unfair, it is at least undeniable they haven’t mobilized quickly to take action.

The latest ISIS advance apparently left them in control of Iraq’s largest dam, with the ability to flood major cities, potentially including Baghdad. Meanwhile Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities flee for their lives. Tsk, tsk. Ho-hum. Oh well.

The international community appears equally inexplicably sanguine. The latest American response to ISIS is to order American air carriers to fly over 30,000 feet if they’re crossing Iraqi airspace. That’ll learn ‘em! ISIS’s successes are completely disproportionate to their size: an estimated 8,000-20,000 fighters in Iraq, as opposed to at least 30,000 other Iraqi Sunni insurgents, not to mention the Iraqi army (such as it is) or Kurdish guerrillas. This is simply not an overwhelming force. It may be driven, fanatical and well-organized, as well as well-funded whether from crime or foreign backers, but if it were confronted by a serious armed response it could certainly be broken.

The biggest question now, therefore, is: why is no one, either regionally or internationally, moving to do that? Is everyone – or anyone, for that matter – content with the growing power of ISIS? Do governments really believe there is nothing to be done? Don’t they understand that they could be next, in one way or another? Perhaps even more mysterious than the genesis and support-base of ISIS is the lackadaisical response to it. It’s as if no one is really all that bothered by it in practice, no matter what they say. And that might be the scariest thing of all. Will a small but determined and well-organized band of crazed terrorists really be allowed to reshape the Arab world largely unopposed? Because that’s exactly what’s happening now.

For Hamas, war in Gaza is a step towards the West Bank

As Hamas’s conflict with Israel continues to play out despite failed ceasefires and mounting, scandalous human carnage in Gaza, its long-term aims are becoming clear.

From the outset it was obvious Hamas found itself trapped in a dreadful box in Gaza and was looking for a way out. So attention focused on easing the blockade and, above all, shifting Egypt’s policies. But as the war has continued, it seems increasingly clear that what Hamas really wants is to gain a solid and permanent foothold in the West Bank.

Hamas’s reported capture of an Israeli soldier – which it denies – could constitute the first tangible and exchangeable asset it has acquired during the fighting.

If true, and the soldier can be retained by Hamas, the primary aim of the unlikely coalition that has emerged to try to thwart its most sweeping ambitions, which is to deny the organisation a major political benefit, will fail.

Israel always seeks to exchange prisoners, much as it never freezes settlements. Therefore, release of the “security prisoners” recently arrested by Israel could actually be secured in the long run by Hamas.

Moreover, Hamas has survived, and given the Israeli army a few painful hits, to the evident surprise of its enemy.

Another primary aim of Hamas has been to establish itself as the principal Palestinian diplomatic and political address for Gaza, placing it on a par with the PA in Ramallah. President Mahmoud Abbas has been struggling to undermine any such development by remaining crucial to Palestinian discussions with Egypt and other key Arab states.

Yet the inclusion of Hamas and Islamic Jihad members in a Fatah-led delegation to Cairo today could be seen as a step forward for the militants.

So can the United States seeking to use the good offices of Turkey and Qatar as leverage with Hamas, at the expense of the Palestinian Authority and to some extent Egypt, and to the outrage of Israel.

But despite all of this Gaza-centric manoeuvring Hamas’s conduct suggests a more sweeping ambition. Gaza was always a burden. It is overpopulated, underdeveloped, impoverished and non-viable. And since the Egyptian crackdown following the removal of former president Mohammed Morsi, Hamas has felt politically strangled there amid a profound budget crisis and economic meltdown. Its governance has been beyond abysmal.

Rather than serving as a launching-pad for a broader takeover of the Palestinian national movement, Gaza turned into an open-air prison, not just for its long-suffering people but also for Hamas. Gaza was increasingly a liability more than an asset. For many months now, Hamas’s eye has been squarely on the West Bank.

One of the first real efforts to break out of Gaza and into the West Bank by Hamas was the unity agreement with Fatah. But this brought neither much financial relief from Ramallah nor a stronger foothold in the West Bank. And whatever progress they were making was strongly disrupted by Israel’s crackdown last month.

There are at least two ways Hamas might be trying to parlay the current conflict into a greater presence in the West Bank. First, if it can emerge with tangible benefits, whether political or strategic for the organisation, or deliverables for the people living under their rule, their message of “resistance” will gain a great deal of traction against the PA policy of peaceful negotiations.

Second, if Hamas can somehow engineer a third intifada in the West Bank, or if one erupts spontaneously, it’s almost certain that this will almost immediately become violent and the organisation could quickly manoeuvre to play a leading role.

Last week’s unprecedented demonstrations in Jerusalem, the largest in living memory, gave a hint of how such an uprising could emerge. And Hamas has been repeatedly calling for “days of rage” and so forth in an effort to stoke the flames. If such a conflagration were to emerge, it might be exceptionally difficult for the PA, or Israel for that matter, to stop Hamas from being a primary beneficiary.

Hamas is sticking doggedly to the unity agreement with Fatah for several reasons, including hopes that it will still provide the basis for a greater presence in the West Bank. The PA, too, keeps reaffirming that agreement to position itself for a major role in a ceasefire. One potential solution could involve stationing PA security forces and international observers, rather than Hamas, along the border crossing with Egypt.

At one register, this could give the PA a new foothold in Gaza. But Hamas might be looking beyond that in an effort to exchange exclusive control of Gaza for a greater presence in the West Bank, that it hopes will eventually lead to the eclipse of the secular nationalists and the final triumph of the Islamists.

Those who do not wish to see Hamas emerge politically triumphant from this chaos, and in a greatly enhanced role in the West Bank, is going to have to make sure that, as the dust settles, the PA acquires greater clout, credibility, centrality and deliverables for the public. Otherwise, it’s going to be hard to counter Hamas’s message that its approach alone achieves results.

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.