So far, the diplomatic effort to end the violence in Gaza has failed miserably, most recently with Israel’s cabinet rejecting a ceasefire proposal from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. This attempt by Washington is representative of the overall failure of American policy toward the Israel-Palestine conflict, only on this occasion the consequences can be measured in the growing pile of dead bodies and the widespread devastation that includes numerous homes, public buildings and even artillery damage to several United Nations schools sheltering Palestinian civilians.
The U.S. approach fails because it exhibits extreme partisanship in a setting where trust, credibility and reciprocity are crucial if the proclaimed aim of ending the violence is the true objective of this exhibition of statecraft. Kerry is undoubtedly dedicated to achieving a cease-fire, just as he demonstrated for most of the past year a sincerity of commitment in pushing so hard for a negotiated peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Yet throughout the failed peace process the United States exhibited all along this discrediting extreme partisanship, never more blatantly than when it designated Martin Indyk, a former staff member of the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and former ambassador to Israel, to serve as the U.S. special envoy throughout the peace talks.
The U.S. approach up to this point to achieving a ceasefire in Gaza has been undertaken in a manner that is either woefully ignorant of the real constraints or callously cynical about their relevance. This is especially clear from the initial attempt to bring about a cease-fire by consulting only one side, Israel — the party bearing the major responsibility for causing massive casualties and damage — and leaving Hamas out in the cold. Even if this is an unavoidable consequence of Hamas being treated as “a terrorist entity,” it still makes no sense in the midst of such carnage to handle diplomacy in such a reckless manner when lives were daily at stake. When Israel itself has wanted to deal with Hamas in the past, it had no trouble doing so — for instance, when it arranged the prisoner exchange that led to the release of the single captured Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit back in 2011.
The basic facts seem so calculated to end in diplomatic failure that it is difficult to explain how they could have happened: The U.S. relied on Egypt as the broker of a proposal it vetted, supposedly with the approved text delivered personally by Tony Blair to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Cairo, secreted endorsed by the Netanyahu government, and then publicly announced on July 15 via the media as a ceasefire proposal accepted by Israel, without Hamas having been consulted, or even previously informed. It’s a diplomatic analogue to the theater of the absurd. Last July, then-General Sisi was the Egyptian mastermind of a coup that brutally cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood and criminalized the entire organization. The Sisi government has made no secret of its unrelenting hostility to Hamas, which it views as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and alleged responsibility for insurgent violence in the Sinai. Egypt destroyed the extensive tunnel network connecting Gaza with the outside world created to circumvent the punitive Israeli blockade that has been maintained since 2007. Was there ever any reason for Hamas to accept such a humiliating ceasefire arrangement? As some respected Israeli commentators have suggested, most prominently Amira Hass, the “normalization” of the occupation is what the Israeli military operation Protective Edge is all about. What Hass suggests is that Israel is seeking a compliant Palestinian response to an occupation that has for all intents and purposes become permanent, and seems to believe that such periodic shows of force will finally break once and for all the will to resist, symbolized by Hamas and its rockets, and now its tunnels. In this respect, the recent move to establish a unity government reconciling the Palestinian Authority with Hamas was a setback for the normalization policy, especially suggesting that even the PA could no longer be taken for granted as an acceptably compliant ‘partner,’ not for peace, but for occupation.
Whatever ambiguity might surround the Kerry diplomacy, the fact that the cease-fire’s terms were communicated to Hamas via the media, made the proposal a “take it or leave it” clearly designed to show the world that Hamas would never be treated as a political actor with grievances of its own. Such a way of proceeding also ignored the reasonable conditions Hamas had posited as the basis of a cease-fire it could accept. These conditions included an unwavering insistence on ending the unlawful seven-year siege of Gaza, releasing prisoners arrested in the anti-Hamas campaign in the West Bank prior to launching the military operation on July 8, and stopping interference with the unity government that brought Hamas and the Palestinian Authority together on June 3. Kerry, by contrast, was urging both sides to restore the cease-fire text that had been accepted in November 2012 after the previous major Israeli military attack upon Gaza, but relevantly, had never been fully implemented producing continuous tensions.
Hamas’ chief leader, Khaled Meshaal, has been called “defiant” by Kerry because he would not go along with this tilted diplomacy. “Everyone wanted us to accept a ceasefire and then negotiate for our rights,” Meshaal said. This was tried by Hamas in 2012 and didn’t work. As soon as the violence ceased, Israel refused to follow through on the cease-fire agreement that had promised negotiations seeking an end of the blockade and an immediate expansion of Gazan fishing rights.
In the aftermath of Protective Edge is it not reasonable, even mandatory, for Hamas to demand a firm commitment to end the siege of Gaza, which has been flagrantly unlawful since it was first imposed in mid-2007? Israel as the occupying power has an obligation under the Geneva Conventions to protect the civilian population of an occupied people. Israel claims that its “disengagement” in 2005, involving the withdrawal of security forces and the dismantling of settlements, ended such obligations. Such a position is legally (and morally) unacceptable, a view almost universally shared in the international community, since the persistence of effective Israeli control of entry and exit, as well as air and sea, and violent incursions amounts to a shift in the form of occupation — not its end. Israel is certainly justified in complaining about the rockets, but the maintenance of an oppressive regime of collective punishment on the civilians of Gaza is an ongoing crime. And it should be appreciated that more often than not, Israel provokes the rockets by recourse to aggressive policies of one sort or another or that most primitive rockets are fired by breakaway militia groups that Hamas struggles to control. A full and unbiased account of the interaction of violence across the Gaza border would not find that Israel was innocent and only Hamas was at fault. The story is far more complicated, and not an occasion for judging which side is entitled to be seen as acting in self-defense.
In “Turkey Can Teach Israel How to End Terror,” an insightful July 23 article in The New York Times, the influential Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol drew from the experience of his country in ending decades of violent struggle between the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish state. Akyol “congratulated” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (while taking critical note of his “growing authoritarianism”) for ending the violence in Turkey two years ago by agreeing with the imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, to initiate conflict-resolving negotiations in good faith and abandon the “terrorist” label. Some years ago I heard former British Prime Minister John Major say that he made progress toward peace in Northern Ireland only when he stopped treating the Irish Republican Army as a terrorist organization and began dealing with it as a political actor with genuine grievances. If a secure peace were ever to become Israel’s true objective, this is a lesson to be learned and imitated.
Just as with the peace process itself, the time has surely come for a credible ceasefire to take account of the views and interests of both sides, and bring this sustained surge of barbaric violence to an end. International law and balanced diplomacy are available to do this if the political will were to emerge on the Israeli side, which seems all but impossible without the combination of continuing Palestinian resistance and mounting pressure from outside by way of the BDS campaign and the tactics of a militant, nonviolent global solidarity movement.