The 50-day Israeli military operation that killed over 2,100 Palestinians, wounded another 11,000, and undoubtedly traumatized the entire Gazan population of 1.7 million also took the lives of 70 Israelis, of which 65 were soldiers. This last violent encounter has ended without a clear victory for either side. Despite this, Israel and Hamas are each insisting that ‘victory’ was achieved. Israel points to the material results: tunnels and rocket sites destroyed, targeted assassinations completed, and the overall weakening of Hamas capacity to launch an attack. Hamas, for its part, claims political gains, becoming far stronger politically and psychologically in both Gaza and the West Bank than before the fighting began, refusing to give in on the basic Israeli demand of the ‘demilitarization’ of Gaza, as well as further tarnishing Israel’s international reputation.
The UN Human Rights Commission has taken what for it is an exceptional step of appointing a commission of inquiry to investigate allegations of war crimes. The fact that William Schabas, a renowned expert on international criminal law, especially on the crime of genocide, was selected to chair the investigation is of great symbolic significance, and potentially of major relevance to the ongoing legitimacy struggle being successfully waged by the Palestinian people. Some have referred to this new initiative as ‘Goldstone 2.0’ referring back to the earlier high visibility fact finding undertaking of the HRC prompted by the Israeli military operation against Gaza in 2008-09 that had shocked the world by its ferocity and disregard for the international laws of war. Unlike Richard Goldstone, who was an amateur in relation to international law and ideologically aligned with Zionism, Schabas is a leading academic expert without any known ideological inhibitions, and with the strength of character to abide by the expected findings and recommendations of the report that the inquiry produces.
As earlier, the United States will use its geopolitical muscle to shield Israel from censure, criticism, and above all, from accountability. This lamentable limitation on the implementation of international criminal law does not mean that the Schabas effort lacks significance. The political outcome of prior anti-colonial struggles have been controlled by the side that wins the legitimacy war for control of the commanding heights of international law and morality.
This symbolic terrain is so important as it strengthens the resilience of those seeking liberation to bear the burdens of struggle and it deepens the global solidarity movement that provides vital support. In this respect, the Goldstone Report exerted a major influence in delegitimizing Israel’s periodic ‘mowing of the lawn’ in Gaza, especially the grossly disproportionate uses of force against a totally vulnerable and essentially helpless and entrapped civilian population.
The most startling result of this latest onslaught by Israel, which seems less an instance of ‘warfare’ than of ‘orchestrated massacre,’ is strangely ironic from an Israeli perspective. Its ruthless pursuit of a military victory had the effect of making Hamas more popular and legitimate than it had ever been, not only in Gaza, but even more so in the West Bank. Israel’s military operation seriously undermined the already contested claims by the Palestinian Authority (PA) to be the authentic representative of the aspirations of the Palestinian people. The best explanation of this outcome is that Palestinians as a whole prefer the resistance of Hamas, however much suffering it produces, to the passive compliance of the PA with the will of the occupier and oppressor.
For its part, Israel has signaled a less disguised refusal to move toward a negotiated peace under present conditions. Prime Minister Netanyahu has told the Palestinians once again that they must choose between ‘peace and Hamas,’ without mentioning that his use of the word ‘peace’ made it indistinguishable from ‘surrender.’ Netanyahu repeated his often proclaimed position—Israel will never negotiate with a terrorist organization that is committed to its destruction. Putting another nail in what appears to be the coffin of a two-state solution, Israel announced the largest confiscation of land for settlement expansion in more than 20 years, taking nearly 1,000 acres of public land near Bethlehem to be added to the small settlement of Gvaot near the Etzion bloc south of Jerusalem. Some ask, “Why now?” rather than the more perceptive “Why not now?”
From these perspectives, the real impact of the Gaza carnage may be less the physical devastation and humanitarian catastrophe, imminent dangers of disease epidemic and $12 billion in damage taking at least 20 years to overcome, than the political effects. It looks like the suspension of inter-governmental diplomacy as a means of conflict resolution. Even the PA, seeking its political rehabilitation, is now talking about demanding that the UN establish a three year timetable for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. It is also threatening recourse to the International Criminal Court to empower an investigation of charges that the occupation of the West Bank itself involves the commission of crimes against humanity.
From these perspectives, the situation seems hopeless. The Palestinian prospects for their own state, which was the hope of moderates on both sides for many years, now seems irrelevant. Only the two-state template, however enacted, could reconcile the conflicting claims of Israeli Zionism and Palestinian nationalism. Of course, increasingly Palestinian critics questioned whether Zionism was consistent with the human rights of the Palestinian minority and its large refugee and exile communities, and tended to view the two state outcome as a triumph for the Zionist project and a sugar-coated defeat for Palestinian national aspirations. Now that it is ‘game over’ for the two-state solution, and the real struggle is more clearly being waged between competing versions of a one-state solution.
What can we expect? Even a sustainable ceasefire that allows the people of Gaza to recover somewhat from the dreadful ordeal of a cruel regime of collective punishment seems unlikely to persist very long in the present atmosphere. There is every reason to suppose that Israeli frustrations with the failure of its attack to subdue Hamas, and Hamas’ refusal to accept without acts of resistance the harsh realities of its continuing subjugation.
And yet there are flickers of light in the darkened skies. The stubbornness of Palestinian resistance combined with the robustness of a growing global solidarity movement is likely to exert intensifying pressure on the Israel public and some of its leaders to rethink their options for the future, and from an Israeli point of view, the sooner the better. The BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) campaign is gaining political and moral traction by the day. The kind of nonviolent international movement that unexpectedly helped cause the abrupt collapse of the apartheid regime in South Africa seems as though it might at some point push Israelis toward reconsidering whether an accommodation is not in Israel’s interest even if it requires a rethinking of what is the core reality of ‘a Jewish homeland,’ and even if it falls short of a complete reconciliation. As the experience in South Africa, and also Northern Ireland suggest, the side with the upper hand militarily does not acknowledge mounting political pressure until it is ready for a deal with its enemy that would have seemed inconceivable just shortly before it was made.
The outcome of the Israel-Palestine struggle is presently obscure. From the territorial perspective it appears that Israel is on the verge of victory, but from a legitimacy struggle perspective the Palestinians are gaining the upper hand. The flow of history since the end of World War II suggests a hopeful future for the Palestinians, yet the geopolitical strength of Israel may be able to withstand the intensifying pressure to acknowledge the fundamental Palestinian right of self-determination.