One hundred and fifty-three words! That’s how long the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire agreement between the Israeli government and Hamas is. You don’t have to be a diplomat to imagine that a document this brief and ambiguous marks neither a fundamental change in the balance of power between the two sides nor in the strategic visions that motivated the latest round of violence. The agreement’s main sentence doesn’t even contain a verb, lest either party be responsible for creating the state of affairs it describes. It is this ceasefire against which the UN General Assembly vote upgrading Palestine’s status must be measured.
Each side promised little and has already declared its intention to continue the policies that led to the most recent conflict: Israel shooting an unarmed Palestinian near the border wall, Hamas’ stating it will continue smuggling weapons into Gaza. Both leaderships emerged from the fighting stronger internally while foreign allies promise more financial and diplomatic support than before. The Egyptians might add a verb or two, but no one seriously thinks this ceasefire will last or that it will lead the two parties closer to peace.
The reality is that without changing the dynamics that produced the latest violence Israeli-Palestinian peace will be impossible to achieve. But how to do so when the most powerful forces on each side are so vested in the status quo?
To break this dysfunctional cycle, at least one of the two sides will have to start acting in a way that advances rather than impedes what it has long declared to be its primary strategic goals.
Security has been Israel’s most important strategic imperative since its creation in 1948. For a country born out of the ashes of the Holocaust, any other focus would be foolhardy. But security has also served as the go-to justification for most every aggressive policy towards Palestinians since 1967 – in fact, since the first Zionist settlements over a century ago, whether it’s been replacing Palestinian workers with Jews in Tel Aviv, demolishing homes in the West Bank to make way for new settlements, or most recently, destroying whole neighbourhoods in Gaza to take out alleged weapons caches.
Political and strategic constraints
“What if Hamas was in your neighbourhood?” asked an Anti-Defamation League banner ad that went viral during the most recent fighting. Indeed, which government wouldn’t attack a neighbour that was regularly launching rockets at its civilians?
|Palestinians in the West Bank react to the UN vote|
The problem with this question, and the logic behind it, is that it assumes Palestinian violence to be the starting point of the conflict. But Gaza’s rockets weren’t launched in a vacuum; they were a response to ongoing Israeli violence – more immediately, to the unprovoked killing of several Palestinian civilians; structurally, to the overwhelming violence of the cancer that lies at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the settlements. I explained this timeline in my previous column, with my colleague Lisa Hajjar.
The same body of international humanitarian law (IHL) that prohibits Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians also proscribes most of the policies Israel has pursued in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem during the last 45 years, in particular settlements. Their construction is a grave breach of Article 49 of the fourth Geneva Convention (to which Israel is a signatory), which states that “the Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies”. If there’s one reason why Palestinians are so desperate to have themselves recognised more fully as a state it is the realisation that because of the settlements there will soon be little if any territory left to build a state with.
“But Israel isn’t occupying Gaza. It withdrew its settlers and soldiers and got only violence in return!” is a common response to this argument. This is true, but Israel’s “disengagement” meant little to Palestinians in Gaza precisely because it was clearly used as a pretext for tightening its hold on the West Bank and East Jerusalem, rather than serving as the first step in a broader dismantling of the settlement enterprise.
Indeed, if Israel’s primary objective during its 45-year occupation was security, it could have maintained a military occupation from 1967 to the present day without building a single settlement, and in so doing remained in compliance with IHL. However, once Israel began establishing civilian settlements, the occupation became a political-territorial project that directly contravenes international law and is defined by the systematic commission of war crimes. This is why Israel is so adamant about having the PA agree not to pursue war crimes charges at the International Court of Justice or International Criminal Court before it will stop fighting its application for recognition by the UN as a non-member state.
Israel and the US might yet succeed in pressuring PA president Abbas to agree to such a “compromise”, but that victory will not change the larger political and strategic constraints facing Israel. If its leaders want to remain a territorially defined Jewish state, the only way to achieve the desired level of security in the long-term would be to withdraw from the settlements and move quickly towards the creation of the viable Palestinian state whose legal right to exist was endorsed at the UN. The alternative – to maintain an ever-more brutal and oppressive occupation – might well keep Palestinian violence within manageable limits, but at the cost of eroding the country’s already fragile democratic institutions, to the point where Israel inevitably slips into full blown Apartheid on both sides of the Green Line.
Given the overwhelming imbalance of power between the two sides, however, there is little Palestinians can do to affect the Israeli calculus as long as they continue to play by Israel’s rules, whether it’s the Fatah-led PA co-operating with a “peace process” that will never result in a viable Palestinian state, or Hamas and militant groups pursuing resistance strategies that have no chance of forcing Israel to end the occupation.
Territorial integrity and economic autonomy
Let’s be clear, however emotionally powerful the UN vote may be, and even if Israel could be dragged to the ICJ or ICC – something the US will fight tooth and nail, because if Israel can be dragged there, so can the US – the dynamics on the ground still make the realisation of a territorially and economically viable Palestinian state impossible. Israel’s goal will now follow the same procedures it did with Oslo – invest the PA and even Hamas with enough perks and benefits to make it well-nigh impossible for them to leave the “negotiating” process while Israel continues frantically to cement its hold on the West Bank.
The only way to stop this process is to change the balance of power between them, and the only way to do this, given Israel’s overwhelming military superiority and economic development is to change the rules of the game. The only way to do this, despite the UN vote, is to relinquish the dream of an independent Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza and demand citizenship in an enlarged Israeli state, or through a bi-national or parallel state structure that Palestinian leaders have spent a generation shunning instead of developing. Indeed, the UN vote, like Oslo, locks Palestinians even more tightly into a two-state discourse that Israel has already shown a great talent at manipulating to make its realisation almost impossible to achieve.
Forcing Israel to move outside a territorially grounded two-state solution would force Israel to choose between becoming a non-Jewish democracy or – as senior Israeli leaders including Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert have all described it – an Apartheid state.
The problem with such a strategy is that in pulling out of Oslo the Palestinian Authority would literally be dismantling itself. Everyone from President Mahmoud Abbas down to the local garbage man and kindergarten teacher would have to relinquish their salaries and whatever benefits, however slim, have accrued to them in the present system. Hamas and its clients would similarly have to relinquish the political and economic power they’ve gained in Gaza, which has only increased as a result of the latest war.
All Palestinian factions would have to unite around a common long-term strategy of societal-wide, militant non-violent struggle; not merely towards the creation of a democratic state in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, but of a state in which Jews would not fear suffering the fate of ethnic and religious minorities across the region. If that weren’t difficult enough, Palestinians would have to force a hostile Israel to reassume political and financial responsibility for the West Bank and Gaza before they slid into unliveable chaos – precisely the state Israel would seek to create for them.
Israel is keenly aware of the dangers involved in allowing Palestinians to transform their independence struggle into one for political and civil rights, which is precisely why it has, since Ariel Sharon’s tenure as Prime Minister, rhetorically supported the creation of a Palestinian state. But this support was not and today is not as the first stage in creating a viable state with territorial integrity and economic autonomy, if that were Israel’s goal it could have done this at any point during the Oslo era. But rather to continue stalling that process on the hope that both the PA and Hamas will become more politically and economically entrenched in the status quo on the ground and the perks of “statehood” and thus have less incentive to challenge it.
However painful the latest Gaza war, it failed to bring either Israeli or Palestinian leaders, or the two societies more broadly, to the point of changing their perception of the risks and costs of upsetting the conflict’s basic calculus. The statehood vote, for all its symbolic power, won’t change this situation. Without such a change, however, there is little chance of transforming the conflict from one premised upon routine violence and violations of international law towards a peaceful struggle for full and equal rights – and thus security – for all the inhabitants of Israel/Palestine.
Regardless of Palestine’s status at the UN, until one side breaks the mould, rockets and bodies will continue to fall on both sides of the Green Line.
Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh. His book, Heavy Metal Islam, which focused on ‘rock and resistance and the struggle for soul’ in the evolving music scene of the Middle East and North Africa, was published in 2008.