What’s happening in Gaza is not simply deplorable. It is – or ought to be – unacceptable. There cannot be any legal, humanitarian or logical justification. Missiles, underground tunnels and even Hamas’s professed determination to eliminate Israel do not justify the kind of collective and indiscriminate punishment of a civilian population in which the state of Israel is engaged.
Why? Because none of those Hamas goals and actions have had or can have any profound national security and existential threat for Israel and both Hamas and Israel know it. Hamas cannot destroy Israel, and Israel knows that it cannot reoccupy Gaza and eradicate Hamas at a cost that Israelis are willing to bear. So each side uses the other for its own goals.
Hamas presents a convenient bogeyman for the right-wing Israelis opposed to a two-state solution. Hamas’ hostile actions and loud threats provide ample reason to argue why Palestinians cannot be trusted in peace.
Hamas’ existence and legitimacy are derived from an ideology and strategy anchored on confrontation and resistance. The movement represents to many Palestinians an effort to preserve their national identity and pride by resisting and defying the occupation.
This is absolutely not to say that firing rockets into Israel, kidnapping Israeli citizens or blowing them up are acceptable or justifiable. The challenge here is to understand and appreciate the timing of events, their context, the proportionality of actions and each side’s vision about their own people and the future of the entire region.
A word about proportionality: Imagine the London Metropolitan Police taking draconian and indiscriminate measures – killing dozens of civilians for example – after the bombing of the London Underground to eliminate hidden and dormant al-Qaida cells; or the LAPD and NYPD causing similar harm to ordinary citizens to neutralise criminal gangs and drug lords in Los Angeles and New York.
Until Israel’s ground offensive into Gaza, the civilian death toll from the indiscriminate shelling from both sides was 150 Gazans to one Israeli (thanks to the Iron Dome defence system over Israel). After the incursion it stands at over 900 to 38.
Whose creation is Hamas?
Israel says Hamas has brought this misery on its own people. In great irony, Hamas is among many things, both the creation and the victim of the West’s and Israel’s self- serving policies, as well as the consequence of a flawed and selective application of democracy in Palestine.
Israel insists Hamas is Iran’s creation. In reality, Israel for years tolerated a slowly-evolving Hamas. In some cases, Israel even encouraged Hamas as a counterweight to the secular nationalists of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and its dominant faction, Yasser Arafat’s Fatah. Only when the PLO was forced into moderation and dropped from its charter its old goal of Israel’s destruction, did Israel see the PLO as a partner and Hamas as a foe.
When it became clear in the early 1990s that Gaza’s Islamists had mutated from a religious group into a fighting force aimed at Israel, Israel cracked down with ferocious force. But each military assault only increased Hamas’ appeal to ordinary Palestinians. The group ultimately trounced secular rivals, notably Fatah, in a 2006 election supported by the United States.
Meanwhile, the Western promotion of democracy in Palestine has taken different twists and turns. At one point, elections were resisted out of concern that it would enhance Yasser Arafat’s standing and image among the Palestinians. His death was hailed as an opportunity for the realisation of a vision of a democratic Palestinian state. It seems that for observers, or interested bystanders, elections are fine as long as they do not go the wrong way.
Hamas cannot be isolated
Now we are seeing a new version of democracy building. Israel’s goal is to bomb the Gazans into frustration, desperation and resentment of their own government and into an anti-Hamas vote in the next elections. Indeed, there are serious calls from different circles in the United States and Israel to organise new elections in Palestine right after the conclusion of this round of Gaza incursion, with the prognosis that it will deliver an outright victory for the moderate factions.
I don’t think so. This round of violence will strengthen not only the resolve of Hamas and the population of Gaza, but it will drive the other moderate Palestinian factions towards more despair and hence into more extremism.
Hamas cannot be cornered and isolated, let alone eliminated. Although their rhetoric and actions may warrant the label of terrorism, but in the context of occupation, different criteria should be applied. Israel itself experienced similar resistance during the British occupation. So has Abu Mazen’s Fatah Movement. It was a mistake to rashly label Hamas a terrorist organisation as the US and Europe did years ago, shutting down their own ability to talk to Hamas then and now, when such dialogue is desperately needed to avert a humanitarian catastrophe.
Israel’s military superiority should be coupled with moral superiority. A nation that has experienced the horrors of Holocaust must be able to balance its vow of “never again” with the suffering inflicted on others, and measure existential threats against the true capabilities of those who profess such dangers.
Israel, if serious about a two-state solution, should have seen the reconciliation of Fatah and Hamas as an opening, and seized the moment, rather than using the the meaningless death of the three innocent Israeli youth to spew blanket revenge over an entire desperate population.
Israel should turn the clock back to June 2014 when the two rivals – Hamas and Fatah – formed a unity government, ending a decade-long dispute, and see that as a momentous opportunity to pursue the two-state solution. In the Fatah-Hamas equation, Fatah is clearly the more dominant force. Reconciling their differences and joining forces in a coalition government, means Hamas has travelled the longer road in meeting Fatah half way on major ideological differences. These no doubt include the issue of coexistence with Israel in a two-state solution.
The United Nations, the United States and other major and regional powers are scrambling to negotiate a long-term ceasefire. For this to work, first, Hamas needs to be part of the talks. Secondly, some of Hamas’s demands, particularly the lifting of the blockade and liberation of some prisoners, should be addressed now, with the promise of pursuing the other demands in future talks. All these measures, in addition to Hamas’ inclusion in the Palestinian coalition government, will increase Hamas’ credibility making them more responsive to both Israelis’ and Palestinians’ need for peace and tranquility.
Vartan Oskanian is a member of Armenia’s National Assembly, a former foreign minister and the founder of Yerevan’s Civilitas Foundation.