More articles by
Yacov Ben Efrat
Israel's Responsibility for the War in Gaza
y article "Israel over Gaza" has aroused, to my surprise, many reactions, including some that disagreed with my placing responsibility exclusively on Israel. In so short a piece, admittedly, it was not possible to present the comprehensive analysis of a war whose roots lie far back in 1967. I had to make do, on occasion, with generalizations that may require a more detailed justification.
According to the conventional wisdom, in 2005 Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip, dismantling and destroying all its settlements there. Despite this, Hamas fired rockets on Israeli towns in the Negev. Since it is clear that such a violation of sovereignty demands a response, the present operation is justified, even at the price of massive killing that includes many innocent people.
In addition, those who oppose my position claim that I completely exonerate the Hamas regime, either because I am motivated by hatred of Israel as a conqueror and occupier, or because the Palestinians are so downtrodden that they're not responsible for their actions. Let me state clearly, then, that in placing exclusive responsibility on Israel, I do not overlook the misdeeds of the other side. Since 1993 the Palestinian leaders have committed every mistake in the book. They agreed to sign the Oslo Accords, which did not promise an independent state or dismantlement of settlements. They established a corrupt regime that collaborated with the Occupation. They lost the trust of their people, which shifted toward the extremist religious movement, Hamas.
Hamas, which promotes martyrdom for the sake of paradise, has undertaken a war of total annihilation against Israel. It uses armed struggle as a tool to raise its prestige among the Palestinian people, which has lost all hope, and, in particular, to take over the Palestinian Authority (PA). Hamas sees itself as the spearhead of the Islamic Awakening. It views its takeover in Gaza (June 2007) as a small step in the Muslim Brotherhood's march to conquer the region from Egypt to Jordan, from Syria to Saudi Arabia. The arrogant behavior of its leaders, and their strategic judgments, may appear indeed to be motivated by hatred of the Jews, but Hamas stores an equal if not greater hatred against the Arab secular regimes. It views them as an enemy as deadly as Israel—or deadlier. The cruel violence of the Gaza takeover was evidence of this hatred.
If all this is so, however, why place the blame exclusively on Israel? The reason is simple: It was and is exclusively in Israel's power to prevent what has happened and is happening in Gaza. Its economic and military power is enormous compared to the PA's. During decades of occupation, however, Israel did all it could to thwart Palestinian development. While ruling Gaza, it trampled it into the poverty and backwardness we see today. This is a reality that the use of force cannot improve.
Moreover, Israel used the Oslo Accords as a springboard to strengthen its hold on the West Bank. While negotiating with the Palestinians, it allowed new settlements to spring up, placed outposts on every hilltop, and massively expanded the settlement-neighborhoods around Jerusalem. (In this way it sliced the city off from the remainder of the West Bank while cutting the latter in two.) Without scruple, Israel closed its gates to thousands of commuting Palestinian workers; it did this after decades of flooding their home markets with its own goods, blocking the development of an economy that could employ them. Israel increased unemployment and poverty among Palestinians to a level that rivals the worst of the third-world countries. It has compensated for the missing labor by importing migrants under slavery conditions. In addition, Israel lent a hand to establishing a corrupt PA, through which it could control what went on in the Territories.
This shaky structure, the Oslo "peace," collapsed in late September 2000, after Ariel Sharon made a provocative tour of the al-Aqsa Compound in Jerusalem. Not long after, Israelis elected the same Sharon as Prime Minister. In his new capacity he decided to bring down the PA and place a blockade around its president, Yasser Arafat. The death of Arafat left the PA on the skids. Into the vacuum rushed Hamas, which had paved its way to power by carrying out suicide attacks in Israeli cities. Israel's response was to build the Separation Barrier, which remains a focus of violent confrontation. When all this did not do the trick, Sharon came up with the idea that lies at the heart of the present dispute: unilateral disengagement from Gaza.
Why unilateral? Why was Israel not smart enough to exploit this very significant measure in order to reach a comprehensive agreement with the PA? The answer is that Sharon did not want to negotiate on the fate of the West Bank and Jerusalem. On the contrary, he wanted to get rid of Gaza in order to strengthen his hold on much of the West Bank.
Because of its unilateral character, the disengagement from Gaza in August 2005 had the effect of further weakening PA President Abu Mazen's Fatah movement. Hamas won the parliamentary elections of January 2006. In short, unilateral disengagement—which won the support of all center, left and Arab Knesset members—turns out to have been the opening volley in the present war. Readers of Challenge and its sister publication in Hebrew, Etgar, will recall that we strongly opposed the unilateral approach, seeing where it would lead.
Today Israel's government concludes that once again there is no one to talk to. It has wasted two years in pointless palaver with Abu Mazen, where the two sides sit and sketch the portrait of a virtual Palestinian state. The real purpose of such idle talk is to postpone the day of reckoning. Israeli leaders explain the sterility of the talks in a manner that seems quite logical: Abu Mazen is weak, Hamas rules Gaza by force, and so there is no real partner. We persist, however, in asking our question: Who bears the main responsibility for this state of affairs?
When we raise the question of responsibility, we don't refer only to what Israel could have done and failed to do in the past. We also ask what can be done today, at once, before the tanks break through the fence and sow more destruction. We demand of Israel that it make an express commitment to withdraw from all the territories that it took in 1967, as well as announce its readiness to talk with every Palestinian and Arab factor that is willing to end the conflict.
The moment Israel commits itself in this way, the Hamas regime will lose its public support—unless, of course, it drastically changes. Such a commitment from Israel's side will enable the Palestinians to elect a leadership with a mandate to enter peace talks. The separation barrier will fall, and the distorted relationships between the two peoples will be transformed into normal relations between two states.
However, as long as Israel refuses to commit itself to such a program, as long as it seeks to strengthen its hold by hook or crook on the West Bank and Gaza, as long as it controls the gateways and prevents the establishment of a port or airport, as long as the Shin Beth runs life in the Territories by remote control, Israel has no moral right to massacre Palestinians. It has no right to defend its sovereignty while denying the sovereignty of the people next door. What's worse, the bloodshed is for nothing. As long as the Occupation lasts, resistance will last as well. This is the lesson which Israeli governments have obstinately refused to learn.