“WAR,” proclaimed the three-inch headline in Ma’ariv, Israel’s leading daily, the day after Hizballah launched its cross-border attack on an Israeli army convoy on July 12. With the onset of Israel’s massive bombing campaign in Lebanon that evening, its aerial and ground incursions into Gaza were transformed into the southern front of a two-front conflict. But are the two fronts, in Lebanon and Gaza, part of a single war? Speaking in such terms risks misidentifying what really links Israeli actions on its northern and southern borders.
For many in Israel, the two fronts are conjoined in a war against a unified “axis of terror and hate created by Iran, Syria, Hizballah and Hamas,” in the words of Tzipi Livni, the Israeli vice prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, “that wants to end any hope for peace.” Ben Caspit, one of Ma’ariv‘s leading columnists, put it more colorfully: “Israel is dealing with radical, messianic Islam, which extends its arms like an octopus, creating an axis from Tehran to Gaza by way of Damascus and Beirut. With people like these there is nothing to talk about. The fire of a war against infidels burns in them.” The only fitting response in this situation is a military one, claimed Ron Ben-Yishai in the newspaper Yediot Aharonot, in order to “create a new strategic balance between us and radical Islam.” This belief has wide support among Israelis: only 800 protesters showed up at a demonstration in Tel Aviv on July 16 against the escalating fighting. Such a showing pales in comparison to the 20,000 people who turned out when a similar coalition organized a protest at the outset of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
But radical Islam is not the defining or unifying factor that links the south with the north: Hamas and Hizballah have different bones to pick with Israel. Hamas’ struggle is against occupation, and more specifically, about how to achieve a mutual cessation of hostilities and formalize, in one way or another, its right to govern the territories of the Palestinian Authority as the Palestinians’ elected government. Hizballah’s goals in the current fighting are more limited: to secure the release of Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails while simultaneously flexing the movement’s muscles to stave off pressure to disarm. By lumping together these different struggles, and tying them to Damascus and distant Tehran, Israeli casts resolvable political disagreements as unfathomable, irrational hatred, thereby justifying its broad and violent offensive.
Hizballah, ironically, has engaged in a conflation of its own. In choosing the moment of Gaza’s bombardment to launch its own attack, a cross-border raid that its leader Sheikh Hasan Nasrallah says was long planned, the Lebanese Shi’i movement has subsumed the struggle against Israeli occupation within a larger regional drama. Displaying the rhetorical skills and military competence that Nasrallah and his movement are known for, Hizballah has confirmed its position as the only Arab force willing and able to stand up to Israel.
What links these conflicts, beyond Israeli fear-mongering and Hizballah’s use of Palestine as a chess piece, is the future of limited withdrawals — what Prime Minister Ehud Olmert calls “convergence” or “realignment” — as an Israeli strategy for managing its conflict with the Palestinians. By this plan, advanced by Olmert’s Kadima Party in the March election campaign, Israel would move its soldiers and settlers from much of the West Bank behind a unilaterally fixed “eastern border” for the Jewish state — the walls and fences that Israel is building through the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Though the idea of convergence was initially popular, more and more Israelis, even some within Kadima, are growing skeptical. Public support for withdrawals in the West Bank had plummeted to just over 30 percent even before the present conflagration, and Kadima luminaries Livni, Shimon Peres and Meir Sheetrit all have expressed reservations recently. As the one-year anniversary of Gaza “disengagement” approaches, even the left-leaning Israeli press has begun to ask, as has Ha’aretz, “Was it a mistake?” The Israeli government, whose multi-partisan raison d’Ãªtre is limited withdrawal, is under pressure to demonstrate the fruits of its approach. With its two-front war, the Israeli government has set out to prove emphatically that disengagement was not a mistake.
GETTING TO NO
Hamas had little to lose on the eve of June 25, when a raid by its military wing and two other armed groups captured Cpl. Gilad Shalit and killed two of his fellow soldiers at the Kerem Shalom army post on the Gaza-Israel border. Ever since the Islamist party formed a government in March, it has been systematically denied the resources necessary for domestic governance and the ability to implement a foreign policy. The Israeli-US-European squeeze on the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority (PA) limited the tools at the movement’s disposal to damp down violence, and gave the movement even less incentive to use them.
Israel, the US and the European Union refused to accept the new Palestinian government as a negotiating partner, turning back the diplomatic clock to September 1, 1975, when Secretary of State Henry Kissinger committed the US not to talk to the Palestine Liberation Organization unless it renounced terrorism and accepted Israel’s right to exist. This formula had been born in Israel one year earlier, when Labor Party members Aharon Yariv and Victor Shemtov put forward a formula calling for the Israeli government to negotiate with any Palestinian party that renounced violence and recognized Israel. Following the Palestinian elections, the Quartet, made up of the US, the UN, the EU and Russia, updated the Yariv-Shemtov formula for the twenty-first century. The putative international mediators added the requirement of accepting agreements previously signed by Palestinian representatives, including the 1993 and 1994 Oslo accords, and demanded that Hamas recognize Israel “as a Jewish state,” a formulation absent from prior Israeli-Arab peace deals.
Frozen out of official negotiations, Hamas could only carry out public diplomacy. The movement sent up a number of trial balloons soon after its election in the form of comments to the press, op-eds in the Guardian and Washington Post, and on- and off-the-record remarks to international organizations. In February, Hamas politburo head Khalid Mashaal described the PA’s foundation in the Oslo accords as “a reality,” and said that “we do not oppose” the 2002 Arab League initiative offering Israel “full normalization” of relations in return for a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and a “just and agreed” solution to the refugee problem. Previously, Hamas had vehemently denounced both the Oslo agreements and the Arab initiative. But the US and Israel were not interested in pursuing what sort of avenues this newfound flexibility might open. Instead, the US and Israel boxed Hamas — and themselves — into a corner with stringent demands that were impossible for Hamas to accept.
Elements in the electorally defeated Fatah movement, as well as in the Bush administration, initially believed that stonewalling Hamas and starving the PA of funds would cause the new government to fall within three months. They were wrong, but in the meantime Hamas became as firm in its rejection of the externally imposed conditions as Israel, the US and the EU were in insisting upon them. Besieged from within and without, the movement’s rate of political change, so rapid in the months leading up to and immediately following the election, grew sluggish. Pleas for Hamas to accept the 2002 Arab initiative unequivocally came to naught.
Likewise, Hamas filibustered President Mahmoud Abbas’ proposal that it sign onto the “prisoners’ document.” Agreed upon by jailed members of all major Palestinian factions, including Hamas, this document called for a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital, implementation of Palestinian refugees’ right of return, and the concentration of armed resistance in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These ideas were quite similar to what some Hamas leaders had proposed during their public diplomacy campaign, and Hamas, like forces on the Palestinian left, originally thought the prisoners’ document could serve as the basis for national dialogue. Then, in May, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas preempted dialogue, and instead tried to use the document as a tool for wresting concessions from Hamas. Abbas vowed to slate a national referendum on the document’s contents unless Hamas officially accepted them. This maneuver led the Hamas signatory, Sheikh ‘Abd al-Khaliq al-Natsheh, to remove his name. The eventual Fatah-Hamas reconciliation on the matter, signed by all parties several hours after the Kerem Shalom raid, has been overtaken, at least for the time being, by events on the ground.
Much was made, especially after Shalit’s capture, about the divisions within Hamas regarding the prisoners’ proposals, with some analysts going so far as to suggest that the raid itself was an attempt to scuttle a deal on the final wording. Indeed, in many quarters, especially in Israel, the Kerem Shalom operation was interpreted as a virtual coup of Hamas’ external leadership against the internal, but the Islamist party has always been a big tent, with decisions made by consensus through its consultative council (majlis al-shura). The protracted process followed by Hamas might not be commensurate with the expectation of expeditious decision-making by the prime minister’s office, but one should not mistake a deliberative style for internal rupture.
As the Israeli government continued its policy of targeted assassinations and ramped up shelling of Gaza in response to Qassam rocket fire, there was no countervailing force to pull Hamas away from renouncing the unilateral ceasefire it had honored, more or less, for the previous 18 months. Jamal Abu Samhadana, the founder and leader of the Popular Resistance Committees and head of a new Hamas-led PA security force, was assassinated on June 8, and the next day, seven members of the Ghalia family were killed on a Gazan beach — by an Israeli artillery shell, most believe, though an Israeli army report claims otherwise. Hamas’ armed wing, the ‘Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, called off the truce, promising “earth-shaking actions,” and the rate of rocket fire increased. The denouement is well-known: Israel replied with an aggressive campaign to smother the rocket fire, including a larger than usual number of “operational failures” that elevated the death toll among Palestinian civilians. The June 25 Observer (London) reported that the preceding day Israeli commandos had infiltrated Gaza to seize two Palestinians said to be members of Hamas. Hamas found itself under pressure to uphold the banner of Palestinian resistance, and the Kerem Shalom operation was launched.
Trading rocket fire was a losing proposition for Hamas, as it was simply used by Israel to justify aggressive retaliation. Shalit’s capture, by contrast, held the potential to reverse the across-the-board rejection that Hamas had faced since January. Whether the seizure was planned in advance or resulted from an unexpected opportunity, this development offered the possibility of securing the release of Palestinian prisoners and reversing the political isolation of the Hamas-led PA by creating a precedent for negotiations. The Israeli government repeatedly proclaimed its refusal to negotiate, but did so through Egyptian intermediaries and Abbas’ office. As this process broke down, Hamas once again turned to the press, with Prime Minister Isma’il Haniyya pushing, on the pages of the July 11 Washington Post, a proposal for a comprehensive approach to resolving the conflict. In response, the Israeli government the next day hit an apartment building in Gaza with a half-ton bomb that failed to kill Muhammad Deif, a top Hamas bomb-maker, but did kill a family of nine.
“WE ARE LUCKY IT HASN’T HAPPENED”
Because of the bombing of bridges and power plants, the air and ground assault in Gaza — dubbed Operation Summer Rains — certainly seems to aim well beyond its ostensible goals of recovering Cpl. Shalit and stopping rocket fire. The ulterior motive, some analysts say, is to destroy the PA entirely. Successive Israeli governments have eschewed this option for fear of being left responsible for administering the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Israel has been unsuccessful in convincing the world that Gaza disengagement has ended its “occupation of the Palestinians” — a declaration that has no standing in international law, as only territory can be occupied, not people. As the former head of Israel’s Civil Administration told me in 2004:
“If the PA collapses or folds, we will be in a very bad situation. The international community will not allow the situation here to become like it is in Sudan, and neither will we. Israel will have to take responsibility for supplying food, water, electricity, education. The problem is not the cost in money; it’s a matter of the cost in human terms. We would have to build up the whole [structure of the] Civil Administration in the West Bank and Gaza again. It would mean that army officers would need to get involved in education and television and agriculture. It would mean stepping back 20 years or more, to how it was at the beginning of the occupation. That is a very big threat to Israel. We are trying not to reach this point. If Arafat [then still president of the PA] would say, ‘You wanted Ramallah, take Ramallah. You wanted Bethlehem, take Bethlehem. You wanted Nablus, take Nablus, I am not responsible anymore.’ If Arafat said that, we would be in a lot of trouble. We are lucky it hasn’t happened.”
Today, with the PA even weaker and internationally ostracized, Hamas is in no position to push the implementation of its political agenda. Nevertheless, the Israeli government may have decided that the Qassam rocket fire is a political liability that can only be overcome by a grand political accomplishment: toppling the Hamas-led PA while leaving the government structure intact, thereby facilitating the reemergence of Fatah on top. But this strategy is risky: it is not clear that the PA could survive the fall of Hamas. If Fatah could retake control, the Israeli government would then be faced with the prospect of negotiations, which would demand compromises of the sort that unilateral action forestalls.
Some wonder if the PA has already been fatally compromised by the siege it has been put under. As a former UN official with a long experience in the West Bank and Gaza puts it, “Of all the foreign and government types I talk to here, the people who seem to best understand how grim the situation is are in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). The international community is marching toward the abyss with their eyes open. I think we may well have passed the point where the PA in its current form cannot be sustained, and some of the more enlightened voices in the IDF are the only ones who seem to understand that.” The “international community” — in reality, the US and the EU — surely has not reached this conclusion. A European official involved with the Temporary International Mechanism — a program to prop up the most critical Palestinian social services while bypassing the Hamas-led PA government — deprecated his government’s efforts, saying they were “hopelessly inadequate, risky and don’t address the real issues.” “The European Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner came out and said in public that there should be such a thing,” he elaborated, “so we had to scramble to put something together so she wouldn’t look bad. There wasn’t nearly enough planning for it. The program works around the PA, trying to identify beneficiaries to whom we pay allowances, a method that contributes toward further weakening the PA. Should the PA fall, it will be useful to have this mechanism in place to at least get some resources in, but the irony is that we ourselves will have helped create the situation.”
Given today’s reality in the West Bank and especially Gaza, one could argue that the PA has in fact already collapsed. With over 60 parliamentarians in Israeli jails, hardly any salaries being paid, and government services suspended owing to lack of money and the Israeli siege, there is little left of the PA beyond a national aspiration. Among Palestinians in the West Bank, the idea of simply dissolving the PA so as to force Israel to take responsibility — or at least the blame, should Israel refuse to implement its responsibility for administering the occupation — is growing in popularity. This idea first appeared in the wake of the Israeli incursion in the spring of 2002 and came to prominence when Mahmoud Abbas resigned as prime minister in 2003. The idea subsequently receded from the public square, an acknowledgment of how many livelihoods and services are dependent on the PA’s continuation. But as the contributions of the PA to the Palestinian economy and society have dwindled over the past five months, the idea has begun to gain support among Palestinian legislators, both Hamas- and Fatah-affiliated, according to a well-informed academic source.
DETERRENCE AS STRATEGEM
The increased aggressiveness of Israeli military action over the past months, and especially the last weeks, stems from a shakeup in the balance of power within the Israeli government. Among the most influential arms of the IDF is the Operations Department, which is possessed of a long-term vision that, in accordance with institutional interests, is premised upon the use of military power to achieve political goals. Representatives of this department, even before the disengagement from Gaza in the summer of 2005, complained that unilateral concessions would erode Israel’s “deterrent capacity.” Ariel Sharon, then prime minister, was unmoved by this argument, since his long military career had taught him that the invocation of the ostensibly neutral notion of “deterrence” was a stratagem to force the treatment of political problems though military means. For years, he himself had used the same technique to inveigh against initiatives of the political echelon. Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, by contast, are inexperienced in military matters, and as a result, according to a source in Israeli military intelligence, they did not fully appreciate how the demand for “deterrence” can be used to shift the internal balance of power in favor of the military. When the Operations Department harped on the need to reestablish Israeli “deterrence,” especially in the wake of the soldiers’ capture, the civilian leadership was convinced to hew to the IDF’s line. This subtle but crucial change brewing inside Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv explains something about the enormous extent of the destruction wreaked on Lebanon in the wake of Hizballah’s cross-border raid.
Hizballah’s gambit could cut two ways for Hamas. One the one hand, the operation elevates Palestinian concerns to a grander stage, putting their demands front and center before the international community. Since Nasrallah seems intent on linking the Palestinian and Lebanese prisoner issues through a “grand bargain,” a resolution to the much more sticky and explosive conflict in the north will necessitate a prisoner exchange in the south as well. Hizballah is in a position to spring more Palestinian prisoners than Hamas by itself could ever have hoped to free. But on the other hand, Hizballah’s move made the crisis in Gaza disappear from Western newscasts, as reporters rushed to cover the “northern front.” It also upstaged Hamas. Egyptian President Husni Mubarak’s mediation to secure Shalit’s release could have set a precedent for Israel negotiating with Hamas, however indirectly, but Hizballah pulled the rug out from under Hamas and turned the soldier snatching tactic to Hizballah’s advantage. Nasrallah’s own moment of glory, according to this second explanation, may come at the expense of Hamas’ push to force Israel to negotiate. Both streams of thought are reflected within Hamas’ leadership, although more probably tend toward the former, hopeful that the limited widening of the conflict will pry open doors that otherwise would remain closed.
The Israeli government is doing its best to keep those doors firmly shut. As Tzipi Livni told the special UN team dispatched to the region on July 18, “The diplomatic process is not intended to reduce the window of opportunity for military operations, but will take place in parallel.” Her statement affirmed that Israel will continue its attacks in Lebanon and Gaza even as it works to secure international support for returning its taken soldiers and implementing UN Security Council Resolution 1559. Omitted from Israel’s diplomatic agenda is any attempt to deal with the political causes of the fighting, either in Lebanon or in Gaza. Endorsing instead the Group of Eight’s statement that “extremism” lies at the root of the fighting, the Israeli government is pushing the disarmament of Hizballah in Lebanon and uprooting the “terrorist infrastructure” in Gaza — both of which objectives have scant chances of success and enormous potential for provoking further violence — instead of launching a different kind of diplomatic initiative: one that would work to establish a peace in which independent militias in Lebanon and Gaza would not be required.
Livni’s statement to the UN team is an apt description of not only the Israeli government’s strategy in its two-front war but also its convergence plan. Ariel Sharon, like his successors in the Kadima Party, convinced the Israeli public that “convergence” would pay diplomatic dividends by securing international recognition that the occupation had ended, even as it accorded the Israeli military the freedom to exact an even heavier price from those who might resist Israel’s unilateral designs. Sharon foresaw that the diplomatic part of the plan would require military support to be successful, while military pressure upon the Palestinians was not sustainable internationally without a diplomatic component. The Operations Department might be stepping on the gas pedal in escalating the wars in Lebanon and Gaza, but a no-holds-barred assault of this nature was a long time coming
Robert Blecher is a fellow at the Center for Human Rights at the University of Iowa and an editor of Middle East Report. He contributed this article from Jerusalem.