Saturday, July 12, 2014

Is Hamas Trying to Get Gazans Killed? (Jeffrey Goldberg)

For some time now, John Rentoul has been running a nice series of "Questions to Which the Answer is No". It's clear that this question raised by Jeffrey Goldberg belongs in a series titled "Questions to Which the Answer is Obviously Yes".

But in order to be complete and illuminating, that answer needs to be integrated into a larger analysis of Hamas's long-term outlook and strategies. Goldberg delivers that analysis, compactly and cogently, in the column below.

I think it is quite likely that, in the present crisis, both the Israeli government and Hamas stumbled into a large-scale military confrontation that neither of them wanted right now.  (I find the analysis of this process offered by J.J. Goldberg in the Forward, here & here, valuably clarifying and largely convincing.) But once the Hamas leadership decided to launch a large-scale missile barrage explicitly aimed at Israeli civilians, not only in the areas near Gaza but in almost all of Israel's major cities, it was obviously aware that this would provoke a serious Israeli response. And provoking an Israeli military assault on Gaza that produces (unintended) civilian casualties is obviously part of the purpose of this exercise.

Hamas's tactical calculation, which in the past has proved largely correct, is that provoking the deaths of Palestinian civilians in Gaza yields political benefits for Hamas, and heavy political costs for Israel, both at home and internationally. It also has the beneficial side-effect of undermining political support for Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority (a shared goal of rejectionists in both Israeli and Palestinian politics). In fact, Hamas has gone so far as to encourage civilians to gather on the rooftops of buildings that the Israelis have signaled they are going to attack, to serve as human shields. If the Israeli military notices this in time and is deterred from attacking the building, that's a success; if the attack happens anyway and the civilians are killed, that's a success, too.

In the short run, Hamas may have miscalculated this time. As Goldberg observes:
I’ve been struck, over the last few days, by the world’s indifference to Gaza’s fate. Perhaps this conflict has been demoted to the status of a Middle East sideshow by the cataclysms in Iraq and Syria. Perhaps even the most accommodationist European governments know that Israel is within its right to hunt down the people trying to kill its citizens. Regardless of the cause, Israel seems under less pressure than usual to curb its campaign.
Due to a whole series of local and regional developments, Hamas is much more politically isolated than usual, and it enjoys little active sympathy abroad. There has even been some international recognition that this missile barrage targeting Israeli civilians is an unambiguous war crime. There are also a lot of other things going on in the Middle East that have distracted international attention away from Gaza. But if the war goes on much longer and the civilian death toll in Gaza continues to rise—and especially if there is an Israeli ground incursion into Gaza—that situation could change very rapidly.

=> It remains to be seen how, and when, this latest Hamas-Israel war gets resolved. In both political and directly human terms, it's hard to foresee a positive outcome any time soon (though there are some signs that Hamas may looking for a face-saving way out of this confrontation). In terms of long-run consequences, it looks as though the results of this whole crisis, starting with the murders of the four teenagers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, add up to a victory for rejectionists on all sides—which is terrible. And this is just one more moment in a larger historic tragedy for both Israelis and Palestinians. Goldberg addresses part of that larger story in the second half of his piece. In that context, the comparison between the Kurdish and Palestinian national movements is worth pondering.

—Jeff Weintraub

Bloomberg View
July 11, 2014
Is Hamas Trying to Get Gazans Killed?
By Jeffrey Goldberg

Mahmoud Abbas, the sometimes moderate, often ineffectual leader of the Palestinian Authority, just asked his rivals in Hamas a question that other bewildered people are lso asking: “What are you trying to achieve by sending rockets?"

The Gaza-based Hamas has recently fired more than 500 rockets at Israeli towns and cities. This has terrorized the citizenry, though caused few casualties, in large part because Israel is protected by the Iron Dome anti-rocket system.

In reaction to these indiscriminately fired missiles, Israel has bombarded targets across Gaza, killing  roughly 100 people so far. Compared with violent death rates in other parts of the Middle East, the number is small. (More than 170,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war to date.) But it is large enough to suggest an answer to Abbas’s question: Hamas is trying to get Israel to kill as many Palestinians as possible.

Dead Palestinians represent a crucial propaganda victory for the nihilists of Hamas. It is perverse, but true. It is also the best possible explanation for Hamas’s behavior, because Hamas has no other plausible strategic goal here.

The men who run Hamas, engineers and doctors and lawyers by training, are smart enough to understand that though they wish to bring about the annihilation of the Jewish state and to replace it with a Muslim Brotherhood state (Hamas is the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood), they are in no position to do so. Hamas is a militarily weak group, mostly friendless, that is firing rockets at the civilians of a powerful neighboring state.

The Israeli military has the operational capability to level the entire Gaza Strip in a day, if it so chooses. It is constrained by international pressure, by its own morality and by the understanding that the deaths of innocent Palestinians are not in its best political interest. The men who run Hamas -- the ones hiding in bunkers deep underground, the ones who send other people’s children to their deaths as suicide bombers -- also understand that their current campaign will not bring the end of Israel’s legitimacy as a state.

I’ve been struck, over the last few days, by the world’s indifference to Gaza’s fate. Perhaps this conflict has been demoted to the status of a Middle East sideshow by the cataclysms in Iraq and Syria. Perhaps even the most accommodationist European governments know that Israel is within its right to hunt down the people trying to kill its citizens. Regardless of the cause, Israel seems under less pressure than usual to curb its campaign.

There is no doubt that Hamas could protect Palestinian lives by ceasing its current campaign to end Israeli lives. The decision is Hamas’s. As the secretary-general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, said yesterday, "We face the risk of an all-out escalation in Israel and Gaza, with the threat of a ground offensive still palpable -- and preventable only if Hamas stops rocket firing."

I understand that this latest round in the never-ending Israel-Gaza war was, in many ways, a mistake. Israel was uninterested in an all-out confrontation with Hamas at the moment, and Hamas, which is trying to manage a threat to its control of Gaza from -- believe it or not -- groups even more radical and nihilistic than it is, is particularly ill-prepared to confront Israel.

The politics of the moment are fascinating and dreadful, but what really interests me currently is a counterfactual: What if, nine years ago, when Israel withdrew its soldiers and settlers from Gaza, the Palestinians had made a different choice. What if they chose to build the nucleus of a state, rather than a series of subterranean rocket factories?

This thought is prompted by something a pair of Iraqi Kurdish leaders once told me. Iraqi Kurdistan is today on the cusp of independence,. Like the Palestinians, the Kurds deserve a state. Unlike most of the Palestinian leadership, the Kurds have played a long and clever game to bring them to freedom.

This is what Barham Salih, the former prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, told me years ago: “Compare us to other liberation movements around the world. We are very mature. We don’t engage in terror. We don’t condone extremist nationalist notions that can only burden our people. Please compare what we have achieved in the Kurdistan national-authority areas to the Palestinian national authority. … We have spent the last 10 years building a secular, democratic society, a civil society.” What, he asked, have the Palestinians built?

So too, Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, once told me this: “We had the opportunity to use terrorism against Baghdad. We chose not to.”

In 2005, the Palestinians of Gaza, free from their Israeli occupiers, could have taken a lesson from the Kurds -- and from David Ben-Gurion, the principal Israeli state-builder -- and created the necessary infrastructure for eventual freedom. Gaza is centrally located between two large economies, those of Israel and Egypt. Europe is just across the Mediterranean. Gaza could have easily attracted untold billions in economic aid.

The Israelis did not impose a blockade on Gaza right away. That came later, when it became clear that Palestinian groups were considering using their newly liberated territory as a launching pad for attacks. In the days after withdrawal, the Israelis encouraged Gaza’s development. A group of American Jewish donors paid $14 million for 3,000 greenhouses left behind by expelled Jewish settlers and donated them to the Palestinian Authority. The greenhouses were soon looted and destroyed, serving, until today, as a perfect metaphor for Gaza’s wasted opportunity.

If Gaza had, despite all the difficulties, despite all the handicaps imposed on it by Israel and Egypt, taken practical steps toward creating the nucleus of a state, I believe Israel would have soon moved to evacuate large sections of the West Bank as well. But what Hamas wants most is not a state in a part of Palestine. What it wants is the elimination of Israel. It will not achieve the latter, and it is actively thwarting the former.