In this specially commissioned article for the Pluto Press blog, author John Strawson puts the Gaza conflict in a broader, regional context. His book, Partitioning Palestine: Legal Fundamentalism in the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict (Pluto, 2010) is available to buy from the Pluto website, here.
John Strawson, 18/08/14
The Middle East is facing its most serious crisis since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. The Gaza war has to be seen not only another grizzly episode in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict but as part of broader regional civil war. This is quite definitely not a war between Shi’a and Sunni as many commentators lazily suggest. It is rather the latest act in a struggle between nationalism and Islamism. The creation of the so-called Caliphate by the Islamic State in parts of Syria and Iraq is the clearest expression of this process. However in 2013 we saw mass demonstration in Egypt, which brought down the Islamist government of President Morsi. The same struggles are evident in Tunisia, Libya and most tragically in Syria. The Hamas-Israel confrontation in Gaza is in many ways a proxy war between Hamas and Fatah. It is in the contours of the new Middle East that we need track the route to preventing another Gaza war.
In May this year Hamas agreed to form a unity government with Fatah in attempt to overcome the split between the West Bank and Gaza initiated by Hamas in 2007. In many ways Hamas was forced by weakness into agreeing to the creation of government in which it would not have any ministers and which was committed to negotiations with Israel. This was seen by some Hamas members as a capitulation to President Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah. However the Hamas political leadership was in a difficult position; it had lost its international allies, it was nearly bankrupt and it was loosing popular support in Gaza. The unity government offered the possibility that civil servants might get paid and Hamas might be able to gain some influence over Fatah policy. Its military wing, the Izzadin Al Qassam Brigades remained quite separate from the agreement.
The spark for the current conflict was the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers on the West Bank and the subsequent reaction of the Netanyahu government. At an early stage the Israeli authorities knew that the three had been murdered and had identified the suspects as members of Hamas. Instead of conducting a police investigation to track down the suspects the Israeli government used the opportunity to launch a massive security sweep of the entire West Bank and arrested 500 members of Hamas. While it is true that some members of the Hamas leadership had congratulated the kidnappers, it is very likely that the perpetrators were acting alone and that their action was to embarrass Hamas for entering into a unity government with Fatah. Israel’s action in the West Bank against Hamas stands in stark contrast to the response to the kidnapping and brutal murder of the Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khedeir. Despite the existence of a right-wing racist network the Israeli police followed the evidence and arrested the suspects – there was no security sweep. Hamas’s rocket attacks on Israel were a response to the Hamas arrests. It has to be said that Israel did attempt through its intermediary Gershon Baskin to persuade Hamas that another round of fighting was unnecessary. Hamas refused the offer of quiet.
If Netanyahu had responded opportunistically to the kidnappings now it was Hamas’s turn to use the arrests of the Hamas members in order to strengthen their position through war. Hamas’s international standing had been affected by it support for the Syrian opposition and as a result lost its HQ in Damascus. By alienating Assad it was cold shouldered by Iran. In Egypt after the election of Mohammed Morsi in 2012 despite his affiliation to the Muslim Brotherhood, relations were not as warm as expected. With the popular overthrow of Mosri, the subsequent election of Abdul Fattah Al Sisi as President and the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas – its offshoot – became a pariah. The Rafah border (between Gaza and Egypt) was effectively sealed and the Egyptian army destroyed some 600 tunnels through which vital supplies and weapons were smuggled into Gaza. Responding to the arrests in the West Bank through a barrage of rockets into Israel sent a message not only to Israel but also to Fatah that armed resistance remained intact.
Hamas, which was created out of the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in December 1978, has consistently challenged Fatah, the main component of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), for the leadership of the Palestinians. In re-casting itself as the Islamic Resistance Movement it sought to reject its rather pacifist past and adopt an uncompromising radicalism.
In the first intifada (1987-1993) Hamas played a major leadership role, which shocked the PLO whose leadership under Yasser Arafat was rather remote in Tunis. When the PLO signed the Oslo agreements Hamas bitterly opposed them on the grounds that they constituted a capitulation to the ‘Zionist enemy.’ Hamas then attempted various uprisings in Gaza against the newly established Palestinian Authority after May 1994. They refused to participate in the first Palestinian elections in January 1996 as they saw institutions of the presidency and the legislative council as the result of negotiations with Israel. After the Israeli assassination of Hamas’s military commander Yahya Ayyash in January 1996 it initiated a series of suicide attacks on Israeli buses in Ashkelon, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv killing 59 people in 10 days. Yasser Arafat realized that while the bombings were retaliation aimed at Israel they also had a political targets too, in particular the Oslo agreements. He then arrested 1,000 Hamas members and closed down several Hamas associated organizations. When Hamas did turn to electoral politics it did well winning 48 districts compared to Fatah’s 56 in the 2005 local elections and then went on to win the Legislative Council elections in 2006. In its efforts to erase the power of the elected President Abbas in the security apparatus in Gaza in 2007 it abandoned its position in the Palestinian national politics for the fiefdom of Gaza.
Hamas’s political project is to constitute Palestine as an Islamic state within a wider Islamic world. Its Charter has much in common with the outlook of Sayyid Qutb, the theoretician of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood who was executed in 1966. It defines the existing Muslim world as corrupt, denounces both western materialism and Eastern communism and explicitly treats the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion as scientific texts which explain the actions of Jews. Like Qutb it adopts Jihad as the means of advancing towards the goal of a worldwide Islam through establishing an Islamic Palestine. Islamism is defined by its instance on the creation of the an Islamic State.
In this approach Hamas necessarily shares much with other Islamists within the region. Many commentators fail to grasp that the main target of such politics is not the West but existing regimes within the Arab and Islamic world. Secular leaders, monarchs, leftists and the vast majority of Muslims who understand Islam as religion and not as politics are all seen as part of the corrupt barriers to establishing an Islamic reign. In deploying Jihad to remove these obstacles the concept is transformed from its Islamic meaning as a collective responsibility to defend Islam, which can only be authorized by Islamic authorities into individual violence sanctioned by anyone.
As the Arab Spring unfolded it became evident that it was Islamist organizations that were the first to benefit when they won elections in Tunisia and Egypt. In Syria as the costly civil war progressed it became evident that the main forces against the Assad government where and assortment of Islamist militias. It was out of this conflict that the Islamic State arose. It is important to grasp that there has been a significant re-action against the Islamist with the region. This has resulted in popular movements in Egypt and Tunisia which has been accompanied by massive changes in policy by Saudi Arabia and all the Gulf states bar Qatar. This has created new contingent relationships between the states in region. Over the Islamic State, Saudi Arabia and its archrival Iran are on the same side. This has also complicated US foreign policy. Since 2011 the US has been playing coach-up with events. Its actions in northern Iraq against the Islamic State illustrate the contradictions. The US on Syria has consistently demanded that Assad steps down and last summer even thought about air strikes over chemical weapons. This year it is deploying airstrikes against his enemies – thus potentially strengthening Assad. These contradictions are of direct relevance to the situation in Gaza and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
It should be noticed that the response to the Gaza war has been much more muted in the Arab world than in Europe, India or South Africa. With the exception of Qatar (the home to the eternal political wing of Hamas) there has been much quiet cheering of the Israelis. It should be remembered that the Egyptian army killed more civilians when suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood over the past year than civilians killed by Israel in Operation Protective Edge. Equally we know that the Assad government has killed many tens of thousands of civilians in efforts to suppress the Islamist militias. It is this sense that Israel’s action in Gaza needs to be set in the context of the wider regional civil war. In this new situation, however bloody, opportunities for a new regional and international framework to resolve the Palestinian-Israel conflict arise.
It is in the interest of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel that Hamas is disarmed and marginalized in Palestinian politics. This is not a technical, tactical issue but a political and strategic one that will involve all three governments making major policy shifts. However, Israel will be the key to deciding the fate of the conflict. The Gaza conflict is at root the failure of any Israeli government since Netanyahu first took office in June 1996 to have any serious negotiations with the Palestinians. This has had a disastrous impact on the many leaders of the PLO and particular Fatah who risked their lives and reputations in supporting Oslo. Instead of progress toward a Palestinian state they have been rewarded by a tripling of the Israeli settlers in the West Bank, the building of the wall, and the siege of Gaza. The patience of the current President Mahmoud Abbas in sticking to his vision of a negotiated settlement has been quite amazing. What Abbas and others in Fatah now need is a genuine political horizon that includes an independent Palestine. The unity government between Fatah and Hamas was a genuine attempt to overcome the divisions in Palestinian ranks while maintaining relations with Israel. Israel needs to work better within the region and to do this it must address the Arab peace plan of 2002, which was launched by the Arab League on the initiative of Saudi Arabia. It was based on three principles: (1) the creation of a Palestinian State in the areas occupied by Israel in 1967 with its capital in East Jerusalem, (2) a just solution to the Palestinian refugee issue and (3) in return there would be full recognition of Israel by Arab League members.
Netanyahu who gained office for a second time in 2009 like his predecessors (Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert) has studiously avoided commenting in the Arab peace plan. In the changed regional context such a position become less and less tenable. Israel needs a more stable region and part of that is more prosperous neighbors. In particular the Saudi offer of aid and investment to help re-build Gaza is significant. However for that to be implemented Israel will need to give something in return and acceptance of the Arab peace plan would go down well. Netanyahu, of course, has to deal with his coalition much of which would be opposed to any such course of action. However, it has been interesting that during the Gaza war he has been taking advice from the Justice Minister and former foreign minister, the centrist Tzipi Livini . His partners on the right, Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, are likely to challenge him for the premiership and this could push him towards a new coalition. Netanyahu has been an opportunist politician all his career and it is possible that it is his opportunism that could nudge him into a more pragmatic position on Palestine, especially if this meant his survival in office. Saudi officials have quite recently clarified that the plan can incorporate mutually agreed changes to the borders. That gives some flexibility that might appeal to Netanyahu.
A first step in this direction should be the Israeli recognition of the unity government. That would provide Abbas with some much needed support but could also facilitate a new situation in Gaza. If the Palestinian Authority can begin to deploy its security forces within the Strip and control the crossings then this could offer a new sense of stability within Gaza. It would also facilitate the right conditions for re-development and would be key to releasing Saudi funds.
An independent Palestine is in Israel’s interest. This is even more the case in the context of the regional civil war. Egypt and Saudi Arabia also need an independent Palestine, as it would remove a cause that animates many of their Islamist opponents. The price for preventing another Gaza war is not just ending the siege of Gaza and building a seaport as Hamas demands. What is needed is the program of Mahmoud Abbas, a free Palestine. Without a Palestinian state the regional civil war will deepen and extend.