The double folly
By Alon Ben-Meir
The war between Hamas and Israel has exposed the folly of both sides. Hamas' long-standing objective to destroy Israel has come back to haunt it, which may eventually spell its own demise. Conversely, Prime Minister Netanyahu's unwillingness to end the occupation and the blockade has also shown the folly of his policy.
The sad irony is that Hamas' leaders know that they will never be able to seriously threaten Israel existentially, and every time they challenge Israel, they subject the Palestinians in Gaza to the horror of war, destruction, and death.
Similarly, Netanyahu does not recognize that continuing the occupation and the blockade is unsustainable and there is no such thing as secure borders in the age of rockets, regardless of how fortified they may be.
Let me first state that I distinguish between the fanatic, violent and misguided organization Hamas, and the vast majority of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, who want to live in peace and dignity.
The current flareup vividly demonstrates the cruelty and degenerate morality of Hamas by using men, women and children as human shields to safeguard its cache of rockets, subjecting innocent Palestinians to abject poverty and despair. This only attests to Hamas' brutal reign, which places its twisted religious bent above the lives of those it presumably wishes to protect.
Driven by blind fanaticism, Hamas' leaders readily sacrifice the precious lives of children and heartlessly prevent ordinary, terrified Palestinians from leaving their homes to avoid death and injuries for the sole purpose of inviting increasing international condemnation of Israel.
Hamas made a habit of provoking Israel, ostensibly to end the Israeli blockade. Instead, it finds itself marred in another bloody confrontation while the vast majority of Palestinians in Gaza end up paying a dear price.
Following the formation of the Palestinian unity government, I advocated that Israel should give Hamas a chance to demonstrate its willingness to adhere, albeit indirectly, to the three Quartet principles of recognizing Israel, accepting prior agreements, and forsaking violence, which the unity government reaffirmed.
Instead, Hamas chose to forfeit a historic opportunity that could have allowed the unity government to chart a new path to bring about the eventual lifting of the blockade and establish the conditions on which to gradually build a durable peace.
Rather than building on Israel's concessions in the 2012 ceasefire agreement, Hamas opted to challenge Israel again in an effort to boost its waning political legitimacy among the Palestinians, who have been reaping nothing from Hamas' militancy but more pain and despondency.
While Hamas was able to generate in times of stress sympathy from the Arab states, today Hamas finds itself more isolated and financially strapped than ever before.
Weary of Islamic extremism, the Arab states are in fact quietly cheering Hamas' beatings by Israeli forces. Not surprisingly, Egypt took pleasure witnessing Hamas' self-inflicted wounds as the Egyptian government loathes Hamas, which has strong affiliations with the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
Netanyahu, on the other hand, has not fared much better. He insists that Israel is not an occupying power and that in any case it needs defensible borders. The new conflagration with Hamas has once again revealed the folly of his argument as thousands of rockets are raining on Israel, creating mayhem and forcing thousands to scramble in fear for cover.
The argument advanced by right-wing politicians is that the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 demonstrates that the Palestinians cannot be trusted, as Hamas uses the land as a staging ground for attacks on Israel instead of building the infrastructure of a state.
Had it not been for the fact that the withdrawal from Gaza was precipitous, unilateral, and done without security arrangements, economic development plans, or in phases, the picture would be different today. Hamas would not have been able to overthrow the PA, which was in control of Gaza at the time, and seize control of the Strip.
Nevertheless, the decision to withdraw was made on the assumption that a divided Palestine is more advantageous to Israel, and ridding itself of Gaza would free Israel from the responsibility of administering a densely populated area which Israel has no affinity to, and has no ideological resonance or geostrategic value.
The shortsightedness of successive Israeli governments in settling for the status quo is not sustainable given the continuing blockade of Gaza and Israel's unwillingness to ease it in times of calm, the occupation of the West Bank, and the continuing expansion of settlements. A violent eruption such as the current war was predictable and bound to occur.
Here again the Israeli folly is put on full display. A relatively small fanatic Islamic group is able to inflict incredible havoc all over Israel while boldly facing down the most formidable military power in the Middle East.
Now Netanyahu find himself in a box. He is torn between his desire to crush Hamas and destroy its infrastructure, and the international pressure to end the hostilities. Once again, the whole world is watching the unfolding of a Greek tragedy, except this one is very real and unforgiving.
It is a tragedy because both Hamas and Israel are guilty of hubris that transcends any bounds and defies reality. The ever-present evidence of Israeli hubris is the unending occupation while denying the Palestinians the establishment of their own state; with Hamas, it is its suicidal persistence to seek Israel's total destruction.
It is clear that a ceasefire must be urgently established to immediately provide humanitarian aid organized by the UN, which must be followed by negotiating a more durable accord. But no such agreement will have any meaning unless it addresses the causes and consequences of this never-ending conflict.
The current crisis offers an opportunity for a major breakthrough:
To begin with, no concession should be made to Hamas unless it first surrenders its cache of weapons to a UN-sponsored group in return for easing the blockade and gradually lifting it altogether.
Security coordination between Israel and the PA should be put in place in Gaza under the auspices of the unity government, allowing the PA security forces to take charge of all crossings from the Gaza side.
Israel must pledge to resume the peace negotiations in earnest and recommit itself to the two-state solution to give all Palestinians the hope that the occupation will eventually come to an end.
I am not naïve to assume that Hamas and Israel will readily accept such an agreement. But this is time to squeeze both as they cannot have it both ways. For Hamas, it is to be free to move people and goods in and out of Gaza while preparing for the next battle, and for Israel, to continue the expansion of settlements, maintain the occupation, and keep the blockade in place.
If the international community, led by the US, wants to avoid a repeat of these disastrous scenarios, it must insist on these conditions, however untenable they may seem.
Indeed, as long as these dynamics are not fundamentally changed, Israelis and Palestinians will pay the price. It is time to expose the Israeli and Palestinian folly.
Both sides will discover that this mutual folly assures a fate as described by Aeschylus: "So great shall be new sacrifices of clotting blood... so great the piles of bones, even to the third generation they shall be seen by human eyes as speechless warnings that those who must die not overreach themselves: when stubborn pride has flowered, it ripens to self-deception and the only harvest is a glut of tears."
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for
Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and
Middle Eastern studies. Web: www.alonben-meir.com