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Posts For: July 13, 2014

Palestinian Delusions Fuel Conflict

As the current round of fighting between Hamas and Israel concludes its first week today, no resolution is in sight. Israel’s government has made it clear that its goal is nothing more than “sustainable quiet” from Gaza but Hamas sees no reason to stop since the suffering they have created on both sides of the border has worked to their advantage. The reason for this has nothing to do with military technology and everything to do with the peculiar culture of Palestinian politics.

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As the current round of fighting between Hamas and Israel concludes its first week today, no resolution is in sight. Israel’s government has made it clear that its goal is nothing more than “sustainable quiet” from Gaza but Hamas sees no reason to stop since the suffering they have created on both sides of the border has worked to their advantage. The reason for this has nothing to do with military technology and everything to do with the peculiar culture of Palestinian politics.

To an objective observer this makes no sense. Hamas set events in motion last month when some of its operatives kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teenagers and then escalated the conflict by shooting several hundred rockets into the Jewish state from its Gaza stronghold. The result of these actions would all seem to undermine Hamas’s credibility vis-à-vis its Fatah rivals.

The rocket offensive has clearly failed on a military level. To shoot hundreds of rockets at cities for a week and to fail to score one hit or kill a single person—and killing civilians is exactly the goal of Hamas’s effort—can’t be represented as anything but a flop. At the same time, Hamas has not demonstrated any ability to deter or defend against Israeli precision attacks on Hamas targets.

All this would seem to add up to a perfect formula for a quick cease-fire. The Israelis want to end the attacks from Gaza and its government has no appetite for a ground invasion. Hamas could just declare a victory of sorts and preserve what is left of their arsenal since replacing their stocks of Iranian rockets won’t be so easy this time due to the closure of the border with Egypt. But there appears to be no sign of the “sustainable quiet” Israel craves of even a temporary cease-fire. The reason for that is that Hamas believes it is winning.

How so? The answer comes from the people of Gaza. They have born the brunt of Israeli counterattacks while the leaders and fighters of Hamas and their weapons stockpile remains safe in shelters underneath the strip. But the sight of rockets being launched into Israel by the hundreds has bolstered the Islamist group’s political stock. They know that Hamas TV claims of Israeli casualties are lies. But nonetheless, the idea that Jews in Tel Aviv are being forced to take shelter even if the rockets never find their targets is a big boost to their morale.

Scratch beneath the surface and actually read or listen to the comments of Gazans and you see why Hamas’s popularity always goes up whenever there is fighting.

It’s not because the Israelis are being particularly awful to the Palestinians. People in Gaza know that Hamas is begging for Israeli retaliation and understand why the rockets are being launched from neighborhoods packed with civilians or in the vicinity of schools, mosques, and hospitals. They know that if instead of facing an opponent like the IDF that strives to minimize civilian casualties they were up against an adversary as ruthless as Hamas, the price they would pay for the attempt to terrorize the Israeli people would be far higher. After all, the Assad regime and its Islamist opponents have managed to slaughter more than 160,000 Syrians in the last three years and few in the West have even raised an eyebrow about that, let alone be motivated to action to stop that war.

The Palestinians have embraced the suffering that Hamas has brought upon them because they think being set up to be killed is their part in the war against the Jewish state. Read this quote from Al-Ahkbar:

Undefeated, the 43 year-old man told Al-Akhbar “this is the price that we have to pay; Haifa cannot be shelled and the Resistance men cannot sneak into Ashkelon to clash with the occupation soldiers if we do not present martyrs and casualties… all our wounds do not matter it if they can shorten the distance to Palestine.”

When Palestinians speak of Hamas actions they refer to it as “resistance against the occupation.” But by that they are not referring to any occupation of Gaza. Israel evacuated every single soldier, settlement, and civilian from Gaza in 2005. Nor are they talking about the West Bank. When they speak of “occupation” they are referring to pre-June 1967 Israel. They genuinely think of their war with Israel as an anti-colonial struggle in which the “colonists”—the Jews—will someday be forced to leave or die, as Hamas’s charter promises. Indeed, the conceit of that piece in Al-Akhbar is that even if bomb shelters were available to Palestinians (and as I wrote last night, they exist but they’re used for Hamas and their bombs, not civilians), they wouldn’t use them because they see their spilled blood as a contribution to the cause of reversing the verdict of 1948, i.e. the “Palestine” that the Gaza man is talking about.

The problem with attempts to understand this conflict is that all too much effort is spent on unraveling the minutiae of recent events and almost none is directed at trying to understand the motivations of Hamas and its supporters. If Palestinian statehood as part of a two-state solution were their goal, they could have realized it 15 years ago. Palestinian leaders, including the allegedly moderate Mahmoud Abbas, have rejected four such offers in that time. Instead, they have mindlessly preferred to refuse to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn and to insist on the so-called “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 refugees (even though nearly as many Jews were expelled or fled their homes in the Arab and Muslim world after the same events) that is a prescription for the end of Israel.

Hamas makes no secret of its goal: the elimination of the Jewish state and the expulsion or murder of its people. Their rockets won’t get them closer to that objective. Nor will the spilled blood of Palestinians in Gaza. But it is the refusal of the Palestinian people to put aside the delusion that this is a desirable or achievable purpose that fuels Hamas’s popularity and perpetuates the conflict. Whether or not there is a cease-fire this week, it won’t really end until the Palestinians and their foreign supporters concede that history won’t be reversed and get on with the business of building their own lives in a world in which Israel’s existence is permanent.

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The Shocking ‘Iron Dome Is Bad’ Argument

One of the more peculiar twists in “gee, let me try to find something interesting to say about the war with Hamas” punditry is the argument that suggests Israel’s use of anti-missile technology is bad for Israel, bad for Gaza, and bad for the world. This argument has two facets, both examples of the downside of the Internet: How it allows people with half-baked, half-considered ideas access to the court of world opinion to make a case any rational editor would have thrown out in the old days.

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One of the more peculiar twists in “gee, let me try to find something interesting to say about the war with Hamas” punditry is the argument that suggests Israel’s use of anti-missile technology is bad for Israel, bad for Gaza, and bad for the world. This argument has two facets, both examples of the downside of the Internet: How it allows people with half-baked, half-considered ideas access to the court of world opinion to make a case any rational editor would have thrown out in the old days.

Facet #1 is nominally pro-Israel. It suggests Israelis are somehow being inured to the dangers posed by Hamas by the fact that Iron Dome is successfully shooting down rockets. They’re still going to malls, to the beach, to work. As a result, they are being lulled into a false sense of security, for surely Iron Dome will fail at some point. And (this is the hawkish argument) perhaps the false sense of security is making it possible for Bibi Netanyahu to avoid making the tough but necessary decision to go in on the ground in Gaza and destroy Hamas’s rocket cache and that of Islamic Jihad as well.

Facet #2 is anti-Israel. It suggests that Iron Dome is bad precisely because it is saving Israeli lives—and if Hamas’s attacks on the populace were successful, that might force Israel to the bargaining table. In this reckoning, significant Israeli pain and suffering would be a good thing. By denying Hamas this victory, Israel is effectively rejecting the two-state solution.

Facet #2 is, quite simply, depraved—it effectively accepts the idea that every person in Israel is an appropriate military target, an idea that voids the very notion of the nation-state as it has been understood by the West since the treaty of Westphalia in 1648. No wonder, therefore, that it has been advanced by several of the columnists for Haaretz, the Israeli organ that is on the verge of permanently establishing itself as the Tokyo Rose of Israel.

But Facet #1 is also nuts, and—when voiced by people who live thousands of miles away from Israel—points out the dangers of writing about what life is like in a war zone when you’re not in a war zone. Israelis all over the country have spent a considerable amount of time in stairwells and bomb shelters over the past week, following screaming sirens that terrify children and have caused heart attacks in at least two American visitors. In addition, 40,000 Israelis have been called up in preparation of a possible ground attack. This means that literally every family in the country either has a member or a close friend in the call-up. That includes my family.

So people running for safety and sitting with a sword of Damocles hanging over their heads in the form of an invasion of Gaza are somehow being excused by technological magic overhead from reckoning with the war Hamas has launched against them? The idea is contemptible, and should shame those who are making it.

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No Easy Answer in Gaza

Hamas firing rockets into Israel. Israel retaliating with air strikes and sometimes ground attacks into the Gaza Strip. The “international community” bemoaning Israel’s supposedly “disproportionate” response and demanding an immediate ceasefire.

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Hamas firing rockets into Israel. Israel retaliating with air strikes and sometimes ground attacks into the Gaza Strip. The “international community” bemoaning Israel’s supposedly “disproportionate” response and demanding an immediate ceasefire.

If you feel like you’ve seen this movie before, it’s because you have. It’s been running on endless repeat like a cheesy late-night horror show ever since Israel pulled all of its troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip in 2005. Hamas took advantage of the Israeli evacuation to seize power from the corrupt and unpopular Fatah apparatchiks with whom Israel and the West prefer to deal. Hamas then began stockpiling missiles, smuggled in through tunnels from Egypt, which it unloads on Israel at periodic intervals. Israel naturally hits back and, because Hamas military installations are hidden in civilian areas, the predictable result is civilian casualties which can then be paraded before the television cameras to turn international opinion against the big bad Zionists.

After a while, both Hamas and Israel decide they have had enough–the former because it does not want to suffer any more damage, the latter because it does not want to reoccupy Gaza. Then the two sides agree to a ceasefire which lasts perhaps 18 months if we’re lucky (before today the last such round of fighting occurred in November 2012). Eventually, however, some fresh incident occurs (such as the recent murder of three Israeli teenagers by Palestinian extremists and the equally odious revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager by Jewish extremists) to trigger a fresh outbreak of conflict.

Is there no way out of what is known, with some justification, as a “cycle of violence”? Not that I can see.

The preferred solution of the U.S. and the European Union is an Israeli pullout from the West Bank. This is intended to hasten a “final settlement” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Israel will do no such thing because it has seen in Gaza the wages of withdrawal–not peace but rather more conflict.

But if the doves have no real answer to the threat from Gaza, neither do the hawks who urge that Israel annihilate Hamas. The only way this can happen is if Israel reoccupies the Gaza Strip. Otherwise, as has happened so often in the past, Hamas will simply regenerate itself after suffering some casualties.

The problem is that the Israeli public has no desire to assume the role of occupier in Gaza once again–which would undoubtedly reduce rocket attacks on Israel but increase casualties among the conscripts of the Israel Defense Forces. The fact that the Iron Dome system provides a fair degree of protection against Hamas rockets makes it all the more unlikely that Prime Minister Netanyahu will take the drastic step of reoccupying Gaza.

It would be nice if Fatah were able to topple Hamas from power and install a regime in Gaza committed to peaceful co-existence with Israel. But this is unlikely on multiple levels, not least because even Fatah has not truly accepted Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

Perhaps things will change now that Egypt is unwilling and Syria unable to provide aid to Hamas. Perhaps Hamas will be weakened enough to be toppled by other Palestinian factions. But unfortunately Hamas’s successors may be al-Qaeda-style Salafists who would be no improvement.

So for the immediate future there appears to be no way out of the strategic impasse in which Hamas and Israel are trapped. Hamas would love to destroy Israel but is too weak to do so. Israel has the power to destroy Hamas but not the will. Both sides thus keep conflict within manageable bounds and preserve their resources for future battles.

There is, for the foreseeable future, no exit from this grim deadlock–and attempts to achieve one (by, for example, forcing Israeli territorial concessions) are only likely to make the situation worse.

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Kerry’s Afghanistan Breakthrough

It’s too early to say for sure, but Secretary of State John Kerry appears to have achieved an important breakthrough in negotiating an end to the election impasse which imperils Afghanistan’s future. Abdullah Abdullah, who finished first in the initial round of voting and appears to have lost the runoff to Ashraf Ghani, has been screaming fraud and threatening to declare himself president on his own authority.

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It’s too early to say for sure, but Secretary of State John Kerry appears to have achieved an important breakthrough in negotiating an end to the election impasse which imperils Afghanistan’s future. Abdullah Abdullah, who finished first in the initial round of voting and appears to have lost the runoff to Ashraf Ghani, has been screaming fraud and threatening to declare himself president on his own authority.

This is probably a bluff, but it’s a dangerous one because it threatens to reopen the deep fissures that fractured Afghanistan in the 1990s when Abdullah’s Northern Alliance, composed of Tajiks, Uzbeks and other ethnic minorities, fought a vicious civil war against the Taliban, whose ranks were (and are) made up of Pashtuns from the south and east. Ghani, who according to preliminary results won 56 percent of the vote, compared to Abdullah’s 44 percent, isn’t backing down either. He sees himself as the rightful next president of Afghanistan.

Enter Kerry. He flew into Kabul and in 12 hours of nonstop talks managed to get Abdullah and Ghani, both closeted in separate rooms of the U.S. Embassy along with their advisers, to agree on an internationally supervised procedure to audit all 8 million votes cast–a suspiciously high number, given that only 7 million or so voted in the first round of balloting.

If the process goes off as planned, and if it results in the seating of a government that is seen as legitimate (both admittedly big ifs), Kerry will have achieved a major diplomatic victory–one that could prevent Afghanistan from sliding back into chaos. It will in fact be only his latest triumph in Afghanistan where he has had more luck than most American officials, even when he was still only a senator, in dealing with the difficult Hamid Karzai.

Why does Kerry seem more successful in Afghanistan than elsewhere–for example, in the Middle East, where he devoted so much energy to the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” only to see another round of fighting break out between Israel and Hamas? Or in Ukraine where he has had little luck in getting the Russians to end their aggression by proxy?

The answers are pretty obvious but bear repeating. In Afghanistan Kerry has two advantages that he does not enjoy when negotiating with Iran or the Palestinian Authority or Russia: He has overwhelming American military force at his back and he has the luxury of dealing with actors who may have some differences but fundamentally share similar goals and outlooks.

Although their numbers are much reduced (and will fall further by the end of the year) the U.S. military still has more than 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, backed up by ample air power, making them the most formidable military force in the country. That gives any American diplomat a lot of leverage should he choose to use it.

Moreover, while Abdullah and Ghani bitterly disagree about which of them should be president, they are both widely seen as technocrats who want a democratic, Western-oriented, non-Taliban future for the country. That makes it possible, if not easy, for them to bridge their differences in the same way that union and corporate negotiators can do if led along by a skillful mediator.

Alas few if any of those preconditions exist elsewhere in the world, which makes it all the more mysterious that Kerry wants to expend so much energy on what are almost sure to be fruitless negotiations with adversaries who have no reason to reach agreement. He would be better advised to focus his efforts on mediating other disputes between relatively reasonable rivals, e.g., South Korea and Japan, rather than wasting his breathe trying to persuade the Iranians to give up their nuclear program or the Palestinians to give up their dream of eradicating the Jewish state.

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Islamic State vs. Syrian Kurds

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity and pleasure to visit Rojava, the autonomous region which Syrian Kurds have carved out by pushing out or containing Bashar al-Assad’s forces while simultaneously defeating wave after wave of Nusra Front and later Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) attacks. What the Syrian Kurds have achieved would be amazing under any circumstance; that they did so while blockaded by Turkey, the Syrian government, Iraq, and Iraqi Kurdistan (whose leader Masud Barzani opposes them for both tribal reasons and because they refuse to subordinate themselves to his leadership) is even more impressive. That Rojava has become a refuge for tens of thousands of Arab Muslims and Syrian Christians is testament to its tolerance and moderation.

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Earlier this year, I had the opportunity and pleasure to visit Rojava, the autonomous region which Syrian Kurds have carved out by pushing out or containing Bashar al-Assad’s forces while simultaneously defeating wave after wave of Nusra Front and later Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) attacks. What the Syrian Kurds have achieved would be amazing under any circumstance; that they did so while blockaded by Turkey, the Syrian government, Iraq, and Iraqi Kurdistan (whose leader Masud Barzani opposes them for both tribal reasons and because they refuse to subordinate themselves to his leadership) is even more impressive. That Rojava has become a refuge for tens of thousands of Arab Muslims and Syrian Christians is testament to its tolerance and moderation.

Largely out of deference to Turkey, the State Department has steered clear of Syrian Kurdistan, refusing to welcome its representatives to the ill-considered and ill-fated conferences in Geneva earlier this year, while choosing instead to bring in Syrian Kurdish politicians lacking any real constituency on the ground in Syria.

The U.S. position is both strategic and moral malpractice. The Assad regime has implemented, in the words of State Department official Stephen Rapp, “the kind of machinery of cruel death that we haven’t seen frankly since the Nazis.” The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, of course, has broken away from al-Qaeda because it considers that extremist group too moderate. Since renaming itself the Islamic State and taking over broad swaths of Iraq, its atrocities have been well covered by the media. That given the option between Assad or a radical Islamist group on one hand, and a secular, democratic-leaning entity on the other, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry place the United States against the secular, democratic-leaning entity says a lot about the current moral bankruptcy infusing U.S. policy.

For months, that lack of support made life difficult for Syrian Kurds, Christians, and other citizens within Rojava. What has not been covered, however, is the all-out battle now occurring between ISIS and Syrian Kurds. Tweets from residents of the region now under ISIS attacks have also reported that the Syrian opposition has been using chemical weapons against the Kurdish population. See, for example, this account from July 9 and 10. Now, of course, just because someone tweets something does not make it true. But there is no indication the reports are false, and every indication they are true At the very least, this is a charge American and UN officials should investigate. How ironic that just over a quarter century after Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds—and the Reagan administration remained silent because speaking up would be too diplomatically inconvenient—history seems to be repeating against Kurds once more. It’s a good thing there are now public intellectuals like Samantha Power who put their moral compass above ambition. Or not.

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