How did it Come to This? Five Months of Turmoil

A semi-annual review of events in Israel 

This summer’s seven-week war with Hamas and Gaza, the buildup to the war, and the fallout both locally and internationally were extremely damaging. There were large numbers of casualties and massive destruction on the Palestinian side, painful losses on the Israeli side, and deep hatred and anger provoked among all participants. In the short term, the war clearly had a markedly destructive effect on Israeli-Palestinian relations, Jewish-Arab relations within Israel, Israel’s international standing and relations with the United States, and confidence in any hopes for peace. In the long term, it is too early to tell what the impact will be, whether we are simply experiencing a pause before the next round of fighting in Gaza, or whether the reshuffling of regional powers might lead to new scenarios, and whether those will be better or worse than the current situation.

To recap pre-war events; the Palestinians announced a reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah when the Kerry-led negotiations collapsed and the fourth round of prisoner releases was canceled by Israel. Both Israeli and Palestinian negotiators came under criticism for not taking the process more seriously, and working harder to blame the other side – or the American mediators – than finding solutions.

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Israeli leaders said that Pres. Abbas would have to choose between Hamas and peace with Israel. A major turning point took place when three Jewish teenage yeshiva students were kidnapped and later discovered to have been murdered by West Bank members of Hamas. Israeli leaders charged that this was a direct result of the reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, and sent Israeli forces on a relentless search of West Bank towns initially to try to rescue the youths. The IDF used the opportunity to arrest large numbers of West Bank Hamas and Fatah activists, some of whom had been previously released from prison in the deal for Gilad Shalit, and reports later surfaced that the military knew the youths had been killed long before they found the corpses, but continued their sweeps in the West Bank to rattle Hamas and Palestinian President Abbas. When the bodies of the three youths were discovered, an Arab teenager from East Jerusalem was kidnapped and murdered by an ultra-Orthodox man in revenge, while Jewish gangs attacked Arabs in and around Jerusalem, especially on buses and trains, and in some other locations in Israel.

The war started in earnest, as Hamas launched rockets against Israel and Israel called up troops and reserves, initiating Operation Protective Edge to stop the rocket fire. Hamas conducted a fatal attack inside Israel through one of several dozen tunnels it had constructed: Israel launched a limited ground incursion into Gaza with the ostensible aim of eradicating 30 tunnels, Hamas rockets rained down on Israel sending half the country in and out of shelters all day, claiming in succession that their campaign was in retaliation for the arrests of Hamas members in the West Bank, to end the blockade, to establish a port and an airport, and to liberate Palestine.

Who you blame for the start of the war depends on where you think the story begins. Some within Israel blame Israel’s government for the provocation (the mass arrests and re-arrests of Hamas and Fatah members in the West Bank) that led to the war, while others argued that a weakened Hamas that was running out of funds launched missile attacks as a desperate measure to reassert its status. The Israeli government line was that the murder-kidnapping revealed the true face of the Fatah-Hamas government, while Palestinians claimed the desperate situation of Gaza finally boiled over due to Israeli aggression in the West Bank.

Israeli retaliation caused massive death and destruction. Israel demonstrated an unprecedented willingness to inflict large numbers of casualties among non-combatants, causing the deaths of more than 500 children, and more than 2100 Palestinians overall. Clearly the moral cost-benefit calculus has changed from the time when Israel General Security Services (Shabak) heads agonized over killing civilians when dropping a single bomb intended to wipe out the entire Hamas leadership. Remarkably, the scale of the killing evoked very little soul-searching among Jewish Israelis. While many expressed regret, most apparently accepted the argument that Hamas was responsible for the Palestinian deaths because it started the fighting by firing rockets at Israeli civilians and then refused to stop, despite the heavy losses.

Within Israel, IDF efforts to warn Palestinian civilians to evacuate buildings prior to their destruction were much publicized, and reports asserted that Israel’s preventative measures were countermanded by Hamas insistence that Gazans stay put. In any case, Gazans, unlike Israelis, had no shelters or any place to go to get away from the assault. Only Hamas leaders found safety, hiding in bunkers.

Initial international support for Israel and its right to defend itself from attack eroded as the images of Gazan despair blanketed social media and television coverage, and Israel came under attack for using excessive and disproportionate force, as world-wide protests and calls for anti-Israel boycotts increased. The U.N. Human Rights Council established a Commission of Inquiry to investigate Israeli actions during the war, but remarkably – with characteristic imbalance – not Hamas actions. One multi-day cease-fire was implemented but used by both sides to regroup before fighting resumed and another was breached by the Palestinians and ended a few hours after it started. An open-ended cease-fire was finally brokered by Egypt dictating that one month later negotiations would take place to address the major claims by both sides.

Israeli Jews showed a remarkably high level of solidarity for Israel’s cause during the war, with one survey measuring support at 96%, including unprecedented levels of identification by ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. This was the positive dimension to this horrific conflict, and there were countless instances of Israeli Jews setting aside differences to make common cause. Leftist author David Grossman who delivered the most moving and prominent speech critical of the war given this summer at a Tel Aviv rally of 15,000 people, was criticized for not celebrating this solidarity sufficiently …

There was little tolerance, however, for dissent from Jewish or Arab citizens. Arab employees (including doctors and pharmacists) were laid off from work – estimates of the number of such cases range from the dozens to the hundreds – because they criticized Israel on their Facebook pages which Moriah-partner Sikkuy’s Ron Gerlitz termed “narrative dismissal” (most were subsequently reinstated, after apologizing or when tempers cooled), Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called for a boycott of all Arab businesses expressing solidarity for Gazans. Jewish gangs pressured Jewish small business owners to fire Arab workers. Right wing thugs beat up leftists at demonstrations against the war, and when Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy accused the IDF of committing war crimes, he received death threats. Finance Minister Yair Lapid, a former columnist for the rival newspaper Yediot Ahronot, called on Israelis to cancel their Haaretz subscriptions (many did). Lapid, it should be noted, said his advice was the democratic response, in contrast to more extreme calls for government sanctions against the newspaper. Arabs throughout Israel were terrified and avoided public spaces as graffiti and roving gangs called for Death to Arabs.

The resolution of the war signaled a realignment of regional players; Egypt, as opposed to the United States, played the central role in facilitating the final cease-fire, and Israel’s government felt it could make common cause with Egypt because of their shared antipathy for Hamas, which is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood now outlawed in Egypt. Qatar, meanwhile, asserted itself as the principal backer of Hamas and Gaza. Since the latter stages of the war, Prime Minister Netanyahu began promising new diplomatic opportunities due to the shakeup in regional power and alliances, converging interests with Egyptian leaders and other Arab countries concerned about ISIS / the Islamic State. The Israeli government briefly stopped criticizing President Abbas, apparently seeing him as a more promising alternative to Hamas, but abandoned this tack as soon as the war ended.

The post-war period started badly as Israel expropriated almost 1000 acres of Palestinian land, in this single gesture destroying any hope that the Israeli government and President Abbas might work together to sideline Hamas, and angering the international community. As Israeli government leaders resumed their familiar denigration of Abbas, Abbas went to the UN, where he charged Israel with genocide and announced plans to ask the United Nations to end the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank within the next two years. Netanyahu lambasted the Palestinian leadership for using Gazans as human shields and tried to equate Hamas with ISIS / the Islamic State. Negotiations scheduled to start one month after the war were postponed as both sides traded accusations. Egyptian President Sisi called on Israel to accept the 2002 Arab League peace initiative, signaling Israel that it will not be able to ignore Palestinian demands if it wants Arab allies in the changing Middle East. Post-war negotiations did resume but no one seems to notice. Meanwhile the British and Irish parliaments have passed measures recognizing the Palestinian State, which have symbolic if not practical value, and in the case of the UK, show just how alienated reliable allies feel from Israeli policies and leaders.

Jews and Muslims celebrated their holidays simultaneously, but anticipated clashes did not materialize, in part because of concentrated efforts by Jewish-Arab NGOs and the police. Tensions between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem, however, have since reached a fever pitch with renewed terror attacks, violent protests, stone-throwing and calls by the mayor and the Prime Minister for more aggressive police action in East Jerusalem, which predictably, will fan the flames further. There is talk of a Third Intifada, and the attempted murder of Yehuda Glick, an activist calling for Jews as well as Moslems to be allowed to pray on the Temple Mount is another new nadir, but at the same time, politics as usual have regained their place in the headlines. As has been the case after every war in the last decade, Israel ratcheted at least one more turn toward the right.

A surprising voice for unity and tolerance came from new President Ruby Rivlin, who was the only senior government leader to repeatedly condemn attacks on Arabs, and who termed Israel a “sick society”, because of its inherent racism. Rivlin attended a commemoration of a 1956 massacre by Israeli soldiers of 48 Palestinian laborers and children returning from the fields in Kufar Kassem, an unprecedented gesture., He invited to the President’s residence an Arab teenager who had posted a video to YouTube about being victimized by bullying, and then made a similar video with the boy in which he held up signs calling for Tolerance and Equality. Also, despite the overall negativity, there were numerous local Jewish-Arab initiatives throughout the summer and fall, to publicly express a desire to live together in harmony and criticize the extremism and violence. Some of these, however, were broken up by attacks from opponents.

International opinion is painting Israel as the villain, but rather than emerging from any considered assessment of the conflict, this perception is largely due to the imbalance in fatalities, brought home by the horrific images of death and destruction in Gaza compared to the less disturbing footage of Israelis running for cover. Some believe the war would not have been triggered had Israel not reacted so aggressively to the kidnapping and murder of the three youths, nor taken such a harsh line against the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation. But Hamas chose to attack Israeli civilians with the best weapons it had, and should not be forgiven because their rockets were largely ineffective. As Israel was at pains to explain, Hamas could have ended the onslaught at any moment simply by ceasing its rocket attacks.

Addressing the underlying cause of the hostilities would require getting serious about peace negotiations, ending settlement expansion and the Occupation, all of which the current Israeli government opposes. The Palestinians, for their part, clearly want to change the status quo but are conflicted about how to do this and what their end game is.

As a side-note which might help explain Israeli thinking to those viewing events from abroad, most Israeliswatched a somewhat different war than what was seen by the rest of the world, focusing on the moment-to-moment warning sirens and the tragedies of each soldier killed in action or the few civilians felled by Hamas rockets.

The concatenation of events is dizzying, but with the perspective of a few months, the question of whether anything was achieved by either side must be asked. Israel did not crush nor disarm Hamas. Hamas did not end the blockade or the occupation. Abbas did not assert himself or the power of his unity government. Hamas did, however, improve its financial situation and popular standing among Palestinians.

The principal players came off looking bad; Israel appeared callous and murderous, and then followed up the fighting with another massive land grab, Hamas showed it was willing to sacrifice thousands of Palestinian lives and allow large swaths of Gaza to be leveled in the hope of ending the siege and boosting its political capital . Palestinian Pres. Abbas once more fumbled the chance to assert his leadership and instead issued the aforementioned charges of genocide against Israel and called for jihad to save Jerusalem. UN leader Ban Ki-moon obsessed about how Israel killed civilians hiding in UN property in Gaza and how Palestinians stored weapons there instead of addressing the bigger picture. Pres. Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry seemed somewhat impotent, as Israeli leaders lambasted the two men for their bumbling or perceived hostility when their proposals seemed too favorable to Hamas and its sponsors, and both Israelis and Palestinians ignored their directives. The US administration was reluctant to pressure or even criticize Israel while it was still under attack, and then responded to the land expropriation that followed the war with little more than a slap on the wrists. Apart from a brief slowdown in resupplying Israel weapons for bureaucratic review, Israeli leaders paid no political price for their relentless verbal abuse of their American counterparts.

Only now, two months after the war, has the American administration expressed the bile it feels for Israeli leaders, snubbing Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon on his recent visit to Washington, and insulting Netanyahu – calling him “gutless” and a “chickenshit”) in an interview in The Atlantic Monthly, because of his unwillingness to take risks for peace. This may signal the long-anticipated downturn in US-Israel relations resulting from Netanyahu’s relentless and undeserved abuse of Obama, especially now that Obama’s final mid-term elections as president are at our doorstep.

The more important question is what can be done to move away from violence and achieve a just and lasting peace. Nothing is as mind-boggling as the willingness of the international community to pledge billions of dollars to rebuild Gaza once again without altering the conditions on the ground that have led to three wars between Israel and Hamas in the last six years. No one is insisting that Gaza be disarmed – perhaps because there is no clue as to how to do it – or that Israel end its blockade of Gaza – which Israel’s leaders are not likely to consider with proof that years of construction supplies were diverted to building tunnels from which to launch attacks within Israel proper and to construct rockets for cross-border firing. More stringent inspection protocols will not change anything so long as smuggling continues from Egypt and Iran and while Hamas remains in charge. Hopes that Abbas might come in and change the rules in Gaza seem overly optimistic. Nor has there been any more serious pressure on the sides to work to resolve differences and achieve a political settlement that would end the occupation and assure security.

While the war was in full throttle, wake-up calls about the threat of ISIS / the Islamic State came with the filmed beheading of several Western journalists and the impassioned plea in the United Nations by a member of the Yazidi minority to save her people from impending genocide. World leaders and the media alike seemed to discover all at once that ISIS had conquered vast territories in Iraq and Syria before anyone noticed their existence. The US subsequently launched attacks on ISIS with the help of some western and Arab allies, but as often before, now finds itself hamstrung by the internecine feuding endemic to the Middle East; i.e .; the Turkish army stands by while ISIS attacks their traditional enemies, the Kurds, in effect aiding and abetting the Islamic State even while their American coalition partners are bombing ISIS and arming the Kurds.

It is not impossible that the realignment of regional powers will provide some new opportunities for peace or at least, shifts in the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians. But the Netanyahu government has resumed its familiar trope that there is no Palestinian partner for peace, with Abbas helping to prove Netanyahu’s case. Of course, the Israeli government spent seven years trying to undermine Abbas and spurning his every approach, confiscating land and expanding settlements, so Abbas can not entirely be faulted for getting fed up. Unfortunately, in venting his rage with inflammatory rhetoric, Abbas has fed the right wing message machine.
During the war the Israeli left was busy finding shelter to dodge rockets and fighting on the battlefield along with everybody else. The Labor Party leadership went out of its way to display its patriotic colors while Israel was under assault, and only the Meretz leadership was willing to join the small protests against the harshness of Israeli tactics and the anti-Arab sentiment roiling the country. Labor probably stood little to gain by adopting Meretz’s position; Israelis were not open to any kind of moral reckoning while being attacked and watching our soldiers being killed, and it is doubtful that such a reckoning will ever take place. But Labor also failed to voice a clear and compelling alternative to the government line at the conclusion of the war, and more importantly, immediately following the war when the government did everything possible to scuttle any chances for moving towards reconciliation with more moderate Palestinians.

The Current Situation

Israel has returned to politics as usual at startling speed, almost as if the war and its repercussions can be forgotten. The government has prepared another national budget which ignores the social agenda, helping the rich, and doing nothing for the poor. Costs incurred by the war will be passed on to the future by cuts in social services and by raising the national debt. Finance Minister Lapid is holding out for his plan to eliminate the 18% VAT tax on first time home buyers – supposedly a boon to his middle class constituency – but is losing most of his other battles – eg reforming the conversion process – to the more seasoned Netanyahu, who is already planning for his next government coalition with the Ultra-Orthodox parties.

In a disturbing development, outgoing Minister of the Interior Gideon Saar and Prime Minister Netanyahu have stated the government’s intention to ignore the recent High Court ruling invalidating for the second time the government-sponsored amendment that enabled the establishment of the Holot Detention Center deep in the Negev desert. Holot is used to hold almost 2,000 refugees from the Sudan and Eritrea who are given no chance to apply for asylum. Detainees can be held indefinitely, and those who break the onerous regulations are sent to a real prison. The Court ruled that the government’s program, like the previous government plan that the Court struck down, defies the Basic Law on Freedom and Human Dignity, and ordered the detainees to be freed within three months. Netanyahu said he would view the High Court ruling as a recommendation and not consider it binding, an astounding assertion from a head of state in a democracy.

In this instance, two troubling issues are entangled with one another; the first is the government’s view that the refugees are a threat to the Jewish character of the state, its commitment to maintaining its draconian policies as a deterrent to renewed illegal immigration, and its pride in the success of its campaign against them. Through threats, bullying, humiliation, detention, and bribery, the government managed to convince several thousand illegals to leave the country “voluntarily” in the past year. Netanyahu touted this achievement in his New Year’s address to the nation, and activists have failed to find an effective counter to his framing.

The second issue is the right wing campaign to weaken the High Court. Led by the Likud and the Jewish Home parties, the government is working actively to limit the power of the Court, in part to prevent it from reining in government excesses against refugees and Arabs, but also in part, to break apart the left-leaning Ashkenazi-dominated Old Boys Club which dominates the judicial branch in Israel. Surprisingly, Chief Justice Asher Grunis, who gained his position through right-wing manipulations to place one of their own at the helm, has proven to be a maverick on the bench, disappointing the aspirations of his supporters.

The government just passed a bill that would enable the Knesset to overrule High Court rulings based on the Basic Law on Freedom and Human Dignity for four-year periods through a simple majority vote. This new bill is now headed to the Knesset. This effort is clearly another right wing attempt to weaken the checks and balances on its nationalist aspirations. But the lack of opposition to their moves reveals another weakness of the left; depending too much on the court to determine policy. And history suggests that sometimes when the Court’s views are too far out in front of the public positions, the Court ends up losing support rather than correcting bad policy.

For those of us in Israel’s progressive democratic Zionist camp, the day is short and there is much work to do.

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