A Unilateral Ride over the Edge?

Many analysts of the escalation in Gaza seem to be interested in questions such as “who started the fight” and “who should stop first”. But the latest installment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to be more complicated than a ping-pong match needing a lot more than “stopping” to solve it.

The escalation in Gaza is not an isolated development brought about by the abduction of a soldier. It is the logical conclusion of the unilateral policies pursued by the Israeli government over the last year. The Israeli pull-out from Gaza in August 2005 left the small Gaza Strip with almost no access to the outside world and with no effective central rule. At the same time Israel has retained direct and indirect control over Gaza’s borders and its crippled economy. The Israeli government thus sought to relieve itself from political and economic responsibility to the 1.3 million people of Gaza, while keeping a military occupation by remote control.

This unilateral approach was reinforced after Hamas’ election in March 2006 when Israel declared its refusal to deal with the new government. The international community followed suit and imposed an international embargo on the Palestinian Authority until Hamas recognizes Israel. The embargo has had severe consequences on the Palestinian civilian population.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Mr. Olmert, had pledged to carry these unilateral policies further into the West Bank promising voters that Israel could win security through unilateral withdrawals, tough military means, and the enclosing of the Palestinians behind fences and walls. The fallacy of this promise has been exposed with the current fighting in Gaza. Israel has the military power to attack Palestine but such approach cannot bring security. Rockets can fly above fences and tunnels can be dug under walls. If chaos and despair reign on the one side of the fence, no one should expect security on the other side.

As strong as the desire is–on both sides–to separate, what has happened in the last few months in and around the Gaza strip has demonstrated that separation is not an option: Palestinians and Israelis share the land, and whatever fences, walls, watchtowers, or rhetoric will not change this fact. Brutal force will not amend grievances and will not remove fears. It is re-engagement, not disengagement that is needed.

Resuming dialogue with the Palestinian elected representatives is the only way to stabilize the situation and to move forward towards negotiations. The coming to power of Hamas was unpleasing to many outside the Palestinian territories, but it was a result of a democratic process, and was a reflection of Hamas’ willingness to seek alternatives to the battlefield.

Hamas’ decision to become part of the political process in the Palestinian Authority reflected its pragmatic nature and its willingness to reconsider some of its key positions. Mr. Haniyeh, the Palestinian PM, indicated in February 2006 that his government would recognize Israel under some conditions. The “Prisoners’ Document”, written by senior members of Fatah and Hamas in Israeli prisons called for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders, implying the Islamic Movement’s acceptance of the two-state solution. The recent endorsement of this document by the Palestinian Authority could signal a historic turning point: it would give the Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations a wide base of public support which the Oslo process lacked. Yet the Israeli government, determined to pursue its unilateral course, played down the importance of the agreement and described it as a “domestic Palestinian issue.”

But the Palestinian guerrilla operation against the Israeli army patrol on the Gaza border has raised the political and military stakes. The kidnapping of the Israeli soldier has been used as an excuse to start a new military campaign against Gaza. The fighting has so far included targeting bridges, destroying power stations, and imposing a new Israeli siege on Gaza. The Israeli government is now threatening to carry out a massive ground military operation in the Gaza strip, ostensibly to rescue the kidnapped soldier.

This is not the first time an Israeli soldier has been captured. Israeli soldiers and civilians captured by Palestinian or Lebanese groups in the past were released after negotiations and prisoner-swaps. For example, in January 2004 Israel released more than 400 prisoners in exchange for an Israeli hostage and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers held by Hizbualla.

While politicians are pursing military solutions, members of the public are seeking a cooler solution. A poll published by the Israeli daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth showed that 53 per cent of Israelis believe their country should hold negotiations to secure the abducted solder’s release. In addition, many families of the over 10,000 Palestinian prisoners in the Israeli jails rallied against the release of the Israeli soldier without negotiations. One of the demonstration’s banners stated: “We refuse to release the Israeli soldier while our sons are still in the Israeli prisons.”

But despite public pressure within Israeli and Palestine for negotiations, the Israeli government chose to escalate the tension by kidnapping one third of the Palestinian cabinet and bombed Palestinian Authority building infrastructure. Such acts both reduced the chances for the safe return of the Israeli soldier and the chances of a long-term political solution for the larger Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The current military campaign is harming both the people of Gaza, who have been bombed and besieged, and is affecting Israeli civilians in neighboring towns and villages, who have endured rocket attacks for many months.

Faced by the failure of its unilateral policies, the Israeli government is desperately searching for harsher and stronger military means to break the will of the Palestinians. Most worryingly, the campaign is rapidly becoming a direct assault on the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, as shown by the recent attack on PM Haniyeh’s office in Gaza. The elimination of the Hamas government, through assassination and arrests, could bring the collapse of the Palestinian Authority. This might satisfy the immediate desire for revenge on the part of the Israeli military, and will ensure that there will be no Palestinian partner for negotiations; but the destruction of the Palestinian Authority will spell a disaster for all parties.

Elements within the Israeli military are using the soldier’s abduction as an excuse to step up the attacks on the Hamas-led government. The Gaza escalation should serve as a warning: more unilateral action can only lead to more chaos, more killings and retaliations, more bombings and counter-bombings, and less security for both sides. If continued, the destabilizing effects will be felt far beyond Israel and Palestine. It’s time to bring the parties together and hammer out a negotiated solution. While far from ideal for all players, it may be the only chance to change the current dangerous course of destruction.

Analysts for FPIF, Raed Jarrar is the director of the Iraq Project at Global Exchange and Yair Wallach is a writer and researcher, currently completing a PhD on Modern Jerusalem at Birkbeck College, London.