Mowing the Lawn in Gaza

israel-bombing-gaza-middle-east-ceasefire-hamas

Israel’s favorite metaphor for its periodic strikes on Gaza—”mowing the lawn”—suggests violence that is routine, indiscriminate, and risk-free. (Photo: United Nations Photo / Flickr)

The Palestinians of Gaza are guilty of that new post-Cold War misdemeanor: voting while Muslim. The punishment for this crime has been eight years of economic hardship, international isolation, and periodic Israeli bombardments.

Like the Algerians in 1990 and the Egyptians in 2012, Gazans went to the polls in 2006 and voted for the wrong party. Rather than supporting the secular choice, they cast their ballots for Hamas. Not all Palestinians are Muslim (6 percent or so are Christian). But by opting for the Islamic Resistance Movement—Hamas, for short—Gazans had effectively nullified their own ballots.

It didn’t matter that the EU and other institutions declared the elections free and fair. The results were what mattered, and Israel’s judgment carried the day. Even though the newly elected government extended an olive branch to both Israel and the United States, the Israeli government didn’t consider Hamas a legitimate political actor.

“Israel stated that Hamas were terrorists and Western leaders did not challenge this line,” writes Cata Charrett in an excellent piece at Mondoweiss. “On the contrary, they refused to meet diplomatically with Hamas leaders, they cut off all possible financing to the newly elected government, and they supported Israel’s complete sanction and seizure of Gazan territory.” A direct peace overture to President George W. Bush offering a long-term truce went unanswered.

Voting while Christian or voting while Jewish has not led to similar results. Christian Democrats have won elections in Europe without generating boycotts or warnings about an imminent descent into clerical autocracy. The ultra-religious Shas party has participated in ruling coalitions in Israel without incurring the wrath of the international community.

But Hamas, its critics insist, is different because it is fundamentally anti-democratic. Ditto the Muslim Brotherhood. Even Turkey’s Justice and Development Party and Tunisia’s Ennahda are suspect, according to those who hold to the dictum that Islam and democracy are fundamentally incompatible.

The fear of Islamic fundamentalism taking over the Middle East through the ballot box began in 1990 when the Islamic Salvation Front won 55 percent of the vote in local elections in Algeria. The following year, with the Front poised to win the national elections, the Algerian government banned the party and jailed its leaders, precipitating a civil war that left more than 100,000 people dead. At the time, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Edward Djerejian declared that the U.S. government opposed what it called “one person, one vote, one time.” Washington worried about the possibility that Islamist parties would use democratic means to rise to power and then kick away the democratic ladder beneath them.

This prospective outcome prompted the United States to continue supporting its traditionally authoritarian allies in the region. The Arab Spring offered some hope that the United States had changed this policy, with the Obama administration withdrawing its support, albeit reluctantly, from Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak just before he stepped down in early 2011. But the older preference for status-quo strongmen has reasserted itself, as Washington has looked the other way at Nouri al-Maliki’s obvious faults in Iraq, continued to support the royal elite in Bahrain, and quickly moved to embrace coup leader Abdel Fattah Al Sisi in Egypt.

Let me be clear: I wouldn’t vote for Hamas. And I would rather that the party clearly recognized the right of Israel to exist (just as I would prefer the Republican Party to recognize the right of gay marriage to exist).

But my preferences are beside the point.  Hamas represents a large constituency. Many Gazans voted for the party because they were disgusted with the corruption of the secular Fatah movement and were impressed with the social service system Hamas had created. Like other resistance movements—the African National Congress, the Irish Republican Army—Hamas was on its way toward becoming a political party. If such a party takes power only to behave undemocratically—as the Muslim Brotherhood arguably did in Egypt—that’s a different question. But if you claim to respect democracy, you must recognize the results of free and fair elections. And if you want a party to change its position—and it’s willing to talk—you have to sit down at the table and negotiate with it.

But Israel—and by extension the United States—didn’t choose this option. As a result, a border conflict has raged ever since, with two particularly severe flare-ups in 2008-9 and 2012.

Last month, Hamas and Fatah set aside their own substantial grievances and forged a unity agreement on administering both Gaza and the West Bank. Here was a perfect opportunity for Israel to move forward with a new deal. In reality, however, this was a signal for Israel to go on the offensive. It just needed an excuse. When Gazan militants linked to the Islamic State (formerly ISIS), but not Hamas, kidnapped and killed three Israeli teenagers, Netanyahu had his excuse.

Israel’s latest bombing campaign has already left nearly 200 Palestinians dead. Roughly 70 percent are civilians; more than 30 of the victims are children. Israeli bombs have fallen on houses, apartment buildings, a disability center, a café. Foreigners have even volunteered to be human shields at a hospital that has already been struck twice. The Israeli Defense Forces maintain that they warn residents of a building beforehand of a strike, but this practice is inconsistent.

Some Israelis refer to their periodic shelling of the Palestinian territory as “mowing the lawn.” It is a disturbing metaphor because it is so indiscriminate. They don’t talk about “weeding the garden” or “pruning the trees.” A lawnmower cuts down everything in its path—grass, weeds, wildflowers. Also, a lawn needs constant mowing, suggesting that Israel plans to conduct bombing campaigns on a seasonal basis.

But Netanyahu may well see an opportunity to eliminate Hamas altogether. The organization no longer can count on support from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or Syria’s Assad. Ties with Iran were also strained by the support Hamas provided to rebels fighting in Syria. Nor can the territory rely on supplies coming in through tunnels from the Sinai. Those to the right of Netanyahu—unbelievably, the Israeli political spectrum has such ultraviolent frequencies—are reportedly pressing the government to launch a ground offensive. Mowing the lawn would then quickly become a scorched earth policy.

It’s not a fair fight. The casualty rates are grotesquely asymmetrical. Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system has reduced the number of casualties on the Israeli side to a single death so far. Gazans have fled by the thousands to the southern part of the territory while Israelis have set up plastic chairs on a mountain overlook to watch the bombs explode in Gaza as if they were fireworks.

In this way, Israel has entered the same murky moral territory that the United States entered during the conflicts in Kosovo and Libya. It is currently waging effectively risk-free warfare. Governments that don’t have to deal with public response to the deaths of either soldiers or civilians are freed of the conventional political calculus involved in prosecuting a war. Such a government may also be less willing to compromise, for there is no significant counterweight to military action, at least when it comes to aerial attacks.

So far, however, it’s been Hamas that has rejected the latest ceasefire, brokered by Egypt. Hamas has its reasons. It wants the release of its members who were rearrested in June after being set free in a deal in 2011. And it wants an end to the blockade that has turned Gaza into a virtual prison for its inhabitants. But Egypt’s deal didn’t reflect any of these concerns.

The major players continue to violate the most fundamental rule of conflict resolution: taking into consideration the underlying interests of all parties to the conflict. The problem goes back at least to 2006, when Hamas won an election that Israel and the United States failed to recognize.

Netanyahu still believes that he can bomb Gazans into changing their underlying interests. The real question is: how long will the Obama administration persist in supporting this delusion?

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus.

  • steve

    Wow, total Kafkaesque thinking. True, it is asymmetrical, lopsided, and risk-free to the party with the strong hand. What the author never contemplates is that despite all these things being true, it is the party with the weak asymmetric hand that is pushing the fight. If Gaza and its Hamas leadership wish to not be in a weak asymmetric position, it can just stop. It is the one attacking. Israel would cease its powerful, asymmetric, risk-free bombardment if Gazans would simply stop sending rockets. To cry unfairness at the situation, when the “victim” is the one starting it is preposterous. It is like a skinny guys picking a fight with a bodybuilder and when he gets pummeled, complains to the police.

    • John Feffer

      But what if the skinny guy has been kicked out of his house by the bodybuilder, has been confined to a place with poor sanitation, has been cut off from the rest of the world, has been kept in a subservient position? There are good reasons why Hamas is engaged in bad activities….

      • adrshepard

        Kicked out of his house? Israel withdrew unilaterally from the Gaza Strip years ago. It was only after they violently consolidated power and ejected Fatah that the blockade was enforced.

        The destruction of Israel is still the centerpiece of Hamas’ existence as a group. It cannot claim to be the righteous victim when its sole goal is to annihilate another country.

        • certop

          most of the residents of gaza are descendants of people who were expelled from what is now israel. and now they are trapped there. by israel. who is bombing them.

          the blockade was imposed not because of anything hamas did (though it has done plenty), but for the way the residents of gaza voted in 2006. israel’s behavior is textbook collective punishment of a civilian (and refugee) population.

          concerning hamas’ “violent consolidation of power,” you should peruse some of the wikileaks cables on the subject. israel and the u.s. really were plotting to help fatah launch a coup in the west bank, so hamas struck first. (the cables are also notable for showing initial u.s. skepticism about the legality and sustainability of the blockade, though you’d never know it from public statements.) the root problem is that israel was unwilling to recognize the result of a democratic election.

        • Whybother

          It’s seems that Israel answers to no one. Looks as if they are doing what Hitler did to them, to the Palestinians?
          We allow that to happen? And support them? With Billions & then toss a few million into Gaza for “humanitarian” aid?…We are no better than the German people that allowed Hitler
          Who had a stranglehold on the media?
          Show us how they setup chairs to watch the fireworks
          Show us how the wells are being poisoned.
          Mow the Lawn & don’t bother bagging it
          Karma will catch up

  • ocschwar

    “The Palestinians of Gaza are guilty of that new post-Cold War misdemeanor: voting while Muslim.”

    Specifically, voting for war. Well, they got what they voted for. Democracy rules.

  • vc50er

    After reading about the gang rape of teen age Islamic girls in France I tend to think mixing Islamic with Christian may be akin to trying to raise sheep in a den of wolves.

  • WAIEL AWWAD

    The time will come when the whole world will realize that Israel is a colonized enclave imposed by colonized power on the Arab world .They are all partners in crime .Jewish and Arab lived for centuries together till Israel was created.The crux of the problem is occupation and Hamas is not Palestine or vice versa .Palestine issue is political ,economical and humanitarian and should be peace in this region those parameters must be met which is a mirage for now .

    • ocschwar

      At this point Israel is an enclave where most of the Jews are “Arab Jews,” and whose existence and nature will be identical to the future Kurdistan.

      Maybe y’all should have tried being decent to the minorities in your midst.

      • garystartswithg

        Israel is full of European Jews though. Thousands more are arriving to cash on in this land grab.

    • dubinsky

      there is no Arab world. there is just Arabs living in this world. there is nothing owed to Palestinians that Palestinians don’t owe to the rest of the world.

      the Palestinians opted to start the wars and did so because they thought that they were owed things that they were not owed.

      they are more responsible, after 70 years of stupid, ugly and criminal decisions made by their own leaders, for their awful predicament than is anyone else.

      and no one is going to jump through any hoops to satisfy the unrealistic, excessive and unearned “parameters” of the Palestinians. it’s up to them to change if they want change.

      if they prefer to continue making idiotic decisions, prefer to continue using violence and refusing peace, then they will continue living in misery and squalor and will have only their stories of victimization to hand down to their children.

  • Rob Prince

    Thanks…imagine…here I thought the United States and Israel could go merrily along their ways negotiating with cherry-picked Palestinians…This is a new concept – negotiating with one’s political adversaries! – or is it?

  • adrshepard

    A few things:

    Hamas did not extend an “olive branch” to Israel after its election. Had it renounced terrorism and recognized Israel, disregarding its anti-semitic charter, perhaps the group could have been a partner in peace negotiations. Mixed messages from leaders during campaigns and implied peace offerings are not sufficient.

    Its economic and physical isolation came after it violently seized power and cast out Fatah in 2007. As for the suspension of assistance to the PA, neither the US or Israel is obligated to send aid to a terrorist organization that happens to win an election.

    Likening Hamas’ refusal to recognize Israel to Republicans’ refusal to recognize gay marriage is absurd. Republicans do not call for the elimination of homosexuality, celebrate hate crimes, and are not responsible for killing hundreds of gay people over several decades.

    Claiming that the kidnappers were linked to an ISIS offshoot is premature. Two unknown radical groups have claimed responsibility, whereas Israel has already named and identified two suspects. I personally find it much more likely that unknown groups would pretend to be involved to boost their own notoriety rather than the investigative efforts of Israel are a farce and that Israelis were simply waiting for a chance to pin a crime on two Hamas operatives working out of Hebron.

    Democratically elected or not, Hamas has done little to suggest it wants peace with Israel or that it has abandoned its terrorist activities.

    • John Feffer

      a few responses:

      I said “olive branch” — not olive tree. Hamas made an opening gambit by offering a truce and a return to the 1967 borders. That could have been the basis of negotiations.

      The isolation began almost immediately after Hamas won the elections. More severe isolation came after its internecine dispute with Fatah.

      I didn’t liken Hamas’ refusal to the Republicans’ refusal. I likened my dislike of one party’s policy to my dislike of the other party’s policy. It was to highlight the irrelevance of my own preferences, since I’m not a member of either party.

      As I’ve said, I’m not a fan of Hamas. But its willingness to compromise — to behave as a political actor — has frankly not been tested. We must negotiate with others as they are, not as we want them to be. All the rest is folly.

      • dubinsky

        bullspit.

        just a couple of days after taking office as the PA’s Foreign Minister, the slimy Mahmoud al-Zahar of Hamas gave an interview in which he spouted this stuff

        —-

        ‘The senior official also defended Hamas’ ultimate goal of destroying Israel and founding an Islamic state.

        “I dreams of hanging a huge map of the world on the wall at my Gaza home which does not show Israel on it,” he said. “I hope that our dream to have our independent state on all historic Palestine (including Israel).”

        “This dream will become real one day. I’m certain of this because there is no place for the state of Israel on this land,” said al-Zahar.’

        http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2006-04/02/content_4373348.htm

        you really are choking your chicken and fantasizing.

        careful you don’t sit on that imaginary branch.

  • Bluhorizons

    I am glad to see Mr. Feiffer is comfortable with the free and fair election of terrorists to become the government of Gaza, even though he, himself would not have voted for them. True, both choices were bad ones. Yes, Fata was/is corrupt, so it was certainly wise to elect terrorists instead. Very democratic, as Mr. Feiffer insists. They have certainly made the Palestinian people both more secure and prosperous.

    Mr. Feiffer’s very idea that “in the beginning” Hamas, whose charter calls for killing Jews and destroying Israel, offered Israel an “olive branch” is possibly the most bizarre comment he has ever made, although maybe I am wrong. His comment about Hamas originally being on its way to becoming a “political party” may be even crazier. Or his calling this war a “border conflict.” What is he thinking?

    It is certainly outrageous that the Israelis are so darned intolerant of the 15,000 missiles that have rained down on them since 2001. They should understand that even though they are in fact recognised by the UN and most non-Muslim states as the sovereign over every inch of Israel, including the West Bank, they are guilty because they won over the “poor Palestinians” although of course it was really a victory over the 320 million Muslims who opposed them. It is only fair that every single day for the last 65 years the Israelis have had to fight a war. Anyone can understand that!

    Mr. Feiffer has complained about the disparity of the casualty rate–so many more Palestinians have been killed than Israelis. I believe he thinks of war as a sort of golf game, where the better player should get a handicap. A UN umpire should run out, hold up a red card and then shoot some Israelis “to be fair.”

    Fortunately, Israel is not listening to the anti-Israel Neo-liberals including the anti-Semitic mob cobbled together by the New York Times. Israel’s number 1 priority, tippy-top on the list is their own security and defence. If that requires killing 300, 500 or 2,000 Palestinians, so be it. One gets the distinct feeling that Mr. Feiffer himself has never taken in-coming, never been shot-at or lived in community under constant rocket attack. So, it is easier for him to be a critic with his easy chair sitting firmly on the moral high ground.

    • garystartswithg

      Gaza isn’t allowed its own government, you idiot. Whats wrong with you?

  • garystartswithg

    Maybe we can get Republicans riled up over Israel, as Wasserman Schultz jumped at the chance to draft congressional support for Israel murdering children on the beach.

  • dubinsky

    Just a terribly wrong-headed and gaseous essay.

    blatherous nonsense about…..

    ” But by opting for the Islamic Resistance Movement—Hamas, for short—Gazans had effectively nullified their own ballots.

    It didn’t matter that the EU and other institutions declared the elections free and fair. The results were what mattered, and Israel’s judgment carried the day. Even though the newly elected government extended an olive branch to both Israel and the United States…”

    the Palestinians voted for Hamas as a means of rejecting the kleptocratic Fatah, and their choice was free and fair…….

    but crap about Hamas and olive branches is ludicrous. the US and the EU and even the Russians all engaged hamas at that point and all asked Hamas if it would accept israel’s right to peacefully exist and if Hamas would renounce armed violence. Hamas refused, emphatically.

    no peace, no olive branch, and Feffer gets a big ol’ corn cob for that mess of crap.

    ————-

    ” Last month, Hamas and Fatah set aside their own substantial grievances and forged a unity agreement on administering both Gaza and the West Bank. Here was a perfect opportunity for Israel to move forward with a new deal.”

    that deal, just like all the previously announced deals for the end of the split between Hamas and fatah and for the end of the split between Gaza and the West Bank, was cynical and never serious. Hamas had no intention of having any real single government to which Hamas would owe obedience,,,,,,,,,and Hamas had no intention of holding any real elections.

    Hamas signed the deal for no real reasons other than that Hamas couldn’t meet the payroll for the tens of thousands of hamas supporters holding all the “government” jobs in gaza and hamas hoped to stick the PA with the job of covering their salaries.

    their other reasons were even less savory.

    just a really reeking opinion piece.