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Israel and the Palestinians: Response to a Reader

Ricochet member Joseph Eagar put up the following post earlier today in the Member Feed under the title “Calling Judith Levy, Do I Have This Right?”:

Finding credible information on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is nearly impossible, and this is what I’ve managed to piece together.  I wouldn’t be surprised if much of it is wrong, as the information simply isn’t there.

You have two governments, the Palestinian Authority and the State of Israel.  There are two factions, Palestinian terrorists and the Jewish settler movement.  In other to make peace, both governments must suppress both factions at the same time. Thus, if Israel cracks down on the settlers the peace process is disrupted by Palestinian terrorists, while if Palestine manages to suppress its terrorists Jewish settlers will derail the peace process.

In a clever bid to solve two birds with one stone, the Israeli government built the Gaza wall; Palestinian terrorists would be kept out, and Jewish settlers would be kept in.  This would greatly simplify the peace process.  Unfortunately, the terrorists discovered rockets and the settlers found ways around it, bringing us back to stage one.

To make life even worse, the Gaza Strip’s infrastructure is maintained, run, and financed by the Israelis.   The two governments are jointly investing in new infrastructure, but until the new sewage plants, power plants, and oil fields are completed the two-state solution cannot go forward.

Is this at all close to reality?

Glad you asked, Joseph! I’ll do my best to answer.

There are three governments operating, although only the first two are formally recognized: the State of Israel, the Palestinian Authority (Fatah), and Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. The PA governs parts of the West Bank of the Jordan River and used to also co-govern Gaza, until it was forcibly evicted by Hamas in 2007. Note that after Hamas won a majority during the 2006 legislative election, it announced that it was not going to honor any previous agreements between the Palestinian Authority and Israel — prompting the Americans and the Europeans to institute economic sanctions and the Egyptians and Israelis to blockade Gaza. The acute suffering of the Gazan population thus dates from Hamas’s eviction of Fatah officials and the institution of an Islamist state, a kind of mini-Taliban on the Mediterranean.

Israel is a parliamentary democracy and the PA is a government of elected representatives with executive, legislative and judicial branches. (Their term limits are on the elastic side, but technically it’s a democracy.) Domestically, the Hamas government has occupied itself with the enforcement of sharia law, which it imposed on the Gazan population and enforces by means of religious police. Because its raison d’être is jihad against the Zionist entity rather than state-building, Hamas has not accomplished much in the way of social, economic or political development. This contrasts quite strikingly with the PA, where the Palestinians’ standard of living is markedly higher.

The state of affairs in Gaza is obviously exacerbated by the dual blockade, but Hamas has done everything it can to ensure that the blockade remain in place. The suffering of the Gazan population works in Hamas’s interest, since it reinforces their narrative that they are oppressed by the Israelis. Hamas, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, forces its civilians onto the front line by concealing arms and launching attacks on Israel from within population centers, forbidding civilians to evacuate even when warned in advance by Israel of coming air strikes, and so on. (Gazans have many reasons to be dissatisfied with the Hamas government, which is why Hamas was so careful to squelch any protests sympathizing with the Egyptians.)

The PA has been attempting fitfully to negotiate peace with Israel; Hamas not only refuses to consider such a thing but aspires to the total destruction of the state of Israel. Both the PA and Hamas claim jurisdiction over one another’s territories, but in practice, the territories function separately. (There is a Hamas presence on the West Bank that is a thorn in the PA’s side; there is also a Fatah presence in Gaza that has clashed with Hamas.) The PA, in an attempt to forestall unrest in the wake of the Egyptian revolution, called for early elections that would apply to both the West Bank and Gaza, but Hamas denied its authority to do so.

The PA, and occasionally Hamas, will from time to time use language for foreign audiences designed to present an image of all Palestinians as a united front, but in reality, the Fatah-based PA and Islamist Hamas are natural enemies. In the event that Israel is removed from the picture, the PA and Hamas — assuming anybody’s still standing — will not share power; they will fight it out until one of them wins.

In your question, Joseph, you’ve created a parallelism between Palestinian terrorists and Jewish settlers, and I must take issue with you there. While I understand the point you’re making — Palestinian terrorists and Jewish settlers both oppose the peace process and do what they can to disrupt it — it’s an inappropriate analogy, for the simple reason that Jewish settlers do not terrorize either the Palestinian population or the Israeli population that disagrees with them. For the most part, Israeli settlers spend their time trying to live as peacefully as possible. (The settlers of Ariel, for instance, had warm relations with their Palestinian neighbors for years, until Arafat decreed that such companionable relations should cease. He backed up that order by having Palestinian “collaborators” kneecapped and occasionally murdered.)

Now, it’s certainly true that the settlers are trying to create facts on the ground by building as much as they can, and this most definitely inhibits the peace process. There is tension on occasion between settlers and Palestinians, there is hostility, there is ugly behavior, there are even clashes. But there has only been one instance — the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre in 1994 — when a settler committed an act of full-scale, indiscriminate terrorism against Palestinian civilians, and that act was abhorred by the vast majority of settlers and by almost the entire population of Israel. Please do not conflate terrorists whose object is to kill or maim as many Israelis as possible — who teach their children that their greatest aspiration should be to grow up to become mass murderers and suicides — with settlers who want to live on their ancestral homeland, at peace (however chilly) with their neighbors. I’m a secular Israeli living inside the Green Line myself, but that kind of equivalence sticks in my craw.

That said, let’s look at your question.

The Palestinian terrorists we’re referring to are Hamas (as well as other Islamist groups based in Gaza, some of which are more extreme and threaten Hamas’s authority). The PA cannot crack down on Hamas in Gaza and Hamas is obviously not going to crack down on itself. Nobody’s going to crack down on Hamas besides Israel herself, and she does so (despite what you may have read) with extreme caution. It might help to clarify all this in your mind if you remember that Israel is trying to make peace with the PA, not Hamas. Hamas is outside the process, as it wishes to be and as it should be. It views the PA as traitors and sellouts for negotiating with Israel and will always step up to act as spoiler when it appears that progress is being made on the peace front. The settlers, for their part, view their settlement of Judea and Samaria as a race against time: they are trying to create an irrevocable Jewish presence on the homeland before the land is given away. Many settlements are indeed substantial enough and long-standing enough to have become permanent fixtures; the open question is whether their inhabitants will ultimately reside in Israel or Palestine. (The PA has said that it wants Palestine to be Judenrein, however, which complicates the peace process considerably.)

You refer to “the Gaza wall” in your question, and I’m not sure what you’re getting at. Do you mean the blockade of Gaza, which Israel and Egypt enforced in 2007 when Hamas took complete control? Or do you mean the security fence between Israel and parts of the West Bank? If the latter, you’re reading too much strategy into it. The point of the fence was simple: to put a stop to the constant stream of terrorists coming into Israel and killing people. I’m a big fan of the fence for the simple reason that it has saved countless lives. Once Arafat made the strategic decision to kick off the second intifada toward the end of 2000, Palestinians committed dozens and dozens of terrorist acts against Israeli civilians — acts that killed almost 300 citizens and wounded almost 2,000 in the three years before the fence went up. Once it was built, the number of attacks plummeted by 90%. Islamic Jihad has even admitted publicly that the fence has hampered their ability to strike Israeli civilians. The fence seems to make people break out in hives in Brussels, but over here, a lot of us think it’s swell.

You refer next to Hamas “discovering” rockets. It didn’t have to discover them: its foreign policy focus is and has always been exclusively anti-Israel jihad, and they’ll keep hitting us with whatever Iran sends them. If the rockets they shoot through the roofs of Sderot kindergartens provoke an IDF response, so much the better, from their point of view. The settlers, for their part, will build as much and as fast as they can. Their argument is simple: we gave up land for peace when we pulled out of the settlements in Gaza, and were rewarded with an even more emboldened and violent Palestinian enemy. By what logic should we make the same mistake and pull out of the settlements of the West Bank?

As to your infrastructure question: The Gaza Strip is indeed dependent on Israel for much of its electricity, water and other infrastructure requirements (although I just learned this week that it gets most of its fuel from Egypt through the smuggling tunnels). Over 70% of Gaza’s electricity is provided by power plants in Ashkelon, a city inside sovereign Israel. (Hamas regularly aims rockets towards Ashkelon, which might seem counterproductive, but remember the upside to Hamas in cranking up Gazans’ misery level.) Now, in your question, you jump from a reference to Gaza’s infrastructure to a reference to “the two governments,” but it’s not clear which two governments you’re referring to. Israel and Hamas are certainly not cooperating on new infrastructure, and the PA has shown itself dangerously (and oddly) unconcerned with infrastructure development. A recently published study indicates that over 60% of the PA’s GDP is from foreign donations. The PA has not funneled those donations into infrastructure or business development, but has used them primarily to subsidize government institutions. To all intents and purposes, the West Bank Palestinians don’t have a functioning economy. Once the donations dry up, they’re in trouble. (And when the Palestinians are in trouble, so are we.)

You suggest at the end of your question that a two-state solution can’t go forward until joint infrastructure projects are completed. I haven’t heard anything of the kind. There are lots of other reasons why the two-state solution can’t go forward — the collapse of the Israeli left following the surge in Hamas violence that resulted from the Gaza disengagement, the disillusionment on both sides about the other’s good faith, the reinforcement of Israel’s security anxieties by the turmoil in the Arab world, the possible reintroduction of a hostile front to the west coupled with the political empowerment of Hezbollah to the north, the constant flow of money and materiel to Hamas via Iran, the refusal of the PA to countenance a Jewish presence in Palestine following an agreement coupled with the settlers’ refusal to leave, the growing anxiety within the Green Line that the land-for-peace formula was never viable in the first place, the new perspective recent events have provided that show the Israeli-Palestinian problem not to be the crux of the Arab world’s concerns, and more. But I don’t think infrastructure’s the hold-up.

Joseph, that brings us to the end of your question. I hope you’re less confused than you were before you asked it. Each element can be answered at great length, and I’ve had to rein myself in a bit. Please let me know if I’ve confused more than clarified. I’ll do my best to clear up anything that might still be unclear.