What could be done to break the Israeli-Palestinian revenge cycle?

The possible capture of an Israeli soldier by Hamas has dialed up the intensity of the fight over Gaza. But some say the cycle of periodic bloodshed can be broken.

Dusan Vranic
A Palestinian girl combs through the rubble of the Gaza Strip's Shejaiya neighborhood on Friday. About 25 percent of Gaza's residents have been displaced from their homes in the current war with Israel.

In the battered Gaza neighborhood of Shejaiya, Ataf Ettish surveys what was once her home. An Israeli bomb ripped off the outside of the three-story building, exposing the blue and pink inner walls of her daughter's bedroom.

The building next door is gone, replaced by a crater, the 80-year-old owner buried beneath the rubble. Ms. Ettish now lives in a United Nations shelter, sharing a single toilet with 1,000 people. 

“This is not a war – this is destruction of humanity,” she says. “I've lived through two previous wars here, but this is the worst.” 

In the Israeli kibbutz of Kfar Aza, just across the border but a world away, Mark Joffe agrees it's getting worse.

“Each time it happens … the rockets are bigger, the threats are bigger,” says Mr. Joffe, who says residents fear Hamas will infiltrate the border community ("Aza" is the Hebrew word for "Gaza"). “If we’d done the right thing five to six years ago, it would have been a lot less costly.”

Now many Israelis' belief that an extended, harsh crackdown on Hamas will bring lasting peace is being put to the test. On Friday, a conflict that has cost 1,600 Palestinian lives and seen a quarter of Gaza's population displaced from their homes looked set to enter a dangerous new phase after an apparent Hamas capture of an Israeli soldier. Israel responded with withering bursts of artillery fire that claimed dozens more lives.

On both sides of the border, attitudes have hardened into a mixture of resignation and fury. Palestinians in Gaza see fighting Israel as their only hope of breaking an economic blockade. Israelis believe that all that can be done is to periodically "mow the lawn” - assaults designed to keep Hamas's military abilities at a manageable level. Yet Hamas has only grown stronger and more savvy with time - this operation has claimed 63 Israeli soldiers lives, against 10 in the last major conflict that ended in 2009.

But that would seem to guarantee flareups every few years. Is there a way to break the cycle of revenge and violence to the benefit of both Palestinians and Israelis? 

Some say yes. Sari Bashi, an Israeli who works on freedom of movement for Palestinians at Tel Aviv's GISHA advocacy group, argues that were Israel to reduce the economic isolation and help living conditions improve in Gaza, it would yield a peace dividend for both sides.

“Economic strangling is destabilizing,” she says. “If restrictions on the movement of civilians and civilian goods are lifted, in the wake of this fighting, then we have a chance, not just of delaying, but actually preventing the next round of violence."

Why Hamas is vowing to fight on 

Israel imposed a land, air, and sea blockade in 2007, after Hamas won a brief civil war with its secular rival, Fatah, after beating them at the polls the year before. The blockade on travel, imports, and exports, which Israel said was necessary to prevent militants from stockpiling weapons, delivered a hammer blow to Gaza's economy. Hamas circumvented it through tunnels under the Egyptian border, smuggling food and fuel that became a lifeline for civilians, but also bringing in advanced weaponry in preparation for the next round of fighting.

This conflict, now in its fourth week, has already lasted longer than "Operation Cast Lead," which went on for three weeks in 2008-09. And its intensity has surpassed Israel’s eight-day aerial bombardment of 2012. Both times, Hamas insisted the blockade be lifted, but failed to achieve its aim.

In 2012, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, the organization Hamas sprung from, brokered a cease-fire that called for the blockade to be eased in exchange for calm. But while Israel did lift some restrictions on trade and fishing, they were reinstated within months, and travel remained tightly controlled.

Economic conditions deteriorated further last summer after Egypt's military overthrew Mr. Morsi and cracked down on the Brotherhood and Hamas, shutting the smuggling tunnels. Gaza prices for food, fuel and construction materials skyrocketed and water and electricity shortages became widespread. Unemployment rose to nearly 40 percent, a three-year high

Hamas felt duped by the 2012 deal, and says that's why it is vowing to fight on until Israel and Egypt lift the blockade, a goal most Palestinians seem to support. “Israel must know there is no security [for Israel] until there is security in Gaza,” says Hamas official Musheer Al Masri.

Hardening views in Israel

But Israel is loath to give in to Hamas, an Islamist organization with political and military wings that vows in its founding charter to liberate all of historic Palestine and destroy Israel. 

“At the end of the day, there is no Israeli government – left, right, up, or down – that is going to end this war with a cease-fire that’s going to allow Hamas not only to declare victory but to prepare for an even deadlier war in the future,” says Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the US.

Israeli opinion has hardened since the previous two conflicts, with 5 million of the country’s 8 million residents living under threat of a rocket strike, even though the US-funded Iron Dome system has prevented all but 3 civilian deaths in the current conflict. Polls show nearly 90 percent support among Jewish Israelis for the operation, with fewer than 4 percent saying the IDF has used excessive force.

Joffe from Kfar Aza is firmly in the mainstream. When he moved here from Britain in the 1980s he was convinced that Israel should end its occupation of the Palestinian territories. But his views have changed.

“I’ve begun to sympathize with the view that if people are firing rockets at you and digging tunnels, you have to react – and react strongly enough that they won’t do it again,” he says, sitting in the nearly empty kibbutz as nearby Israeli artillery pounds northern Gaza.

The cease-fire that ended Israel’s 2012 conflict with Hamas lasted only half as long as its 2009 predecessor. Joffe hadn’t even gotten around to replacing his front door, pockmarked from shrapnel after 25 Katyushas hit his community in 2012, when a fresh volley of rockets started last month.

His reluctant conclusion as to why rocket fire resumed? “We didn’t react strongly enough before.”

Yet Gaza analyst Mkhaimer Abu Saada says Israel is ignoring positive signals from Hamas. 

In a 2012 CNN interview, Hamas political chief Khaled Meshaal said the group would "resort to a peaceful way" if Israel would agree to the creation of a Palestinian state. Hamas also agreed to a Palestinian unity government in June that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said would recognize Israel, renounce violence, and abide by the Oslo Accords, which called for a demilitarized Palestinian state.

“To say Hamas doesn’t want peace, Hamas wants to destroy Israel, the Hamas charter speaks about the destruction of Israel – that’s not going to solve the problem,” says Prof. Abu Saada.  "We know that Hamas is … completely different from radical extremist groups, and it is ready to accept a settlement with Israel that would allow Palestinians to live in a state within the 1967 borders. But basically they cannot come forward now, and recognize Israel, without Israel recognizing the Palestinians.”

Removing the incentive for violence 

Many in Gaza see the current conflict as an outgrowth of Israel's refusal to negotiate for a Palestinian state. “It's not an issue of Hamas or resistance. It's an issue of occupation,” says Khaled Bedah, a retired professor waiting outside Gaza's main hospital for news of his nephew, who was wounded in an Israeli airstrike. The injured man's father, Suheil Bedah, nods his agreement.

More than 20 years after the 1993 Oslo Accords laid out a framework for a Palestinian state and an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza that began in 1967, Palestinians still have no state. Though Israel withdrew its settlers and troops from Gaza in 2005, it still controls the borders, airspace, and even telecommunications frequencies of both territories. The number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank has tripled since Oslo.

This may seem like a poor time to sow peace. But due to rising regional fears of Islamist extremists, it's actually an opportunity for Israel to ally with Sunni Arab states, says Gershon Baskin, who has facilitated backchannel negotiations between Israel and Hamas.

“We’re at a unique opportunity today because for the first time in a long time the geopolitical reality in the region is that Israel has a lot of allies," he says.

If Israel were willing to engage with the Saudi-backed template for creating a Palestinian state, known as the Arab Peace Initiative, Arab countries could in turn help to stabilize and disarm Gaza, says Mr. Baskin.

A new plan for policing

To be sure, Israel has deep reservations about outsiders patrolling its own borders, and not without reason. United Nations troops stationed in the Sinai Peninsula after the 1956 Suez crisis famously capitulated to an Egyptian army command to get of the way at the start of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

But Yaron Ezrahi, professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, says such concerns could be addressed by involving countries who share Israel’s interest in disarming Hamas.

He sees Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, along with the US and Europe, as key partners in an international coalition. Under such an arrangement, the Palestinian Authority could take full control of the Gaza Strip, including the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, with international monitoring to prevent weapons smuggling.

Indeed, the unity Palestinian Authority government agreed to by Hamas was intended to take over governance in Gaza.

Lifting the blockade on Gaza and moving toward a sovereign Palestinian state would remove much of the incentive for violence on the Palestinian side.

“As long as there is occupation, there will be resistance, whether it is Hamas or someone else,” says Suheil Bedah, the father waiting outside the hospital for his injured son. “But if Palestinians can take our rights, our needs, then all this would end.”

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