If Israel Intends To Reoccupy Gaza, Good Luck
By: Ghassan Michel Rubeiz / Arab America Contributing Writer
In war times, morality is selective. An Israeli observer recently captured the current mood in Israel with three words: blood is boiling.
Israel’s fury about Hamas’s attack of October 7 on innocent civilians is fully justified. However, Tel-Aviv’s violation of international laws, by revenge killing of more civilians than (Palestinian) fighters in Gaza , dilutes the impact of its moral condemnation of the proclaimed “unprovoked terrorism”. Regarding hypocrisy, one cannot ignore President Biden’s record on Palestine. Biden’s robotic expression of sympathy for Palestinian suffering flatly contradicts his tacit tolerance for Israel’s cruelty in its ongoing assault on the people of Gaza. Biden keeps declaring his “support for a two-state solution”, without taking any action to stop Israel’s continued building of settlements in the Palestinian occupied territories.
Israel’s military success may not lead to lasting victory. As Israel comes close to its full destruction of Gaza, it finds itself helpless in freeing its remaining hostages who have been held by Hamas in underground tunnels for seven weeks.
Intense international mediation by Qatar, Egypt, and the US, has led to a temporary truce. Hostilities were suspended. A formula for the exchange of hostages with Palestinian prisoners was found. Israel and Hamas have been pressed to trade concessions.
No Solution Emerging Yet
The limited pause in fighting between Israel and Hamas allowed an opening for problem solving. Fifty seven hostages were exchanged for many more Palestinian prisoners. Part of this truce agreement was Israel’s willingness to allow increased delivery of humanitarian aid and fuel to the starving people of Gaza. Over six days, Israel and Hamas made indirect contact. The first phase of exchange of hostages for prisoners created a hopeful atmosphere: the experience of joy for those freed, mixed with pain for those left in captivity; and an opportunity to think of alternatives to the use of force in solving complicated political problems. In two extra days, twenty additional hostages are expected to be released in exchange for the freeing of an additional group of 60 Palestinian prisoners.
Very fresh diplomatic efforts are in process currently to try to widen and deepen the impact of the exchange of captives. Would a great bargain include the exchange of Israeli soldiers for Palestinian political prisoners? A game-changing Israeli concession would be the freeing of Marwan Barghouti, who has been in an Israeli prison for 21 years. Barghouti would be a potential “Mandela for Palestinians”; the only figure who could bring all Palestinian factions to work together. Netanyahu has kept Barghouti in jail for years to make sure that Palestinians would remain poorly led.
Pause Reflects Response to International Public Pressure
The expanding pause may be an indication that world opinion has reached its limits of tolerance for massive death and destruction inflicted on the people of Gaza: 1.7 million displaced and about 50% of buildings destroyed. In a few weeks, Israel shifted from being a Hamas victim to an agency of dispossession and ethnic cleansing.
Gaza events are also impacting the image of the US in the international community. Washington is paying increased attention to rising criticism of its Israel policy from abroad and from domestic sources, including White House staff, the State Department and progressive elements in the US Congress. According to Arab opinion-poll scholar Shibli Telhami, US support of Israel’s state violence in Gaza over the past seven weeks has significantly damaged US Arab relations. The impact is “transformative”, Telhami adds.
Swapping Hostages for Prisoners’ Formula Lopsided?
Israel has negotiated a smart deal with Hamas over the exchange of hostages for Palestinian prisoners. Arithmetically, the formula for swapping captives looks lopsided, favoring Palestinians. However, when seen through a political lens, the formula is actually advantageous for Israel. For every hostage released, three Palestinian prisoners are freed. Considering that over the past few weeks, Israel has jailed some three thousand West Bank Palestinians, Tel Aviv has plenty of opportunity to refill its prisons with aggrieved Palestinians. In a sense, the entire population of destroyed Gaza and the West Bankers, who are under constant harassment by Israeli settlers, are living in an informal prison. Life in Gaza today is less safe than in a formal Israeli prison.
No one knows how long the current truce will last. On November 27, former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas and the Washington Post’s David Ignatius appeared together on CNBC, to figure out what could possibly take place after this six-day pause ends. Pinkas and Ignatius anticipate that there will be limited extensions to allow the release of as many hostages as possible. But they predicted that Israel would not accept the tough terms of exchanging Israeli captured soldiers.
Negotiations Over Combatants
When the time comes to negotiate the release of Israel’s combatants, both Hamas and Israel will be excruciatingly tested to make the right choices. If negotiations over combatants fail, the war will start again soon. So far, Israel remains determined to free all hostages by “dismantling” Hamas. Israel’s military tactics might significantly shift from mass killing to target hunting of combatants. Such a shift would not make life necessarily easier for the displaced and tortured residents of Gaza.
Not Much Relief in the Next Phase of the War
There are multiple unknowns in the resumption of Israel’s military campaign. Israel’s forces may not have all the necessary conditions to hunt out Hamas’s fighters in small groups, in order to secure the return of Israeli captives alive. How Iran or Hezbollah would react to a final defeat of Hamas is another unknown. Regardless of how mighty Israel looks on the battlefield, ending Hamas will not end Israel’s insecurity. The occupation is a “cancer”, and Hamas is merely a symptom.
Both Sides Lose
Strategically, Hamas and Israel have both virtually lost this war. Hamas may have gained status in Palestinian public opinion. (Dahlia Scheindlin, Ha’aretz, 11/ 22, 2023). But Hamas may eventually lose its popularity over time, if regional conditions would eventually allow for a rational solution to the Palestinian problem.
As for Israel, even if Hamas is defeated, the security of the Jewish people will not be achieved without the provisions of statehood or citizenship-equality for Palestinians. Over the past two decades Hamas and the Palestinian Authority have served the short term interests of Israel by governing Gaza and the West Bank, albeit separately and unwisely. Now, Israel may be forced to reoccupy Gaza and rule over the West Bank ruthlessly. It will be very difficult to control Palestinian populations who have become experienced in guerilla- warfare and well connected with the Arab street and the Muslim world.
New leadership is desperately needed on both sides of the conflict. While Netanyahu’s era is most likely to be ending soon, whoever replaces him may not be much better for either Israelis or Palestinians.
As long as Israelis and Palestinians are ideologically divided, it is hard to imagine the emergence of a promising peace process.
In an environment of a worsening occupation, both sides of this conflict keep finding ways to bring out the worst in the other. When will this trend be reversed, and what would it take?
Ghassan Rubeiz is the former Middle East Secretary of the World Council of Churches. Earlier he taught psychology and social work in his country of birth, Lebanon, and later in the United States, where he currently lives. For the past twenty years, he has contributed to political commentary and delivered occasional public talks on subjects related to peace, justice, and interfaith. You can reach him at email@example.com
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab America. The reproduction of this article is permissible with proper credit to Arab America and the author.
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