Gaza. “The blockade is legal but not smart”
Interview with Dr. Natan Sachs
“The blockade is legal but not smart. The effects on the civilians are terrible. Israel could have allowed civilian life in Gaza to continue. But the fundamental key to change is not in the hands of Israel. It’s in the hands of the Palestinians. At the end of the day, if the Palestinians are ruled by an organization that is at war with Israel, they cannot expect that commerce and other relations with Israel will be normal.”
Dr. NATAN SACHS is a fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings Institute. His work focuses on Israeli foreign policy, domestic politics and the Arab-Israeli conflict. He earned his BA from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and later received his MA and PhD from Stanford University.
TQT: What categorizes the development of events that have taken place in the last 24 hours [the interview was conducted on Wednesday 23rd, ed.] pertaining to the conflict between Israel and Hamas?
Sachs: There has been some escalation, many have been injured while Israel tried to target the tunnels on the Gaza side. The tunnel infrastructure is much more robust and extensive than Israel first thought. Targeting Hamas, especially within the Shuja’iyya neighborhood in eastern Gaza, has had heavy costs in terms of lives of civilians as well as troops.
TQT: Did Israel expect a quick operation?
Sachs: The problem is that Shuja’iyya is a residential neighborhood in which Hamas has created a very elaborate infrastructure, especially underground. While not wanting to fully bring down Hamas through the instatement of ground troops, Israel has seen quite a few casualties that they did not expect in the beginning.
TQT: Why is operation Protective Edge being launched right now? And why is the destruction of Hamas’ tunnels at the top of Israel’s agenda at this very moment?
Sachs: It is not at all. Israel tried to avoid this and not enter the operation at all. Before Israel began operation Protective Edge, Israel tried to negotiate a ceasefire brokered by the Egyptians. The Israelis were trying to prevent escalation in Gaza, and keep the unrest in the West Bank separate, but the rockets kept coming. In the end Israel felt that they had no choice but to start the air raid campaigns. Israel would have been very happy to continue without any of this.
TQT: Are you stating that the escalation is exclusively due to Hamas?
Sachs: No. I’m not entering the blame game. Israel was hoping that the Gaza front would remain quiet. In Hamas’ rationale, and in part their excuse, is that this is all in response for Israel operating in the West Bank, where Israel conducted extensive searches to try to find the three kidnapped Israeli teenagers, resulting in several Palestinian deaths. Hamas joined the unrest using rocket fire and it was not only Hamas, it was the more radical groups too. So from Hamas’s point of view they are responding to something else. Once it seemed to get out of hand, Israel moved in and it escalated from there.
TQT: In regard to the ceasefire talks, knowing the strained relationship that Hamas has with Egypt due to the previous collaboration with the Muslim Brotherhood, would you not say that it was a given that Hamas chose not to participate in this ceasefire agreement?
Sachs: This is a very difficult problem. Yes, Hamas used to have a relationship with Egypt when the Muslim Brotherhood ruled it. Moreover, in the past Qatar and Turkey aligned diplomatically with the Muslim Brotherhood. When they had a more significant stature in the Middle East it was easier for these players to deal with Hamas. Since then many of the Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have come out strongly against the Muslim Brotherhood, labeling it a terrorist organization. Qatar and Turkey would prefer to work with Hamas rather than with Palestinians who have relations with the United States, so it is very problematic. The relations are bad, but I think if Hamas would look at the damage done to those civilians and weigh this against the consequences of having to accept the Egyptian cease-fire; then any person with any moral fiber would find it better to accept the cease-fire from someone you don’t like than to allow those tragedies to continue.
TQT: There has been talk of Hamas creating terms of a ceasefire in cooperation with Turkey and Qatar. Do you think Israel would be interested in participating in such talks?
Sachs: If the ceasefire were to include other conditions by Hamas, it gets more complicated. The Egyptians and the rest of the Palestinians are very adamant that it has to go through Egypt. Israel honestly doesn’t trust Qatar as much as it trusts the Egyptians, nor do the other countries in the region. The Egyptian proposal as well as the Israeli proposal was an unconditional ceasefire, after which there would be talks about maybe some changes to the status quo. But first and foremost is that the fighting needs to stop. A ceasefire on Hamas’s terms would come after negotiations, which would mean prolonged fighting. Such an agreement would not be working on behalf of the Palestinian people, but on behalf of Hamas.
TQT: Is the success criteria for Israel then simply a ceasefire with potential of returning to the status quo?
Sachs: No one has much to gain from this horrible tragedy, which is partly why Israel is interested in the ceasefire. The ideal scenario for Israel is that the Palestinian Authority rule Gaza. That President Abbas, who is committed to non-violence, rules. But that’s not going to happen because Israel is not willing to militarily go all the way into Gaza and topple Hamas. The cost to lives inside Gaza and loss to the troops would be terrible. Also, Abbas and the Fatah organization couldn’t then come back to Gaza with Israel, they would be seen as traitors. So from that perspective the ideal scenario – where the PA rules Gaza – is not attainable. Though it is not likely, the hope [for Israel, the United States and the PA] is that there would be one Palestinian government. Hamas would be demilitarized; Gaza would be demilitarized, and taken under that one government. What may be possible is that the Palestinian Authority takes control over border crossings: especially in Rafah in the southern part of Gaza between Gaza and Egypt, which Egypt and not Israel is currently blockading. The key would here be to bring Abbas’s forces to take responsibility.
TQT: The control of Gaza by Fatah could then lead to the end of the blockade?
Sachs: The discoveries from this conflict such as the vast tunnels, raise severe difficulties about what might happen next. All this now suggests that Israel might be even stricter on some of the materials going in. Materials even like cement that everyone has noticed did not go to building hospitals or shelters for the population, but tunnels for Hamas. For now, the best we can hope for is a ceasefire, and secondly a transfer of some of the authority on the border crossings to the Palestinians under Abbas.
TQT: Are you saying that it is completely unrealistic that the Fatah organization, Abbas, and Hamas will be united in any form of a united Palestine?
Sachs: Not necessarily. There is already a unity deal and I think it is possible with elections that there might be Fatah-Hamas reconciliation after all. But in the short term, it is very unlikely that Hamas will give up control of the Gaza strip. In political philosophy, the primary question when defining a state is; “Is there a monopoly of power? Is there one gun?” At the moment this is not realistic. I think that there is a chance that this could eventually bring more authority from the Palestinian government over Gaza, but in a very limited way. We should though keep our aspirations low.
TQT: Going back to the blockade of Gaza, which has been in place since 2006: it has been, by many NGOs and Human Rights Watch, deemed illegal under International Law.
Sachs: It has been declared legal, very clearly by the United Nations. It is not there to keep the Palestinians at bay. That’s simply not true. It was put in place only after Hamas took control of Gaza forcefully, and since Hamas is at war with Israel it is completely legal under International Law to enact a blockade against an enemy state. Moreover, this is not a siege of Gaza. Gaza has a border with another country that it is not at war with [Egypt, ed.]. The blockade is merely an attempt to prevent an enemy that is fighting Israel from getting arms. In fact, it is very similar to the blockade of Cuba that the United States enforced when there was a war between the two countries. It is legal but not smart. The blockade could be very different. The effects on the civilians are terrible.
TQT: How could Israel have made the blockade differently?
Sachs: By being more selective. They could have allowed civilian life in Gaza to continue. But unfortunately the fundamental key to change is not in the hands of Israel. It’s in the hands of the Palestinians. At the end of the day, if the Palestinians are ruled by an organization that is at war with Israel, they cannot expect that the commerce and other relations with Israel will be normal. If the Palestinians, through elections or perhaps a unity agreement can create a different government for Gaza, it is possible. The tragic alternative is to continue war.
TQT: Could you imagine a complete re-occupation by Israel of Gaza?
Sachs: I can imagine it. It would be terrible. The cost of lives, especially among civilians would be high, but if the rockets continue, it might happen. Millions of Israelis living under the threat of rockets, mitigated only by Israel’s missile defense technology, but it is impossible to let that continue for too long. However, if Israel tried re-occupation, the tragedies we are seeing now would become much worse. Israel, I think, will try to avoid it. If they began a re-occupation of Gaza, they would have to govern it. The Palestinians would have to live under Israeli police, and it would erupt in violence. Besides, Israeli presence there would be extra targets for Hamas and therefore good for Hamas.
TQT: Has the invasion by Israel strengthened Hamas in their recruitment?
Sachs: In the short term we have seen an enormous amount of anger against Israel, and Hamas does benefit from the continuation of conflict. But the question is: What is the alternative? Israel can stay outside and only use air power, which is condemned by the world, but equally going much further into Gaza would be bad in the long-term. The Palestinian people are rational and can see what Hamas has brought upon Gaza. I hope the Palestinians will see it is much better to live on the West Bank with Abbas, than under Hamas, such as in Gaza.
TQT: We see demonstrations against the invasion all over the world. Do you foresee a scenario in which international governments would react against Israel?
Sachs: Yes, of course public opinion is very important, and I understand that the civilian casualties are much worse on the Palestinian side. If Israel defended its civilians as Hamas does, the casualties would be more equal. Would people be less angry then at Israel? Israel is not about to let its citizens die just to placate demonstrators in Europe. It is though not likely that the governments will be involved with anything more than diplomacy. People would of course prefer that Israel would conduct these operations with much more care toward civilian casualties. They’re right about that. But a European government would probably understand that if Denmark, for example, were being bombed with thousands of rockets over a decade from a neighboring country, Denmark would have to do something about that.
TQT: Logistically, how long can this go on? Since there is a no-flight zone imposed, we see a drop in tourism, raised military costs and a living in constant fear etc. Do you anticipate this conflict continuing for weeks?
Sachs: I don’t think it will go on for long. I think it is likely to end soon, but I am not terribly optimistic that it ‘cannot continue’. Unfortunately I think it could logistically continue for quite a while. The restrictions on flights were merely a temporary security measure. There are limits on Israel’s ability to continue – the constant need by civilians to run to the shelters all the time and many citizens enlisted in the reserves, but Israel can continue for quite a while. You need two for this war and for the ceasefire. I can see Israel trying for a ceasefire soon. I don’t know if Hamas will, but I think that it has a better chance than in the past. There is a chance that fatigue and lack of rockets on the Hamas side will lead to a ceasefire. On the Israeli side I would not overestimate the prospects, but Israel is far stronger than Hamas.
JOHAN GREVE PETERSEN (f. 1991) has previously studied at the United World College of the Pacific in Canada, but is now his final stages of receiving a BSc in Anthropology from University College London. Beside his studies, Johan is active in the UWC movement and on the board of Danish Students Abroad. SAHRA-JOSEPHINE HJORTH (f. 1985) is the CEO of hjorthGROUP and a PhD fellow in migration and social media. Sahra-Josephine also holds a MA and a BA in International Relations.