Gaza. What does Israel hope to achieve?
Interview with Daniel Levy
“The Israeli establishment says: “How would anyone else respond to having rockets fired against them?” And the answer is: Well, no one else is maintaining this kind of an occupation”.
DANIEL LEVY is an Israeli political scientist. He has previously served as a special advisor to the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and as a top Israeli negotiator. He is currently director of Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Levy earned his bachelors and masters degrees at Cambridge University and has been a regular Middle East commentator at BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera.
TQT: From your point of view, what have the Israelis gained from the ongoing operation “Protective Edge”?
Levy: First of all, the Israelis have defined the goals of the operation relatively limited. The tunnels have been seen as a strategic threat by Israel, who claims that Hamas could emerge from these tunnels and carry out massacres and kidnappings on Israeli soil. The only problem with this definition is that this has not happened. In fact, there has been much more tunnel action into Israel during this operation than there was before. Yes, there have been attempted attacks through these tunnels, but it feels to me like this has been elevated by the Israeli commentators in order to justify what they are doing and also in order to define a goal that could be met. Remember that tunnels are tools – you don’t significantly impact the Palestinian issue by dealing with tunnels.
Furthermore, the Israelis have been talking about generally degrading Hamas’ capacity to launch rockets. Undoubtedly, some of Hamas’ sites have been hit and some, but not a significant number, of Hamas fighters have been killed. So if the Israeli leadership wants to claim that it has set goals, largely achieved these goals and had a victory, it can make these claims. And Hamas will be able to make just as strong a counterclaim.
Secondly, the Israeli government has been telling the public that it has been conducting its operation with limited external interference, with limited criticism and with excellent cooperation from Egypt. This will be portrayed as a significant victory – and it is, to a significant degree, true. But the bigger question is: How does any of this look better the morning after? Sure, Hamas has a few less rockets and a few less tunnels, but there are 1.8 million Palestinians who are angry at Israel. It will be easier for Hamas to recruit. There will be deeper frustration in the West bank and inside Israel itself. So if one steps back – well, one doesn’t have to step back too far – this doesn’t look very good for Israel.
TQT: But if you look a bit beyond the Israeli establishment, does the people of Israel believe in the “victory” argument or do they look critically at the operation?
Levy: No, they are not critical. First of all, it is something that is not at all uniquely Israeli. In a situation where rockets are falling on you, you have less mental capacity to step back and see what the bigger picture is and ask if you could have created some conditions that could have prevented this – and even less to put yourself in the place of the Palestinians. So the relentless – well, brainwashing is a strong word – but homogeneity of the political and media message makes everyone line up behind the government. Israel has a very weak opposition and Israeli politics is conducted almost exclusively on the right when it comes to Palestine.
TQT: But there has been great civilian casualties and you argue we will see an increased radicalization of the Palestinian population. How come the Israeli left-wing opposition is not utilizing this situation to gain support and influence on the political scene?
Levy: And therein lies the one million dollar question. I cannot fully explain it – but briefly, I would say that the left has dramatically lost its way. This has something to do with the objective reality Israelis find themselves in. But I think it has even more to do with how supine the left has been for an awful long time. The left didn’t take a moral position. For so long, they played games with the right about demography. The main argument the left would use was: “Hey, we have to have a Palestinian state, because […] well, we have to separate from these Palestinians”. That was like treating 20 % of your own population, the Israeli Palestinians, as not real citizens. So we started losing any ability to think morally – and then we started losing it entirely. What you have is an impoverished analysis, a lack of courage and the realities of a wartime situation.
TQT: In order to stop the firing of rockets into Israel, the Israelis have to reoccupy Gaza. Do you agree with this statement?
Levy: Yes – and it still won’t work. Israel has three choices. One: to fully occupy Gaza, at whatever cost it takes. Two: To acknowledge they are not going to do that and to continue treating Hamas as the governing power in Gaza. The third option is to say: The Palestinians have started their own internal reconciliation process. Abbas will lead this – but he will work with Hamas. But Israel refuses to accept that.
Humans have this funny capacity to resist being repressed. Ultimately, people will find a way of expressing their opposition to being denied their freedom – either with simple weapons or more advanced rockets. If the Palestinians are denied their basic dignity, they will always find ways. So the answer for Israel is to stop threating them like animals. Stop denying Palestinians their basic human dignity and their basic human rights. See how that works out for you. My guess is that this is the best option for Israel – and it is of course not being discussed.
TQT: No, because the Israeli establishment will probably say to you: ‘If we do that, we will look weak. It will look as if we surrender to terrorists who fires rockets at us – and we give them rights in return’.
Levy: That is fine, as long as one at some stage acknowledges that this conflict didn’t begin 14 days ago – or in 2005, when Israel disengaged from Gaza. You should advance a Palestinian incentive structure, which allows people to believe that the future can be better without rockets. At the same time Israel has to maintain deterrence. But if there is only deterrence, you will never solve anything and your situation will continue to get worse.
Whatever the winning narrative is for Israel, here is the reality: Hamas has managed to sustain a more consistent, more far-reaching rocket threat against Israel than before. Israel’s attempt to conduct deep incursions into Gaza has lead to more Israeli casualties than in previous operations. So, if you only work on the military arena and continue the full-scale repression, this isn’t going to end well.
We know that Israel won’t meet quiet with quiet. When it is quiet, we know that Israel returns to normality. The day after this ends, life will be normal for Israelis. The day after this ends, life will be anything but normal for the 1.8 million Palestinians in Gaza. They will not be able to travel, not be able to have a port, not be able to export, to import or to rebuild their hospitals. So you create this perverse incentive structure where quiet is met with a blockade instead of giving the Palestinians incentives to leave the path of violence.
TQT: Israel has currently destroyed around 40% of the Hamas rockets and the Economist has estimated that Hamas can assemble less than 30 new rockets a day. Does Hamas at all have the military capacity to do what it wants: Push Israel to change its policy?
Levy: The Israelis understand that a full-scale demilitarization of Gaza is not something they are ready for – especially after the recent casualties. There is still a stronger possibility of a ceasefire.
TQT: But why is it that the Netanyahu government will not reoccupy Gaza?
Levy: It is incredibly high-risk, but there are other reasons as well. Israel was in Gaza for almost 40 years. Once you are there, what is your exit strategy? Let us say the Israeli government is willing to pay the price in terms of dead soldiers and Palestinians. Who are you then going to hand Gaza to? To Abbas? Then you have a reunified Palestine. Abbas is then in a stronger position to negotiation peace. But remember, this is Netanyahu – he is not interested in negotiating peace. He wants Palestinian division.
TQT: So Netanyahu is consciously trying to create this Palestinian divide?
Levy: Very much so, but it is lower down the list of reasons for not occupying.
TQT: The other day, 20.000 people were protesting in London against the actions of the Israeli army. Some have compared Israel to the apartheid regime in South Africa. Do you see that the international community is going to take a stand against Israel like it did against South Africa?
Levy: Not really. It will only happen if there is a Palestinian struggle for freedom that more people can identify with. Neither the so-called moderate Fatah side, nor the Hamas side, has a leadership pursuing a struggle for freedom that people can identify with. No Westerners know what Abbas wants from them – he cooperates with the Israelis and doesn’t call for sanctions. Most people also don’t identify with Hamas, cause most people usually don’t identify with guys launching rockets in civilian centers. There are those in Palestinian civil society who understand exactly what I just said, but has no political power, follow a new policy that can less-easily be depicted as extremist, then the South Africa analogy takes hold. But we are still not in that position.
TQT: So Netanyahu is not scared of international sanctions?
Levy: He is concerned, but he thinks it is manageable. However, the Western leaders are beginning to run out of patience. The death toll hit 500 and the images are horrible. Then the Israeli establishment says: “How would anyone else respond to having rockets fired against them?” And the answer is: Well, no one else is maintaining this kind of an occupation.
As time goes on, Europe loses its patience – even America loses its patience. When secretary Kerry thought he was off the record, he said it was a “hell of a pinpoint operation”. That allowed us to see that what US says in public and what they feel in private is not necessarily the same.
But none the less, Israel feels that is has managed its international reputation. The regional part of it is more complex. The Israeli political leadership and commentators are almost on a high from the support they are receiving from the Egyptian leadership. There is one small problem with that. What are the goals of the Egyptian leadership – and are they the same as the Israeli goals? If the Israelis and the Egyptians agree that there has to be a relentless war against Hamas to fully re-occupy Gaza, then so be it. But I think we begin to see that the Egyptians and Israelis don’t necessarily have the same goals. The Egyptian President al-Sisi wants to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood and the Hamas, who he sees as an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood. There are clampdowns on protest, free media and critique of Israel in Egypt. The Egyptian public is being fed this story that Hamas is the problem. But if Israel’s intention is not to eradicate Hamas, then who is really playing who here? For the Egyptians, everything is fine – they don’t care how many Israeli soldiers get killed eradicating Hamas. But is that in Israel’s interest?
TQT: What options to you think Hamas is left with now?
Levy: I think Hamas has limited options. Hamas was ready for reconciliation with Fatah, but is under pressure from groups more extreme than Hamas itself. However, Hamas is not going to capitulate – it is the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement after all. Furthermore, there are divisions within Hamas – some more militant, some more pragmatic. If Hamas feels that is has no one to deal with on the Israel or – and this is very significant – on the Egyptian side, then it strengthens the radical voices within Hamas.
TQT: So the pressure from internal groups gives Hamas limited options?
Levy: Yes. Also remember that if the Israeli cabinet will meet, their cars take them to the cabinet meeting place very fast, they talk and call the Press. If you are the Hamas leadership, your military wing is hidden in several places, your political leadership somewhere else and the external leadership can’t even meet. It is very hard to assemble and make decisions.
TQT: Would you then say that Israel has to take the first step to ensure sustainable peace?
Levy: I don’t know with the first step, but there is just a fundamental equation here. Everything about this situation is asymmetrical. There is an occupying power and an occupied people. The only problem for the occupying power is that the people don’t like to be occupied. Of course it is only in the power of the occupying side to end this. The question is: How do the Palestinians go about impacting that decision? The purely peaceful acceptance hasn’t worked. The armed resistance was more successful – it is not nice, but we have to acknowledge that, from a Palestinian point of view, it got the Israelis out of Gaza. However, I don’t believe armed struggle will cause Israel to end the occupation. So what about using international law, using non-violent, civil disobedience and calling on the international community to impose a cost on Israel for the occupation? See, that is the whole package of things that the Palestinian leadership flirts with, but has not embraced. This could ultimately result in different decisions from the Israelis.
TROELS BOLDT RØMER (born 1994) is a member of the editorial boards of both The Question Today and RÆSON. Graduated from United World College of South East Asia (Singapore) with an IB diploma in 2014. Has previously worked in the office of the Danish Minister of Education (2012), served as the chairman of the National Union of Danish Students (2008-2011) and has been involved in a range of social and political projects across South East Asia and in Denmark. ILLUSTRATION: Netanyahu at the Jerusalem Day Ceremony [photo: Haim Zach / GPO, the Prime Minister’s Office]