“Clearly the American vision of a ceasefire is not identical to the Israeli one. I think that the United States accepts that the blockade of Gaza is excessive and that the demands that the blockade be relaxed are appropriate, regardless of where they come from, Hamas or otherwise, and that it should probably be part of the deal”.
Robert Brynen is a professor at the Department of Political Science at McGill University. He specializes in security and the Middle East.
TQT: How would you characterize the developments that have taken place in the conflict between Israel and Gaza the past 48 hours?
Brynen: We have clearly seen several things happen. We have seen a military escalation by Israel in the scope of the operation to some extent. They are still not conducting a full reoccupation of Gaza, but they have moved into new areas and the level of firepower has increased. Also, we are seeing continuing efforts by multiple parties to secure a ceasefire. We have seen Hamas come out quite defiant in its statements, matching, in essence, the parallel defiance of the Israelis. Finally, we have seen the humanitarian crisis continue to grow with over 200.000 people in emergency shelters, with the power plant destroyed which was a significant escalation, with the firing on an UNRWA school.
TQT: In terms of the military escalation of the conflict, do you see a scenario in which a full invasion of Gaza will take place? Is that the direction Israel is heading in?
Brynen: I do not think that Prime Minister Netanyahu wants to reoccupy Gaza or fight his way into the center of Gaza City. Part of the irony here is that both Hamas and the Israeli government, or at least the Prime Minister, would like to deescalate but both would like to deescalate with a ceasefire that they could consider to be a win. For the Israelis that means not bowing in the direction of Hamas’ ceasefire demands, severely damaging Hamas’ military capability, and of course they are increasingly talking about the demilitarization of the Gaza Strip (which isn’t really going to occur). Israel would like to come away being able to argue to its own population that the operation was a success as well as achieving its own goal of weakening Hamas. Hamas would like to come out of the conflict with a ceasefire, but with a ceasefire that includes some serious attention to the issue of the blockade of Gaza and possibly other issues, such as the payment of salaries to Hamas’ civil employees, and the question of arrests of Hamas-members released under the Shalit-deal. So both sides want a ceasefire but they want it on their terms and not a ceasefire that is seen as a loss. Neither side fundamentally wants to escalate, but there is no strong overlap between the two positions that makes a ceasefire possible.
TQT: You mentioned that multiple parties are involved in negotiating a ceasefire. Do you think that the negotiation setup has been unrealistic from the beginning, taking into consideration that all parties involved in negotiations are parties that Hamas has no affiliation or bed relations with, including Egypt?
Brynen: Yes, that is certainly true in regards to the earlier ceasefire negotiations, which were largely an Egyptian-mediated offer, which the Israelis accepted. Now ironically the Israelis, having accepted it early on in the current conflict, are now rejecting it. Egypt wanted to see Hamas badly damaged too and that particular ceasefire offer was not an offer that Hamas was very likely to accept. Since then it has become much more complex in terms of who is involved in the mediation. The US is involved in the mediation and so is Qatar and Turkey, who certainly do have good relations with Hamas. And part of the Israeli criticism has been that the US has been too influenced by Qatar and Turkey. The Palestinian Authority, which nominally has been in a unity government with Hamas, has been sort-of involved in negotiations. So now we have a much more complex set of arrangements with regards as to who is in and who is out of the mediation. That also makes it more complicated because the Egyptians and the Israelis would like to keep the Qataris and the Turks out. And as you say, Hamas does not trust the Egyptians, not to mention the Israelis, and probably not the Americans or the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Authority is probably the actor with the best relations with everyone, but it is not clear that Hamas wants a ceasefire that the Palestinian Authority can claim to have successfully mediated. So given that we have more actors involved, some of whom have good relations with at least one of the parties, it actually complicates things because they are all maneuvering and communicating with each other through multiple channels and it is not entirely clear who is talking to who. Add to that on the Israeli side we have real splits in the cabinet. Hard-line members of the cabinet would like to escalate this to a full conquest of Gaza. And indeed polls in Israel show that there is no strong support for a ceasefire within Israeli public opinion. So that is the context in which Netanyahu is operating. On the Hamas side, there is great difficulty communicating. Those Hamas officials who are outside the country, who are in touch with mediators, cannot reliably talk to the Hamas leadership inside, particularly the military leadership, because that leadership is in hiding and they are staying well away from mobile phones for obvious reasons. So I think that what will turn out to happen is that there will be differences in opinion and poor communication within Hamas itself and ultimately it is Hamas in Gaza and the Hamas military in Gaza that are largely in the driver’s seat on this. So those domestic contexts for both Hamas and Israel further complicate things.
TQT: In which ways has the current escalation of the conflict impacted the relationship between Israel and the United States?
Brynen: We have seen a quite striking breakdown in the tone of Israeli-American relations. Now, I think these will largely recover once the fighting is over, but it is very clear that many in the Israeli government are very annoyed with the United States and believe that Kerry has not been sufficiently supportive of the Israeli position. It is also clear that the United States does not believe that a narrow ceasefire that is just about the military stuff is appropriate. In other words I think that the United States accepts that the blockade of Gaza is excessive and that the demands that the blockade be relaxed are appropriate, regardless of where they come from, Hamas or otherwise, and that it should probably be part of the deal. It also feels that in the longer term the solution here is a reinvigorated peace process and not a series of temporary ceasefires around Gaza. I think that the US probably feels that some of the Israeli demands in regard to the demilitarization of Gaza are unrealistic and there is probably a bit of a search going on for a fig leaf which will allow the Israelis to claim that there could be some demilitarization of Gaza, but is at the same time realistic, because we all know that Hamas is not going to agree to give up any weapons, and so there really is no chance, short of a full Israeli reoccupation of Gaza, that any demilitarization is going to occur in that sense.
TQT: At the same time could it not be argued that the United States has no intention of stopping their economic support of Israel, so any minor disagreement now is somewhat irrelevant?
Brynen: Fundamentally the United States is a strong ally of Israel and will not touch the economic and military aid. It is not even clear that the president could do so even if he wanted to. I suspect that Congress would go ballistic. The default orientation in the domestic politics of the United States is such that we are not going to see any kind of sanctions in that relationship. It would be politically toxic domestically for the President to do that. He would be accused of abandoning Israel in the face of terrorism. But there is pressure short of that that can be applied. Certainly there was a lot of American pushback in the last 48 hours on things that had come up in the Israeli press. And now you see a lot of commentary in the Israeli press to the effect of “be careful, don’t alienate the United States—they are our most important ally in the world”. So we are not going to see any fundamental changes in the relationship, but clearly the Americans have been pushing back against some of the Israeli criticism and clearly the American vision of a ceasefire is not identical to the Israeli one.
TQT: Is there any scenario in which the scope of the humanitarian disaster will impact the relationship between the United States and Israel?
Brynen: I certainly think that is part of the reason that the United States is dissatisfied with aspects of Israeli behavior. It is clear that the United States would like to see this operation ended very rapidly and much more rapidly than the Israelis may wish to end it. Part of the reason for that is that is the humanitarian cost of the fighting and part of the reason for that is obviously because of the political consequences of the humanitarian cost. There are all kinds of political consequences in the region and elsewhere when people turn on their television and see dead Palestinian kids. So there is some difference between the United States and Israeli positions, but you are right: The US is not going to abandon Israel over this. Nor, for that matter, although we are seeing increasing criticism in some European countries, is the European Union going to change its relationship with Israel fundamentally over this either.
TQT: At least in a European context that has been a very big outcry from the general public and we are seeing “Free Gaza” demonstrations throughout Europe. Will there continue to be a disconnect between popular opinion in Europe and the policies of European states and are you arguing that no matter how much the citizens of any European country protests, their governments will never change their foreign policy towards Israel?
Brynen: European policies have been changing very slowly. Of course EU policies are very slow to change anyway. It is also the case in virtually every country in the West that even those who have views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict do not vote on the basis of those views. If you were to ask people what the 30 most important issues were to them at election time, Palestine would be down there around number 30. People vote on the economy, they vote on domestic social justice issues, they vote on immigration, they vote on all kinds of things. People do not generally vote for governments on the basis of foreign policy. So yes, European public opinion may be moving further and further away from Israel, there is some evidence for that in polling data. The last couple of days I have seen, for example, some data on attitudes in the UK on the current war. That will have some effect on governments. It makes it easier for governments to be tough on Israel, but I don’t see European foreign policy change dramatically as a consequence of this. And it has to be remembered that all states in Europe also hold the view that Hamas should not be firing unguided rockets out of Gaza at Israeli population centers. So that will also continue to be a part of European foreign policy too.
TQT: But is that not the key propaganda sentence that is used in order to justify siding with the Israelis? Because you could easily reverse that argument and argue that Israel is an occupying power and that the people of Gaza alongside Hamas are resistance fighters, fighting to free themselves from an occupying power? Why is it that governments have bought so much into this ‘terrorism’ and ‘Israel is defending itself’ rhetoric?
Brynen: It would be completely different if Hamas were firing at military targets, which it is not. It is very clear that occupied populations can engage in resistance, but it is also very clear that they cannot fire unguided rockets at population centers. That is absolutely clearly a war crime. Indeed one of the constraints on the discussion about Palestine joining the International Criminal Court was that any war crimes investigation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might not only bring indictments against Israelis, but also indictments against most of the Hamas leadership, which would be politically problematic for the Palestinians. If Hamas was able to moderate its use of force, which it is not, and direct it against the IDF that would slightly change things. But it doesn’t. It fires its rockets at cities. And also I think that the EU considers Hamas just as much of an obstacle to the peace process as it does right-wingers in the Israeli cabinet. That means that in this conflict there is always going to be some acceptance in European foreign policy that military force against Hamas might occasionally be necessary. But there is also, in parts of Europe, a much greater willingness to see Hamas integrated back into the overall Palestinian political process through the reconciliation process and the national unity government, in the hopes of moderating it. That is, I think, the dilemma for the international community in dealing with Hamas: Part of the organization would clearly, if reluctantly, accept a two-state solution and can possibly be moderated through inclusion in a PA government. On the other hand, part of Hamas would like to eliminate the state of Israel. And Hamas is not clear on what it wants. Hamas is an organization that in the last decade has danced around its goals because it actually does not know what its goals are. There is huge variation in the organization as to what it actually stands for.
TQT: Could it be argued that the kind of invasion taking place in Gaza right can also be characterized as a war crime?
Brynen: Certainly some Israeli actions in Gaza, in my view, violate international humanitarian law. I do not think that it is appropriate to bomb the houses of civilian Hamas officials. The use of force has been excessive without due regard to civilian casualties. International law is quite complicated because international law clearly allows you to kill civilians; it just requires that their deaths be proportionate to the military advantage gained and that you have made efforts to discriminate and minimize civilian casualties. So some of it is quite murky because of the way that international law is written. The law was not written to stop armies from fighting in urban areas, because it was written by countries with armies and they would not ever constrain themselves from doing that. But I certainly think that many actions appear to be collective punishment. It is not clear how they dramatically degrade Hamas’ military performance. So I do think that Israeli use of force in many cases has been excessive and would constitute violations of international humanitarian law, yes. Not all of it, but certainly a significant amount of it.
TQT: Do you have any suggestions as to what it will take to enter into a ceasefire of more permanent nature?
Brynen: We are going to see pretty much a pattern we have seen for the last week. We are going to see humanitarian ceasefires and now we have the new thing that the Israelis have announced, which is the ‘humanitarian window’, which is essentially a ceasefire where they were not firing to begin with. It is actually quite an innovation. There is a ceasefire, but only in areas where there is no combat, which is not really a ceasefire. The US and others hope that these temporary lulls provide a pause in which you can engage in negotiations and they can serve to deescalate the situation. The parties sometimes agree to these because they want to get some political advantage by appearing to be the more humanitarian of the two. The 2012 deal between Hamas and Israel, and which both sides violated in different ways, was a very badly written minimalistic agreement. It is very sloppily worded and it is very brief. I think that this time we are going to get something that is more sophisticated and going to more fully address the blockade, the tunnels, it’s probably going to include stepped-up mechanisms to make it difficult for Hamas to rearm, perhaps tighter humanitarian management of dual-use goods and aid money coming in, so there will be something in it for Hamas and there will be something in it for Israel. It may look a bit like the Security Council resolution that was, in effect, the ceasefire that brought an end to the 2006 war in Lebanon. It included clauses that even though the parties knew would not be implemented, they were there so they so one could point to the agreement and saying “well, this is supposed to happen.” For example, the Lebanon ceasefire of 2006 calls for the disarmament of Lebanese militias and while no-one thought that Hezbollah was going to do that, it allows Israel to say it is supposed to happen. So I would not be surprised if we ended up going the route of Security Council resolutions again: the US would work out what would be acceptable to the parties and then it goes to the Security Council and gets a resolution that includes those things. And then the parties can appear to abide by the call of the Security Council. That is certainly a possible way. It is the way that ended the war in Lebanon in 2006. In practice, there were negotiations between Israel and Hezbollah, but the mechanism was not an Israel-Hezbollah agreement, but a Security Council resolution that both sides then said they would agree to. ■
JOHAN GREVE PETERSEN (b. 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 (b. 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. ILLUSTRATION: Israeli tank near the Gaza border July 20 2014 [photo: Israeli Defense Forces]