How does the world look at Israel’s operation in Gaza?
Interview with Jonathan Rynhold
“Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the European Union and the United States are all on the same page. Everybody thinks that Hamas shouldn’t win or come out of this looking well.”
Dr. JONATHAN RYNHOLD is educated at London School of Economics, and currently works as Director for the Argov Center for the study of Israel & the Jewish People at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.
TQT: Why is Israel attacking Gaza now?
Rynhold: Israel does not want to fight this war. It started with Hamas firing rockets. The Israeli government will stop if Hamas stops. The final trigger was when there was an attempt by Hamas to come through a tunnel and attack Israeli cities in the south. At that point, the prime minister made a decision to go into Gaza, to deal with the tunnels. And because Hamas posed a direct threat to Israeli civilians in the south of Israel around the border, there was wall-to-wall consensus for the ground troops to enter Gaza.
TQT: Has Hamas been successful in any attacks?
Rynhold: Due to the success of the Iran Dome, rockets killed no Israelis, but the tunnels represented a direct threat to Israeli civilians, which can only be dealt with by ground troops.
TQT: What categorizes the developments that have taken place the last 24 hours in the conflict between Israel and Gaza?
Rynhold: On the Israeli side, the Israeli military has concentrated on finding and destroying the tunnels in Gaza that lead into Israel. The goal of Hamas has been to lead their people to kill Israeli civilians. Stopping that is the prime Israeli objective. Hamas has laid down Gaza as a battlefield, and what they are attempting to do is drawing IDF, the Israeli soldiers, into an urban battle, because that is their home territory. One of the things that has changed in the last 24 hours, according to a report from Israeli officers in the field, is that Palestinians are now fleeing, maybe a hundred thousand or more, which means that they are not listening to Hamas, who are apparently offering payment to civilians for staying in the areas.
TQT: What do you mean when you say that Hamas offering payment to Palestinians who stay?
Rynhold: A report from a senior Israeli army officer, Uri Gordin, Commander of the Nachal Brigade, verified that Hamas was offering money to Palestinian civilians if they stay in the areas in which there is combat .
TQT: In your opinion, what will it then take to end the conflict?
Rynhold: The Egyptians came up with a proposal for a ceasefire and Israel said yes, but Hamas said no. For Israel it is clear that Hamas is not prepared to stop fighting. Hamas started raising the demands during the ceasefire, which clearly indicates that Hamas is not interested in a ceasefire in the first place.
TQT: John Kerry continuously meets with the Egyptian government, in order to discuss the ceasefire proposed by the Egyptian government. But the Egyptian government is notoriously against Hamas, due to the relationship between Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. Taking that into consideration, is it not a given that Hamas refuse to participate in the ceasefire agreement?
Rynhold: No. In the very beginning, the political leaders of Hamas were actually willing to go along with some version of that ceasefire, but the actual decision-making is being done by the military wing of Hamas, who are in the bunkers. They simply do not care what is happening to their population, because it gains them sympathy throughout the world.
TQT: In line with your previous answers, we can agree that Hamas was weakened before this escalation of the conflict. But has the invasion, however, increased the popular support of Hamas and aided them in general recruitment?
Rynhold: Before the current conflict, Hamas were on a political low; they faced an economic crisis and did not have much political support. I think that it is simply too early to say what the consequences will be at this point. Right now, I am sure that hatred of Israel is very, very high. But the real question should be, who will get the credit if the situation improves and if the situation deteriorates?
I think that European governments are unusually supportive of Israel in its conflict, unequivocal almost, because everyone understands – given what is going on in Iraq, that it is critical that the Islamists do not make more gains anywhere. I think that the chief objective that Israel shares with Egypt, the United States and Europe is that Hamas should not get the credit for any gains the Palestinians make in Gaza as a result of a ceasefire agreement.
TQT: Hamas has been working with people in Turkey and Qatar in order to create their own terms for a ceasefire. Do you think that Israel would be interested in participating in such talks? And should they participate in such talks?
Rynhold: The answer to that is quite easy. No, they are not and no, they should not. Basically Egypt has worked very hard the last months to shut down the tunnels through which Hamas imports weapons. Egypt is a close ally of the US and the West. Turkey and Qatar, on the other hand, support the radical islamists. They have compared Israelis to the Nazis. Qatar is just playing a cynical game to gain influence. But I think the question which is more to the point, is if the US can get the Qatari leaders to drop out of the game or to move close to the Egyptian proposal, and through this push Hamas away from the only real international support is has.
TQT: What would the consequence be of pushing Qatar into being more critical of Hamas?
Rynhold: It would isolate Hamas still further. I think that the interesting thing is that Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the European Union and the United States are all on the same page. Everybody thinks that Hamas shouldn’t win or come out of this looking well. That is why the Egyptian ceasefire proposal is the one to go for. It is good and unopposed all over, except for Hamas and Turkey.
TQT: Netanyahu and others have defined Hamas as a terrorist organization on equal terms with Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda. Is this a fair comparison? After all, they are democratically elected.
Rynhold: You can debate the stuff about them being democratically elected and whether that is really the case. They took power in Gaza by throwing people of the Palestinian authority out of the windows and shooting them. Terrorists are groups that target civilians and terrorize the civilian population – that is what Hamas is. They are openly anti-Semitic, not only anti-Israel. That is what their charter is about. And they make no compunction about it. They use their citizens as shields. They are a terrorist organization and are detrimental to the well-being of Israelis and Palestinians. The difference between them and other groups, is that they are controlling a certain territory, through the use of pressure, they can be made to be pragmatic and restrained.
TQT: How would Israel go about changing the nature of Hamas?
Rynhold: Israeli policy is designed to deter and to impose costs. Even with a terrorist entity, it is possible to manage the conflict, however not possible to resolve the conflict, but Hamas’ raison d’être is not to resolve the conflict. It is on possible to manage the conflict, though in an imperfect way. It is a modest strategy in the conflict and that has really been Israel’s strategy in dealing with Gaza. Netanyahu is simply trying to point out, that when Israel is trying to fight this war, there is a very clear moral distinction between a democracy and a terrorist organization. In other words, we have a just cause to fight this war. We are in the right.
TQT: Where do the civilian casualties stand in this equation?
Rynhold: It is just very difficult, when you are fighting this kind of war not to hit civilians, even if you are not aiming for civilians. Hamas shields themselves in hospitals and it puts you in an impossible situation. Netanyahu is trying to clarify to the Western public, that this is the kind of war we are fighting. We are not saying that the rules of morality doesn’t apply to us per say, it is just too difficult of a situation.
TQT: Touching upon rules of morality and just war, the blockade of Gaza has been in place since 2006, and is according to several human rights watchers and NGOs illegal under international law. Are these accusations substantial?
Rynhold: The blockade against Gaza has not been the same blockade as it was. It was only put in place when Hamas took over. In other words, when Israel withdrew from Gaza with all the settlements and all 8.000 settlers, it didn’t impose a blockade. The blockade came as a result of Hamas using Gaza to launch missiles at Israeli civilians. However, the blockade also had another purpose, to create a situation in Gaza that is sufficiently unpleasant, yet not a humanitarian disaster, in order to turn the population against Hamas. This has failed, and in my personal opinion it would never have worked. The idea is demilitarizing Gaza in exchange for a very large package of international aid and to that the Palestinian Authority will presumably say yes and Hamas will presumably say no. And the point of that is to show that Hamas does not have the best interests of its population at heart. I think that it is widely accepted in Israel now that if you could guarantee that what goes into Gaza would not be used in a military capacity, then it would be worth opening the borders. The idea is that if you can get rid of the security problem, you can get rid of the blockade.
TQT: We see demonstrations all over the world against the blockade and the invasion of Gaza. Do you see a scenario in which the international community would react against Israel?
Rynhold: We need to start by recognizing distinctions between government and public. Two groups, radical Muslims and the radical left, largely carry out these demonstrations against Israel. If one looks at consistent polling, the overwhelming majority of the public is indifferent. This is not representative of a massive opinion for boycotting Israel. Technically, the EU would also have enormous difficulty in implementing any kind of collective policy. Only if Israel was to do something very stupid and annex the West Bank tomorrow, I could see the scenario happening
TQT: Is it possible for the Israeli military to fall back from Gaza in a foreseeable future?
Rynhold: They don’t want to stay there. What they would like to do is to destroy those tunnels and then get out. I don’t know how many levels they can go up without taking over Gaza, but to evict Hamas who is very deep in the ground would take six months. That is not something that is desirable for Israel.
TQT: What happens next?
Rynhold: To be honest with you, I really don’t know. We are moving towards an attempt to deal with the Qatar issue and to solidify the Egyptian proposal. In the military arena, it is about Israel destroying those tunnels and I think that those two things are central. I don’t see a ceasefire in the next 24 hours but these things are so fluid. I will seriously watch inter-Arab diplomacy. The Arab League has backed the Egyptian proposal, and I would expect to see the Americans and the Arab League twisting Qatar’s arm. That would leave Hamas in a very difficult position.
THE AUTHORS: JOHAN GREVE PETERSEN (f. 1991) Johan 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. ILLUSTRATION: Prime Minister Netanyahu visits President Obama at The White House, 2011 [photo: The White House]