Thoughts on narrative, incentives and the Israeli-Palestinian ‘peace-process’
It is by now vividly apparent to observers of the recent chaos in the ‘Promised Land’ that the factions involved, on all sides, are tragically opposed to one another in the most intractable of ways. As I write, Israel has continued its bombardment of the Gaza strip for the 17th consecutive day. The situation in Gaza is unquestionably a humanitarian crisis.
It is reasonably fair to say that the Western reaction to the situation, in the professional as well as social media, has been one of outrage and at least implicit condemnation of Israel’s actions. This is the case chiefly because of the huge asymmetry between the casualties on each side – again, as I write, the count for the Palestinians had reached 732, and the Israeli count was at 32. This is nothing new; after the War of Independence in 1948, casualty counts have followed a trend along these lines. Yet the situation is more complex than can ever be represented by these figures. The goals and objectives of each organisation are so engrained in their behaviour, so multi-layered and interdependent, that to paint a simple picture of tyrannical oppression, or conversely terrorist insurgency, is unhelpful, misleading and false.
The greatest tragedy in the Israel-Palestine case is that the ‘peace-process’ cannot be termed as such within any helpful understanding of the phrase. A gradual movement towards peace implies that peace itself is viewed as a clear, sharply distinguished end in itself, by all interested parties. The muddied waters of negotiation, stagnant with vested interests, historical antagonism and international posturing, have seen peace sink to the bottom of almost everyone’s agenda apart from those external to the region, who watch on distraught at the loss of life and human dignity.
I by no means wish to accuse any party in this troubled land (at least not those not in the extreme militant divisions of their respective factions) of deliberately invoking pain and suffering for its own sake, and I do not believe that any element of this conflict is being fought solely to wreak devastation on the other side. That is not what I mean when I say that the relevant organisations are shirking the opportunity and attempt for peace. But shirk they do indeed.
The region is plagued not only by a bloody history and intensely foul relations between the two ethnicities living there, but by a set of regional actors that have perverse incentives due to the way they interact, and the narratives they create. Hamas, the organisation that is the de facto power in Gaza (de jure by the legitimacy granted by its popularity among Palestinians in Gaza, but Israel and the US label it as a terrorist organisation, and the Palestinian Authority (PA) makes claims to authority over the entirety of Palestine), is a key element of the agitated mix. The news recently focused on its rejection of an Egyptian-brokered suggestion for a ceasefire deal. Bear in mind – this deal came at a point when the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) had commenced its massive bombardment of anything in Gaza with so much as a whiff of Hamas about it. Several things can be learnt from this occurrence. First, that relations with other states in the Middle East are frequently a defining factor for the behaviour of groups in the region. Egypt’s current leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, took power after a long process including the ousting and
persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood, close allies to Hamas. Relations with him are understandably strained for the Palestinian group. Second, the narrative created by Hamas is one of resistance against a united set of evils, a crusade for the freedom of Palestinians (and, more importantly, for Muslims – thus the Islamism) against the antagonists arrayed before it, be they Israeli, American, or new Egyptian strongmen. This is admittedly a slight caricature, but will do for now. Finally, and most importantly, the deal did not involve any mention of the opening of borders between Gaza and Israel. The fences and walls built around the Palestinian’s tiny strip of land are viewed as dehumanising and illegal by Hamas, Palestinians, and many international observer. Quite rightly so, in my view. The situation is typical and reminiscent of deals in the past – Israel often makes claims to either more land in the West Bank (another factor in the whole debacle), the entirety of Jerusalem, or continued control over Palestinian society, in return for offers of peace.
The three aspects I have brought up therefore involve international relations and their role in the peace-(war)-process, the narratives constructed by the actors in the conflict, and their uncompromising goals and aims. Brief words can be said on all three, in reverse order.
So, incentives and goals. I have spoken of Hamas’ intentions, and the demands made by Israel, but why does it continue to terrorise (in the technical sense or not, however you will) Israel with rockets that can barely leave a scratch compared to the IDF’s capability to obliterate buildings with air strikes (see the Iron Dome to explain this asymmetry of power)? The aforementioned question of legitimacy comes into play in this respect – the legitimacy, that is, of Hamas in representing the Palestinian cause. ‘Ruling’ in Gaza is about something very different to what it might be in a peaceful nation-state. Resistance to the Israeli mission is now part of the qualifying criterion to be the spokesperson for the Arab population there; granted, Israelis and Palestinians can coexist peacefully, but given that a resistance group exists, every Israeli effort to quell it fuels its popularity among Arabs and increases the incentive for Hamas to show that it can cope with the strain. Moreover, Hamas needs to damage the Israeli effort if it is to have any substantive power to bring to the table. This opinion article explains well the acute problem the Palestinians face.
Israel’s goals, so we can deduce, are expansive in nature. The explicit Zionist approach may be well behind us, but building in the E1 corridor demonstrates the desire to continue to forcibly claim areas of land in what are currently Palestinian territories. This is often criticised internationally, and rightly so. But what is most crucial about Israel and its approach to the current bout of conflict is its relationship with Hamas. If Hamas stands for the only source of true resistance against Israel in the eyes of many Palestinians, then for the Israelis it is a brilliantly convenient reason for war. The thousands of rockets Hamas launches at the nation consistently affirm, in the Israeli government’s book, the need for reactionary violence. This violence helps keep Palestinian resources drained and their leadership weakened. With a divided leadership, the Arabs are drastically less able to resist expansion by Israel into the West Bank. By demonising Hamas and attacking them, drawing continued rocket fire in return, Israel polarises Palestinian actors, thereby strengthening both their own actual position and the strength of their argument for the moral backing to their actions.
These points all allude to the second element – narrative. Hamas’ narrative has been touched upon; it proclaims Israel as the ultimate enemy in order to justify its more extreme, militant responses. Israel constructs a narrative on the world stage of a youthful nation that stands up for freedom and self-determination and self-defence. This is in large part due to the history of the Jews and their abhorrent treatment. Yet now that the IDF’s military capacity far surpasses anything the Palestinians have to offer, it is difficult for them to insist on being the victim. Yet this is the narrative that Israeli’s have to try and produce to defend their case. Mitchell Barak, a former media adviser to the Israeli President Shimon Peres, claimed while speaking on Al Jazeera that ‘the’ Israeli Defence Force’ is the only army in the world that has the word ‘defence’ in it’ (point of order Mr Barak – naming something does not alter its substantive identity and nature). Hamas’ continued rockets are an issue and lend some credence to the Israeli case. Yet the vicious cycle spurred on by air bombardment is bad for all involved. Sadly, however, the whole affair merely feeds into the separate pictures each party is trying to paint.
A third aspect of the impasse is the familiarly pathetic reaction of international leaders to the actions of Israel. The Jewish state is an awkward object for Western foreign policy. In part born out of what was perhaps Europe’s greatest shame of the 20th century, indeed more, the Zionist movement’s plight to escape anti-Semitism gave it a degree of legitimacy it could never have otherwise had. Now European governments find it hard to bring themselves to criticise Israel, an effect heightened by the powerful Jewish lobbying groups. The US is more infamous in its repeated defence of Israel no matter what actions the state commits.
These Western powers need to come to their senses and intervene, diplomatically, with more force and conviction. We need direct communication with Israel, to specify the limits of what is acceptable. Hamas is beyond reproach for Western governments because it is an Islamist group, insofar as we desire any such rebuttal to be effective whatsoever. Israel needs to be accountable as any other nation state. Medhi Hasan remarks pointedly in the New Statesman that treating Israel differently for similarly terrible conduct smacks of duplicity and hypocrisy.
I have attempted to sidestep around asserting any particular position of my own. I hope the points I am trying to make here demonstrate the need to avoid polemical argument when constructive observation can help so much more. Yet while pragmatic and humanitarian reasoning can help, I am aware that bias is likely detectible. I strongly object, like many others, to most of Israel’s actions in the recent conflict. But I understand the need to recall historical background and the history of the conflict. I find it much more meaningful to recognise the failure of the international community, particularly the US government, to cease its complicity in Israel’s policies and approach. With ample pressure from outside, the nation should come to realise the error of its actions, both in the advancement of its own interests (if it granted the Palestinians some of their demands, violence would slow down and Hamas’ militant side would hopefully wane, or would at least be made far less legitimate), but also in safeguarding basic human rights. The U.N. has stepped in to suggest possible war crimes perpetrated by Israel. This will merely open up further argument. Israel’s allies are the countries that need to exert their influence. However, the chances of that happening are distressingly bleak.
There is so much that will go unmentioned in a treatment such as mine here. I have yet to touch on Hamas’ relationship with the Palestinian Authority and Fatah, for example. Yet if we can better grasp the complexity of the situation, how each organisation and actor responds to certain pressures and events, then we can better discover where progress might be made and where it never will.
Pessimism is nowadays rife over Israel and Palestine. Many say that the two-state solution is dead in the water. Indeed, the most important immediate goal should very reasonably be the cessation of conflict, thus ending the killing of both innocents and soldiers, and allowing humanitarian aid to be brought to those who are suffering. But the obstacles standing in the way of this are as diverse as they are infuriating. The ‘peace-process’ has lost all sense of direction. That is the greatest tragedy of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: how effectively ‘peace’ has been smothered under all the noise and smoke.
Photos/RvDarlo; Israeli Defence Force