Paul Pillar

Making Points in Gaza

An oft-cited bit of the long, conflictual history of Israelis and Arabs is that many of the Palestinian Arabs whom Israel pushed out in its war of independence became seemingly permanent refugees, never fully integrated into the Arab states where they wound up. Israelis have always been quick to highlight this as supposed evidence that Arab rulers did not accept the permanence of the Jewish state and/or were exploiting the plight of the Palestinians to justify their authoritarian ways or divert attention from their own failures. There were elements of truth in the past in this Israeli perspective, although Arab regimes as a whole have long since accepted the State of Israel (as underscored by the Arab League peace proposal of nearly a decade ago) and popular Arab animosity toward Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory captured in a later war was never merely a creation of Arab regimes. The story of Palestinian Arab refugees forms a backdrop to an interesting observation in a story by Ethan Bronner in Wednesday's New York Times, about the revival of agriculture in a portion of the Gaza Strip that used to be occupied by an Israeli settlement bloc. Israel extracted its 9,000 settlers when it left Gaza in 2005. According to Bronner,

Many of those settlers remain in transitional housing inside Israel and in West Bank settlements. The failure of the Israeli government to resettle them properly has been yet one more argument offered in Israel against settler withdrawals for a Palestinian state.

There is no moral or legal equivalence between the fate of refugees forced by a conquering army from homes their families had occupied for generations, and the status of settlers installed by a conquering regime that later pulls them out. Nonetheless, it is ironic that the Israeli government appears to be employing the same technique—of using displaced persons to support an argument about an international dispute—that Israelis have long accused Arab regimes of utilizing. We don't know with certainty that this is the conscious policy of the government, but it is a more plausible explanation than that Israel is somehow unable to make a more permanent accommodation for the displaced settlers or that, six years after the withdrawal from Gaza, the Israelis just haven't yet gotten around to doing so.

This is one more in a series of ways in which Israel has used the Gaza Strip, which is too poor and too stuffed with Arabs for Israelis to want to keep it, to make points in an effort to justify keeping that other part of occupied Palestine that Israel has held for 44 years and that the Netanyahu government wants to hold in perpetuity. The worse that life is in Gaza, the better it is for one part of the Israeli argument,: that if Palestinians are allowed to take over, they will just make a hash of things. Then when the bête noire Hamas became the governing authority in the Gaza Strip, several other arguments became available. While still trying to keep life miserable in Gaza, the Israelis emphasized a contrast between that squalor and a better life under the “good” Palestinians in the West Bank. But of course, according to Israel, even the good Palestinians would have to earn statehood, and with Israel defining the standards for doing so, a declaration of meeting the standard could be put off indefinitely.

The duality of a Hamas-ruled Gaza and a Fatah-ruled West Bank provides a foolproof set of arguments for indefinitely delaying Palestinian statehood. As long as there has been Palestinian disunity, the Israelis could say they did not have a negotiating partner who could speak for all Palestinians. When Hamas and Fatah reached a tentative unity agreement, the Netanyahu government did not hesitate to denounce it on grounds that Hamas, despite extensive evidence to the contrary, is determined not to live alongside the State of Israel. No matter what the Palestinians do—no matter whether the unity agreement succeeds or fails—Israel has another excuse for indefinitely putting off Palestinian statehood.

The idea of Palestinians making a hash of things they control continues to be a part of the Israelis' debating strategy. They have tried to make that idea plausible by making it as difficult as possible for Palestinians in Gaza to get out of their misery. The Israeli measures have included the suffocating blockade, greatly aided by Israel's brutal military invasion two and a half years ago, that destroyed the economy of Gaza. Those measures have failed to shake Hamas's control and support, but even that is not at all bad for the Israeli debating strategy. Hamas is probably more useful to the Netanyahu government alive rather than dead, given its rhetorical status as a supposedly incorrigible terrorist group determined to destroy Israel, and thus as a continuing all-purpose excuse not to make peace.

Meanwhile, Israelis can embellish the debating points with rhetoric that obscures who has the guns and who does not, who is strong and who is weak, and who can oppress and who cannot. In doublethink that would make George Orwell proud, Israel is portrayed more as the besieged than as the besieger.

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