Mahmoud Labadi, member of the Palestinian Authority, and Dror Ze'evi, an Israeli professor, weigh in on the crisis in Gaza and its potential solutions. Both commentators are residents of the region and have been engaged with EWI since our Middle East Bridges project of 2003-2005.
From 2003 to 2005, the EastWest Institute ran the Middle East Bridges project. Its aim was to bolster the peace process, and to explore the possibility of developing a free trade zone at the Erez crossing point between Israel and Gaza. After Israel launched its current offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, EWI’s Jon Rami Mroz posed the same set of questions to two participants in that project: Mahmoud Labadi, a member of the Palestinian Authority’s Foreign Relations Commission and a core member of EWI’s International Task Force on Preventive Diplomacy, and Dror Ze’evi, Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Israel.
Below, excerpts of their responses:
What triggered the current crisis in Gaza?
Mahmoud Labadi: The current crisis in Gaza was triggered by the Israeli policy of siege imposed on the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian population was under the mercy of the Israelis for food, electricity, fuel, medicine, flour and so on.
The Hamas government in Gaza accepted a ceasefire agreement that held for 6 months. The Egyptians mediated this agreement and Hamas respected it. However, the ceasefire was violated by the Israelis, who didn’t lift the siege, and also by smaller Palestinian factions operating in the Gaza Strip that are not obedient to Hamas.
After the end of the 6 months ceasefire, Israel was facing parliamentary elections and Hamas was waiting for the end of President Abbas’s mandate on January 9. Both sides were interested in a confrontation to improve their positions at home. Moreover, no body was interested to ask the Egyptians to prolong the truce, or mediate a new ceasefire agreement.
Dror Ze’evi: From its inception this was a dialogue of the deaf. It began with Hamas’s success in the elections and its subsequent declarations that it will never recognize Israel’s right to exist. It continued with Israel’s hasty decision (backed by the U.S., and tacitly by Egypt) to announce a blockade over the Gaza Strip and a ban on all imports and money transfers.
The immediate reasons for this war have to do with the ending of the tahdia (ceasefire) adopted by both sides a few months ago, and with Hamas’s refusal to renew it. As it came to an end, Hamas stepped up its efforts to fire rockets into Israel, despite many warnings.
Were there fundamental miscalculations by both sides in this conflict—and, if so, what were they?
Labadi: Definitely, there were miscalculations on both sides. Hamas overestimated its military power. Hamas’s leaders thought they could copy the example of Hezbollah in South Lebanon in July 2006 and go out as winners out of this conflict. They underestimated the level of collective punishment Israel was willing to inflict for tactical gain. They didn’t expect such Israeli brutality against Palestinian civilians. They thought that some Arab or non-Arab countries would rush for help.
On the Israeli side, Livni and Barak were concerned about the loss of their popularity rate within the Israeli society and the rise of Netanyahu’s popularity rate. They provoked this war thinking that it would be a promenade.
It is true that the human losses on the Israeli side are minor, as compared by the huge and disproportionate losses on the Palestinian side. But the brutality of the Israeli leaders shows clearly that Israel has lost its soul. Israel cannot boast any more that it is the only oasis of democracy in the Middle East.
Ze'evi: The entire conflict between Israel and Hamas is a series of fundamental miscalculations by both sides. Israel should not have declared Hamas a terrorist organization, and should have given its government the benefit of the doubt, despite Hamas’s refusal to recognize Israel. During the ceasefire Israel should have allowed the border crossings to be opened even though once every few days, rockets were fired into its territory.
Instead, Israel chose to retaliate every time by closing the border. Thus, it failed to demonstrate to Hamas that the ceasefire pays off and that calm has its advantages.
Hamas’s main miscalculation was assuming, despite many warnings to the contrary, that the height of the flames could always be controlled, and that Israel would never dare invade the Strip after its debacle in Lebanon, even though Israel’s towns were under daily bombardment. Hamas also assumed that continued bombardment would force Israel to change its policy towards the Gaza Strip, while for Israel’s leadership this had the opposite effect.
How different is this Israeli intervention than the one in Lebanon in 2006?
Labadi: Hezbollah was better equipped and better trained, and their military experience is much more developed than Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
The balance of forces between Hamas and Israel is huge. It is similar to the balance between an ant and an elephant. Israel is a huge military force in the region and is the only nuclear force in the Middle East. Hamas is badly equipped and Gaza, unlike the open ground of South Lebanon, is small, overcrowded, and closed from all sides: Land, sea and air.
So Hamas is an easy enemy for the Israeli army. They are incapable of inflicting heavy losses on the Israeli side as Hezbollah did in 2006. Its primitive rockets of one or two kilograms of explosives are badly guided and lack of precision. Even the Grad missiles are not so precise and barely hit their targets. They cannot be compared to the oneton or 500 kilograms of explosives pouring over the heads of helpless Palestinian civilians.
Ze'evi: It appears that the Israelis have learned their lessons from 2006. Both the cabinet and the army are streamlined and much better prepared. Coordination level is high, and sophisticated methods and weapons have been deployed. The war caught Hamas still at the beginning of its learning curve and its forces did not yet reach the level of Hezbollah as a fighting force.
Another difference is that the Israeli side is more motivated than it was in 2006. The last weeks of constant rocket launching from the Gaza strip, with very little, if any, retaliation by the IDF, have convinced most people that this war is justified.
Given the domestic pressures each party faces, what would be the best and worst case outcome for Israel, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority?
Labadi: A comprehensive ceasfire accompanied by immediate political engagement for a final status agreement to the overall Palestinian-Israeli Conflict is the best case scenario. Immediate and total cessation of armed and unarmed hostilities on both sides, a wider diplomatic flexibility on the part of Israel, and a two-state solution in conformity with President Bush's vision, the Roadmap and the Arab Peace Initiative, based on the withdrawal from the occupied territories will bring about a solution.
Immediate and total cessation of armed and unarmed hostilities on both sides, a wider diplomatic flexibility on the part of Israel, and a two-state solution ... based on the withdrawal from the occupied territories will bring about a solution.
The absence of anything but a comprehensive solution will spell continued disaster and bloodshed for Israelis, Palestinians and the entire region and is the worst-case scenario. There is no middle ground.
Ze'evi: For Hamas the best-case outcome would be a return to the previous status quo, in which it can keep firing rockets, smuggling weapons and threatening the civilian population in Southern Israel. This would be Israel’s worst-case outcome.
Hamas’s worst case outcome would be total loss of control in the Gaza strip and relinquishing control to the PA and Abu Mazen’s forces. This would naturally be Israel’s best-case outcome. In this case there is almost a full congruence between Israel’s interests and those of Fatah and the PA.
What can or should the new Obama Administration do in this situation?
Labadi: What we need in the Middle East is fairness. The coming U.S. Administration should carry on its policies of peace making and peace building. Without real pressure on the Israeli aggressor, no peace can be reached in the Middle East.
The coming U.S. Government should not finance wars and war-mongering states. It should stop pouring destructive weapons in billions of U.S. dollars in to the Middle East.
Moderation should pay and moderate Palestinians should be rewarded by political gestures or tangible steps in order to strengthen their positions within their societies. The camp of moderates should be strengthened by different means.
Unfortunately, the excessive use of force by Israel in the Gaza Strip will only strengthen extremism and radical elements on both sides. Definitely, rogue states or extremist political forces that provoke confrontations are interested in perpetuating the conflict.
Ze'evi: By the time President Obama is sworn in, the current war will have been halted and some sort of ceasefire imposed. The wisest course of action for the administration in its first months in office would be to steer away from these problems and let the situation calm down and stabilize.
In principle, I would recommend a gradual, incremental approach: finding ways to improve the economic situation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, meeting with leaders close to, or sympathetic to Hamas (perhaps as part of a dialogue with Iran and Syria) and encouraging Israel to recognize Hamas’s de-facto control of Gaza. Obama should also try to find ways to encourage the Egyptians to take a more serious role in Gaza’s affairs, and to open the border crossings between a reluctant Egypt and the Strip.
Can anyone else play a credible peacemaker role in terms of dealing with the broader Israeli-Palestinian issues?
Labadi: No one is capable of playing the role of peace broker better than the US, but what is needed is more evenhandedness. The U.S. government should be as tough against the Israeli occupation and expansion as it was against the Apartheid regime of South Africa and the British government in Northern Ireland.
The question is not against Israel’s existence but against Israel’s expansion and occupation. Israel’s existence has been recognized by the Arab Summit conference of Beirut in 2002 when they adopted the Arab Peace Initiative. However, Israel continued to maneuver in order to delay any real settlement which might lead to the Israeli evacuation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip; while at the same time Israel continued to build the expansionist Wall on Palestinian ground, confiscate more Palestinian land and construct more Israeli settlements.
Ze'evi: Since Hamas is basically an Islamist group connected to the Muslim Brotherhood, it appears that those best poised to act as mediators are other Islamist regimes, which at the same time have good relations with the U.S. and maintain some sort of modus vivendi with Israel. These are mainly Saudi Arabia and Qatar. I believe these two countries may indeed make a difference in bridging cultural and ideological gulfs between the parties. These countries are also best poised to encourage dialogue between Fatah and Hamas in order to restore unity to the Palestinian camp.
What are the key non-negotiable issues for both sides, and where could progress be made towards at least a preliminary agreement to end hostilities?
Labadi: All points are negotiable, and if there is a will there is a way! Jerusalem, the Refugees, the water, security, settlements, or settlements blocks and borders are all on the agenda of the final status negotiations. However, the main issue is the withdrawal from the occupied territories and the demolition of the expansionist Israeli Wall inside the Palestinian territories.
- Jerusalem should be the Capital of two States, Moslem and Christian holy sites should be given to Palestinian rule while Jewish sites should be given to Israeli authority.
- The refugees of 1948 and 1967 should be repatriated or compensated. All details should be negotiated and agreed upon. The time frame and quantity of the returnees or the compensated persons and families are important.
- Water issues are important because the Israelis exploit all the waters of the West Bank and sell the Palestinians their own water. So Palestinians should be given authority over their own resources.
- Land swaps were raised as an issue to exchange Palestinian land with Israeli land to enlarge the space and landscape of Gaza, which is 360 square kilometers with a poluation of 1.5 million. Jewish settlement blocks inside the Palestinian territories have to abide by Palestinian jurisdiction if the Jewish settlers decide to stay in the West Bank.
- Security is needed for all sides; and the Palestinians as the weaker side in the equation are in bad need for protection and security. They are the ones who are killed every day, and they are the ones who are subjected to daily oppression. The Israeli superpower possesses a huge military force and enjoys the protection of the U.S. government and the support of the Western European countries.
- Borders: The Palestinians insist on the 1967 borders in conformity with 242 and 338 Security Council resolutions; and any change should be negotiated and agreed upon. Any imposition by force of new borders will but perpetuate the conflict and increase the bloodshed in the region. Land swap should be equal in size and value.
- Prisoners: All Palestinian prisoners should be released. Israel detains the highest number of political prisoners in the World. More than 11 thousand Palestinian prisoners are languishing in Israeli jails; and in case of any peace agreement all those prisoners should be set free.
Ze'evi: For Hamas, the main non-negotiable issue is its own control of the Gaza Strip, and its right to move people and merchandise across the borders.
...the former ceasefire should be restored and adhered to much more stringently by both sides. It should be clear to Hamas that rockets fired into Israel, even one or two, are a violation of the ceasefire.
For Israel, the non-negotiable element is the total security of its citizens.
Progress could be made mainly by finding a way to keep the Egyptian-Gazan border open (while eliminating the smuggling tunnels), and by allowing more trade through the Israeli border. At the same time the former ceasefire should be restored and adhered to much more stringently by both sides. It should be clear to Hamas that rockets fired into Israel, even one or two, are a violation of the ceasefire.
How will the current conflict in Gaza change the dynamics of the region once the dust settles?
Labadi: It is important to use the momentum. Generally speaking, the Middle East conflict, as well as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, cannot be settled by the use of force or the excessive use of force. It can only be settled through dialogue and negotiated agreements. The international community at the UN and the Security Council are now busy by the conflict in Gaza. It could be a unique opportunity to raise the question of Palestine and Israel again and put the whole case on the table. “Hit the iron when it is hot” we say in Arabic. But, in order to do this we need courageous leaders of big caliber.
Ze'evi: To some degree it depends on the point of exit. At this point Israel has sustained very little damage, and Hamas, though seriously compromised, still retains much of its power. If the war is allowed to go on, either Israel would have an even stronger hand, or the tide could turn against it. If it is stopped now, a kind of weary calm would descend on the region. Israelis in Sderot and Ashkelon would be able to breathe again and go about their business, and perhaps life in Gaza will improve for Palestinians. All in all, a period of deceptive calm would return, but the root problems will remain unchanged and therefore there will be no major upheaval to the dynamics of the region. Unless the root problems are tackled by diplomatic and political means, in the long run hostilities will resume.
These interviews were also featured in the Chinese news magazine, Caijing.