In a column for this week’s Politico Magazine called “Israel Provoked this War,” Henry Siegman, president of the U.S./Middle East Project, argues that Israel shoulders most of the responsibility for initiating the current war in Gaza, but he ignores Israelis’ well-grounded concerns about the Hamas-dominated Gaza government.
Israel’s assault on Gaza, as pointed out by analyst Nathan Thrall in the New York Times, was not triggered by Hamas’ rockets directed at Israel but by Israel’s determination to bring down the Palestinian unity government that was formed in early June, even though that government was committed to honoring all of the conditions imposed by the international community for recognition of its legitimacy.
The Thrall piece observes that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to recognize the new Fatah-Hamas unity government. Netanyahu argued that because Hamas is a terrorist organization, any government that includes its members is not an acceptable negotiating partner. To his chagrin, the United States and European Union both announced that they would work with the new government, even though both classify Hamas as a terrorist organization. China, Turkey, and India followed suit.
Optimists hope the unity government will temper the extremism of Hamas members through negotiation with allegedly more moderate Fatah members. Thrall, for instance, notes that the unity government “offered Hamas’s political adversaries a foothold in Gaza.” However, Israelis reasonably fear that such a government could expand Hamas’s influence into the West Bank.
To Thrall’s credit, he adds an important qualification to his general criticism of Israel’s policy:
Still, despite its opposition to the reconciliation agreement, Israel continued to transfer the tax revenues it collects on the Palestinian Authority’s behalf, and to work closely with the new government, especially on security cooperation.
Siegman omits this information, which hardly supports the claim that Israel is hell-bent on destroying the unity government.
Thrall mentions two other factors that make life difficult for the Palestinians in Gaza: Egypt’s refusal to allow people in Gaza to traverse its border, and a pay dispute involving some 40,000 Hamas government employees. Having gone weeks without pay, these workers hoped for better luck under the new regime. That figure indicates public sector workers make up roughly 2 percent of the total population of Gaza. Fistfights broke out when it was clear that they would not receive their wages.
These represent real problems, but they implicate actors other than Israel. Hence, none of the hardships in Thrall’s piece support Siegman’s claim that Israel’s determination to bring down the unified government is to blame for the outbreak of the war.
Siegman goes on to fault Israel for breaking current and past cease-fire agreements.
“The notion that it was Israel, not Hamas, that violated a cease-fire agreement will undoubtedly offend a wide swath of Israel supporters,” Siegman writes. “To point out that it is not the first time Israel has done so will offend them even more deeply.”
After asserting that Israel violated a cease-fire in 2008, he quotes a Haaretz article by Ben Burston called “Can the First Gaza War be stopped before it starts?” Nothing in that article supports the claim that Israel violated the cease-fire. The article never mentions a cease-fire, and the word “truce” occurs only once in the following passage:
In [retired Brigadier General Shmuel] Zakai’s view, Israel’s central error during the tahadiyeh, the six-month period of relative truce that formally ended on Friday, was failing to take advantage of the calm to improve, rather than markedly worsen, the economic plight of the Palestinians of the Strip.
The formal end of the truce referred to the automatic end of the six-month truce on December 19, 2008, not to some military action on the part of Israel that violated a standing, mutually honored commitment. Israel had conducted military operations during that time, but it was also receiving rocket attacks from Gaza. The Boston Globe noted Israel’s considerable restraint in the early days of that truce.
The story of the 2014 cease-fire is somewhat more complicated. Both sides had maintained the cease-fire since the last major flare-up in 2012, until the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers in June. Netanyahu vowed that Hamas would pay for the crime, even though Hamas didn’t take responsibility for the killings. Sixteen missiles were launched from Gaza into Israel before the Israeli air offensive, which later escalated into a ground offensive, began.
J. J. Goldberg of the Jewish Daily Forward interprets the events as follows:
When Israel began rounding up Hamas-West Bank, amid declarations from Bibi that Hamas “will pay,” the Hamas leadership in Gaza went underground and began gearing up for a renewed Gaza war that they feared — incorrectly, I believe — that Israel was planning. Going underground meant abandoning their earnest-but-not-always-competent enforcement of the 2012 cease-fire. The result was a sudden, drastic increase in rocket fire from PRC, Islamic Jihad and the Qaeda-style jihadis to its right. Israel responded with several aerial attacks on rocket crews.
The Palestinian rockets started raining from Gaza before the Israeli air strike began. This was the initial breach of the cease-fire, to which Israel responded. It could be argued that Netanyahu’s threat that “Hamas will pay” constituted a provocation. However, it could also be argued that Palestinian celebrations of the murders of three teenagers constituted a prior provocation.
Siegman faults Netanyahu for his efforts to “undermine [U.S. Secretary of State John] Kerry’s round of peace talks” by refusing to accept the 1967 borders as the starting place for negotiations. He does not explain why this starting point is necessary, nor does he give his readers any indication that the Israelis might have legitimate reasons for finding it unacceptable. Netanyahu sees things differently.
“I could go back to the impossible-to-defend ‘67 lines, and divide Jerusalem, and we would get Hamas 400 meters from my home,” Netanyahu said.
Neither Palestine nor Israel was fully cooperative with the terms of the peace talks. Netanyahu agreed to release 104 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the promise that Palestine would not seek international recognition for statehood outside of the roadmap for peace. For the Israeli right, this was a tough sale. One of these prisoners had murdered an elderly holocaust survivor. Israel released 78 of the prisoners, but the release of the remaining 26 was repeatedly delayed. Palestinians were jaded by Israel’s failure to release of all 104, and outraged by plans for more settlements. Palestine sought international recognition for statehood in violation of the original agreement, and Israel understandably refused to release the remaining prisoners.
Much remains to be criticized in Siegman’s article, but one point is especially worth bearing in mind. Israel has accepted every cease-fire offer that has been put to it, but Hamas continues to refuse until Israel accepts a series of demands the leaders of Hamas know won’t be accepted.
Regardless of who, in Siegman’s view, provoked the war, he should at least acknowledge that Israel has shown greater eagerness to end it.
— Spencer Case is a philosophy graduate student at the University of Colorado and a National Review intern. He is a U.S. Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and an Egypt Fulbright alumnus.