Civil War in Gaza Isn’t in Israel’s Interests


By Daniel Levy

Published August 07, 2008, issue of August 15, 2008.
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When a bomb exploded in the Shaja’iyyah district of Gaza last month, killing four Hamas operatives and a 5-year-old girl, Hamas blamed Fatah, and moved violently against its remaining Gazan enclaves. Fatah forces then pursued retribution against Hamas in the West Bank. Another round of intra-Palestinian conflict and bloodletting ensued, with the leading pro-Fatah family in Gaza, the Hilles clan, fleeing to Israel in the hopes of making it to the West Bank.

Think that Palestinians nearing civil war and the ongoing collapse of a central Palestinian governing entity serves Israel’s security interests? Think again.

Those who are taking comfort in the televised images of Palestinian-on-Palestinian violence or in the “propaganda coup” of Human Rights Watch condemning both the Hamas government in Gaza and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority are dangerously misguided. These events neither exonerate Israel for its own violations of human rights and international law in the territories nor improve Israel’s own strategic environment.

Nearly 50 days ago, a cease-fire took hold in Gaza between Israel and Hamas. Under the terms of the deal, which was mediated by Egypt, both Israel and Hamas would cease attacks against the other side’s territory, Hamas would prevent other Palestinian factions from firing rockets at Sderot and its environs, and Israel would gradually ease the closure that was devastating the economy and daily life of the Gazan population.

The cease-fire is fragile, but largely effective — and the reality on both sides of the line is incomparably better, if far from normal. When Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama visited Sderot on July 23 and held an open-air press conference with the world’s media, he was flanked by an impressive display of rocket fragments. What went uncommented upon was that absent the cease-fire, such a press conference would have been unimaginable.

One byproduct of the ongoing Fatah-Hamas violence is the endangering of that cease-fire. Any Palestinian faction seeking a distraction from its domestic misdeeds and courting its own public opinion is likely to turn, sooner or later, to targeting Israel. Renewed violence would not only return the residents of Sderot to their shelters, but would also undermine any prospect of a prisoner exchange deal for the release of Gilad Shalit.

The events of recent weeks have clearly deepened Palestinian political divisions. Again, one is tempted to conclude that this might be a good thing for Israel — divide and rule, weaken the enemy. Again, one would be wrong. Or rather, let me nuance that: wrong if one considers a two-state solution and permanent, recognized and secure borders between Israel and its neighbors to be a vital Israeli interest.

For supporters of a one-state solution or anyone keen on entrenching a regime of segregation and discrimination in the territories, this might indeed be a reason to celebrate. That is because a two-state solution, at least as things are currently configured in the negotiations, requires a Palestinian national movement that is sufficiently unified and legitimate in the eyes of its own public to be capable of agreeing and implementing a deal. Palestinian geographical and political splintering makes that more, not less, challenging.

Israel providing shelter to Fatah fighters, as it did recently with the Hilles clan, and constantly referring to the P.A. leaders as partners does those Palestinians little credit in the eyes of their own public. A Palestinian leadership that is perceived by its own people to be a security sub-contractor for Israel is unlikely to be in a position to reach a historic deal replete with historic compromises. The last thing we need is another South Lebanese Army. Despite the warm words showered on Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and his security efforts in Jenin, Nablus and elsewhere, the sad reality is that Israeli policy is consistently undermining him.

But perhaps most worrying of all is that as Palestinians lose hope in the peace process, and look despairingly at both the Fatah and Hamas leaderships, there is a danger of extremist Al Qaeda-style alternatives emerging. Such activity may already be taking place today, as politics breaks down into clan structures and groups like the Army of Islam appear. Hamas is not Al Qaeda, but the alternative to it might be.

Most of the possible Arab mediators are reticent about expending political capital on Palestinian reconciliation. Saudi Arabia tried last year by brokering a Hamas-Fatah unity deal in Mecca. That has since collapsed, and the Saudis have withdrawn from the arena. Egypt, and now Jordan, maintain contacts with both Hamas and the P.A. Neither Egypt nor Jordan, however, is rushing to fill the mediation vacuum, as both inevitably accord primacy to domestic political considerations.

Of course, Israel has contributed, and not insignificantly, to the hollowing-out of the Palestinian national movement — by failing to deliver an end to occupation, assassinating leaders, embracing unilateralism and more.

But at the end of the day this is primarily a Palestinian story, and ultimate responsibility for ending the violence and pursuing an internal dialogue is with the Palestinians themselves. In the meantime, though, Israel should be doing three things — if for no other reason, than out of self-interest.

First, take a hands-off approach to Palestinian domestic politics. Don’t veto internal dialogue. The more we break it, the more we own it.

Israel obviously has an interest in pragmatists carrying the day, but the reality is that Israelis and Palestinians are in a conflict. For a Palestinian leader, being Israel’s “favorite” is a decidedly mixed blessing — especially when favoritism translates into unsophisticated declarations (about “our partners”) and indifference to actual Palestinian needs (like lifting the closure or freezing settlements).

Second, create practical working arrangements where possible — with whoever can deliver on their commitments, and with whoever is willing to cut a deal, even indirectly. That means maintaining and solidifying the cease-fire with Gaza and extending it to the West Bank, and closing the understanding with Hamas for Shalit’s release. It also means working with the P.A. government in the West Bank to improve daily conditions in real and meaningful ways.

Finally and crucially, ensure that Israel itself avoids descending into chaos and maintains its own democracy and government by a central authority. Israel is facing its own wild West Bank. Video footage, available for all to see on YouTube, offers a shocking window into unchecked settler violence against Palestinian civilians and property and close-range shootings by the military of unarmed demonstrators and onlookers. Supreme Court rulings are ignored as the separation barrier cuts deeper into the West Bank, while settlements and outposts expand without respite.

Attending to this chronic erosion of the rule of law in Israeli society is long overdue — and it is one challenge Israel can meet unilaterally.

Daniel Levy, director of the New America Foundation and Century Foundation’s Prospects for Peace Initiative, served as an official Israeli negotiator at the Oslo II and Taba peace talks.

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