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The Israeli status quo approach is up in flames

The current war with Hamas must serve as a wakeup call to the international community

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

The maxim of the Roman philosopher and politician Cicero that “laws are silent in times of war” can be applied to the war between the Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza right now, where common sense is also silent. Tragically, the outbreak of violence was the predictable result of what can only be described as a criminal negligence in addressing the underlining causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Still, the current round of bloodshed is not going to bring a decisive result for either the Hamas or Israel. Beyond the casualties and destruction that the current round of violence inflicts, it will also lead to the deepening of distrust and animosity between the sides. It is no more than a show of force by two weak leaderships. Each, for their own vested political interest, needed the use of military force in order to demonstrate that they are still relevant. But what are they relevant for? Are the people whose safety and wellbeing they should protect going to be even slightly better off, or will this war have an opposite effect? The script of the war follows a familiar pattern from the past and will most probably end in another truce, the expiration date of which is almost inevitable and looms in the near future.

Times of war bring with them the excessive use of clichés - all clichés have a grain of truth but do nothing to resolve the situation. One of these addresses Israel’s right to defend herself from rocket attacks by the Hamas. Leaders in the West were quick to support Israel and state the obvious about the country’s right to defend herself against rocket attacks from Gaza. Any government has not only the right, but the obligation to defend its citizens. Nevertheless, it is superficial, even harmful, to see the country’s security through the prism of its military might only, with no political solution in mind.

Israel is spoiled by both the United States and the EU in terms of political and military support

Yossi Mekelberg

Needless to say that this cycle of violence is traumatizing for both societies, as any conflict in which both sides are attempting to inflict death and destruction on the other side would be. It is clearly more traumatizing for the Palestinian society, who sustain more casualties and whose infrastructure suffers a hammer blow from the Israeli army. Yet, the international community does not do much to stop the war, and the silence coming from the leadership in the Arab world is deafening. There is a sense that the international community is quite content to see Hamas’ power diminished by Israeli military action, with very little regard to the impact it has on the Palestinian population at large. The gradual and stuttering international calls for a cease fire are sounded only when the death toll of Palestinian civilians is on the rise, but even then it is halfhearted.

Latest cycle of violence

Admittedly, in this latest cycle of violence, as the ones in the past, both sides are violating international law and committing war crimes by targeting civilians. Without the effective performance of the Iron Dome there would have been many Israeli casualties. However, from the outset this is not a symmetric conflict – it is one between an occupying state which combines military and economic might that not many countries possess, and an impoverished political entity with very few allies. I have no sympathy for what Hamas has done to their own people and obviously for their constant barrage of rockets on Israel. Nevertheless, due to the lack of any political process, of which the lion’s share of the responsibility belongs to the Netanyahu government, these rockets symbolize resistance and defiance against the occupation for Palestinians.

Even in these harrowing days when the sirens warn against incoming rockets, ordinary Israelis must reassess their support for a government who has misled them with the delusional belief that the current status-quo works for the country’s interests. To be sure it has been a willing public, who wanted to believe in this fallacy. Nevertheless, this is not a status quo, but a situation in which there is one side that is enjoying all of the privileges not only within their own country, but also in territories it has occupied for nearly five decades. According to this approach, Israel has no reason to make the necessary compromises for peace, as she is in the ascendency. Instead of looking for a reasonable compromise with the Palestinians, Netanyahu and his colleagues in government would like to see Palestinian capitulation.

This Israeli approach derives from a combination of misperception and arrogance. Both create the myth that a peace agreement which addresses all the root causes of the conflict is not urgent. Since the dark days of the suicide bombings of the Second Intifada, Israelis feel safer. They misleadingly attribute this to the security barrier and other lessons learnt by the security establishment. With her immediate neighbors needing to address domestic turmoil, a strategic threat from any of them is also not feasible. In the meantime the Israeli economy and its vibrant society are prospering. Consequently, there is no real incentive by the majority, who supports a two state solution, to either vote for parties which negotiate peace in good faith, or to put pressure on the current government to do so. In addition there is no real pressure from the international community on Israel to alter her behavior; as a matter of fact, Israel is spoiled by both the United States and the EU in terms of political and military support, and very generous trade agreements. Even when Israel defies the will of the entire international community, in terms of negotiating for peace and building settlements, no measures are taken.

Wakeup call

The current war with Hamas must, however, serve as a wakeup call. Despite the siege and naval blockade on Gaza, Hamas and other militant organisations have managed to manufacture and smuggle enough rockets to disrupt life in Israel. Hamas and other organisations in Gaza have also managed to increase capabilities following each round of violence with Israel. Their very raison d’état is defying and resisting Israel. Any level of popular support that militants enjoy is due to the lack of a viable peaceful alternative, or lack of trust in the Fatah movement. The conditions in Gaza are dire even when there is no military campaign; let alone when there is one. According to figures published by the Israeli human rights NGO Gisha, the rate of unemployment stands at 40.8 percent and among young people on 58.2 percent, which results in more than 70 percent of the population in Gaza receiving humanitarian aid. Moreover, both the movement of people and goods are restricted by Israel and Egypt. This is the miserable status quo as it is seen from Gazan side of the border, one which can only lead to further radicalisation of the Palestinians. For them there is no status quo, but only deteriorating living conditions.

This is the third time in five years that the region is going through a very similar disastrous episode with most probably very similar futile and tragic consequences. Is it not time for the Israeli’s false status quo paradigm to be replaced with a proactive, peace oriented one?

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Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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