The way Israel has been responding to the attack on the Israeli military post near Kerem Abu Salem/Shalom is raising a lot of questions about the Israeli strategy in dealing with the Palestinian situation, especially, but not only, after Hamas’ victory in the January parliamentary elections.
In the period between that election and this most recent escalation, Israel seemed to have been in a holding position to test the possible changes within Hamas and the political and military behavior of the movement.
But Israel didn’t make any dramatic changes in its policy vis-a-vis the Palestinian side. This was partly because Israel was enjoying the benefit of a Palestinian government that on the one hand was adhering strictly to a ceasefire and at the same time sparing Israel the embarrassment of having to deal politically with the Palestinian Authority.
In this way, Hamas is similar to Israel. Both incline toward unilateral policies and practices over a bilateral process based on international legality that calls for a complete end to the occupation, something Israel cannot live with, in return for final peace and mutual recognition–something Hamas cannot live with.
The recent Israeli escalation however, whether intentionally or not, has dragged Hamas back into a confrontation with Israel. The escalation of Israeli attacks in the last few weeks–including assassinations and the killings of civilians–exposed Hamas’ self restraint and its adherence to the ceasefire to growing criticism from certain elements both within and without the movement.
The resumption of the movement’s military activities has now created a new situation. When Israel arrested the ministers and elected legislators of Hamas it seems to have been sending the message that Israel will not allow Hamas to play a political and a military role at the same time.
The capture of the Israeli soldier, furthermore, has created an internal dynamic within Palestinian society that is making it increasingly difficult for Hamas to release the soldier without getting something in return. The families of the prisoners, a sizeable and influential sector in society, have high expectations and are consequently exerting pressure not to release the soldier without a release of Palestinian prisoners.
But it is not just the families of prisoners. Palestinians in general find it difficult to understand that Israel, which holds some 10,000 Palestinians, is unwilling to negotiate a prisoner exchange. Many Palestinians perceive this as part of a racist mentality on behalf of the Israeli government.
In political circles and among analysts, Palestinians are asking themselves if Israel is using this crisis as an excuse to bring to an end the existence of the Palestinian Authority. For Palestinians, the PA is not only important because of the public services it provides, but also because the PA is a significant achievement of the Palestinian people in their struggle and preparation for the establishment of an independent state.
There are reasons to make Palestinians believe that Israel is no longer pursuing the two-state solution. Israel seems to have pictured a future for Gaza that is different from the future of the West Bank, where the wall is dividing up territory. In the last two to three years, furthermore, Israel has tried to push the PA to become solely a provider of services, rather than fulfilling any political role, while Israel maintains overall sovereignty and security responsibilities.
Such a scenario, however, places obstacles not only in front of the Palestinians and their aspiration for independence, but also in front of Israel. Ultimately, Israel is not interested in returning to a direct occupational role. In addition, if that is the plan, it marks in a way a failure of the strategy that was developed by Sharon and which aimed at creating a status quo that is neither occupation nor a two-state solution.
In this complicated situation where the two respective publics and leaderships seem to be at a loss, it is increasingly important for the international community to enter the fray. Leaving the two parties to their own devices will only aggravate the situation on the ground and minimize the number of positive and peaceful options for the future. Palestinians in Gaza have in the last week been living a security and humanitarian nightmare of a kind they have not experienced before. That will not contribute to the peace and security both peoples are interested in.