Rafi Gassel

The war in Gaza and possible openings for peace (Part 1)

In the week leading up to the war I spent a lot of time with my family, it was sukkot vacation and I spent most of it in a hotel up in northern Israel. I had many conversations with relatives about the state of the country and the economy. There was a big concern that political divides and the protest movement were going to hurt the Israeli economy and ‘brand Israel’, the dollar to shekel was slowly but steadily rising and starting to hurt my business as the cost of goods that I needed were going up and the level of investment into the country was dropping.  

Around this time there was a buzz in the media about the possibility of a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia that would also include a formal US security guarantee to both Israel and Saudi Arabia. My assessment at the time was that either Bibi was going to somehow close this deal with the Saudis and bring a major uptick into the Israeli economy or otherwise his governing coalition would soon collapse due to the deterioration in the economy.

This was especially since Netanyahu had publicly stated that he thought that it was only a matter of time until they had a deal with the Saudis. I also saw similar statements coming from Mohamad Bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. In an interview with Fox News in September he said “Every day we are getting closer to an agreement with Israel” and “We got to see where we go. We hope that will reach a place, that it will ease the life of the Palestinians, and get Israel as a player in the Middle East.” Even the United States was signaling that this could be a realistic possibility.

On one hand I was really hopeful that this would lead to something, but on the other I was very skeptical that the Netanyahu government would really be able to make an offer to the Palestinians that would be seen as good enough to close the normalization agreement. There was an uneasy tension in the air where half the country thought that we were heading off a cliff and the other half were hoping for a magical political deal that didn’t seem to have a chance, yet I really wanted to believe in it.

That all changed one bright sunny morning in October when around 8AM I opened the blinds in my children’s room to let in the sunlight to wake them up to go with me to synagogue to celebrate Simchat Torah and within a moment we heard the first air raid siren in years in Jerusalem indicating that some kind of missile was flying towards us and we had around 90 seconds to get everyone out of bed and into a bomb shelter down stairs. 

A lot has changed since that morning and also a lot has remained the same. We are still living in the midst of a 100 year ethno-national conflict with our Palestinian neighbors. Though, I think that since the first time since the second intifada Israelis have realized that this is not something that we can just brush under the rug and keep focusing and building our economy as if nothing else is going on here. 

For several years many Palestinian friends of mine have been telling me that they thought that Israel only had a short window left to make a real move towards peace with the Palestinians or something awful was going to happen. Most of them were from the West Bank, so what they imagined would happen was some kind of uprising in the West Bank where the Palestinian Authority with its security cooperation with Israel would be overthrown by some kind of mob of a furious public. They would get all the weapons that the PA security forces had at their disposal and then they would go to war with Israel. 

They said this not because they had some kind of secret information, just because they had felt that the street in the West Bank was so furious at Israel and at the PA for cooperating with Israel that it was just a matter of time before the situation exploded. I guess they were right, but it seems like the situation in Gaza exploded first, much to everyone’s surprise.

What I do think is that what seemed like a dream only a few months ago, some kind of deal between Israel, Saudi Arabia, the USA and the Palestinian Authority now to me seems like the most likely scenario. I think that we will likely see a softening of the positions of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority to the point where a deal may become possible. 

The level of violence since the conflict started has become so bad that while some people are comparing this to the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland that eventually led to the Good Friday agreement, I would say that this is even more acute, this is like the Bosnian war which resulted in the death of around 100,000 people, and the displacement of over two million men, women and children. 

Following the Bosnian war was the Dayton agreement in which the USA brokered a peace agreement between The Bosnian and Serbian population groups. The warring parties agreed to peace and to a single sovereign state known as Bosnia and Herzegovina composed of two parts, the largely Serb-populated Republika Srpska and mainly Croat-Bosniak-populated Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Similarly, it may be likely here that an explosive and terrible war in a multi-ethnic region will quickly and dramatically lead to a significant progress in peace, which is somewhat counter intuitive. In much the same way here, this current war between Israel and Hamas may also lead to a very dramatic agreement for peace and stability. Because, the situation is now so bad that we are going to hit some kind of bottom and there will be momentum to make agreements that sides would not have considered only a few months ago. 

Now if you ask Israelis today, even some left wing Israelis, they would tell you that they feel that Israel has not been farther from a deal with the Palestinians in decades, that after October the 7th all potential for a deal is lost. They would likely cite a recent survey by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) where 72% of Palestinians surveyed said that they felt that the decision Hamas made to go to war with Israel was correct. 

Most media in Arabic is pushing the narrative that the attack was only on ‘legitimate’ Israeli military targets and not on unarmed Israeli civilians. Unless Palestinians are fluent in English they have not really been exposed to the real facts of the atrocities of October 7th. On top of that, the Arabic media claims these facts are part of a conspiracy to demonize Palestinians. There obviously a denial of truth going on as part of the preserving of the pro-Palestinian narrative among the Arabic speaking public. 

That however is only part of the story. Obviously, the fact is also that the Palestinian public has been convinced by the policy of the various Netanyahu governments over the last 15 years that serious negotiations with Israel will never happen and the only solution is war. According to Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.

“Palestinians believe that diplomacy and negotiations are not an option available to them, that only violence and armed struggle is the means to end the siege and blockade over Gaza, and in general to end the Israeli occupation.”

The Palestinian public is pro war with Israel. But they do also think Hamas practices purity of arms because of the media propaganda they are exposed to. In to false claims by the Palestinian Authority that Israel really carried out the massacre of October the 7th on its own people Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said “Today, the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah said something utterly preposterous. It denied that it was Hamas that carried out the horrible massacre at the nature festival near Gaza. It actually accused Israel of carrying out that massacre. This is a complete reversal of truth.”

He continued with “My goal is that the day after we destroy Hamas, any future civil administration in Gaza does not deny the massacre, does not educate its children to become terrorists, does not pay for terrorists and does not tell its children that their ultimate goal in life is to see the destruction and dissolution of the State of Israel.”

This is clearly in response to statements from US President Joe Biden when he recently reaffirmed his administration’s stance that “Gaza and the West Bank should be reunited under a single governance structure, ultimately under a revitalized Palestinian Authority, as we all work toward a two-state solution.”

The spokesman for the Prime Minister’s office, Eylon Levy, clarified further.  “An entity that pays financial incentives to terrorists to perpetrate attacks against Israel with the so-called Pay-for-Slay scheme is not consistent with the goal of making sure that Gaza does not export terrorism,” he said. “Our partners, whoever is involved in rebuilding the Gaza Strip after Hamas, must fight terrorism. It cannot be an entity that funds terrorism.”

The Palestinian Authority Martyrs Fund is a fund operated by the Palestinian Authority or the PA that pays monthly cash stipends to the families of Palestinians killed, injured, or imprisoned while carrying out politically motivated violence against Israel. The fund also makes disbursements to innocent bystanders killed during violent events and Palestinians imprisoned in Israeli jails for ordinary crimes. In 2016, the PA paid out about NIS 1.1 billion (US$303 million) in stipends and other benefits to the families of so-called “martyrs”; this amounts to about 8% of the PA annual budget.

Critics of this policy often call the fund “Pay for Slay” and blame the payments for encouraging terrorism. In 2007, the World Bank argued that the fund did “not seem justified from a welfare or fiscal perspective.”

By 2014, mounting criticism of the payments led to the PA transferring management of the Martyrs Fund to the Palestinian Detainees and Ex-Detainees Affairs Commission, of the Palestine Liberation Organization the PLO, which now disburses the government-funding to recipients and their families.

“Pay-for-slay” was tolerated to various extents by both Israel and the United States from the founding of the PA in 1994 until the murder of American citizen and Army veteran Taylor Force in Jaffa on March 8, 2016 by a Palestinian in a terrorist stabbing attack in which 11 other civilians were also injured. Since then, the United States Congress has halted all direct assistance to the PA so long as these payments continue. 

The Taylor Force Act was introduced in 2017 and signed into law in 2018 by then US President Donald Trump. This law has ensured that no US money will go to the PA. Also, starting in that same period and continuing until this day there have been almost no direct contacts between the PA and the Israeli government and no negotiations whatsoever to attempt to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. 

What little aid that the US government does provide to the Palestinians now flows to accredited NGOs and hospitals. The government of Israel also plays a role in the enforcement of this process. It withholds an estimated 500 to 600 million shekels ($130 to 160 million) annually in taxes and other funds that would normally flow to the PA. This is the sum that Israeli estimates is allocated annually by the PA to finance the Martyrs fund. The Israelis are thus fining the PA for this practice.

According to former and current Israeli officials, congressional pressure has ensured that the PA has not added new names to the pay-for-slay registry in recent years. And an uneasy but stable status quo has prevailed, despite several reported attempts by Hady Amr, the State Department’s Special Representative for Palestinian Affairs, to free up more American assistance.

On the 7th of February 2019 events lead to Israel also joining the sanctions on the PA over ‘Pay for Slay’. The murder of Ori Ansbacher also known as the Ein Yael attack was a terror attack during which a Palestinian man named Arafat Irafaiya raped and then murdered Ori Ansbacher, a 19-year-old Israeli woman from Tekoa.

Irafaiya had a terrorist background and had spent time in an Israeli prison before the attack. He and his family are affiliated with Hamas. Irafaiya admitted to raping and murdering Ori, saying that the attack wasn’t planned aside from his purchasing of a kippa so that he could enter Israel undetected, adding “I entered Israel with a knife because I wanted to become a martyr and murder a Jew, I met the girl by chance.”

Militant Palestinian groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, condemned the killing after it was revealed that Ansbacher had been raped before her murder. Irfaiya received no legal representation from Palestinian Prisoners Club or other supporting groups. A senior Fatah official imprisoned in Israel also condemned the murder, expressing condolences to Ansbacher’s family and asserting that there was nothing nationalist about Irfaiya’s actions. He deemed the incident “an embarrassment to the Palestinian people” and stated that any attempt to place Irfaiya among Fatah prisoners would be resisted. Fatah had requested the Palestinian Authority not to provide Irfaiya with a monthly stipend or fund his defense.

In spite of the condemnation of this by the various Palestinian factions, the murder drove the Israeli government to act on the issue of imprisoned Palestinian terrorists receiving monthly stipends from the Palestinian Authority. On February 17, 2019, the Israeli security cabinet decided to enforce earlier legislation intended to deduct from money delivered by Israel to the Palestinian Authority the amount the Palestinian Authority pays to imprisoned terrorists, sparking outrage among Palestinian officials. Two of Irafaiya’s family homes were later demolished by security forces.

The Israelis have, however, offered a proposal related to Taylor Force Act enforcement that they would be willing to accept to resume previous relations with the PA in order to move forward, the creation of a Palestinian social security system. The Israelis have conveyed to Washington and Ramallah, first informally and now formally, that they will not stand in the way of such a system, even if it covers the families of convicted or slain terrorists, so long as all Palestinians below a certain income level obtain equal benefits. Such a program could lift the standard of living for all Palestinians. It could bolster confidence in the PA as well and enable a resumption of potential peace negotiations with Israel. 

Abbas and the PA have rejected the proposal claiming the martyrs payments as being sacred and that as part of Palestinian Authority’s law the 2004’s “Amended Palestinian Prisoners Law No. 19” which was constructed to support anyone who was jailed by Israel for “participating in the struggle against the occupation” and considers such individuals “an integral part of the fabric of the Arab Palestinian society.”

In March of 2023 Congress introduced a further bill called the Taylor Force Martyr Payment Prevention Act of 2023, this act would strengthen the Treasury Department’s existing anti-terrorism financing authorities by giving the US Treasury the additional authority to designate foreign banks as institutions of primary money laundering concern and to forbid them from holding or using correspondent accounts in the United States if: The banks are used to facilitate or promote martyr payments to terrorists; or if  the banks knowingly provide financial services to Hamas.

Speaking with Palestinian friends in confidence, some of them have told me that if Hamas were to be taken out of power in Gaza and be seen to have lost the war, things might change. The PA isn’t really adding new names to the martyrs fund anyways. Israel, the US and Saudi Arabia would gladly make sure that with reforms in this policy that the PA would have much more money to send to all the same families and more and could significantly improve the economic situation in both the West Bank and Gaza. However, as long as Hamas is still in power and seen as an alternative to the PA this will be unlikely to happen.

About the Author
Rafi is a biotechnology professional living in Jerusalem with his wife and three children. Rafi immigrated to Israel from the USA. He now manages a biotechnology business in the field of genetic sequencing located in Jerusalem. Rafi is also a peace activist in the Israel-Palestine space promoting federalism and collective rights.
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