Why Does Peter Beinart Still Think We Occupy Gaza?

Here’s Peter’s article, and me telling you why he’s wrong, fisking merrily along the way…

Gaza myths and facts: what American Jewish leaders won’t tell you.

Myth: Gaza is free. Fact: it has been under Israeli occupation since 1967 to this very day

Israel Left Gaza

It’s true that in 2005, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon withdrew Israel’s more than 8,000 settlers from Gaza. (At America’s urging, he also dismantled four small settlements in the West Bank). But at no point did Gaza become its own country. Had Gaza become its own country, it would have gained control over its borders. It never did. As the Israeli human rights group Gisha has detailed, even before the election of Hamas, Israel controlled whether Gazans could enter or exit the Strip (In conjunction with Egypt, which controlled the Rafah checkpoint in Gaza’s south). Israel controlled the population registry through which Gazans were issued identification cards. Upon evacuating its settlers and soldiers from Gaza, Israel even created a security perimeter inside the Strip from which Gazans were barred from entry. (Unfortunately for Gazans, this perimeter included some of the Strip’s best farmland). “Pro-Israel” commentators claim Israel had legitimate security reasons for all this. But that concedes the point. A necessary occupation is still an occupation. That’s why it’s silly to analogize Hamas’ rockets—repugnant as they are—to Mexico or Canada attacking the United States. The United States is not occupying Mexico or Canada. Israel — according to the United States government — has been occupying Gaza without interruption since 1967.

So Beinart’s problem is that Gaza never took off, and Israel is to blame. Tell you the truth, Israel isn’t so happy about how Gaza is developing either. But Beinart buried a key point in the parentheses. Israel never did – never could – lay siege to the Strip, as it borders Egypt. And clearly Egypt felt as Israel did, and wanted to manage the human traffic in and out of Gaza. So Israel and an Arab nation shared a policy toward Gaza, which limited Gazans’ self rule. This alone should give us pause: exercising some control over the borders seems to be an entirely acceptable position when evacuating an unstable, violent, hostile region.
Furthermore, I don’t think there is a functional country in existence which does not monitor its border traffic. So when Beinart accuses Israel (and Egypt) of “[controlling] whether Gazans could enter or exit the Strip,” I am not sure what the problem is. The United States practices the same policy on its Canadian border, and the Canadians return the favor. In fact, Gaza controls its ports of entry as well; not everyone who wants to enter Gaza is permitted access.

Whatever Israeli ‘siege’ Beinart is intent on believing in did not begin with Israel’s retreat from Gaza – in fact it may be that it was not Israel that controlled the Rafah border but the EU. In fact, Israel actually made an agreement with the PA allowing Palestinians to move about more freely. It was not until the terrorist organization Hamas took over Gaza that Israel imposed stricter monitoring on the Gaza Strip.

The same can be said of Israel’s security perimeter – Israel did surrender and abandon territory, evacuate thousands of its most loyal and dedicated citizens, and cause a severe rupture in its society. Holding on to a security perimeter upon evacuation seems an eminently sensible, and almost beside the point.

Which brings us to the larger issue. Does Israel get no credit for the great sacrifices it has made toward peace on its Gaza border? True, by agreement of both its neighbors Gaza did not have full freedoms. But it certainly got a lot more than it had, at great cost to Israel. Hey Peter, how about a shout out?

More Beinart:

To grasp the perversity of using Gaza as an explanation for why Israel can’t risk a Palestinian state, it helps to realize that Sharon withdrew Gaza’s settlers in large measure because he didn’t want a Palestinian state. By 2004, when Sharon announced the Gaza withdrawal, the Road Map for Peace that he had signed with Mahmoud Abbas was going nowhere. Into the void came two international proposals for a two state solution. The first was the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, in which every member of the Arab League offered to recognize Israel if it returned to the 1967 lines and found a “just” and “agreed upon” solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees. The second was the 2003 Geneva Initiative, in which former Israeli and Palestinian negotiators publicly agreed upon the details of a two state plan. As the political scientists Jonathan Rynhold and Dov Waxman have detailed, Sharon feared the United States would get behind one or both plans, and pressure Israel to accept a Palestinian state near the 1967 lines. “Only an Israeli initiative,” Sharon argued, “will keep us from being dragged into dangerous initiatives like the Geneva and Saudi initiatives.”

Sharon saw several advantages to withdrawing settlers from Gaza. First, it would save money, since in Gaza Israel was deploying a disproportionately high number of soldiers to protect a relatively small number of settlers. Second, by (supposedly) ridding Israel of its responsibility for millions of Palestinians, the withdrawal would leave Israel and the West Bank with a larger Jewish majority. Third, the withdrawal would prevent the administration of George W. Bush from embracing the Saudi or Geneva plans, and pushing hard—as Bill Clinton had done—for a Palestinian state. Sharon’s chief of staff, Dov Weisglass,put it bluntly: “The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process. And when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda. And all this with authority and permission. All with a presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress.”

It’s no surprise, therefore, that the Gaza withdrawal did not meet minimal Palestinian demands. Not even the most moderate Palestinian leader would have accepted a long-term arrangement in which Israel withdrew its settlers from Gaza while maintaining control of the Strip’s borders and deepening Israeli control of the West Bank. (Even in the 2005, the year Sharon withdrew from Gaza, the overall settler population rose, in part because some Gazan settlers relocated to the West Bank).

In fact, Sharon’s advisors did not expect withdrawing Gaza’s settlers to satisfy the Palestinians. Nor did not they expect it to end Palestinian terrorism. Ehud Olmert, a key figure in the disengagement plan (and someone who himself later embraced Palestinian statehood), acknowledged that “terror will continue” after the removal of Gaza’s settlers. The key word is “continue.” Contrary to the American Jewish narrative, militants in Gaza didn’t start launching rockets at Israel after the settlers left. They began a half-decade earlier, at the start of the second intifada. The Gaza disengagement did not stop this rocket fire. But it did not cause it either.

Sharon’s motives have little relevance to the current situation. Sharon is long dead, his rationale for his about-face of a lifetime policy toward the settlement enterprise has never been fully explained or understood, and in any case the world we live in now is a radically different place than it was in 2005.

True, there was always rocket fire from Gaza. But back in the day when Jews were allowed to live in the Gaza Strip the attacks were far more contained than they are now.

Yes, Peter, the key word may be continue, but continue is a vague term. It can mean a continuation at the same pace and force, it can mean a decrease, or an increase. In fact we have seen only an increase, both in frequency and scope. In fact, a number of MKs derided the Right’s warning that if we withdrew from Gaza we would see rockets in Ashdod and Ashkelon. In fact those MKs were tragically wrong – we saw rockets covering the Greater Tel Aviv area and beyond. Tzuk Eitan is Israel’s second incursion and fourth operation (Gishmei Kayitz, Oferet Yetzuka, Amud Anan, and Tzuk Eitan) due to increased rocket fire from Gaza since the Withdrawal.

True fact: The year after Israel handed over the Gaza Strip, the Palestinians did not bend their efforts toward establishing the rudiments of an independent state. Rather, the year after Israel left the number of rockets doubled, the next year they doubled again.

Take it away Peter…

Hamas Seized Power

I can already hear the objections. Even if withdrawing settlers from Gaza didn’t give the Palestinians a state, it might have made Israelis more willing to support one in the future – if only Hamas had not seized power and turned Gaza into a citadel of terror.

But Hamas didn’t seize power. It won an election. In January 2006, four months after the last settlers left, Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem chose representatives to the Palestinian Authority’s parliament. (The previous year, they had separately elected Abbas to be the Palestinian Authority’s President). Hamas won a plurality of the vote – forty-five percent – but because of the PA’s voting system, and Fatah’s idiotic decision to run more than one candidate in several districts, Hamas garnered 58 percent of the seats in parliament.

To the extent American Jewish leaders acknowledge that Hamas won an election (as opposed to taking power by force), they usually chalk its victory up to Palestinian enthusiasm for the organization’s 1988 charter, which calls for Israel’s destruction (The president of the New York board of rabbis said recently that anyone who voted for Hamas should be considered a combatant, not a civilian). But that’s almost certainly not the reason Hamas won. For starters, Hamas didn’t make Israel’s destruction a major theme of its election campaign. In its 2006 campaign manifesto, the group actually fudged the question by saying only that it wanted an “independent state whose capital is Jerusalem” plus fulfillment of the right of return.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that by 2006 Hamas had embraced the two state solution. Only that Hamas recognized that running against the two state solution was not the best way to win Palestinian votes. The polling bears this out. According to exit polls conducted by the prominent Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki, 75 percent of Palestinian voters—and a remarkable 60 percent of Hamas voters—said they supported a Palestinian unity government dedicated to achieving a two state solution.

I don’t know why Beinart assumes his objectors are ignorant of recent history, but be that as it may. As Beinart points out, the Palestinians of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza (Yesha, or the Occupied Territories) voted for Hamas. That’s right, even the Arabs of the West Bank went with Hamas – relative to most other individual parties Hamas won in a landslide. Only because of the vagaries of the Palestinian political system does Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), a Fatah member, hold the presidency of the Palestinian Authority. So Hamas, an internationally recognized terror organization, is the legitimately elected government of the PA. Why Beinart is comforted by pointing out to his benighted critics that Hamas represents the concerns and values of Gaza is a mystery.

And now Peter will give us the inside scoop why Hamas won the election:

So why did Hamas win? Because, according to Shikaki, only fifteen percent of voters called the peace process their most important issue. A full two-thirds cited either corruption or law and order. It’s vital to remember that 2006 was the first Palestinian election in more than ten years. During the previous decade, Palestinians had grown increasingly frustrated by Fatah’s unaccountable, lawless and incompetent rule. According to exit polls, 85 percent of voters called Fatah corrupt. Hamas, by contrast, because it had never wielded power and because its charitable arm effectively delivered social services, enjoyed a reputation for competence and honesty.

Hamas won, in other words, for the same reason voters all across the world boot out parties that have grown unresponsive and self-interested after years in power. That’s not just Shikaki’s judgment. It’s also Bill Clinton’s. As Clinton explained in 2009, “a lot of Palestinians were upset that they [Fatah] were not delivering the services. They didn’t think it [Fatah] was an entirely honest operation and a lot of people were going to vote for Hamas not because they wanted terrorist tactics…but because they thought they might get better service, better government…They [also] won because Fatah carelessly and foolishly ran both its slates in too many parliamentary seats.

So Beinart is trusting a Palestinian pollster, and a prominent one no less, to tell us that “the occupation” was a virtual non-issue in the Hamas victory (and Bill Clinton’s position may very well have come directly from this poll rather than an independent source). This is a surprising position for a number of reasons. It is insulting to the Palestinians to say that they were unaware of the Hamas charter when they went to the voting booths. To say that voting for a genocidal fundamentalist, violent, homophobic, anti-woman party was the only way the Palestinians could avoid corruption – there were a number of other parties running in the election which Hamas won handily – strains the imagination. If the Palestinians are indeed indifferent to Hamas’ stance on the occupation this is part of the problem, and not an avenue of hope, as Beinart wishes to believe.

A poll done by an international organization tells us that Palestinians they have very clear positions on what they think of Jews – 93% hold anti-Semitic views, more than any other region in the world – and the occupation. Sometimes it seems that Palestinian spokespeople are constitutionally incapable of blaming any and all their problems on anything but the occupation.

But not only does Peter know why Hamas was the party of choice in the West Bank and Gaza, he also knows why Hamas makes Israel and the US skittish. Behold:

This doesn’t change the fact that Hamas’ election confronted Israel and the United States with a serious problem. After its victory, Hamas called for a national unity government with Fatah “for the purpose of ending the occupation and settlements and achieving a complete withdrawal from the lands occupied [by Israel] in 1967, including Jerusalem, so that the region enjoys calm and stability during this phase.” But those final words—“this phase”—made Israelis understandably skeptical that Hamas had changed its long-term goals. The organization still refused to recognize Israel, and given that Israel had refused to talk to the PLO until it formally accepted Israel’s right to exist in 1993, it’s not surprising that Israel demanded Hamas meet the same standard.

I know Beinart knows that it was not the final two words “this phase” that made Israelis skeptical of Hamas. Israel’s skepticism, and probably America’s too, began way before that. I do not know why Beinart even bothers with this.

But none of that matters. Let’s keep our eye on the prize, which is a two state solution, peace in our time:

Still, Israel and the U.S. would have been wiser to follow the counsel of former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy, who called for Sharon to try to forge a long-term truce with Hamas. Israel could also have pushed Hamas to pledge that if Abbas—who remained PA president—negotiated a deal with Israel, Hamas would accept the will of the Palestinian people as expressed in a referendum, something the group’s leaders have subsequently promised to do.

So let me get this straight. Beinart thinks Israel should have forged a truce with Hamas – Hamas! – and could push Hamas to accept a deal Abbas would make with Israel?! First of all, two of the groups Hamas hates most are Fatah and Israel. That Israel would somehow have the leverage to force Hamas to do anything is difficult to believe – Israel can’t even get Hamas to just stop firing rockets at it please? Depending on Hamas’ mood, it could reject a deal between Abbas and Israel to spite Israel, or to spite Abbas, or simply out of a principled belief that it must destroy Israel.

Not only that, there is an implied assumption that a referendum of the Palestinian people would be in favor of a deal. I do not know why Beinart is so sure this would be the case. And Beinart fails to take the possibility of unfavorable outcomes into account. What would he do if a referendum went against a treaty with Israel?

As Beinart has shown how well he remembers, surely he can recall that when Hamas won the election the entire western world was taken by surprise. Peter, back to you…

…But to suggest that Hamas “seized power” – as American Jewish leaders often do – ignores the fact that Hamas’ brutal takeover occurred in response to an attempted Fatah coup backed by the United States and Israel. In the words of David Wurmser, who resigned as Dick Cheney’s Middle East advisor a month after Hamas’ takeover, “what happened wasn’t so much a coup by Hamas but an attempted coup by Fatah that was pre-empted before it could happen.”

How was this coup attempt backed by Israel? The only move Israel made independently was to temporarily withhold funds, a wholly prudent move when you can’t know exactly to whom the funds should be transferred (Hamas was hardly a palatable option…).

The Greenhouses

Israel responded to Hamas’ election victory by further restricting access in and out of Gaza. As it happens, these restrictions played a key role in explaining why Gaza’s greenhouses did not help it become Singapore. American Jewish leaders usually tell the story this way: When the settlers left, Israel handed over their greenhouses to the Palestinians, hoping they would use them to create jobs. Instead, Palestinians tore them down in an anti-Jewish rage.

So Peter, Hamas was elected. As a result of the election of an organization bent on its destructions Israel restricted access. And Gaza didn’t become Singapore. But why is Israel to blame for this? Gaza and Hamas are to blame for that.

But one person who does not endorse that narrative is the prime mover behind the greenhouse deal, Australian-Jewish businessman James Wolfensohn, who served as the Quartet’s Special Envoy for Gaza Disengagement. In his memoir, Wolfensohn notes that “some damage was done to the greenhouses [as the result of post-disengagement looting] but they came through essentially intact” and were subsequently guarded by Palestinian Authority police. What really doomed the greenhouse initiative, Wolfensohn argues, were Israeli restrictions on Gazan exports. “In early December [2005], he writes, “the much-awaited first harvest of quality cash crops—strawberries, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet peppers and flowers—began. These crops were intended for export via Israel for Europe. But their success relied upon the Karni crossing [between Gaza and Israel], which, beginning in mid-January 2006, was closed more than not. The Palestine Economic Development Corporation, which was managing the greenhouses taken over from the settlers, said that it was experiencing losses in excess of $120,000 per day…It was excruciating. This lost harvest was the most recognizable sign of Gaza’s declining fortunes and the biggest personal disappointment during my mandate.”

Assuming this is true – and that is an assumption I will make only for the sake of argument – why is this Israel’s fault? The Karni crossing was closed because of Hamas aggression against Israel. Access was restricted to block Hamas’ access to weaponry, not as an act of revenge. At some point Hamas has to be taken to task for its behavior.

The point of dredging up this history is not to suggest that Israel deserves all the blame for its long and bitter conflict with Hamas. It does not. Hamas bears the blame for every rocket it fires, and those rockets have not only left Israelis scarred and disillusioned. They have also badly undermined the Palestinian cause.

Thank you!

The point is to show—contrary to the establishment American Jewish narrative—that Israel has repeatedly played into Hamas’ hands by not strengthening those Palestinians willing to pursue statehood through nonviolence and mutual recognition. Israel played into Hamas’ hands when Sharon refused to seriously entertain the Arab and Geneva peace plans. Israel played into Hamas’ hands when it refused to support a Palestinian unity government that could have given Abbas the democratic legitimacy that would have strengthened his ability to cut a two state deal. And Israel played into Hamas’ hands when it responded to the group’s takeover of Gaza with a blockade that—although it has some legitimate security features—has destroyed Gaza’s economy, breeding the hatred and despair on which Hamas thrives.

Oy, Peter. And what should Israel have done? Can you enumerate the legitimate security issues? Do you think that if Hamas put down its weapons Israel would not have encouraged, hesitantly, carefully, the growth of Gaza’s economy? Do you think that Palestinian hatred and despair is bred entirely by Israel?

You give a lovely review of some snippets of history. But in what way is the war, as the situation stands, unjust? And what to do right now, as we sit in the wake of a war?

Outside of encouraging the world to engage in BDS in the Territories, I mean.

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