Analysis from Israel

Peace Process

Note: This has been resent to all my subscribers because the original was cut off in the middle

Last weekend’s demonstrations in Gaza produced smaller crowds and fewer casualties than the protests that occurred over the previous two weekends. What’s more, they were overshadowed by the Western airstrikes on Syria. But earlier and more chaotic demonstrations prompted all the usual suspects (Europe, the UN, and “human rights” organizations) to accuse Israel of using disproportionate, indiscriminate force, and shooting “unarmed civilian demonstrators,” all while dismissing Israel’s insistence that it only targeted terrorists, mainly Hamas members, who were using the demonstrators for cover. Yet it now turns out that one Palestinian organization agrees with Israel–Hamas itself.

In a column published in Haaretz last week, Gaza native Muhammad Shehada defended the demonstrations as a necessary response to Israel’s partial blockade, on which he blamed all of Gaza’s woes. His younger brother, he said, has participated in them almost daily. He himself is currently studying in Sweden but formerly worked for an anti-Israel “human rights” organization in Gaza. In short, he’s hardly an Israeli shill. Nevertheless, he noted that even Hamas believes Israel’s fire has been far from indiscriminate:

Despite the seemingly arbitrary live-fire and tear gas raining down on the protestors … Hamas believes the victims are carefully selected. “Israel knows who to wound, maim or kill,” a Hamas leader told me by phone. At least 10 young men, affiliated with Hamas and its Qassam brigades, have been shot while maintaining order at the protest.

Hamas believes Israel is deploying facial recognition technologies besides the numerous war-drones that obliterate the sky above. The movement warned its members to keep their faces covered, and leave their phones at home.

This is what Israel has said all along. A report published last week by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (an organization founded by former Israeli intelligence officials that maintain close ties with the intelligence agencies) concluded that 80 percent of the people killed during the Gaza demonstrations–26 out of 32–were members of terrorist organizations. This conclusion wasn’t based on any secret intelligence; in each case, a terrorist organization publicly claimed the deceased as a member and buried him in the organization’s flag or published pictures of him in military dress holding a gun. This finding also explains why all but two of the dead were men between the ages of 19 and 45: Unlike the terrorists, actual civilians have largely kept their distance from the border fence.

Of course, Shehada argued that the Hamas men were only present at the demonstrations to ensure that demonstrators didn’t engage in anti-Israel violence or try to cross the border into Israel – the implication being that Israel deliberately tried to provoke Palestinian violence by killing the people working to stop it. And what Shehada merely implied, the demonstrations’ organizers have openly charged: Israel, they say, is intentionally trying to provoke the demonstrators into violence.

To be fair, Hamas does have a record of trying to stop violence in those rare cases where violence doesn’t suit its own agenda. But in this case, it’s hard to argue that efforts to breach the border don’t fit in with its plans, because the organization’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, has repeatedly and explicitly declared that this is precisely what the demonstrations are intended to do.

At the March 30 demonstration, Sinwar asserted that the protest “will not stop until we remove this transient border [between Gaza and Israel] … The protests will continue until the Palestinians return to the lands they were expelled from 70 years ago” – i.e., pre-1967 Israel, the state established 70 years ago. And lest anyone think this was a fluke, he reiterated it at the following week’s demonstration, saying the world should “wait for our great move, when we breach the borders and pray at Al-Aqsa,” Jerusalem’s principal mosque.

Thus, believing that Hamas operatives are at the border to stop it from being breached requires believing that Hamas sent its men there specifically to undermine its own leader’s stated goal. By any ordinary standard of logic, it’s far more likely that they were there to do exactly what Sinwar said he wanted to do: use the demonstrations as cover for vandalizing the border fence and attacking the soldiers guarding it, with the ultimate goal of opening a breach through which thousands of Gazans could pour into Israel.

This is all the more plausible because Hamas used that exact same tactic to breach the Egyptian border 10 years ago. On January 22, 2008, a group of unarmed Hamas demonstrators–mostly women–rushed the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt and managed to break through. That night, Hamas operatives planted explosives along the border wall in several places, creating huge gaps in it. The next day, anywhere from 200,000 to 750,000 Gazans (estimates vary) poured through those breaches into Egypt.

Needless to say, this conclusion is also supported by the testimony of Israeli soldiers, who have reported numerous incidents of “demonstrators” trying to vandalize the fence or throw Molotov cocktails and improvised explosive devices at soldiers. The latest Palestinian tactic is flying kites with Molotov cocktails attached over the border; those “innocent” kites have so far started four fires in Israel. These are the terrorists, not “innocent civilians,” whom Israeli soldiers have targeted.

Israel and Hamas are in almost perfect agreement over what has been happening over the last few weeks. Both agree that the goal of the demonstrations is to breach the border with Israel, and both agree that Israeli gunfire during these demonstrations has been aimed almost exclusively at operatives for Hamas and other terrorist organizations.

The only people who don’t agree with this description are European, UN, and NGO officials sitting in their comfortable offices in Brussels and New York. At best, they’re guilty of monstrous arrogance in believing that they know what’s happening on another continent better than the parties actually on the ground. And at worst, they simply don’t care what really happened–because in those circles, the politically correct anti-Israel narrative almost always trumps the facts.

Originally published in Commentary on April 16, 2018

UNRWA, the United Nations agency tasked with caring for Palestinian refugees and their descendants in perpetuity, is facing what it terms its worst financial crisis ever. “Crisis” is an exaggeration, but the agency undoubtedly has less money than it wants. Given Gaza’s multiple woes (which UNRWA’s aid ostensibly alleviates) and Israeli fears that these woes could spark another Hamas-Israel war, this may sound like bad news. In fact, it’s good news for anyone who cares about either Palestinians or Israelis.

Obviously, no one wants a humanitarian crisis, but UNRWA’s budget shortfall won’t cause one. True, the agency is nearly $350 million short of its $1.2 billion budget, despite obtaining $100 million in new pledges at an emergency conference in mid-March, mainly because the Trump administration cut America’s contribution to just $60 million this year, down from $364 million last year.

Yet even if additional emergency appeals later this year fail to raise another dime (which is unlikely), UNRWA would still have some $850 million to help around 5 million Palestinians. By comparison, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has $7.7 billion to help around 60 million non-Palestinian refugees and displaced people worldwide. In other words, UNRWA can still spend a third more per capita than UNHCR spends—$170 versus $128. So if UNHCR’s budget can provide for its refugees’ basic needs, UNRWA’s far more generous one can surely do the same.

Nevertheless, it will face some financial constraints, and such constraints often spur reform. That’s good news because UNRWA’s current modus operandi harms both Israelis and Palestinians.

Two reforms are particularly essential. First, UNRWA should stop financing Jordan’s outrageous apartheid system, under which 2 million Palestinians registered with the agency receive no services from the Jordanian government, even though most (as UNRWA itself admits) are Jordanian citizens. Instead of using Jordan’s health and education systems, they attend special UNRWA schools and health clinics; many even live in 10 designated refugee camps.

Clearly, people with citizenship in another country shouldn’t be considered refugees at all. Under UNHCR’s definition, which applies to everyone except Palestinians, anyone who obtains citizenship in another country automatically loses his or her refugee status.

But the situation is also unfair to the Palestinians themselves because they are denied the possibility of integrating into the country where they hold citizenship. Nobody can integrate if forced to live in special camps, and attend special schools and clinics, instead of being treated like all other Jordanians. Therefore, beginning a gradual handover of these services to Jordan would save UNRWA money while also helping 2 million people.

Second, UNRWA should stop financing the outrageous apartheid in the West Bank and Gaza—not the nonexistent “Israeli apartheid,” but the very real one imposed on Palestinian refugees by the Palestinian Authority.

After all, the P.A. styles itself the State of Palestine, and has been recognized as such by the U.N. General Assembly and 135 member states. That recognition has enabled it to join U.N. agencies like UNESCO and non-U.N. agencies like the International Criminal Court.

But if you thought a Palestinian state would alleviate the suffering of Palestinian refugees, think again. Like Jordan, the P.A. refuses to provide services to either the 800,000 registered refugees in the West Bank or the 1.3 million in Gaza. In other words, based on the P.A.’s self-reported population of 4.9 million, it’s refusing to provide services to a whopping 43 percent of the residents of its putative state.

These 2.1 million “refugees” live in 27 designated camps. They attend special UNRWA schools and health clinics, instead of the regular Palestinian ones. And senior P.A. officials have said explicitly that they are not and never will be entitled to citizenship in the Palestinian state.

Given that most of the world recognizes the existence of a State of Palestine, it’s ridiculous that 2.1 million Palestinians living in it should still be considered refugees. But it’s also unfair to the “refugees” themselves, who are denied the right to integrate into what’s ostensibly their own country.

And indeed, they abhor this situation. “The P.A. refuses to invest here because they claim it is the responsibility of UNRWA and the U.N.,” one refugee camp resident told the Times of Israel in 2014. “So we get screwed. We have been abandoned. The P.A. supports the residents of the cities and villages. But it ignores us.”

Thus, by beginning a gradual handover of services to the P.A., UNRWA could save money while also helping 2.1 million Palestinians.

The status quo is also bad for Israel—and not just because of the anti-Israel incitement taught in UNRWA schools and Palestinians’ use of UNRWA facilities as weapons depots. By denying Palestinians the ability to assimilate into Jordan and the P.A., UNRWA effectively tells them that “returning” to Israel is their only hope of escaping refugee status. Nurturing such fantasies of mass relocation merely perpetuates the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; peace is obviously impossible if Palestinians condition it on turning Israel into a Palestinian-majority state.

Yet the status quo is even worse for millions of Palestinian “refugees,” who are forced into dead-end lives with no hope of ever integrating into the places they should be able to call home.

Admittedly, there’s no guarantee that UNRWA will implement constructive reforms; it might instead slash essential services to blackmail the world into coughing up more money. But even in this worst-case scenario, at least America will no longer be propping up UNRWA’s shameful apartheid system and its perpetuation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. If European or Arab countries want this abomination to continue, let their taxpayers fund it.

There’s also a risk that even constructive reforms could produce enough short-term pain to provoke violence. But Israelis understand that sometimes, you have to do what’s right, even if it comes with a price. That’s why, in a poll published just last week, 69 percent of Jewish Israelis said the U.S. Embassy should move to Jerusalem in May as planned, despite the fact that most believed the move would spark violence.

UNRWA reform is no less critical. And after 70 years of stasis, it’s clear nothing short of a financial crisis has any chance of bringing it about.

This article was originally syndicated by JNS.org (www.jns.org) on March 28, 2018. © 2018 JNS.org

After issuing a rare rebuke of Iran’s repeated calls for Israel’s destruction on Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov added that Moscow also opposes “attempts to view any regional problem through the prism of fighting Iran.” Unfortunately for him, that’s precisely the way most of the Middle East does view many regional problems, as revealed by a stunning informal poll which an Al Jazeera talk show host conducted among his tens of thousands of Arabic-language Twitter followers on February 10. Asked which side they supported in a recent Israeli-Iranian clash in Syria, fully 56 percent–12,800 people–said they backed Israel.

Needless to say, this is not because the respondents love Israel. But it’s a stunning measure of just how much they hate Iran and its Syrian protégé, the Assad regime. As one Syrian wrote, “no Syrian in his right mind” would support Israel in most situations, “but you will find millions of Syrians queuing up with the blue devils”–his charming term for Israel–“against the fascist sectarian regime that has surpassed all the monsters on earth in killing Syrians.”

What makes the results even more noteworthy is that the poll was conducted by the host of a show on Al Jazeera, a Qatari-owned station that still views Israel as public enemy number one. Unlike Saudi Arabia, whose government openly loathes Iran and whose media outlets routinely echo this view, Qatar maintains close relations with Iran. Indeed, these close relations are one of the main reasons why Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states severed ties with Qatar last year. In other words, this wasn’t a case of respondents telling a pollster what they thought he wanted to hear; Al Jazeera’s coverage would have encouraged them to label Israel a greater evil than Iran. Yet a decisive majority nevertheless backed Jerusalem against Tehran.

That most Arab governments now consider Iran a greater enemy than Israel isn’t news; their behind-the-scenes cooperation with Israel against Tehran has become an open secret. Indeed, if you read Reuters’ interview from the Munich Security Conference on Sunday with the names blacked out, you could easily think the interviewee was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rather than Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. The four steps Al-Jubeir deemed crucial–reining in Iran’s ballistic missile program, reining in its support for terror, canceling the sunset provision in its 2015 nuclear deal, and altering the deal to allow inspections of undeclared and military sites–are the same steps Netanyahu advocates at every opportunity.

But since Arab governments are far from democratic, anyone unwilling to abandon his faith that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the root of all Mideast evils had an out. Arab regimes might view Iran as the number-one problem, they argued, but for ordinary Arabs, the Palestinian issue still has pride of place.

What Al Jazeera’s informal poll shows is that this argument is simply false. It’s not just in Arab capitals that Iran is now more widely loathed and feared than Israel, but also on the Arab street, to the point that Arabs are even willing to openly back Israel in a clash with Iran. If Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians were still their top concern, they would instead be rooting for Iran against Israel–just as most of the Arab world did back in 2006 when Israel fought a month-long war with Iran’s wholly-owned Lebanese subsidiary, Hezbollah.

This sea change in Arab attitudes has serious foreign policy implications for anyone who calls himself a realist. As John Podhoretz correctly argued in COMMENTARY’s March issue, the realist view that Israel was the source of most Mideast problems could always more properly have been termed “fantasist”; most of the Arab world’s ills have nothing to do with Israel. But realists did have one unassailable fact on their side: When you stack Israel up against the Arab world, the latter has both the numbers and the oil. Consequently, it was at least tenable to argue–as long as you ignore all the other considerations Podhoretz cites–that America’s interests were better served by siding with the Arabs against Israel.

Today, the Arab world still has the numbers and the oil, but it’s siding with Israel against Iran. So for any realist who holds that America should align itself with Arab concerns because numbers and oil are crucial considerations, the top priority now shouldn’t be another fruitless Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but reining in Iran’s malignant behavior.  To its credit, that is something the Trump Administration is trying to do by threatening to scrap the nuclear deal unless the four Israeli-Saudi-American concerns cited above are addressed.

As for all the self-proclaimed realists who remain fixated on Israel despite the change in Arab attitudes that has destroyed their main argument, perhaps it’s time to drop the “realist” label. The more accurate term for people who see Jews as the root of all evil under any and all circumstances is “anti-Semite.”

Originally published in Commentary on February 21, 2018

Mainstream media outlets like to complain about “fake news” emanating from sources other than themselves, but the mainstream media itself has taken fake news to new heights in its recent coverage of Jerusalem. Leading media outlets have asserted, inter alia, that Jews never cared about Jerusalem until a few decades ago, that Jews didn’t live in East Jerusalem before 1967, and that Jordan protected freedom of worship in the city.

Exhibit A is the New York Times’ mind-boggling backgrounder on Jerusalem, which “informs” readers that Jews didn’t really care about the city until “hard-line religious nationalism” came into vogue a few decades ago. To produce this flat-out lie, the reporters omit crucial facts, downplay those they can’t omit and rely heavily on Arabs–who have made a fetish of denying Jewish links to Jerusalem for decades–to tell their readers what Jews think (though, naturally, they also found some Jews to echo these claims). Thus, for instance, they paraphrase historian Issam Nasser as saying, “The early Israeli state was hesitant to focus too much on Jerusalem,” while Prof. Rashid Khalidi asserts that post-1967, “Jerusalem became the center of a cultlike devotion that had not really existed previously.”

To support this idea, the reporters omit almost any fact that might contradict it. Readers are never told, for instance, that Israel’s founding fathers–the ones who ostensibly had little interest in Jerusalem–fought some of the bloodiest battles of the War of Independence in an effort to save the city from its Arab besiegers.They even took the extraordinary step, after repeated failures to open the road to Jerusalem militarily, of building an entirely new road through very difficult terrain to relieve the siege.

Readers also aren’t told that Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, repeatedly stressed Jerusalem’s importance, declaring it “the heart of the State of Israel,” which “Israelis will give their lives” to keep, because for Israel, “there has always been and always will be one capital only.” And they’re certainly never told that the devotion to Jerusalem Khalidi deems of such recent vintage actually dates back 3,000 years, to the First Temple, and that throughout two millennia of exile, Jews prayed facing Jerusalem and begged God to restore them to their holy city.

But on the rare occasions when the reporters can’t omit an inconvenient fact, they shout, like the Wizard of Oz, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” Thus, the Times’ reporters do concede the pesky fact that Israel’s founding fathers–those same people who ostensibly didn’t care about Jerusalem–relocated Israel’s capital to the city the moment it was safe to do so, a few months after the war ended, and even codified this decision in legislation. But the information is hidden in a parenthetical aside: Jerusalem’s “western half became part of the new state of Israel (and its capital, under an Israeli law passed in 1950).”

Unfortunately, this backgrounder was no aberration. Just a few days later, a Times editorial asserted that “East Jerusalem was exclusively Arab in 1967, but Israel has steadily built settlements there, placing some 200,000 of its citizens among the Arab population and complicating any possible peace agreement.” You’d never know from reading this that east Jerusalem was “exclusively Arab” in 1967 only because Jordan had ethnically cleansed every last Jew from the area 19 years earlier. Prior to this ethnic cleansing, Jews had not only lived there almost continuously for 3,000 years but constituted an absolute majority of the city’s residents for the past century. Still, one can understand the paper’s dilemma. It might be difficult to explain to readers why the Times, which normally condemns ethnic cleansing, suddenly condones it when the victims are Jews; much better to simply conceal the fact that it ever happened.

Nor is the Times unique. The Israeli paper most quoted by mainstream media outlets overseas–Haaretz–had a true gem in the fake news department in the form of an op-ed, printed without editorial comment, by Jordan’s Prince Hassan Bin Talal. He blithely asserted that “His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan, like his late father King Hussein, has been relentless in defending the rights of all believers to be able to worship freely in Jerusalem at their respective holy places, as has been the case for centuries.”

Of course, during the 19 years when King Hussein ruled east Jerusalem, not one Jew was even allowed to visit, much less pray at, the Western Wall, not to mention the Temple Mount. The Jordanians razed synagogues in east Jerusalem, vandalized Jewish cemeteries, and used the gravestones as construction material. Religious rights weren’t exactly sacrosanct during the previous 1,300 years of Muslim rule either. Some rulers were more tolerant of Jewish worship than others. But the intolerance reached its pinnacle under Hussein, and would most likely have continued under Abdullah had Israel not liberated the area from Jordan before he took the throne.

Finally, there are all the European leaders whom mainstream media outlets laud as paragons of “fact-based” governance in comparison to Donald Trump. As the Elder of Ziyon blog pointed out, leaders who have repeatedly voted for resolutions declaring east Jerusalem “occupied Palestinian territory” suddenly lined up at last Friday’s Security Council meeting on Jerusalem to declare that actually, the city is a corpus separatum, and therefore even western Jerusalem isn’t Israeli.

Clearly, these two positions are mutually contradictory: If the city is legally an international corpus separatum, as per the 1947 Partition Resolution, then it can’t be occupied Palestinian territory. Yet many European leaders evidently have no problem advancing both contradictory positions simultaneously, depending on which is more useful at any given moment for denying Jewish rights to Jerusalem and privileging Palestinian claims.

All of the above examples reflect a belief that any lie is permissible in the service of the sacred goal of denying Israeli rights in Jerusalem. But Jerusalem isn’t unique in this regard; mainstream media outlets have also deemed the truth dispensable in the service of other ideological goals. And then they have the gall to wonder why so many people, confronted with such obvious lies from the people they trusted to tell them the truth, now put more faith in “alternative facts” than they do in mainstream media and politicians.

Originally published in Commentary on December 13, 2017

Observing developments since Hamas and Fatah signed their latest reconciliation deal in October is an object lesson in just how much of the Palestinians’ misery is self-inflicted–or to be more precise, inflicted by their two rival governments.

The first thing that happened after implementation of the deal in early November was that prices of merchandise imported to Gaza plummeted by up to 25 percent. Having your money go 25 percent further is an obvious boon to anyone, but especially for impoverished Gazans. Prices fell because, for the first time in a decade, Gazans weren’t paying taxes to two different governments–the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza–but only to one. As part of the reconciliation deal, Hamas handed control of Gaza’s borders to the PA and dismantled the tax collection checkpoints it had set up at the border crossings.

This long-overdue relief didn’t last long. Earlier this month, I pointed out that, since Hamas would remain the dominant military power in Gaza even after the deal was implemented, it wasn’t clear how anyone could stop it from extorting taxes again once it had gotten what it wanted from the deal. I overestimated Hamas’s patience. Though the PA has yet to fulfill most of its promises to Hamas, the latter has already resumed collecting taxes.

True, the checkpoints are gone, but Hamas found another method to seek the rents on which it survives. It simply summoned several hundred businessmen to appear in its offices and demanded payment of tax on everything they have imported to Gaza since the reconciliation was signed. After all, Hamas needs that money; it has rockets and tunnels to build. So who cares that Gazans will once again be paying inflated prices they can ill afford?

The reconciliation was also supposed to bring another benefit: the reopening of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, which has been closed almost continuously for the last four years. Since Israel allows only limited traffic from Gaza through its territory, Rafah’s closure has meant that leaving Gaza is virtually impossible for most Palestinians.

Israel and Egypt have restricted traffic from Gaza for the same reason: Hamas’s incessant efforts to undermine both countries’ security. In Egypt’s case, Hamas has cooperated enthusiastically with Islamic State’s affiliate in Sinai, providing money, weapons, training, medical care and refuge in Gaza for terrorists fleeing Egyptian security forces. An open border would simply have made it easier for Hamas to supply all these services, as Israel can attest. Israel allows thousands of Palestinians to enter its territory from Gaza every month for business, medical care or transit to another country, and Hamas has exploited that traffic to smuggle everything from cash to explosives.

Once Hamas handed control of Rafah over to the PA in early November, as mandated by the reconciliation deal, Rafah was supposed to reopen. And in fact, it did open for three days two weeks ago, and was supposed to open for another three days this past weekend. But after Islamic State’s horrific attack on a Sinai mosque last Friday, Egypt abruptly announced that Rafah would once again be shut for “security reasons.” As the daily Israel Hayom explained, citing a senior PA official, “Egypt’s security forces suspect that some of the terrorists involved in the attack, as well as other wanted individuals, fled Sinai and entered Gaza via underground smuggling tunnels belonging to Hamas, with the knowledge of senior Hamas officials.” Given Hamas’s track record, that would hardly be surprising.

Incidentally, this track record conclusively disproves the widespread fallacy that Hamas is primarily concerned with the Palestinian cause rather than the cause of global jihad. An organization concerned with Palestinian well-being would strive to preserve good relations with Egypt in order to ensure that Gaza’s main gateway to the outside world remained open. Only an organization that prioritized global jihad way above Palestinian wellbeing would offer extensive aid to Islamic State, even at the price of having Rafah almost permanently closed.

Finally, there’s the minor detail of Gaza’s electricity crisis–a topic I’ve covered extensively in the past. Gaza has been down to four to six hours of power per day for months now, ever since the PA stopped paying for Gaza’s electricity last spring on the not unreasonable grounds that since Hamas was ruling the territory de facto, it should also cover the territory’s expenses. The reconciliation deal requires the PA to resume paying for Gaza’s power. But the PA and Hamas are embroiled in a dispute over which of two steps called for by the deal comes first: the PA’s resumption of the payments, or Hamas’s handover of control of civilian affairs in Gaza. Meanwhile, Gaza remains without power.

Granted, one benefit of the reconciliation does seem to have survived the first month: Gazans with permits to enter Israel are thrilled that, since Hamas dismantled its checkpoint at the border, they’re no longer subjected to lengthy Hamas interrogations every time they leave and every time they return. But we’ll see how long that lasts. After all, Hamas knows who the permit holders are, so there’s nothing to stop it from simply summoning them to its offices for interrogation, just as it summoned the businessmen to pay taxes.

Meanwhile, much of the world will doubtless continue to blame Israel for Gaza’s woes. That will make many self-described humanitarians feel good about themselves, but it will do absolutely nothing to ease Gaza’s misery.

Originally published in Commentary on November 29, 2017

Until a few months ago, Hamas effectively enjoyed control over Gaza’s revenues with no attendant responsibility for the needs of its residents, since the PA largely funded those needs (medicine, electricity, etc.). This arrangement assured Hamas of plenty of money to spend on its military wing, with much of that money coming from the taxes it collected in Gaza. As Avi Issacharoff reported in the Times of Israel in April, everything imported into Gaza is taxed twice, once by the PA and once by Hamas. Nor does Hamas make do with taxing imports; it taxes almost everything. For instance, as Issacharoff reported two years ago, companies in Gaza must pay 500 shekels “to have a Hamas representative participate in a company conference. Hamas charges another few hundred shekels to have the conference registered, and if it is postponed, the postponement is taxed as well.”

This convenient arrangement ended abruptly this past spring, when the PA finally tired of serving as Hamas’s ATM and stopped paying for most of Gaza’s civilian needs. The result, as I wrote last month, was that Hamas for the first time had to spend some of its own money on those needs, causing its military budget to plummet from an estimated $200 million in 2014 to just $50 million this year (not counting the extra money it gets from Iran, which is solely for military spending).

Thus for Israel, the worst of all worlds would be a return to the status quo ante, in which the PA resumed responsibility for Gaza’s civilian needs but Hamas remained free to tax anything that moves and pour the money into its military wing. In contrast, this would clearly be Hamas’s preferred outcome. The main reason it agreed to the reconciliation deal was its desire to shed responsibility for Gaza’s civilian needs so it could resume focusing on its military wing.

Viewed through this prism, implementation of the reconciliation deal got off on the right foot on Wednesday when Hamas formally handed over Gaza’s border crossings to the PA. This isn’t because of the handover itself, which was largely meaningless, but because Hamas also agreed to dismantle the tax collection checkpoints it erected near the crossings with Israel.

The handover technically didn’t affect those crossings at all: Both have been manned by PA personnel for years already because Hamas refuses to deal with Israel directly. That is also why it needed to have special tax collection checkpoints instead of just collecting tax at the border. But those checkpoints were major revenue sources for Hamas, since almost all imports to Gaza passed through them. The crossing with Egypt–the only one that actually changed hands on Wednesday–is for people only. Cross-border smuggling, which used to be a major source of imports, declined drastically after Egypt began cracking down on the smuggling tunnels in 2013. Thus the removal of these checkpoints will severely dent Hamas’s revenue stream.

Of course, it will still have the money it gets from Iran, estimated at $60 million to $70 million this year, and that money will continue going straight to its military wing. But that’s still far below what it was spending on its military in 2014 when it was getting less money from a cash-strapped Tehran but had a steady stream of Gazan tax revenue to play with.

Hamas agreed to dismantle the checkpoints because both PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Egypt refused to accept a return to the status quo ante, demanding instead that the PA be given full control of Gaza. And they backed this demand with heavy financial pressure—the PA by ceasing its funding for Gaza, and Egypt by shuttering its border crossing for months on end.

The question is whether they have a plan for continuing to enforce this demand over the long term. After all, once Hamas is no longer responsible for Gaza’s civilian needs, it will no longer be vulnerable to that kind of financial pressure. And since the reconciliation didn’t require Hamas to disarm, it will continue to be the strongest military power in Gaza even after PA forces return to the borders. Thus, it’s not clear how anyone could stop it from using its guns to resume extorting taxes once it has gotten what it wants out of the deal, which is to stop being responsible for civilian affairs.

This matters because Hamas has shown no signs of losing its desire to fight Israel. Just last month, its new leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, declared, “The discussion is no longer about recognizing Israel but about wiping Israel out.” What has stopped it for the last three years hasn’t been lack of desire, but lack of capacity: Its arsenal of rockets and cross-border attack tunnels was depleted in the last war, in 2014, and another war won’t be practical until that arsenal is rebuilt. Thus, the more money Hamas has to spend on its military build-up, the sooner it will reach the point where it feels it can afford to start another war.

Hence if the PA, Egypt, and the international community want to avoid such a war, they must start thinking now about how to keep Hamas away from Gazan revenues if and when the reconciliation deal is fully implemented. For if Hamas is allowed to resume milking Gaza for cash to pour into its military wing, the next Gaza war will certainly be just a matter of time.

Originally published in Commentary on November 2, 2017

Admittedly, that isn’t obvious at first glance. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, over 3,000 people were killed in Raqqa, including about 1,130 civilians, during the course of a four-month battle. In Gaza, according to UN figures, 2,251 Palestinians, including 1,462 civilians, were killed in the course of just 50 days. And while there’s good reason to think the UN’s civilian casualty count is wildly inflated (the actual ratio of civilian-to-military casualties is probably around 1:1 or even lower), even Israel puts the total death toll at 2,125 people, comprising 936 combatants, 761 civilians, and 428 unidentified. That isn’t nearly as far below Raqqa’s figures as the conflicts’ relative durations might lead one to expect.

But that simplistic conclusion ignores two crucial factors. The first is that a comparison of raw numbers is meaningless; the relevant comparison is casualties as a proportion of the population. And by that measure, Raqqa’s casualty rate exceeded Gaza’s by as much as 100 to one. Here’s the math:

According to a New York Times report published last week, Raqqa had a population of 300,000 when ISIS took it over. But after the organization began imposing a brutal reign of terror in 2014, “tens of thousands” of people fled, so the population was much lower when the battle to oust ISIS began. More people fled once the battle started. Consequently, “By the dwindling days of the group’s rule, only about 25,000 residents remained.” In comparison, Gaza’s population in 2014 was around 1.79 million, according to official Palestinian statistics.

In other words, those 3,000 casualties in Raqqa represented one percent of the city’s pre-ISIS population and a whopping 12 percent of its population as of early September. The casualties in Gaza, by contrast, represented about 0.12 percent of that territory’s population. Thus, as a proportion of the population, casualties in Raqqa were somewhere between 10 and 100 times higher than those in Gaza, and almost certainly much closer to the higher figure. That is an astronomical difference.

Moreover, the real difference is probably even greater, due to the second critical factor: the effect of Raqqa’s more extensive property damage.

In an article last year comparing property damage in the Gaza war to property damage in the battle to oust ISIS from the Iraqi city of Ramadi, I found that roughly six percent of buildings in Gaza were destroyed or badly damaged, compared to about 50 percent in Ramadi (the detailed calculation is here). The damage in Raqqa is still being surveyed but is likely to prove similar to that in Ramadi. As New York Times reporter Ivor Prickett wrote last week, “when I visited eastern Raqqa, it was hard to find a street or building that had not been damaged by the fighting.”

The result, as Prickett noted, is that on top of the 3,000 people known to have been killed in Raqqa, “many others are missing.” And many of the missing probably died and were buried under the rubble. They will be found only months later, if ever, judging by the experience of the Iraqi city of Mosul. There, as the New York Times reported earlier this month, bodies are still being dug up from the rubble more than two months after the city’s liberation from ISIS; it will take many more months to find them all, and some may never be found.

The fact that, as the Times put it, many of the thousands who “may have died in the fighting” in Mosul are “lying uncounted beneath the rubble” means the city’s true death toll may never be known. The same is likely true in Raqqa. But in both cities, the large number of bodies buried under destroyed buildings means the actual death toll is certainly much higher than the initial reports.

In Gaza, however, precisely because the property damage was much less extensive, all the dead were located quickly and a total could be announced almost immediately. Final casualty totals in Gaza are being compared to very partial and preliminary counts in places like Raqqa and Mosul, making the Gaza conflict look bloodier by comparison than it really was.

ISIS and Hamas employ virtually identical tactics, which is why comparing Gaza to Raqqa or Mosul makes sense. Both dig extensive tunnel networks under civilian buildings, wire civilian buildings with explosives, stockpile arms in civilian buildings and fight from the midst of a civilian population. These tactics greatly increase both property damage and civilian casualties, whether in Gaza, Syria, or Iraq.

Yet despite the enemy’s similar tactics, Israel produced vastly lower casualties as a proportion of Gaza’s population and much less property damage as a proportion of Gaza’s property than the Western coalition against ISIS did in Syria and Iraq. In other words, the very Western countries that accused Israel of “disproportionate” and “excessive” harm in Gaza were guilty of far greater harm in Syria and Iraq.

So if they really believe the accusations they hurled at Israel, Western leaders—starting with former U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry—ought to turn themselves in as war criminals. And if they don’t like that option, it’s past time for them to finally admit that what they acknowledge in Syria and Iraq is equally true in Gaza. It’s simply not possible to fight terrorist organizations that employ the tactics used by ISIS and Hamas without harming civilians.

And it’s also time for them to admit what a group of high-ranking Western military experts concluded in a comprehensive report on the Gaza war: faced with these difficulties, Israel’s success in minimizing civilian harm equaled or exceeded that of any other Western country. If more proof were needed, that 100-to-one difference in casualty ratios between Raqqa and Gaza certainly provides it.

Originally published in Commentary on October 27, 2017

Both could easily be dismissed as unrepresentative of Israel’s Arab community. After all, that very same week, Arab Knesset member Haneen Zoabi asserted in a speech in Dallas that Jews have no right to self-determination, because “the Jews are not a nationality.” And Zoabi, who is only slightly more inflammatory than her party colleagues, was elected on a joint ticket that receives the overwhelming majority of Israeli Arab votes.

But as a recent poll of Israeli Arabs proves, the community is changing—and not in Zoabi’s favor.

Perhaps most striking was the fact that a decisive majority of respondents identified primarily as Israeli rather than Palestinian, which is something that wasn’t true even a few years ago. In 2012, for instance, just 32.5 percent of Israeli Arabs defined themselves as “Israeli” rather than Palestinian. But the figure has risen fairly steadily, and this year, asked “which term best describes you,” 54 percent of respondents chose some variant of “Israeli” (the most popular choice was “Israeli Arab,” followed by “Arab citizen of Israel,” “Israeli,” and “Israeli Muslim”). That’s more than double the 24 percent who chose some variant of “Palestinian” (15 percent chose simply “Palestinian.” The others chose “Palestinian in Israel,” “Palestinian citizen in Israel,” or “Israeli Palestinian”).

Moreover, 63 percent deemed Israel a “positive” place to live, compared to 34 percent who said the opposite. 60 percent had a favorable view of Israel, compared to 37 percent whose view was unfavorable. These are smaller majorities than either question would receive among Israeli Jews, but they are still decisive. Even among Muslims, the most ambivalent group, the favorable-to-unfavorable ratio was a statistical tie (49:48). Among Christians, it was 61:33, and among Druze, 94:6.

One of Zoabi’s colleagues, MK Yousef Jabareen, hastened to assure the Jerusalem Post that Israeli Arabs must view Israel more negatively than the poll indicates, because “when I meet with people from my community, I always hear concerns about increasing discrimination and racism,” as well as “socioeconomic status, an absence of jobs and housing.” Nor is he wrong about his community’s concerns: Fully 47 percent of respondents felt that, as Arabs, they are “generally treated unequally.” Many were also worried about economic issues and their community’s high crime rate.

But what Jabareen evidently hasn’t grasped is that having an overall favorable view of one’s country in no way contradicts having a long list of complaints about it. After all, Israeli Jews complain constantly about their country’s shortcomings while still believing that its merits outweigh its demerits. Why shouldn’t Israeli Arabs do the same?

The comparison with Israel’s neighbors has obviously grown starker following the implosion of several Arab countries since 2011, and it’s undoubtedly a major factor in Israeli Arabs’ growing appreciation for Israel. But government efforts to improve their socioeconomic situation have also contributed.

For instance, a joint initiative between the government and the country’s biggest private-sector employers produced a sharp increase in the number of Israeli Arabs working at these companies, which typically offer better pay, benefits and promotion opportunities than smaller firms. At several participating companies, Arabs now comprise 14 percent of payroll—less than their share of the population, but roughly equivalent to their share of the workforce.

The government has also invested more money in Arab schools, which—together with a new emphasis on education within the Arab community—has helped boost students’ performance. The proportion of students taking the matriculation exams is now roughly the same for Arabs and Jews, and while more Jews still pass, the gap has narrowed. Indeed, two Arab high schools now rank first and second in the country for academic achievement.

Finally, in sharp contrast to the nongovernmental organizations that spend their time and energy smearing Israel as racist overseas, others have correctly concluded that inequality can more profitably be fought by investing in Arab education and employment. The Israeli NGO Tsofen, for instance, focuses on boosting tech education and employment. Partly thanks to its efforts, the number of Israeli Arabs employed in high-tech has grown more than tenfold in the past decade, the number studying for STEM degrees at Israeli universities has risen 62 percent, and the Arab city of Nazareth, once devoid of high-tech industry, now boasts 50 local startups alongside branches of leading national and international firms.

Even some Arabs from abroad are starting to grasp this. Just last month, a group of Palestinian-American businessmen in Chicago held its first fundraising dinner for a scholarship fund to help Palestinians and Israeli Arabs attend Israel’s Haifa University. Though the dinner is new, the fund has been active since 2015 and has so far supported more than 60 students. Needless to say, that does far more to help actual human beings than, say, advocating anti-Israel boycotts that result in Palestinians losing their jobs.

Changes of the sort the Israeli Arab community is now undergoing take decades to come to fruition. As one example, see Druze residents of the Golan Heights, where despite a steady increase in recent years, fewer than a quarter have so far opted for Israeli citizenship. But as several Druze told Haaretz last month, the divide is generational: The older generation still feels Syrian; the younger feels Israeli. Consequently, even among the younger generation, many say they don’t want to acquire Israeli citizenship yet, because “it’s disrespectful to the older generation.”

Many years must also pass before change percolates through the Israeli Arab community to the point where the Baklys are more representative than Zoabi. But the trend is clearly moving in that direction. And despite their best efforts, the community’s vocal anti-Israel contingent seems powerless to stop it.

Originally published in Commentary on October 17, 2017

The Jerusalem Post reported last week that, according to Israeli intelligence estimates, Hamas had cut its annual military budget from $200 million in 2014—the year of the last Hamas-Israel war—to just $50 million this year. Granted, the cut is partially offset by renewed donations from Iran, which, flushed with cash thanks to the 2015 nuclear deal, has resumed funding Hamas for the first time in five years. But even with the Iranian contribution, estimated at $60 million to $70 million in 2017, Hamas’s military budget remains around 40 percent lower than it was in 2014. This has substantially reduced the risk of a new war. The less Hamas spends on its military, the longer it will take to rebuild the military capacity it lost in the last war.

Moreover, Hamas is investing these limited funds primarily in defensive tunnels within Gaza rather than cross-border tunnels for attacking Israel. That, too, makes another war less likely. After all, Hamas’s cross-border tunnel attack in July 2014 is what prompted Israel to send ground forces into Gaza that month. Until then, the war had been strictly aerial, with Hamas firing rockets and Israel responding with airstrikes. Thus, if Hamas is no longer building cross-border tunnels, the risk of another ground war is reduced.

Israel attributes Hamas’s shift from offensive to defensive tunnels primarily to its new underground barrier, which makes it harder for Hamas to build cross-border tunnels undetected. But financial constraints also likely play a role: Whereas a cash-flush Hamas might be willing to gamble some money on trying to sneak a tunnel past the barrier, organizations with no money to spare tend to be risk-averse.

None of the above happened because Hamas suddenly decided to beat its swords into plowshares. Rather, it happened because Gaza faced a humanitarian crisis so severe that Hamas felt compelled to take the unprecedented step of spending its own money on Gaza’s civilian needs just to preserve its own political position.

Until now, Hamas has felt free to devote all its money to its military, secure in the knowledge that Gaza’s civilian needs would be financed either by its rival, the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority, or by international donors. But this spring, PA President Mahmoud Abbas decided he’d had enough of serving as Hamas’s ATM, as he put it. So he simply stopped.

Abbas stopped paying for diesel to run Gaza’s only power plant. He stopped paying for the electricity Gaza gets from Israel through high-voltage lines, causing Israel, after several weeks of providing free power, to cut that supply. He stopped paying for medicines for Gaza’s hospitals. And so forth. The result was an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, with Gaza’s power supply dropping to as little as four hours a day and its hospitals completely out of critical medications.

Eventually, the situation became so bad that Hamas felt its own position was in danger. And therefore, it did the previously unthinkable: It began paying for critical civilian needs like diesel for the power plant out of its own pocket. Last month alone, it spent $25 million to buy diesel from Egypt, and will apparently spend as much or more in each of the coming months. And because it’s been forced to pay for some of Gaza’s civilian needs, it can no longer afford to spend as much on its military wing.

There’s a double irony here. The first is that, for once, Abbas really has done something to reduce Palestinian violence. His reputation as a peacemaker was never dented by his serial rejection of peace offers, his vicious anti-Israel incitement or his incentivizing of terror through above-market salaries paid to jailed terrorists. But now, when he’s made another Gaza war less likely by forcing Hamas to divert funds from military to civilian purposes, he has actually suffered (muted) international criticism for causing humanitarian suffering.

The greater irony, however, is that all three Hamas-Israel wars of the past decade might have been averted had the international community not tried so hard to “protect” Gaza’s civilian population. Ten years ago, after Hamas first seized power in Gaza, Israel also tried to exert economic pressure, but they were never severe enough to cause a crisis on the scale of what Gaza has experienced this year. At no point, for instance, did Israel ever threaten Gaza’s power supply.

Consequently, Hamas felt free to invest all its money in the rockets and tunnels that sparked those three wars. And those wars caused greater devastation than anything Gaza has experienced due to Abbas’s funding cuts. Had Israel been allowed ten years ago to do what Abbas did this year, Gaza might ultimately have been better off, because it would have been spared repeated wars.

In short, by trying to “protect” Gaza’s civilians, the international community actually ended up causing them greater harm. Concern for innocent civilians is, of course, laudable. But sometimes, as with Hamas in Gaza, it’s also counterproductive. And that’s a lesson the “international community” badly needs to learn.

 Originally published in Commentary on October 2, 2017

This omission isn’t unprecedented, but it is unusual; most U.S. presidents have included the Israeli-Palestinian issue in their annual UN addresses. And it seems especially surprising for a president who has repeatedly declared Israeli-Palestinian peace to be one of his major foreign policy goals.

Yet the omission is perfectly consistent with Trump’s approach to the peace process to date, which has differed markedly from that of all his predecessors in one crucial regard: He appears to be trying to apply serious pressure to the Palestinians rather than only to Israel.

Take, for instance, his administration’s consistent refusal to say that the goal of the peace process is a two-state solution. Since efforts to achieve a two-state solution have repeatedly failed for almost 25 years now, it makes obvious sense for anyone who’s serious about trying to solve the conflict to at least consider whether this is really the most workable option. But even if, as seems likely, the administration actually does believe in the two-state solution, refusing to publicly commit to it serves an important purpose.

That’s because insisting that the end goal be a Palestinian state is a major concession to the Palestinians—something that has unfortunately been forgotten over the last quarter century. After all, throughout Israel’s first 45 years of existence, there was almost wall-to-wall consensus among Israelis that a Palestinian state would endanger their country. Even the 1993 Oslo Accord included no mention of Palestinian statehood, and the man who signed it, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, asserted in his final address to the Knesset in 1995 that he envisioned a “Palestinian entity . . . which is less than a state.”

Yet to date, this significant concession to the Palestinians has never been accompanied by a corresponding Palestinian concession to Israel. Though the Palestinians insist on a Palestinian nation-state, they still refuse to accept a Jewish nation-state alongside it. Instead, they demand that millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees be allowed to relocate to Israel, turning it into a binational state.

Nor has this major concession to the Palestinians been accompanied by a corresponding international concession to Israel. The European Union, for instance, repeatedly makes very specific demands of Israel, insisting that it accept a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines and Jerusalem as the capital of two states. But the EU has never demanded that the Palestinians accept a Jewish state or give up their idea of relocating millions of Palestinians to Israel. Instead, it merely calls for an unspecified “just, fair, agreed and realistic solution” to the Palestinian refugee problem, which the Palestinians–who view flooding Israel with millions of Palestinians as the only “just” solution–can easily interpret as support for their position.

In short, until Trump came along, the Palestinians won this major concession for free. Now, by refusing to declare a two-state solution as his goal, he has essentially told the Palestinians, for the first time in the history of the peace process, that every concession they previously pocketed is reversible unless and until they actually sign a deal. In other words, for the first time in the history of the peace process, he has told the Palestinians they have something to lose by intransigence. And if they want to reinstate America’s commitment to a Palestinian state, they will have to give something in exchange.

The same goes for Trump’s refusal even to mention the Palestinians in his UN speech. When former Secretary of State John Kerry repeatedly insisted that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the world’s most important foreign policy problem (a message routinely echoed by European diplomats), that gave the Palestinians tremendous leverage. Since they have always been the more intransigent side, the easiest path for any broker to follow is to simply support more and more Palestinian demands without requiring any substantive Palestinian concessions in return and then try to pressure Israel into agreeing. Thus, if world leaders are desperate to resolve the conflict, they will naturally tend to take that easy path in the hope of producing quick “achievements,” which is, in fact, what has happened over the last two decades. The result is that the Palestinians have concluded they can keep getting more simply by continuing to say no.

In his UN speech, Trump sent the opposite message: There are a lot of important foreign policy issues, like North Korea and Iran, and the Palestinian issue is so trivial by comparison that it doesn’t even merit a mention. In other words, though Trump would like to broker a peace deal, it isn’t necessary for America’s own interests. And therefore, it’s only worth investing time and effort in it if Palestinians and Israelis are both actually ready to deal, which means the Palestinians will have to be ready to finally make some concessions.

There are ample grounds for skepticism about whether Trump’s approach will work; based on the accumulated evidence of the last quarter century, I consider it far more likely that the Palestinians simply aren’t interested in signing a deal on any terms. Nevertheless, there is a plausible alternative theory. Perhaps Palestinians keep saying no simply because doing so has proven effective in securing more concessions. And if that’s the case, then reversing this perverse set of incentives by telling them they stand to lose from intransigence rather than gain by it could actually be effective.

Whether he succeeds or fails, Trump deserves credit for trying something new. Given the failure of his predecessors to achieve peace, only State Department bureaucrats could imagine that doing the same thing one more time would somehow produce different results.

Originally published in Commentary on September 25, 2017

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Israel proves exceptional, once again

In January 2017, the Ipsos Mori research company published a shocking poll headlined “Six in ten around the world think their society is ‘broken.’ ” Out of 23 countries surveyed—13 Western democracies and 10 non-Western democracies, most with relatively strong economies—only in six did a majority of respondents disagree with that statement.

Moreover, almost four in 10 respondents agreed another troubling claim: “These days I feel like a stranger in my own country.” Though the proportion topped 50 percent in only two countries, it exceeded a third in all but three.

Pollsters then asked several questions designed to elaborate on those general sentiments—some exploring trust in national institutions and others exploring attitudes toward immigration. Their theory was that low trust in institutions would correlate to high levels of belief that society was broken, while negative attitudes toward immigrants would correlate to high levels of feeling like a stranger in one’s own country. And there was, in fact, some correlation, albeit not perfect. Notably, countries with both high trust in institutions and low concern about immigration had among the fewest respondents saying either that society was broken or that they felt like strangers in their own land.

And then there was the one glaring exception: Israel.

A majority of Israeli respondents voiced little or no confidence in all seven categories of institutions—international institutions, banks, the justice system, big companies, the media, the government and political parties. In five of the seven categories, more than 70 percent did so. Israel was among the top 10 most distrustful countries in all but one category; in most, it was in the top six.

Yet when it came to the summary question of whether society was broken, Israel suddenly plummeted to the bottom of the negativity rankings, with only 32 percent of Israelis agreeing (Japan and India, at 31 percent and 32 percent, respectively, were in a statistical tie with Israel for the bottom slot).

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