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.
In 2006, three Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem were elected to the Palestinian parliament on behalf of the Hamas-affiliated Change and Reform party, while a fourth was appointed to the Palestinian cabinet on behalf of that party. Israel responded by revoking their Israeli residency rights.
To most people, this would sound like a no-brainer. Many democracies view serving in a foreign government as grounds for revocation of citizenship because holding a policy-level position in one country’s government is considered to require a level of commitment to that country, which conflicts with one’s loyalty to the other country. Indeed, both America and Israel have such rules for their own citizens in policy-level positions; that’s why, for instance, when Michael Oren became ambassador to the U.S., he had to forfeit his American citizenship, despite the fact that America and Israel are close allies.
But these four Palestinians weren’t just serving in a foreign government; they were doing so on behalf of Hamas – a terrorist organization sworn to Israel’s destruction. This, as the Israeli government correctly argued in court, constituted a massive “breach of trust” toward Israel.
Yet the court, in a 6-3 ruling, decided otherwise. Although the Entry into Israel Law allows the government to revoke anyone’s residency rights “at its discretion,” it said the law shouldn’t be used to revoke their residency for “breach of trust.” Why? Because most East Jerusalem Palestinians were born in Israel and had lived there all their lives, so they deserve greater protection than migrants, who have previously lived elsewhere and whose roots in Israel are therefore shallower.
That East Jerusalem Palestinians merit greater protection than, say, labor migrants, is obviously true. Israel formally annexed East Jerusalem back in 1967 so, logically, most of them should be citizens rather than permanent residents. That they aren’t is due to a unique catch-22: Israel cannot unilaterally grant them citizenship without outraging the international community, which wants them to be citizens of a future Palestinian state.
Most East Jerusalem Palestinians are reluctant to exercise their right to apply for citizenship because doing so is viewed by other Palestinians as treason against the Palestinian cause. The result is an entire class of permanent residents who, as the court rightly said, deserve to be treated more like citizens than permanent residents in many respects.
But in this particular case, the court’s otherwise valid distinction is completely irrelevant. After all, the case wasn’t about ordinary East Jerusalem residents, who, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, could reasonably be assumed by the court to view Israel as their primary home. It was specifically about people who chose to serve in a foreign government on behalf of a terrorist organization, and who thereby declared that their allegiance to this foreign entity supersedes their allegiance to Israel.
If you can forfeit citizenship for serving in a foreign government, you can certainly forfeit permanent residency. After all, Hamas officials surely don’t deserve more rights than Israeli ones. Yet that’s exactly what the court gave them: Hamas officials can now retain dual nationality even though their other nationality is Israel’s bitter enemy, while Israeli officials cannot, even when their other nationality is Israel’s close ally.
Moreover, it’s eminently reasonable to expect people who choose to serve in a foreign government to move to that government’s jurisdiction, unless some unusual obstacle prevents them. In this case, no such obstacle existed, as evidenced by the fact that two of them did relocate to Ramallah after losing their Israeli residency (the other two were arrested by Israel on unrelated grounds).
Even the majority justices appeared to realize how irrelevant their argument actually was. In a truly stunning statement, Justice Uzi Vogelman, who wrote the main opinion, said, “Our interpretative decision didn’t focus on the petitioners’ case specifically, but on an interpretive question of general applicability to residents of East Jerusalem.” Quite how any court can decide a case without focusing on that case specifically is beyond me.
Ostensibly, the case at least has limited application. After all, how many East Jerusalem Palestinians are going to become Hamas legislators of cabinet members? But in reality, the implications are broad, because if even swearing allegiance to a foreign government on behalf of a terrorist organization committed to Israel’s destruction isn’t enough to make a Palestinian lose his Israeli residency and its attendant benefits, what on earth would be? Nothing I can think of. Thus, Hamas supporters in Jerusalem will now be emboldened to step up all kinds of activity on the organization’s behalf, secure in the knowledge that they need not fear expulsion from the country as a consequence.
The court’s judicial activism impedes the government’s ability to set policy in almost every walk of life, as I detailed in Mosaic last year, and several rulings over the past few months rightly outraged many members of Israel’s ruling parties. But last week’s ruling may have been a tipping point: In response, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and her Jewish Home party submitted legislation to curb the court’s excesses. Whether it will pass remains to be seen. But this outrageous ruling in defense of Hamas legislators amply shows why it should.
Originally published in Commentary on September 18, 2017
Review of ‘City on a Hilltop’ By Sara Yael Hirschhorn
Sara Yael Hirschhorn’s City on a Hilltop starts with two eminently reasonable premises. First: If you want to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you must understand Israeli settlers, since they’re one of the players. Second: If you want to understand the settlers, you must move beyond the popular caricature of them as ultra-nationalist, ultra-religious fanatics, since most are neither.
Hirschhorn’s book is an attempt to do exactly that, which is all the more admirable given her own political views: She characterizes any Jewish presence beyond the 1949 armistice lines—including the large Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem, whose tens of thousands of residents she also labels “settlers” (in a footnote)—as an illegitimate colonialist occupation. Yet despite the obvious sincerity of her effort, her inability to rise above her own biases ends up undermining the final product.
Hirschhorn explores the settlement movement by focusing on one particular subset of it: American immigrants from what she terms “the 1967 generation.” This has the obvious advantage of making her subjects more recognizable to non-Israeli readers.
As she notes, these immigrants grew up in the same towns, attended the same colleges, followed the same career paths, marched for the same liberal causes, and even voted for the same party as their peers who remained in America; even today, when Republicans have replaced Democrats as the more pro-Israel party and are far more supportive of the settlements, only one of her interviewees self-identified as Republican. And while popular perception dictates that most settlers, and especially most American settlers, are Orthodox, most of the settlers in Hirschhorn’s focus group were non-Orthodox.
The only major difference between the two groups is that most of the settlers whom Hirschhorn looked at came from “strongly Jewish” backgrounds that were “highly atypical of Jewish-American households at the time.”
The downside of this narrow focus is that it makes American immigrants seem far more important to the settlement movement than they actually are. For instance, over half the book is devoted to in-depth descriptions of how American Jews co-founded three settlements. That may sound impressive, until you realize there are currently more than 120 settlements, the vast majority of which were founded by Israelis with no American help. Indeed, as the book itself makes clear, even those three settlements would probably never have arisen had the Americans not had Israeli partners, since the Israelis were the ones who knew how to work the government bureaucracy.
The same goes for Hirschhorn’s estimate that Americans make up 15 percent of the total settler population (about 60,000 out of 400,000), which she repeatedly cites as proof of their importance. The accuracy of that estimate is open to question; she admits that no “accurate and objective headcount” exists and that she herself is “neither a professional statistician nor a demographer.” But even if she’s right, that still means there are 340,000 non-American settlers. In other words, the settlement movement would be flourishing even if it didn’t include a single American.
Hirschhorn also hypes the role that Americans have played in vigilante terror, despite correctly acknowledging that most American settlers—and most settlers in general—shun such vigilantism. For instance, she spends seven pages on one American involved in the Jewish Underground (1980–87) without ever explicitly saying that the other 26 suspects were Israelis.
But the book’s far more serious problem is that readers emerge from it with no clear understanding of what drives the settlement movement. This isn’t surprising, since Hirschhorn admits in her conclusion that she herself has no such understanding: “After discussions with dozens of Jewish-American immigrants in the occupied territories, I still struggled to understand how they saw themselves and their role within the Israeli settlement enterprise.”
Consequently, she’s produced an entire book about settlers that virtually ignores the twin beliefs at the heart of their enterprise: Israel has a right to be in the territories, whether based on religious and historical ties, international law, or both, and Israel has a need to be there, whether for religious and historical reasons, security ones, or both.
This glaring omission seems to stem largely from her inability to take such beliefs seriously. In one noteworthy example, she writes, “While their religio-historical claims to the Gush Etzion area are highly contentious, many settler activists over the past fifty years have asserted Biblical ties to the region.” But what exactly is contentious about that assertion?
No serious person would deny that many significant events in the Bible took place in what is now called the West Bank, that Jews inhabited this area throughout the Second Temple period (which is precisely why the Romans called it Judea), and that they continued to live in certain parts of it thereafter. Hebron, for instance, had an almost continuous Jewish presence right up until Britain evacuated the Jews in 1936 in response to Arab rioting. One could argue that this doesn’t justify Jews living there today, but if you can’t acknowledge that this area is Judaism’s religious and historical heartland, and that many Jews consequently believe that giving it up would tear the heart out of the Jewish state, you can’t understand a major driver of the settlement movement.
Similarly, Hirschhorn pays scant attention to the security arguments for retaining the West Bank, and none at all to Israel’s strong claim to the area under international law.
Because she ignores these fundamental issues, she winds up focusing on secondary ones, like the immigrants’ enthusiasm for pioneering and their desire to set up model communities. But she never asks why they insisted on doing their pioneering beyond the 1949 armistice lines rather than within them, as other American immigrants of that generation did. (Kibbutz Gezer, for instance, was founded in 1974 by American immigrants who chose the site specifically because they didn’t want to live in what they considered occupied territory.) And few of her interviewees volunteer the kind of clear explanation Bobby Brown of Tekoa offers: Israel’s borders would be “determined by where people lived,” so settlements “protect the land for future generations.”
The result is that while most of her settlers don’t come off as fanatics, they often do come off as simpletons—people who became “colonialist occupiers” for no apparent reason, without ever really thinking about it.
All this is compounded by Hirschhorn’s frequent insertion of unsubstantiated slurs. For instance, she repeatedly accuses the settlements of Efrat and Tekoa of expropriating privately owned Palestinian land, an accusation she backs by citing exactly two cases. In the first one, Palestinian claimants threatened to go to court against Efrat, but Hirschhorn admits she has “not been able to locate” any record of suit actually being filed. In the other, a suit was filed against Tekoa, but it “did not go anywhere”—or to put it less euphemistically, the claimant lost. This isn’t because Israel’s Supreme Court hesitates to find in favor of Palestinian claims of illegal expropriation; it has done so many times. But most such cases involve unauthorized outposts. The vast majority of the legal settlements were careful not to build on private Palestinian land.
Another salient example is the allegation that Baruch Goldstein’s wife knew of his plan to massacre 29 Arabs in Hebron in 1994 and tried to warn the army. Hirschhorn treats this as credible: “Whether the message was received or acted on remains unknown.” Only in a footnote does she admit that the “authenticity” of this claim “remains unknown,” as it rests on a single Israeli newspaper report picked up by the New York Times. And she never mentions that it was rejected by a judicial inquiry commission that exhaustively investigated Goldstein’s crime.
Nevertheless, her book is unintentionally revealing about one neglected aspect of the settlement story: its frequent incompetence. For instance, even when the government supported building new settlements, as it did in all three of her case studies, construction began only after years of bureaucratic delays, which she reports in painstaking detail.
Even more astounding is the way many settlers deliberately sought to keep the settlements’ population low to preserve their own communal lifestyle, evidently not understanding that their permanence would depend on having enough residents to make evacuating them untenable. For instance, when the town of Efrat was being planned, Ha-Kibbutz Ha-Dati, the religious kibbutz movement that had founded three small kibbutzim nearby, wrote to the government that “under no circumstances and in no way do we agree to this proposal, whose actual implementation . . . would change the pastoral character of the entire region.” Today, with a population roughly four times that of those three kibbutzim combined, Efrat has helped to make the Gush Etzion region one of the settlement blocs Israel insists on keeping under any agreement with the Palestinians.
Hirschhorn deserves great credit for recognizing, unlike many of her peers on the left, that demonizing settlers is counterproductive, and for trying to do something about it. But much as I’d like to applaud her wholeheartedly, I’m unconvinced her book will do much to help anyone seeking a true understanding of the settlement movement.
Ostensibly, winner Avi Gabbay and runner-up Amir Peretz couldn’t be more different. Peretz is a veteran hard-left activist, an early leader of the Peace Now movement, who was advocating Palestinian statehood back when most Israelis still considered the idea anathema. Gabbay is a moderate who once supported Benjamin Netanyahu’s center-right Likud party and, more recently, co-founded the centrist Kulanu party. Yet they sounded almost indistinguishable when answering five questions posed by Haaretz (in Hebrew) before Monday’s run-off (an abbreviated English version is here).
Asked about the idea of unilaterally withdrawing from parts of the West Bank, for instance, both men rejected it. “I don’t believe in unilateral withdrawal,” Gabbay said bluntly. Peretz was wordier, but still quite clear. “We won’t continue to settle the territories, but at the same time, we mustn’t forget the lessons of the unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza (and also from other conflict areas around the world),” he said.
What makes this surprising is that several Labor-affiliated former senior-defense-officials-turned-activists have been pushing unilateral withdrawal. Among them are former Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin, the man slated to be Labor’s defense minister had it won the last election, and former Shin Bet security service chief Ami Ayalon, a one-time Labor Knesset member. Thus one might expect the idea to appeal to rank-and-file members.
But Peretz and Gabbay thought otherwise. Israel’s unilateral pullout from Gaza in 2005 resulted in three wars and 16,000 rockets on Israel (compared to zero from the Israeli-controlled West Bank), while its unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 enabled Hezbollah to grow from a terrorist nuisance into a major strategic threat, whose arsenal of 150,000 rockets is larger than that of most national armies. Thus the candidates evidently concluded that even left-of-center Israelis no longer believe the activist “experts” who persist in denying that unilateral withdrawal endangers Israel’s security.
Moreover, both candidates promised to freeze settlement construction, but only outside the major settlement blocs. This is a sharp rejection of the line the Obama Administration spent eight years peddling—that construction anywhere beyond the 1949 armistice lines, even in areas everyone knows will remain Israeli under any agreement, is an obstacle to peace. It turns out even left-of-center Israelis consider it ludicrous for Israel to stop building in the settlement blocs and large Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem. They simply don’t buy the idea that construction in these areas, which will clearly remain Israeli, is a legitimate excuse for the Palestinians’ ongoing refusal to negotiate.
No less noteworthy was one glaring omission. Though both candidates promised immediate final-status negotiations with the Palestinians and deemed a peace deal essential, their only stated reason for this position was to keep Israel from becoming a binational state. Neither so much as mentioned the fear that Israel could face growing international isolation if it didn’t resolve the conflict. That claim has been a staple of left-wing advocacy for years. It was most famously expressed by former Labor chairman (and former prime minister) Ehud Barak who, in 2011, warned that Israel would face a “diplomatic tsunami” if the conflict continued.
This argument has been getting harder and harder to make in recent years, as Israel’s diplomatic reach has steadily expanded. But it would have sounded particularly fatuous coming just days after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s historic visit to Israel, which caused many who had previously parroted Barak’s warning to throw in the towel. Typical headlines from center-left commentators included “Where’s the diplomatic isolation?” and “Modi visit shows Israel can improve foreign ties even without a peace process.” Judging by the fact that neither Peretz nor Gabbay mentioned this argument, they evidently think even Labor Party members will no longer buy it.
As an aside, it’s far from clear that diplomatic ties would continue expanding under a Labor government, because center-left governments typically view the Palestinian issue as their top priority, and therefore devote much less time and energy to expanding ties with the rest of the world. In contrast, since Netanyahu’s government believes a Palestinian deal is currently unobtainable, it has invested enormous effort in expanding Israel’s other diplomatic relationships. And that effort matters. As Kenya’s UN ambassador said last week, it’s only recently that “the lights have gone on” in Israel and it has started engaging. Previously, he spent years asking Israeli officials, “Why are you not engaged? Where is Israel?” But the possibility that Labor might choose to focus on the Palestinians instead doesn’t change the fact that Israel clearly can expand its diplomacy even without a peace process.
Finally, Peretz and Gabbay both rejected the increasingly popular argument among left-wing activists that fully integrating Israeli Arabs requires inviting elected Arab parties into the governing coalition, no matter how extreme those parties are. Inter alia, they include one parliamentarian doing jail time for smuggling cell phones to imprisoned terrorists, another who calls Arab policemen “traitors,” and a third who canceled a meeting with American Jewish leaders because he “cannot in good conscience” enter a building that houses a Zionist organization. Gabbay, typically blunt, said the Arab parties’ Joint List “includes anti-Zionist elements … so we can’t cooperate with this composition.” Peretz concurred: “Incidents that have occurred in the Joint List undoubtedly make it very hard to add them to any future coalition. Effectively, the difficulty is so great as to make this impossible.”
In short, both men upheld the traditional view that integration requires bolstering Arab moderates rather than bolstering radical politicians who support terrorists and/or want to abolish the Jewish state. Evidently, they believed any other position would repel Labor voters.
The bottom line is that, even among mainstream left-of-center voters, many ideas pushed by left-wing journalists and activists remain toxic. It’s a point worth remembering for all those foreigners who get much of their information from these very same sources.
Originally published in Commentary on July 14, 2017
Gaza’s worsening electricity crisis provides a textbook example of why many so-called human-rights organizations no longer deserve to be taken seriously. The crisis stems entirely from an internal dispute between the Palestinians’ two rival governments, and since it can’t be blamed on Israel, most major rights groups have ignored it, preferring to focus instead on such truly pressing issues as—this is not a joke—playing soccer in the settlements. But the exceptions to this rule are even worse: They’re the ones so untroubled by facts that they’ve actually found a way to blame Israel for a problem entirely of the Palestinians’ own making.
A brief recap: Back in April, Gaza ran out of fuel for its only power plant because neither the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority nor Gaza’s Hamas-run government—both of which have plenty of money to spend on fomenting anti-Israel terror—would agree to pay for it. The argument focuses specifically on a tax the PA imposed on the fuel, which Hamas won’t pay but the PA won’t lower. The fuel shortage slashed Gaza’s power supply to about four hours a day.
That same month, the PA announced it would stop paying for 40 percent of the electricity Israel sends Gaza via high-voltage wires, and Hamas naturally refused to take over the payments. Israel continued providing the power anyway for about six weeks, but this week, it finally decided to stop giving Hamas free electricity. That will reduce Gaza’s power supply to three hours a day or less.
The power shortage is creating a worse humanitarian crisis in Gaza than Israel’s partial blockade ever did, yet neither Amnesty nor Human Rights Watch—both of which issued countless statements about the blockade—has published a single press release about the electricity crisis. Astoundingly, however, HRW did find time to issue no fewer than three press statements in May blasting the international soccer association’s refusal to take action against Israel over six soccer teams in the settlements. Apparently, playing soccer in a settlement is a much more serious humanitarian problem than being without power 20 hours a day.
But the Israeli organization Gisha—the Legal Center for Freedom of Movement—adopted an even more dishonest tack in an op-ed published in Haaretz last week (before Israel decided to stop giving Gaza free electricity). Field worker Mohammed Azaizeh provided heart-rending descriptions of the problems Rantisi Children’s Hospital faces due to the power crisis, but was curiously reticent about the cause: He said only that the power plant stopped operating “due to a political conflict,” without ever identifying the parties to the conflict.
He also noted that Gaza’s hospitals are severely short of medicine and medical equipment, but again offered no explanation, not even the lame excuse of an unspecified “political conflict.” Yet in fact, the same political conflict is at fault: In May, the PA stopped paying for Gaza’s medicine, and Hamas refuses to do so itself, so Gaza’s medical stocks are rapidly being depleted.
Only toward the end did Azaizeh finger an actual villain:
Even transferring equipment from Israel that was bought in advance especially for Rantisi is a challenge: Four months have passed since the renovation of the oncology department, with the help of monetary assistance from an American foundation, and they’re still waiting here for essential parts for the air conditioning system. The entry of the parts and equipment into Gaza is being delayed because Israel decided to label them “dual-use” items.
Let’s ignore the fact that this particular lack is irrelevant to Rantisi’s woes, since a hospital Azaizeh described as lacking enough power to keep its lights on certainly doesn’t have enough to run its air conditioners, with or without parts. The key sentence is the clever segue between the paragraph about the lack of medical equipment and the one about the lack of air conditioning: Not only is medical equipment lacking, but “Even transferring equipment from Israel that was bought in advance especially for Rantisi is a challenge.”
Thus without actually saying so, Azaizeh managed to imply that the shortage of medical equipment also stems from Israeli restrictions. And from there, it’s an easy step to concluding that the unspecified “political conflict” behind the power crisis must also involve Israel. In reality, of course, Israel has never interfered with shipments of either fuel or medicine to Gaza, though it has barred dual-use items that aren’t humanitarian necessities.
A human-rights organization that actually cared about Gaza’s humanitarian crisis would name and shame the responsible parties—Fatah and Hamas—in an effort to pressure them to compromise, or at least make clear that the crisis stems from nonpayment and urge international donors to cover the shortfall. Yet Azaizeh’s op-ed makes no effort to address the causes of the crisis; its sole purpose is to smear Israel.
Nor is Gisha a negligible organization. Granted, it’s not a household name in America, but its reports are regularly quoted by the U.S. State Department, the European Union, the UN, and international rights organizations like Amnesty and HRW. Indeed, Europe considers it so valuable that European governments provide over half its funding; the UN and the New Israel Fund also chip in.
None of these self-appointed guardians of human rights are troubled by the fact that Gisha’s main interest is hurting Israel rather than helping Palestinians, since their interest is the same. That’s why HRW cares more about shutting down Israeli soccer teams in the settlements than it does about providing Gaza with reliable power, why Europe lavishes funding on organizations like Gisha, and why even the State Department’s human-rights bureau (not to be confused with the rest of the U.S. government) devoted more space in its annual report to Israeli “rights violations”(most of them either trivial matters or unsubstantiated slurs) than to the ongoing slaughters in places like Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya. That’s also why such organizations are becoming increasingly “isolated” in Israel, as the NIF’s president complained this week.
That so many “human-rights organizations” now devote themselves to propaganda rather than exposing real human-rights violations is a tragedy for the many victims worldwide who have consequently been left voiceless. But as long as it remains the case, there’s absolutely no justification for continuing to endow them with money, attention, and above all, credibility.
Originally published in Commentary on June 14, 2017