By Ira Sharkansky
Letter from Israel 

A century on, we're still at it


Wednesday morning we woke to our neighborhood in the headlines. My inbox included two notes from overseas inquiring about our safety.

“Activists” (“terrorists” is on the other edge of the politically correct; “thieves’ or “vandals” may be correct in this instance) from Isaweea torched the French Hill gas station and looted its store.

The station manager and employees are Arabs, and they will suffer at least a temporary loss of work. Likewise the Palestinians who work in Jewish industries that the worthies of the world boycott on account of injustice. 

The event at the French Hill gas station presumably came in response to the death of another activist who had been involved in a demonstration last week. The police say he fell and struck his head when running away. His uncle claims that he was an innocent bystander and was shot by the police with no justification. There was a delay in the arrival of the ambulance, due to the crew waiting for a police escort. The young man was initially brought to a Palestinian Hospital, then to Hadassah, which was unable to save him. An autopsy occurred with a Palestinian physician as observer. We’ll see what that settles. Neighbors told us there was noise through the night. It was still happening when we left the house in the morning and would continue throughout the day. The police had closed the roads to Isaweea, and were most likely going through their routine of pressing informants to lead them to those who had burned the gas station. It did not pass without opposition, tear gas, stun grenades, and a circling police helicopter. 

We had slept through the main event.

This was 200 meters from our bedroom. It reminded me of being posted by the IDF lecture corp somewhere in Lebanon, and waking up one morning to hear that there had been action, with casualties, 50 meters from my sleeping bag.

While some worry about the onset of Intifada III, the Palestinian leaderships of the West Bank and Gaza are speaking toward one another more like enemies than colleagues.

It takes more than our available skills to know what Mahmoud Abbas is demanding. His agenda changes with the day and sometimes with the hour. It has included bringing Israel to the International Criminal Court on war crimes, demanding the removal of all settlements within three years (which sounds like it includes French Hill), then saying that the 1967 lines will only be the starting point of negotiations. His assertions that Hamas was responsible for a national tragedy in Gaza may get in the way of bringing Israel to trial for war crimes.

George Mitchell may be positioning himself to manage another effort to bring Israelis and Palestinians together for a two-state solution. A series of articles has been well crafted with the history of the conflict, the problems that have prevented agreement, and the dangers faced by both Israelis and Palestinians from the status quo. 

We know all that. 

Mitchell’s own background leads him to cite the Northern Ireland as an example of the good that can occur after years of bloodshed. He acknowledges the differences, but he does not mention Islam.

Among Mitchell’s problems are the President and Secretary of State who will have to enable and support any renewal of a peace mission. Both Barack Obama and John Kerry have become targets of ridicule by leading Israeli commentators, as well as by equivalents in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. That does not bode well for another American initiative for this part of the Middle East.

Mitchell’s headline is “US the only power that can push for peace: America’s prosperity and world dominance will extend into the future.”

Reading through Mitchell’s three long articles, it appears that he is sure that the United States needs to assure its position as world leader, but does not indicate how it must be done.

Palestinian sources have reported that President Sisi is willing to cede a chunk of the Sinai alongside Gaza to help with the creation of a Palestinian state. If the reports are true--and there have been Egyptian denials as well as substantial doubts by Israeli commentators that Egypt would depart from its refusal to give up an inch of its territory to help the Palestinians or the Israelis--the idea would join Mitchell’s writing in a century of interesting material.

Diaspora Jews continue to tussle about who is responsible for the Israel-Palestine impasse. J Street and Peace Now, along with Martin Indyk, and the New York Times blame Israeli leaders for not being honest or forthcoming in negotiations. Among those making the point of chronic Palestinian rejectionism is a film entitled The J street Challenge, which has provoked its own round of praise and reservations.

No surprise that Israelis are quarreling about the aftermath of Gaza. Politicians have said that Hamas is already at work digging tunnels, crafting missiles, and smuggling munitions from Egypt via as yet undiscovered tunnels. Military analysts say they have no such information.

Various units concerned with military intelligence and planning are squabbling among themselves and with politicians about who made what projections about the force Israel would have to exert, and what would be the breaking point of Hamas.

Prime Minister Netanyahu made the demilitarization of Gaza as a primary aim of Operation Protective Edge. Foreign Minister Lieberman says that it is not achievable in the near future.

None of this should be new, especially to someone with 50 years of studying politics and administration, with several American and Israeli wars to ponder. Military actions seldom work smoothly, and are sure to invite a blame game. 

While various contenders for media attention or the top slot in government are competing with one another over claims of achievement, failure, and what remains undone, Israel has emerged from this event with considerable assets. Chief among them is control over the borders of Gaza, with Egypt likely to cooperate due to its own problems with the political and religious allies of Hamas. Winter is coming and much of Gaza is rubble, electricity is unreliable, and its water would not pass anyone’s standards. Control over the inflow of cement and other construction material can be a powerful as more air strikes, providing Israel stands against its own humanitarians and those from elsewhere demanding instant care for a population saying they won the war, and promising more of the same.

This remains an interesting place, as long as we remember to remind ourselves.

Ira Sharkansky is a professor (Emeritus) of the Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


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