Israel and the Palestinian conflict - lessons from the peacekeeper's toolbox

Israel and the Palestinian conflict – lessons from the peacekeeper’s toolbox

State-building in Gaza is essential, but it has a Catch-22 quality: there can be non state-building with Hamas but (for as long as they are in power there) there can be no state-building without Hamas either. Encouraging Hamas to reform is probably a mostly thankless task, since it is precisely its militant agenda that makes It of appeal to an impoverished and embargoed electorate. Therefore we may need to incentivise Hamas to reform. 

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By Matthew Parish

One of the first lessons learned as a peacekeeper is that you cannot make peace until the time is right. For some seventy years, in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians the time was not right. Now it may be. The reason is because peace is better made in circumstances of relative calm once a stalemate has been reached but not a stalemate of a kind creating a perpetual international media narrative.

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians started as a dispute over a UN-mandated plan for partition of the British mandate of Palestine in 1947, that descended into war between Israel and her neighbours. The conflict continued as an inter-state military confrontation, including the Six Day War (1967) and the Yom Kippur War (1973), until Israel reached peace agreements with Egypt (1978) and Jordan (1994). Israel continued thereafter to engage in intermittent conflict with Shia forces in southern Lebanon, in respect of which the last major military action was the Second Lebanon War (2006). Things remained mostly peaceful between Syria and Israel until the onset of the Syrian civil war (2011- ), when Iranian-backed militias edged close to the Israeli border whereupon Israel initiated an offensive against them.

Most recent events in the last three decades of the Arab-Israeli conflict have been related to the so-called intifadas, Palestinian uprisings against Israeli administration of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. In 2005 Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip. In 2006 the Gaza Strip elected the Palestinian political party Hamas to power in elections, whereas Fatah, a more moderate Palestinian political party, held power in the West Bank. Hamas has an extremist agenda, refusing to recognise the legitimacy of the Israeli state and orchestrating rocket attacks from Gaza against Israeli territory. Both Egypt and Israel have therefore imposed a blockade upon Gaza. At the time of writing, the West Bank remains relatively quiet with the de facto Palestinian capital being the West Bank City of Ramallah.

Israeli settlements dotted across territory that, prior to the 1967 war, formed part of the West Bank remain a source of contention between Israel and the Palestinians. Both Israel and the Palestinians declare Jerusalem as their capital; the US Government has recently announced the relocation of its Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in support of the Israeli claim, with other states either having followed or being expected to do so. The whole of Jerusalem has remained under Israeli control since 1967., albeit with a significant Palestinian population.

Whereas the Palestinian cause of self-determination was a significant issue inflaming Arab public opinion over the decades, since 2003 the issue has gradually but steadily receded both in the Arab public consciousness and also amongst principal western media sources. Both Iraq and Syria were important protagonists in inflammation of the Arab-Israeli conflict, each harbouring Baathist (Arab nationalist) governments. Damascene invective against Israel started to tail off after the death of Syria’s peripatetic dictator Haffez al-Assad in 2000.

Baghdad has become less hostile in its propaganda after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and removal of its dictator Saddam Hussein. Iraq, then Syria, plunged into civil conflict over the subsequent years, in which the principle political dynamic in the Middle East shifted towards the division between Sunni and Shia. Sunni Arabs who had previously supported the Palestinian cause against Israel started to see a rise in Shia political influence, and a resurgent Iran, as far greater dangers to their own interests than was Israel, whose national interests ultimately must involve living in peace with its neighbours. Israel was and is also of the view that Shia Iran is a much greater danger to its security interests than the Sunni world, as Iran has been funding insurgency movements against Israel in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon for decades. Hence Israel and the traditional bulwark of stalwart Sunni Muslim states in the Middle East found themselves becoming informal allies against a commonly perceived Iranian threat.

With this alliance, informally cemented through the medium of the United States (the ally of both Israel and Saudi Arabia), international political attention upon the Israel-Palestinian conflict, that has been in a position of stalemate for several years, has become less intense. The peacekeeper is aware that these are ripe conditions for negotiating a peace agreement. The parties need to have reached a military-political stalemate, and they need to be persuaded that further confrontation will not attract international attention to an extent that might improve their position in a final settlement. Therefore lack of international attention to the issue is unimportant precondition of negotiations on a peace agreement. Otherwise the parties will always be tempted to go back to their allies and to the media, to renegotiate final terms via these proxies.

Let us imagine that the current stalemate between Israel and the Palestinians persists; international attention remains remote; and the United States and Saudi Arabia push Israel and the Palestinians into a final settlement for a now long-stale conflict. What would the terms look like. The principal issues can be shortly enumerated, as is the case for most mediated peace agreements.

The first is territorial scope. Given that Israel is constructing, or has constructed, a wall determining where it considers the border to be with the West Bank (the West Bank is the locus for any future internationally recognised Palestinian state), the territorial issue has been more or less unilaterally determined.

The next issue is the status or Jerusalem. Majority-Arab East Jerusalem is controlled by Israel and includes Judaism’s most holy site. There is no prospect of Israel relinquishing control of East Jerusalem. The best that can be negotiated for Palestinians is privileged access to East Jerusalem, as well as notional (de jure, rather than de facto) connection of East Jerusalem with a state of Palestine. This being just a matter of words, it is essentially a matter of maintaining the status quo. The institutions of a Palestinian state are in Ramallah, and there they will remain. The Palestinians will never move their governing institutions to a city over which they do not hold police authority.

The next issue is refugee return. Thousands of Palestinians fled or were expelled in the late 1940’s. These refugees cannot return to Israel seventy years later, and neither can their descendants. It is not realistic. Refugees virtually never return after civil conflict, and not seventy years later. Nevertheless they can be compensated financially. This is a matter of monetary negotiation, and it should be resolved as a final detail in a peace settlement once non-monetary points are settled. (Money can always be found from somewhere, if needed to solve the world’s most intractable ethnic conflict.)

Security arrangements for an independent Palestine are less problematic than they used to be, by reason of Israel’s Wall which creates a de facto line of security control. Behind the Wall, as a practical matter Israel will have little control. However Israeli and Palestinian security forces will need to coordinate, and an independent Palestine will need to give binding commitments to Israel not to arm beyond a certain level. That is to prevent an independent Palestine from permitting nuisances such as Iranian militias accumulating on its territory. The Israelis and Palestinians would also want to negotiate a formal free trade area; border arrangements; mutual recognition of passports, driving licences, vehicle registration plates, currency, and similar such administrative formalities.

Indeed all of the foregoing issues, that typically exercise peace mediators, seem more or less resolved for the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Although the parties may not want to sign an agreement for their own domestic political reasons, the terms of such an agreement, once reached, for the most part are already resolved. However there is one important exception to this: the future of the Gaza Strip exclave. Israel had occupied the Gaza Strip, and abandoned it in 2006. The problem is that Ramallah does not want the exclave. It is grossly overpopulated compared to the West Bank, replete with refugees and poor-quality infrastructure, with no obvious means of connecting the territory wit the West Bank to create a sense of territorial continuity, and nobody actually wants Gaza. The exclave is unloved.

The only tenable solution to the Gaza exclave is a massive international state-building project. The reason militancy is fostered in Gaza is poverty and poor living conditions. Militancy fosters the embargo, which in turn reinforces the poverty and creates a vicious circle in the direction of more militancy. Israel cannot state-build in Gaza, due to the inter-ethnic animosities and history of occupation. Neighbouring Egypt does not have the resources to state-build there. UNRWA, the local UN agency in the Gaza Strip, is discredited because it is perceived as having cooperated with Hamas, Gaza’s dominant militant political party. In 2017 the United States cut its contribution to UNRWA’s funding for this reason.

State-building must proceed through some other means, and Hamas must reform into a non-militant organisation (and, ideally, change its name due to negative associations of Israelis with the moniker) if it is to serve as a partner to a new international state-building effort. State-building in Gaza is essential, but it has a Catch-22 quality: there can be non state-building with Hamas but (for as long as they are in power there) there can be no state-building without Hamas either. Encouraging Hamas to reform is probably a mostly thankless task, since it is precisely its militant agenda that makes It of appeal to an impoverished and embargoed electorate.

If western state-builders had a more reliable local political partner through which to channel funds then it might be possible to dislodge Hamas’s rule in Gaza by funding the opposition. The problem is that there is no such reliable local partner. Moreover Israel has no appetite for the military, financial and public relations costs of re-occupying the Gaza Strip in order to dislodge Hamas by force. Therefore the embargo, palpably unsatisfactory for all parties, persists in the absence of any better a solution.

There is no straightforward answer to a problem of this nature, which is why a leasing peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians remains elusive. The answer may lie in a change of leadership; the successor to ageing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas might, it is hoped, be of sufficient appeal to residents of the Gaza Strip that Hamas can be worked around in a Gaza state building project. But this seems optimistic. Gaza’s exclave status renders its government structure almost like that of a different country; Hamas is too embedded in the administrative structure of the Gaza Strip.

Therefore we may need to incentivise Hamas to reform. This may prove hard to swallow. Nevertheless because extremists typically have the capacity to outflank their moderate colleagues on both sides of an ethnic conflict, by saying that moderates are insufficiently committed to the cause and therefore cannot be relied upon to advance the interests of their side. This argument is overwhelmingly persuasive to an ethnic group that is suffering in the context of conflict. Hence one always ends up having to work with extremists to achieve peace: a pattern seen in Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland, Iraq and beyond.

Even extremists can be bought, and this is much cheaper than replacing them. Let us imagine that through pushing and shoving, a combination of pressure, punishment, flattery and bribery, and with reluctant Israeli sufferance, we start to influence the leadership of Hamas towards a more constructive course while maintaining their political base and bringing it with them. This is hugely difficult, but it has been done (perhaps most effectively in Northern Ireland) and it can be done again.

But there are two more critical problems: one geographical, and the other a matter of regional politics. The geographical issue is that Gaza is very densely populated – it has the population density typical of a large city – but it does not have the sophisticated infrastructure modern cities possess. That is because its population grew by way of refugee displacement into a confined space, which took place too quickly for any authority to accommodate. Big cities grow slowly; to where they grow too quickly (as has happened with some African cities), infrastructure problems become acute and extremely difficult to resolve because not only does infrastructure improvement require huge amounts of money, it becomes exponential In its technical complexity unless it is undertaken in stages as the city expands.

The additional complication for Gaza, beyond high population density, is that as its population grows further it is impossible for its population to spread out. Gaza is entrapped on all sides, and in this regard it is virtually unique. (Even in Singapore, it is possible to live in Malaysia and commute.) The only solution is to grow upwards, with tall buildings; but given the precariousness of the military situation, nobody in their right mind would want to invest.

The other problem is that extremism in Gaza is spilling over into the Northern Sinai that borders the Gaza Strip. This presents a security problem for Egypt, whose civilian and military infrastructures in this desert region are particularly sparse. Hamas has constructed a series of tunnels under the embargoed Gaza / Egypt border and is exporting extremists and importing arms with which to harass and endanger the Israelis, thereby exacerbating the Gaza crisis. Egypt does not have the resources to combat extremists associated with Hamas in the Northern Sinai, never mind accept an overspill of Palestinian civilians from the overpopulated Gaza Strip.

Nevertheless it is often by starting at the lowest point in a civil crisis that we find the beginnings of a solution. Let us look for the virtuous circle: for that is the task of the peacekeeper. Consider first peace enforcement in the Northern Sinai. It is a credible prospect. Northern Sinai is very sparsely populated, that makes peace enforcement more straightforward. International troops are already in Sinai, albeit in nominal numbers, ostensibly to safeguard the 1978 Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt. They could be augmented, to assist the Egyptians in closing the tunnels and fighting desert extremists.

Such measures are beneficial not just to assist the Egyptians in addressing their domestic security problems. They would serve as a prolegomena to talks with Hamas: by closing access on the part of Hamas to the outside world, one can bring them to the negotiating table. Irregular supplies to the authorities of the Gaza Strip can then be replaced by controlled, monitored and regulated supplies. Then the process of infrastructure development, upon a massive scale, can develop in the context of a disarmed and gradually emerging rule of law in the Gaza Strip, no doubt funded in substantial part with Gulf money under a vision of a new Mediterranean Dubai emerging from conflict.

This is a twenty-year project, or more. But it starts with a single step. As with all peace-building, everything depends upon where you start. Do not try to solve all the problems at once. Most problems in peace-building solve themselves. To be an effective peacekeeper, you must start by deconstructing the problem to find the most intractable aspect of it.This may well not be the issue everyone says is the most intractable, or about which everyone is talking the most. Then you need to establish what realistic international intervention could start to reverse the vicious circle that renders the problem so intractable. Then you must take that step; continue to press; and be patient. Every civil conflict has such a lynchpin, and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is no different.

Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland and a former UN peacekeeper. He has published two books and over 250 articles on the subject. In 2013 he was elected as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and he has was listed as one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland. He is currently a candidate of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for appointment to a position of Under Secretary General of the United Nations with an agenda for institutional reform.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.

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