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The Gaza war’s fog complicates separating the wheat from the chaff

James M. Dorsey

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Separating the wheat from the chaff in the Israeli-Palestinian fog of war is key to preparing for the day after the guns fall silent and resolving a conflict that constitutes a perennial regional ticking time bomb.

The separation frames US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s stark warning that “if you drive the civilian population in the arms of the enemy you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”

File photo. General Lloyd James Austin III, commanding general of United States Forces - Iraq, appears before the US Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on US policy towards Iraq, on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, USA, 3 February 2011. Photo: Michael Reynolds/EPA/EFE

Although meant to pressure Israel to adopt military tactics that would reduce innocent Palestinian casualties in Gaza, Mr. Austin’s warning is about more than immediate fighting.

It is about leverage and standing in initially negotiating a permanent ceasefire and ultimately a resolution of the conflict.

Already perceptions of the war and of Israel and Palestine are shifting from initial empathy with Israelis as victims of a brutal attack to sympathy with Palestinians perceived as targets of an inhumane Israeli military campaign that violates much of international law.

Separating the wheat from the chaff is easier said than done. It involves challenging assumptions and myths and recognising uncomfortable and painful truths on both sides of the divide.

The separation is complicated by deep-seated emotions evoked by Hamas’ brutal October 7 attack on Israel that killed 1,200 Israelis, more than half of them civilians, and the carnage in Gaza wreaked by Israel’s determination to change reality on the ground with no regard for Palestinian lives.

The assumptions, myths, and truths are products of a combination of reality, emotions, vested political interests, and perceptions created by an information war in which truth is the first casualty.

Yet, separation is needed to evaluate Israel and Hamas’ conduct of the war, determine whether Hamas has and should have a future, and frame a potential resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Key assumptions, myths, and truths involve the question whether Israel has rendered a two-state solution involving the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel impossible with its policy of establishing more than 300 official and unofficial settlements with a population of approximately 700,00 on occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem.

They also relate to what Hamas wants and is willing to accept and whether it has put itself beyond the pale with the October 7 attack and more broadly its seemingly uncompromising attitude towards Israel, and disregard for Israeli and Palestinian life.

A chorus of analysts and policy wonks charge that international support for a two-state solution rather than one state in which Israelis and Palestinians have equal rights amounts to paying lip service to a formula past its shelf life that no longer is viable.

The analysts and policy wonks base their conclusion on a look at the geographical spread of Israeli settlements on the West Bank that indeed would suggest that separation of the territory from Israel prior to the 1967 war has become impossible.

Israel conquered the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights during the war.

A study by Shaul Arieli, a former Israeli paratrooper, advisor to the governments of prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak on negotiations with the Palestinians, and scholar, suggests that looking at geography alone is misleading.

Among Shaul Arieli's feats of arms: having managed to change the route of the separation wall in the north of the West Bank, after a series of requests before the Supreme Court of Israel. Photo: Truman Institute

Instead, Mr. Shauli argues that the location of major concentrations of the settler population determines, alongside political will, the feasibility of a two-state solution.

Mr. Shauli’s study concludes that a “optimal border between Israel and Palestine based on land swaps on a scale of four percent, while leaving some 80 percent of the Israelis who live beyond the Green Line under Israeli sovereignty” remains feasible.

The Green Line delineates the boundary between pre-1967 Israel and the West Bank.

Photo Source: Shaul Aureli, Deceptive Appearances

Disentangling Jerusalem surrounded by 11 settlements populated by 225,000 settlers may prove the most difficult nut to crack. Proponents of a two-state solution envision East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

“It is still possible to delineate a line of territorial contiguity of the Palestinian population through the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. However, the ongoing trends for the construction of neighborhoods and roads in the Jerusalem area are liable to impede this contiguity,” Mr. Shauli warned.

Photo Source: Shaul Aureli, Deceptive Appearances

The feasibility of a two-state solution adds urgency to the question whether circumventing Hamas, if it survives the Gaza war, is possible, starting with the day after the war.

Israel argues that its military campaign is designed to destroy Hamas and the militant threat it represents. Yet, the Israeli campaign demonstrates that brutality and disrespect for the life of the innocent other are not a Hamas preserve.

In addition, Israel’s assertion that Hamas uses the Gazan population as human shields by utizing hospitals, schools, and mosques amounts to the pot calling the kettle black.

To be sure, as Hamas built its underground tunnel network in Gaza it was seeking to protect itself, not the bulk of innocent Palestinians that would pay the price for its October 7 attack.

“We have built the tunnels because we have no other way of protecting ourselves from being targeted and killed. These tunnels are meant to protect us from the airplanes. We are fighting from inside the tunnels. Seventy-five percent of the population of Gaza are refugees, and it is the UN’s responsibility to protect them,” said Hamas political bureau member Moussa Abu Marzouk.

Nevertheless, human shields have been used throughout history by warring parties, including fighters for Israeli independence in the 1940s.

A stroll through Israeli cities takes one past public buildings adorned by plaques commemorating their use by Jewish militants to train and store arms.

Photo Source: Tikun Olam

Notwithstanding Mr. Abu Marzouk’s callous comment, Hamas has for years talked out of both sides of its mouth, allowing others to pick and choose what the group represents.

Hamas’ charter rules out peace with Israel, proposing instead a long-term ceasefire between an independent Palestinian state and Israel.

Yet, in early 2021 Hamas agreed with Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Al Fatah party to bury their war hatchet and hold presidential and legislative elections on the basis of the 1993 Oslo accords that involve Palestinian recognition of Israel and renunciation of armed struggle

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meets with Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Belgium's Prime Minister Alexander De Croo in the West Bank city Ramallah, on Thursday, Nov. 23, 2023. Photo: Alaa Badarneh/Pool via AP

The elections would have allowed Hamas to join the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and enabled a unified Palestinian polity to negotiate the establishment of a state. It would have also returned Gaza to the Palestine Authority as the governing power.

Elections were never held. Israel refused to allow elections in East Jerusalem because that would undermine its claims to all the city as the capital of the Jewish state.

In addition, Israel was backed by the United States, while Mr. Abbas, even though he sought US and European support for the agreement, feared that, like in 2006, Hamas could emerge victorious from the polling.

Three months after the agreement proved worth less than the paper it was written on, Israel and Hamas fought a war for 10 days until the United States forced a ceasefire.

Two years later Israel and Hamas are at it again with unprecedented consequences for Palestinians and Israelis.

It’s a war that is the product of a failure to separate the wheat from the chaff and of questionable assumptions, myths, and Israeli and Palestinian refusal to unambiguously confront uncomfortable and painful truths.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

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