“The Israeli government yesterday carried out a targeted assassination on an unspecified number of unnamed, randomly selected Israeli Jews.” That’s how the headlines should read. In fact, they said that Israeli rockets killed 10 civilians and injured many more, a day after assassinating Jamal Abu Samhadana, head of security operations for the Hamas-led government in Palestine.
The reports all noted that the attack may well torpedo chances for peace between Israel and Palestine, leading to further violence that will kill Israelis as well as Palestinians. But they forgot to add the crucial fact: That’s just what Israel’s leaders seem to want.
It’s yet another round in the seemingly endless, deadly tit for tat. Yet this time an end really was in sight, because Hamas was moving -- slowly and stumblingly, but visibly -- toward accepting what most Palestinians want: a two-state solution, with each side affirming the legitimate existence of the other. Tragically, it seems that’s not what the government of Israel wants. So it acted swiftly to kill the peace process before it could really begin.
The irony is that the Israelis inadvertently started this last best hope for peace themselves, by putting Hamas and Fatah members together in an Israeli prison. There the prisoners worked out a document outlining a plan for peace. The Hamas signers said they would accept Israel’s existence, as long as it ended all occupation and settlements in the West Bank as well as Gaza, withdrew inside its pre-1967 borders, and recognized the rights of the Palestinians who had been ousted from Israel. Public opinion polls show that at least three-quarters, and maybe 90%, of Palestinians support this plan. If the Hamas party signs on to it, Hamas popularity will soar.
Then Israel would no longer have any major force denying its right to exist. The international pressure on Israel to accept the plan would be immense. That raises the prospect of an Israeli government having to dismantle not just a handful of little settlements, but whole Jewish towns that have been erected in the West Bank. The political fallout might well tear the Israeli public apart, posing nearly impossible dilemmas for any Israeli government.
So Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his government must prevent Hamas from supporting the prisoners’ document. The Israelis have to make sure that the Palestinians remain politically divided, with one faction denying Israel’s right to exist, in order to keep Israel politically united. Israeli leaders are willing to pursue that goal at any cost -- even the cost of more Jewish lives.
It’s an old story. Over the years of its political maneuvering, Israel has followed one principle faithfully: keep the opposition divided. Indeed, years ago Israel was instrumental in establishing Hamas in order to prevent Yassir Arafat’s PLO from gaining a total monopoly on political power in the Occupied Territories. Now somehow, anyhow, the Israelis have to keep Hamas divided, so that it cannot unite behind the prisoners’ document that Fatah has so fully embraced.
That’s the big picture to explain the killings in Gaza. Here’s how it all unfolded in the last few days:
Hamas and Fatah have been involved in nearly two weeks of intense negotiations, trying yet so far failing to reach a common negotiating position vis-à-vis Israel. Behind the scenes, though, the real negotiations are within Hamas, where Prime Minister Ismail Haniyah and many other government figures want to support the highly popular prisoners’ document. As politicians, they bend with the political wind. That’s also why they’ve offered Israel an open-ended truce (as I reported last week), paving the way to full-scale peace talks.
But as politicians they also build the broadest possible coalitions. That’s probably why they gave a major government post to Abu Samhadana, leader of a small but potent hard-line alliance known as the Popular Resistance Committees. It was also a way of thumbing their nose at Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who had opposed Abu Samhadana.
Hamas leaders were publicly rejecting Abbas’ call for a referendum on the prisoners’ document, because they saw it as a political end run around Hamas. Abbas was sounding tough in public, but in the last few days he was extending his talks with Hamas leaders, giving everyone a chance to save face and reach some compromise agreement.
If Israel's leaders really want peace, they would do everything they could to pacify Hamas hard-liners and push them toward that compromise. In fact, though, the compromise is what the Israeli government fears most. So it resorted to its tried and true technique: Do something that would so outrage Hamas hard-liners and fence-sitters that they would be sure to refuse the peace-orieneted compromise. Hence the assassination of Abu Samhadana.
(Israel’s Defense Minister Amir Peretz had a personal stake in this, too. With his public approval ratings down to around 30%, he suddenly announced that the Israeli military would “step up its offensive actions" and assassinate terrorists. The next day, Peretz could boast that Abu Samhadana had been killed.)
With feelings so inflamed, few Palestinians were prepared to accept Israel’s claim that a rocket went off course, “accidentally” killing seven civilians (including three children) picnicking on a beach. In any event, that rocket was clearly part of a barrage that Israel intentionally aimed at Gaza, sure to anger Palestinians. Now Hamas leaders of every stripe are vowing revenge, and even Fatah leaders are harshly condemning the Israeli attack. The chances for a peace process based on the prisoners’ document have suffered a severe blow.
But you wouldn’t know any of this from reading the American press. There, it’s just business as usual: Righteous Israelis defend themselves by killing terrorists and offer sincere apologies when they kill civilians. The only media analysis I could find that got to the heart of the matter came from a Russian news site, quoting Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the upper house of the Russian parliament's committee for international affairs:
“He said that the formation of a 3,000 strong ‘Hamas Police’ led by Samhadana had upped tensions in the region, and made the task of international peaceful regulation more complex. Hamas had won Palestinian parliamentary elections in January ‘under pressure from Israel.’ If Israel's selective strikes continue, they will increase the danger of Palestinians voting against Israel's right to exist through a referendum, he said. If this happens, ‘peaceful initiatives will be rejected by the Palestinian side, which will site the legitimate results of the referendum.’”
Margelov assumes that Israeli attacks will turn the Palestinian public against the prisoners’ document and send it down to defeat in the referendum. It seems likely that Israeli leaders assume it, too. That means more strife, more bloodshed, and more Israelis as well as Palestinians will die just because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
This is the same policy Israeli leaders have pursued for decades: dooming their own people to die randomly and justifying it all “bishvil bitahon” -- for the sake of security. It’s all tragic madness. It can’t go on forever. Some day the Israelis will have to make peace and make the terribly difficult decision to dismantle their settlements and accept a viable Palestinian state in all of the West Bank and Gaza. Why not face the political difficulties now? Why try in vain to postpone the reckoning of history, when it means that more of their own people must die?
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea