Expert Q&A: Israel’s Assault on Gaza, Aims & US Involvement

July 30, 2014 IMEU
Expert Q&A: Israel’s Assault on Gaza, Aims & US Involvement


Diana ButtuHuman rights attorney, Ramallah-based analyst, and former advisor to Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian negotiators. 



Yousef MunayyerExecutive Director of the Jerusalem Fund and the Palestine Center in Washington, DC. 



Osamah KhalilAssistant Professor of United States & Middle East History at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and co-founder of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network



Q – Originally, Israeli officials stated that their invasion of Gaza was intended to stop rocket attacks from Palestinian militant groups, despite the fact that it was Israel that broke a long-standing truce with Gaza-based factions, sparking renewed rocket fire and the current round of bloodshed. After launching the invasion, Israeli officials then began to cite the destruction of tunnels dug by Hamas and other groups in Gaza as the main goal of its military operation. What is the real aim of Israel's invasion of Gaza?

DB – “Israel has not stated definitively what its aim is in Gaza, but rather has shifted its position and talking points about what it seeks to accomplish. At first, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated that the goal was to punish Hamas for the killing of three Israeli teenagers in the occupied West Bank, despite the fact that there was no evidence linking Hamas to these three deaths. Netanyahu later stated that the purpose was to stop the firing of rockets from Gaza, though such rockets were only launched after Israel began its latest assault.

“What is clear, despite Netanyahu’s shifting stated aims, is that the effect of this attack is to destroy Palestinian lives and infrastructure. To date, more than 1,200 Palestinians, including 250 children, have been killed, 80 percent of whom are civilians. Israel has attacked Palestinian homes, hospitals, mosques and schools, as well as the water infrastructure and, most recently, the Gaza Strip’s sole power plant, leaving Gaza without any power source except generators. This attack on the power plant halts the pumping of water and sewage disposal and those on life support in hospitals now have to rely solely on generators to stay alive. The UN estimates that there are more than 240,000 displaced Palestinians (out of a population of 1.7 million) and more than 8,000 homes completely or partially damaged.

“In addition to mercilessly bombing the defenseless and imprisoned civilian population of Gaza, Israel has created a ‘no-go’ zone deep within the Gaza Strip. An estimated 44 percent of the Gaza Strip is now off-limits to Palestinians, with entire neighborhoods destroyed by the Israeli military."

YM – “I doubt the Israelis even know. They have now undertaken three major military campaigns in Gaza in six years and have proven nothing more than the fact that military force is inadequate as a method to achieve their aims. In the course of trying, they have killed many hundreds of civilians, further antagonizing an already occupied, colonized and besieged Palestinian population. They treat Gaza like a piece of equipment that needs regular maintenance except that maintenance is done through bombing. There is no strategy in this and no morality in a war whose repetition is planned. The lack of strategy has also gotten Israel stuck in Gaza. They escalated this situation and then went in on the ground. They did not expect Palestinian militants to fight as fiercely as they did and to succeed in inflicting numerous military losses. This subsequently made ending the operation without a decisive victory (something impossible to get) even more difficult for a ginned-up Israeli public to accept. A war of choice became a war of attrition, with the greatest costs falling on the civilian population in Gaza.”

OK – “As with previous invasions of Gaza, Israel’s rationale has changed over time. The attack on Gaza began because Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed that Hamas was responsible for the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens in the occupied West Bank. It then shifted to preventing rocket fire into Israel and destroying tunnels. As before, Israel’s rhetoric also changed from a ‘limited operation’ to a ‘war of necessity’ or a ‘just war’ against Hamas.

"From the beginning, however, Netanyahu’s real goals have been consistent. The first is to undermine the recently negotiated unity agreement between Fatah and Hamas. Netanyahu understands that Palestinian unity will place pressure on Israel to return to negotiations. The second is to deflect criticism from the Obama administration over the failure of US-sponsored negotiations led by Secretary of State John Kerry. Over the past few months, administration officials have publicly and privately blamed Netanyahu for the collapse of negotiations with the Palestinians, in particular due to continued settlement construction in the occupied West Bank. For more than a decade, Netanyahu has consistently worked to scuttle the peace process and has not been shy about his role in derailing negotiations during his first term as prime minister (1996-1999). Similarly, he recently stated that rocket fire from Gaza demonstrates that Israel cannot leave the West Bank. By invading Gaza, he hopes to sow further discord between the major Palestinian parties, which will delay future peace talks indefinitely.”

Q – It was recently confirmed by an Israeli police spokesman that the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teens in the occupied West Bank last month was not sanctioned by the leadership of Hamas, contrary to the claims of Netanyahu, who used the teens disappearance to justify a brutal crackdown in the West Bank and Israel's current assault on Gaza. What is Netanyahu's endgame politically?

DB – “Netanyahu seeks to destroy the ability of Palestinians to live any semblance of a normal life. The brutal and illegal blockade imposed by Israel had already turned the Gaza Strip into an open-air prison with no prospects for development, a normal economy or a normal life. Israel’s three major bombing campaigns since 2008, in addition to the weekly attacks from the air and sea, have devastated Palestinian lives, with no prospects that life will ever return to normal. According to the Internally Displaced Monitoring Center, on the eve of this latest attack, 12,500 Palestinians remained displaced from Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2008-2009. He may win Israeli public support by conducting such actions but he clearly has no vision as a leader.”

YM – “With the Palestinians I think he is seeking to torpedo any attempts at unity. From the day the reconciliation agreement was signed this was his overt aim. He used it first to try to shift blame for the failure of peace talks and has continued down this path until today. If war is politics by other means, much of this war on Gaza has the political goal of breaking Palestinian unity. Domestically his goal is to solidify support for his right-wing government and this has largely worked for the moment. It is unclear, though, if this will have a lasting effect as Israeli support for this war might be a rally-around-the-flag moment which might later turn against the government for its misconduct during this war. Even if that is the case, at best it might lead to changes in political leaders who take the fall but not in the overall right-wing sentiment in Israel.”

OK – “Netanyahu’s motivations are cynical and self-serving. First, he has domestic political goals, which include weakening potential rivals from the Israeli right who have criticized how he has handled the crisis to date. Figures like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Minister of the Economy Naftali Bennet, and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset (parliament) Moshe Feiglin, have been competing over who will be tougher on the Palestinians and on Gaza in particular. According to recent polls, the Israeli public overwhelmingly approves of the invasion of Gaza. This limits Netanyahu’s ability to revert to the 2012 ceasefire agreement with Hamas which functioned well for Israel but not for Palestinians in Gaza as the siege was never lifted. Some Israeli political commentators have suggested that it would be ‘political suicide’ for Netanyahu to revert to the 2012 ceasefire agreement. Therefore, he needs to be able to declare ‘victory’ over Hamas but still keep the organization and the siege on Gaza in place.

Netanyahu also hopes to finally kill the peace process and the two-state solution. By undermining Palestinian unity and maintaining a geographical and political divide between the West Bank and Gaza, Netanyahu believes that he can end Palestinian aspirations for statehood and with it the Palestinian national movement. With settlement construction continuing unabated, Israel would remain in control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem while Gaza becomes increasingly unlivable.”

Q – Since President Obama's election in November 2008, Israel has launched three major military assaults on Gaza, killing more than 1,700 Palestinian civilians, including approximately 600 children. Following Operation Cast lead, which Israel carried out between President Obama's election in 2008 and his swearing-in ceremony, his administration helped to quash the so-called Goldstone Report at the United Nations, assuring impunity for Israeli officials accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Is the Obama administration complicit in Israel's attacks on Gaza, in which human rights organizations have documented evidence of serious war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Israeli military?

DB – “Since Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2008, the US has given Israel more than $18 billion in the form of military assistance and weaponry. The US is well aware that approximately 43 percent of the Gaza Strip’s population is under the age of 14 and 80 percent of the population are refugees who hail from what is now Israel. The US is well aware that the weaponry it provides to Israel is being used, in violation of US laws, on a civilian population. The US is also well aware that what Netanyahu wants, and has effectively received, is a green light to continue Israel’s cruel siege of a displaced, stateless, refugee population, and to bomb them with some of the most deadly weaponry on earth.

“US complicity with Israel’s action extends beyond the provision of military assistance. The US has refused to take any action to halt Israel’s war crimes and has blocked efforts in the UN to condemn them. The US was also the sole country in the UN Human Rights Council to vote against an international investigation into Israel’s actions as it is well aware that the investigation will reveal that war crimes are being perpetrated by Israel in Gaza.

“The US has also placed significant pressure on the Palestinian Authority not to sign onto the International Criminal Court (ICC) and has threatened that it will cut off any assistance if the Palestinian Authority pursues additional measures for statehood within the UN or if it signs onto the ICC.”

YM – “Of course the Obama administration is complicit. Obama himself is specifically complicit. The United States is the only power that can reign in Israel and yet it has not done so. The Obama administration, like many before it, has avoided public criticism of Israel because of the domestic political costs, but Obama should rise above that. As a human being, Obama, like all other decent people, must be outraged at the civilian deaths and carnage in Gaza. He himself has the ability to change that with a bit of courage, and yet he does not. That is shameful and a disgrace.”

OK – “There is a long history of US complicity in Israel’s human rights abuses that continued with the Obama administration’s efforts to squelch the report by the UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict (Goldstone Report). Shortly after the UN report was released, the Obama administration made a concerted effort to undermine its findings. It also pressured Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas into shelving the report at the UN’s Human Rights Council. In return, the Obama administration promised to pressure Israel into a freeze on settlement construction and return to meaningful negotiations, neither of which occurred. Instead, Israel’s intransigence at the negotiating table and its large-scale abuses of Palestinian rights were rewarded with continued American support and shielding at the UN and other international bodies.”

Q – Despite the staunch support that the Obama administration has given Israel, even as it systematically violates US policies regarding settlement expansion and other matters, senior Israeli officials have been increasingly vocal in their attacks on President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry for their efforts to broker a ceasefire in Gaza. One unnamed senior Israeli official recently accused Secretary Kerry of carrying out a "strategic terrorist attack" against Israel with his ceasefire proposal. How significant do you think these disputes between Israel and the US are in terms of the long-term relationship between the two countries?

DB – “I think they are insignificant because this is not the first time that the Israeli government has publicly humiliated or gone against the US government or even a US president. One simply has to recall that when Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Jerusalem in 2009, the Israeli government went out of its way to announce new settlement expansion, despite US calls for a halt. One can also recall that in 2002 when President George W. Bush demanded that Israel pull out of the West Bank ‘immediately’ following Israel’s onslaught there, the Israeli army remained in place without moving a tank for an additional six weeks. The US seems to lack a backbone when it comes to Israel’s humiliation of it, and will undoubtedly go out of its way to give even more money and political support to Israel despite these humiliations.”

YM – “I think it is significant and it won't be forgotten. Kerry dropped everything even as there was an emerging crisis in Ukraine to travel to the region for days to broker a cease-fire that would inevitably be in Israel's favor and the Israelis unanimously rejected it. This was a slap in the face. There is a great deal of backtracking now. But the message Israel sent to Washington was clear: ‘When we want your help we'll ask for it, otherwise, just keep saying you support us unconditionally.’ The whole spectacle was also meant to intimidate a much-battered Kerry from even considering reengaging in peace talks again in the last two years of Obama's presidency. Israel has a long history of biting the hand that feeds it and unfortunately Washington has a long history of responding by giving even more treats. As US public opinion on this issue continues to evolve in a direction more critical of Israel, this may change in the future but my sense is that it won't in the short term.”

OK – “Sadly, these verbal barbs and insults will not have a significant impact on relations between the United States and Israel. This is not the first time that there have been these kinds of pointed remarks about American officials by their Israeli counterparts. Other administrations that were equally supportive of Israel were also the subjects of scorn and derision. In addition, Netanyahu’s government is aware of the American political calendar and recognizes that with mid-term elections approaching both the US Congress and the Obama administration will support Israel’s invasion of Gaza. Israel also knows that once Obama’s ‘lame duck’ period begins after the elections, his ability to pressure Israel into renewed negotiations or force concessions will be severely limited and he is unlikely to spend the little political capital he has left on the peace process.”