For Israel, the beginning of wisdom is to admit its mistakes

Israel should embrace Palestinian unity for its own security. A further land grab will only inflame tensions

Israeli soldiers at an observation post overlooking the Gaza Strip last month

Israeli soldiers at an observation post overlooking the Gaza Strip last month. ‘Israel should transfer its confrontation with Hamas from the battlefield to the conference table.’ Photograph: Baz Ratner/Reuters

Israel has a habit of justifying its actions in the occupied Palestinian territories, however illegal and indecent, in the name of security. But denying any security to the other side only perpetuates the conflict.

Five days after reaching a ceasefire with Hamas to end the latest round of fighting in Gaza, the Israeli cabinet decided to appropriate 988 acres of land on the West Bank, near the place where three Israeli teenagers were recently abducted and murdered, to make way for another illegal Jewish city. This is the biggest land grab in three decades. As the justice minister, Tzipi Livni, pointed out: “It was a decision that weakens Israel and damages its security.” What it proves, if further proof is needed, is that Israel’s leaders are determined to prevent a two-state solution to the conflict.

Operation Protective Edge, which came to an end after 50 days of fighting, was the third and deadliest war in six years between Israel and Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement that rules Gaza. Israel lost 66 soldiers and six civilians. On the Palestinian side, the war left 2,104 dead, mostly civilians, and 12,656 injured; 17,000 houses were destroyed or damaged; 520,000 people, out of a population of 1.8 million, were displaced. The damage to buildings and to the civilian infrastructure, estimated at $6bn, will take many years to repair.

What did Israel gain by unleashing the deadly firepower of the IDF against the caged population of this tiny coastal enclave? Virtually nothing. Israel had in fact provoked this crisis by its violent crackdown against Hamas activists on the West Bank following the murder of the three teenagers. Hamas rocket attacks – the ostensible reason for the war – were a response to Israel’s aggressive security measures. The prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, defined the operation’s objective as “calm in return for calm”. But calm prevailed before Israel initiated the cycle of violence. Hamas was left with a quarter of its pre-war rocket arsenal and many of its tunnels, dubbed “terror tunnels” by Israeli spokesmen, were destroyed. But arsenals can be replenished and tunnels can be rebuilt.

Both sides claimed victory but Netanyahu’s sounded rather hollow. Announcing the ceasefire at a news conference, he claimed a major military as well as a diplomatic achievement for the state of Israel. Hardly anyone shared this assessment. The public, the media, the opposition, hawkish members of his Likud party, and some of his coalition partners, accused him of accepting a ceasefire that failed to meet any of Israel’s objectives. One newspaper gave the score as Hamas: 1; Israel: 0. Netanyahu’s popularity plummeted from 85% at the beginning of the operation to 38%.

Hamas had more solid reasons for rejoicing, despite the horrific suffering endured by the people of Gaza. By any objective criterion, the outcome of the conflict was a draw. But for a small and poorly armed militia to stand its ground against one of the mightiest armies in the world is a remarkable achievement. Not only did its fighters stand firm, they also succeeded in imposing on the enemy what it dreaded most – a war of attrition. Despite the intense military pressure, Hamas’s spirit did not break and its popularity skyrocketed. Above all, Hamas succeeded in sending a clear message that Israel would have no peace and no security as long as it continued to occupy Palestinian territory.

So what should Israel do? The beginning of wisdom is to admit mistakes and stop adding fuel to the fire. First of all, Israel should end its relentless campaign to demonise the people of Gaza. Demonisation is the enemy of dialogue and a major cause of diplomatic deadlock. The assertion of Major General Giora Eiland that there is no such thing as “innocent civilians” in Gaza is simply absurd. Gazans are normal people and, like normal people anywhere in the world, they long to live in freedom and dignity on their land.

Second, it is time to remove from Hamas the terrorist tag. This is a powerful weapon in the propaganda war but useless in the quest for peace. Hamas is indeed guilty of terrorism but it is also a legitimate political actor, having won a fair and free election in 2006. Netanyahu claims that Hamas is indistinguishable from the murderous fanatics who make up Isis. Hamas, however, is not a messianic jihadist movement but a local organisation with a pragmatic political leadership and limited aims.

Third, Israel should transfer its confrontation with Hamas from the battlefield to the conference table. On 2 June Hamas and Fatah reached an accord and formed a national unity government which consists of technocrats without a single Hamas-affiliated member. This government accepts the Quartet’s three conditions to qualify as a negotiating partner: it recognises Israel, it respects all previous Palestinian agreements with Israel and it renounces violence. One of Netanyahu’s undeclared war aims was to disrupt this unity government so Israel could continue to divide and rule, but the government survived the baptism of fire.

Hamas vehemently denies the legitimacy of Israel but its leaders have stated repeatedly that if Fatah negotiates with Israel a two-state peace deal based on the 1967 borders, and if this outcome is approved in a national referendum, it would respect it as the choice of the Palestinian people. Israel should therefore stop thinking of Palestinian unity as a threat and embrace it instead as a potential building block of its own security.

These existential issues may or may not be addressed at a later stage. For the time being in Cairo the two delegations are negotiating, through Egyptian mediators. Israel’s main demand is the demilitarisation of the Gaza Strip. This is unrealistic because Gaza is the last outpost of resistance to the 47-year-old occupation and Hamas is not about to lay down its arms. Hamas is calling for the lifting of the illegal seven-year Israeli blockade of Gaza and the reopening of the borders. Other Hamas demands include the rebuilding of Gaza international airport, which Israel destroyed in 2001, the release of prisoners and the reopening of the “safe passage” to the West Bank. These are not new but grounded in earlier agreements that Israel violated.

Israel’s policy towards Gaza since the unilateral disengagement in 2005 has consisted of the systematic violations of international humanitarian law, duplicitous diplomacy and large doses of brute military force. With chilling cynicism, Israeli generals speak of their periodic incursions into Gaza as “mowing the lawn”. This policy has manifestly failed to procure the security that Israel’s citizens deserve. The writing is on the wall. A new and more constructive policy is desperately needed. Israeli politicians, however, are unlikely to be able to make any of the proposed moves without strong external pressure. This is where the international community comes in. It must begin to hold Israel to account in a way that it has so far shamefully failed to.

Avi Shlaim, Sunday 7 September 2014