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Trump and Obama both ignored Gaza — at great cost

The extremist group Hamas wants to fill the void in Palestinian leadership. US abandonment of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has furthered its goal.

An injured protester is carried to an ambulance at the border fence with Israel on May 15, in Gaza City, Gaza.
An injured protester is carried to an ambulance at the border fence with Israel on May 15, in Gaza City, Gaza.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

President Trump’s attitude and policies toward Israel differ in many respects from President Obama’s — the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem is exhibit A — but their administrations have one thing in common: Both ignored the explosive issue of Gaza.

Now we are seeing the consequences of this neglect.

Israel has killed at least 60 people and wounded more than 2,000 in the latest protests in Gaza — yet more proof, if any were needed, that the problem of Gaza will not go away. Almost 2 million Palestinians live in the strip, confined in what observers describe as an open-air prison. At times, as in the past few days, the violence reaches tragic levels. At others, as in 2014, 2012, and 2008-’09, it crosses the line into low-level war.

The sources of Gaza’s problems are not hard to find. The Israeli-Palestinian standoff is deeply complicated by intra-Palestinian political conflict. Hamas, a fundamentalist organization that rejects the legitimacy of Israel, has ruled the strip since 2007, and it is both a terrorist group and the administrator of a phantom state, presiding over its own army, courts, and hospitals.

Unlike the Palestinian Authority, its rival that runs the West Bank, Hamas leaders regularly and aggressively denounce any attempt at a comprehensive peace. Hamas has launched rockets at Israel, or at times tolerated other groups that do so; cozies up to Iran; supports the occasional terrorist attack from the West Bank; and digs tunnels in the hopes of kidnapping Israelis, especially soldiers.

In response, Israel limits goods and the flow of people to and from Gaza, with the support of most of the world, including neighboring Egypt and the more moderate Palestinian Authority. As a result, Gaza’s economy, not surprisingly, is in ruins. Israel also regularly blows up tunnels, conducts airstrikes to prevent or retaliate for rocket launches from Gaza, and otherwise uses force to keep Hamas in the box.

The struggle between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority for the mantle of Palestinian leadership

Hamas itself faces a financial crisis, and its popular legitimacy is questionable as Gazans chafe at their miserable situation. So it’s no surprise that Hamas tries to instigate crises, as it did this week, both to force the world to pay attention to Gaza’s misery and to undermine the Palestinian Authority. Relative to Hamas, the PA can wind up looking weak — or, in some Palestinian minds, even as a collaborator with the enemy — when it stands on the sidelines (or even privately cheers on Israel) during a Hamas-Israel confrontation.

Yet for all this, Hamas has shown signs of pragmatism. In addition to what it calls “resistance” (violence to defeat Israel), Hamas also provides law and order, social services, and other government basics as part of its mission to prove it can govern effectively. Israeli intelligence has concluded that Hamas does not seek a military confrontation with Israel that could escalate into a broader, multi-day conflict like the one Gaza suffered in 2014. That’s because Hamas recognizes Israel’s ability to punish the strip as well as the efficacy of Israel’s anti-rocket systems. Instead, Hamas uses violence and other provocations to keep the pot bubbling but tries to prevent it from boiling over.

Hamas has even cracked down on even more radical voices in the strip, such as those more ideologically aligned with groups like the Islamic State, and Israeli officials acknowledge that Hamas tries to keep a lid on rocket attacks most of the time to avoid a conflict. In addition, in 2017 Hamas issued a document indicating its willingness to live with the 1967 borders — albeit without conceding Israel’s right to exist. That’s hardly a blanket endorsement of peace, and it’s a position that Israel understandably scorns. But it’s still a major concession for a group that has always had maximal goals.

Regardless of which party controls the White House, the United States prefers to ignore the political complexity and humanitarian disaster that is Gaza. Debate today focuses on whether to restart peace talks with the Palestinian Authority, on the embassy move, and on other big questions, but no one seems to be calling for a major change in policy toward Gaza.

In the latest violence, the White House unequivocally backed Israel, blaming Hamas squarely for the deaths. The Obama administration probably would have been more equivocal and called for restraint, but a major policy shift would have been unlikely. Ignoring Gaza is a mistake, however, as Hamas has shown its disruptive power again and again. Were the Trump administration to try to restart peace talks with the Palestinian Authority, Hamas could force another crisis in Gaza and derail negotiations, as it would be politically impossible for any Palestinian leader to make concessions while ordinary Palestinians are dying.

As long as Hamas controls Gaza, the US and Israel must engage with it

Alas, for now there is no alternative to Hamas in Gaza. The Palestinian Authority does not have the strength or appeal to reassert its power there. Should Hamas collapse, militants would operate unchecked, and Israel might have to assume responsibility to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe. Israel, however, has no desire to reoccupy Gaza, which would require deploying tens of thousands of troops for many years. Since withdrawing from Gaza in 2005, Israeli leaders of all political stripes have favored punishing raids over renewed occupation.

The United States ought to change its policies toward Gaza in several ways. First, it — along with Israel — should reward any signs of moderation on Hamas’s side, trying to encourage the group to focus on governance over resistance. Hamas leaders speak out of both sides of their mouths where resistance and terrorism are concerned, but when the group makes real concessions, they should be recognized, and economic pressure should ease in response. Ordinary Gazans need to know that when and if Hamas is willing to forgo violence, their misery will ease.

More importantly, the world needs to help the Palestinian people build a credible and moderate Palestinian alternative to Hamas. Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority, no longer has such credibility. His years of negotiating with Israel failed to bear fruit even as his security forces worked to suppress dissent in the West Bank. He has no gains to show at the negotiating table and no election to validate his leadership.

Israelis see Abbas as weak, and his recent remarks blaming Jews for the Holocaust, and pogroms throughout European history, hardly help his standing as a peace broker. Abbas is 82, moreover, and there is no clear successor for leadership of the Palestinians.

Rather than try to shore up Abbas, particularly at a time when the Israeli government is in no mood for peace, the United States and its allies should be trying to identify younger leaders who might be future partners. Otherwise, Hamas could step into the void when Abbas dies or steps down.

Yet no leader will be credible if he or she always comes away empty-handed at the negotiating table. Hamas’s best line of attack against its Palestinian rivals is that 25 years of peace negotiations have only led to more Israeli settlements and to political losses like the relocation of the US Embassy to Jerusalem.

A real peace process, including an Israeli willingness to make concessions, is vital if Hamas’s long-term appeal is to be reduced.

Daniel Byman is a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Find him on Twitter @dbyman.

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