Victor Kattan, For The Straits Times
Tormenting dilemmas of the Middle East
Published on Jul 18, 2014 12:11 PM
The Israel-Palestine conflict is back in the headlines and there appears to be another pointless conflict in the Gaza Strip. Yet this conflict is getting everyone worried.
The latest conflict is taking place against the backdrop of a failed attempt - brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry- to resolve the long-running Israel- Palestine dispute. Many policymakers fear that the two-state solution may no longer work. This has serious implications, because the status quo is unsustainable. With unrest in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, the risk that these conflicts cannot be contained within their borders but may also affect Jordan or even the Palestinian territories is a cause for concern.
One of the reasons why the latest round of negotiations failed: Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is opposed to the creation of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
Not relinquishing security control west of the Jordan River while maintaining settlements, bypass roads, and security zones means not giving the Palestinians real sovereignty. This would effectively preclude the establishment of a viable Palestinian state, which has been American and European policy for two decades.
The Palestinian leadership is divided between a weak and fragmented authority in the West Bank and a strong but divisive leadership in Gaza. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is 79 years old and no one knows who will replace him.
Israel maintains a tight grip on Gaza, where 1.7 million Palestinians are crowded into 365 sq km - about half the size of Singapore - or 1.4 per cent of the territory of what was once the British Mandate of Palestine. Israeli troops may no longer roam the streets of Gaza, but Israel controls Gaza's airspace, borders, territorial waters, currency, trade, electricity, food and water supply, fishing industry, population registry, electromagnetic spectrum, and collects the value-added tax on Palestinian goods, which it sometimes withholds. Unmanned aerial vehicles regularly patrol Gaza's airspace and an array of sensors, remote-controlled machine guns, buffer zones, watchtowers, and fences, ward off potential infiltrators into Israel.
Although Mr Netanyahu is under pressure from some members of his coalition government to respond to the rocket attacks by sending ground forces into Gaza, he does not want to reoccupy Gaza, and if he does, he will not want his troops to stay there for long. Mr Netanyahu's primary aims are to scuttle the Hamas- Fatah unity deal, diminish Hamas' power by degrading and destroying its arsenal of rockets, and send a message to the rest of the Arab world that Israel will always hit its enemies hard. Sending ground forces into Gaza entails many risks: increased civilian casualties, a higher chance that its soldiers will be killed, and growing international isolation.
One of the differences between the current conflict and the last time Israel sent ground forces into Gaza in 2008-2009, is that Israeli troops could be exposed to war crime suits in The Hague or elsewhere. In April, President Abbas signed a dozen treaties on human rights and humanitarian law, which have been accepted by their depositaries. This did not include the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, but it is a treaty the President could ratify as a last resort.
But Mr Abbas' main goal is to shore up his fragmented government and establish a Palestinian state. He is frustrated at his inability to establish an independent Palestinian state that is unified with Gaza, which will have to involve dealing with Hamas. He is also frustrated by Mr Netanyahu's support for settlement construction in the West Bank and is under pressure to show he can deliver on his UN statehood strategy which it was hoped would inspire the world to put more pressure on Israel to end its 47 year occupation and acquiesce in the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Hamas is in a dilemma too. Its leaders have lost their patron in Egypt, and they are frustrated at their inability to end their isolation resulting from Israel's seven year blockade. They are also struggling to pay the salaries for 44,000 civil servants
The European Union is frustrated by its lack of influence over Israeli policy and the failure to assist the Palestinians with establishing an independent state in accordance with the two-state solution. The Americans are concerned about regional insecurity and fear the Arab-Israeli dispute might blow up in their faces and affect regional developments. They are also irritated by their lack of influence over Mr Netanyahu's government.
Israel seems impervious to international pressure. But thwarting Palestinian self-determination is not a long-term viable option for Israel. The calm in the West Bank is a chimera. Without Mr Abbas' close security coordination with Israel there would be further unrest. So long as the Palestinians believe that Mr Abbas can eventually deliver in creating a Palestinian state, his security forces will continue to support him. But the conflict in Gaza and security clampdown in the West Bank are causing divisions amongst Palestinians. The longer the conflict in Gaza continues, the more likely it could spiral out of control.
The writer is a postdoctoral fellow at the Law Faculty of the National University of Singapore, a former legal adviser to the Palestinians, and author of two books on the Israel-Palestine conflict.