Newsletter #186— December 17, 2023
From the BI Israel/Hamas War Discussion
Jack Williams first wrote us about our Israel/Hamas posts on November 17. We responded shortly thereafter, and Jack replied on December 9, to which we are responding now. This string has gotten too long for one newsletter, so we posted Jack's first letter to us and our reply yesterday; this is his reply to that, and the Burgess's response.
Jack is the President of the Institute for Global Negotiation, based in Zurich. He is also consultant for the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) where he teaches negotiation and mediation skills and is leading a project to establish a solar PV-system in a refugee camp in Northern Iraq in partnership with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In addition, Jack serves an Adjunct Professor at Sciences Po Paris, Leuphana University Lüneburg and the American University of Kurdistan, where he was previously an Assistant Professor of International Relations and Acting Dean of the College of International Studies.
Jack's Second Letter to Us
Thank you for your recent posts and reflections on the Gaza-Israel conflict. I know you both as dedicated peace scholars and welcome your willingness to share your thoughts and critical responses openly. I have some questions to try and help me better understand how you arrived at your conclusions:
- You say that the IDF actions are necessary to secure peace and security and that a ceasefire now would embolden terrorists and undermine those aims. Conversely, many people are calling for a ceasefire and arguing that the continued IDF actions actually undermine peace and security. How do we figure out which is more effective at achieving these shared goals?
- How could the belief that the IDF isn’t intentionally harming civilians be false? What evidence could persuade you (is there any) that the IDF is not taking measures to minimize civilian casualties?
- If we were to imagine that it isn’t possible to militarily defeat Hamas, what could we recommend in the short and medium term to lay the foundations for peace and security?
Many thanks for any reflections on these issues and happy for them to be posted.
Guy and Heidi's Answers to Jack's Questions
Thanks for writing back, Jack. Here are our answers.
Let us start with number 2: "How could the belief that the IDF isn't intentionally harming civilians be false?" We're finding ourselves getting a bit tangled up in your double negatives: are we correct in interpreting this to ask "how could the belief that the IDF is intentionally harming civilians be true?" Or, we're guessing what you really mean is "how can you possibly believe that the IDF isn't intentionally harming civilians?"
As we said in our earlier response (Newsletter 185), one reason to believe that the IDF isn't intentionally harming civilians is that Israel is smart enough to know that such intentional harm will hurt Israel more than it will help them. It will turn global public opinion even more against Israel and will make more enemies among the Palestinian people. Nevertheless, we, like you, no doubt, have heard disturbing stories (which could have been real or fabricated by Hamas — it is impossible to tell). We also realize that it is likely that the anger of some Israeli fighters may have caused them to inflict more harm than necessary. War is a brutalizing institution and Israelis, like all soldiers, are susceptible to its effects.
But knowing what we do about Israel's long-term history in this regard, and its interests in winning global support, it does not make sense to us that Israel would be intentionally harming civilians as a matter of deliberate, strategic policy.
This is a war that Israel did not start, nor did they want. Hamas's actions on October 7 made this war inevitable. Our guess is that the severity of the Hamas attack on October 7was purposefully designed to provoke a strong Israeli response, with Hamas thinking (rightfully, apparently) that people's memories are short, and worldwide anti-Semitism is strong enough that Hamas would win the war of public opinion and hence, ultimately, win the entire war.
Further, this war is seen by Israelis as an existential threat to the continued existence of Israel. The extent of worldwide celebrations of October 7, combined with the hostility towards Israel's attempt to defend itself, has undoubtedly led Israelis to believe that they have to win this war on their own. And if they fail, they are likely to face an increasingly desperate and violent struggle to protect a Jewish population that has nowhere else in the entire world to go.
Should Israel give up, and say "never mind, we are going to let Hamas continue to govern (and hence continue to terrorize us as well as their own population) because we don't want to harm civilians?" Even though Hamas harms civilians — both their own and Israeli —day in and day out? Do people really expect Israelis to say or think that? That's what those calling for a cease-fire on terms that would leave Hamas in control of Gaza with its military capabilities largely intact are demanding.
So, Israel is doing what it believes they need to do to win this war. They might be wrong — they might be engaging in strategies that are self-defeating. Or, they might be right. We do not know nearly enough about the situation on the ground, nor do we know anything about miliary strategy. That is why we didn't call for a ceasefire several weeks ago, nor are we doing so now. That's dictating military strategy. We simply believe that Israel not only has a right, but an obligation, to defend itself and its citizens, and we believe that the IDF has a better idea about how to do that than do Guy and Heidi Burgess in Boulder, Colorado.
It should be remembered that Israel is in an all-out war against Hamas (a war that Hamas broke a cease-fire to provoke). Israeli society, as a whole, is committed to doing whatever it can to prevail. Remembering how the United States responded after 9/11 — when our future was not nearly as threatened as Israel's is now — we can't imagine our country (or most any other country) responding to an October 7-type attack in any other way.)
Like most people on the outside, we are horrified by what's going on in Gaza. We know there is immense suffering and horrendous damage that will take years, even decades to repair. We deeply wish this situation were different. We cry for the children on both sides of the border.
But it seems clear to us that the way in which Hamas has dug itself into and booby-trapped civilian structures, while operating from and shielding itself in tunnels built underneath civilian areas, leaves Israel with the terrible choice. They can choose to end the war, saying "we won't defend ourselves because we don't want to harm civilians." We already pointed out what we thought of that option. Or they can either expel the civilians (to the extent Hamas lets them go) and destroy those structures and tunnels, or they can send their soldiers on near-suicidal missions into areas where there are many Hamas fighters dressed as civilians and actual civilians present. Understandably, Israel has chosen to force people out and then destroy those structures.
If Hamas didn't use its own citizens as shields (which, by the way, is a war crime that has gone on for years without global complaint), Israel would certainly not be behaving in this way. Hence, we think that Hamas deserves as least as much responsibility for the resulting humanitarian disaster as the Israelis — probably much more. It is a horrible situation, but is an Israeli defeat going to help anyone? Yes, it will help Hamas. But it will not help Palestinians, who will continue to suffer under the violent oppression of Hamas, nor, obviously, will it help Israelis.
Although peacebuilders don't like to admit it, some wars have to be fought. Though some pacifists disagreed, most people thought World War II was worth fighting. We thought stopping Hitler and preventing the enslavement or extermination of anyone who wasn't of the Aryan race was important. Many civilians were killed in that war. But few questioned that the sacrifices were worth it.
Once the world learned the extent of the Holocaust, not only Jews, but people around the world said "never again!" Now, on elite college campuses around the U.S., students who take care to avoid the tiniest micro-aggression aren't at all concerned about shouts of "gas the Jews!" or chants of "Palestine will be free...from the river to the sea!" (which, of course, means the destruction of Israel). Instead of saying "never again," knowing and unknowing progressive students in the U.S. and in many other places around the world are advocating for a new, 21st-century kind of holocaust that seems to be arising simultaneously around the world, (not from just one country, which happened in World War II and still killed six million Jews). Is it surprising that Israel is doing everything in its power to defend itself?
Turning to Question #1, how do we figure out which (ceasefire now or continued fighting) is more effective at achieving these shared goals (of peace and security)? We would argue that we should consult the teachings of Bill Zartman who would ask is this conflict ripe for resolution or not? As long as one side or the other thinks that it can win if it continues the fight, the situation is not ripe for resolution.
As the international community makes decisions about the degree of support that it is willing to provide Hamas and Israel, it faces a critically important decision about where to draw the fuzzy line that separates reasonable efforts by Israel to defend itself from excessive Israeli force worthy of condemnation. How these decisions are made will be crucial to determining the ultimate outcome of the war and the larger precedents that are being set about the acceptability of sadistic, barbaric violence.
Here, our sense is that the debate revolves around two competing standards. Many believe that it is illegitimate for Israel to inflict greater civilian casualties on Gazans than Gazans inflicted on Israelis. Others seem to be calling out any civilian casualties inflicted by Israel, while ignoring or even celebrating those inflicted by Hamas because they were "freedom fighters standing up to anti-colonial oppression." As we have said above, if Israel stops fighting this war before the tunnel system is effectively destroyed, this leaves Hamas's fighting infrastructure largely intact. If it stops fighting before Hamas is disempowered, they are just going to come back in ways that pose a continuing threat. Given the world-wide support for such a ceasefire, and the relatively widespread support for Hamas's original assault, Israel's stopping now would also lead to the widespread conclusion that October 7 was, for Hamas, a stunning success and that more and similar attacks would be strategically wise. We believe that that would set a terrible precedent for Israel and the Palestinians, as well as the international system.
An alternative standard for deciding when the international community might insist on some sort of end of hostilities would be when the Israeli counterattack and destruction of Hamas military capabilities reaches the point where Palestinians conclude that October 7 was a tragic, never-to-be-repeated mistake — one that undermined, rather than advanced, their cause. There are indications that we may be nearing that point, although some of the "hints" we are seeing may not be valid. But, Lt. Col. Richard Hech who is an IDF spokesperson, wrote on his blog on December 12:
In recent weeks, over 350 Hamas and 120 Islamic Jihad terrorist operatives were apprehended by our forces. ... Many of the terrorists chose to surrender, realizing the fight was unwinnable. Their spirit is starting to break. They have lost contact with their commanders. The pressure from the IDF's operations against Hamas is delivering results. This is also reflected in voices we hear from Gazan civilians who are speaking out against Hamas' leadership for bringing about this terrible situation and then abandoning their people. There is something else we're seeing now, something that started in recent days and is picking up pace: more and more terrorists are voluntarily turning themselves in to the IDF. They're coming out of their hiding places with their hands in the air and surrendering to our forces.
Hamas officials may finally be feeling some pressure, if their recent public comments are any indication. Late Wednesday, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said he was open to talks to end the war and discuss a “political path that secures the right of the Palestinian people to their independent state with Jerusalem as its capital.” Haniyeh also said that it was a “delusion” to believe that Hamas could be excluded from any postwar settlement in Gaza. Then, in an interview with Al-Monitor published Thursday, Hamas official Mousa Abu Marzouk floated recognition of Israel as a potential step toward ending the war. “You should follow the official stance,” he said. “The official stance is that the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) has recognized the state of Israel.” But don’t get too excited [MacDougald writing here]. As Haviv Rettig Gur points out on X, we’ve been here before: [Gur's X post read] "This is Abu Marzouk's third offer to recognize Israel. It happens whenever Hamas is up against the wall - and evaporates immediately thereafter. That is, in other words, a lie."
But the biggest and most interesting news, perhaps, comes from the recently released poll from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research which surveyed Palestinians on both the West Bank and Gaza between November 22 and December 2, 2023 during the ceasefire. The sample size was 1231 adults, 750 from the West Bank, and 481 in Gaza, taken from 121 randomly selected locations. Many of the Gazan respondents had been displaced and were interviewed in UN shelters, government shelters, and homes of friends and relatives.
We quote extensively below directly from the PCPSR report (in their words as shown here.) and have underlined sections that we find particularly important to today's discussion. But for those who want to just skim the highlights:
- Support for the brutality of the October 7 attack among Palestinians is less widespread than it might otherwise appear, and is based on an erroneous understanding of why and how Hamas's offensive was fought.
- While Hamas' support has increased substantially following October 7 on the West Bank, it has not in Gaza, and it does not have majority support in either location.
- A base of support for a serious effort to make the two-state solution a reality still exists.
More details in their words follows.
Findings indicate that a majority of the respondents believe that Hamas' decision to carry out the offensive is correct, and believe that the attack came in response to “settler attacks on Al-Aqsa Mosque and West Bank residents, and for the release of Palestinian prisoners.” It is worth noting that there are significant differences between the attitudes of the residents of the West Bank compared to those of the Gaza Strip, in terms of the “correctness” of the Hamas' decision (and other matters), as the attitudes of Gazans tend to show a greater degree of skepticism about that decision. It is clear from the findings that believing in the “correctness” of Hamas' decision does not mean support for all acts that might have been committed by Hamas fighters on October 7. The overwhelming majority of respondents say that they have not seen videos from international or social media showing atrocities committed by Hamas members against Israeli civilians that day, such as the killing of women and children in their homes. Indeed, more than 90% believe that Hamas fighters did not commit the atrocities contained in these videos. When asked what is or is not allowed in war, under international humanitarian law, the findings indicate that the vast majority believes that attacking or killing civilians in their homes is not permissible. The majority (except in the Gaza Strip) also believe that taking civilians as hostages or prisoners of war is also not permissible. …
The findings also indicate significant opposition to the deployment of an Arab security force in the Gaza Strip, even if its purpose is to provide support to the Palestinian Authority. The majority also opposes a role for Arab states in delivering services to the Gaza Strip, but this majority is far less than the majority that opposes an Arab security presence. . . .
Findings indicate that the ongoing war between Hamas and Israel in the Gaza Strip has had a significant impact on a range of internal Palestinian issues and on Palestinian-Israeli relations. The most important of these effects can be summarized in the following changes:
- Support for Hamas has more than tripled in the West Bank compared to three months ago. In the Gaza Strip, support for Hamas increased but not significantly. Despite the increase in its popularity, the majority in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip does not support Hamas. It is worth noting that support for Hamas usually rises temporarily during or immediately after a war and then returns to the previous level several months after the end of the war.
- Support for President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fateh party drops significantly. The same is true for the trust in the PA as a whole, as demand for its dissolution rises to nearly 60%, the highest percentage ever recorded in PSR polls. Demand for Abbas's resignation is rising to around 90 percent, and even higher in the West Bank. Despite the decline in support for Fatah and Abbas, the most popular Palestinian figure remains Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah leader. Barghouti is still able to beat Hamas’ candidate Ismail Haniyeh or any other.
- Support for armed struggle rises ten percentage points compared to three months ago, with more than 60% saying it is the best means of ending the Israeli occupation; in the West Bank, the percentage rises further to close to 70%. Moreover, a majority in the West Bank believes that the formation of armed groups in communities subject to settler attacks is the most effective means of combating settler terrorism against towns and villages in the West Bank.
- Despite the above-mentioned reference to the lack of confidence in the seriousness of US and European talk about reviving the two-state solution and despite the increase in support for armed struggle, support for the two-state solution has not dropped in this poll. To the contrary, support for this solution has increased slightly in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This increase seems to come especially from those who believe that the US and European talk about the two-state solution is indeed serious.
This is important data. It shows that there still is an appetite for a two-state solution among grassroots Palestinians, particularly among those in the Gaza Strip who are directly feeling the impact of this war. Opposition on the West Bank comes from people who have not been affected as profoundly (although there have been numerous settler attacks on the West Bank.) It also shows that Hamas is not all that popular and its popularity has not increased significantly in the Gaza Strip since the war. Especially important is the fact that Palestinians apparently don't know about (and apparently would disapprove of) Hamas's tactics, had they known what they were. The Gazan respondents' support for Hamas was based on the notion that the war was started by an Israeli attack on the Al-Asqa Mosque, not by the unprovoked attacks of October 7. If the Gazans knew that, it seems likely their support would drop further.
We hope that one result of Israel's war against Hamas will be that grassroots Palestinians conclude that the October 7 was not worth the cost, and that trying to find some way to coexist with the Israelis would be far preferable. Should that point be reached, the argument for continuing violence collapses, assuming that the hostages are released, prisoners of war are exchanged, and some credible mechanism is put in place for holding perpetrators of egregious war crimes responsible. We also suspect that, at that point, Israelis will be quite willing to halt offensive operations and move ahead with postwar plans for addressing immediate humanitarian needs, providing continuing security, returning people to their homes where possible, and starting the process of rebuilding Gaza. This will also be the kind of "ripe moment" Bill Zartman talks about (and we talked about in our earlier response): when it makes sense and is preferable to stop fighting and start talking. But doing so before that time will be doomed to failure, either immediately or over a longer time frame when large-scale violence erupts again.
Finally, with respect to Question #3, about what comes next and questions about how the foundations for real peace and security might be laid, many people have warned about what Colin Powell used to call the "China shop syndrome:" the "you break it, you own it" principle. By destroying Gaza's civilian infrastructure and decimating its ability to govern itself, Israel is creating for itself the incredible nightmare of trying to govern and support a hostile population of over two million Palestinians as they try to rebuild their society. Few in Israel want to do this, nor, apparently do other Arab neighbors. And apparently, according to the PCPSR poll, the Palestinians don't want Israel or their Arab neighbors to do it either.
When asked about their own preferences for the party that should be in control in the Gaza Strip after the war, 60% (75% in the West Bank but only 38% in the Gaza Strip) selected Hamas; 16% selected a PA national unity government without President Abbas; 7% selected the PA with Abbas; 3% selected one or more Arab countries; 3% selected a national unity government under Abbas, and 2% selected the Israeli army. [underlining ours]
So again, the Palestinians who haven't experience Hamas' rule, but have experienced the well-documented extreme corruption of Fatah want Hamas. But the people who have been suffering under Hamas are much less enthusiastic about that outcome. However, there is even less agreement on an alternative, so the future after the war is going to be extremely difficult, regardless of how or when the war ends.
This is just one of the ways in which this horrific war has unleashed a chain of events that could easily lead to even greater tragedy. In opposing what we saw as premature calls for a cease-fire and giving voice to the often neglected Israeli side of the story, we did not intend to downplay the difficult challenge facing Israel and the many innocent Palestinians now and in the future. Finding a positive path out of this tragedy will require wisdom, courage, and humanity on the part of countless individuals whose actions will collectively determine the future of both peoples. We agree with what Julia Chaitin shared with us in her October 23 note (keep in mind, Julia is a Jew who used to live in one of the kibbutzim very close to the Gaza border).
When this is all over, Gaza needs to be rebuilt, in every possible way - economically, socially, educationally, health-wise, employment, social welfare, politically, etc. - so that it will be a sustainable, strong, healthy area. My thinking at the moment is that what is needed is international cooperation that undertakes this building and that young leadership from the ground becomes Gaza's leadership. I know that there are young adults there who have the abilities and desire to lead their society in these different areas. Alongside this, there have to be truly good relations between Israel - Gaza - Egypt. This is a very, very, very long-term process, but one that I believe must be achieved and can eventually be achieved, IF the nations commit themselves to doing right by the people of Gaza, it will be possible. Israeli lives and Gazan lives are intertwined, as Oct 7th so brutally showed us. We need to adopt a completely different paradigm so that all peoples of this region will have wonderful reasons for living.
What we take from Julia's comments and the PCPSR poll result is that there is leadership existing in Gaza that could possibly steer Gaza in a secure and peaceful direction if Hamas can be removed from power, and if Gaza got the international assistance it needs to rebuild and govern itself in ways which are able to resist corruption and provide for peace and security. Until that happens though, Hamas' support is strong enough, and their threats against their own people are strong enough, that such an outcome is extremely unlikely.
Still, the poll cited above offers a flicker of hope that we need to do all we can to nurture. When this terrible war draws to a close, there are likely to be significant numbers of both Israelis and Palestinians that conclude that such a catastrophe cannot be allowed to happen again. With luck and careful cultivation this might lead to one of those rare "never again" moments in which a critical mass of people are willing to consider bold new initiatives for pursuing some kind of coexistence-based strategy for allowing the two peoples to live together in peace despite the fear, anger, and distrust that this war has undoubtedly inflamed.
From the Israeli side, there have already been serious proposals for reversing Israeli expansion into the West Bank and pushing toward push toward a two-state solution, even in the absence of immediate Palestinian support. There are also proposals for ways in which Israelis might be able to transform victory on the battlefield into a brighter future for the Palestinians. We expect, though we are not aware of, comparable strategies for moving toward peace that are emanating from the Palestinian and Muslim side of the conflict. Hopefully, the fall of Hamas will allow these currently suppressed ideas to come to the surface. It is important to remember that the interests of the Palestinians cannot be defended by defending Hamas. It is their brutal and corrupt rule that is responsible for the ongoing humanitarian crisis. Fortunately, there is reason to hope that we may be entering an era in which big changes are possible, especially if new leadership emerges in both Gaza and Israel. Now is the time see how many of the really creative ideas developed by peacebuilders over the last several decades might be successfully adapted to further this emerging opportunity.
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