Did Israel Thwart Another Palestinian "Peace Offensive"?

March 29, 2017

In Uncategorized

At this point, the script writes itself: Hamas threatens to moderate its position by amending its Charter, so Israel assassinates a senior Hamas militant.[1]

Whenever a credible Palestinian force threatens by political moderation to undermine Israel’s pretexts for diplomatic rejectionism—by offering/adhering to a ceasefire; signalling acceptance of the international consensus framework for resolving the conflict; or participating in an internationally-acceptable national unity government—Israel resorts to violence in order to destroy it, or at least provoke it into abandoning its pragmatic shift.

– 1982 Lebanon War: In August 1981, Saudi Arabia presented a peace plan based on the two-state solution.[2] The previous month, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had agreed to a ceasefire with Israel, and over the subsequent year adhered to it strictly, in the face of repeated and escalating violent provocations from Israel. Meanwhile, PLO leaders were reported to be considering acceptance of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Fearing international pressure to acquiesce in Palestinian statehood, Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, killing as many as 18,000 people.[3] Its objective was, in the words of Israeli political scientist Avner Yaniv, to foil the looming Palestinian “peace offensive” by destroying the PLO as “a political force capable of claiming a Palestinian state on the West Bank.” Israeli historian Yehoshua Porath observed that Israel’s decision to invade Lebanon “flowed from the very fact that the cease-fire had been observed”: PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat’s ability to enforce the truce for so long was “a veritable catastrophe in the eyes of the Israeli government,” since it established that the PLO could credibly “agree in the future to a more far-reaching arrangement.” Israel’s “hope,” Porath continued, “is that the stricken PLO . . . will return to its earlier terrorism . . . In this way, the PLO will lose . . . political legitimacy . . ., undercutting the danger that elements will develop among the Palestinians that might become a legitimate negotiating partner for future political accommodations.”[4]

– 1997: In September 1997, King Hussein of Jordan delivered a message from the Hamas leadership to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, proposing indirect dialogue with a view to agreeing a ceasefire as well as “discussion of all matters.” Two days later, Israeli agents attempted to assassinate the head of Hamas’s Political Bureau.[5]

– Second Intifada: Over the period 2000-2008, a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found, “it is overwhelmingly Israel that kills first after a pause in the conflict,” a pattern that “becomes more pronounced for longer conflict pauses.” Israel repeatedly resorted to force in this period to thwart existing or imminent Palestinian ceasefires:

Israel’s assassination of PFLP Secretary-General Abu Ali Mustafa in August 2001, followed by the PFLP’s assassination of Israeli Minister Rehavem Ze’evi, doomed the shaky truce that Arafat declared after September 11. The following month, a U.S. envoy was en route to discuss a ceasefire when Israel assassinated Hamas military leader Mahmoud Abu Hannud. Hamas responded with two suicide bombings that brought those discussions to an end. That December, Arafat’s declaration of a ceasefire led to four weeks without attacks inside Israel. However, the assassination of AMB leader Raed al-Karmi provoked the group to execute its first suicide attack. In July 2002, Fateh called for a ceasefire and Hamas indicated its conditional support. The next day, Israel killed Hamas leader Salah Shehadeh and 14 others with a one-ton bomb on a Gaza apartment building. Hamas declared the ceasefire plan defunct with two suicide bombings. In June 2003, the PA called for interfactional talks on a ceasefire and Hamas replied that it would consider the invitation. The next day, Israel fired missiles at Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi and the movement cancelled all talks. Later that month, following Prime Minister Abbas’s acceptance of the Road Map, Fateh, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad declared a three-month temporary ceasefire, or hudnah. Hamas did not break the truce, even as Israel arrested sympathizers and killed three field activists. When Israel assassinated Ismael Abu Shanab, however, Hamas resumed suicide attacks and the ceasefire collapsed.[6]

The November 2001 assassination of Hannud came shortly after Hamas and the Palestinian Authority reached agreement to refrain from suicide bombings within the Green Line. Veteran Israeli military correspondent Alex Fishman wrote of Hannud’s assassination, “Whoever gave a green light to this act of liquidation knew full well that he is thereby shattering in one blow the gentleman’s agreement between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.”[7] The July 2002 killing of Shehadeh occurred a mere 90 minutes before an agreement to suspend attacks inside Israel was to be announced. A leader of Israel’s Meretz party lamented, “At the very moment that it appeared we were on the very brink of a chance for reaching something of a cease-fire, or diplomatic activity, we always go back to this experience—just when there is a period of calm, we liquidate.”[8]

– 2006: Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections in the middle of a self-imposed unilateral ceasefire with Israel. In June 2006, it communicated to US President George W. Bush its acceptance of “a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders and . . . a truce for many years.” The US and EU responded with a crippling financial boycott, while Israel abducted 64 Hamas legislators, including a third of the Palestinian Cabinet, and increased its repression. The US and Israel backed Fatah-aligned forces to overthrow the elected Hamas government. In February 2007, Fatah and Hamas agreed a government of national unity. This was supported by most Palestinians, but, according to a US State Department official, left then-US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice “apoplectic.” The sanctions were maintained, causing the unity government to collapse.

– 2008: Israel and Hamas agreed to an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire in June 2008. “Though the exact terms are disputed, the basic agreement was that Palestinians in Gaza would cease rocket and mortar fire into Israel. In exchange, Israel would end targeted assassinations and incursions into the Strip, as well as lift the siege of Gaza.”[9] Hamas was, the quasi-official Israeli Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre reported, “careful to maintain the ceasefire,”[10] but Israel barely eased the siege. On 4 November 2008, Israel killed six Palestinians in Gaza, “effectively ending the cease-fire.”[11] As violence escalated, Hamas communicated its interest in extending the truce, provided Israel were to lift the siege “as outlined in the original agreement.” Israel did not accept, and on 27 December 2008 rained down more than 100 tonnes of bombs on Gaza—violating a 48-hour “lull” it had agreed with Hamas, during which time, a senior UN official reported, “it was obvious that Hamas was trying, again, to observe that truce.” A UN Inquiry found that Israel’s assault was “a deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorise a civilian population.”[12] Israel had decided to attack Hamas already in March 2007; the June 2008 ceasefire was never intended, from Israel’s perspective, to endure, but merely to give it time to prepare the attack.[13] As Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni explained, an extended truce “harms the Israel[i] strategic goal, empowers Hamas, and gives the impression that Israel recognises the movement.”

– 2012: With a sympathetic Muslim Brotherhood government in power in Egypt, and growing ties with Qatar and Turkey, the fortunes of the Hamas government in Gaza were on the rise. Israel resolved upon military action (Operation Pillar of Defence) to cut it down to size, while avenging other recent humiliations. The International Crisis Group reported: “At the heart of Operation Pillar of Defense . . . lay an effort to demonstrate that Hamas’s newfound confidence was altogether premature and that, the Islamist awakening notwithstanding, changes in the Middle East would not change much at all.”[14] To furnish a pretext for the assault, Israel assassinated Ahmed al-Jabari, described as Israel’s “subcontractor” in Gaza, “[h]ours” after “he had received the draft of a permanent truce agreement with Israel.”

– 2014: In June 2014, Hamas and Fatah agreed on the formation of a consensus government which, President Mahmoud Abbas declared—to no contradiction from Hamas—would recognise Israel and renounce violence. To Israel’s dismay, the US and Europe responded positively. In order to undermine the unity government by provoking Hamas violence, Israel launched a large-scale raid in the West Bank, arresting hundreds of Hamas members.[15] This triggered an escalatory spiral which culminated in Operation Protective Edge, during which Israeli forces killed more than 2,100 Palestinians in Gaza, overwhelmingly civilians.

The irony is, Hamas’s decision to amend its Charter may be the result of pressure from Egypt and/or Saudi Arabia—Israel’s de facto allies. The absence of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement prevents Saudi Arabia, in particular, from formalising its alliance with Israel, and pressure on Hamas is presumably intended to remove a perceived obstacle to such an agreement.[16] But this would be to take Israel’s pretext for rejectionism at face value: in fact, whereas Hamas’s proposed amendments might somewhat improve its (and Palestinians’) image in the West, they will no more satisfy Israel than did the PLO’s recognition of Israel.[17] On the contrary: as the record surveyed above demonstrates, Israel regards Palestinian moderation as a threat.

Jamie Stern-Weiner is a graduate student in Modern Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oxford. He is the editor of “Can Israel and Palestine Make Peace? Debating the Tough Questions,” forthcoming from OR Books.


[1] Israel has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility for the assassination. But Hamas (as well as Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah) have publicly accused it, and Israel is the most plausible suspect.

[2] Cf. “Arafat welcomes Saudi peace plan,” Chicago Tribune (31 October 1981), p. 3.

[3] Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War, third edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 418.

[4] Noam Chomsky, Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel & The Palestinians, updated edition (London: Pluto Press, 1999), pp. 199-201.

[5] Shaul Mishal and Avraham Sela, The Palestinian Hamas: Vision, Violence, and Coexistence, updated edition (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2006), p. 72.

[6] Wendy Pearlman, Violence, Nonviolence, and the Palestinian National Movement (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 175-76.

[7] Norman G. Finkelstein, Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, updated edition (London: Verso, 2008), pp. 140-41.

[8] Ibid.

[9] The Carter Center, “The June 2008 Gaza Ceasefire” (22 September 2009), p. 2.

[10] Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, “The Six Months of the Lull Arrangment” (December 2008), pp. 2, 6; cf. the graph, “Monthly Distribution of Rocket Fire during the Past Year,” p. 47.

[11] Carter Center, “Gaza Ceasefire.”

[12] UN Human Rights Council, “Report of the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict,” A/HRC/12/48 (25 September 2009), p. 408, para. 1893.

[13] Norman G. Finkelstein, Method and Madness: The hidden history of Israel’s assaults on Gaza (New York: OR Books, 2014), p. 26.

[14] Ibid., pp. 122-24.

[15] Ibid., pp. 136-37.

[16] Recent comments by Tony Blair are instructive on this point. The “Arab nations” and Israel have “a common interest” in fighting Iran and ISIS, he explained. The “key to transforming the Middle East” is to have “a relationship between Israelis and Arabs” which is “open, above the table, acknowledged.” But “you cannot get this new relationship unless the Palestinian issue is managed and dealt with and put at least on a path of resolution.” “[In] the end, the key is to be able to get an open relationship between Israelis and Arabs and that will have to come through, as I think the Israeli government accepts, . . . a process of engaging on the Palestinian issue also.”

[17] Hamas’s Charter was drawn up by a handful of people, and has not guided the organisation’s policy since. (See Khaled Hroub, Hamas: A Beginner’s Guide, second edition (London: Pluto Press, 2010).) It is referred to almost exclusively by Israel and its propagandists, in order portray Hamas as committed to Israel’s destruction. As in many aspects of Israel’s policy toward Hamas, there is instructive precedent in Israel’s treatment of the PLO. Noam Chomsky recently recalled that nobody paid any attention to the PLO Charter until a former chief of Israeli military intelligence, Yehoshafat Harkabi, drew attention to it in an Israeli journal. Harkabi did so just as the PLO was reportedly considering rescinding it. “There’s every reason to believe,” Chomsky ventured, “that he decided to bring this out precisely because he recognised, meaning Israeli intelligence recognised, that it would be a useful piece of propaganda and it’s best to try to ensure that the Palestinians keep it. Of course, if we attack it then they’re going to back off and say: we’re not going to rescind it under pressure, which is what’s happening with the Hamas charter.”