Why Didn’t the Blockade and Operations Against Hamas Work?

From NBC.

Over at Al Monitor, Shlomi Eldar has written an article discussing the background of the siege of Gaza in the aftermath of Hamas’s takeover of the Gaza Strip. According to Shlomi (and other analysts), the motivation for the imposition of the blockade was “Israel’s working assumption was that economic pressure on the Gaza Strip would cause unrest among its residents, forcing Hamas to relinquish authority when it would not be able to provide for their well-being.” The logic behind these types of policies (embargoes, blockades, sanctions, strategic bombing, etc.) often is that the addition of coercive force against the general population will cause the people to blame the ruling party for this action. The hope is then the citizens will overthrow their government or put pressure on the government to change their policy in a way that will be more suitable for nation/s imposing the coercive policies.

Multiple authors have written about the use of coercive policies. The economist Thomas Schelling in his book The Strategy of Conflict discussed coercive policies (called compellence in his book) and the conditions needed for those policies to be successful. But perhaps one of the most famous studies was carried out by Robert Pape in his book Bombing to Win. In his book (and several articles), Robert Pape examined several case studies where the targeted nation suffered through coercive policies such as air strikes and economic sanctions. Instead of making the population turn against their government, they will actually support their government more.

This is easily observable in the case of Gaza and Hamas. It’s no secret that Hamas is not popular in the Gaza strip. Perhaps this is most visible in the manifesto from youth groups with much of their anger directed at both Hamas and Israel. Before the current war, Hamas had been facing increasing levels of disapproval in Palestine, especially in Gaza. But when Israel starts to bomb the Gaza strip, the same people who normally do not care for Hamas; rally around them. When Israel attacks Hamas is perceived as fighting for the survival of the Palestinian people, fighting against the siege, fighting for the independence of the Palestinian people. This can be observed in opinion polls following the conflicts in Gaza.

Lastly, blockades and coercive policies give the targeted government an opportunity to shore up its control. During the time of sanctions on Iraq, Saddam Hussein was able to control the limited amount of humanitarian aid given to him to give it to his supporters and to punish his enemies. Although there isn’t any literature I know of discussing how Hamas keeps itself in power in Gaza, it is possible that Hamas’s use of tunnels to smuggle in goods (both military and civilian) gives the militant group a tool to keep itself in power. Due to the very limited amount of goods allowed into the strip, civilians need to smuggle basic goods like medicine and food through the tunnels. 

Unfortunately, Israel’s strategy of trying to defeat Hamas has caused a large amount of suffering for the inhabitants of the Gaza strip without Hamas actually being defeated. The loss of Morsi in Egypt as well as the tightening of the blockade has starved Hamas financially, however that has not diminished its abilities to strike Israel nor has it lost control of the Gaza strip. Israel’s constant bombardment of the area only strengthens the group. The use of coercive policies such of the blockade and aerial bombardment usually backfire.


Bad Analysis and the Israel/Palestinian Conflict

When the Israeli-Palestinian conflict usually erupts, a lot of ink is spilled by various analysts and commentators trying to explain the circumstances of the current burst of violence. While I might not agree with everything that is published, usually there are enough high quality articles that allow the curious reader to learn about the history and perspective of the different warring sides. Unfortunately, there are plenty of examples of commentary that have little to no value and do little but blindly support their own side to such an extent that it could be considered comical. If it wasn’t for the fact that these are usually the perspectives and articles that are the most widespread in the mainstream media.

Finally, there are the articles that pretend to be neutral and thought provoking, but end up being (for the lack of a better phrase) pure crap. Luckily, many of these authors and commentators are usually not taken seriously by academics, but they do spread among the general public. This is one such article. Let’s start:

“1. Why is everything so much worse when there are Jews involved?”

This is actually the first major argument that Ali Rizvi decides to advance in his article. The attention given to the plight of the Palestinians by the Muslim world is because the conflict involves Jews. So essentially, the conflict garners a lot of Muslim sympathy because Muslims must be anti-Semitic. Indeed, Rizvi’s opinion that Muslims attention to the Palestinian issue is so great that Muslims do not care about the civil war in Syria and the rise of ISIS in Iraq. He even goes as far as to state:

“If I were Assad or ISIS right now, I’d be thanking God I’m not Jewish.”

Has Rizvi been paying attention the last three years? Before this flare-up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the focus on the Muslim world has been on Syria. This along with the rise of ISIS has been the focus of commentary and debate within the Muslim world. For the last couple of years, the issue many of my Muslim friends on Facebook brought up was the atrocities happening in Syria by the Assad government and ISIS in Iraq. Along with the #supportgaza hashtag, the most popular hashtag among my Muslim friends were posting statuses such as “I am a(n) __________ (insert ethnicity here) Muslim and #ISIS does not represent me nor does it represent Islam”. Just going to Al Monitor and reading the various commentary and articles from the Middle East on Syria and ISIS has been great. Unfortunately, there are some anti-Semitic elements that can be found on the pro-Palestine side, just like there is Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment on the pro-Israeli side. That said; this conflict is more than Muslims vs. Jews. If it was simply Muslims vs Jews, why do leftists and anti-colonialists support Palestine? Also, why did non-Muslim figures such as Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela also support Palestine?

Did Rizvi maybe consider that a reason why this conflict has received so much attention is that the conflict has been going on for 60+ years, has undergone various attempts at mediation with little to no success, has influenced Middle Eastern politics to a great extent, and was the first conflict for the first UN peacekeeping mission?

2. Why does everyone keep saying this is not a religious conflict?”

At the heart of it, this is a territorial conflict, not a conflict about religion. The early advocates of Zionism were not religious. Many of the early Palestinian groups fighting against Israel were secular in nature. Indeed, religious oriented groups on the Palestinian side did not erupt until much later in the conflict (roughly around the same time that religion became a much more prominent force in the Middle East, a topic I had written about earlier). No one is denying that religion doesn’t play a role in the conflict. It also played a role in the Sri Lankan conflict, India-Pakistan conflict, as well as many others. Is religion the driving force of these conflicts? Of course not. I wouldn’t categorize any of these conflicts as religious conflicts, but religion does play a role. However the role it plays is a minor one.

Rizvi attempts to support his argument by looking at some verses from the Old Testament and some hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) as proof, ignoring the fact that religion is often looked at afterwards to support one’s political belief. Just like some Jews believe that the creation of Israel is not valid because the Messiah did not lead to the Jews back to the homeland, there are plenty of verses and stories that Muslims use to justify their beliefs, which might or might not align with what other Muslims believe. Again the hadiths and verses that Rizvi quotes about Islam are to help paint a picture that Islam is inherently a violent and racist religion. I’ll deal with that more near the end.

“3. Why would Israel deliberately want to kill civilians?”

I happen to agree with Rizvi here. I don’t think most nations that enter into military conflict try to deliberately kill civilians. Whether they care is another thing. Indeed, collective punishment or pain inflicted on the civilian population has been a part of Israeli counter-terrorism strategy. Nor is Israel alone in this. Sri Lanka and other countries have attempted to use collective punishment as a counter-insurgency/terrorism strategy.

“If Israel wanted to kill civilians, it is terrible at it. ISIS killed more civilians in two days (700 plus) than Israel has in two weeks.”

This is a popular way to try and deflect criticism by talking about another conflict. Just like I can compare the fight with ISIS to the fight in South Sudan, where more people died at a faster rate than ISIS has killed. Does that change the circumstances of what is happening in Iraq? No. Because ISIS is killing at a faster rate than Israel or Hamas make it worse than those two? By itself, no. I can also point that Israel has killed about 1,065 Palestinians; the vast majority are thought to be civilians. 50 Israelis have been killed, the vast majority of them soldiers. So by this logic, Hamas must be an extremely moral participant in the conflict, ignoring the fact that they’ve been shooting off rockets into civilian areas with little or no regards for who the rockets hit.

Rizvi’s 4th point on Hamas for the most part is true, although he ignores the many civilian targets that Israel has bombed, the fact that Israel has also targeted civilian shelters despite being told 17 times that the school was a shelter for civilians, or the little regard for Palestinian lives.

And listen, I’m not saying Hamas are the good guys. They have little to no regard for civilian lives, Israeli or Palestinian, and many of the statements that they issue are downright awful and horrendous. Just don’t pretend that Hamas is the automatically the worst of the group, and don’t pretend Fatah are good guys either. Just talk to a Palestinian about them, I’m sure they would love to tell you about how ‘moral’ Fatah really is.

“5. Why are people asking for Israel to end the “occupation” in Gaza?”

According to Rizvi, Gaza is no longer under Israeli occupation.  Gaza has been under siege with little or no way to conduct economic activity or live normally. Many of the tunnels that Hamas has created are also used to smuggle food and medicine for the population.

But more importantly, Gaza is still under occupation. Rizvi should probably learn a bit about international law. Iraq, despite having elections and their own government during the U.S. war was considered occupied. The Israeli military still controls Gaza. The UN has come out and said that Gaza is still occupied. Many international lawyers still consider Gaza to be occupied (here’s a good overview of why it is still considered occupied).

Rizvi’s 6th point focuses the blame of Palestinian casualties only on Hamas. Hamas does deserve blame for not protecting civilians, and so does Israel for targeting civilian areas and not lifting up the siege for Palestinians to seek shelter outside of Gaza. 

Rizvi’s 7th point is where he attempts to show he is neutral by putting Israel under the stoplight. This is the first time he tries to say bad things happen on both sides, whereas before he puts the blame more on Hamas or the Palestinians (and Islam). But first, not everybody is pro-Israel. In most parts of the world, the public sympathy is on the Palestinian side. Second, it is worth noting that the Israeli public sphere does do a good job of portraying the different sides to each story. Indeed one thing that can be observed about Israeli media is that it will put in a more diverse and critical take of Israeli actions than even the American media.

The title of the article is the “7 things to Consider Before Choosing Sides in the Middle East”. Yet this article is not neutral, nor does it actually talk about the conflict in general. Instead, the ‘questions’ are put in way to negatively question one side.  Better questions would be: What are the claims of the two sides to the land? What are the situations for both sides (e.g. living in terror)? This article does not do that.

Instead, this does little to be neutral. It actually makes claims that give little to no consideration to what is happening on the ground nor does it pay homage to the complexity of the problem. There are plenty of bad arguments on both sides (an example of this is when a Palestinian says “we can’t be anti-Semitic, we are Semites), advancing these type of arguments does little to help us understand what is happening there. 

To borrow from Daniel Drezner, this article is unadulterated horses**t.

*Rizvi has a tendency to cast Islam as an inherently racist or bigoted religion that affects his whole analysis. Nor is he the only commentator that does this. But this is a topic for a future post.

What is Israel Hoping to Accomplish?


Air strikes on Gaza. From JPOST

Unfortunately, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict has flared up again, leading to yet another bombing run by Israel on the Gaza Strip, rockets from Gaza into Israel, and revenge attacks against Palestinian civilians in Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank. This all started due to the kidnapping and murder of 3 Israeli students, culminating in the arrests of hundred of Palestinians, a revenge killing by extremist Israeli soccer fans, and the current bombing happening in Gaza. Of course, this have also been complemented by attacks on Palestinians by police and settlers leading to the deaths of several Palestinians by Israeli security forces during the arrests and search for the murderers. Hamas has praised the kidnapping, though it claims that it had nothing to do with it.

While the people responsible for the kidnapping were in the West Bank and the supposed planner of this kidnapper living in Turkey, Israel has chosen to bomb Gaza in what looks like a case of collective punishment. There has been evidence that the kidnapping was carried out by members of a prominent clan in Hebron. While this clan is nominally aligned with Hamas, they are also known for going against what the Hamas leadership wants. If this is true, why is Israel targeting Hamas? There are two explanations that have been suggested: to dismantle Hamas’s network, and/or to destroy the unity deal. The former explanation is what has been given publicly by Israeli officials. If this is truly their aim, it most likely isn’t going to work. This was Israel’s rationale in their 2008 and 2012 operations, but they failed each time. Of course, Hamas is facing some dire times right now. With the Egyptian and Israeli militaries cooperating more closely to squeeze Hamas and Gaza, Hamas has lost its sources of revenue and military aid. Of course, Iran does still send the group missiles every now and then. But with the borders being sealed and the area carefully watched over, Hamas has been having a difficult time obtaining these weapons.

With the recent unity deal, Hamas has been able to shift the burden of civil expenses onto the Palestinian Authority (PA) and start operating more freely in the West Bank. While critics have argued that the unity deal doesn’t do enough to curb Hamas’s ability to attack Israel, it is also important to remember that Hamas does not hold any key positions within the cabinet of the government. The unity government has also promised to continue the peace negotiations with Israel. If anything, Hamas ordering this kidnapping of Israel is questionable as this would go against their vital interests.

Which brings us to the latter of the two possible explanations: that Netanyahu is trying to put pressure on the new unity government. Israel had originally failed to convince the world powers against recognizing the new government (with India, China, Turkey, and even the US agreeing to cooperate with the unity government). During the search for the missing Israeli students, the PA was perceived as having aided Israel’s arrest of Hamas members in the West Bank, putting a great amount of strain on the new unity deal. Indeed, several analysts have argued that this is what Netanyahu is attempting to accomplish.

But this is short term thinking that will only escalate tensions and possibly lead to a third intifada (uprising). It is no secret that there is a lot of tension between Hamas and the PA. When Hamas and Fatah (the largest faction in the PA) signed an unity agreement in 2011, this was met with skepticism throughout the region. The recent unity government is a surprise, but it does little to address the inherent distrust between the two Palestinian parties. A greater way to insure the breakup of the Palestinian government would have been to let it run their course and see if it broke up. Instead, Netanyahu has elected to choose a path that leads to more suffering for the Palestinian people escalates tensions, and internationally isolates Israel, without any real indication that this will break the unity deal or lead to the dismantling of Hamas.