War, politics and law

The seven week conflict between Hamas and Israel, dubbed Operation Protective Edge by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), began in early July and reached a ceasefire in late August. It left over 2,000 Palestinians and 70 Israelis dead. While the media fervently covered the battle, the international community stood relatively silently on the sidelines. Hamas and Israel remain distrustful of each other. The bill for reconstruction will amount to $8 billion. The implications of the conflict have had far reaching consequences for Israeli and Palestinian domestic politics as well as their human rights records.

At Friday’s Middle East Institute panel on the way forward, Mathew Duss, President of the Foundation for Middle East Peace moderated the discussion with Khalid Elgindy, a Fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, Michael Koplow, Program Director at the Israel Institute, and Joe Stork, the Deputy Director at Human Rights Watch in the Middle East and North Africa Division.

Discussing the impact of the conflict on Palestinian domestic politics, Elgindy said that Hamas’ popularity was dwindling before the conflict. The group gained “new-found popularity” with Palestinians both in Gaza and the West Bank during the conflict. Hamas’ popularity came largely at the expense of support and confidence in the Palestinian Authority, whose President Abbas was already perceived as ineffective in peace negotiations with Israel and over-reliant on US-led peace negotiations. The Palestinian national movement is in “crisis” with “chronic dysfunction” in Palestinian political parties, Elgindy said. The priority needs to be cooperation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.

Koplow described the political atmosphere in the Israeli government pre- and post-conflict. Before the incursion into Gaza, the political dynamic was “relatively stable,” with Prime Minister Netanyahu “firmly in control” and the left largely disorganized. Netanyahu commanded almost unconditional support from the public, which was then challenged by the kidnapping and killing of 3 Israeli teens in June 2014. During the war, support for “staying the course” dwindled from over 80% to 30%. Following the ceasefire, the far right has garnered support as the Prime Minister faced pressure from his own party to reoccupy Gaza. Instead, Netanyahu announced plans to expand settlements in the West Bank in order to appease not only those in his own party but also those farther right.

Although Human Rights Watch has been unable to confirm its impressions due to Israel and Egypt blocking access, Stork sketched Israel’s and Hamas’ compliance, or lack thereof, with the laws of war. The 2014 operation in Gaza showed patterns of indiscriminate hostilities that date back to 2009. One of the most pressing issues is whether or not the parties distinguished between combatants and civilians. What constitutes a legitimate target has become subjective. Human Rights Watch does not define “terrorist operatives” as those who belong to a particular political party while Israeli law does. The IDF has also been cited in a number of cases for using force in areas where there were no military combatants. Rockets fired from the Palestinian side are categorized as war crimes because the targets are indiscriminate, failing to distinguish between civilians and combatants.

In the end, Duss posed a difficult but crucial question, “how can we avoid getting here again?” As both sides continue to dig in their heels, it becomes increasingly difficult to reach a compromise on the critical issues that must be reconciled before there is lasting peace.

PS: Here is the C-span video of the event.

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