Yet again, tensions in Israel and Palestine are aflame. To better understand the recent major escalation, we talked to interruptor Lisa Goldman, the director of the Israel-Palestine Initiative at the New America Foundation.
Before relocating to Brooklyn in 2012 she lived in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, where she wrote for the Israeli and international media, including Haaretz newspaper. She covered the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and the war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006. Lisa has been on the ground in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. She also went to Cairo in 2011 to cover the Arab Spring. She is also one of the original editors of +972, a progressive publication devoted to Israel-Palestinian issues.
Born and raised in Vancouver, Canada, Lisa’s cooking gives Martha Stewart and Yotam Ottolenghi a serious run for their money.
FPI: What is your role at the New America Foundation?
As director of the Israel-Palestine Initiative at the New America Foundation I look at frameworks for examining the Israel-Palestinian conflict that go beyond the one-state or two-state binary. That involves looking at regional economic cooperation as well as amplifying the efforts of bottom-up initiatives toward various scenarios, such as shared sovereignty, on both sides. I also examine how Israel exploits Palestine’s natural resources — like quarry stone, water and land—under cover of its military occupation.
FPI: Israel and Palestine have always had their problems – could you summarize what has happened to heighten tensions over the past week?
There are two separate issues involved in the breaking of the cease-fire between Israelis and Palestinians:
The first is what is happening in Jerusalem and throughout Israel. In mid-June three Jewish boys were abducted in the West Bank by some two or three men, probably Palestinian but not yet identified, who apparently picked them up at a hitch-hiking post, shot them in the car and later buried the bodies near Hebron. The abduction of the boys set off a huge man hunt, with Israeli soldiers turning the West Bank upside down—raiding villages and towns, turning houses upside down, carrying out pre-dawn arrests and, in some cases, mortally shooting protestors. Ultimately, soldiers found the bodies buried in a field near Hebron.
Prime Minister Netanyahu (of Israel) held Hamas responsible for the abductions and murder, although Hamas has denied responsibility. The word “revenge,” was heard everywhere —from politicians to social media memes. In Jerusalem and elsewhere, hyper nationalist Jewish teens roamed the city in groups, shouting racist slogans that included incitement to murder.
The day after the funeral for the three boys, which was nationally televised, a 17 year-old Palestinian boy named Mohammed Abu Khdeir was abducted from the Shuafat area of East Jerusalem. An hour after witnesses and CCTV recorded the abduction, police discovered his corpse in the Jerusalem Forest. He had been burnt alive. The police arrested six teenage Jewish Israeli boys, three of whom confessed and re-enacted the crime.
Palestinian men in East Jerusalem took to the streets in protest. [East Jerusalem is Israeli-controlled and occupied by stateless Palestinians — neither residents of the West Bank or Israeli citizens.] The protests became extremely violent, with Israeli paramilitary police launching many rounds of tear gas and shooting rubber bullets that hit CNN’s Ben Wedeman in the head and broke the jaw of an Israeli photojournalist name Tali Shapiro. In one incident, three paramilitary riot police were filmed brutally beating Tariq Abu Khdeir, the 15 year-old American cousin of the dead boy, even though he was already subdued and in handcuffs. Images of the beating and the boy’s terribly disfigured face shocked Americans and Israelis.
Secondly: Israel has launched an operation against Hamas in Gaza. The question is how are these events linked? Some say that the Israeli government has wanted for quite some time to break up the Hamas-Fatah alignment, after the respective Palestinian leadership groups mended their rift in a public national reconciliation agreement a few weeks ago. For Israel, Hamas-Fatah unity is politically undesirable. A Hamas-Fatah alignment puts the Palestinians, diplomatically and politically, in a stronger position.
There was already an atmosphere of vendetta against Hamas. Most people believed Hamas was involved in the abduction and murder of the three Jewish teens, despite the leadership’s denials. The aftermath of the event heightened tensions. There are occasionally rockets fired into Israel from Gaza, mostly at the population centers near the border. The rockets are not very powerful and usually cause little damage, but the fact that they tend to land mostly in open field is largely a matter of luck. Certainly they frighten and anger people deeply, which is understandable. With an increase in rocket fire over recent weeks, the Israeli leadership said that they were going to commence military action against Hamas in Gaza.
Israel has called up 40,000 reserve soldiers and deployed tanks and armored vehicles at the Gaza border. Meanwhile, we are on the third day of aerial and marine bombardments that have killed upward of 80 residents of Gaza, including children and old women. Eight men were killed by a bombardment that hit a beachside cafe where they were watching a World Cup game.
Israel insists that while there is some “collateral damage,” their air force is targeting Hamas militants. But the fact remains that at least a dozen children are dead.
FPI: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has spent much of his tenure trying to broker a peace deal between Israel and Palestine – where does this put his effort and what will the White House do?
The White House has reiterated that Israel has the right to defend itself from rocket attacks. Beyond that it is hard to see the Americans taking an active stance to try to broker peace. Given the failure of the Kerry Initiative, neither the State Department nor the White House is interested in launching a diplomatic initiative aimed at resolving the conflict. Israel remains important to American domestic and foreign policy so it’s a given for the White to reiterate its support for Israel. But meanwhile Philip Gordon, special assistant to US President Barack Obama and the White Housecoordinator for the Middle East, told an Israeli audience at a Tel Aviv conference this week that they had to confront an “undeniable reality”— that is that it cannot maintain its military occupation of the Palestinians indefinitely while remaining a democratic state. So that was a bit of tough love from the White House.
FPI: Where do the leaders of Israel and Palestine stand?
It doesn’t seem like either the Israelis or Palestinians are particularly interested in discussing any type of reconciliation or reaching a peaceful resolution. The Palestinian Authority and its leader Mahmoud Abbas has reportedly been in touch with the Secretary-General of the Arab league and, in turn, he has been in touch with the UN with an appeal to tell Israel to deescalate. I suspect that the Palestinians are going to continue the process they’ve begun and sign onto international treaties such as the Rome Treaties and pursue Israel for war crimes and human rights violations. Egypt’s President al-Sisi says he wants to mediate a ceasefire, but given his hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood (a conservative political party in Egypt) he might be willing to sit back and let Israel pound Gaza for a bit longer. I don’t know if Secretary Kerry will become involved.
FPI: So do we just wait it out?
Depends on what Israel’s goals are now. This is the third military operation against Gaza since 2009. Given recent history, we guess that these rounds of violence last two-to-three weeks.
You have to realize there is no end game here. Israel is not going to flatten Gaza and Hamas’s military wing is not going to vanquish the most powerful army in the Middle East with homemade rockets. At some point both sides are going to have to say “that’s enough.”
FPI: How does what’s happening in Israel and Palestine affect the greater Middle East?
The Palestinian issue is an emotional one throughout the Middle East. Right now the focus are what’s going on in Syria and Iraq. People (in the Middle East) are worried about the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) and the Syrian civil war. I want to emphasize that I do not read Arabic but based on conversations and reports from professional colleagues it seems that Palestine as an emotional issue is losing its power in the Arab world. The Palestinians are aware of this and this is a point of frustration.
FPI: You lived in Israel for many years. What is the average person’s reaction to something like this?
People are very emotional right now. The rockets from Gaza are hitting targets deep inside Israel, which leaves people on edge. Meanwhile, husbands and brothers and kitting up and heading off to the Gaza border for a possible ground invasion. Kids are attending summer camp in bomb shelters and people are generally feeling vulnerable and worried about the future. Israel is a small country so there is a sense of shared vulnerability. There is also a sense of shame and shock over the brutal murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, but I think quite soon most people will detach from that shame and convince themselves that the perpetrators were social deviants who do not represent Israeli society as a whole.
FPI: Parting thoughts?
This conflict is disturbing. It is hard to see these high-visibility, low-intensity conflict flare up with such violence every few months or years, especially when the narratives of the two people are so emotion-laden and resonant of history and identity.
I wish very much that people would make an effort to be compassionate to both sides and not to suspend critical thought. It is natural for people to take sides, especially when the conflict is so asymmetrical. But it is not a binary situation. Yes, one side is much more powerful —Israel has the most powerful army in the Middle East, a thriving economy and heavy hitting diplomatic allies in Europe and the United States. But Hamas has not done itself any favors by picking this particular fight, nor have they expressed desire to de-escalate.
At the end of the day, I think, the most important thing is to remember the humanity of individuals.