Elhanan Miller is the Arab Affairs reporter for the Times of Israel. Alan Johnson is the editor of Fathom.
Alan Johnson: It’s 15 June in London and I am joined by Elhanan Miller, the Arab Affairs reporter for the Times of Israel to discuss the Gaza Strip, almost one year after the conflict of 2014. We will discuss the state of the Strip today, and the evolving Israeli strategy towards it, the possibility of talks between Israel and Hamas, and whether the rise of ISIS in the Strip changes the calculations of Hamas and Israel. Elhanan, let’s start with the situation in the Strip today. A year on from the end of the hostilities, how bad is it?
Elhanan Miller: Things are bad. Israel is trying to bring in as much cement as possible, for reconstruction projects. It has already delivered all the cement needed for the damaged homes, meaning the homes that haven’t been completely destroyed. All of those that were eligible for cement deliveries, under the ceasefire agreement, have received them. So, reconstruction of the damaged homes is underway.
The destroyed homes haven’t been rebuilt yet. According to the UN, there are still tens of thousands of people who are displaced, unemployment obviously is very high, and so the situation is dire for Gaza. The people I speak to in Gaza are quite desperate about the economic prospects and the situation on the ground. Prospects aren’t very good; the Rafah border is usually closed, though Egypt allows some Palestinians to enter Gaza but not to leave. As a result, at present there are actually more people leaving Gaza and entering Israel through the Erez crossing with Israel than through the Rafah crossing with Egypt.
AJ: Who do Gazans themselves blame for their situation?
EM: They think there are a few culprits. Hamas isn’t necessarily at the top of the list. Mahmoud Abbas, as President of the Palestinian Authority and the Chief of the Unity Government; he is seen as a culprit. The Egyptians, too. There is a lot of anger in Gaza at their treatment by the Egyptians. Israel obviously features quite high on the list. There is growing discontent with Hamas as well, but I wouldn’t say that Hamas is viewed as the primary culprit in the eyes of most Gazans.
AJ: Recently, both President Rivlin and Efraim Halevy, the former head of the Mossad, have spoken positively about the idea of negotiations with Hamas, albeit not tomorrow. Both the Prime Minister and Dore Gold, the newly-appointed director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, remain opposed. Where is the Israeli debate now, as regards negotiations? And, more generally, what is Israel’s strategy towards the Strip?
EM: The consensus in Israel is that there should be no direct negotiations with Hamas, which is still seen as a terrorist entity committed to the destruction of Israel. That is on the official level. On the unofficial level, messages are being conveyed all the time between Israel and Hamas, mostly through businessmen from Gaza who enter Israel. There are more permits being issued to businessmen from Gaza to enter Israel, which conveys messages to the government in Gaza through those people.
On the Hamas side, there is certainly an interest in indirect talks with Israel, through the Egyptians. Mousa Abu-Marzouk who is the deputy head of the Hamas bureau, recently wrote on Facebook that he wishes that Egypt would renew its role as mediator between Israel and Hamas – a role that it had during the war last year but which ended when the war ended. Another Hamas official, Salah Bardawil, said that it is in the interest of Hamas to pursue a permanent ceasefire with Israel. So, there are some very positive indicators coming from Hamas, which of course stem from the desperation of Hamas.
On the Israeli side, things are more complex. If it decided to operate directly with Hamas, Israel would in effect be throwing Mahmoud Abbas under the bus. Officially there is a unity government between Abbas and the Fatah movement and Hamas, but they are devout enemies of each other. Abbas considers Hamas to be his nemesis. By openly engaging Hamas, Israel would be effectively weakening Abbas in the West Bank, and he is already weak. Israel is wary of doing that, and there are also some international players seeking to prevent Israel from doing that.
AJ: Recent rocket attacks from the Strip were, apparently, launched by an ISIS-identified group trying to embarrass Hamas. How significant is the emergence of ISIS in the Strip and how is it changing the calculations of both Israelis and Hamas?
EM: We are told by Israeli military officials that there is no real presence of ISIS as such, or of the Islamic State in Gaza. There are Salafi, maybe even Jihadist groups, who are supportive of the ISIS ideology, but we haven’t seen any official links between the Islamic State and the Gaza Strip. We do see that connection in the Sinai Peninsula and some elements in Gaza have been supporting the Islamic State there. Hamas, however, has begun to crack down on the ‘Gaza-Sinai link’ in an attempt to improve its position with Egypt. There were reports last week that Hamas has begun to collaborate more with Egypt in intelligence sharing, providing lists of wanted people or suspects crossing into the Sinai.
I think the threat has been magnified by Hamas to show that it is the responsible partner. There have been these sporadic rocket launches from these groups, but Hamas quickly cracked down on them. During a raid on a house Hamas even killed one of these Jihadists, a man named Younes al-Hunnor. Yes, there is something happening on the ground, but it is hard to establish just what at this moment.
AJ: Shortly after the last conflict ended, we organised a Fathom symposium on the idea of ‘reconstruction for demilitarisation’ in the Strip. We invited a series of analysts and commentators to contribute. The idea received almost universal support but no one really thought it could happen any time soon. Where are we today? Are any international or local actors making progress with ‘reconstruction for demilitarisation’ or does it remain only an idea?
EM: It remains an idea. But look, even if we don’t reach an explicit deal under those terms that is the way things are going, implicitly. I don’t think that Hamas will voluntarily demilitarise, but Israel understands that the security along the Gaza border and Southern Israel does depend on a certain level of economic viability in the Gaza Strip. So, we have seen a drive by Israel to allow more products to enter into the Gaza Strip, more export of agricultural products from the Strip, and the easier passage of more students, pilgrims and businessmen. But all the while, Israel is walking this very fine line of not legitimizing Hamas too much, and not weakening Abbas, as I pointed out before.
Israel certainly understands that reconstruction is in the interests of both sides. In terms of Israel’s interests, they don’t want to allow refugees to stay in schools and refugee camps as they have been for the last year. However, I don’t see a deal as such happening, simply because there is no broker interested in forging that deal. The Egyptians, who had been involved, have left the scene for the time being, so there is no one to mediate.
AJ: We have this crop of reports about the 2014 Gaza conflict – everyone from Amnesty International to the UN. Let’s begin with the Amnesty International Report which, unusually, criticised Hamas for the summary execution of ‘collaborators’ and for human rights abuses. It seemed that Hamas were put on the back foot by that report. How much impact did it have?
EM: Hamas is always struggling to legitimise itself regionally, but also in the eyes of its own population. So Hamas had to respond to that report and try to justify what happened. The leadership said that they did not carry out the executions, but rather an angry population did. They said, look, Gaza is a tribal society so people take revenge and it’s not always easy to stop that. They also claimed that the killers had escaped from jails bombed by Israel during the war, so in a way it was Israel’s fault. And they blamed the collaborators.
Hamas has long tried to crack down on collaborators and spies; they have become obsessed with the idea of espionage and collaboration. But my sense is that Hamas’ grip on the population is very strong. There aren’t any real threats to its power in the foreseeable future. Israel acknowledges this openly and therefore, in dealing with Gaza, it understands that it will have to deal with Hamas in one way or another.
AJ: Yesterday, we had an Israeli report on the 2014 conflict, almost 300 pages long. Very soon the United Nations enquiry led by Justice McGowan Davis will publish its final report. What do you think the international shake-out will be from these two reports?
EM: The extent of damage caused to Gaza will inevitably make Israel culpable for what happened there. I don’t think that Hamas will come out clean though, especially in light of the latest Amnesty International report that indicates that Hamas not only carried out summary executions, but also used hospital facilities and other facilities to torture people. It has already been reported and documented that they used civilian sites to launch rockets.
Israel had indicated before the 2014 conflict that in order to deter Hamas, which is a guerrilla movement, it would have to cause more extensive damage. And we have to admit the extensive damage to the Gaza Strip. International tribunals will have to catch up with the reality of this imbalance of power, an imbalance that we see in other conflicts throughout the world; in Yemen, there are American drones and now there is a Saudi-led coalition using airstrikes. This imbalance of power, between vastly superior technological and military power and more primitive rocket launchers from Guerrilla fighters, is something that the world needs to start understanding and developing a new approach to judging, in terms of the laws of war.
The Israeli army has tried to work hand in hand with legal advisors; every major strike on Gaza was accompanied by a team of legal advisors. This played out, most prominently, in the warning system that Israel developed in this war; a multiple system with both leaflets dropped and warning shots; only after that were certain sites attacked. This is being challenged by other NGO’s in Israel, such as ‘Breaking the Silence’ and others, who brought forward reports of violations from soldiers. There is a plurality of voices from Israel and it is hard to tell at this point what the international report will produce.
AJ: To move on from Gaza to the peace process, we are hearing a new phrase – ‘Autumn reset’– that suggests the Prime Minister is contemplating a diplomatic initiative once the Iranian negotiations are out of the way. Internationally, there has been huge scepticism about Israel’s ongoing commitment to the two-state solution since the Prime Minister’s election-time statement that there would be no Palestinian State on his watch. He has since walked that back, pointing out that he was highlighting current circumstances rather than making an in-principle objection to Palestinian statehood. And now there are now rumours that we are going to see a new warmness towards the Arab peace initiative, a new call for negotiations, and perhaps a recommitment to the framework of two states for two people, and so on. What is likely to emerge in the autumn in terms of a diplomatic initiative?
EM: Well, I think that obviously there is more and more European and International pressure to come up with something. And there is an understanding within Israel that the status quo is toxic for Israel’s position in the world. Netanyahu has spoken recently; he made a positive statement about the Arab peace initiative being a basis for future negotiations.
There is more and more talk in Israel about for the need for a larger framework of support in any future negotiations. Objective observers of the situation say that neither side – for its own political reasons – can deliver the concessions needed, so both may require some sort of external support. For the Palestinian side, the external framework of support would be an Arab umbrella and there have been indications of that happening, with some meetings between Dore Gold, director-general of the foreign ministry, and a former Saudi official. And Netanyahu has been speaking about regional partners. I think that there is an understanding that the purely bilateral track, with the United States as a mediator, hasn’t produced the desired outcome. It hasn’t been robust enough and the sides haven’t been committed enough to the process. Now, given the Iranian threat, the Sunni Arab countries, predominantly Saudi Arabia, possibly Egypt and the Gulf States, will be able to support Abbas in some tough decisions that he might have to take in the new round of negotiations.
The West will also have to put forward certain parameters. The Palestinians and Abbas are indicating that they won’t return to negotiations without an acceptance of certain negotiating parameters, such as recognition of the pre-1967 borders. And Obama, of course, has backed Netanyahu’s demands to some extent regarding the recognition of Israel as a Jewish State. Look, a formula will have to materialise, in which the sides concede some of the positions of the other side and then enter a process in which probably the Arab League or the Arab world will be more active in backing the tough decisions, be it through compensation, benefits packages, helping to resolve the refugee issue which is one of the most contentious issues. I think that it’s likely that we will see a political dynamic in the coming months.
AJ: In that scenario, what are the chances of Herzog and Zionist Union joining a national unity government?
EM: That very much depends on the conditions and the prospects of success. If we just try to replicate past attempts, where there is just another round of bilateral negotiations, I think Herzog will be hard pressed to join something like that. I think there is a lot of pressure in his camp not to legitimise Netanyahu, whose majority is very small at the moment. There will have to be a very serious attempt this time in order for the Zionist Union to join up. But look, Herzog and Netanyahu aren’t that far apart. Herzog presents himself as a centrist, not as a leftist – not all the people in his party, maybe not even the majority, would agree with the positioning and he has had criticism in his party. I would say that the possibility of Herzog joining a National Unity government are maybe 50/50.