Gaza 2014: The Collapse of a Control Model
1. Introduction – The Puzzle
Following the kidnapping of three young Israelis in the West Bank on June 13 2014 the Israeli government drew the Israel Defense Force (IDF) and the whole country into a complicated situation that the country has not seen since the unilateral “disengagement” from Gaza in 2005. Immediately after the kidnapping Prime Minister Netanyahu blamed the Hamas government in Gaza (which denied the accusation at the time) and arrested most of Hamas’ activists and elected parliamentary leaders in the West Bank. Furthermore, the Israeli government seized the opportunity to demand the dismantling of the fledgling Palestinian national “agreement” (or unity) government which brought Fatah and Hamas together.1
This disproportional reaction soon escalated into “Operation Protective Edge,” the longest, most murderous, destructive and violent confrontation between Israel and Gaza since the disengagement. Yet, the political results of the war were unexpected for Israel, contradicting the government’s declared goals. Instead of dismantling the Palestinian national agreement government, on October 9 the Israeli government consented reluctantly to its first meeting in Gaza.2 Instead of tightening nine years of effective isolation and blockade of the Gaza Strip, the IDF openly recognized that the only way to sustain a durable cease fire would be to compromise with Palestinian demands to open the borders.3 Should those demands not be met, according to polls a majority of Palestinians (86%) would support continued military confrontation.4 Furthermore, international pressure on Israel to recognize a Palestinian state sharply increased, and Palestinian resistance continued in East Jerusalem.
Why did the Israeli government fail so badly to achieve its objectives, despite inflicting such heavy losses on the Palestinians? I’ll suggest here two main reasons: firstly, Israeli governments have not understood the limitations of the various models of political-military domination they have imposed on the Palestinians since 1967, becoming complacent about the model of control since 2005 because of its great “success”; and secondly, the Israeli government has failed to understand changes in the current regional context and to reevaluate its policies in light of the new conjuncture.
2. Political Violence and Models of Control
Since occupying the West Bank and Gaza Strip in June 1967, the Israeli state has refused to grant equal rights to Palestinians. To sustain its rule over the Palestinian occupied territories, the Israeli regime devised different “models of control” for Palestinian non-citizens that combine various limitations of civil and political rights with control over their movement. Palestinians in different geographic areas of the occupied territories are submitted to different models of control, all of which require some degree of military enforcement due to the illegitimacy of the regime. As Hannah Arendt has argued political power is based in political consent, meaning that in the absence of legitimacy, rule takes a form of domination that is enforced through violence,5 which I call here a “model of control”. In the absence of legitimate political channels to express resistance violence erupts.6
The Israeli regime has succeeded in withstanding constant Palestinian resistance since 1967 by developing a sophisticated legitimizing principle, which I have called a “dual military-democratic regime.”7 The dual regime maintained the pre-1967 border in order to separate Palestinian subjects and to create the image of Israel as a democratic State within the pre-1967 borders. Under the military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip territories, the Palestinians have no civil rights. Palestinians living within the pre-1967 borders formally have civil rights, while Israeli Jews have full civil rights on both sides of the border. The dual regime is democratic for Israeli citizens and a military regime for the Palestinian non-citizens.
In the dual regime Palestinian resistance is interpreted as violence and an existential threat to the Jews, ignoring the historical-political context, and legitimizing violent military repression in the eyes of Jewish Israeli citizens.8 The only period in which Palestinian resistance was considered legitimate by significant parts of the Israeli military (in the 1980s) political space was opened for negotiations with Palestinian representatives.9 Yet, following the Oslo agreements Israel designed even more sophisticated models of control to suit the new circumstances, including one for Gaza after the 2005 disengagement. Ultimately, all such models of control over the Palestinians depend on violent enforcement. As always, the violence of the dominators blinds them to the suffering of the dominated and to the sustainability of coercive control.
3. “Disengagement” as a new Model of Control
The Israeli “withdrawal” from Gaza had a long-term diplomatic goal: to forestall international pressure to establish a Palestinian state as laid out by President Bush’s road map. Prime Minister Sharon’s adviser Dov Weisglass explained the logic behind the withdrawal to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: “The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process…and when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state…this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda…all this with authority and permission … with a presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress.”10
Sharon’s decision to withdraw unilaterally averted negotiations with the Palestinian Authority over basic issues such as security arrangements, border crossings and bi-lateral economic agreements, which could have preserved economic, political and social connections between Gaza and the West Bank . Instead, the Israeli regime retained control of the borders and expanded the sophisticated policy of “divide and rule.”11
The Israeli military was displeased by the unilateral withdrawal, which it considered had damaged its deterrent power, and by the absence of an agreement which would bring stability. In March, 2004, Chief of Staff (Bugi Yaalon), and Head of the General Security Service (Avi Dichter) objected publicly that a unilateral withdrawal would increase Hamas’ strength relative to the Palestinian Authority. They were right (Hamas later took control of Gaza in June 2007) but Sharon did not hesitate to dismiss them. After four years of the second intifada, which began in 2000, Sharon had come to understand that the IDF would neither be able to stop the mortar shelling from Gaza nor discover the smuggling tunnels in and out of it. Moreover, the IDF was suffering unnecessary losses and losing legitimacy as a result of the violent daily clashes with the civilian population.
Sharon’s model of control of the Gaza Strip was based on aerial and marine blockade, closure of above-ground border crossings to the Strip and a below-ground supply of goods via tunnels. The tunnels from Egypt became the only source of supply, and the core of the working economic model. Owners of tunnels became millionaires, and the Gaza government exacted taxes and customs by legalizing trade through tunnels and establishing a Ministry of Tunnels.12 This control model created relative political stability for Israel from 2005–2014. The “rounds”13 of violence that occurred every few years (April 2006, December 2008–January 2009, November 2012), in addition to intermittent firing most of the time, came at a high price but were actually part of the model.
The unilateral withdrawal, in this respect, was a successful tactic for re-legitimating subsequent Israeli violence against Palestinians as “self-defense”. The apparent withdrawal legitimated the use of increasing military force, providing enough international support to continue air attacks that caused immense destruction and many casualties. At the same time, the repeated rounds of violence showed that the strongest military in the Middle East cannot defeat its enemy and stop the Palestinian rocket attacks despite its power, thereby diminishing its prestige. After each “round” there have been criticisms of the military aspects of the control model, which within Israel focused on the failure to “win”, and outside Israel provoked accusations of war crimes. Nonetheless, Sharon’s model of control proved effective for nine years, and during that period, nobody questioned the motives and political logic of his model.
4. The Regional Conjuncture and the Collapse of the Gaza Model of Control
The Israeli government did not notice that political developments in Egypt since 2011 undermined the Gaza model of control, which was always based on Egyptian, US and EU cooperation. The economy of Gaza improved following the 2012 election of the Muslim Brotherhood (which is allied to Hamas) to rule Egypt. However after the military ousted President Morsi and violently repressed his supporters Hamas’ rule in Gaza became much more complicated. In March 2014 newly elected President el-Sisi changed the rules of the game by closing the tunnels,14 as a part of his struggle with the Moslem Brotherhood. As a result Hamas was forced to negotiate a coalition with the Palestinian Authority, leading to the formation of a national agreement government announced on May 27, 2014.15 This political re-alignment challenged Israel’s “divide and rule” model, in response to which Netanyahu launched an open confrontation in an effort to revive the already dead body of the Gaza control model.
“Operation Protective Edge” was more murderous and destructive than the previous “rounds” of violence, and Israel’s military failure even more resounding. Yet the Israeli regime’s problem after the war is political rather military. The connection between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank has only strengthened since the war, socially among the citizens themselves, politically among the leaders, and physically, in the demand to open the borders. The collapse of the model generated dynamics for change because, without the tunnels, the residents of Gaza need another connection to the world. In spite of itself, the Israeli government is being pulled into negotiated cooperation with the Palestinian national agreement government and toward the opening of Gaza to the world and to the West Bank. The collapse of the previous model of control in Gaza (and probably in East Jerusalem too) has opened a small window of opportunity for another model to emerge, a model rooted not only in violent domination, and not yet in the consent of the governed, but in an arrangement that might relieve the suffocation of Gaza. However, without Egyptian, US and EU intervention, the opportunity might be lost.
Lev Grinberg is a political economist and sociologist in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Ben Gurion University. Grinberg is the founding Chair of the Department (2006–2009), and former Director of the Humphrey Institute for Social Research (1998–2003). His fields of specializations are the history of the Zionist Labor Movement, Israel’s political economy, and the sociology of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. He has recently launched a new research project on comparative resistance. His last books are Politics and Violence in Israel/Palestine (Routledge, 2010), and Mo(ve)ments of Resistance (Academic Studies Press, 2013). Lev can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
1. http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/.premium-1.599657, (Haaretz, June 18, 2014).
2. http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/.premium-1.620068, (Haaretz October 9, 2014)
3. http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/.premium-1.613239, (Haaretz August 31, 2014); and, http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/.premium-1.619059, (Haaretz, October 2, 2014).
5. Hannah Arendt, On Violence (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Word, 1969)
6. Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital and European States (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1992); Lev Grinberg, Politics and Violence in Israel/Palestine (London and New York: Routledge, 2010).
7. Lev Grinberg, “Israel’s Dual Regime Since 1967.” (MIT-EJMES, 3: 59–80, 2008).
8. Lev Grinberg, “Speechlessness, in Search of Language to Resist the Israeli ‘Thing Without a Name’” (International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, 22: 106–115, 2009.
9. Lev Grinberg, “The Reversal of Citizenship, The Lebanon War and the Intifada in the 1980s and the 2000s” in Democratic Citizenship and War, ed by Peled, Lewin-Epstein, Mundlak and Cohen (London and New York: Routledge, 2011)
10. http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/top-pm-aide-gaza-plan-aims-to-freeze-the-peace-process-1.136686, (Haaretz, October 6, 2004)
11. See Grinberg (2010 idem) chapter 10.
12. See MERIP’s special issue No 261 “Illicit Crossings”.
13. The term used in Hebrew is “sevev” which has the connotation that additional rounds can be expected to follow this one.