The Palestine Center began its 2015 Summer Intern Lecture Series last week with a panel entitled “Gaza in Context: Broader Implications in the Palestinian Plight.” Panelists Dr. Nathan Brown, professor of Political Science at George Washington University, and Dr. Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, gave their take on Gaza’s place within the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Our interns sat with the speakers after the lecture to probe further into how Gaza adds to and complicates the conflict.
Below are excerpts from the interview, which have been condensed and edited from the original.
Below are excerpts from the interview, which have been condensed and edited from the original.
Do you think that the character of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has changed with the advent of the last three wars in Gaza?
Munayyer: I would say that the core issues in the Israel-Palestine question remain the same, but I think that the impact these recent wars have had have been significant, but mostly on the international perception of the situation. I would add also to these wars in Gaza the  war in Lebanon as well--where you saw a very powerful state with a very powerful military using its force in significant ways against what are essentially non-state actors or a stateless population that cannot compare. The civilian casualties are always the highest and the damage to civilian infrastructure is always significant.
For a generation of people who are coming to consciousness during this time, the image of Israel that they see is not the image of the generation that came to consciousness in 1967 and in 1973, where their understanding of the situation was formed by the realities of very, very different wars, where Israel was engaged in fighting against multiple state-backed armies, which also had the support of the Soviet Union in some cases. This is not Israel the underdog--this is very much Israel the dominating, oppressive factor. That has a big impact on shaping public perception on where the responsibility should be and where the blame should be and whose policies have to change. I think over time that will have an effect on the way that this issue is resolved.
Brown: I basically agree. If you look at this internationally, an awful lot of the focus was diplomatic--a peace process. Even before the Oslo agreements---the Madrid conference back in 1991 or you go back to UNSC resolution 242, a lot of this was just about some kind of diplomatic process getting started, and if it was a focus on any kind of fighting, it was Israel versus Arab states. What I think the wars have done from a peace process standpoint, is that they were a distraction. But, with no viable peace process, I think they are suddenly much more at the center point. And that’s true not simply on a policy level but rather very much on a popular level. Instead of all the focus being on the next summit conference, the aura surrounding this conflict is one of really ugly violence. I would say for Palestinian society it has made a difference as well. But that you could trace back a little earlier in the seventies, eighties, and nineties.
The strategy of the Palestinian leadership was mostly focusing on diplomacy, and that diplomacy seems to have run its course. Sometimes, depends on what your opinion is as a Palestinian, for some that was what the second Intifada was about, but certainly, with the last round of fighting, the idea that there is some kind of meaningful diplomatic process is one that just doesn’t have any purchase anymore. The extent of the war and the feeling of powerlessness, in the West Bank feeling almost disenfranchised with this, and the extent of the devastation in Gaza, is likely to be very, very large. Last time I was in Gaza in 2012, and even then, people would just--you would be walking on the street and people would point out, “Oh that’s where I was holed up during the last round of fighting,” or “There used to be a building there but it was brought down.” So it impinges on people’s thinking on Gaza tremendously.
How do you think last year’s war and its lasting effects are different from the previous two conflicts in Gaza?
Brown: It was longer and more destructive, I would say that. Both sides in essence went through previous rounds of fighting almost deliberately thinking they had specific goals that they wanted to accomplish and last summer’s fighting just went on in a way that was not only enormously destructive to the people, but was completely divorced from any kind of realistic political agenda. If anything, I think it probably showed the bankruptcy of the Israeli strategy. To some extent, I think it may have done the same to all of the Palestinian leadership; Hamas, for letting itself get dragged into this conflict and the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah for -- in the eyes of some Palestinians--being complicit in it, and at the least being powerless to stop it.
Munayyer: I think militarily speaking there was a big difference in this most recent round than the previous rounds. In 2008-2009 for example, that war lasted a little over 20 days. More than a week into it, the Israelis decided to go in on the ground, and then they were on the ground for about fifteen days. They were very easily able to trisect the Gaza Strip, cut it up into different pieces, use night vision to move around in the evening, and to gain an advantage against the Palestinian militants there, and do so with very few casualties, relatively few casualties. The biggest difference militarily speaking in this conflict was the use of the tunnels and the ability of militants to essentially level the battlefield by being underground and bogging down the Israeli forces and if you look, what those tunnels effectively did was preventing an advance on land beyond three km. The Israelis never entered beyond three km because they were afraid of having militants pop-up behind them at all times and a number of times they did, and inflict much heavier losses than they did when the Israelis were in on the ground before that.
Of course, this war came with huge costs to the Palestinian population as well. But what it underscored is that there is no military solution to the problem in Gaza. And the policy that the Israelis have called “mowing the lawn,” which is essentially a maintenance policy through repetitive bombing every few years, is not going to solve the problem. In fact, what I think the militants were able to prove this time is that, without addressing the foundation of the problem, it’s only going to get worse. And it has. And so I think that immediately after the war, we began to hear some statements from members of the international community saying, “Look, this can’t happen again. There is no military solution to this.”
What concerns me is that since then, no serious steps have been taken to prevent the recurrence of another war. In fact, the conditions that existed before the war continue to exist now, and any minor escalation could lead to a flare-up and then a major operation again. So I think that it’s in between wars that those efforts need to be made, and unfortunately we haven’t seen them.
Does it work in Israel’s interest to treat Gaza and the West Bank separately? What has been done to bridge the divide that Israel is attempting to push?
Brown: What I would say is that this is definitely a project: a deliberate project of the Israeli Right. With the Israeli Left, there’s been different kinds of strategies, including, at times, an idea that what they wanted to do was foster a Palestinian leadership that could essentially negotiate authoritatively, but a feeling that the right leadership had to be fostered. And they were not very effective, I think, in playing the internal game of Palestinian politics. And I think right now, both because of the deliberate effort of the Right and failure of the Left, policies have been successful in the sense that there are not strong Palestinian institutions - the ones that operate for day-to-day administration operate just fine - but there aren’t strong Palestinian national institutions to pursue any kind of national strategy. I’m not even sure if there’s much strategic thinking on the part of Palestinian leaders. There is a very, very deep division.
For those parts of the Israeli political spectrum that were always pessimistic or opposed to the Palestinian national cause - that for them is a good outcome. And that is one that is not unsustainable but one that - to use the phrase that Yousef used earlier for Gaza - a different kind of “mowing the lawn.” Periodically, there will have to be attempts made by Israelis to continue to run place of securing an atomized Palestinian political environment. My own sense is that that serves society very, very poorly in the long-term. And that while it works out very, very well on a day-to-day, week-to-week, and even sometimes year-to-year basis, the fact is that a lot of Israelis sense almost an existential crisis for their society and for Zionism, that it’s creating a society that’s emerging as a pariah internationally and that is strong and secure in the conventional sense, but is not necessarily the kind of society you want to bequeath to your grandchildren. And so I’m not sure that approach is one that serves the members of the society long-term.
Munayyer: I think a lot of that is right. I think that there is definitely a difference between how the Israeli Left and the Israeli Right approaches this. That being said, I think one of the biggest underlying factors behind this division was really a product behind the Israeli Left’s efforts, whether intended or not, and that’s the Oslo process. The Oslo process essentially put the Palestinian leadership - they may not have had too much choice in the matter - in a position where the Israelis in the international community had far greater leverage over shaping their interests and their capacity than they ever did before when they operated in the diaspora.
And what this meant was that the leadership of the Palestinian Authority became increasingly vulnerable and dependent, because at the end of the day, it’s really the Israelis that allow that to happen. The Palestinians are not there by show of their own force. But also because the extent of the dependence the authority has on the international community and primarily the United States and Western European funders.
And so this has put the Palestinian Authority in a place where the independence of its policy-making is severely compromised, even to the extent that it is not capable of strategizing around national interests, because it merely wants to continue making payroll. And when you’re in that kind of situation and they share a lot of responsibility for the situation that they find themselves in, it’s very difficult to talk about long-term interests. I agree that there is obviously a long-term interest for Israelis and Palestinians to get out of this situation. But the level of strategy-making right now, the place where it’s at, is not a place where that is the focus. And I think so much of that is rooted in the Oslo process. And if they are in fact moving away from a U.S.-led process and willing to really take the leap, and not simply use internationalization as a method to boomerang back into a U.S.-led process, then I think they can start thinking about those interests differently.
But while they have talked about internationalization and moving away from a Washington-led process, it’s only been in the context of a longer-term plan of eventually going back, and I really don’t see that as being successful in the long-term.