Gaza’s agony: Ten theses and an agenda for building regional peace

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1. The over-arching priority right now is to get a complete, theater-wide ceasefire between Israel and Gaza

This complete ceasefire is quite distinct from a “humanitarian pause”, such as might be used merely to massage some of the pain the Gaza Palestinian are currently suffering, just a little, at some points, for a limited period of time. No! The ceasefire needs to be complete, reciprocal (as between Israel and Hamas-in-Gaza), and monitored by a trusted international body.

Should we also call for a similar ceasefire in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, along the Lebanon border, and between Israel and Syria? Probably so. But given the extreme situation of the Palestinians in Gaza, a ceasefire on that front should be the priority.

2. The UN’s long-existing body UNTSO should monitor the Gaza ceasefire

Too many Americans and Westerners have become accustomed over the past half-century to the idea that it is somehow “appropriate and natural” for Washington to oversee all conflict-termination or conflict-amelioration moves in the Arab-Israeli theater.

It is not, and this practice absolutely needs to change.

This practice goes back to the 1970s, when Henry Kissinger seized control of the diplomacy conducted after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war from the U.N. and from the informal “condominium” that the Soviet leaders had hoped to exercise alongside him in the post-war diplomacy. Recall that the peacekeeping force that was established as part of the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt (which had been brokered by Pres. Carter) was not a U.N. force, but an ad-hoc U.S.-led body called the “Multilateral Force and Observers” (MFO.)

That was in clear contrast to the ceasefire monitoring forces that still exist along Israel’s disengagement line with Syria, which is the UN body UNDOF, and the one along the Israel-Lebanese border, the UN body UNIFIL.

However, alongside those two UN ceasefire monitoring bodies in the region there is also the older body UNTSO, the U.N. Truce Supervision Organization, which was established as part of the string of Armistice Agreements concluded in 1949 between Israel and all of its Arab neighbors. UNTSO is today a small body, headquartered in Jerusalem (where it still has a vestigial role overseeing the situation along the Green Line between Israel and the occupied West Bank.) But it also has some responsibility for the situation along Gaza’s small land boundary with Egypt.

In the context of the U.N. Security Council decreeing a complete ceasefire between Israel and Gaza, UNTSO could and should be the body that supervises that ceasefire along all of Gaza’s borders, including its lengthy ground border with Israel, its short land border with Egypt, and its fairly long coastline onto the Mediterranean Sea.

3. … And the UN should supervise the provision of emergency aid to Gaza

It is wholly appropriate that the United Nations rather than any other body supervise the truly massive project of reconstruction that Gaza’s people will require immediately after, and for many years after, the conclusion of a ceasefire.

On each of the previous occasions in which the Israeli military has undertaken sustained and very destructive assaults against Gaza (2008, 2014, 2021, etc), the provision of desperately-needed reconstruction has been firmly under the control of Israel. Israeli shippers, contractors and sub-contractors made hefty profits off providing the raw materials that, per the Israeli rules, could be trucked into Gaza only via Israeli ports and then via the crossing points (late reduced in number to one: at Kerem Shalom), that were designated by the Israeli military’s “Coordinator of Governmental Affrairs in the territories, (COGAT.) It became a gruesomely Keynesian scheme: (1) the Israeli military would undertaken one of their periodic, very destructive “lawn-mowing” assaults against Gaza; (2) Arab states and other international donors would finance a “rebuilding” project—that would, as noted, deliver very handy profits to the Israeli contractors; (3) wait a while, then rinse and repeat.

The Israelis always insisted they “needed” to control the delivery of all goods into Gaza because of their security concerns. Well, now we can see what a failure that was. (As has been the whole project of maintaining in place the super-broad system of controls over Gaza that Israel has continued to enjoy since 1967 by virtue of being the occupying power there.)

Since the beginning of the crisis, large convoys of emergency humanitarian aid (but no reconstruction aid) have been backing up in Egypt. These convoys have been assembled in Egypt—but the Israelis have still insisted that they need to divert them near the international border and undertaken inspections before they can cross into Rafah. Those inspections may or may not have been the main obstacle slowing down or blocking the flow of the aid that the Gazans so desperately need. But anyway, in the context of a ceasefire, the U.N. should insist that Israel has no right to inspect all the freight going into Gaza.

Also, in the context of a serious U.N. push to reconstruct Gaza, the region’s port needs to be restored and expanded so that aid shipments and very soon normal commerce and passenger traffic can pass through there, and to international markets, under some form of U.N. inspection and protection, not Israel’s.

4. Israel’s 56-year-long military occupation of Gaza will thereby come to an end

International law, and in particular the Fourth Geneva Convention, determine that in the event of armed conflict it may happen that the armed forces of one of the belligerents proceed in the course of the fighting to proceed beyond their own boundaries and they then end up in “military occupation” of land that is not theirs, which may well have some number of civilian residents. Military conquest does not give any country the right to simply annex any part of the occupied land (regardless of what Pres. Trump and Pres. Biden might think, in re East Jerusalem and the Golan.)

Under international law a state of military occupation is considered to be temporary (pending the conclusion of a final peace agreement between the belligerents), and it confers upon the occupying power both rights and responsibilities. Regarding its temporary nature, let’s recall that the US/Allied occupation of (West) Germany lasted four years, and that of Japan seven years.

One of the key responsibilities for an occupying power is for the welfare of the civilian residents of the occupied area. And as part of that, the Fourth Geneva Convention has a strict prohibition against the implantation by the occupying power of any of its own citizens into the occupied area—such as Israel has quite illegally done, in very large numbers, in both the occupied West Bank (including East Jerusalem), and the Golan.

But the responsibilities of an occupying power toward the residents of the occupied area go considerably beyond simply not implanting settlers. In general, the responsibility is to maintain the normal life and educational and social systems of the members of the “occupied” society intact and thriving as much as possible, pending what Geneva IV envisages as a relatively short period of transition before the military occupation comes to an end in the context of a final peace agreement.

Israel has completely failed to uphold the responsibilities it has had, as an occupying power, to the people of Gaza. Hence, the U.N. should intervene, to strip Israel of all the powers it has exercised by virtue of being the occupying power, which have primarily been its power to control all the borders of the Gaza Strip. In the immediate, short term the United Nations should take over that responsibility.

(I note that several bodies in Israel and elsewhere have started to produce studies along the lines of “Who rules Gaza the day after the defeat of Hamas?”. These include the AIPAC-spinoff think-tank WINEP, the Israeli “BESA” center, and even this really jejune offering from WaPo columnist David Ignatius. All those studies, however, simply assume that the “day after” Hamas falls in Gaza, the Israelis will still be in charge of whatever happens there. To my view, that is both an unproven and increasingly unlikely assumption and a goal that, from the global point of view, is dangerously off-kilter.)

5. The U.N. also urgently needs to take charge of the diplomacy for the whole of the Palestinian-Israeli Question

Gaza, as we know, is only a tiny (though always significant) part of the Palestine Question. Geographically and demographically the Israeli-occupied West Bank is much larger. And then, there’s the matter of the rights of the seven million or so Palestinians forced by Israel to live in exile from their ancestral homeland. These exiles have the rights to their lands and properties within 1948 Israel that have been affirmed and reaffirmed in U.N. resolutions; and their claims to those rights need to be settled, either through actual return or through compensation, per those same resolutions.

The UN resolutions most pertinent to the Palestine Question were Security Council resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973), which stressed the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force” and called for Israel to withdraw from lands it occupied in 1967 in return for peace; and General Assembly resolution 194 of 1948, which laid out the Palestinians’ right of return.

The aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war provided what could have been an excellent chance for wise global leaders to secure the “land for peace” deal that was enshrined in UNSC resolution 242. For various reasons, it did not. Among those reasons: The Israelis were flush with the victory they had won in that war and reveled in using, and starting to put wide new networks of colonial settlements into, the extensive new areas they captured during the war; the global great powers of that era were preoccupied elsewhere (including, for the Americans, in Vietnam); and the matter of who should represent the Palestinians in any negotiations was very highly contested.

In October 1991, in the aftermath of the speedy success that a U.S.-led coalition had in ending Saddam Hussein’s military occupation of Kuwait, there was another possible chance to pursue a speedy and successful final peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians (and also, between Israel and Syria.) At that point, Pres. George H.W. Bush and Pres. Mikhail Gorbachev jointly presided over a broad, authoritative Arab-Israeli peace conference that had that goal. This time, the matter of Palestinian representation had been resolved, in favor of the PLO; and most of the world’s big powers were united in the view that military occupations of other people’s lands should be decisively ended—as had been achieved for Kuwait.

By 1991, however, the “Soviet Union” that Gorbachev headed was rapidly headed toward dissolution, and the United States was already entering what would become a 30-year period of largely unchallenged hegemony over global politics…. Which also included hegemony over all aspects of Israeli-Arab peacemaking.

As we’ve seen above, Washington had already, in 1979, succeeded in elbowing the U.N. out of any role in monitoring compliance with the arms-control provisions of the Israel-Egypt final peace agreement. From 1991 on, it just seized control of all the remaining strands of Israeli-Arab negotiations. Regarding the Palestinians, it grossly abused that position by trapping the PLO in the endless tiny partial measures and institutionalized time-wasting of the the “Oslo” process.

In 2002, Washington was even able to subordinate the United Nations—along with the European Union and Russia—to its own continuing “leadership” of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking via a new (U.S.-led) ad-hoc body called the “Middle Mast Quartet.” The Quartet has done remarkably little in recent years, and probably should be swiftly euthanized.

But it is now 30 years—a complete generation!—since the Oslo process started, and it has still produced zero progress toward a final Israeli-Palestinian peace. Meantime, during these decades, Israel has planted hundreds of thousands of additional settlers into the West Bank (and Golan.)

The evidence is thus overwhelming today that the United States has completely disqualified itself in the court of global public opinion from any claim that it might continue to “lead” the negotiations for a final-status peace between Palestinians and Israelis that so very desperately needs to happen. It is time for the grown-ups of the rest of the U.N. Security Council to regain the reins.

6. There is still a problem of Palestinian representation. But it is soluble.

Many of the challenges that the Palestinians face today regarding getting their voices and interests well represented by a credible national leadership are not new. They stem as so often in the whole of the period since the Nakba of 1948 from the geographic fragmentation of the Palestinian national community and its dispersal amongst numerous separate jurisdictions, in each of which Palestinians face different pressures and experience different vulnerabilities.

Today, they also additionally suffer from the failed (though still present) legacy of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA), and its parent body, the PLO. The facts that Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) the man who has headed both bodies for the past 18 years is now extremely old and decrepit, that he never even had any of the “historical” legitimacy that his predecessor Yasser Arafat had had, and that he is nowadays totally reliant on political and financial life support from the Western powers make it clear that the PA/PLO urgently need to be reinvigorated.

In this short essay that I published last week, I suggested that the PLO, being by far the broader, more historic, and more legitimate body should pull out of the trap it finds itself within the occupied West Bank, dismantle the PA either wholly or substantially, and then hold an urgent conference of its highest policy-making body the Palestine National Council (PNC) somewhere outside the West Bank. (Algiers might once again be a good choice?) The goal should be to generate a new PLO that is deeply reformed and rejuvenated, and that embraces the energies and the strategic smarts developed over the past 30 years by the Hamas leaders. Hamas has accumulated widespread popularity and wide organizing networks in Palestinian communities in many places, inside and outside Palestine. Arab and international negotiators seeking a way to persuade Palestinians that there’s a viable peaceful road to a hopeful future will need to embrace these assets. And the PLO already has a great degree of diplomatic recognition. Hence, bringing Hamas in some way into a unified and reinvigorated PLO fold seems like a good way forward…

7. Israel’s decisionmaking is mired in chaos

I wrote some about the crisis of Israel’s leadership decisionmaking early last week (1, 2.) Since then, a lot more evidence has emerged about the depth and many different dimensions of this crisis, including in the NYT, in Haaretz, and elsewhere. What all these accounts point to is the following:

  • The Hamas breakout of October 7 caused a stunningly deep shock to the whole of the Israeli military/security leadership, indicating that much of the “strategic doctrine” on which they had based their work over recent years, and against which they had been training their commands and their troops, had been quite unfit for purpose. On 10/7 the IDF Southern Command lost a non-trivial number of its leaders, who were either killed or taken hostage. They thereby lost a large proportion of their ability to do realistic battle-planning in this space; and those losses were parallelled by significant losses to all forms of the Israelis’ intelligence capability. The chaos into which the October 7 attack had thrown the IDF at both the national and the regional level was clearly evidenced by the chaotic, excessively violent, and and protracted nature of the counter-offensive they mounted, just to regain control of the 1948-Israel lands that Hamas had seized.
  • The IDF’s ability to do rational operational planning to counter-attack against Hamas in Gaza also appeared to be extremely limited in the chaotic days after October 7. For three weeks after 10/7, just pounding all of Gaza with stand-off bombing from air, land, and sea, seemed to be the only thing they could plan for, or do. A limited and uncertain-looking ground attack was finally launched on the night of 10/27-28. It has been massively destructive, but it has also been plagued by lack of clarity over the strategic goals it is intended to achieve.
  • There has been much evidence of serious frictions both between the political and military leaderships, and within the political leadership itself. These frictions have been increasingly widely reported in the Western and Israeli media. In one such report, the NYT’s Isabel Kershner noted on 10/29 that, “Opinion surveys since Oct. 7 have indicated overwhelming public trust in the military and plummeting faith in government officials.” (And here’s my periodic reminder that everything reported in or from Israel is subject to tight military censorship, especially in times of war… )
  • The families of the Israeli hostages (and also to some extent the families who lost family members on October 7) have been coalescing into a number of networks of growing political power. Initially, the government may have been happy to see the emergence of these networks, which helped keep aloft the “bloody shirt” with which it sought to rally world support for its very tough counter-attack against Hamas/Gaza. However, it has become increasingly clear that these networks have themselves become a powerful rallying point for criticisms of the government and have started to put their own political/strategic pressure on the government. For example, this from Amos Harel in Haaretz today:”Former senior defense officials – including Shaul Mofaz, who formerly served as both defense minister and IDF chief of staff – have expressed support for an ‘all for all’ deal, in which Hamas would free all the hostages and Israel would release all Palestinians jailed for security offenses and send them to Gaza”… Plus, of course, the demands of hostage families to give top or high priority to the wellbeing of the hostages places severe operational constraints on what the military might be able to do in Gaza…

What has been the upshot of this high degree of decisionmaking dysfunctionality in Israel? It has had a number of consequences, including these:

  • It has led both the political and military leaderships to choose—it seems almost blindly—to lob amounts and kinds of ordnance into Gaza that may be intended to “project strength”, to “exact vengeance”, or simply to sow terror… and to do this in ways that quite predictably led to very high rates of death and destruction of civilian families, that clearly violate international law, and that have sparked increasingly widespread global condemnation of Israel. Nearly all the international sympathy that Israel enjoyed immediately after October 7 has thus been drowned under the torrent of reporting, horrifying statistics, and images from Gaza. And for what strategic purpose?
  • The unpredictability of the Israeli leaders’ actions across a wide range of possibilities is a factor that responsible decision-makers worldwide now clearly need to take into account. And given the very deep entanglement of the U.S. government in Israel’s current campaigns in Gaza and elsewhere in West Asia, there is clear potential for the decisions of PM Netanyahu or other portions of the Israeli leadership to draw the U.S. military directly into a range of conflicts within or even far beyond the region.

8. There are large problems of decisionmaking capability in the United States, too

Washington’s leadership dysfunctionality on the current Gaza-Israel crisis is a part—indeed, now a nodal part—of a much broader dysfunctionality that’s been evident in its engagement with numerous other international issues, too. Indeed, we could say that for many years now, Washington has been engaged in multi-year process of massive over-reliance on the military accompanied by diplomatic self-immolation. Here are some of the elements of Washington’s dysfunctionality that have been particularly evident during the current crisis:

  • The extreme strategic ineptitude (and decrepitude) of the president, including his apparently unquestioning acceptance—and public retailing—of the Israeli government’s talking-points and the series of speedy and little-studied decisions he took after 10/27 to throw weighty elements of U.S. power behind Israel’s assault on Gaza
  • The extreme shortsightedness of the president in having inserted the United States so deeply into the whole of today’s West Asian conflict vortex, not just through all the forms of support it has given directly to Israel’s assault on Gaza but also by sending additional US military assets to the region… which have further escalated tensions throughout (and far beyond) West Asia.
  • The very strong support that Israel continues to enjoy in Congress and nearly all the rest of the American political elite. This factor—allied to the relative imminence, in American terms, of the November 2024 presidential and congressional elections—makes it almost impossible to think of Pres. Biden voluntarily deciding to step back and start to “put the brakes on” Israel absent a major new intervening factor such as: Israel suffering a serious setback on the battlefield (in which case Israel’s military push would be self-braking, not braked from Washington); a new, serious political upheaval in Israel; a new explosion of violence in the Holy Places of occupied East Jerusalem, or an even more serious escalation of violence than has already been seen, elsewhere in the occupied West Bank; or a rapid escalation of Israel’s long-simmering conflicts with other, non-Palestinian foes, in some other part of West Asia…

If any of these “new intervening factors” (or others of equal impact) do occur, then the United States could almost immediately be thrust directly into a vortex of international conflicts that would require strategic smarts and decision-making in Washington that is calm, well-informed, and intelligent.

As of now, I’m not holding my breath for an American response like that to happen…

9. The Gaza-Israel conflict comes at a time of rapidly eroding U.S. power in world affairs and little experience anywhere of how to handle these big shifts

I found it symbolic that the Hamas breakout of October 7, 2023 came exactly one year after the decision Pres. Biden made to slap very tight restrictions on China’s access to advanced chip-making equipment. That decision was part of the much broader campaign that Biden—stepping enthusiastically along a trail earlier blazed by Pres. Trump—has been pursuing, to try to severely curtail China’s power in the strategically important field of electronics supply chains and R&D. (Indeed, Biden slapped yet another set of even tighter sanctions on China’s access to chip-making machinery on October 17 this year.)

Tight and punitive sanctions have been, along with demonstrations of military muscle, the other major tool of Washington’s engagement in international affairs for many years now; and in many cases, the American sanctions or tariffs imposed against China have been in clear violation of the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO.) The latest rounds of U.S. restrictions on China’s access to chip-making machinery have almost certainly been counter-productive: they stimulated China’s development of its own indigenous design and production capabilities, as shown with the extremely impressive roll-out of Huawei’s Mate 60 Pro phone back in August… But the fact remains that at a time when when U.S. power has anyway been declining for many years, the sanctions against China have quite gratuitously caused further distrust and rifts into the relationship between Washington and Beijing.

Why is this relevant to developments in Gaza/Israel? Primarily because the terrifying conflict that the IDF is waging against Gaza is going to require at some point—and I hope this comes sooner rather than later—some very skillful and far-sighted diplomacy by all the world’s leading powers, including these two. As I noted in Thesis 5 that I formulated earlier, the United States has now lost the ability it had long enjoyed, to exercise near-hegemonic control over all the strands of Arab-Israeli peacemaking. I noted there that the intense pro-Israeli partisanship that Washington has demonstrated in the present conflict has meant that it, “has completely disqualified itself in the court of global public opinion from any claim that it might continue to “lead” the negotiations for a final-status peace between Palestinians and Israelis that so very desperately needs to happen…” But it is not only the United States’ partisanship that disqualifies it from exercising that earlier “leadership.” It is also the raw fact that Washington no longer enjoys anything like the degree of hegemonic power it enjoyed on the world scene back in the 1990s and early 2000s.

In Thesis 5 I wrote that, “It is time for the grown-ups of the rest of the U.N. Security Council to regain the reins” of Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking. This means that all the members of the UNSC, but especially the five veto-wielding Permanent Members, the P-5,need to find a way to work together on this peacemaking challenge of truly global impact and importance.

The P-5 states are all, of course, nuclear-weapons states—as is Israel, which is not a member of the NPT. Three members of the P-5 are key members of NATO, a military alliance with which roughly 10-12 percent of humankind is affiliated. And the other two are key members of BRICS, which is not a military alliance but an economic grouping, whose five current members encompass roughly 35% of humanity. (BRICS’s membership will shortly grow through the addition of six new states including Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt.)

The world community has for many years now expressed a deep preference for Israel’s withdrawal from all the lands its military occupied in 1967 and for the establishment in the occupied West Bank and Gaza of an independent Palestinian state living in peace alongside Israel (the “two-state outcome.”) The most significant, government-level demurrals from support for the two-state outcome have been those voiced by Israel’s recent governments, which consider the whole area between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean to be “the Land of Israel”, and Iran, which considers the Jewish state in Israel illegitimate and calls for its replacement by a single non-theocratic state in all of historic Palestine.

Apart from those two (non-trivial) exceptions, all the others of the world’s states still express clear support for a two-state outcome in Palestine/Israel. Since 10/7, that position has been expressed very forcefully by China, Russia, and nearly all the European states, and in a much more muted fashion by the United States.

Under both Presidents Trump and Biden, Washington has diverged very significantly from the two-state principle, particularly through the recognition that it has given to Israel’s annexation of occupied East Jerusalem and Golan, acts that are actually grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions. Nonetheless, Washington has maintained a rhetoric of support for the two-state outcome. Now, given the gravity of this Israel-Gaza crisis, it is time for Washington to put that rhetoric into action, to set aside the pro-Israel partisanship it has pursued for so long, and to work with other world powers to end Israel’s occupations of Gaza, the West Bank, and Golan.

10. The Security Council needs to seize control of West Asian diplomacy from the fading but dangerous U.S. hegemon

The leaders of China and other representatives of the Global Majority most likely did not want to be launching an open challenge to Washington’s global power right now. But the intensity of the regional and global crisis that has been sparked by the Israel-Gaza war—an intensity that Pres. Biden has greatly magnified through the strength, partisanship, and hugely escalatory potential of the actions he’s taken since 10/7—is bringing ever closer the point at which the leaders of Global Majority states might need to stage an urgent diplomatic intervention in order to defuse and de-escalate these tensions.

Indeed, the sheer horror and devastation that Gaza’s 2.3 million people are currently suffering could well provide the entry-point for a Global Majority intervention that starts with decisive U.N. action on the following agenda:

  1. Force a complete cessation of hostilities between Israel and the Gaza Palestinians, and a pullback of Israeli forces to the 1949 Armistice Line, with that ceasefire (a new Armistice!) to be monitored by U.N. observers.
  2. Organize a massive transportation to Gaza, by land and sea routes that do not run through Israel, of the many humanitarian necessities that Gaza’s Palestinians now so desperately need.
  3. Simultaneously start laying the basis for Gaza’s direct connection to the outside world both via Egypt and by speedily rehabbing Gaza’s long-bustling sea-port, with control over Gaza’s new crossing-points to be organized by a U.N. body.
  4. Simultaneously have the U.N. Security Council organize a new and authoritative international peace conference with the declared aim of finally—56 years after 1967—achieving the full implementation of SC resolutions 242 and 338 on the Israel-Palestine and Israel-Syria fronts, on the basis of establishing a two-state outcome in historic Palestine.
  5. Simultaneously dedicate the Security Council to closely monitoring the situation on the ground in all of the occupied West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and occupied Golan with a view to protecting the rights of those areas’ legitimate residents and preparing plans for the full withdrawal of Israeli forces and settlers from those areas.

Can such an agenda be achieved? Yes, it can, if the states that represent the Global Majority are ready to put sufficient diplomatic and economic muscle behind it. If it cannot be achieved, and if the U.S. continues to give massive military support and carte blanche diplomatic support to Israel, then who can tell where the world might be headed?