Khaled Elgindy writes: Given the intensity of the ongoing war between Hamas and Israel in Gaza, it is easy to forget that the current crisis began in a different part of Palestine. The kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank led to a severe Israeli crackdown on Hamas, which responded with a barrage of rocket fire at Israel from Gaza. Meanwhile, the murder of a Palestinian teenager by Jewish extremists sparked several days of violent protests by Palestinians in East Jerusalem and elsewhere. The shift in venue served Israel’s interests, diverting the conflict away from sensitive and strategically vulnerable areas. For Israeli policymakers, another concentrated war against Gaza was preferable to the possibility of another West Bank uprising against Israel, akin to the so-called intifadas that occurred in the late 1980s and the early 2000s. Contrary to what Israelis may have hoped, however, the present war has made a third intifada more, not less, likely.
For most of the past decade, Israel’s de facto policy has been to deepen Palestinian geographic and political division by maintaining the schism between the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Although the current Israeli government has made no secret of its opposition to any Palestinian government that includes or is even accepted by Hamas, which it views as a vicious terrorist organization that is beyond the political pale, Israel’s policy of isolating Gaza from the West Bank began before Hamas’ rise to power. In fact, it was the closure of Gaza’s borders in late 2005 shortly after Israel unilaterally removed its settlers and soldiers from Gaza that helped pave the way for Hamas’ election and created the conditions for the endless cycle of violence in Gaza that we see today. As Dov Weissglas, chief of staff to Israel’s former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, put it at the time, Israel’s disengagement from Gaza would serve as “formaldehyde … so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.” By cutting Gaza loose, along with its 1.5 million Palestinians, Israel could then focus on consolidating its control over and colonization of the West Bank.
Since then Israel, with U.S. and international backing, has treated Palestine as two separate conflicts, rather than one. By maintaining security cooperation and a diplomatic relationship with Fatah in the West Bank, Israel hoped to maintain calm in areas adjacent to its main population centers as well the settlement project itself. At the same time, by treating Hamas-controlled Gaza as a perpetual “enemy entity,” subject to air, land, and sea blockades, Israel reserved the right to periodically go to war against Gaza, a process that Israeli military officials refer to as “mowing the grass.” In this way, Israel would free itself from having to deal with the underlying causes of the conflict, most notably its 46-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This has produced the worst of all possible outcomes, simultaneously increasing the likelihood of violent confrontations with Hamas while decreasing the likelihood of resolving the conflict with Abbas’ PA. [Continue reading…]