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How the West Chose War in Gaza: Crisis Tied to Israeli-U.S. Effort to Isolate Hamas & Keep the Siege

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While many trace the Israeli assault on Gaza to the series of events that began with the kidnapping and subsequent murder of three teenage Israelis in the occupied West Bank, we look at how the crisis’ immediate cause has been all but ignored. In a recent article for The New York Times, “How the West Chose War in Gaza,” Nathan Thrall, senior analyst at International Crisis Group, argues the roots of the current violence lie in Israeli, U.S. and European efforts to undermine the Palestinian unity government, which Hamas joined earlier this year. Isolated by its opposition to the Assad regime in Syria and a rift with the military government in Egypt, Hamas reconciled with the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority in the hopes a unity deal could help ease the crippling blockade of Gaza and help pay the salaries of thousands of its civil servants. But the United States and European Union helped Israel maintain the blockade of Gaza while denying payments to the Hamas employees. “Plan A for Hamas out of the predicament it and Gaza found themselves in was reconciliation,” Thrall says. “That was thwarted — so Plan B is the crisis we’re dealing with today.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: I want to bring in Nathan Thrall, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, covering Gaza, Israel, Jordan and the West Bank. His recent article for The New York Times is headlined “How the West Chose War in Gaza.” Nathan Thrall, we just heard Gideon Levy talking about the context here of Israel undermining the Palestinian unity government. Your piece deals with how this was carried about with EU and U.S. backing. Can you lay out for us what happened here, why this context is so critical to the current crisis in Gaza?

NATHAN THRALL: Sure. I would step back a little bit further to the last fight between Hamas and Israel, which occurred in November 2012. That was brought to a close after several days with a ceasefire brokered by Egypt. At that time, Hamas had an ally, Egypt, in power. And basically, that ceasefire, the terms of that ceasefire included various concessions to Gaza and to Hamas. And although Israel implemented some of them in the immediate days and weeks afterward, very shortly later those were retracted, and we once again went back to a situation where exports were all but nonexistent, imports were reduced, and there were severe restrictions on travel for Gazans. Nevertheless, that ceasefire basically held, and during 2012 and ’13—I’m sorry, during 2013, following the ceasefire, Israel had one of the quietest years, if not the quietest year, it had had since rockets started coming from Gaza, which, by the way, began before the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in the fall of 2005.

Fast-forward to July 2013, when there is a coup in Egypt, and there is a new leader who’s very hostile both to the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is the Palestinian chapter, and hostile to Hamas, as well, of course. And there was a radical change in policy on the part of Egypt and a radical change in the closure regime that was imposed on Gaza. Very, very few Gazans were able to exit through the Rafah crossing to Egypt. This is the main exit of Gazans to the outside world. There are some Gazans who are permitted to leave via Israel, but it’s really not available to most Gazans. It’s for exceptional medical cases and high-level VIP businessmen and so forth. So, the exit was closed, and pressure started to build.

In addition, the tunnels, through which many goods were coming, particularly construction materials and fuel—were coming into Gaza through these tunnels crossing the Gaza-Egypt border. And the Sisi regime, following the July 2013 coup, basically eliminated these tunnels. And with that elimination of those tunnels, almost complete elimination, Hamas no longer had these goods coming through and could no longer tax them. They relied on those tax revenues in order to pay the roughly 40,000 employees who run Gaza and have been running Gaza even without pay for the last several months.

So, what you had was a pressure cooker inside of Gaza, and this began to build and build to the point where, December 2013, we had a massive storm here and sanitation plants started to shut down for lack of power. There was radical reductions in electricity, which are already at very, very low levels within Gaza. Sewage is being dumped in the sea. There’s sewage in the middle of the streets in Gaza. And Hamas is looking at the situation in Egypt, and they’re hoping that there’s going to be a change in regime there and they will at least if not have a Muslim Brotherhood president again, somebody who’s less hostile to them and is going to allow some kind of easing of the closure of Gaza.

And as they came to the conclusion earlier this year that that really was not going to happen in the near term, they realized that they had to do something to get out of their predicament—and in particular, the predicament of not being able to pay the employees who are running Gaza. These employees, by the way, are not simply Hamas members. Many of them are Hamas members, but many of them are members of other factions, as well. And as soon as they came to this conclusion, they decided that what they would do as a way out of this was to form a reconciliation agreement with the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah. And this was a years-long process of debating the various points of implementing Palestinian reconciliation. It’s a very distant dream. But Hamas basically caved on all of the demands that they had previously been making.

And I don’t want to overstate the nature of this reconciliation. This was not a reconciliation of the political programs of Fatah and Hamas. It wasn’t calling for disarming Hamas in Gaza. It wasn’t addressing the massive problems dealing with the security forces and so forth. But it was a step towards Palestinian unity, and an important one. And what it allowed for was to have a single authority, with the ministries controlled by Ramallah controlling Gaza once again.

And what happened after this agreement, Hamas expected two things at a minimum for basically caving on all of their demands. The first thing they expected was an easing in the closure imposed particularly by Egypt on the Rafah crossing. The official reason for that closure being in place was that Egypt had this campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood and against Hamas, and security threats in Sinai and so forth. And they said, “Look, if we’re no longer manning the border and now you have PA security forces loyal to the leadership in Ramallah at the border,” as Hamas agreed would be the case, “then there should at least be some significant easing, and people should be able to exit Gaza.” The second thing that they expected was that the civil servants, whom they could no longer pay, would begin to be paid. And neither of those things happened.

In fact, life in Gaza just became worse. And months went by without any solution to this building crisis, of Hamas having made these concessions in order to find a solution out of the predicament in Gaza—and also, you know, for their own self-interested reasons, as well. They didn’t want to be overthrown by the population in Gaza at a time of great turmoil and instability in the region when they couldn’t provide for their people. So they handed the responsibility for that over to the government in Ramallah. Presumably, that would be something that’s in the interest of the West, which always states how much they want to strengthen the leadership in Ramallah and strengthen Fatah. And if indeed that was what they desired, then the day that this government was formed, there should have been increases in electricity in Gaza, the Rafah crossing should have been opened significantly. Major changes should have taken place. The salaries should have been paid on the day that government was formed. And nothing of the sort took place. And nothing—if it had taken place, nothing would greater strengthen the leadership in Ramallah and Fatah.

And so, what happened subsequently were the kidnappings and murders of the three Yeshiva students, the three Israeli students at Yeshiva in the West Bank, followed by the revenge, torture and killing of the 16-year-old Palestinian boy in East Jerusalem, Mohammed Abu Khdeir. And Hamas found itself in a campaign in the West Bank, an Israeli campaign, to arrest hundreds of Hamas members in a search for the perpetrators of the kidnapping and murder. Hamas did not claim responsibility for the kidnappings and the murder, but it did say that it supports such kidnappings as a means of getting prisoners out of jail. And it essentially found an opportunity—with rising protests particularly in the wake of the killing of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, rising protests particularly in Jerusalem and in Israel proper, it saw an opportunity to do what it felt it was going to be forced to do in any event. Plan A for Hamas out of the predicament it and Gaza found themselves in was reconciliation. That was thwarted. And so Plan B is the crisis that we’re dealing with today.

AARON MATÉ: Nathan Thrall, and, of course, right before this, you also had a pretty major development with the U.S. agreeing to recognize this unity government, with Hamas included. Now, in early June, as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas swore in the government, joining Hamas and Fatah after years of conflict, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said the Obama administration would recognize this new government.

JEN PSAKI: At this point, it appears that President Abbas has formed an interim technocratic government that does not include ministers affiliated with Hamas. Moving forward, we will be judging this government by its actions. Based on what we know now, we intend to work with this government, but we’ll be watching closely to make ensure that it upholds the principles that President Abbas reiterated today.

AARON MATÉ: Nathan Thrall, can you talk about how Israel reacted to this decision, and then what the U.S. then subsequently did in terms of its commitment to recognizing the unity government?

NATHAN THRALL: Sure. The step that the U.S. took was opposed by Israel. And it has to be said that the reason the U.S.—one of the main reasons that the U.S. actually took this extraordinary step of recognizing this unity government was, first of all, their frustration with Israel during the Kerry-led peace process. If that had not happened and that Kerry-led peace process had received an extension, the U.S. almost certainly would have opposed much more strongly the reconciliation agreement than it did.

But the second reason, of course, that the U.S. recognized the government was that it basically was a form of capitulation by Hamas. There was not a single Hamas member within this government, not a Hamas-affiliated minister within the government. The government looked basically identical to the U.S.-backed government in Ramallah that it was replacing. And so, there was not even really a legal reason for the U.S. to oppose the new government.

But behind the scenes, the U.S. did act to ensure that true reconciliation did not take place, that further steps toward reconciliation did not take place. The U.S. very strongly told President Abbas that, for example, the Palestinian Legislative Council could not convene. Why? Because the Palestinian Legislative Council, because of the 2006 elections in the West Bank and Gaza, which Hamas won in both places, has a majority, a strong majority, of Hamas parliamentarians. And if that Legislative Council were to convene—and Hamas saw that as a critical part of this reconciliation agreement: If they were giving up the power that they had won through elections to a group of people who had not been elected, then at the very least they expected to have some kind of legislative check on this government. And the U.S. told Abbas very clearly that there would be a cut in American funding and there could be no support for this unity government, if the Legislative Council were to convene. And there were numerous other steps towards reconciliation that could not take place because of European and U.S. opposition.

And it should be said also that the Palestinian Authority itself was very reluctant to implement the agreement and was dragging its feet considerably. You can say, partly, they were doing it because of these threats from the U.S. and Europe, but there was certainly a lot of foot dragging on their part, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Nathan Thrall is speaking to us from Jerusalem, senior analyst of the International Crisis Group.

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