I know at the beginning of the outbreak of violence, I tweeted that I wouldn’t do another one of these, since past ones would probably cover most of what happens. But to my surprise & satisfaction this time things were different. Of course the word “satisfaction” does not refer to the conflict itself, since it involved more than 150 killed & hundreds more wounded. The satisfaction derives from the fact that Israel’s leadership did seem to learn from past mistakes & also did not indulge in vengeance. More on that below.
Question 1: Everyone talks about Israel’s right to self defense. Don’t the Palestinian people have a right to self defense? Also Israel is the occupier of Palestinian land. As the indigenous people don’t Palestinians have the right to resistance?
Answer: Yes of course they do. But shooting random missiles into civilian territory is not an act of self defense. It is a war crime. It matches the definition of terror which is the use of violence against civilians to achieve political ends. Hamas has explicitly stated that their goal is to use violence to intimate the Israeli people – that is terrorism and a war crime.
Question 2: Yes, but the Israelis are equally guilty of terror and war crimes. How can you defend their actions?
Answer: In the past, particularly during the Second Intifada & Operation Cast Lead I always severely criticized Israel when it engaged in terror and war crimes against the Palestinian people. Starting with Sharon & then subsequently under the leadership of Olmert & Livni, Israel’s government and army explicitly stated that their goal was to intimidate the Palestinian population & force them to over throw Hamas – this is terror. Israel often used disproportionate violence against civilians & that is a war crime. This time however Israel had much more modest goals, viz. to destroy the missile infrastructure of Hamas & to restore quiet & some level of deterrence. While its bombing of Gaza was severe, & one might argue about specific targets, the facts on the ground show that Israel was targeting military installations & trying to avoid civilian casualties. The fact that Gaza is densely populated means there will be civilians killed. But that in itself is not terror and not a war crime – it is an awful part of the horrors of war. Having mostly achieved its stated goals, Israel agreed to a cease fire, proving they were sincere in their declarations.
Question 3: But you, yourself have stated in the past that by starting an unnecessary war which is not in self defense, the civilians killed are inherently victims of a war crime. Israel started this war unnecessarily by killing Jabari, a tried & true tactic it has used in the past for unjustified military action. It then used the heated up environment for bombing Gaza. Isn’t this “same old same old”?
Question 4: You yourself have also stated in the past, that the blockade of Gaza can only be read as an attempt by the Israeli government to intimidate & punish the Palestinian people so it is inherently a war crime. Isn’t all the violence from Gaza just a legitimate attempt to end that blockade?
Answer: I put these two questions together because the answer is intertwined & is the core of why this time was different. Because this is a quite nuanced issue, the response won’t be all that snappy!
First, let’s say off the bat, again, that firing missiles at civilians is not a legitimate way to fight the blockade. By contrast, the Gaza flotilla in 2010 was in fact both a legitimate and effective way to fight. In the aftermath of the Mavi Marmara disaster, Israel was pressured to ease up on the blockade.
This leads us to the first critical juncture in this answer. Before the easing in 2010, the blockade was inherently an assault on the people of Gaza, and the Israeli government admitted as such. But Israel always argued that another justification for the blockade was meant to block the arming of Hamas, who would use the open borders to sneak arms to be used against Israeli civilians. Anti-blockade advocates argued (myself among them) that this does not justify keeping Gazans on the verge of starvation nor is trying to overthrow Hamas a legitimate or practical military goal. The blockade just made Hamas seem more appealing to the Gazans. But in the aftermath of the flotilla under international pressure, Bibi’s government took a more nuanced approach. They eased up on the blockade & put Hamas’ intentions to the test, focusing the remaining blockade on stopping arms smuggling not toppling Hamas.
This is a wise approach to the prisoner’s dilemma – start by co-operation to test your adversaries intentions. If they try to undermine you, attack back. If they co-operate, co-operate further. Unfortunately, Hamas, instead of focusing energies & resources on rebuilding Gaza & helping their Gaza constituents, focused energy on increasing their missile cache, & in particular smuggling in long range missiles that bring an even greater part of Israel’s civilian population in range of their murderous weapons. The rational response for Israel is therefore to destroy that infrastructure & weaken Hamas military capability while reminding Hamas that if they don’t co-operate there will be consequences.
The other part is the missile firing itself. Since the cease fire of 2008 there have of course been tit-for-tat actions on both sides, but in general there has been calm. Over the past six months, Hamas has restrained the fire by militant groups less and less and even actively participated. This made life in the south of Israel untenable. One can conjecture that the elections in Egypt of Morsi made Hamas bolder, as they counted on the fact Egypt would no longer try to hold them back.
It is true that Israel & Hamas were negotiating another lull in the fighting before Jabari was killed, but it is legitimate for Israel to believe that Hamas would use this as a means to just smuggle in even more long range missiles. Plus a cease fire after destroying the existing missile infrastructure is better than one prior to doing so. Hence in this context, the killing of Jabari & the operation as a whole were justifiable self defense.
Question 5: [From the Left] But what did Israel gain – we are back to square one, with a cease fire which could have been in place before this started?
Question 6: [From the Right] But what did Israel gain – Hamas is still in power & will do everything it can to rebuild its terrorist infrastructure?
Answer: Actually Israel gained quite a lot! First and foremost, it went all the way back to the pre-Sharon First Lebanon War doctrine. Before that war, Israel’s military actions were always seen as defensive ways of protecting Israel’s population & borders, even if Israel went on the attack first. Sharon was a general who only understood one tool – military force. In that accursed First Lebanon war, the accursed Sharon introduced the doctrine that the IDF can also be used as a tool to try and achieve political goals. He applied that doctrine extensively as Prime Minister during the Second Intifada. Olmert & Livni continued down his path. The results were disastrous for both the Palestinians and Israel. Since the Bush regime held the same doctrine, the disaster was compounded ten fold.
This war by contrast was purely a defensive military operation, and when the limited goals were achieved, diplomacy was put in place. Most significantly, despite the provocation of the bus bombing, which would have ended any hope of a cease fire under the Sharon/Bush doctrine, this time Israeli leadership did not choose vengeance. The importance of that can’t be underestimated.
We can’t begin to know if this most recent military action was a beginning of a trend or a fluke. Certainly Obama who rejects the Sharon/Bush doctrine is a critical influence and this flare up reinforces how fantastic it is he was re-elected. On the Israeli side, despite my antipathy for the man, I can’t help but give Bibi credit and at least hope he has internalized lessons from past failures as well. Certainly one gets the feeling that the current military leadership is far more comfortable playing the role of the Israel Defense Force, as opposed to a political role.
Other important achievements from Israel’s perspective:
One last point. Those who claim Israel lost the chance for a “decisive” victory by avoiding a land incursion, ignore the lessons of the last twelve years: there is no possible decisive military victory against a popular political movement within its own territory. For that very reason, Sharon withdrew from Gaza.
Question 7: You seem so thrilled about Morsi’s reaction, but he’s just another Islamist who wants to push Israel into the sea. One of Hamas’ leaders even said it would be better for US to be on the side of 350 millions, as opposed to a few millions Jews. Why should we trust these Jew-phobes?
Answer: Certainly the ideology of Morsi’s party is not comforting to Jewish Israeli’s, to state it mildly. But as 64 years of history has shown, most Arab support for Palestinians no matter what the ideology de jour is, comes in the form of lip service. Jew-phobia and hatred towards the “Zionist entity” is a tool for gaining political traction & distracting the populace from the failures & exploitations of their governments, just like xenophobia is used by politicians everywhere. In fact, the depth of the hypocrisy of Egypt’s government is revealed by the fact that one of the main arguments Egypt now uses for not opening it’s border to Gaza is because Egypt doesn’t want an influx of refugees or to take responsibility for the Gazan population. If Arab/Muslim solidarity is the basis of Support for the Palestinian cause, how can Egypt dump the responsibility for helping Gazans on Israel?
For Morsi and the Brotherhood to consolidate their power in Egypt, they need to deliver food on the table and some economic development. Unlike Iran, a wealthy and developed country, Egypt with the decline of the Soviet bloc, has become totally dependent on the West. Also unlike Iran which is very far away, Israel’s military might is right on their border. Morsi made a very rational choice, again encouraged by Obama, to keep his support for Palestinian “resistance” in the realm of lip service. If anything, his central role in ending this current conflict shows clearly that Hamas hope that Egypt will replace Syria & Iran as military suppliers or at least facilitate arm flows from elsewhere (e.g. Libya) have been dashed.
Question 8: [From the Left]Unless Israel ends the settlement project there is no hope for a permanent solution. So what good are these military actions?
Question 9: [From the Right]The Arabs hate us and reject any Jewish presence in what they call Palestine? So what good are these limited military actions?
Answer: These two questions need a whole post of their own. Hopefully I will get back to that soon!