Whether one is some shade of pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian, or even if one is without a favorite side to support or loathe, it is tempting to see what has been going on between Israel and Hamas in Gaza over the past two weeks as just another Mideastern example of George Shultz’s definition of foreign policy—not one thing after another, but “the same damned thing over and over again.” Clearly, we have all been here before—in a big way in 2008-09’s Operation Cast Lead, when Israel launched a land incursion into Gaza, and in smaller aerial doses both before and after that, most recently in November 2012. You can tell because of all the commentary entitled “Eyeless in Gaza”; who’d have thought that Samson, of all people, would be quoted so often in the 21st century?
The repeated clashes have made some Israelis regret Israel’s ever having removed itself unilaterally from Gaza in August-September 2005, under the direction of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. But those who remember the way things were before the disengagement—particularly those who had to do miluim (reserve duty) in Gaza or were parents, relatives and friends of such people—are of a more divided mind. There was not a really good choice then, and there still isn’t now.
Certainly there are many similarities this time around with times past, and that’s one of them: no good choices. Like any responsible government, the Israeli one cannot stand by while hateful enemies attack the civilian population with rockets, mortars, and platoon-scale infantry attacks launched out of cross-border tunnels. But since airpower alone—at least on the scale Israel is willing to employ it—cannot silence the source of fire, boots on the ground are necessary. The problem is that soldiers are then vulnerable to being wounded, killed or kidnapped, and the inevitably collateral damage of major attacks in a very densely populated area invariably bring forth an orgy of international condemnation that, over time, erodes Israel’s image and standing in the world. (One should not exaggerate the seriousness of that latter problem, however; Jackson Diehl’s recent Washington Post column on the matter gets it exactly right.) Israel’s going kinetic also invariably diverts attention away from other more strategically portentous issues—say the disaster that is Syria, a disaster arguably about to get even worse as ISIS and the Assad regime square off for a face-pounder over Aleppo.
In this case as before, Israel only entered Gaza on the ground when it was clear that airpower could not stop the rocket attacks, which this time have reached far enough north to force millions of Israelis—something like two-thirds of the population—into shelters. (Tourists usually don’t know what it means when they come upon a sign in Hebrew on what looks like a kind of manhole cover that transliterates as “bor bitakhon”, but every Israeli native knows what it means.) That is new by degree this time around, and Hamas’s ability to land a rocket near Ben-Gurion Airport, causing the temporary suspension of many flights into and out of the country, is unprecedented and ominous.
Israeli planners know something else they don’t like to discuss publicly: If Hamas has rockets of such range launched from the south, and Hizballah has similar missiles that can be launched from the north, it puts the entire country within range of deadly fire should those two non-state actors ever act in unison.
Some Israelis think the government waited too long this time to go in on the ground; almost none think it acted too soon. It’s bad for morale and for the economy for the population to be placed under siege, and Israelis expect the IDF to be able to lift such conditions expeditiously. It’s one thing to be assaulted by a hostile state, as when Ba’athi Iraq attacked Israel with Scuds in 1991, another by what had generally been thought to be a ragtag group of mostly incompetent fanatics. Some think that now that Israel has gone in, its objectives—to destroy Hamas’s armament and its tunnels—are too limited, and that it should reoccupy Gaza altogether and destroy Hamas root and branch. But that would entail killing, jailing or expelling many thousands of people. As of this writing, a broader ground offensive looks likely, if Israeli Defense Minister Bogie Ya’alon’s remarks last night are more than negotiating tactics.
Also not new is Israel’s reluctance to go all-in in Gaza for fear, as well, of getting stuck there without an exit strategy. Suppose Israel does reoccupy Gaza and extirpates Hamas; then what? Israeli leaders are justifiably reticent to cause a complete collapse of governance in Gaza upon yet another exit. They know that Israel will get pinned with both the blame and the responsibility, at least in part, for humanitarian remediation. No good choices.
The same goes for Hamas. As has been made clear in the news coverage on the conflict, Hamas acted out of desperation. With the Egyptian government hostile and the Rafah crossing closed, Iranian patronage vanished over the fallout of the Syrian civil war, and Hamas political leaders increasing unpopular among the population as their patronage cash coffers ran dry, the only option left was to do what Hamas does best to garner support: kill Jews.
This is why when the Palestinian “unity” pact was initialed back in early June, and most observers condemned it as helping Hamas and shaming Fatah, I and a few others speculated that the deal instead demonstrated Hamas’s weakness and portended a likelihood that Mahmud Abbas would gain from the arrangement. That is precisely what happened, at least until Hamas’s plight convinced its military wing to break out of Abbas’s tightening headlock.
This was not a good choice for Ismail Haniyeh and his associates. Hamas political leaders always lose decision autonomy to the military wing when lead flies, but they faced what looks to have been a coup from their own colleagues had they resisted. They know Gazans in their vast majority resent Hamas for the suffering they cause, not least the diversion of scarce resources to built tunnels and make war instead of govern. And this time—unlike the past—they had to know as well that under current circumstances replenishing their stocks of weapons during the next ceasefire would be very hard. Nevertheless, they tried to start a war by kidnapping and murdering three Jewish teens; when that did not do the trick, they escalated their bid by launching hundreds of missiles toward Israeli civilians, thus breaking a nearly unblemished two-year ceasefire during which Hamas suppressed attacks from other Gazan factions. This was merely the least bad option, according to their calculations. They had no good choices.
Also the same this time around has been the bleating of moral illiteracy from most of Europe. No European country would countenance a neighboring territory being used as a launch pad to murder its citizens, and every single one of them would make haste to silence the source of fire, whatever it reasonably took. And yet every time Israel does the same, the post-bellicist crowd bows down to the altar of proportionality, accusing Israel of dissing that sacred principle. But would the Eurosheeple really like it any better if Israel responded to Hamas attacks with exact proportionality, by, say, deliberately targeting Palestinian kindergartens and school busses?
Which brings to mind yet another similarity to Operation Cast Lead. In that conflict Hamas deliberately placed weapons amid schools and hospitals, hoping to protect them from attack by an Israel concerned about both counterproductive collateral damage and international condemnation. The Israelis made a difficult but ultimately necessary decision then not to allow Hamas to establish that kind of precedent, gaining from it prospectively the ability to attack Israel from such sites more or less without fear of retaliation. It is doing so again this time. Last time Israel had to suffer the insufferable Goldstone Report. This time it will no doubt suffer similar distortions and lies, but this is a small price to pay for nullifying Hamas’s attempt to establish what amounts to immunity from Israeli attack.
Also like last time, casualty counts are very unreliable on the Palestinian side. In 2008-09 Palestinian dead came to about 900 in a three-week campaign, and the commonly accepted truth then was that around 75 percent were civilians. But Hamas “militants”, as the MSM invariably calls them, don’t usually wear uniforms, so many missile-launchers and other combatants get counted as civilians when they get killed. The same thing is happening now. The press reports about 625 dead so far, and gives the usual 75 percent civilian statistic. That’s a highly unreliable number; Hamas has an obvious interest in exaggerating the number of Israelis killed and minimizing their own combat loses. That’s one reason they lie out loud about Israeli deaths. As to the truth, no one knows and we are not likely ever to find out.
And yet another similarity: Israel’s missile defense system, the Iron Dome, is working well, even better than in 2008-09. Its success rate is reported to be about 90 percent. Lest anyone think this means missile defense generally can easily be made to work anywhere for other purposes, note that technology and geography combine to make all Hamas launches what are called “depressed trajectory” shots in ballistic missile defense lingo. That greatly diminishes the challenge of target acquisition for the defender. Missile defense elsewhere, under other circumstances, can work—just not as easily in most cases.
So it’s the same now as before, as several wits have summed it up: Israel tries its consistent best to use missiles to protect its people, and Hamas tries its consistent best to use people to protect its missiles.
If all that is the same this time around, what’s different? We’ve already noted a few differences: extended rocket ranges and being able to shut down much air traffic into and out of Israel, Egypt’s enmity toward Hamas, and the diminished prospect of Hamas replenishing its arsenal. But there are several others.
First, while Israeli military intelligence lapses are hardly rare, in its conflict with Hamas they have been until now. Israeli intelligence vastly underestimated the number and sophistication of Hamas tunnels, which rival the sophistication of the drug-lord underground highways below the U.S.-Mexican frontier. The result of that, and more sophisticated tactics and preparation in the Shejaiyah neighborhood, has led so far to more than 30 Israeli soldiers killed (as of this writing). The number in three weeks of Operation Cast Lead totaled 10, four of which were from “friendly fire.”
Second, in the past Egypt frequently played the role of mediator or go-between in arranging ceasefires. Egypt’s good offices under Hosni Mubarak were not very good, but something was better than more or less nothing, which is what we have now. And under intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, Egypt played a double game in the Sinai that allowed the Sinai bedouin to profit from the tunnel traffic beneath the Egyptian-Gazan border as a way to buy them off—so Egypt was part of the problem then.
Now, for all practical purposes, Abbas is the mediator, to the extent there is one; perhaps Turkey may come to play a larger role somehow, despite Prime Minister Erdogan’s pathological animus toward Israel. But the al-Sisi government is unmistakably hostile to Hamas, Hamas does not trust the Egyptians, and the Egyptians are not going to do Hamas any favors by throwing Rafah wide open to get a ceasefire. Hamas rejected an Egyptian ceasefire bid last week, before the latest escalation, after Israel had accepted it, and did so dismissively and even rudely. Secretary Kerry went to Cairo because, apparently, he thought it didn’t look so hot for him to be “just sitting around”, as he put it. But what he thought he’d accomplish by going to Cairo is anyone’s guess. He has since gone to Jerusalem, where there is indeed something to talk about.
But that’s different too: In the past, the locals listened carefully to the United States, because it had various means of influence and the demonstrated will to use them (some of them some of the time, anyway). We still have the means, but the will has waned—or so most locals have concluded based on the present Administration’s prior conduct. There isn’t much to complain about when it comes to the President’s words, or the words of other senior U.S. principals. They’ve said mostly the right things, especially compared to the Europeans. But no one is straining to listen. Before Kerry can broker a ceasefire he has to persuade the parties that the United States is serious, and to do that the President must be engaged and seen as willing to act. We’ll see what happens.
And there seems to be another Israeli soldier captured—Oron Shaul. No Israeli soldiers were taken in Operation Cast Lead, although one had been taken earlier, in 2006, as a result of a tunnel operation. So this is both a similarity and not a similarity. Either way, it raises again the debate about Israel’s willingness to repeatedly free hundreds upon hundreds of Palestinian terrorists and murderers to get back one or two Israelis, alive and sometimes not alive (and we do not know if Oron Shaul is alive or not).
Having lived for a while in Israel, I understand full well the rationale behind this policy. You don’t leave a comrade abandoned, and knowing that the entire country has your back is supposed to make you, as a soldier, brave and effective. Fine. But I have never been quite able to reconcile that argument with the moral hazard the policy creates: If you make kidnapped or captured Israel soldiers so precious to the enemy, there will be more of them. Only Israeli nationals have a full right to a “vote” over this dilemma, so I will say no more about it.
So how do the parties get themselves out of this “Groundhogs Day” nightmare over Gaza? I explained how many months ago in a post called “Shock the Casbah.” This isn’t going to happen, however, because it requires a boldness of vision and leadership in Israel, among the Palestinians, and in the United States, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia that is simply not available.
You can go back and read the whole argument if you like, but in a nutshell: Israel and the Palestinian Authority negotiate a secret peace deal, complete with security arrangements, borders, quit-claim clauses, and the whole business—and yes, if the incentives are attractive enough compared to the plummeting trajectory of the status quo, they can do this; Israel invades and occupies Gaza, extirpating Hamas; Israel and the PA simultaneously reveal their deal, to be unfurled in phases over five years, to the world; the PA is given control of Gaza, with the assistance of Arab League-endorsed Egyptian and Jordanian armed forces, as the IDF withdraws. Additionally, the United States and the European Union endorse and support the deal, and bring Israel into the Western alliance system as an associate member, even as Palestine is brought within the cocoon of an empowered (via Egyptian and Jordanian on-site power) Arab League led by Saudi Arabia. The sovereignty of both sides of a two-state solution needs to be enmeshed at least temporarily in larger associations as both endorsement and protection of the new order from those on both sides who will reject and try to overturn it.
The purpose of the “shock the casbah” idea is to get at the core problem, which is that the Palestinians have never had their Altalena moment. They lack one gun and one voice, and until they have both no peace process can get far enough to matter. (The objection that the Palestinians are all rejectionists who don’t want a just peace is, in its typical categorical form, unfalsifiable so long as there is not peace, which renders the attitude self-paralyzing and self-defeating. The same objection, let’s remember, used to be pinned on Egyptians and Jordanians.) The Palestinians can’t seem to pull off this reckoning by themselves, so the Israelis need to help them; they are the only ones who can, and it is in Israel’s long-term interest to do so. The world will be too shocked by the peace deal to complain about the next, hopefully last big Israeli incursion into Gaza.
As I say, the incursion to end all incursions isn’t going to happen. But unless it or something like it does happen, the present Gaza war will eventually be just one in a desultory series that will go on and on and on for years untold to come. At the very least, all humanitarian assistance to Gaza once this phase of fighting is over has to be fed through the PA. Every effort must be made to prevent the terms of a ceasefire from rewarding Hamas in the eyes of the Gazan population, but rather to hasten its exit from power. But every effort, even including an election, may not be sufficient to push Hamas aside; they are radicalized, disciplined, and they will still have enough guns to intimidate other contenders. The fat lady will probably not sing, in other words. So short of a genuinely bold initiative, round and round we’re bound to go, and where it’ll lead everyone knows: blood, death, frustration, anger, and heartache. Nothing new there.