"The Battle of Gaza: Stirring New Dilemmas" is an exclusive Jihad Watch essay by Raphael Israeli. Raphael Israeli was born in Fez, Morocco, and arrived in Israel at the age of 14. A professor of Islamic, Middle Eastern and Chinese history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he is the author of 25 books, including Islamikaze: Manifestations of Islamic Martyrology (Frank Cass, London, 2003) and The Spread of Islamikaze Terrorism in Europe: The Third Islamic Invasion (Vallentine Mitchell, London, 2008).
When a country decides to go to battle, it is usually in order to resolve, once and for all, issues that she was unable to settle by diplomacy, reflecting on the old adage that war is the continuation of diplomacy. So, after years of regular shelling of Israeli villages from Gaza, and thousands of Palestinian bombs, shells and missiles which landed on its citizens and caused substantial human, emotional and material damage, the Israeli government, propelled by the upcoming elections in Israel, finally decided to venture into this long-awaited operation which the Israeli electorate widely supported.
The operation showed the ultimate primacy of “strategic“ considerations over the human cost they entail. This was in addition to the immense human sacrifice it occasioned, which was mainly caused by the Hamas strategy of using its own population as human shields, without any regard for schools, hospitals and mosques, and assured that Israel either would not dare to assault those places, or would bear the blame for attacking civilians and humanitarian and holy places if it did. Backed by Hizballah in Lebanon, which embraced the same tactics in 2006, and supported by Iran, which had triggered both confrontations, these Islamic movements have in fact set themselves apart from civilized conduct.
The Gaza battle, far from deciding the war and the further management of the Islamo-Jewish, the Arab-Israeli and the Palestinian-Israeli rift, has on the contrary complicated it by altering fundamentally those basic equations, which have hitherto been taken as permanent truisms: The 57-member Muslim world, which had always regarded the existence of Israel as an affront to it, has split into two rival parties in Gaza – the supposedly “moderate” party that opposed the Hamas due to the dangers it poses to their own regimes, and the vitriolically “extremist,” who would battle to the finish against Israel and much of the world. The Arab world, as it is encompassed by the Arab League, has never been so divided and so chaotic, as reflected in the two parallel and rival Arab Summits that took place in Kuwait and Doha. The Palestinian front has in fact two separate territories (the West Bank and Gaza) and two separate governments (PLO and Hamas), rendering any negotiation with the Palestinians to seek any settlement unfeasible.
Leading up to the Gaza Operation
The battle of Gaza did not grow in a vacuum. It is the fruit of the mindlessness of several successive Israeli governments, beginning in 1993, who foolishly, though innocently, believed that the Palestinians were ready for self-government, and that if they were accorded territory and economic development, peace would descend on earth. Both assumptions were proven erroneous, but the Israeli leaders who harnessed all their and their country’s future to that naïve assumption were never decent enough to acknowledge in public their fatal mistakes. They have not moved away from the purview of the people who elected them, but who have awakened and changed course well before them, while they continue to lead them into the impasse, or are drifting uncontrollably into the abyss.
The failure of the Oslo Accords (1993) has not only demonstrated that the Palestinians were as yet unprepared for agreement with Israel, as was evidenced by the Camp David Conference of 2000 in which they refused to agree to end their conflict with Israel even when Israel offered to withdraw from 97% of the territory they demanded, but also that they are also unprepared for self-rule. They declared free elections in 2005, but when the Hamas was elected, they never accepted it in reality. When Hamas took over Gaza by force, it actually established its own hegemony there, against the wish of the President, Abu Mazen, whose rule, just like the rule of all other Arab dictators, lacks legitimacy -- especially after his term of office expired officially (January 2009) and no new elections were set or agreed upon. In the meantime, his rule in the West Bank, which in fact does not extend beyond Ramallah, can be maintained only due to Israeli security preponderance in the area, which prevents the Hamas from taking over. In confrontations between PLO and Hamas in Gaza, PLO people were murdered, jailed, humiliated and even thrown to their deaths from high rise buildings in Gaza, which had recently been built for slightly different purposes.
After the failure of the 2000 Camp David Conference, but still entrenched in the illusions of Oslo -- that by making further concessions to the Arabs, they might mellow and come to a settlement with Israel -- Israel adopted a series of unilateral withdrawals, first from Lebanon (2000), which allowed the HIzballah to build up in preparation for 2006, and then from Gaza (2005), which allowed the Hamas takeover and the creation of a forward Iranian base, sponsored by the victorious HIzballah and under its guidance and tutorship. Oslo was a dead corpse by then, but those defeatist governments of Israel continued to claim that they were negotiating a settlement with the Palestinians. Which ones? Not those who held the effective rule in Gaza and showered 7000 missiles on Israel since the latter erroneously and naively ceded territory to them, and continued to terrorize Israeli citizens and to deny to Israel the right to exist. Rather, they were negotiating with those who had no actual power, but continued nonetheless to demand that Jerusalem be divided, and that the Palestinians be accorded the right of return, namely to inundate Israel with enough Palestinians to drown it.
The Israeli elections of February 10, 2009 looked as they might break that deadlock, as the attraction of the right kept mounting among the electorate. The Egyptians, the Saudis and the Jordanians, who had much to fear for their flimsy governments which lack legitimacy, were pushed into a coalition of convenience with the Israelis in the face of the immense, and growing, popularity of Ahmadinajad and Nasrallah in the Arab street in general. But once the date was set for those elections, the main parties in power, who feared the loss of the reins thereof, suddenly “remembered” that Hamas, which had been smuggling through tunnels and accumulating illegal weapons, prohibited under the Oslo Accords, in whose name they were operating, and shelling Israel without reprieve in the past few years, was threatening the Israeli public -- who could no more accept the repeated, but vain, promises of the Israeli government that it would move “soon.” The move had become “inevitable.” Never had the terms “soon” and “inevitable” been so hollow. Until election was announced.
The Gaza Operation and its Aftermath
Hamas, learning from the HIzballah experience, turned Gaza into a civilian trap. It turned its children, journalists, foreign workers and innocent citizens into its shields, and its foreign institutions, mosques, schools and hospitals into arms depots. It turned Gaza’s underground into a complex web of tunnels which began or ended inside houses, and innocent-looking apartment buildings into deadly booby-traps. The tragic death of so many non-involved civilians and the destruction of so many non-military targets did not emanate from the will of the Israeli army to devastate them, but from the necessity to put an end to that rain of missiles which were launched from those houses. Israel set out to destroy depots of illegally smuggled in weapons, of ammunition and missiles, and the launching pads of the missiles. And if they happened to have been placed, purposely, by the Hamas in mosques, schools or apartment buildings, then those were hit and destroyed.
Many media reports tried to evaluate the relative guilt on both sides of the divide by measuring the tragic amount of devastation, coming to the conclusion that since many more Palestinians lost their lives and much more Palestinian real estate was demolished, that meant that Israel was guiltier, acted “out of proportion”, and was even accused of genocide. It was as if after the German blitz on London and Coventry, the British would be blamed for flattening the city of Dresden on Valentine's Day, 1945, since in doing so they killed more “innocent” citizens and destroyed more real estate than did the Germans. To kill more does not make one a culprit, and to be killed more does not make one innocent. The judgment has to be made by the volume of fire and by the intention of its shooters. When the Hamas pointed those 7000 missiles to Israel, they were intended to fall in the center of cities and towns, and to kill whomever was hit. Most fell in the open, by chance or failure, not by design, and when their targets were hit, they found the citizens, who had been trained by frequent alerts, in the shelters which were built and prepared to protect them. That made for a minimum of casualties and of damages.
In Gaza, all the millions were invested in weapons, not one penny for shelters. No provision was made to alert people or warn them. Hence the inordinate disproportion between the parties -- not the evil of the one and the innocent victimhood of the other. Quite the contrary, those who claim innocence were guilty of a priori sacrificing their civilian population, and those who are accused of wanton destruction took all the necessary precautions and risks of battling from house to house, instead of simply razing entire areas by artillery and air-force without taking any risk. A reporter of Al-Arabiya was caught on tape telling her editors on the telephone from the rooftop of the foreign correspondents building in Gaza that she saw a missile fired from the lower levels of the building. But her station only reported the denial of the foreign correspondents association to the effect that their building was hit by design of the Israelis. The same went for the UNRWA building.
On the inter-Arab front, all Arab countries duly fulfilled their duty of siding with Gaza and harshly criticizing Israel, though many of them in fact supported the defeat of the Hamas. Even Egypt in public reproached to Israel its “arrogance” and “aggression” against the Palestinians, although it did the most to show understanding to the Israeli operation -- because if Hamas were successful, it would threaten the regime of Cairo by linking directly or by example with the Muslim Brothers of which it is one wing. The European media, as usual, were impressed by the body count and the intensity of the devastation, and made no attempt to reason about the meaning of “disproportion.” Should Israel have launched 7000 missiles blindly into Gaza, for the “proportion” to be redressed? Then there would be no Gaza to lament about anymore.
On the Islamic front, which also, predictably, blamed Israel without investigating the root of the crisis, Turkey, which has been in the last decade a close ally of Israel, joined the noisy cacophony of blind condemnation of Israel without even attempting to inject any sense of balance into the picture. Israelis were shocked about that “crisis” in the previously “friendly” relations. It was convenient for them to forget that since the elections of 2002, Turkey had fallen in the hands of Islamists, and that even their more important alliance with the US has known strain since. The Erdogan-Gul government did not move to downgrade the relations with Israel only because of the military, which would not permit it. But as this government gathers popularity and years, it has been gradually putting its own men at the help of the supreme command of the army, to make sure that what happened in 1998 to their predecessor Necmettin Erbakan, who was removed from power and his party delegitimized, will not happen to them. In the meantime, they get more and more intimate with Iran, Syria, and the Palestinians -- alliances not likely to improve Israel’s standing in their eyes.
On the international front, and in spite of the last-minute “defection” of Condoleeza Rice at the Security Council, and the intense hypocrisy evinced by Bernard Kouchner and his colleagues at the UN and in Europe, Israel did get backing from the US and Europe to stand fast and to deny Hamas both a recognition and a possibility to rebuild its power, by imposing an embargo on weapons to Gaza. But at the same time, since they put an emphasis on “humanitarian aid” to the Palestinians, they understand that concrete and iron which are sent to Gaza for restoration can and will be channeled by Hamas to building fortifications; food sent to the civilian population will be confiscated by the gunmen there for their own use, as they have already done; fuel will be deviated for making weapons and other military uses. And therefore, under pressure to respond to “humanitarian needs” of the Palestinians, Israel will end up, once again, handing the Hamas the tools to build or to facilitate the smuggling of more weapons which will be directed against her.
There is much hypocrisy around regarding this Hamas “crisis.” When Israeli cities and towns were shelled for years, no one bothered to protest or to call for a security council discussion. Far more serious than the Gaza crisis has been the disaster of Darfour. But since that regards an Arab country, no Arab or Muslim regime, and not even civilized Europe which has been channeling billions to the Palestinians for years without seeing any positive outcome, has raised its voice. If those moneys had been invested in settling Palestinian refugees instead of being handed over to corrupt leaders, something may have been achieved. The current inadequate treatment of the problem by Israel, the Arabs and the West prods us to safely predict that very soon we shall all be in square one again.