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Israel’s Grinding Ground War in Gaza

For there to be a viable Palestine, Israel and the international community must recognize Hamas as a valid political interlocutor.

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Last Thursday, Israel concluded 10 days of merciless bombing against Gaza, in which nearly 250 had been killed, of whom 80 percent were civilians (according to a UN report) and half were women and children.

Then Egypt proposed a ceasefire endorsed by Israel. The plan merely called for a cessation of hostilities on both sides, but didn’t address Israel’s (and Egypt’s) ongoing siege against Gaza, which is illegal under international law. It didn’t provide any assurance that Israel would respect Gaza’s borders or sovereignty. Nor did it provide any path for Hamas to become a legitimate Palestinian political force in the international arena. All of these would be necessary to resolve the long-term issues underlying the conflict between Israel and Hamas.

The Egyptians didn’t bother to consult Hamas, which naturally rejected the ceasefire. My own Israeli source, who was consulted during the negotiation process, told me that the ceasefire proposal wasn’t devised by Egypt at all, but rather by Israel, which used Egypt as a front-man, making the proposal by an Arab intermediary, kosher. Israel seems to have forgotten that Egypt’s military dictator, Gen. al-Sisi, detests both Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. Why Hamas would view favorably any intervention by the leader who massacred peaceful Brotherhood protesters in Cairo’s streets, is a mystery. The only Palestinian consulted during this process was Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who doesn’t represent Hamas.

The IDF (Israeli Defense Force) has made known that while it was willing to pound Gaza from the air, it preferred not to become mired in a ground campaign. Thus, this faux ceasefire was concocted. Benjamin Netanyahu, known as an expert political tactician, figured that if he announced his own ceasefire proposal and it was accepted, Israel won. If it was rejected – Israel won too, since it would appear as the party being reasonable and seeking to end the bloodshed.

But rejection of the ceasefire put Israel in a “put-up or shut-up” position. Once Hamas rejected it, Israel was more or less forced to invade.

It articulated its strategic plan for the invasion as essentially defensive. According to veteran Israeli military correspondent, Yossi Melman, it sought a one- to two-mile buffer zone in northern Gaza to prevent missile firing into Israel; and sought to destroy tunnels through which Hamas allegedly attempts to infiltrate Israel to kidnap soldiers or engage in terror attacks.

Melman even warns about the IDF getting sucked into Gaza by Hamas’ guerilla tactics:

They [Hamas] know very well that Israel has no intention of fully occupying Gaza and toppling their regime. Thus they wish Israeli troops will keep advancing, providing them with opportunities to use delay and hit-and-run guerilla tactics by using the labyrinth of tunnels built exactly for this purpose. In the meantime they continue to fire the 4,000 rockets still in their possession.

And here is the problem. If they don’t succumb to the Israeli military pressure and refuse to accept a cease fire, Israel may find itself stuck in Gaza with no exit strategy to end the crisis.

The past four days, during which Israel invaded Gaza, have turned into an unprecedented bloodbath, in which all pretense of a defensive operation has been lost. Five hundred and forty-eight Palestinians have been killed. Israel engaged in what can best be described as a wholesale carpet-bombing of the Shejaia neighborhood which killed 120 residents in a single 24-hour period.

As its troops entered the Hamas stronghold, they were met with fighters emerging from buildings and tunnels in much the same way Hezbollah’s troops did during the 2006 Lebanon War. This sudden change in tactics from previous engagements with Hamas threw the IDF back on its heels. As a result, 13 soldiers died in one night. It was the greatest single IDF toll since the Lebanon War.

Though Israel at first denied it, the IDF is now admitting the possibility that one of its soldiers, Shaul Oron, was captured during the firefights:

. . . Army spokesman Peter Lerner said the IDF could not rule out the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by Hamas, despite denials late on Sunday by the Israeli ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor.

This changes the entire complexion of the war, since Israel is particularly sensitive to having its soldiers captured live in battle. It also gives Hamas a significant bargaining chip in negotiations over a ceasefire.

Secretary of State Kerry is now en route to Egypt, where he plans to mount an effort to end the fighting. He will follow this with a trip to Israel. But he is at a serious disadvantage. Unlike the previous Egyptian regimes, the current President al-Sisi, is an ardent foe of Hamas. Thus, he has no leverage with the Islamist movement. Proof of this can be seen in Egypt’s continuing insistence that the terms of the faux ceasefire it originally proposed, are non-negotiable.

In order to succeed, the Kerry initiative will have to engage Hamas in some significant way. But it’s unclear what leverage even Hamas’ political leader, Khaled Meshal, has over Hamas’ military wing, which clearly sees itself, despite civilian losses, as having the initiative in the fighting.

Returning to Israel’s prime minister – Netanyahu the clever political tactician is foiled by Netanyahu the clueless political-military strategist. In Operation Protective Edge, he offers nothing more than “mowing the grass,” part of a long-term approach which brings a major military offensive in Gaza every two years (three major IDF attacks in the past six years. It’s never worked. Each time, Israel’s generals and political leaders proclaim their intent to “neutralize Hamas,” to “restore quiet,” or “stop the rockets.” Israelis, despite these recurring failures, don’t hold leaders accountable for failure. They just chalk it up to the price of living with a hostile Islamist movement on its borders.

Virtually no one in a position of power or influence within the Israeli political-military-intelligence apparatus is willing to think outside the box. That’s because the national mindset is that Israel is a garrison state besieged by enemies. There is no strategic thinking about how to break out of this vicious cycle.

The solution to the long-term conflict is quite simple on its face: a Palestinian unity government that can negotiate a lasting agreement with Israel that will end hostilities and result in mutual recognition. On the Israeli side, there must be a return to 1967 borders, a shared Jerusalem as the national capital, and a return of Nakba-era refugees.

For the current government and all previous Israeli governments (even ones led by the so-called left-wing Labor Party), such concessions were anathema. While previous prime ministers agreed to return most conquered territory, none offered enough to make a deal. Though there have been proposals suggested to Israel (even by the United States) all the way back to the 1950s, no Israeli leader ever seriously considered recognizing the Right of Return.

Israel and the international community, for there to be a viable Palestine, must recognize Hamas as a valid political interlocutor, rather than purely a terrorist organization. The current charade sponsored by Israel and accepted by the West, sees Hamas as a band of bloodthirsty Jew-hating al-Qaeda-like zealots. If you wish to remain in a state of perpetual war with Palestine, then this rejectionist stance works well for you. If you really want peace, you need to try something different.

No Israeli leader will do so. Then the question becomes: What will it take for the world to take notice of the injustice of Palestine perpetually denied? How many dead; how many massacres?

The longer Israel’s rejectionism continues, the more likely the final outcome will be a single state in the region now known as Israel-Palestine. Though it is many Israelis’ worst nightmare, their stubborn clinging to the status quo leads them ever closer to it.

Barack Obama, as usual when it comes to Israel, espouses a US position that is unconscionable:

We [Netanyahu and Obama] discussed Israel’s military operation in Gaza, including its efforts to stop the threat of terrorist infiltration through tunnels into Israel. I reaffirmed my strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself. No nation should accept rockets being fired into its borders or terrorists tunneling into its territory. In fact, while I was having the conversation with Prime Minister Netanyahu, sirens went off in Tel Aviv.

I also made clear that the United States and our friends and allies are deeply concerned about the risks of further escalation and the loss of more innocent life. And that’s why we’ve indicated although we support military efforts by the Israelis to make sure that rockets are not being fired into their territory, we also have said that our understanding is the current military ground operations are designed to deal with the tunnels.

. . . We are hopeful that Israel will continue to approach this process in a way that minimizes civilian casualties and that all of us are working hard to return to the cease-fire that was reached in November of 2012. Secretary Kerry is working to support Egypt’s initiative to pursue that outcome. I told Prime Minister Netanyahu that John is prepared to travel to the region following additional consultations.

In this statement, you won’t even find the word “Palestinian,” let alone “Hamas.” The closest he comes the term “Palestinian” is “terrorist,” a word he uses twice. This is a perfect reflection of the Israeli perspective, according to which there are no Palestinians. Rather there are only “terrorists” and the civilians who give them shelter or serve as their “human shields.” Terrorists don’t deserve any consideration, certainly not national rights.

John Kerry was interviewed on FoxNews and he was overheard on a microphone he didn’t know was “live” speaking saracastically to an aide about the Gaza assault: “It’s a helluva pinpoint operation.” But such private candor means nothing unless backed up by public courage.

Thus, the United States is a captive of Israel’s myopic view of its own situation. As long as such moral blindness continues, there is no hope of outside intervention or even a sensible moderating influence.

This leaves both Israel and the Palestinians to continue the age-old conflict with only the prospect for more bloodshed in sight. Though it grieves me to say it: I expect to see you in these pages sometime in 2016, when the next Israeli attack on Gaza may be expected.

Given this moral obtuseness, forms of grassroots nonviolent resistance like BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) become ever-more necessary. Neither Israel nor the West will come to understand the gravity of the situation unless it is dramatized to them in strong, visceral terms.

That’s also why attempts to hold Israel and Palestine accountable for potential war crimes are also important. Both sides must know that they cannot define their actions solely on their own terms. But that there is a set of international norms that they are violating.

This too is why David Palumbo-Liu, Joel Beinin and I joined in creating the International Scholar’s Statement against Israel’s war in Gaza. Though we knew Israeli generals could care less what a bunch of professors thought of their behavior, we felt that making our views known to Israelis in the pages of its leading liberal newspaper, Haaretz, was an important statement.