Is Israel Losing a War It's Winning?
Things change, of course—the only constant in the Middle East is sudden and dramatic change—but as I write it seems as if Israel is losing the war in Gaza, even as it wins the battle against Hamas’s rocket arsenal, and even as it destroys the tunnels meant to convey terrorists underground to Israel (and to carry Israeli hostages back to Gaza).Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian also opines, Israel’s fears are real, but this Gaza war is utterly self-defeating:
This is not the first time Israel has found itself losing on the battlefield of perception. Why is it happening again? Here are five possible reasons:
1. In a fight between a state actor and a non-state actor, the non-state actor can win merely by surviving. The party with tanks and planes is expected to win; the non-state group merely has to stay alive in order to declare victory. In a completely decontextualized, emotion-driven environment, Hamas can portray itself as the besieged upstart, even when it is the party that rejects ceasefires, and in particular because it is skilled at preventing journalists from documenting the activities of its armed wing. (I am differentiating here between Hamas's leadership and Gaza's civilians, who are genuinely besieged, from all directions.)
2. Hamas’s strategy is to bait Israel into killing Palestinian civilians, and Israel usually takes the bait. This time, because of the cautious nature of its prime minister, Israel waited longer than usual before succumbing to the temptation of bait-taking, but it took it all the same. (As I’ve written, the seemingly miraculous Iron Dome anti-rocket system could have provided Israel with the space to be more patient than it was.) Hamas’s principal goal is killing Jews, and it is very good at this (for those who have forgotten about Hamas's achievements in this area, here is a reminder, and also here and here), but it knows that it advances its own (perverse) narrative even more when it induces Israel to kill Palestinian civilians. This tactic would not work if the world understood this, and rejected it. But in the main, it doesn’t. Why people don’t see the cynicism at the heart of terrorist groups like Hamas is a bit of a mystery. Here is The Washington Post on the subject:
The depravity of Hamas’s strategy seems lost on much of the outside world, which — following the terrorists’ script — blames Israel for the civilian casualties it inflicts while attempting to destroy the tunnels. While children die in strikes against the military infrastructure that Hamas’s leaders deliberately placed in and among homes, those leaders remain safe in their own tunnels. There they continue to reject cease-fire proposals, instead outlining a long list of unacceptable demands.2. People talk a lot about the Jewish lobby. But the worldwide Muslim lobby is bigger, comprising, among other components, 54 Muslim-majority states in the United Nations. Many Muslims naturally sympathize with the Palestinian cause. They make their voices heard, and they help shape a global anti-Israel narrative, in particular by focusing relentlessly on Gaza to the exclusion of conflicts in which Muslims are being killed in even greater numbers, but by Muslims (I wrote about this phenomenon here).
3. If you've spent any time these past few weeks on Twitter, or in Paris, you know that anti-Semitism is another source of Israel’s international isolation. One of the notable features of this war, brought to light by the ubiquity and accessibility of social media, is the open, unabashed expression of vitriolic Jew-hatred. Anti-Semitism has been with us for more than 2,000 years; it is an ineradicable and shape-shifting virus. The reaction to the Gaza war—from the Turkish prime minister, who compared Israel's behavior unfavorably to that of Hitler's, to the Lebanese journalist who demanded the nuclear eradication of Israel, to, of course, the anti-Jewish riots in France—is a reminder that much of the world is not opposed to Israel because of its settlement policy, but because it is a Jewish country.
4. Israel’s political leadership has done little in recent years to make their cause seem appealing. It is impossible to convince a Judeophobe that Israel can do anything good or useful, short of collective suicide. But there are millions of people of good will across the world who look at the decision-making of Israel’s government and ask themselves if this is a country doing all it can do to bring about peace and tranquility in its region. Hamas is a theocratic fascist cult committed to the obliteration of Israel. But it doesn’t represent all Palestinians. Polls suggest that it may very well not represent all of the Palestinians in Gaza. There is a spectrum of Palestinian opinion, just as there is a spectrum of Jewish opinion.
I don’t know if the majority of Palestinians would ultimately agree to a two-state solution. But I do know that Israel, while combating the extremists, could do a great deal more to buttress the moderates. This would mean, in practical terms, working as hard as possible to build wealth and hope on the West Bank. A moderate-minded Palestinian who watches Israel expand its settlements on lands that most of the world believes should fall within the borders of a future Palestinian state might legitimately come to doubt Israel’s intentions. Reversing the settlement project, and moving the West Bank toward eventual independence, would not only give Palestinians hope, but it would convince Israel’s sometimes-ambivalent friends that it truly seeks peace, and that it treats extremists differently than it treats moderates. And yes, I know that in the chaos of the Middle East, which is currently a vast swamp of extremism, the thought of a West Bank susceptible to the predations of Islamist extremists is a frightening one. But independence—in particular security independence—can be negotiated in stages. The Palestinians must go free, because there is no other way. A few months ago, President Obama told me how he views Israel's future absent some sort of arrangement with moderate Palestinians:
[M]y assessment, which is shared by a number of Israeli observers ... is there comes a point where you can’t manage this anymore, and then you start having to make very difficult choices. Do you resign yourself to what amounts to a permanent occupation of the West Bank? Is that the character of Israel as a state for a long period of time? Do you perpetuate, over the course of a decade or two decades, more and more restrictive policies in terms of Palestinian movement? Do you place restrictions on Arab-Israelis in ways that run counter to Israel’s traditions?Obama raised a series of prescient questions. Of course, the Israeli government's primary job at the moment is to keep its citizens from being killed or kidnapped by Hamas. But it should work to find an enduring solution to the problem posed by Muslim extremism. Part of that fix is military, but another part isn't.
5. Speaking of the Obama administration, the cause of a two-state solution would be helped, and Israel's standing would be raised, if the secretary of state, John Kerry, realized that such a solution will be impossible to achieve so long as an aggressive and armed Hamas remains in place in Gaza. Kerry's recent efforts to negotiate a ceasefire have come to nothing in part because his proposals treat Hamas as a legitimate organization with legitimate security needs, as opposed to a group listed by Kerry's State Department as a terror organization devoted to the physical elimination of one of America's closest allies. Here is David Horovitz's understanding of Kerry's proposals:
It seemed inconceivable that the secretary’s initiative would specify the need to address Hamas’s demands for a lifting of the siege of Gaza, as though Hamas were a legitimate injured party acting in the interests of the people of Gaza — rather than the terror group that violently seized control of the Strip in 2007, diverted Gaza’s resources to its war effort against Israel, and could be relied upon to exploit any lifting of the “siege” in order to import yet more devastating weaponry with which to kill Israelis.I'm not sure why Kerry's proposals for a ceasefire seem to indulge the organization that initiated this current war. Perhaps because Kerry may be listening more to Qatar, which is Hamas's primary funder, than he is listening to the Jordanians, Emiratis, Saudis, and Egyptians, all of whom oppose Hamas to an equivalent or greater degree than does their ostensible Israeli adversary. In any case, more on this later, as more details emerge about Kerry's efforts. For purposes of this discussion, I'll just say that Israel won't have a chance of winning the current struggle against Hamas's tunnel-diggers and rocket squads if its principal ally doesn't appear to fully and publicly understand Hamas's nihilistic war aims, even as it works to shape more constructive Israeli policies in other, related areas.
An old foreign correspondent friend of mine, once based in Jerusalem, has turned to blogging. As the story he used to cover flared up once more, he wrote: “This conflict is the political equivalent of LSD – distorting the senses of all those who come into contact with it, and sending them crazy.” He was speaking chiefly of those who debate the issue from afar: the passions that are stirred, the bitterness and loathing that spew forth, especially online, of a kind rarely glimpsed when faraway wars are discussed. While an acid trip usually comes in lurid colours, here it induces a tendency to monochrome: one side is pure good, the other pure evil – with not a shade of grey in sight.Finally, Gabor Maté, a Vancouver-based doctor, author, speaker and Holocaust survivor, wrote a courageous opinion piece for the Toronto Star, Beautiful dream of Israel has become a nightmare:
But the LSD effect also seems to afflict the participants in the conflict. They too can act crazy, taking steps that harm not only their enemy but themselves. Again and again, their actions are self-defeating.
Start with Israel – and not with the politicians and generals, but ordinary Israelis. Right now they are filled with the burning sense that the world does not understand them, and even hates them. They know Israel is being projected on the world’s TV screens and front pages as a callous, brutal monster, pounding the Gaza strip with artillery fire that hits schools, hospitals and civilian homes. They know what it looks like – but they desperately want the world to see what they see.
In their eyes, they are only doing what any country – or person, for that matter – would do in the same position. They ask what exactly would Britain do if enemy rockets were landing on our towns and villages. Would we shrug our shoulders, keep calm and carry on – or would we hit back?
But it’s not the rockets that frighten them most. Israelis focus more on the hidden tunnels dug under the Gaza border, apparently designed to allow Hamas militants to emerge above ground and mount raids on Israeli border villages and kibbutzim, killing or snatching as many civilians as they can. Israel’s Iron Dome technology can zap incoming rockets from the sky, but what protection is there against a man emerging from a tunnel in the dark determined to kill you? The fact that tranquillisers and handcuffs were reportedly found in those tunnels, ready to subdue Israeli captives, only leaves Israelis more terrified.
This is why they wanted their government to hit back hard: remember, it was the discovery of the tunnels that prompted the ground offensive. Some Israelis see the terrible images of Palestinian suffering – children losing their limbs, their lives or their parents – and they want the world to see it as they do: that Hamas shares in the blame for those cruel deaths, because it does so little to protect its civilians.
You might discount the argument that Hamas fights its war from civilian areas (replying that it’s hardly going to locate itself in open ground, wearing a target on its back). But the UN itself has condemned Hamas for stashing rockets in a UN school. And in the quiet years, when Hamas finally got hold of long-demanded concrete, it used it not to build bomb shelters for ordinary Gazans, but those tunnels to attack Israel, and bunkers for the organisation’s top brass.
I know that every one of those points can be challenged. The point is not that they represent unarguable truth but that they come close to how many – not all – Israelis feel. They believe they face in Hamas an enemy that is both explicitly committed – by charter – to Israel’s eradication, and cavalier about the safety of the Palestinian people it rules. They fear Hamas, its tunnels and its rockets, and they want security.
But here is where the madness kicks in. Israelis want security, yet their government’s actions will give it no security. On the contrary, they are utterly self-defeating.
That’s true on the baldest possible measure. More Israelis have died in the operation to tackle the Hamas threat than have died from the Hamas threat, at least over the past five years. Put another way, to address the risk that hypothetical Israeli soldiers might be kidnapped, 33 actual Israeli soldiers have died. Never before have international airlines suspended flights into Israel’s national airport. But they did this week, a move that struck a neuralgic spot in the Israeli psyche: if disaster struck, there’d be no escape. (That’s long been true of Gaza, of course.)
Before the current round of violence, the West Bank had been relatively quiet for years. Friday saw a “day of rage,” with several Palestinians killed and talk of a third intifada. An operation designed to make Israel more secure has made it much less.
If that is true now – with the prospect of an uprising encompassing not just the West Bank but some of the 1.7 million Palestinian citizens of Israel as well – it’s truer still in the future. For every one of those Gazan children – their lives broken by pain and bloodshed three times in the past six years – will surely grow up with a heart hardened against Israel, some of them bent on revenge. In trying to crush today’s enemy, Israel has reared the enemy of tomorrow.
Security requires more than walls and tanks. It requires alliances and support. Yet every day Israel is seen to be battering Gaza, its reservoir of world sympathy drops a little lower. And that is to reckon without the impact of this violence on Israel’s own moral fibre. After 47 years of occupation and even more years of conflict, the constant demonisation of the enemy is having a corrosive effect: witness the “Sderot cinema”, the Israelis gathering in lawn chairs on a border hilltop to munch popcorn and watch missiles rain down on Gaza. No nation can regard itself as secure when its ethical moorings come loose.
The only real security is political, not military. It comes through negotiation, not artillery fire. In the years of quiet this should have been the Israeli goal. Instead, every opening was obstructed, every opportunity spurned.
And the tendency to self-harm is not confined to Israel. Hamas may have reasserted itself by this conflict, renewing its image as the champion of Palestinian resistance. But it’s come at a terrible price. After an escalation that was as much Hamas’s choice as Israel’s, 800 Palestinians are now dead, 5,400 are injured and tens of thousands have been displaced. For those Palestinians yearning for a state that will include the West Bank, that goal has been rendered even more remote: what, Israelis ask, if the West Bank becomes another Gaza, within even closer firing range of Ben Gurion airport?
This is the perverse landscape in which both Israelis and Palestinians find themselves. They are led by men who hear their fear and fury – and whose every action digs both peoples deeper into despair.
As a Jewish youngster growing up in Budapest, an infant survivor of the Nazi genocide, I was for years haunted by a question resounding in my brain with such force that sometimes my head would spin: “How was it possible? How could the world have let such horrors happen?”That op-ed article elicited many comments from people taking sides on the Mideast crisis. It struck a chord with me personally because he's right, the world can't just sit back and watch children, women and elderly being slaughtered in Gaza and pretend they're just innocent casualties of an endless conflict. We should all mourn this tragedy.
It was a naïve question, that of a child. I know better now: such is reality. Whether in Vietnam or Rwanda or Syria, humanity stands by either complicitly or unconsciously or helplessly, as it always does. In Gaza today we find ways of justifying the bombing of hospitals, the annihilation of families at dinner, the killing of pre-adolescents playing soccer on a beach.
In Israel-Palestine the powerful party has succeeded in painting itself as the victim, while the ones being killed and maimed become the perpetrators. “They don’t care about life,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says, abetted by the Obamas and Harpers of this world, “we do.” Netanyahu, you who with surgical precision slaughter innocents, the young and the old, you who have cruelly blockaded Gaza for years, starving it of necessities, you who deprive Palestinians of more and more of their land, their water, their crops, their trees — you care about life?
There is no understanding Gaza out of context — Hamas rockets or unjustifiable terrorist attacks on civilians — and that context is the longest ongoing ethnic cleansing operation in the recent and present centuries, the ongoing attempt to destroy Palestinian nationhood.
The Palestinians use tunnels? So did my heroes, the poorly armed fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto. Unlike Israel, Palestinians lack Apache helicopters, guided drones, jet fighters with bombs, laser-guided artillery. Out of impotent defiance, they fire inept rockets, causing terror for innocent Israelis but rarely physical harm. With such a gross imbalance of power, there is no equivalence of culpability.
Israel wants peace? Perhaps, but as the veteran Israeli journalist Gideon Levy has pointed out, it does not want a just peace. Occupation and creeping annexation, an inhumane blockade, the destruction of olive groves, the arbitrary imprisonment of thousands, torture, daily humiliation of civilians, house demolitions: these are not policies compatible with any desire for a just peace. In Tel Aviv Gideon Levy now moves around with a bodyguard, the price of speaking the truth.
I have visited Gaza and the West Bank. I saw multi-generational Palestinian families weeping in hospitals around the bedsides of their wounded, at the graves of their dead. These are not people who do not care about life. They are like us — Canadians, Jews, like anyone: they celebrate life, family, work, education, food, peace, joy. And they are capable of hatred, they can harbour vengeance in the hearts, just like we can.
One could debate details, historical and current, back and forth. Since my days as a young Zionist and, later, as a member of Jews for a Just Peace, I have often done so. I used to believe that if people knew the facts, they would open to the truth. That, too, was naïve. This issue is far too charged with emotion. As the spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle has pointed out, the accumulated mutual pain in the Middle East is so acute, “a significant part of the population finds itself forced to act it out in an endless cycle of perpetration and retribution.”
“People’s leaders have been misleaders, so they that are led have been confused,” in the words of the prophet Jeremiah. The voices of justice and sanity are not heeded. Netanyahu has his reasons. Harper and Obama have theirs.
And what shall we do, we ordinary people? I pray we can listen to our hearts. My heart tells me that “never again” is not a tribal slogan, that the murder of my grandparents in Auschwitz does not justify the ongoing dispossession of Palestinians, that justice, truth, peace are not tribal prerogatives. That Israel’s “right to defend itself,” unarguable in principle, does not validate mass killing.
A few days ago I met with one of my dearest friends, a comrade from Zionist days and now professor emeritus at an Israeli university. We spoke of everything but the daily savagery depicted on our TV screens. We both feared the rancour that would arise.
But, I want to say to my friend, can we not be sad together at what that beautiful old dream of Jewish redemption has come to? Can we not grieve the death of innocents? I am sad these days. Can we not at least mourn together?
But the reality is Hamas is using humans as shields to keep rocketing Israel, knowing full well they will win the propaganda war as gruesome images of dismembered dead children are portrayed in the global and social media. Hamas couldn't care less about the children and women being killed, they are fully committed to the destruction of Israel, and will stop at nothing to achieve this.
Nonetheless, another reality is that Israel is a military superpower which can literally crush anyone in the region. The problem with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) leveling Gaza is that it looks like a massive disproportionate response to the murder of three Israeli teenagers, which were not killed by Hamas according to the latest analysis.
And there is no reason to believe that all this bloodshed will secure Israel. In fact, previous military campaigns in Gaza only emboldened the radicals and made them stronger. This is my worst fear. We've seen this play out over and over and the strategies of hard liners on both sides have failed miserably to secure long-lasting peace in the region (see Haaretz article, It isn't easy being an Israeli leftist during wartime).
As far as the Americans, they too have "blood on their hands." At one point, they have got to lead and bring long-lasting peace to the region. Below, CNN's Paula Hancoks reports on the ongoing Israel and Hamas conflict, evaluating whether the two can peacefully co-exist. I have my doubts and fear that things are only getting worse, not better.