By Barry Rubin
Tel Aviv, Israel
Israel didn’t want to attack the Gaza Strip from the ground or from the air. Hamas, which had long broken the ceasefire, canceled it altogether. Then it began large-scale attacks on Israel. This is a war of defense. And it is being conducted just 30 miles from here, Israel’s main city.
According to the just-released Israeli government statement on the offensive:
“The objective of this stage is to destroy the terrorist infrastructure of the Hamas in the area of operation, while taking control of some of rocket launching area used by the Hamas, in order to greatly reduce the quantity of rockets fired at Israel and Israeli civilians.“The operation will…strike a direct and hard blow against the Hamas while increasing the deterrent strength of the Israel Defense Forces, in order to bring about an improved and more stable security situation for residents of southern Israel over the long term.”
Even as the 2006 war was continuing, the Israel Defense Force was evaluating the mistakes made in Lebanon—helicopters needed better short-range munitions, improved air-ground coordination, care in using tanks unsupported by infantry, and so on.
But contrary to the insistence of armchair strategists now, it would not be easy to seize control of all the Gaza Strip and govern it for an extended period of time. Hamas is not going to go away. International support for Israel is limited. Fatah and the Palestinian Authority will not react strongly to try to take Gaza back for itself. There are about one million people in the Gaza Strip and Hamas will make every attempt to ensure there are civilian casualties—and pretend there are even more.
So “total victory” is not easy, if it is even possible. The irony is that Israeli policy is based on the idea that there is no military solution to these issues. But since there is no diplomatic solution either, force must be used to protect Israel and its citizens.
It should be remembered that Israel withdrew completely from the Gaza Strip, dismantled all settlements, and wished the Palestinians good luck. The Palestinian Authority (PA) was not up to the challenge. It could and would not change its corrupt and incompetent ways. U.S. policy insisted that Hamas be allowed to run in the elections, even though it did not meet the standard of accepting the 1993 Israel-PLO agreement. Hamas won.
But Hamas invoked the radical Islamist policy of “one man, one vote, one time.” It staged a coup and kicked out its PA and Fatah rivals. Rather than focusing on economic development or even maintaining peace to build up its own power, Hamas pursued its strategy of permanent war against Israel. Children’s programs taught the kiddies that they should grow up to be suicide bombers and kill Jews. Hamas soldiers, or their junior allies, fired rockets and mortars at Israel. And of course Hamas staged a cross-border raid and kidnapped an Israeli soldier.
In spite of this, many in the West think Israel has some kind of choice in this matter, that diplomacy was an option, that Hamas could be reasoned with. Those people have clearly never heard a Hamas leader speak or read anything on the group’s Arabic-language websites. In a real sense, Hamas is more extreme than Usama bin Ladin, who periodically offers his enemy the chance to repent. Hamas’s goal is genocidal.
This has nothing to do with being dovish or hawkish, left or right. For those who are the biggest peaceniks—and this is true in Israel—know that Hamas must be defeated if Israel is ever to make peace with the PA. Even the PA knows it, and that’s what they say in private, no matter what they say in public.
The offensive is only going to last so long. It would be nice to believe that Hamas will be overthrown, less extreme Palestinians will take over, or Israel will just sit in the Gaza Strip for months or even years to come without any major problem. These are not real options.
Hamas wants nothing more than to be able to organize an underground to launch daily attacks on Israeli patrols going through the center of refugee camps. It should be remembered that, for better or worse, it was the Israeli military—not the politicians—who wanted to withdraw from the Gaza Strip for tactical reasons. It was easier to hold a defensive line in strength than to play into Hamas’s strong points by trying to control all the territory.
Clearly, this didn’t take into account the rockets but it is easy to think that if Israeli forces had been in the Gaza Strip every day since the withdrawal, Israeli casualties would have been a lot higher while Fatah and Hamas would be fighting side to side against Israel, and international diplomacy would have been far more hostile to Israel.
No one should have any illusions that this conflict is going to go away. The peace process era, 1993-2000, taught us that Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hizballah, and radical Islamist groups meant what they said. They will never accept peace with Israel. Israel will be involved in a struggle with these extremist groups for decades.
Yet that does not mean Israel cannot—and does not—prevail. It prevails by maintaining good lives for its citizens, developing its economy, and raising living standards, progressing in technology and science and medicine.
In this context, Israel will not listen to those many who counsel it to commit suicide, but it also has no illusions of a victory, of a war that will end all wars. And in a real sense that is Israel’s true strength: it is not naïve about either concessions or force. If you have realistic expectations, if you aren’t disappointed, then you never give up.
Often, nowadays, it seems as if all history is being rewritten when it comes to Israel. In World War Two, allied air forces carpet-bombed cities even though there were no military bases in civilian areas. In France alone, tens of thousands of civilians were killed by allied bombs that fell on their intended targets.
Even the Nazis didn’t put ammunition dumps in houses and use human shields. And up until now the blame for doing so would fall on those who deliberately and cynically sought to create civilian casualties in order to gain support for themselves
Up until now, a country whose neighbor fired across the border at its people and even staged cross-border raids had the right of self-defense.
Up until now, there has been a capability of understanding which group is inciting hatred, trying to turn children into robotic terrorists, calling for the extermination of another people, and committing aggression.
Many people, many journalists, many governments, and even many intellectuals still understand the most basic principles of right and wrong as well as of the real world. Unfortunately, too many don’t or at least don’t when Israel is the target.
Finally, it is of the greatest importance to understand that this is not an issue of Gaza or of Israel alone. The great issue of our era, of our remaining lifetimes, is the battle between radical Islamism—whether using the tactic of terrorism or not—and the rest of the world. To isolate this question as merely something about Israel is to misunderstand everything important about the world today.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA and other GLORIA Center publications or to order books, visit http://www.gloriacenter.org.