Israel and the agonising endgame

By Toby Greene, August 1, 2014
The funeral of an Israeli soldier who died in the latest round of violence

The funeral of an Israeli soldier who died in the latest round of violence

What is Israel fighting for?

The human cost of this conflict is a source of sadness and despair, raising legitimate questions: What is Israel fighting for? Is it worth it? Does Israel have alternatives?

In addressing these question, the overwhelming images of death and destruction in Gaza, have meant that insufficient account is taken of how this battle fits into a broader strategic confrontation with real, high-stakes goals.

The shallow level of analysis is reflected by American TV's Jon Stewart sketch, in which the conflict is reduced to two sides bombarding each other, the only difference being that "one side is bombetter at it." Even some serious commentators simplistically account for Israel's decisions as driven by vengeance, fury, or the inability to think straight.

In judging Israel's actions, it is reasonable to scrutinise the means. Even with Hamas waging war against Israel's home front from within a civilian population, Israeli forces must be ready to answer: are we doing all we can to fulfil our duty to the innocent? Israel's leaders must also face the families of fallen soldiers, and be able to say that everything was done to protect them, and their loss served a necessary goal.

Israelis assume that feeding the alligator will not satisfy it but rather whet its appetite and strengthen it for its next attack

But no fair judgment of the means can be made without seriously considering the ends. In that context, I offer two assertions in the defence of Israel's decision-makers, and two critiques.

In Israel's defence: first, faced with a sustained rocket bombardment across the country and infiltrations through tunnels, Israel has no choice but to fight. Second, once in a fight, there is a strategic imperative to emerge on top.

And the critiques: first, there appears to have been a failure to anticipate this round. Second, Israel has failed to coalesce around a broader coherent policy towards the Palestinian issue.

So why did Israel have no choice but to fight? We need to remember that if Hamas had not launched 100 rockets on July 7, Israel would not have launched Operation Protective Edge. If Hamas had accepted the Egyptian ceasefire on July 15, there would have been no ground operation.

Hamas didn't take these exits. Hamas used to manage with Iranian money and a smuggling economy under the Egypt-Gaza border. But it fell out with Iran over Syria and the money dried up (though Iran kept sending the rockets). Then the Egyptian army booted out the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo and shut down the tunnel economy. Meanwhile, Islamic Jihad and other rivals in the Gaza Strip have been growing in firepower and confidence.

The unity government with the Palestinian Authority didn't help. Hamas hoped the PA would pick up the tab for its hefty wage bill, but Abbas said no. If he transferred money to employees of Hamas – many of them "security' personnel" – his funding from the US and EU was in danger.

Hamas needed to change the status quo, make itself relevant, loosen the borders and get its wage bill paid. When faced with the choice to escalate or step back, Hamas dove right into the abyss.

With hundreds of rockets targeted at its cities, and millions fleeing to shelters, Israel faced limited options. One option was an all-out war to destroy Hamas. The human and material cost would be considerable and a dangerous vacuum would be left. Despite some rhetoric from the right, and overwhelming public support for this approach, few decision-makers want to pay this price.

At the opposite end of the spectrum was the option to make concessions, giving Hamas some of what it needs to stay solvent, run Gaza and keep things quiet. After all, if Israel was not willing to pay the price of getting rid of Hamas, it is preferable to have Hamas capable of controlling the other groups. What's more, if the Gaza economy was opened up, there might be more domestic pressure on Hamas to avoid these fights, and less angry young men to recruit.

Israel did not choose this option either, for several reasons. First, Israel is concerned to maintain deterrence. If Israel is perceived to have conceded to terrorism, it risks encouraging further such adventurism, and not only from Hamas, but also Hizbollah and other enemies. If Hamas or others can fire rockets or attack through tunnels with impunity, using their civilian population as cover, they threaten the basic ability of Israel to function.

But there is another, deeper reason. The Gaza Strip is not the limit of Hamas's ambitions. For Hamas, the Strip is both a base for the "resistance" against Israel, and the first phase of its takeover of the Palestinian national movement. Helpfully, Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal spelled this out in a book recently published in English, stating: "The aim of resistance is to preoccupy and exhaust Israeli resources, deny the country any security and stability, and encourage the Palestinian people to participate in the struggle."

As for the ultimate vision, be in no doubt: "Reality reinforces the conviction that the Zionist project – Israel – has no future in the region."

Some commentators in the UK do not take this seriously. Israel does. Israelis assume that feeding the alligator will not satisfy it, but rather whet its appetite, and strengthen it for its next attack. Whatever the outcome of this conflict, Hamas's military commanders will prepare for the next round.

We now know how Hamas fighters used their free time throughout 2013, when they weren't firing rockets. They were developing indigenous rocket production facilities. They were acquiring rockets to reach Haifa. They were building remote launchers under civilian neighbourhoods. And they were building a huge network of concrete tunnels and bunkers under Shejaiya to protect their fighters and carry them under the border into Israel kibbutzim.

This explains why Israel felt compelled to respond to Hamas with force, and to ensure that any new arrangement, even if it allows for Hamas to maintain its position in the Gaza Strip, is based on Israel's terms, not Hamas's. Israel aims to prevent Hamas from gaining any demonstrable advantage from the conflict, degrade their capabilities, re-establish deterrence, and do whatever is possible to limit their capacity to rearm.

This is not just a policy of the hawks. Knocking Hamas back is also important to the peace camp, which is why there has been no dissent on that score from Tzipi Livni or Isaac Herzog. If Israel cannot legitimately defend itself from Islamists attacking it from territory it has evacuated, the case for leaving the West Bank is badly undermined. This conflict will underline Netanyahu's repeated claim that in any final status agreement, a long-term Israeli presence on the Jordanian border will be necessary to prevent the West Bank becoming another Gaza Strip.

It is also not just a policy reflecting Israeli interests. With radical Islamists creating an arc of chaos from Lebanon to Iraq, it is in the interests of Western states and their Arab allies that Hamas does not emerge strengthened, a point reflected in the remarkably supportive EU statement of July 22.

So what about the critique? Israeli policy has lacked foresight and initiative. The widely-held assumption that Hamas was adequately deterred from escalating against Israel proved a miscalculation. Hamas was prepared to pay a much higher price than Israel anticipated to change the status quo.

Furthermore, Israel could have done much more to build common cause with the PA and Mahmoud Abbas. Israel could have given a more constructive response to the formation of a Palestinian unity government which included no Hamas members, and encouraged the return of PA forces to Gaza, as the basis for economic regeneration and more open borders. In addition, Israeli leaders should act and speak in a more consistent way about Israel's vision for a political end game ¬– two states for two peoples based on the 1967 lines plus swaps.

Israeli decision-makers are only now, belatedly, groping towards a coherent position on the future of the Gaza Strip: open borders conditioned on the reintroduction of the PA, and a credible mechanism for disarmament.

So when the dust settles, Israel should address these shortcomings. But just as the political and intelligence failures that led to the 1973 Yom Kippur War did not negate the need to win the war once it started, so too, here, Israel has had little option but to meet force with force, and to try to come out on top.

One can only hope the outcome will both bring quiet to Israelis who have lived years under fire, and also create a more hopeful future for the civilians of Gaza, who are paying an unimaginable price for the self-destructive actions of their leaders.

Dr Toby Greene is the director of research for Bicom. His book Blair, Labour and Palestine: Conflicting Views on Middle East Peace After 9/11 is published by Bloomsbury Academic.

Last updated: 11:45am, August 1 2014