So what were the gains in Gaza?

After all the death, the destruction and the opprobrium, was Cast Lead worth it?

By Geoffrey Paul, March 19, 2009

Even before I type this first sentence, I see the heads shaking in disapprobation, the eyebrows raised as they only can be in response to criticism of Israel within this traditionally supportive community — where, if Israel can make any mistakes, it is wise not to say so lest you upset your family.

So, all right, I am not going to criticise Israel because I know all the arguments against doing so (most of them not valid, by the way, and harking back to a time when the IDF was viewed — with some justification — as a collective of kibbutznikim in uniform rather than the professional fighting force it is today).

So, no criticism. Instead, a question. With the media dust now settling on Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli strike into Gaza that employed every element of its armed forces, was the whole, bloody, business really worthwhile? Bloody business it was bound to be, despite all the high-command orders to the fighting men not needlessly to cause civilian casualties while minimising the risks to themselves.

Israel knew, the world knew, and Hamas made no efforts to deny, that its missile launchers, stockpiles of weapons and bands of armed fighters were deliberately sited in the heart of civilian areas. As Israel pointed out, this did not disqualify weapons or fighters from being lawful military objectives. The primary responsibility for civilian casualties arising from what is termed “shielding” lies with the party that deliberately places civilians at risk.

I do not for a minute doubt that, “lawful military objectives” were in Israel’s gun sights. In the close-packed, virtually back-to-back streets and structures of Gaza, civilian deaths were unavoidable.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, on a number of occasions during the Gaza operation, said that its purpose was not just to free Israel’s citizens from terrorist rocket attacks but to ensure that Hamas would not be strengthened militarily in the future.

According to the latest available Israeli count, southern Israel has been struck by more than 180 rockets and mortar shells since the ceasefire. The head of the Committee for a Secure Sderot, the Negev town which has taken the brunt of the rocketing for nearly eight years, doesn’t see Operation Cast Lead as over and has called on Israel’s next government “not to allow this fire, and [to] respond to it with determination immediately it gains office.”

According to informed Israeli press reports, Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter told a cabinet meeting that advanced weapons were being smuggled into the Strip on a daily basis. The Hebrew press quoted him as saying: “The smuggling of weapons from Egypt to Gaza continues, and not only are they bringing in weapons like they did in the past, but they are also bringing in advanced arms like anti-aircraft missiles.”

Although its fighting force took a pounding, Hamas still has an estimated 10,000 armed men at its disposal. Its political command seemingly remains intact and in control of Gaza, where its support has strengthened — as it has throughout the Arab world. Most worryingly, there appears to have been an uplift in support for Hamas in the West Bank, whose leadership offered Israel the best chance of a formal end to the conflict.

Outside of the Middle East, died-in-the-wool antitisemites have, like rats to rotten meat, jumped at the archive of bloody victim photographs to flavour their case against the Jewish state while the international school of Israel-bashers has excelled in agitating for boycotts, academic and economic.

Turkey, a friend and almost an ally of Israel — together with moderate Arab neighbours — has been forced to jump through several hoops to maintain its necessary relationships with the wider Arab world while not cutting loose from Israel. It is a precarious road, not to be travelled too often.

Under the impact of the widespread damage done to Gaza’s infrastructure, the international community this month agreed to provide almost £3 billion for reconstruction in Gaza. They have thus, almost certainly, drawn a new line in the sand which Israel cannot cross without ugly confrontation with its friends.

So, the question — for me anyway — remains: What did Operation Cast Lead achieve? And if the answer — as I fear — is nothing, except a demonstration of the havoc a modern army can visit on its enemies, should there not be a high-level inquiry (as after the most recent Lebanon operation) designed to flush out the aims, the achievement and the lessons of Operation Cast Lead?

One of Israel’s most percipient political philosophers, Shlomo Avineri, has written that “going to war is always the ultimate test of political leadership. It is the mark of sovereignty. It should always be resorted to only as a last resort.”

I doubt that this is the way history will judge Operation Cast Lead.

Geoffrey Paul is a former editor of the JC

Last updated: 2:16pm, March 19 2009