Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel. Sometime around noon the wind shifted and the tide began to roll out, and Israel started to lose international sympathy for its Operation Protective Edge in Gaza.
Up until Sunday morning Israel had a pretty clear field, owing to a combination of factors. For one thing, the optics. As long as Israel was responding to Hamas rockets with air strikes against Hamas targets, it looked to most observers like a fair fight. Israel’s opponents claimed there was no equivalence given the lopsided death toll. Israel’s supporters claimed the opposite: there was no equivalence because Hamas was aiming at civilians, while Israel was just trying to stop the rockets. In practice, it was a wash.
Even after Israel’s ground troops entered Gaza on Thursday night, July 17, the action looked reasonably measured to most outsiders. Hamas’ network of cross-border tunnels had ceased to be a theoretical problem that morning, when a squad of terrorists emerged on the Israeli side, prepared to attack a kibbutz. Israel sent in troops for what was announced as a limited operation along the border fence to destroy the tunnels. There were no international complaints. Lots of noisy street demonstrations, but hardly a peep from the world’s governments.
It didn’t hurt Israel’s case that the same Thursday saw 298 passengers killed when a Malaysian Airlines passenger was jet shot down over Ukraine, apparently by pro-Russian rebels, and 270 Syrians — soldiers, security guards and civilians — murdered execution-style by ISIS militants who had taken over a natural gas field. Gaza was just one of the world’s killing fields as the weekend approached.
Most important, Israel was facing an enemy, Hamas, that was almost universally despised. Egypt, always central to Israel-Hamas mediation, had been pouring contempt on Hamas throughout the crisis. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas had loudly condemned attacks on Israel during the crisis, once at a June 18 meeting of Islamic foreign ministers in Saudi Arabia and again when Hamas started bombarding Israel. When Egypt’s July 14 cease-fire proposal was accepted by Israel and rejected by Hamas, the Islamist organization’s support was reduced to rogue-state Iran, Islamist Turkey and the emirate of Qatar.
Qatar launched its own cease-fire initiative, which included the preconditions Hamas had demanded — freeing prisoners, opening borders, putting the Gaza-Egypt border under international supervision — but nobody endorsed it. The Arab League, led by Saudi Arabia, lined up formally behind Egypt — and by implication, Israel. The Jewish state had never had more sympathy in the Arab world for its defense needs.
What happened next was something that’s happened over and over in Israel’s military operations in recent years: The government overestimated the depth of its international support and decided to broaden the scope of the operation. On Saturday night the ground campaign was expanded beyond the surgical operation that had been promised against tunnels near the fence. It became a major assault on a densely populated neighborhood of Gaza City, Sheja’iya. The neighborhood houses some of Hamas’ tunnel entries and rocket launchers. It also houses tens of thousands of civilian families.
By evening the shelling and ground fighting had killed more than 80 Palestinians, including an estimated 60 civilians. The expanded fighting also began taking a serious toll on the Israeli side: 13 soldiers killed.
Avigdor Liberman at Likud-Beiteinu campaign rally, December 2012 / Getty Images
Israeli Foreign Avigdor Liberman announced today that he was pulling his Yisrael Beiteinu party out of its electoral alliance with Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud. The two combined forces in a joint electoral slate in advance of last year’s Knesset elections, but never merged the two parties into a single organization.
Liberman isn’t taking his party out of Netanyahu’s governing coalition, he told a press conference this morning. Nor is he quitting his job as foreign minister. Still, the split of the erstwhile Likud-Beiteinu alliance into two separate Knesset caucuses leaves Netanyahu in a precarious position, commanding just 20 lawmakers in his 68-member coalition.
Liberman’s split with Netanyahu comes after days of increasingly harsh squabbling over policy toward Hamas. Liberman has repeatedly called for the government to step up its attacks on Hamas, including a reoccupation of Gaza on the scale of Operaiton Defensive Shield in 2002. On Saturday, appearing in the southern city of Sderot, he slammed as “unthinkable” and “a serious mistake” Netanyahu’s offer to Hamas of a restored cease-fire, or “quiet in return for quiet.”
The dispute reached a climax at the weekly Sunday cabinet meeting, where Netanyahu and Liberman traded insults while ministers on the right lined up with Liberman and Netanyahu’s strongest support came from his usual critics to his left, including Yair Lapid, Tzipi Livni and environment minister (and onetime Labor Party chief) Amir Peretz.
Netanyahu now heads a coalition of five parties in which his own Likud, nominally the governing party, holds a plurality only by the narrowest margin. Of the coalition’s 68 lawmakers (in the 120-member Knesset), 20 belong to the Likud, 19 to finance minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, 12 to economy minister Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home, 11 to Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and 6 to justice minister Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah.
Palestinians in Gaza City on Wednesday celebrating Hamas-Fatah unity pact. / Getty Images
Old Jewish joke: The beggar of Chelm goes to the rabbi’s house and pleads in a most pitiful tone: “Please rabbi, I haven’t eaten in days. Won’t you please give me a ruble to buy some food?”
The rabbi is touched and gives the beggar a ruble.
An hour later the rabbi is walking downtown when he sees the beggar sitting in a café, eating a thick slice of cake. Incensed, he rushes across the square and accosts the beggar: “Scoundrel! I gave you a ruble to buy food because you were in need, and now I see you’ve wasted it on cake. How dare you?!”
“Excuse me,” the beggar replies indignantly. “Yesterday I had no money and I couldn’t eat cake. Today I have money and you say I shouldn’t eat cake. Tell me, rabbi, when can I eat cake?”
So it is with Hamas, Fatah and Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Last week there was no point in Israel closing a deal with the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority because it could only speak for the West Bank half of the Palestinians, given that Gaza is controlled by Hamas. Today there’s no point in closing a deal because the Palestinian Authority is finalizing an agreement for joint rule with Hamas, which will put it in partnership with a terrorist organization sworn to Israel’s destruction. So tell me, rabbi, when will there be a point in closing a deal?
Conventional wisdom offers two possible answers to the question. One is that the economic blockade of Gaza is intended to weaken and eventually topple the Hamas government so that the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority can regain full control. That would allow it to speak for all Palestinians and become a viable negotiating partner—assuming, that is, that you believe Fatah could ever be a viable negotiating partner.
Hamas fighters testing a Gaza-made M-75 long-range missile, November 2013 / Getty Images
Maariv’s Eli Bardenstein offered a stunningly clear and disturbing report (in Hebrew, my translation below) on Friday that illustrates the vexing complications introduced into the triangular Jerusalem-Cairo-Gaza relationship by political turmoil in all three places. It makes a very useful companion piece to today’s front-page New York Times report by Jodi Rudoren on Israeli jitters over instability on its eastern front.
In both cases, as Bardenstein notes and Rudoren sort of hints, the Netanyahu government is ignoring the intelligence supplied by its own security establishment, which shows jihadi organizations making life difficult for both Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south. The jihadis are creating turmoil, launching pinprick attacks on Israel that violate cease-fire agreements between Israel and Hezbollah and Hamas respectively. Hamas and Hezbollah are both besieged — Hamas by the new, anti-Islamist Egyptian military government, Hezbollah by jihadi spillover from the Syrian civil war (as well as political blowback from the Rafiq Hariri murder trial now underway in The Hague) — and are finding it increasingly difficult to enforce their respective cease-fires with Israel. Israel — meaning principally defense minister Moshe Yaalon — chooses to ignore the intelligence, blame Hamas and Hezbollah and launch military responses that only further weaken Hamas and Hezbollah and strengthen the jihadis.
I’ve translated Bardenstein’s piece below, but here’s the gist: Israel is alarmed at the unraveling of the November 2012 Pillar of Defense cease-fire “understandings” and the increasing rocket fire from Gaza — 17 rockets fired in January alone as of Friday (and more since then). It wants Egypt, which acts as mediator between Israel and Hamas, to pressure Hamas to stop the rocket fire. But Egypt has lost influence over Hamas since the military deposed the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi last July. The military government’s approach is not to work with Hamas as Morsi did but to crack down on it.
Hamas, in turn, complains that the Egyptian crackdown — particularly the mass destruction of smuggling tunnels, which squeezes the Gaza economy — weakens Hamas rule and reduces its ability to control the jihadi organizations that are doing the firing. And both Cairo and Hamas complain that Israel has been making the situation worse by Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon’s insistence on responding to every single rocket launching, no matter how ineffectual, with aerial bombardment.
Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, was warned by Israeli government attorneys this week to leave England and head home after Palestinians filed suit for an international arrest warrant on war crimes charges.
Barak decided to ignore the warning and continue his visit, according to reports in Haaretz and Ynet/Yediot. He was scheduled to meet on Tuesday with Prime Minister Gordon Brown and on Wednesday with Foreign Minister David Miliband. He’s also scheduled to address a Labour Friends of Israel event at the annual Labour Party conference taking place in Brighton this week.
Barak is the second ranking Israeli official to face possible arrest in Britain under the legal principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows countries to arrest and try foreign nationals for crimes committed in another country. Retired General Doron Almog, former chief of Israel’s southern command, went to England in September 2005 to address a conference on childhood autism, but returned home without even leaving his plane after Israel’s London embassy warned him about a warrant for his arrest in relation to the July 2002 airstrike against Gaza Hamas leader Salah Shehada, which killed 14 people including nine children. Britain later canceled the warrant.
The case against Barak is reportedly based on the Gaza war last winter. It comes just a few weeks after the release of the Goldstone Report, commissioned by the United Nations Human Rights Council, on alleged war crimes in Gaza. The London suit doesn’t appear to be related directly to the report – except for the fact that it would be neutralized, along with other universal jurisdiction efforts against it, including the Goldstone allegations, if Israel were to mount a serious, independent investigation into Gaza-related allegations, along the lines of the acclaimed investigations it launched following the 1973 and 1982 wars. So far the Netanyahu government refuses.
Haaretz columnist Brad Burston recently wrote a powerful piece on the mounting efforts by Palestinians and human rights activists to isolate Israel, and the damage it does to the cause of peace they claim to be pursuing. It’s a cry from an increasingly helpless Israeli left, marginalized at home and now abandoned by its supposed allies abroad.
Here’s Doron Almog discussing the 2005 incident:
Here’s a British news report from last spring that sympathetically describes universal jurisdiction cases against Israel currently working their way through Spanish courts – also stemming from the Shehada bombing:
Here’s Philippines legal scholar Ralph Sarmiento discussing the legal theories behind universal jurisdiction:
Here’s Bob Dylan on the harmonica at a Chabad event, accompanying his son-in-law Peter Himmelman and actor Harry Dean Stanton in a lively if somewhat off-key rendition of Hava Nagila.