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.
From the “If You’ve Only Got Time To Read One Thing” Dept. Actually, I’ve got three items to recommend, each of which casts invaluable light on what’s going on right now in Gaza. In a moment I’ll rank them in order of importance, but first, a comment on what they have in common. The three are from — in no particular order (I’ll get to that later) — reporter Patrick Kingsley in the left-wing British daily The Guardian; conservative-leaning Israeli political reporter Haviv Rettig-Gur in the right-of-center Israeli news site Times of Israel (he’s formerly of the Jerusalem Post); and liberal-leaning Middle East affairs analyst Zvi Barel in Haaretz.
Interestingly, they all end up in pretty much the same place: Hamas is increasingly isolated, refusing to accept the Egyptian call for an unconditional cease-fire; it keeps on bombarding Israel because it’s desperate for something, anything, that can be presented as a win for all the trouble it’s caused; and consequently, Hamas is receiving (and deserving) most of the blame — from Europe and even the Arab League — for the current suffering of the Palestinians under its rule in Gaza. Its only remaining friends are Turkey and Qatar.
Now to the individual items on my list. First up, Haviv Rettig-Gur’s piece in Times of Israel, a must-read. It’s really two analyses woven together, presented in an unemotional, straightforward and quite convincing argument.
In the first place he looks at the way that both Israel and Hamas use contradictory claims of their own strength and their own weakness — strength in order to deter the enemy, weakness in order to win sympathy abroad. It’s not the most original argument in the world, but he presents it extremely well, and it’s important coming from him.
He proceeds from there to expand on Hamas’s victimhood mentality in order explore its mistaken use of post-colonial theory in service of the Palestinian cause. In Hamas thinking, he writes, the Palestinian fight against Israel is like the Algerian fight against the French in the 1950s. Therefore the enormous suffering that Hamas’s “resistance” causes to the Palestinian people is worth it, as was the unspeakable suffering of the Algerians, because it ends in victory. The weakness of the post-colonialism approach as an anti-Israel strategy, Haviv writes, is that Hamas fails to grasp Israel’s self-understanding as a nation on its own soil rather than a colonial invader.
Here’s a remarkable bit of television — official Palestinian Authority TV, to be specific — in which the Palestinian delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva tells an interviewer that Hamas’s rocket fire from Gaza is a crime against humanity. Plain and simple, no hedging. In Arabic (with English subtitles). Watch it below.
The envoy, Ibrahim Khreisheh, is replying to a question from anchorwoman Nisrin Nasir about the prospects of bringing charges against Israel before the International Criminal Court for its aerial attacks in Gaza. His answer: I’m not running for office, so I’ll give an unpopular but honest answer: It would backfire. Rockets aimed at Israeli civilians are crimes against humanity. Every rocket, individually, whether or not it hits anybody.
He says Israel’s bombardment also constitutes a crime against humanity. A few minutes later, however, he says that Palestinians in Gaza are reporting getting warnings from Israel to clear out before an airstrike. That means, he says, that any fatalities resulting from the airstrikes are accidental, not criminal.
Here’s the video:
Israel’s consul for public affairs in New York, Gil Lainer, has offered a spirited reply to my June 10 column, “How Politics and Lies Triggered an Unintended War In Gaza.” As a devout Zionist, I’m glad to see a strong, cogent defense of the state of Israel. Unfortunately, as Groucho Marx once put it, this wasn’t it.
Much of the consul’s riposte seems to be based, strangely, on the assumption that facts need not follow one from the other in order to constitute an argument as long as they sound similar. Thus the undisputed fact that Hamas favors conflict with Israel must somehow prove that Hamas wanted this conflict this month. The fact that Islam-motivated terrorist organizations fired rockets from Hamas-ruled territory can somehow mean that Hamas as good as fired those rockets. The fact that Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal praised the kidnapping of the three yeshiva students after the fact must mean that Hamas ordered the crime. Sorry, but things don’t work that way.
Prime Minister Netanyahu promised early on to show proof that Hamas was responsible for the kidnappings, but the proof never came and the promise was quickly forgotten. Instead we have Meshaal’s ravings. Well, Meshaal did indeed praise the kidnapping afterward, but he also said he had no information about it. Other Hamas leaders, including Sami Abu Zuhri and Osama Hamdan, stated flatly that Hamas had not ordered it. Hamas is never shy about acknowledging its actions. Why are we so eager to believe every damning word that comes out of their mouths but to dismiss as lies anything that might be deemed exculpatory?
Other assertions are even stranger. Supposedly I claimed that “Hamas does not desire conflict with Israel” (which I didn’t — I said it didn’t desire this conflict right now) because I’m “unaware of who has been launching rockets at Israel for years.” The consul then proceeds to identify who’s been doing it: the very groups that I blamed. I called them “smaller jihadi groups.” He calls them “Islamic terror groups that, whether they call themselves Hamas or not, espouse the same hatred and are committed to the destruction of the State of Israel.” That is, not Hamas, but they might as well be because they sound the same.
The Forward has my latest column on how Israel and Hamas stumbled through a series of accidents and misunderstandings into a war nobody wanted. Because it’s written for print (unlike this blog) it has limits on length, and even though the paper generously lets me run way over my limit every week, there are inevitably things left out that need to be said. Permit me to add.
First, the current blowup began with a kidnap-murder of three Israeli teenagers, two of them 16-year-olds who just finished 11th grade. As the father of a son who is the exact same age — and is in Jerusalem right now on a summer program — I can just begin to guess at the feelings. But I can only begin to guess.
Second, the Israeli government suppressed the fact that the boys were dead, as it knew on Day 2, with the apparent motive of dismantling the Hamas infrastructure in the West Bank. The prolonged, fabricated uncertainty had the collateral effect of inflaming Jewish emotions in Israel and the Diaspora, and the tension may well have intensified the resulting anger after the bodies were found. On the other hand, it also provided cover for Israel to round up and dismantle, with barely a shot fired, a network operating in territory it controls that openly preaches destroying Israel and murdering its citizens. I don’t know that such a roundup is a bad thing.
Moreover, if it allows for a new Fatah-Hamas unity government with Hamas in a seriously weakened position, and a PA that can openly embrace the Quartet conditions and peace process with greater authority — including the ability to speak for and deliver Gaza — then it just might be something even hardcore doves can celebrate.
Third, regarding the current mutual bombardment. Here’s where the series of accidents and misunderstandings kicked in. When Israel began rounding up Hamas-West Bank, amid declarations from Bibi that Hamas “will pay,” the Hamas leadership in Gaza went underground and began gearing up for a renewed Gaza war that they feared — incorrectly, I believe — that Israel was planning. Going underground meant abandoning their earnest-but-not-always-competent enforcement of the 2012 cease-fire. The result was a sudden, drastic increase in rocket fire from PRC, Islamic Jihad and the Qaeda-style jihadis to its right. Israel responded with several aerial attacks on rocket crews.
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.
Mourners at the fresh grave of Naftali Fraenkel, one of three Israeli teens murdered, allegedly by members of the Hamas-linked Qawasmeh family of Hebron. / Getty Images
Now that the bodies of the three kidnapped Israeli teenagers have been found and laid to rest, the crisis is rapidly turning into a wickedly complex, five-sided tug-of-war with enormous stakes on all sides. One axis pits hawks against doves inside Israel, with cries from the public for revenge backed by right-wing cabinet ministers while the military, backed by government doves, urges cautious, calibrated measures, to avoid an escalation into war. Prime Minister Netanyahu is caught in the middle, immobilized by indecision.
The debate erupted into angry verbal confrontations at security cabinet meetings on Monday and Tuesday, reaching a climax at one point when IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz praised the cabinet for adopting a temperate set of counter-measures that avoid escalation into full-scale war. In reply Gantz received a tongue-lashing from economics minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home Party, the cabinet’s strongest advocate of harsh measures. Bennett angrily told Gantz he had no authority to “critique” the ministers’ actions.
The second line of tension is a tug-of-war between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas over Abbas’s month-old unity pact with Hamas. A Hebron-based Hamas cell is believed responsible for the kidnap-murders, and Netanyahu is demanding that Abbas break off ties with the Hamas leadership in response. Abbas is holding off, deterred by doubts over the involvement of Hamas leaders — Hamas officials in both Gaza and Damascus continually deny any involvement or knowledge — and by popular pressure from below not to be identified too closely with Israel. But Israel anger and Hamas recalcitrance may leave him no choice.
The third and perhaps most significant line of confrontation is the growing tension between Hamas leaders in Gaza and Damascus and the local Hamas organization in Hebron. The Hebron organization, dominated by one of the city’s oldest and largest clans, the Qawasmehs, has effectively operated for more than a decade as an independent franchise within the fundamentalist movement, and frequently as a radical opposition force and spoiler. The Shin Bet has identified Marwan Qawasmeh, 29, and a family hanger-on, Amer Abu-Eisha, 33, as the kidnappers of the yeshiva students.
Several detailed accounts of the Qawasmeh family’s alleged spoiler role in Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire efforts have appeared in several Israeli and international publications in the last day, claiming, based on Palestinian and Israeli intelligence sources, that the clan staged the kidnapping in order to sabotage the Fatah-Hamas unity pact and reignite armed conflict.
Israeli troops search for evidence at site where the bodies of 3 kidnapped youths were found near village of Halhoul. / Getty Images
Israel’s security cabinet was due to convene at 9:30 pm (2:30 New York time) to discuss Israeli responses to the murder of the three teenagers whose bodies were found just before 6 pm in a shallow grave near the village of Halhul, north of Hebron. And a heated debate has already broken out over the proper steps to take.
As usual, politicians on the right are pushing for a maximalist response, while military figures are warning against letting emotions guide policy and urging “focused” and “targeted” responses. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly blamed Hamas for the kidnapping, and pointed to the Fatah-Hamas unity pact concluded last month as contributing to the terrorist act.
Military and security figures have quietly cautioned since fingers began pointing at Hamas that there was no concrete evidence the kidnappers were operating under instructions from Hamas higher-ups. Today for the first time they began speaking not quietly but openly, warning that attacking Hamas as an organization in response to the kidnapping would backfire, fail to deter future terrorism and serve Hamas’s goal of isolating and delegitimizing Israel internationally.
The three boys, Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gil-Ad Shaer, 16, and U.S. citizen Naftali Fraenkel, also 16, were kidnapped at around 10 p.m. June 12 while trying to hitchhike home for the weekend from their West Bank yeshivas. The area, under Israeli military administration, has been the scene of Palestinian violence for decades but has been relatively quiet for the past few years. They were apparently killed shortly after they were taken.
Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein called for Israel to launch a “war on terrorism.” Knesset member Miri Regev, one of the hardest-line members of Likud called for a wave of “targeted eliminations” of Hamas leaders in Gaza.
On the other hand former Mossad director Danny Yatom urged carefully distinguishing between terrorists responsible for the murders and politicians whose ideology may or may not have inspired the murderers.
Yeshiva students pray for safe return of three kidnapped youths
With the terrorist kidnapping of three teenagers dominating the news cycle and nearly every private conversation for the past two days, Israelis have had little attention to spare for America’s national agony in Iraq.
It’s hard to think of a time when the two nations’ fates were so closely linked, yet their concerns were so utterly disconnected. It seems like neither public has time for the other’s troubles.
The similarities of their situations go beyond their struggles with Islamist terrorists. In both countries, it seems, the initial horror of the events themselves — the fall of Mosul, the disappearance of the three yeshiva students — quickly gave way to anger at the perpetrators and their enablers.
And at that moment, when thoughts turned to the enablers, each country’s political sides began to turn on each other.
In America, of course, it’s those who blame Barack Obama for pulling out of Iraq before the mess there was fixed versus those who blame George W. Bush for creating the mess by going into Iraq in the first place.
In Israel, it’s those who blame Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas for opening the door to Hamas — and by none-too-subtle implication, the supporters of the Oslo peace process that created an openly armed Palestinian presence on Israeli-controlled soil — versus those who accuse the right, and especially Benjamin Netanyahu, of freezing forward motion and threatening the tentative stability that’s been won in the past few years.
Israel appears to be sending mixed signals to Washington on U.S. aid to the new Palestinian unity government. On one hand, the Netanyahu government wants everyone to know it’s furious over the new “reconciliation government” that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas has formed with the reviled terrorist organization Hamas. Officials from Prime Minister Netanyahu to Washington ambassador Ron Dermer have been declaring that the unity pact means “there can’t be business as usual.”
On the other hand, it’s not clear Israel that wants Washington to respond by cutting its financial aid to the Palestinian Authority. Jerusalem depends heavily on the PA security forces’ cooperation in fighting terrorism in the West Bank, and loss of funding could freeze their salaries and keep them home. In the longer run, the aid underwrites billions of dollars in PA governmental services from health to mail delivery and garbage collection that would fall on the Israeli taxpayer if the authority were to collapse under U.S. and international pressure.
Israelis who have met members of Congress in recent days say they’re hearing expressions of confusion over Israel’s mixed messages — that the new PA government is essentially a terror-backed group but that aid should not be cut.
Pro-Israel lawmakers and Jewish groups have been reciting a line that seems to represent a demand for ending aid, namely: “U.S. law is clear — no funds can be provided to a Palestinian government in which Hamas participates or has undue influence.” Those words appear in a pop-up on AIPAC’s website. A nearly identical phrase appears in a speech by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez that’s touted on the American Jewish Committee website and elsewhere.
But that’s not the whole law. Deeper on the AIPAC website is a set of “key points” that states the entire relevant law:
Israel gave the world an unusually raw look at its internal divisions this week when the annual Herzliya Security Conference, traditionally the top showcase for the country’s defense doctrines, turned into an extended food fight.
By the end of Day 2 of the three-day gabfest, angry exchanges of retorts and threats had broken out on the main stage among ministers in the Israeli cabinet and between leading Israeli and American defense experts.
More subtle, but arguably more significant, were dueling assessments of the threats facing Israel — on one side, a united front of government spokesmen, and on the other, the uniformed generals who had been asked to present their professional assessments. Government spokesmen presented the Iranian threat as pressing and mortal, while the generals presented it as part of a larger and clearly manageable range of challenges in the region.
Government spokesmen presented the Palestinian Authority as an ongoing threat with no peace solution in sight, particularly given Hamas’s unalterable commitment to attacking Israel. The generals said Hamas had been effectively deterred from attacking Israel — “they’ve learned the price of attacking us,” chief of staff Benny Gantz said laconically — and made no mention whatever of the Palestinian Authority or the peace process.
“They’re soldiers. They didn’t want to stick their necks out by giving their views,” legal scholar and former education minister (and conference staffer) Amnon Rubinstein told me.
The exchange among the ministers drew the most media attention. In a Sunday evening session featuring the heads of Israel’s main political parties, finance minister Yair Lapid and justice minister Tzipi Livni both threatened to quit the government if it decided to begin annexing West Bank territory, as demanded by economics minister Naftali Bennett, who was sandwiched between them. Also appearing was opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog of Labor, who mocked Lapid and Livni for remaining in a government that was building settlement units they oppose, and told Lapid he “should have thought about peace before you dragged your ‘brother’ Bennett into the coalition.”
Lapid also blamed Israel — presumably meaning Prime Minister Netanyahu — for the current “unprecedented crisis” in Israeli-U.S. relations. And he demanded that the government present a map of its desired borders and begin staged withdrawals accompanied by negotiations. That drew a sarcastic retort in Knesset the next day from Netanyahu, who called Lapid “naïve” and “inexperienced.”
The American-Israeli confrontation came earlier in the program and caused some gasps in the audience. It came during a panel discussion on “regional and global threats” featuring American and Israeli defense experts.
Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Mahmoud Abbas in 2010/Getty Images
Israel’s decision today to suspend peace talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization, in response to yesterday’s Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement, is really three distinct decisions. One is sensible. The second is understandable if questionable. The third is inexcusable.
The first decision is the actual suspension of talks, pending formation of the new Palestinian Authority government. The second is to suspend transfer of tax revenues that Israel collects on the Palestinians’ behalf, in retaliation for Palestinian actions. The third is to launch an international media campaign to “blacken the name” of PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas in international public opinion.
The first, suspending talks, sensibly reflects the gravity of the Palestinian step and the delicacy of Israeli domestic politics. Israel isn’t alone in viewing Hamas as a rejectionist, irridentist and terrorist organization; that’s the assessment of the international community.
The Middle East Quartet — the diplomatic partnership of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — laid out three conditions back in 2006 for Hamas participation in the diplomatic process: recognizing Israel, swearing off terrorism and accepting previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements. To date it has met none of them. There have been unofficial trial balloons, never formally confirmed, about Hamas possibly accepting peaceful coexistence on some basis. And Hamas has largely observed a cease-fire across the Gaza border since taking a whipping in Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012. But it has flatly refused to give up terror in principle, and the only thing preventing Hamas attacks in the West Bank, where no cease-fire exists, has been Israeli-PLO security cooperation.
Under the circumstances, then, it’s reasonable for Israel to suspend negotiations until it sees whether the new Palestinian unity government meets minimal international norms — in effect, whether unity means Hamas following Fatah toward coexistence or Fatah following Hamas toward endless war. It’s not merely reasonable — it’s the least Jerusalem can do to show its voting public that it’s doing its job.
The second Israeli decision, to suspend the monthly transfer of Palestinian tax revenues, is a longstanding tactic for retaliating over Palestinian provocations. It does seem to be useful as a political safety valve, to let the Israeli public know that their government is on its toes and not giving away the store. Like Palestinian-led boycotts of Israel, it’s a way to pressure (read: beat up on) the other side without actual bloodshed. Like those boycotts, its usefulness in encouraging Palestinian good-faith adherence is a lot less clear. Still more unclear is whether or not it’s legal under Israel’s signed agreements.
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 police on the Gaza-Egypt border, September 2013 / Getty Images
Ideology continues to trump security in the Netanyahu government’s approach to combating terrorism. As Hamas struggles to maintain its November 2012 cease-fire with Israel in the face of increasing rocket fire, mostly by al Qaeda-linked Salafi jihad factions, Israel responds by bombing Hamas facilities.
In addition to jihadis, the secular Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine has been responsible for a small proportion of the rocket fire. The front fired several rockets at the Negev from Gaza earlier in January, including two fired toward Ariel Sharon’s funeral January 13. Israel retaliated January 22 by assassinating a PFLP leader identified as responsible for the rockets, Ahmed Al-Za’anin.
The latest incident began late Thursday, when an unknown group fired a rocket that landed in field outside the Negev town of Netivot. Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon declared Friday morning, as he has done repeatedly over the past year, that Israel considers Hamas responsible for all such attacks. The Israeli military retaliated later on Friday by bombing two terrorist installations, a rocket factory in the northern Gaza Strip and a weapons storage facility in the southern strip, that the army later confirmed were both Hamas facilities.
Hamas responded Saturday by withdrawing its rocket prevention units from the field. Initial Israeli responses interpreted the action as Hamas “giving a green light” to stepped up rocket attacks. But by Saturday night, as there had been no further rocket fire, Israeli sources began suggesting that the Hamas troop withdrawal was intended as a message to Israel to direct its fire toward those responsible, rather than punishing Hamas for actions it has been trying to prevent.
During the month of January some 20 rockets were fired at Israel from Gaza, equal the total for the entire preceding 11 months.
The developments come on the heels of a disturbing January 26 report that Prime Minister Netanyahu has been shaking up the hiring and promoting practices at the Shin Bet internal security service in order to create an agency that produces the intelligence he wants. The report, by Haaretz military analyst Amir Oren, says that as a result of the effort, the Shin Bet now has “three out of its four senior officials coming from a religious background and radiating sympathy for a worldview that opposes diplomatic compromise that would involve the evacuation of settlements.”
Oren claims that the shakeup follows Netanyahu’s frustration that he can’t get the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate (or MI) to produce the intelligence he needs to fend off Secretary of State John Kerry and justify an attack on Iran. Military Intelligence, like the rest of the military, insists on strict professionalism both in its assessments and in its personnel decisions, unlike the Shin Bet, which is under the prime minister’s personal supervision. Oren writes:
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.
At the risk of sounding ethnocentric, the current earthquake in Egypt has enormous implications for the well-being of Israel, and not in a good way. Put simply, the course of action that seems self-evidently proper to right-minded Americans — punishing the Egyptian military, ending military cooperation, suspending aid — will almost certainly have a catastrophic impact on Israel’s peace with Egypt. The irony is, it won’t particularly affect the course of events inside Egypt — the Egyptian military is too powerful internally, and too deeply hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood, for an American spanking to deter it. Nor would restoring the Brotherhood to power make the lives of ordinary Egyptians better. On the plus side, it would make us feel better knowing we had struck a blow, however symbolic, for democracy in the Middle East. We Americans love symbolic politics.
America’s billion-dollar-plus annual aid package to Egypt does not exist for Egypt’s benefit, but for Israel’s. It’s the carrot, or bribe, that keeps Egypt faithful to its peace treaty with Israel, despite its enormous unpopularity on the Egyptian street. That treaty is critical to Israel. And no, there’s no reason to think that peace with the Palestinians would make the Egyptian agreement unnecessary, nor suddenly dissipate the hostility of the Egyptian street. More likely the opposite: a disruption in the Israeli-Egyptian relationship would have a devastating impact on Israeli-Palestinian relations. Egypt has been a critical mediating force for years, both between Israel and the PLO and between the PLO and Hamas. And this is without discussing the sudden new importance of Israel-Egyptian cooperation given the rise of Al Qaeda-linked actors in Sinai (which I’ve written about in my latest Forward column — watch for it).
The horrific footage out of Cairo reflects not only Egypt’s worst dreams coming true, but Israel’s as well. The Obama administration is going to punish the Egyptians. At least that is how Washington began to act as of Wednesday evening. Congress has signaled that it might suspend military and economic aid to Egypt. Given the current atmosphere, there is a good chance that the Pentagon will suspend all cooperation with the Egyptian security establishment.
The statement by Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh mourning Ben-Laden and condemning his killing is getting a lot of internet traffic. It’s instructive; optimists make much of the group’s occasional hints at softening and its conflicts with Al Qaeda. Worth remembering that it still sees itself as part of Jihad International. Here is Ynetnews.com’s report of what Haniyeh had to say.
By contrast, the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority is calling Ben-Laden’s death a good thing. Ghassan Khatib, director of the Palestinian Authority’s Government Media Center (and co-editor with Yossi Alpher of bitterlemons.org), is quoted on Ynet as follows:
Eliminating Ben-Laden is good for the peace process. We need to overcome the violent methods that Ben-Laden created, together with others around the world.
I’ve seen a few references already to the Hamas statement as showing how you can’t trust Fatah, including one in a comment on my last post. Strangely enough, I haven’t seen any references in English to Khatib’s statement on behalf of the P.A., which puts things in a very different light. I guess it’s too off-message.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has instructed his cabinet ministers to stick to a single message regarding the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement, Israel’s Channel 10 News reports on its Nana-10 website. The message: “there is no possible positive component in the reconciliation agreement.” That’s right:Cabinet ministers are forbidden even to speculate on any conceivable upside.
You can tell he cares about this, because he rarely makes any effort to rein in his cabinet. His foreign minister, alert readers recall, got up in front of the United Nations General Assembly last fall and laid out a foreign policy vision radically at odds with the prime minister’s, including exchanges of population in a future peace agreement, which he said was decades away. He didn’t even get a slap on the wrist—just a laconic statement from Bibi’s office that the prime minister, not the foreign minister, articulates the country’s foreign policy. Which is a weird thought in itself. Moreover, the interior minister repeatedly attacked the settlement construction freeze that the prime minister had imposed last year.
So this is something Bibi cares about. Unlike gestures toward peace which he makes in response to American pressure, and which his ministers attack mercilessly without consequences. He really doesn’t want it suggested that there could possibly be an upside to the Palestinian reconciliation agreement.
It’s not like he can keep the lid on things forever. Abu Mazen, a.k.a. Mahmoud Abbas, has said repeatedly in the last few days that he, not Hamas, is in charge of foreign policy, that he still wants to negotiate and make peace with Israel, he still sees Bibi as his partner. He’s even said that the pact calls for elections in a year; if Fatah wins, it should end Hamas control of Gaza. Bibi can’t keep that from the Israeli public, but maybe he can prevent his ministers from smiling when they hear it.
Well, maybe you can’t keep Abu Mazen’s words totally concealed from the public, but you sure can try. David Bedein, an American-born settler activist and head of what he calls the Israel Resource News Agency (and very nice guy and good friend when he’s not talking politics), sent out a mass email tonight furiously attacking the JTA for its report on what Abu Mazen is saying. He’s mad that JTA reported the news without spinning like a good Jew should.
Boy oh boy, Jews say the darnedest things, don’t they? You’ve got to love it. We’ve been hearing for years now that the Palestinian leadership under Mahmoud Abbas isn’t capable of making peace with Israel even if it wants to because, among other things, it doesn’t speak for Hamas, which controls Gaza (see here, here and here, for example).
It’s a bit confusing, I know, but life is like that. For the moment, the best response would be to make sure they put air-sickness bags in front of the seats in shul alongside the chumashim tomorrow morning, in case congregants start to experience vertigo from the sudden, abrupt shifts in position..
It’s like the old joke about the beggar who asks the rabbi for a ruble to buy a meal. Later that day the rabbi walks past the inn and sees the beggar eating a big slice of cake. “This is how you waste my money?!” the rabbi demands. “Excuse me,” the beggar replies. “Yesterday I couldn’t eat cake because I had no money. Today I have money but you tell me I shouldn’t eat cake. Tell me, rabbi, when can I eat cake?”
Now, as soon as the deal was announced yesterday, my mailbox started filling up with evidence that it had killed any hopes for the peace process, which presumably was thriving up to now. Exhibit A was this statement by Mahmoud a-Zahar, the Hamas foreign minister, who said it would “not be possible for the interim national government to participate or bet on or work on the peace process with Israel.” The morning after (today) reinforcements started arriving in the form of links to this statement by Zahar’s boss, Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, calling on Fatah to renounce its recognition of “the Zionist entity.”
On second thought, though, this actually indicates that stopping the peace process was not part of deal. If it were, Haniyeh wouldn’t need to be asking for it now.
One of the most important news stories of the week was also one of the least noticed. According to a Saudi newspaper quoted in the Jerusalem Post and in Ynet, Israel may be ready to free Marwan Barghouti as part of a prisoner swap for Gilad Schalit.
Barghouti is the most popular leader on the West Bank, bar none. He emerged during the Oslo years as one of the young, home-grown leaders of Fatah, imprisoned during the first intifada, fluent in Hebrew and outspokenly in favor of a two-state solution. He’s been in prison since 2005, serving five life sentences for murder during the second intifada. Since the day of his arrest there’s been open speculation that Israel was going to hold him to build up his street cred and then dramatically release him to become a sort of Palestinian Mandela. It turned out he was going to be tried, sentenced and incarcerated as a terrorist chieftain, not a potential partner.
But the speculation hasn’t let up. Here’s Uri Avnery in 2007 calling him Mandela, here’s Jerusalem Post leftist-in-residence Larry Derfner in 2004 calling him a thug and no Mandela, and here is uber-pundit Ron Ben-Yishai writing in Yediot in 2008 that freeing Barghouti would be a win-win for Hamas, Fatah and Israel alike, because he’s the only one who could bring Hamas to heel, unite the Palestinians, sign a peace treaty and make it stick.
Bradley Burston called last winter for Barghouti to be released summarily, without a Schalit deal, so as to strengthen Fatah and embarrass Hamas. Netanyahu & co. don’t seem to have been smart enough to pick up on that. Still, if they’re going ahead and reluctantly freeing him to Hamas as part of a swap, it could still be a serious game-changer.
Here is a 9-minute YouTube clip of Barghouti giving a rare filmed interview in January 2006 in prison, in English, to Lindsey Hilsum of Britain’s Channel 4 news (and here’s the transcript of the interview).