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.
The Israeli military has sent what amounts to a barely disguised message to the political leadership and the troops in the latest round of senior command promotions, announced April 25.
With the Israeli-Palestinian peace process frozen, settler militancy on the rise and right-wing religious nationalists increasingly making their presence felt at the junior command level, the appointments make clear that the General Staff, led by chief of staff Benny Gantz, is doubling down on its basic strategic outlook: cooperation with the Palestinian leadership, enforcement of the soldiers’ code of ethics, deterrence on the northern front — and zero tolerance for Palestinian terrorism. Call them the hardline doves.
The three most charged appointments are the promotion of Brigadier General Herzl “Herzi” Halevi, the IDF’s so-called “philosopher-general,” until recently commander of the Galilee Division, to major general and chief of military intelligence; the appointment of the outgoing intelligence chief, Major General Aviv Kochavi, as chief of Northern Command; and the striking decision to retain the left-leaning chief of Central Command, Major General Nitzan Alon, in his current post overseeing the West Bank.
Alon’s retention at the head of Central Command, which covers the West Bank, sends a clear signal of the army’s impatience with growing settler radicalism and the spread of so-called price tag attacks. Alon is regarded by settler leaders as an undisguised liberal; it’s frequently noted that his wife Mor has been a supporter of the women’s human-rights group Machsom Watch, which is viewed on the right as subversive.
Alon spent much of his career in the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit before taking a series of positions in intelligence and field command, mostly in the West Bank. Shortly before assuming his current position as chief of Central Command in December 2011, Alon infuriated settler leaders by calling price-tag actions “Jewish terrorism” in a New York Times interview. He also warned against cutting U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority, then under congressional consideration because of the Palestinian application for United Nations recognition. He said cutting aid would destabilize Palestinian security forces, which he described as crucial to stability in the area. Under his command the army has clashed repeatedly with West Bank settlers, and he himself has been physically attacked by settlers and had protest demonstrations mounted outside his home.
Aviv Kochavi’s move from military intelligence to Northern Command, in charge of the Lebanon and Syria fronts, sends a more complicated message.
This past week marked the anniversary of Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli incursion into Gaza last year. Here are two ways of looking at it. One says it marked a turning point in the moral vision of Israeli society. The other says it was successful in reducing terrorism and saving Israeli lives.
The first one comes in an essay by human-rights lawyer Michael Sfard. It’s published on Coteret, a progressive Israeli blog, mostly press round-up in translation, that reports regularly on things you wish you didn’t have to know. The second is a year-end report released December 30 by the Shin Bet security service on the dramatic decline in Palestinian terror attacks in the past year, as summarized in Maariv. (The original is in Hebrew only — I’ve translated the numbers.) At the end is a link to a strong analysis describing the trade-off between protecting Israeli lives from terrorism, on one hand, and building the trust necessary to move toward peace.
Here are a few key excerpts from the Michael Sfard essay on Coteret:
Looking back, Operation Cast Lead was a turning point in the way Israeli society expresses its values. There, in besieged Gaza Strip, we exposed ourselves to a crystal-clear, shameless, and unmasked truth that we had thus far avoided by using repression and self-deceit methods that became more complex and clever with every war and operation we waged. Like that macho man who grew tired of pretending he was politically correct and angrily yelled at his wife to go back to the kitchen, we came out of the closet. We are who we are and we are proud of it!
For three weeks, during Operation Cast Lead, we sent fighter jets to drop bombs on one of the world’s most densely populated areas. We aimed our guns at clearly civilian targets. We used [white?]phosphorous bombs. We deliberately and systematically demolished thousands of private houses and public buildings, and all the while we maintained a tight siege on the Gaza Strip, preventing civilians who wanted to from fleeing the war zone. We did not erect a temporary refugee camp for them. We did not create a humanitarian no-mans’-land corridor for them. We did not spare hospitals, food repositories, or even UN aid agencies’ buildings. At the same time, we did not express fake regret. We did not argue we made tragic mistakes…
Operation Cast Lead was our second war of independence. In the first, we freed ourselves of 2,000 years of living under and being oppressed by foreign regimes. In the second, we broke the shackles of Jewish morality and heritage that were shoved down our throats for years. We liberated ourselves of the ancient Jewish ban against killing the innocent with the evil, from the self-evident lessons and inevitable insights we should have reached of the our collective experience as a downtrodden nation that was denied its own civil rights, that was silenced, knocked down, downgraded, and treated as subhuman. Yes, we violated some of those rules in the past, but we did not even reveal that to ourselves.
Now, on the other hand, here are the key points in the Shin Bet report, as reported by Ofer Buchbut in Maariv:
The General Security Service [i.e. Shin Bet - jjg] published a year-end report yesterday on terrorism, which showed “a significant decline in the scope of Palestinian terrorism.”
- 15 Israelis were killed in Palestinian attacks, nine of them during Cast Lead itself, versus 36 during 2008.
- 234 Israelis were wounded in Palestinian attacks, 185 of them during Cast Lead, versus 679 in 2008.
- 455 rockets were fired at Israel, 406 of them during Cast Lead, versus 2,048 rockets in 2008, a drop of almost 75%.
- No suicide attacks inside Israel in 2009. This is the first year since 1992 during which there were no Palestinian suicide attacks.