The Tragedy of Gaza: As Israeli Leaders Openly Debate Military Action, the Strategic Situation Worsens

Life in the Gaza Strip, one of the poorest and most densely populated areas on earth, has never been easy; at this time, it is as harsh as it has ever been, and getting worse. Electricity is available only intermittently; almost all construction is on hold; unemployment is rife—in fact, only a minority live on their own earnings. A repressive regime dominates all aspects of daily existence, stifling political and cultural expression, as well as the rights of women. Hamas is in full control. An Israeli journalist sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, Amira Hass of Ha’aretz, made her way into Gaza on board one of the small ships of European radicals who were allowed by the Israeli Navy to break the siege, but quickly found that the place she had once known well is no longer there. Gone are the posters glorifying Fatah leaders; gone are the large number of gun-toting security forces (Hamas is well in control, through a vast net of local informers and activists, and does not need ostentatious shows of authority), and so are the relatively easy ways of the late 1990s. Everything is closely monitored; she was assigned a huge armored car as an escort “for her safety,” but quickly realized that this presence intimidated the people she met, and soon afterward she was obliged to leave.

The people she left behind live in a Taliban-style state: This week, to the acute dismay and anger of Israelis at all levels, the military wing staged a massive rally—with some 100,000 in attendance—in which a young Palestinian clad in an IDF uniform played the role of Gil’ad Shalit, pitifully pleading for his life under the Palestinian gun. This act of humiliation led to some sharp responses: A large group of Israelis demonstrated in front of the Tel Aviv offices of the ICRC to demand that the Red Cross insist on visiting Shalit—or else, Israel should deny visitation rights to Hamas terrorists in jail. The Gaza rally was meant to provoke, and to undercut the prospects for a return to the tahdi’a, the “calm” period, which has already collapsed—a few rockets and mortar shells fall in Israel every day, albeit almost always deliberately fired at open spaces, so as not to provoke a massive retaliation—and will formally expire on December 19.

Not everyone within Hamas is eager to see the ceasefire fully terminated: The political leadership in Gaza has a sense of what is at stake. The message from Tehran, however, is loud and clear (with Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon joining the choir): War with the “criminal Zionist entity” is inevitable, and the siege must be broken by force. It is Iran’s money that keeps flowing into the Gaza Strip—in cash or in kind (guns, explosives, ammunition)—not to sustain the poor, but to support the war preparations. The Hamas leadership in Damascus, despite an approach by Jimmy Carter, is firmly within Tehran’s orbit, and eager to present both Israel and the incoming Obama Administration with an excruciating dilemma. (What they think of the present U.S. administration was demonstrated by a burst of identification in Gaza with the Iraqi shoe-thrower.)

Faced with this challenge, Israeli leaders (and the defense establishment) are caught in a tragic dilemma—which has now turned into a public debate between the defense minister, Ehud Barak, an old soldier advocating restraint, and the foreign minister, Tzipi Livni (his rival for the leadership of the center-left), who called for:

  • Using Israeli artillery to shell the areas from which Sderot and other towns and villages are being attacked, so as to restore deterrence before the missile threat spreads to Ashdod and beyond;
  • Terminating the economic link to Gaza, which today obliges Israel, under agreements originally signed with the Palestinian Authority, to ensure that the banking system in Gaza has enough shekels to keep it running. (Ironically, the only Sunni “mini-state” governed by an Islamist movement continues to do its business with notes carrying the portraits of Zionist leaders and thinkers.) One such transfer of a hundred million NIS caused a great degree of anguished debate last week: With Shalit still held captive and the rockets still falling, it is almost inconceivable that Israel would do this to keep the Hamas government afloat.

True, the suffering in Gaza is real enough, even if some of the accusations hurled at Israel are both exaggerated (great care is being taken so that the crisis does not bring people to the point of starvation) and out of context, blatantly ignoring Hamas’s side of the ledger. But any attempt to alleviate it, while Hamas is still in power, would easily amount to an aid package to an organization bent on our destruction—and used to prepare the ground for the next battles.

Moreover, in confronting Hamas and containing it, Israel joins forces—despite outward appearances to the contrary—with much of the region, eager to see a defeat of Islamist activists. In the narrower context of the Palestinian negotiations, a boost for Hamas would mean a bitter reduction of Mahmoud Abbas’s standing. The option of a “deal” with Hamas is thus constrained ab initio, not only because of their visceral hatred of Israel (and America), but also because this would undermine both peace and stability worldwide.

The military option, however, is equally troublesome and would involve large-scale fighting in narrow places, with heavy losses on both sides, or the use of so-called “statistical” fire—i.e., artillery shelling that saturates a general area, hoping to hit sources of enemy fire therein, as distinct from the present practice of using guided weapons, mostly fired from helicopters, to home in on well-identified specific targets. Such a change of tactics almost certainly would incur collateral casualties, including civilians. No wonder that the IDF and Barak are in no rush to go in, or shell; they would rather see Hamas provoke us first. But the well-laid plans of mice and men can easily go awry. The only thing certain about the Gaza tragedy at this stage is that nothing is certain.
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