The images from the Gaza frontier this week – and even the reports about the sentiments of soldiers in their tanks and in the elite infantry units, ready and willing and almost eager to be unleashed at those who are causing the daily torment of Sderot’s children – were eerily reminiscent of the days long ago in May 1967, when the IDF, and the country at large, were increasingly organized for battle and expected action, but Levi Eshkol’s Cabinet held back, vainly looking for a diplomatic solution.
The almost forgotten frustrations of the “hamtana” – the waiting period – are now being replayed, with many in the press, let alone the turbulent political arena, echoing the basic outcry of the people of the Northwestern Negev – “We deserve a life. Things simply cannot go on like this. Do something.”
Israel now faces the formal decision by Hamas not to renew the “calm” period. In effect, the Islamist regime seeks to draw Israel into a long war of attrition, in which the civilian population of Otef Aza (the area around the Gaza Strip), and perhaps well beyond, given the range of newer rockets acquired with the help and urging of Iran, will be held hostage. Alternatively, if Hamas demands are met, the Palestinian Authority will be dealt a severe and maybe deadly blow; Hamas will be free to build its military infrastructure and prepare to destroy what is left of Fatah’s power; and Israeli capacity to fight and contain the terrorists, pursuing them in the streets of Nablus or the hillsides of the West Bank, will be effectively subject to a Hamas veto.
No sane country can submit to such demands, least of all from a political movement openly committed to an exterminatory agenda aimed at the Jewish people, stated in the Hamas Covenant, Article 7, as well as the elimination of Israel as a state.
Still, several things need to happen before what looks to the outside world as political bickering, or signs of dithering, within the Israeli political elite will be replaced by a grim determination to pay the necessary price and resolve this situation by force, if necessary:
- The sense of an existential threat, universal in 1967, is still confined now to the people of the area itself, and the slowly widening second circle. The “Tel Aviv Bubble” now, as in 2006, lives its own life, nowadays troubled more by the tribulations of the global financial markets than by the fears of the shoppers in Sderot’s meager mini-markets, who do not always know if they might pay with their lives for the brave decision to buy bread.
- The nature of the fighting which may await us is very different from the straightforward military clashes of 1967. An enemy entrenched amidst a dense civilian population can exact a price not only in the lives of soldiers but also in terms of Israel’s moral standing if extensive civilian casualties ensue. Hence the preference for more sophisticated and less destructive options, although any attempts to act “surgically” may yet be met by extensive acts of revenge.
- In 1967, support for Israel was widespread. Now, a triple tragedy has struck – the tragedy of the Palestinians, caught between a rock and a hard place; the tragedy of the people of the Northwestern Negev; and the tragedy of those people of goodwill in the West who allowed their legitimate sympathy with the Palestinians to be translated into support for the designs of Hamas, a Fascistoid organization with anti-Semitism at its very core, as expressed in its covenant.
- There is still a sense that perhaps an alternative set of options does exist and may be explored soon. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is seeking an active breakthrough with Syria through Turkish mediators, and perhaps finally re-launching direct talks. Given the role of Damascus in hosting, and even encouraging both Hamas and the more aggressive Islamic Jihad, such a change, if it can be achieved, could impose on Hamas a much less confrontational attitude.
- In 1967, Israel had no Arab peace partners. Now that we do, their own fears and needs, particularly those of Egypt, need to be taken into account.
- Finally, in 1967 there was no Israeli hostage held in enemy territory in a manner similar to the abduction of Gil’ad Shalit. Hamas can use him at any time as a human shield, which explains the grand public humiliation last week, when a young Palestinian, playing the role of Shalit begging for his life, put on a display before a jeering crowd of more than 100,000 Palestinians.
The military solution, therefore, is far more fraught with complications than it was 41 years ago. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Israel’s most decorated soldier but now an embattled political figure, whose roadside ads admit he is neither “nice” nor friendly nor “trendy”, but proclaim him as a leader, has reacted angrily to the public calls for action, and seeks to keep all options open. “Had we had such loose tongues in 1976, we would never have been able to do Entebbe,” said Barak, hinting that dramatic actions may yet be undertaken but must not be the subject of preliminary public debate.
Barak still hopes that with the long shadow of Israel’s military capacity now falling upon them, and under growing pressure from a tired and distraught population, Hamas will re-consider its decision to abandon the “calm” (and there are indeed signals that it might be willing to do so under some face-saving formula). In effect, this is once again a debate about the restoration of Israel’s eroding deterrent posture. But it will be within the next few days that we shall learn whether Barak’s brinkmanship has proven effective, or that his vocal detractors from within and outside the coalition will have turned out to have been right.