History is Important

El Pais

David Harris

November 21, 2012

A television reporter called to ask why Israel responded to Hamas with force rather than use other options.

It took a moment to digest the question.

After all, it seemed obvious, in the face of incessant rocket attacks from Hamas-ruled Gaza, that Israel had no choice but to mobilize its military.

Then I reviewed the history with him. True, these days few have the patience to delve into history, especially in the Middle East, where it seems endlessly complex and contested.

But to understand today’s situation, some background is required and certain facts are incontestable.

Gaza was never a sovereign entity. Most recently, from 1948 to 1967, it was under Egyptian military occupation, with no offer from Cairo of independence. After the 1967 Six-Day War, triggered by threats from Cairo and Damascus to annihilate Israel, the Jewish state emerged victorious and in reluctant control of Gaza.

In 2005, with no Palestinian partner in sight to negotiate the transfer of Gaza to Palestinian governance (and Egypt having refused to resume control of Gaza), Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon unilaterally withdrew Israeli troops and settlers. In doing so, he gave local residents their first chance in history to rule themselves.

Within two years, Hamas seized full control.

Hamas is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Its charter openly declares its goals, including Israel’s elimination and the imposition of Shari ’a law wherever it governs.

Thus, Israel, hoping by its 2005 withdrawal for a quiet border with Gaza, instead found itself with a regime next door smuggling weapons and plotting terror attacks against the reviled Jewish state.

Some accused Israel of seeking to suffocate Gaza. Wrong. It was in Israel’s interests to see a prosperous and peaceful state emerge along its southern border. But that was not to be.

The figures are astonishing. Literally thousands of deadly rockets, missiles and mortars have been launched from Gaza, including some 600 since November 14 alone.

Of course, the very fact that Hamas has been able to acquire lethal arms, of ever increasing range and sophistication, disproves the absurd argument of those who claim Gaza to be an “Israeli-imposed prison.”

What kind of “prison” permits the introduction of literally thousands of deadly weapons, thanks to Iran, Sudan and Bedouin smugglers in the Sinai trafficking in Libyan and other arms, to be used against the alleged warden?

It became abundantly clear that Israel had no choice but to respond to the increasing barrage from Gaza. After all, it is the first responsibility of government to ensure the safety of its citizens. Apropos, what would Spain do if it experienced repeated missile attacks from a neighboring country vowing to destroy it?

Why did Hamas choose this time to intensify its assault on Israel?

I would suggest three reasons.

First, Hamas believed that, with the rise of political Islam, it would no longer be marginalized. The new Egyptian regime is from the Muslim Brotherhood. The Emir of Qatar recently visited Gaza and conferred legitimacy on its rulers. The Turkish prime minister expressed solidarity with Hamas. So did Tunisia.

Second, it misread Israel. That happens frequently with despotic regimes. They confuse vibrant debate in a democracy like Israel with weakness, believing that Israelis would divide, not unite, around a strong response to Hamas.

And third, recalling the UN-inspired Goldstone Report after the last Gaza conflict (which Judge Goldstone subsequently repudiated in large part), predictably critical media coverage of Israel in certain outlets, and human rights groups ready to spring into action against alleged misdeeds by Israel, while remaining deafeningly silent about the human rights of Israelis, Hamas counted on Israel’s isolation.

Hamas miscalculated. Whatever the usual Israeli political divisions, the country today stands strong, united and resilient. And a number of respected leaders, from the United States to Canada, from Britain to Germany, immediately grasped with moral clarity the distinction between the aggressor, Hamas, and the victim, Israel.

As the international community is about to consider a Palestinian Authority bid to upgrade its UN status, the events since November 14 should be an additional reason to pause.

Not only would such a move, by circumventing the peace table, set back any prospect of a two-state deal between Israelis and Palestinians, but the Palestinian Authority has no control over Hamas-ruled Gaza, so exactly what “state” is it purporting to represent?

Yes, history does matter. So do facts. And, not least, so does moral clarity.

David Harris is the executive director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC).Date: 11/20/2012 12:00:00 AM