May 26, 2018 — Jerusalem, Israel
By Eran Lerman
Even when we have good reasons to anticipate what is about to happen, the actual experience of events can still come as a shock.
In the case of the Gaza border clashes on May 14, Hamas intentions were manifest and boldly asserted: The "March of Return" was meant to breach the border and, if possible, lead to the conquest and destruction of neighboring kibbutzim as well as the town of Sderot. It was thus not a "protest" but an act of war. Had it succeeded, it would have constituted a double war crime: a large-scale attack on civilian targets, in which the actual perpetrators were using innocents as shields. Both are illegal under the Statute of Rome.
Yet this advance notice failed to prepare Israel, and the world, for the painful visuals and for the fast and furious spread of the false Hamas narrative – a "massacre" of helpless innocents by bloodthirsty Israelis. At times it seems as if the war of words is bound to continue in a never-ending loop, much like the so-called "cycle of violence" itself (a dangerous term, insofar as it assumes that all are equally culpable and there is anyway little room left for human agency). And yet there are lessons, sad and sobering but important, to be learned both from the events themselves and from the battle of allegations and interpretations which followed them.
The first lesson is that Hamas leaders knew what they were doing when they chose these desperate tactics. They had poor options for violence. Their rocket campaigns in 2012 and 2014, fought at a huge cost for them, were largely foiled by Iron Dome and by IDF offensive actions. Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad are now losing their penetrating tunnels, one by one, to newly developed Israeli detection capabilities.
Hence the choice of massive "marches" on the fence – which they believed, with good reason, would become the occasion of violent clashes. The loss of more than a hundred lives in these weeks of clashes is a "win" for a movement eager to prove that it still has "Jihadi" credentials, as opposed to the "sellouts" from Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA).
At the same time, real damage was inflicted on Israel's moral reputation. Moreover, doubt has now been cast on Israel's ability to sustain "conflict management" with the Palestinians. While some senior figures in Ramallah were recently willing to concede, even in public, that the IDF is doing a good job distinguishing between the violent few and the public at large, and Arab countries were free to draw closer to Israel, since they were not facing daily images of Palestinian suffering, this important aspect of Israeli policy has been undermined, at least for the time being.
The second lesson is that the IDF, too, knew well what it was doing, but military professionalism at the ground level was not enough to avert serious diplomatic difficulties. A number of Israeli observers whose views are definitely not touched by any sympathy with the present government nevertheless reported that the IDF conduct on the day of the major clashes was exemplary. The policy was that no shot was fired without a proper permission procedure and without a visible reason having to do with a direct threat of a breach at the fence.
Indiscriminate this was not. If out of 62 dead, 53 were later admitted by Hamas and PIJ to have been their men in action (although none of them wore any distinctive insignia, let alone a uniform), then the local IDF command level in the Gaza border area have apparently become quite sophisticated in their policy of responding to certain discernible patterns of behavior constituting a present danger. This approach does not take lives without reason; it in fact saves lives. Had Hamas seen their will enacted, hundreds if not more, would have poured in – and then, a massive loss of life would have been inevitable. This is a complex and nuanced "tortoise" of truth, easily outrun by the "hare" of lies, as we saw also in Jenin in 2002. But tortoises have their own way of catching up.
The third lesson – sadly, also not a new one – is that the "hare" runs fast around the world because the good dictum "do not rush to judgement" is very much the antithesis of the present media ethos. Rash, irrational rushes to judgement came also from pundits (some later had the decency to recant) and from some European governments (who had none). It is certainly wrong to rush to judgement from a distance, based upon visuals, which may be authentic but almost always highly selective and one-sided.
The fourth lesson, an old and re-learned lesson, is that hypocrisy knows no bound. Nations in Europe and elsewhere that strongly condemned Israel and voted for the farcical commission of inquiry appointed by the UNHRC, are those who also urge Israel to withdraw to the 1967 lines. How will these lines be held against similar tactics, with Jerusalem and the Tel Aviv conurbation literally within a stone's throw, is left to our creative imagination—perhaps by reading the rioters the UN Charter?
Meanwhile, we are being lectured to by the Erdogan regime, which is increasingly given to antisemitic explanations of everything, from the fall of the Turkish Pound to an assassination attempt against Erdogan. This is rich, coming from the regime that brutally conquered the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in Syria. Equally rich is a draft UN Security Council resolution circulated with some fanfare by Kuwait, the same country that in 1991, in retaliation for Yasir Arafat's support for Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, expelled some 400 000 Palestinians -- men, women and children.
All of them, and the many in the West who joined the chorus of condemnation, are actually putting Palestinian lives at risk, insofar as they reward Hamas for their tactics. Luckily, so far, this impact has been counter-balanced by the actual effectiveness of Israel’s military actions, and deterrent warnings to the Hamas leadership, as well as by strong, albeit belated, Egyptian pressure on Hamas to stop driving for further escalation.
The fifth lesson comes the renewed realization that PA leaders Mahmoud Abbas and Saeb Erekat continue to believe that by appealing to international institutions they can turn the situation to their advantage. This may be an easily available choice, given the patterns of response just discussed. But, at this moment of decision, it is not an act of leadership. Nor was Abbas's recent disquisition on Jewish history much help in leading his people towards better options. (I was once present at a senior level meeting in which a visiting European explained that "from here we are going straight to Ramallah to meet the Palestinian Leader." The response was sharp: "Don't exaggerate", came the quip from the Israeli official).
At his age, with his health failing, Abbas finds it very difficult to leave the safety of a template of expectations (the 1967 lines, East Jerusalem as a capital, the right of return) that led him to reject past peace initiatives, and to find his place in the new paradigm now envisioned by the Trump team. As even the New York Times agreed, we may have no choice but to wait him out and adhere to conflict management until a new leadership emerges.
Sixth, we need to accept that the "split screen" of May 14, 2018, was not a jarring aberration: this is Israel at 70. We are watching four very different streams simultaneously. One is an unresolved conflict with tensions swirling in the north as well as in Gaza (and a much more subdued level of violence in the West Bank), and a well-developed military capacity to find answers on all fronts.
Another is a dramatic period of diplomatic achievements, most recently exemplified by the three embassies – United States, Guatemala, and Paraguay – moving to Jerusalem, the U.S. decision on the JCPOA, the fourth tripartite summit with Greece and Cyprus, and Prime Minister Netanyahu's visits to India in January and Russia this month.
A third is the gnawing concern about corruption cases and the personalization of politics, as well as secular-Haredi tensions, which may bring about a political crisis this year regardless of our external circumstances. And the fourth is the display of sheer joy of life as thousands celebrated Netta Barzilai's win at the Eurovision song contest: she and her #MeToo inspired performance being a reflection of yet another Israel, multi-colored, tolerant of the "other", free of traditional conventions, technologically and culturally savvy – qualities often associated with Tel Aviv, the "Mediterranean Capital of Cool.”
Not easy to keep in focus all at once. But in one way or another this has always been so. This resilience in the face of extreme complexity is an important part of Israel's strength.
Eran Lerman is the former deputy for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office. Prior to that, he served as director of AJC Jerusalem.