The official storyline is that Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defense on 14 November, 2012 because, in President Barack Obama’s words, it had “every right to defend itself.”
In this instance, Israel was allegedly defending itself against the 800 projectile attacks emanating from Gaza since January of this past year.
The facts, however, suggest otherwise.
From the start of the new year, one Israeli had been killed as a result of the Gazan attacks, while 78 Gazans had been killed by Israeli strikes. The ruling power in Gaza, Hamas, was mostly committed to preventing attacks. Indeed, Ahmed al-Jaabari, the Hamas leader whose assassination by Israel triggered the current round of fighting, was regarded by Israel as the chief enforcer of the periodic ceasefires, and was in the process of enforcing another such ceasefire just as he was liquidated.
Hamas occasionally turned a blind eye, or joined in to prevent an escalation, when Israeli provocations resulted in retaliatory strikes by Hamas’s more militant Islamist rivals. It recoiled at being cast as Israel’s collaborator in the image of the Palestinian Authority.
It has been speculated that Hamas was itching for a confrontation with Israel.
But this past year Hamas has been on a roll. Its ideological soulmate, the Muslim Brotherhood, ascended to power in Egypt. The emir of Qatar journeyed to Gaza carrying the promise of $400 million in aid, while Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was scheduled to visit Gaza soon thereafter. In the West Bank many Palestinians envied (rightly or wrongly) that Gazans fared better economically. Meanwhile, Gaza’s Islamic University even managed to pull off an academic conference attended by renowned linguist Noam Chomsky.
Hamas’s star was slowly but surely rising, at the expense of the hapless Palestinian Authority. The very last thing it needed at that moment was an inevitably destructive confrontation with Israel that could jeopardize these hard-won, steadily accreting gains.
On the other side, many cynical Israelis speculated that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched the operation in order to boost his election prospects in January 2013.
As a general rule, however, Israeli leaders do not unleash major military operations for electoral gain where significant State interests are at stake. The fact that Defense Minister Ehud Barak dropped out of politics soon after the latest operation ended and his popular standing improved suggests that the forthcoming election was not a prime consideration for him.
Why, then, did Israel attack?
In one sense, Israel was straightforward about its motive. It kept saying, credibly, that it wanted to restore its “deterrence capacity”—i.e., the Arab/Muslim world’s fear of it.
The real question, however, is the nature of the threat it wanted to deter.
The latest assault on Gaza unfolded in the broader context of successive Israeli foreign policy failures.
Netanyahu sought to rally the international community for an attack on Iran, but ended up looking the fool as he held up an Iranian nuclear device “smuggled” into the United Nations. Hezbollah boasted that a drone launched by it had penetrated Israeli airspace, and then reserved the right to enter Israeli air space at its whim. Now, its “terrorist” twin upstart in Gaza was gaining respectability as the Arab/Muslim world thumbed its collective nose at Israel on its doorstep.
The natives were getting restless. It was time to take out the big club again and remind the locals who was in charge.
“At the heart of Operation Pillar of Defense,” the respected Crisis Group observed, “lay an effort to demonstrate that Hamas’s newfound confidence was altogether premature and that, the Islamist awakening notwithstanding, changes in the Middle East would not change much at all.”
Still, Israel needed a suitable pretext. So, just as it knew that breaking the ceasefire in November 2008 by killing six Hamas militants would evoke a massive response, so it must have known that killing Jaabari would evoke a comparable response.
The actual Israeli assault, however, differed significantly from Operation Cast Lead (OCL) in 2008-9: it was qualitatively less murderous and destructive. Many commentators have therefrom inferred that Israel used more precise weapons this time and, concomitantly, that Israel had “learnt the lessons” from OCL on how to avoid civilian casualties.
In fact, 99 percent of Israeli Air Force attacks during OCL hit targets accurately, while the goal of OCL was—in the words of the Goldstone Report, which was supported by scores of other human rights reports—to “punish, humiliate and terrorize” the Gazan civilian population.
If Israel’s latest rampage proved less lethal by comparison, it was because of unprecedented political constraints imposed on it:
- Turkey and Egypt made abundantly clear that they would not sit idly by if Israel launched a repeat performance of OCL. From early on, both drew a red line at an Israeli ground assault. Although now officially denied, it was reliably reported at the time that Obama, no doubt prodded by these key regional actors, counseled Israel not to invade.
- Israel had hanging over its head the Goldstone Report. It managed to elude, the first time around, prosecution at the International Criminal Court and the exercise by several countries of universal jurisdiction for its war crimes and crimes against humanity. But the second time it might not be so fortunate.
- Gaza was swarming with foreign reporters. Before OCL, Israel had sealed Gaza shut from the outside world with the cooperation of Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. In the initial phase of the onslaught, Israel enjoyed a near-total monopoly on media coverage. But now, journalists could freely enter Gaza and credibly report Israeli atrocities in real-time.
On account of this trio of factors, Israel mostly targeted sites that could be deemed “legitimate.” True, some 70 Palestinian civilians were killed, but that could be chalked up to “collateral damage.”
The deaths and injuries of civilians during the Israeli assault, although far fewer than in previous rounds of the conflict, received in-depth and graphic news coverage. When Israel tested the limits of military legitimacy, trouble loomed. After it flattened civilian governmental structures in Gaza, the headline on the New York Times web site read, “Israel targets civilian buildings.” A few hours later it metamorphosed into “government buildings” (no doubt after a call from the Israeli consulate). Still, the writing was on the wall: Israeli conduct was being closely scrutinized by outsiders, so it had better tread carefully.
The salient exceptions came during the final ceasefire negotiations when Israel resorted to its standard terrorist tactics in order to extract the best possible terms, and also targeted journalists in the event that the negotiations collapsed and it would have to, after all, launch the murderous ground invasion.
The armed resistance Hamas put up during the eight-day Israeli assault was largely symbolic. Although Israel acclaimed the success of Iron Dome, it almost certainly did not save many and perhaps not any lives. During OCL some 800 projectiles and mortar shells landing in Israel killed three Israeli civilians, while during the recent Israeli assault some 1,400 projectiles and mortar shells landing in Israel killed four Israeli civilians.
It is unlikely that, in the main and allowing for the occasional exception, Hamas used much more technically advanced weapons in the latest round. Through its army of informers and hi-tech aerial surveillance Israel would have been privy to large quantities of sophisticated Hamas weapons and would have destroyed these stashes before or during the first day of the attack. It is also improbable that Netanyahu would have risked an attack just on the eve of an election if Hamas possessed weapons capable of inflicting significant civilian casualties. A handful of Hamas projectiles reached deeper inside Israel than before but these lacked explosives; an Israeli official derisively described them as “pipes, basically.”
If Israel ballyhooed Iron Dome, it was because its purported effectiveness was the only achievement to which Israel could point in the final reckoning.
The climax of Israel’s assault came when it was unable to break the spirit of the people of Gaza. On the one hand, it had exhausted all preplanned military targets and, on the other, it couldn’t target the civilian population. Hamas had successfully adapted Hezbollah’s strategy of continually firing its projectiles, the psychological upshot of which was that Israel couldn’t declare its deterrence capacity had been restored, and thereby forcing on it a ground invasion.
Israel could not launch such an invasion, however, without suffering significant combatant losses unless the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) blasted everyone and everything in and out of sight as it cleared a path into Gaza. But, because of the novel circumstances—the regional realignment after the Arab Spring, and Turkey under Erdogan; the threat of a “mega-Goldstone,” as a veteran Israeli commentator put it; the presence of a foreign press corps embedded not in the IDF but among the people of Gaza—Israel couldn’t launch an OCL-style ground invasion.
Israel was thus caught between a rock and a hard place. It couldn’t subdue Hamas without a ground invasion, but it couldn’t launch a ground invasion without incurring a politically unacceptable price in IDF casualties and global opprobrium.
It is possible to pinpoint the precise moment when the Israeli assault was over: Hamas leader Khalid Mishal’s taunt to Israel at a 19 November press conference, Go ahead, invade!
Netanyahu panicked. His bluff was called, and Israel stood exposed, naked, before the whole world. What happened next was a repeat of the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Unable to stop the Hezbollah rocket attacks but dreading the prospect of a ground invasion that meant tangling with the Party of God, Israel called in Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to negotiate a ceasefire. This time Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was summoned to bail Israel out. Not even the 21 November bus bombing in Tel Aviv—which, ceasefire or no ceasefire, would normally have elicited massive Israeli retaliation—shook Netanyahu from his determination to end the operation immediately, before Hamas resumed its taunting.
The terms of the final agreement marked a stunning defeat for Israel. It called for a mutual ceasefire, not one, as Israel demanded, unilaterally imposed on Hamas. It also included language that implied the siege of Gaza would be lifted. Notably, it did not include the condition that Hamas must cease its importation or production of weapons. The reason why is not hard to find. Under international law, peoples resisting foreign occupation have the right (or, as some international lawyers more cautiously phrase it, license) to use armed force. Egypt, which brokered the ceasefire, was not about to accept a stipulation that conceded Hamas’s legal right.
Israel no doubt hoped that the U.S. would use its political leverage to extract better ceasefire terms from Egypt. But the Obama administration, placing American interests first and consequently wanting to bring the new Egypt under its wing, was not willing (assuming it could) to lord it over Egypt on Israel’s behalf.
If any doubt remained about who won and who lost in the latest round, it was quickly dispelled. Israel launched the attack to restore Gaza’s fear of it. But after the ceasefire and its terms were announced, Palestinians flooded the streets of Gaza in a celebratory mood as if at a wedding party. In a CNN interview with Christiane Amanpour, Hamas’s Mishal cut the figure and exuded the confidence of a world leader. Meanwhile, at the Israeli press conference announcing the ceasefire, the ruling triumvirate—Netanyahu, Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman—resembled grade-schoolers called down to the Principal’s Office, counting the seconds until the humiliation was over.
The ceasefire is likely to hold until and unless Israel can figure out how to militarily prevail given the new political environment. The days of Cast Lead are over, while a Pillar of Defense-type operation will not bear the fruits of victory.
It is unlikely, however, that Israel will fulfill the terms of the final agreement to lift the siege of Gaza. During deliberations on whether to accept the ceasefire, Barak had already cynically dismissed the fine print, saying “A day after the ceasefire, no one will remember what is written in that draft.”
It is equally improbable that Egypt will pressure the U.S. to enforce the ceasefire terms on Israel. The respective interests of the new Egypt and Hamas mostly diverge, not converge. Egypt desperately needs American subventions, and is currently negotiating a $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, where Washington’s vote is decisive. The popularity of President Mohammed Morsi’s government will ultimately hinge on what it delivers to Egyptians, not Gazans.
In the meantime, U.S. political elites are lauding Morsi to high heaven, stroking his ego, and speculating on the “special relationship” he has cultivated with Obama. Those familiar with the psychological manipulations of the U.S. when it comes to Arab leaders—in particular, contemptibly mediocre ones such as Anwar Sadat—will not be surprised by the current U.S. romancing of Morsi.
It is also unlikely that Turkey will exert itself on Hamas’s behalf. Right now it is smarting from Obama’s rebuff of designating Egypt as prime interlocutor in brokering the ceasefire. Turkey was reportedly disqualified because it labeled Israel a “terrorist state” during the assault, whereas Egypt “only” accused Israel of “acts of aggression, murder and bloodletting.”
Still, aspiring to be the U.S.’s chief regional partner, and calculating that the road to Washington passes through Tel Aviv, Turkey has resumed negotiations with Israel to end the diplomatic impasse after Israel killed eight Turks aboard a humanitarian vessel headed for Gaza in 2010. On the other hand, its recent operation has brought home to Israel that alienating both its historic allies in the region, Egypt and Turkey, is not prudent policy, so a face-saving reconciliation between Ankara and Tel Aviv (the Turkish government is formally demanding an apology, monetary compensation, and an end to the Gaza siege) is probably in the offing.
The long and the short of it is that, even in the new era that has opened up, definite limits exist on how much regional support the Palestinians can realistically hope to garner.
It appears that many Palestinians have concluded from the resounding defeat inflicted on Israel that only armed resistance can and will end the Israeli occupation. In fact, however, Hamas’s armed resistance operated for the most part only at the level of perceptions—the projectiles heading towards Tel Aviv did unsettle the city’s residents—and it is unlikely that Palestinians can ever muster sufficient military might to compel an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.
But Gaza’s steadfastness until the final hour of the Israeli assault did demonstrate the indomitable will of the people of Palestine. If this potential force can be harnessed in a campaign of mass civil resistance, and if the supporters of Palestinian rights worldwide do their job of mobilizing public opinion and changing government policy, then Israel can be forced to withdraw, and with fewer Palestinian lives lost than in an armed resistance.
This article benefited from many conversations with Palestinian political analyst Mouin Rabbani and from Jamie Stern-Weiner playing the devil’s advocate.
It has also been speculated that the governing coalition had to do something to placate popular indignation at the Hamas attacks. But in fact, these attacks have barely registered on Israel’s political radar the past year, the focus being mostly on Iran and domestic issues.