January 9, 2009
Birth Pangs of a New Palestine
01.07.2009 | Middle East Report
By Mouin Rabbani
(Mouin Rabbani is an independent analyst based in Amman and a contributing editor of Middle East Report.)
Shortly after 11:30 am on December 27, 2008, at the height of the midday bustle on the first day of the Gazan week and with multitudes of schoolchildren returning home from the morning shift, close to 90 Israeli warplanes launched over 100 tons of explosives at some 100 targets throughout the 139 square miles of the Gaza Strip. Within minutes, the near simultaneous air raids killed more than 225 and wounded at least 700, more than 200 of them critically. These initial attacks alone produced dozens more dead than any other day in the West Bank and Gaza combined since Israel’s occupation of those lands commenced in June 1967.
After a week of sustained aerial and naval bombardment encompassing the length and breadth of the Gaza Strip, Israel on January 3 escalated its unprecedented onslaught with artillery barrages and a ground invasion. As expected, this new phase produced an immediate and horrific increase in casualties, particularly among Palestinian civilians, in both absolute and proportional terms. The Palestinian death toll now tops 625. In a number of cases, entire families were wiped out in neighborhoods transformed into free-fire zones.
On January 6, hours after three cousins were killed when Israel bombed the UN-run Asma Elementary School in Gaza City, 46 Palestinian civilians were killed and 100 wounded when Israel shelled the al-Fakhoura school — also operated by the world body — in the Jabalya refugee camp. “Shortly after,” the Financial Times reported the following day, “the Israeli military e-mailed journalists a link to a YouTube video purportedly showing militants firing mortars from a UN-run school in Gaza — but it was dated October 2007.” Protesting “the complete absence of accountability” and calling for an independent investigation into the bloodbath, the UN was, according to the Guardian, “particularly incensed over targeting of the schools, because Israeli forces knew they were packed with families as they had ordered them to get out of their homes with leaflet drops and loudspeakers. It said it had identified the schools as refugee centers to the Israeli military and provided GPS coordinates.”
Meanwhile, Israel’s political objective remains to be clearly enunciated. Under the rubric of achieving a transformation of the security equation in the south of the country, Israeli cabinet members have promoted outcomes ranging from a new ceasefire agreement with Hamas that reflects Israel’s terms, to regime change in the coastal territory, to the outright eradication of the Islamist movement. Similarly, Israeli leaders have wavered between predicting a short, sharp campaign resulting in decisive victory and a long, difficult slog that would bear fruit only with the passage of time.
Fresh memories of Israel’s failed 2006 war on Lebanon have meant that — across the political spectrum — the last war is the standard against which virtually every aspect of the current one is being measured. Yet closer examination suggests that the more apt comparisons are with Israel’s 2002 invasion of West Bank cities and the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. These operations may also provide better indicators of what is to come in Gaza.
A Deceptive Calm
The six-month, Egyptian-mediated ceasefire between Israel and Hamas that began on June 19, 2008 was a significant political milestone. Previously, Israel had dismissed unilateral Palestinian ceasefires in which Hamas and other Palestinian militant organizations participated as irrelevant “agreements among terrorists” that would have no bearing on its conduct. Alternatively, Israel had agreed to temporary lulls in the conflict by negotiating only with Palestinian interlocutors who accepted the gamut of Israeli preconditions for any dialogue. The June 2008 agreement, termed the tahdi’a (“calming”), was by contrast concluded indirectly with a movement that refused to recognize Israel, rejected the Oslo “peace process” of the 1990s and proclaimed resistance as a viable alternative. Similarly, Hamas preferred to endure a punishing US-led boycott, a devastating Israeli-Egyptian siege and increasingly bloody Israeli incursions rather than capitulate to US and European demands (backed by the UN and half-heartedly by Russia) that it accept the various strictures of the defunct 1993 Oslo agreement and the stillborn 2003 “road map.” In accepting those documents, Hamas believed, it would effectively become an adjunct member of the “new Middle East” whose “birth pangs” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discerned in the 2006 bombardment of Lebanon.
For Israel, the tahdi’a was no less of a political blow than its 1981 ceasefire — brokered by the US and UN — with its previous Palestinian arch-nemesis, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Once again, it was making agreements with a foe it had assiduously worked to delegitimize and place beyond the pale of permissible engagement by others. This foe, much like the PLO in the early 1980s, stridently rejected Zionism while — in its own contorted style — making it increasingly clear that it was prepared to accept a two-state settlement.
The tahdi’a was also concluded for broadly similar reasons. Where the 1981 ceasefire was required to put an end to PLO artillery and missile barrages that, during the 1981 “mini-war,” paralyzed life in northern Israel at the peak of the tourist season, leading to major economic losses, Israeli military analysts in early 2008 began to speak of a real change in the capabilities of the ‘Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the Hamas military wing. The analysts described the Qassam Brigades as an increasingly coherent, disciplined and effective force with growing command and tactical capabilities. It less and less resembled the rival al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, which emerged in 2000-2001 during the second uprising in the Occupied Territories and are nominally loyal to Fatah, the main constituent party of the Palestinian Authority (PA). More and more, the Qassam Brigades exhibited characteristics reminiscent of Hizballah, Israel’s formidable adversary to the north.
An added complication was that PA President Mahmoud Abbas was no longer available to conclude the agreement on the Islamists’ behalf. After Hamas seized power in Gaza in June 2007, the president’s agenda was dominated by and, to a large extent, limited to a rollback of the “coup.” Key Abbas aides and officials of the loyalist Ramallah-based government were prone to describing Israel and the Ramallah PA — sometimes on the record, more often in private — as members of a coalition confronting a “common enemy” that was furthermore acting at the behest of Iran and Syria. Many in the Abbas camp looked at matters this way: Fatah and other threats to Hamas rule in Gaza, whether real or perceived, were effectively disarmed and neutralized; the prospects of an anti-Islamist popular uprising were less than slim; and boycott and siege had failed to dislodge their Palestinian rivals. Hence the Israeli military represented their best and perhaps last hope for a reversal of fortune.
Israel, however, was not yet ready to consummate the alliance. Determined to erase the stain of its 2006 Lebanese debacle and desperate to avoid a repetition, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and other senior officials believed that more time was required to prepare for the reckoning, even if this meant that Hamas too would strengthen in the interim. As recounted in the Israeli press in late December 2008, planning began in early 2007, with operational preparations commencing during the tahdi’a negotiations and accelerating after the truce was concluded. The blueprint was finalized in early November, approved by Barak on the nineteenth day of that month, and submitted for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s authorization on December 19.
Although it is unwritten, the tahdi’a’s contents have been specified by its Egyptian midwife and leave little to the imagination: an immediate, comprehensive and reciprocal cessation of hostilities between Israel and the Gaza Strip, leading to a scheduled and full termination of the Israeli blockade (excepting materials used to produce projectiles and explosives), as well as a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on a prisoner exchange and Palestinian-Egyptian talks on regulating the Rafah crossing. According to the Egyptians, the agreement makes no mention of restrictions on Palestinian arms smuggling. At Annapolis, Maryland in November 2007, President George W. Bush had heralded the dawn of a reinvigorated peace process that was expressly designed to exclude Hamas. Yet notwithstanding the thousands of hours Abbas and his serial negotiators spent with their Israeli counterparts, the most significant Israeli-Palestinian agreement since the Annapolis conference has been concluded with the Islamists.
The tahdi’a was violated by both Israel and various Palestinian organizations. While these infractions produced occasional fatalities — all 28 of them Palestinian — Israeli sources concur that Palestinian violations were few and less frequent as time went on. According to a December 2008 publication by the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center at the Israel Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center, for example, the number of Palestinian projectiles launched from Gaza into Israel decreased from 2,278 during the six months before the tahdi’a to 329 during it, with most of the latter being fired after hostilities resumed on November 4. A good proportion of the remainder, furthermore, were fired during the first 10 days of the truce while Hamas acted to establish control over organizations that did not countenance an agreement limited to the Gaza Strip or had other reasons for undermining the tahdi’a.
Thus, according to statistics disseminated by the Israeli consulate in New York, the sum total of Palestinian projectiles launched between July 1 and November 1, 2008 stood at 15 mortar shells and 11 rockets with no fatalities recorded. While by no means 100 percent secure, the southern Israeli town of Sderot was hardly living under a ceaseless rocket barrage.
Nevertheless, Israel and Egypt refused to lift the siege, spurning Hamas’ key demand and primary incentive to enter into the deal. Indeed, although the blockade was eased for many (but by no means all) basic goods, imports consistently fell below Palestinian requirements and exports remained non-existent. More to the point, according to the International Crisis Group, Israeli officials said that “they did not intend to open the crossings fully and anticipated this would be a serious bone of contention.”
The Long Prelude
The countdown to conflict began not with the expiration of the ceasefire on December 19, but rather on November 4. With the world fixated on the drama of the US presidential election, Israel launched an unprovoked incursion into the Gaza Strip that left six Palestinians, all members of the Qassam Brigades, dead. Israel claimed that the army had successfully foiled an imminent attempt to provide Gilad Shalit, the Israeli corporal captured by Palestinian fighters in June 2006, with some company. But these claims were widely ridiculed by Israeli military correspondents. Greater credence was given to the view that this was a premeditated and purposeful raid intended to elicit a response from Hamas that would furnish a pretext to dismantle the ceasefire.
Indeed, the period between November 4 and December 19 — during which, again, all fatalities were Palestinian — was characterized by growing escalation by both sides, including an unprecedented tightening of the blockade by Israel and Egypt. Poverty levels climbed further into the stratosphere, malnutrition skyrocketed and essential supplies of every sort ran out. Even before the latest emergency spurred UN agencies and the Red Cross to warn of imminent collapse, former UN human rights commissioner Mary Robinson had on a November 4 visit denounced international indifference to the “shocking violation of so many human rights” of Gaza’s population as “almost unbelievable.” “Their whole civilization has been destroyed,” she concluded. “I’m not exaggerating.”
Finally, on December 18, Hamas announced it would not unilaterally extend the truce upon its expiration and would only resume the arrangement if Israel adhered to its previous commitment to lift the siege. Absent the cycle of violence initiated by Israel in early November, it is readily conceivable that Hamas would have continued to hold its rocket and mortar fire, while refusing to extend the tahdi’a in name, and using the absence of a ceasefire commitment as leverage to remove the blockade.
While there was significant agitation within Islamist ranks to reject the unilateral extension of an arrangement that had yet to be implemented by Israel (and during which the parties also failed to reach agreement on a prisoner exchange), perhaps the more significant factor is that popular opposition to the tahdi’a was becoming increasingly widespread, expanding the ranks and strengthening the hand of like-minded members within the movement. For much of public opinion, Hamas had achieved only a cessation of hostilities, whose benefits were outweighed by the costs of the continued siege. Duly noted by Hamas was grumbling that Gaza’s new rulers were prepared to see Palestinians drown in poverty and starve to death in order to maintain an agreement with Israel that kept them in power.
By acting as it did, Israel was responding to intolerable shelling of its territory only insofar as — exactly as in June 1982 — it knowingly and deliberately produced this situation in order to explode the tahdi’a and in so doing manufacture a pretext for war. Rather than putting an end to rocket fire, which, again, prior to November 4 was both negligible and limited to the immediate border region, the main military rationale for Operation Cast Lead was to reverse Hamas’ military development and prevent the regeneration of its existing capabilities after the conclusion of hostilities.
The above notwithstanding, the primary rationale for the onslaught on Gaza was political rather than military. Specifically, Hamas’ demonstrated capacity to make and uphold agreements with Israel put Israel in a quandary, in light of the Islamists’ growing willingness, particularly since 2005, to coexist with and even support a two-state settlement. A new agreement — particularly if augmented by one between Hamas and Abbas (the prospects of which would have been enhanced) — would have been utilized by European states and others, who had painted themselves into a corner by singing for too long and too loudly from Washington’s neo-conservative hymn sheet, to find ways to engage with Hamas. That the movement has, according to the Israeli Foreign Ministry website, carried out a grand total of one suicide attack in Israel since March 2005 (shortly before a previous ceasefire — most others were claimed by Islamic Jihad) would only have facilitated such engagement.
Indeed, throughout the spring and summer of 2008 European diplomats and officials had been discussing with increasing openness how, when and under what circumstances they would begin to revise their bankrupt policy of hiding the sun with Javier Solana’s finger. As in 1982, the main impact of the Islamists’ integration into the regional and international political calculus would have been a renewed focus on Israel’s settlement enterprise; unlike with Abbas and his serial negotiators, the chances are slight, at least for the time being, that the Islamists and their constituents could be kept permanently on board with illusory promises of an eventual entity masking the reality of longer walls and bigger settlements. The prospect that they would accept, and additionally be able to deliver, a permanent status agreement of the sort proposed by Bush — rejected by the late Yasser Arafat but long since internalized by Abbas — seems equally unlikely. Most importantly, where Bush envisions a future Palestinian leader applying for an Israeli visa to visit settlements such as Ma’ale Adumim or Ariel that would collectively slice the West Bank in three, Hamas has thus far insisted that only a full Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 boundary — and therefore the removal of all settlements and a complete Israeli withdrawal from East Jerusalem — would be acceptable. So a hammer blow that shattered the movement, launching some of the resulting splinters in directions that once again put all of them beyond the pale, was the most effective way to keep at bay those third parties reaching the conclusion that engaging rather than excluding Hamas could enhance the prospects of peace. And if, having taken their punishment, Hamas leaders were to become accustomed to the concept of the “new Middle East,” and begin spawning serial negotiators rather than armed fighters, so much the better.
As for the assault’s timing, the Israeli elections scheduled for February 10 offer only a partial explanation, since in addition to providing an opportunity for electoral gain they also impose an artificial deadline that may complicate Israel’s military effort. Rather, it appears that the key date was December 19, 2008, when the tahdi’a would run out and Israel would confront the specter of a new agreement. Secondly, it seems likely that a strike to weaken Hamas before January 9, the date on which the Islamists insist Abbas’ presidential term expires and they will no longer recognize his mandate, was seen as an added benefit. Finally, concluding the campaign before Barack Obama’s inauguration — thus enabling him to keep the Arab-Israeli file on the back burner rather than confronting him with a crisis that cannot be avoided as he enters the White House — may also have entered into Israeli calculations. Alternatively, some may have advocated one last effort to change the parameters of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship before Bush departs, which would simultaneously test the sincerity of Obama’s obeisance to Israel on the campaign trail by putting him between the Jewish state and demonic terrorists prepared to kill his daughters in their sleep early in his term.
Israel’s Way of Warfare
The opening salvo of Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip was neither an indiscriminate bombing run on its 1.5 million residents nor a concentrated attack on Hamas’ leadership, chain of command, military capacity and organizational infrastructure. Rather, like the initial phase of Israel’s March-May 2002 West Bank campaign (and very unlike the 2006 Lebanon war), the bombings were focused on government infrastructure and particularly the security forces, with the aim of crippling them.
Israeli leaders had indicated as much beforehand, threatening that, in addition to Hamas, any structure, institution, facility or person linked to the Islamist movement would be considered fair game. Given that Hamas has been in sole control of Gaza since June 2007, this threat effectively put the entire territory and its inhabitants in the crosshairs. Indeed, most of those killed in the initial air attacks were members of the civilian police force (in many cases, new cadets attending graduation ceremonies) rather than fighters in the Qassam Brigades. The most senior official killed that day, police commander Gen. Tawfiq Jabr, was a member of Fatah who switched his loyalty to the Islamist government in 2007.
A further indication of the nature of Israel’s methods was provided in press coverage of Israeli contingency planning for war with Hizballah, Syria or Hamas. On October 5, 2008, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz cited Gadi Eisenkot, commander of the Israeli military’s northern sector, explaining the “Dahiya Doctrine,” named after the extensive destruction Israel inflicted on Beirut’s southern suburbs in 2006: “We will wield disproportionate power against every village from which shots are fired on Israel, and cause immense damage and destruction. From our perspective, these are military bases. This isn’t a suggestion. This is a plan that has already been authorized.” Similarly, Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai in February 2008 threatened Gaza with “a shoah” if Palestinians continued firing rockets across the boundary with Israel.
The Ha’aretz article additionally quoted a pre-publication copy of a report authored by Gabriel Siboni, a colonel in Israel’s reserves, calling for “a disproportionate strike at the heart of the enemy’s weak spot, in which efforts to hurt [rocket] launch capability are secondary. As soon as the conflict breaks out, the [air force and army] will have to operate in a rapid, determined, powerful and disproportionate way against the enemy’s actions.” What this might entail is suggested in a companion report by Giora Eiland, a former head of Israel’s National Security Council, which calls for the wholesale destruction of the military, government and civilian infrastructure of the enemy entity.
Quite apart from the impact a ton of high explosives precisely guided toward targets within residential areas of one of the world’s most densely populated territories necessarily has upon its surroundings, the enunciated policy reveals a more fundamental reality about where such munitions are being aimed. Indeed, during the first week of the conflict the Israeli air force, in addition to its painstaking destruction of every PA security installation in the Gaza Strip, leveled numerous government facilities that can by no stretch of the imagination be characterized as part of any Palestinian military effort. These include the Palestinian Legislative Council; the office of the president, prime ministry and presidential guest house (used to accommodate foreign dignitaries); ministerial headquarters, including those of culture, education, justice, labor and public works; municipalities and governorates; and numerous other vacated public buildings whose destruction produced neither secondary explosions nor — with the notable exception of prisons — casualties inside the premises.
The same might be said for the homes of political leaders and military commanders, whether of Hamas or other Palestinian organizations. Almost all of these figures had gone underground several days before Israel struck, and the possibility of successful assassination was further reduced by numerous Israeli warnings of impending attack delivered by phone and text message. (The primary exception in this regard, Hamas leader Nizar Rayyan, had made a point of maintaining public visibility, proclaimed his intent to remain in his house and is said to have been obsessed with achieving martyrdom.)
Similarly, the systematic attack on Hamas institutions and others affiliated with the Islamist movement — including the Islamic University of Gaza, schools, clinics, mosques and welfare organizations, as well as a television station, radio station and newspaper — bear scant relation to any military objective as conventionally defined.
As Israel, during the first week of Cast Lead, reduced widening swathes of the Gaza Strip to rubble while pushing the casualty toll past 400 dead and 2,500 wounded — with the proportion of civilians among them consistently escalating — its seemingly limitless impunity exceeded even the wholesale exemptions from accountability conferred in past campaigns. The tactics of the ground invasion were described thus by an Israeli officer on January 7:
[F]rom our point of view, being careful means being aggressive…. It will take many years in order to restore this area to what it was before.… When we suspect that a Palestinian fighter is hiding in a house, we shoot it with a missile and then with two tank shells, and then a bulldozer hits the wall. It causes damage but it prevents the loss of life among soldiers.… We saw homes where the meals were left uneaten. We see columns of women and children with white flags, and of course we let them pass toward Gaza City. On the other hand, every two hours there are intelligence warnings about a female suicide bomber in the area, so most of the soldiers also regard a convoy of civilians as a real threat.
Israeli officials have seen no need to go beyond the routine repetition of pro forma statements about terrorists hiding behind civilians, and of homes and mosques being used as arsenals and command centers, for the simple reason that they have only rarely been challenged to produce more imaginative rationalizations.
In the present crisis, even the cynical declarations issued by various capitals in previous conflicts that Israel should heed the laws of war while engaging in legitimate self-defense have been jettisoned, the Fourth Geneva Convention that governs the conduct of an occupying power having already been consigned to the rubbish heap during the Clinton years. As the first Israeli tanks rumbled into Gaza in early January, the Presidency of the European Union instantaneously proclaimed that the incursion was “a defensive, not offensive action” — a claim not even made by Israel, whose defense minister that same evening termed the action an “offensive.” True to form, American organizations like Human Rights Watch have saved their harshest condemnations for the Palestinians, accusing them of war crimes while equivocating as to the legality of Israeli actions.
The December 31, 2008 assassination of Nizar Rayyan is, in this respect, revealing. The attack, which was carried out with a one-ton bomb on a residential building and additionally killed over a dozen women and children, was virtually identical to one conducted by Israel in July 2002 that liquidated Hamas military commander Salah Shihada and 14 civilians. Yet while the latter bombing — hailed by the ex-premier Ariel Sharon as a “one of our biggest successes” — elicited widespread international denunciation, the former was merely noted to have transpired.
Methods to the Madness
It is true, as commonly observed, that Israel’s initial aerial campaign failed to decapitate either Hamas or Islamic Jihad, vanquish them militarily or even prevent the intensification of Palestinian rocket fire. But the observation misses the point. As in 2002, Israel’s first objective was to incapacitate public administration, sever the link between government and people, and isolate the leadership, rather than deal an immediate body blow to militant groups. And as in the West Bank at the height of the second uprising, Israel recognizes that smashing armed groups goes only so far; a sustainable victory requires that the population be cowed into submission and lose faith in its leaders and militants, with its energies redirected toward more mundane projects such as obtaining basic needs and services that the crippled government can no longer provide, and protecting itself from the ensuing chaos in an increasingly competitive environment.
In the case of Hamas, this goal has additionally meant dismantling — with bombs and missiles launched from land, sea and air — the network of Islamist social, religious and charitable institutions that preceded and laid the foundation for the emergence of the movement as a political and military force in the late 1980s, and have been vital to its ability to establish and maintain a support base in every sector of Palestinian society. Israel concluded that because the movement controls the PA in Gaza and has an autonomous web of institutions that can provide services independently of the government, both types of installation had to be destroyed.
Israel has, to be sure, hardly neglected the task of decommissioning Hamas and the Qassam Brigades, as well as smaller militant groups such as Islamic Jihad and its Jerusalem Brigades or the Popular Resistance Committees and their Saladin Brigades. With even the month-long 2002 battle for the Jenin refugee camp paling by comparison, it is the most serious armed confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians since the 1982 siege of Beirut.
The reasons for the Palestinians’ comparatively high level of military preparedness and strengthened capabilities are not so difficult to fathom. In contrast to the West Bank, which the Oslo process transformed into a series of fragmented Palestinian enclaves — each wholly surrounded by Israel and together constituting less than a fifth of the entire territory — Israel’s 1994 “redeployment” from the Gaza Strip transformed the latter into a single, largely contiguous Palestinian territory encircled by a combination of small Israeli garrisons and ever more stringent border controls.
Even at the height of the second intifada, Israel was never able to fragment Gaza into more than three or four comparatively large enclaves, and on account of its 2005 “disengagement,” these internal controls were removed altogether. For 15 years, therefore, Gazans of all stripes and colors have had almost unimpeded access to every corner of their territory and to each other. Several, such as Hamas military leader Ahmad Dayf, have managed to elude Israel (and the PA) since the 1987-1993 intifada. Additionally, on account of the closure first introduced during the 1991 Gulf war and tightened with every passing year since, there has been progressively less interaction between Israel and Palestinian society in the Gaza Strip. Given that Israel also has not reestablished direct control there since Oslo’s collapse (quite the contrary), Palestinian society in Gaza is less penetrated by Israeli intelligence than its West Bank counterpart.
Second, Hamas has achieved immunity from the PA crackdowns that characterized much of the 1990s, first on account of the eruption of the fall 2000 uprising (which also resulted in the release of its detainees), and thereafter by virtue of the PA’s weakening at the hands of Israel. Mahmoud Abbas, who from the very outset of the second uprising denounced the Palestinian resort to arms and has consistently been a fervent proponent of disarming paramilitaries, was unable to make good on his promise of “one law, one gun and one authority” — least of all vis-à-vis Hamas. Rather, under his watch the Gaza Strip descended into levels of chaos, fomented by Fatah chiefs, so severe they would have shocked even Arafat.
Since 2006, moreover, this immunity has been transformed into hegemony. The Islamists’ victory in the PA parliamentary elections and entry into government, despite the enervating international boycott, Egyptian-Israeli siege and ceaseless sabotage by Abbas and Fatah that ensued, gave Hamas access to PA resources and facilities. And for the 18 months since its June 2007 seizure of power, Hamas has had sole control within Gaza, during which it has ruthlessly tracked down Fatah and eliminated other rivals, while the Qassam Brigades have been armed and trained unfettered by leaders under the spell of Bush’s visions or Fatah warlords widely despised as collaborators with Israel and the CIA.
Hamas’ ability to import, store and deploy more — and more powerful — weapons through the tunnel network under the Palestinian-Egyptian border and more recently by sea, as well as expertise, cash and other resources needed to improve its fighting abilities, grew commensurately, and helps to explain Israel’s willingness to enter into the Egyptian-mediated truce of June 2008.
Ironically, the constant pressure on the Islamist movement from Israel and, later, the PA appears to have had beneficial side effects as well. Over the course of two decades, Hamas and particularly its military wing became accustomed to operating clandestinely, their cadres experienced in maintaining anonymity and coping with deprivation. Those who emerged from the shadows in 2006 and 2007 did not face a steep learning curve when they began preparations for the Israeli onslaught.
That Hamas and other groups are significantly better organized and better armed than in 2007 has also been demonstrated in early January. Rather than immediately committing their biggest guns to battle, they are conserving forces to maintain the ability to stage a lengthy defense of Gaza under conditions of (at best) minimal mobility, and escalate their response as Israel’s attacks increase in ferocity. Almost all of the leaders have not only eluded Israel’s intelligence apparatus and overwhelming force, but have also avoided being entirely cut off from their movement and the outside world. On the ground, it is clear that significant investments have been made in weaponry, tactics and other measures that have forced Israel’s tanks and infantry to advance yard by yard — with an increasingly high price paid for each advance — rather than city by city.
Test of Wills
Hamas’ own military strategy is relatively clear. First, the Islamists seek to demonstrate the inability of Israel’s air campaign to halt or even prevent an escalation of Palestinian rocket fire, thus forcing Israel into ground combat in urban areas, producing the prospect of losses large enough to demoralize Israel’s army and society, and perhaps compel a wincing internal investigation like that conducted by the Winograd Commission after the 2006 Lebanon campaign.
Although Palestinian rocket fire has resulted in negligible Israeli casualties (since 2002, an average of three killed per year for a total of 18), sowing death and destruction is not the projectiles’ primary purpose. Rather, their value to Hamas lies in sending the message of an unbroken will and capacity to resist, of an ability to interrupt normal life for greater numbers of ordinary Israelis, and since December 27 — in light of Israel’s repeated public commitment to end such attacks — to frustrate the possibility that Israel will surround and besiege individual Gaza population centers from without. Almost certainly, Hamas is now also doing its utmost to resume attacks within the West Bank and upon Israel’s cities.
The Palestinian hope, apparently, is that Israel’s perceived need for a quick and decisive victory and aversion to significant casualties, and its leaders’ need to conclude matters before the Israeli elections if not Obama’s inauguration, will induce it to act rashly or terminate hostilities rather than getting bogged down in a war of attrition. The destruction of the PA in Gaza is largely immaterial to Hamas’ ability to proclaim victory in this confrontation. Rather, it needs only to survive as an organization, maintain the will and ability to fight until the conclusion of hostilities, and refuse new political concessions in exchange for an end to the onslaught. If, furthermore, the confrontation ends with the siege of Gaza lifted by Israel and Egypt, it can at least claim it achieved what it set out to do on December 19 when it refused to extend the ceasefire unilaterally.
That said, Hamas and other Palestinian organizations in the Gaza Strip are at the end of the day no more than lightly armed militias, with no option of resupply, defending a miniscule and destitute patch of land. In military terms, they are no match for Israel’s war machine with its state-of-the-art weaponry, overwhelming firepower and mastery of the air and sea. The question is thus not whether Israel can defeat these bands of fighters, but rather whether they can make the political and/or military cost of their eventual annihilation prohibitive for Israel, and if not whether they can survive to remain a significant force in the domestic Palestinian and Israeli-Palestinian equations. With respect to the latter question, much will depend on how this conflict ends; given the enormous levels of destruction and widespread death Israel has visited upon the Gaza Strip, Hamas will have to convince not only its own constituents but also Palestinian society more generally that the outcome — in all its dimensions — validates the decision to stand and fight. Insistence that the Islamists were left with no choice because of the blistering blockade, for example, will likely find few takers if Hamas accepts a truce formula that maintains the embargo.
Israel’s motivations and standards of success are quite different than those of the Islamists. Its immediate objective, in which Hamas and the Gaza Strip are very much the foe of choice, is to restore the military’s self-confidence and the faith of Israeli society in its armed forces, and thereby reverse the damage inflicted by the 2006 Lebanon debacle. In this respect, Defense Minister Barak and Chief of Staff Ashkenazi aim to show that the problem lay in their predecessors — the dilettante Amir Peretz and the windbag Dan Halutz — rather than in something rotten at the core of the Israeli military establishment or in insurmountable hubris. They also wish to prove that they have internalized and applied the lessons of the Winograd Commission; and that today’s Israeli soldier is again one able and willing to fight, advance and die — even in close-quarter combat with suicidal religious zealots — for an army again capable of crushing enemies and winning wars. Should Israel fail in this task, the consequences could be transformational well beyond the February 10 elections.
Secondly, as in 2002 Israel understands that it cannot eliminate armed Palestinian resistance in one fell swoop and so rather aims to break the spine of militant organizations and demoralize their cadres and constituencies at an acceptable cost to its own forces. In this case, the methods involve unleashing the full force and fury of the Israeli military in order to kill as many fighters and leaders, and destroy as much of their equipment and expertise, as possible; the physical destruction of resupply routes such as the Rafah tunnel network and Gaza fishing harbor; and mobilizing Arab and international support to actively obstruct Hamas and others from regenerating and rearming their military wings. Unless and until the international community delivers Israel an unambiguous political triumph, the military will press on to achieve a decision on the ground.
As in previous Israeli wars, the premeditated and deliberate infliction of massive civilian suffering and wholesale physical destruction is an integral component of this campaign. If Operation Cast Lead does not produce a popular revolt against Gaza’s present rulers, so the thinking goes, the scale of the disaster — including the slaughter of entire families, the shelling of the UN school in Jabalya and assorted other horrors — will produce a post-war reckoning in which Hamas’s support will atrophy while its opponents become increasingly emboldened and popular. More importantly, once confronted with the terrible consequences of challenging Israel, it is presumed that no one in Gaza who lived through this assault will dare raise his voice again; the fool who does will immediately be drowned out by the desperate cries for self-preservation by friends, neighbors, even comrades.
In the growing international diplomatic circus, the key issue for Israel is an effective international mechanism to prevent Hamas from rearming after Cast Lead is officially pronounced a victory. In this respect, the dispatch of foreign combat engineers to the Egyptian side of the Rafah border and deployment of a naval force off the Gaza coast are being mulled over. Since these forces will not be stationed on Palestinian territory, Hamas’ acquiescence in its own emasculation will not be required. Similarly, Israel would very much like to see an international and regional consensus — for example, one expressed in a UN Security Council resolution — demanding a permanent Hamas ceasefire. Then, as in 2002, it can withdraw from the Gaza Strip unrestrained by any agreement with the Islamists, and continue with raids and incursions at will to continuously weaken its adversaries under the pretext of removing imminent threats to its security. Needless to say, such scenarios are predicated on Israel’s ability to deliver a devastating blow to the Qassam Brigades and others before the fighting subsides.
For others, restoring Abbas’ presidential guard at Rafah and perhaps introducing international monitors into Gaza are seen as primary objectives, the hope being that — particularly with government in Gaza obliterated — they can function as a bridgehead for a restoration of Abbas’ rule to Gaza. It is for this reason more than any other that Hamas has thus far rejected the introduction of third-party forces. For some in Hamas, furthermore, governance has been more of a restriction than an opportunity, and resuming life as a militant resistance movement embedded in Palestinian society is hardly the worst outcome. How Abbas’ waning fortunes fare in the coming weeks and months are of course crucial in this respect. He appears to have thoroughly alienated Palestinians, including growing numbers within Fatah, and the Gaza conflict could well be his point of no return.
Yet, when all is said and done, two issues rise head and shoulders above the rest: the urgency of beginning the process of reversing Israel’s impunity in its dealings with the Palestinian people, and the equally dire need to address the fundamental issue of occupation, without which ceasefires, sieges and code-named calamities like Operation Cast Lead would be unnecessary.