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How did it start? Stupid question.
Conflagrations along the Gaza Strip don’t start. They are just a continuous chain of events, each claimed to be a [or “in”] “retaliation” for the previous one. Action is followed by reaction, which is followed by retaliation, which is followed by …
This particular event “started” with the firing from Gaza of an anti-tank weapon at a partially armored jeep on the Israeli side of the border fence. It was described as retaliation for the killing of a boy in an air attack some days earlier. But probably the timing of the action was accidental – the opportunity just presented itself.
The success gave rise to demonstrations of joy and pride in Gaza. Again Palestinians had shown their ability to strike at the hated enemy.
However, the Palestinians had in fact walked into a trap prepared with great care. Whether the order was given by Hamas or one of the smaller more extreme organizations – it was not a clever thing to do.
Shooting across the fence at an army vehicle was crossing a red line. (The Middle East is full of red lines.) A major Israeli reaction was sure to ensue.
It was rather routine. Israeli tanks fired cannon shells into the Gaza Strip. Hamas launched rockets at Israeli towns and villages. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis rushed to their shelters. Schools closed.
As usual, Egyptian and other mediators went into action. Behind the scenes, a new truce was arranged. It seemed to be over. Just another round.
The Israeli side did everything to get back to normal. Or so it seemed. The Prime Minister and the Defense Minister went out of their way (to the Syrian border) to show that Gaza was off their minds.
In Gaza, everybody relaxed. They left their shelters. Their supreme military commander, Ahmad Ja’abari, climbed into his car and drove along the main street.
And then the trap closed. The car bearing the commander was blown up by a missile from the air.
Such an assassination is not carried out on the spur of the moment. It is the culmination of many months of preparation, gathering of information, waiting for the right moment, when it could be executed without killing many bystanders and causing an international scandal.
Actually, it was due to take place a day earlier, but postponed because of the bad weather.
Ja’abari was the man behind all the military activities of the Hamas government in Gaza, including the capture of Gilad Shalit and the successful five-year long hiding of his whereabouts. He was photographed at the release of Shalit to the Egyptians.
So this time it was the Israelis who were jubilant. Much like the Americans after the Osama bin-Laden assassination.
The killing of Ja’abari was the sign for starting the planned operation.
The Gaza Strip is full of missiles. Some of them are able to reach Tel Aviv, some 40 km away. The Israeli military has long planned a major operation to destroy as many of them as possible from the air. Intelligence has patiently gathered information about their location. This is the purpose of the “Pillar of Cloud” operation. (“And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead them the way – Exodus 13:21).
While I am writing this, I don’t know yet how the whole thing will end. But some conclusions can already be drawn.
First of all, this is not Cast Lead II. Far from it.
The Israeli army is rather good at discreetly drawing lessons from its failures. Cast Lead was celebrated as a great success, but in reality it was a disaster.
Sending troops into a densely populated area is bound to cause heavy civilian casualties. War crimes are almost inevitable. World reaction was catastrophic. The political damage immense. The Chief of Staff at the time, Gabi Ashkenazi, was widely acclaimed, but in reality he was a rather primitive military type. His present successor is of a different caliber.
Also, grandiose statements about destroying Hamas and turning the Strip over to the Ramallah leadership have been avoided this time.
The Israeli aim, it was stated, is to cause maximum damage to Hamas with minimum civilian victims. It was hoped that this could be achieved almost entirely by the use of air power. In the first phase of the operation, this seems to have succeeded. The question is whether this can be kept up as the war goes on.
How will it end? It would be foolhardy to guess. Wars have their own logic. Stuff happens, as the man said.
Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, the two men in overall command, hope the war will wind down once the main aims are achieved. So there will be no reason to employ the army on the ground, enter the Gaza Strip, kill people, lose soldiers.
Deterrence will be restored. Another truce will come into force. The Israeli population surrounding the Strip will be able to sleep soundly at night for several months. Hamas will be cut down to size.
But will this whole exercise change the basic situation? Not likely.
Ja’abari will be replaced. Israel has assassinated dozens of Arab political and military leaders. Indeed, it is the world champion of such assassinations, politely referred to as “targeted preventions” or “eliminations”. If this were an Olympic sport, the Ministry of Defense, the Mossad and the Shin Bet would be festooned with gold medals.
Sometimes one gets the impression that the assassinations are an aim in themselves, and the other operations just incidental. An artist is proud of his art.
What have the results been ? Overall – nothing positive. Israel killed Hizbollah leader Abbas al-Moussawi, and got the vastly more intelligent Hassan Nasrallah instead. They killed Hamas founder Sheik Ahmad Yassin, and he was replaced by abler men. Ja’abari’s successor may be less or more able. It will make no great difference.
Will it stop the steady advance of Hamas? I doubt it. Perhaps the opposite will happen. Hamas has already achieved a significant breakthrough, when the Emir of Qatar (owner of Aljazeera) paid Gaza a state visit. He was the first head of state to do so. Others are bound to follow. Just now, in the middle of the operation, the Egyptian prime minister arrived in Gaza.
Operation “Pillar of Cloud” compels all Arab countries to rally around Hamas, or at least pretend to. It discredits the claim of the more extreme organizations in Gaza that Hamas has gone soft and lazy, enjoying the fruits of government. In the battle for Palestinian opinion, Hamas has gained another victory over Mahmoud Abbas, whose security cooperation with Israel will look even more despicable.
All in all, nothing basic will change. Just another superfluous war.
It is, of course, a highly political event.
Like Cast Lead, it takes place on the eve of Israeli elections. (So, by the way, did the Yom Kippur war, but that was decided by the other side.)
One of the more miserable sights of the last few days has been the TV appearances of Shelly Yachimovich and Ya’ir Lapid. The two shining new stars in Israel’s political firmament looked like petty politicians, parroting Netanyahu’s propaganda, approving everything done.
Both had hitched their wagons to the social protest, expecting that social issues would displace subjects like war, occupation and settlements from the agenda. When the public is occupied with the price of cottage cheese, who cares about national policy?
I said at the time that one whiff of military action would blow away all economic and social issues as frivolous and irrelevant. This has happened now.
Netanyahu and Barak appear many times a day on the screen. They look responsible, sober, determined, experienced. Real he-men, commanding troops, shaping events, saving the nation, routing the enemies of Israel and the entire Jewish people. As Lapid volunteered on live television: “Hamas is an anti-Semitic terrorist organization and must be crushed.”
Netanyahu is doing it. Adieu, Lapid. Adieu Shelly. Adieu Olmert. Adieu Tzipi. Was nice seeing you.
Was there an alternative? Obviously, the situation along the Gaza Strip had become intolerable. One cannot send an entire population to the shelters every two or three weeks. Except hitting Hamas on the head, what can you do?
First of all, you can abstain from “reacting”. Just cut the chain.
Then, you can talk with Hamas as the de facto government of Gaza. You did, actually, when negotiating the release of Shalit. So why not look for a permanent modus vivendi, with the involvement of Egypt?
A hudna can be achieved. In Arab culture, a hudna is a binding truce, sanctified by Allah, which can go on for many years. A hudna cannot be violated. Even the Crusaders concluded hudnas with their Muslim enemies.
The day after the assassination, Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin, who had been involved in mediating Shalit’s release, disclosed that he had been in contact with Ja’abari up to the last moment. Ja’abari had been interested in a long-term cease-fire. The Israeli authorities had been informed.
But the real remedy is peace. Peace with the Palestinian people. Hamas has already solemnly declared that it would respect a peace agreement concluded by the PLO – i.e. Mahmoud Abbas – that would establish a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, provided this agreement were confirmed in a Palestinian referendum.
Without it, the bloodletting will just go on, round after round. Forever.
Peace is the answer. But when visibility is obscured by pillars of cloud, who can see that?
URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is a contributor to CounterPunch’s book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.