After Gaza: Israel's last chance

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
17 January 2009

The war in Gaza that began on 27 December 2008 reaches the end of its third week with its human toll still rising: by the end of 16 January 2009, more than 1,100 people had been killed (including over 300 children) and 5,100 injured (including over 1,500 children). The Israel Defence Forces (IDF's) air attacks intensified as the three-week mark approached, and its tanks and armoured vehicles moved closer into the crowded urban areas where the majority of the strip's 1.5 million Palestinians live. The concentrated assaults have inflicted damage estimated at $1.4 billion on Gaza's infrastructure, destroyed much of the infrastructure of the governing Hamas movement and eliminated some of its senior officials. Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

The stated war aim of stopping the rockets fired from Gaza into Israel has not been achieved, though there has been a reduction: on 14-16 January the daily totals were successively sixteen, twenty-five and at least fifteen. The larger if less explicit aim of smashing Hamas is also unachieved: the movement is negotiating through the Egyptians on the terms of an agreement to end the conflict, and has far wider support both within Palestine and across the middle east than when the war began (see Khaled Hroub, "Hamas after the Gaza war", 15 January 2009).

The zonal war

The failure of Israel to achieve its goals is all the more striking in light of the sheer depth of planning that lay behind the Israeli operation - from the opening three-minutes-and-forty-seconds barrage on 27 December in which eighty-eight strike-aircraft bombed 100 targets almost simultaneously. Since then, well over 1,000 targets have been hit across the whole of Gaza. The ground offensive that followed on 3 January, intended to achieve the kind of tactical surprise that was so lacking in the war against Hizbollah in Lebanon in 2006, was also meticulously planned over many months. 

Israel's military strategy on the ground was to divide the Gaza strip into four zones that would prevent any Hamas connections and communications between them. Israeli forces separated the smuggling-routes in Gaza's far south (where missiles and supplies enter the territory from Egypt) from the storage-areas (of weapons and food, located around and to the northeast of Khan Younis). A major Israeli armoured movement in turn sealed off these zones from Hamas's command-and-control centres in Gaza city itself; and sundered the city from Hamas militias to the north (see David A Fulghum et al., "New War, Fresh Ideas", Aviation Week, 12 January 2009 [subscription only]).

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers's most recent book is Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 era and why a new security paradigm is needed This concentrated operation was confidently expected to drain the Hamas militias' access to weapons, munitions, food and water - and that this would in all probability happen quickly, allowing Israel (with the appearance of magnanimity) to allow some kind of ceasefire to take hold. All this was done with an eye on the United States (as well as the Israeli) political timetable - with the intention of completing the main job before Barack Obama's inauguration as president on 20 January 2009.

Israel may not have envisaged that, even with this level of planning and use of force, it would completely demolish Hamas. But its achievement still falls far short of what it must have hoped for. A coordinated deployment of strike-aircraft, helicopter-gunships, reconnaissance-drones, twenty-four-hour surveillance, and all the other systems available to the Israeli Defence Forces - yet much of Hamas's military wing has survived (albeit underground), the rockets keep coming (albeit fewer), and the movement's political leaders calmly maintain a negotiating presence in Cairo and Damascus. It is an extraordinary outcome.

The extended theatre

The Israelis appear to have made the assumption that the sheer intensity of their military operation would be sufficient to break Hamas, as well as to create sufficient degradation in Gaza as to turn the impoverished Palestinians of Gaza against the movement. In this they appear to have miscalculated.

This is demonstrated by reliable reports that Israel wishes to enable Mahmoud Abbas and his secular Fatah movement - the Islamist Hamas's rival - to organise an ambitious programme to rebuild Gaza after the fighting stops  (see Isabel Kershner, "Israel makes big plans for Palestinian Authority", International Herald Tribune, 15 January 2009). It appears that this proposal is supported by the United States and Egypt; the regime of Hosni Mubarak in Cairo is especially worried about a growth in Hamas's popularity (see Tarek Osman, "Egypt's dilemma: Gaza and beyond", 12 January 2009). The project, which would require external funding from many sources, is designed to consolidate Fatah as the effective leader of Gaza's war-weary inhabitants and the Palestinian people more generally - in part by making it the primary source of reconstruction funds.

The success of this ambitious plan, however, depends on the military destruction of Hamas. Israel's intense war has not and cannot accomplish this. If and when a ceasefire is agreed - and the signals on 16-17 January are that the Israeli cabinet is ready to take this step - Hamas will still exist, and just by surviving such a ferocious assault it will claim to have won.

Moreover, there have been significant and under-reported developments on the Fatah-ruled West Bank during the Gaza crisis. They include the use of tear-gas by Fatah's security forces against people demonstrating against the Gaza attacks, and the reported arrest and interrogation of around 500 Hamas supporters. This effective political extension of the war to the West Bank is part of a coordinated process run by Fatah but linked to the IDF and Israel's Shin Bet security agency, in turn supervised by US security experts (see Khaled Abu Toameh, "Fatah cracks down on Hamas in W. Bank", Jerusalem Post, 15 January 2009).

The direct involvement of the United States in this aspect of the Gaza war is a further indication that the war is close to being a joint operation (see "Gaza: the Israel-United States connection", 7 January 2009). The logic is - as in much of the wider "war on terror" - counterproductive; for example, if elections were to be called in Gaza and the West Bank in the near future it is highly probable that Hamas would be the outright winner.

The iron fist's weakness

All of this could have been factored by Israel's analysts when it decided to prepare for the Gaza war during 2008. But what might be clear to external analysts is evidently beyond the Israeli security paradigm, however sophisticated the country's military capabilities may be.

There are three broad reasons for Israel's reliance on the iron fist. The first is that Israel can only see itself as a fortress-state - threatened from without and with no alternative to a position of permanent near-war. This condition, rooted in historical experience and sixty years of statehood, is reinforced by the support and protection of the world's only remaining superpower.

The second is a persistent inability at official level to begin to recognise a Palestinian perspective. The dominant Israeli outlook, drawing on a deep attachment to the land of Israel, appears yet unable to recognise the equally huge importance of land to the Palestinians - something accentuated by the fact that for many in the West Bank, Gaza and the global Palestinian diaspora the dispossessions they have experienced are within living memory.

The third reason is that the rockets fired from Gaza into Israel - albeit crude, inflicting little physical damage, and mercifully few human casualties relative to the numbers in Gaza - have had an enormous psychological impact on Israel's perception of vulnerability.  As with the Iraqi Scud missiles in 1991 and the Katyushas from Lebanon in 2006, they present a threat with a formidable political impact. Israel knows no other way than to respond with massive force; a classic example of "liddism" - that is, of keeping the lid on things and refusing to address the underlying causes (see Losing Control: Global Security in the Twenty-first Century [Pluto, 2002]).

The security choice

In any event, Israel's government will not be able to manipulate Fatah into control of Gaza (in part because Tehran is already planning its own programme to support reconstruction); and it cannot guarantee the halting of rockets from Gaza (nor indeed from southern Lebanon). Even so, it will persist with its single-minded policy of military control unless wiser advice can eventually prevail.

What makes the war in Gaza so significant is that under-armed irregular forces have been able to have such a remarkable political effect - and that they will survive to do so again. This is a stark example of the potential for irregular warfare - even with the most rudimentary of weapons (see "Gaza: hope after attack", 1 January 2009). This capacity can only grow; indeed, unless a lasting peace is achieved in Israel-Palestine, at some stage in the next decade or more, such weapons will acquire much more potent warheads, quite possibly sufficient to threaten Israel's survival (see Irregular Warfare and Revolts from the Margins, Oxford Research Group, November 2008).

Israel is a state that may best be described as impregnable in its insecurity. But it is impossible to build walls a hundred miles high. Israel has survived for sixty years. The Gaza war of 2008-09 suggests that a change in its security posture is absolutely essential if it is to survive to seventy-five years, let alone a century. 

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