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Israel's Gaza assault: the real motives

Guy Grossman
2 July 2006

Israel's destruction of Palestinian infrastructure in Gaza has more to do with its strategic objectives than with concern for one kidnapped soldier, says Guy Grossman.

It is no coincidence that the commando assault on 25 June 2006 that resulted in the death of two Israeli soldiers and the abduction of Corporal Gilad Shalit took place merely a day after the two main Palestinian political movements, Fatah and Hamas, reached a consensus over the "prisoners' document" that proposed a shift towards dialogue with Israel. The assault planners were well aware that a successful attack would instigate a harsh reaction from the Israeli side that is likely to reinforce the current cycle of violence and – crucially – undermine the efforts of moderate and pragmatic forces on both sides.

Yet, even they were probably surprised by Israel's disproportionate reaction to Shalit's seizure: a simultaneous incursion into south and north Gaza that drove around 25,000 people from their homes; the demolition of roads, bridges, and an electrical power plant that services 700,000 Palestinians; the destruction by bombing of the offices of the Palestinian Authority's prime minister (Ismail Haniya) and of the interior minister; and the kidnapping of most of Hamas's West Bank leadership. In the most arrogant action of the operation, four F-16s flew over the Syrian president's palace. What would have Israel done if the Syrians had shot down one of these planes: declare war against Syria?

The thoughtlessness here reflects the character of "Operation Summer Rains" as a whole. Far from an act of leadership and determination, it has no clear goals other than the destruction of the already brittle Palestinian Authority. It reveals Ehud Olmert's government in a sobering light: hysterical, inexperienced, and conceited; lacking restraint in the use of force; disregarding of its neighbours' sovereignty; impelled by a dubious (at best) sense of morality.

What, after all, can explain the denial to Gaza's civil population of access to electricity and petrol, the destruction of its vital infrastructure, the effective expulsion of thousands of innocent people from their homes and the abduction of members of a democratically-elected government? This resembles far more a crude vendetta than an effort to save the life of Corporal Shalit. The timing is even more significant, given that Hamas is metamorphosing – albeit hesitantly – from a mass social movement that has a radical violent terrorist wing to a legitimate political party.

Most importantly, Israel's rampage demonstrates the inability of Israel's government and its military elite to understand the current nature of the conflict, and hence deal sensibly with the Hamas phenomenon. It also signifies the failure of Israel's much-touted "convergence plan" which was supposed to entail a (limited) withdrawal from part of the West Bank. Ehud Olmert's decision to reoccupy substantial parts of Gaza, a mere nine months after the "complete evacuation" from the strip, makes plain the contradiction between plan-in-the-sky and reality-on-the-ground.

It is significant here that the (temporary?) reoccupation of Gaza has taken place exactly six months after Israel had started bombing northern Gaza almost daily in response to the Qassam missiles launched almost daily towards the Israeli town of Sderot and its environs – themselves a response to Israel's aerial and rocket assaults. In these six months, there was no attempt to negotiate, let alone meet with, any members of the democratically elected Palestinian leadership – neither Mahmoud Abbas, nor the members of Hamas chosen by Palestine's voters in the January 2006 election.

As always, force begets force begets force. The (un)-targeted bombing from the Israeli side, whose victims were mostly civilians, has not stopped the Qassams; nor will the invasion of Gaza. The only way to stop the recent eruption of violence is via negotiation. Yet to reach that point, we Israelis have to first rethink the premises that underlie the government's conception of the current conflict, which have led it to adopt its disastrous, unilateralist policy. The debate among Israelis is being conducted on the basis of two flawed arguments that have little purchase on reality. To transcend the current impasse, it is essential to bring these flaws to the light in order to reopen a space of discussion.

Guy Grossman is a doctoral student in the political-science department at Columbia University, New York. He is one of the founding members of the Israeli soldiers' organisation, Courage to Refuse

Also by Guy Grossman in openDemocracy:

"Deciding to refuse"
(11 September 2003)

A lack of commitment

The first argument, held by all Israeli governments (and much of its establishment media) since the collapse of the Camp David talks, concerns Palestine's secular nationalist movement. Popular disenchantment with the older generation of PLO leaders' failure to deliver an end to the occupation (as well as security, social services, and much-needed jobs) has created a leadership vacuum; the revelations of high-profile corruption, the remilitarisation of the conflict since the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000, and the death of Yasser Arafat in November 2004 have contributed (so the argument runs) to the deepening of this process.

The second argument is the view of Hamas as a radical, "fundamentalist" and monolithic group, ideologically committed to the annihilation of Israel and the "Iranianisation" of Palestine. Taken together, these arguments imply that Israel lacks "a partner for peace" – and hence to unilateralist tactics that seek to create irreversible "facts on the ground".

The tactics are clear, but what exactly is the strategy? How can strengthening blocks of settlements which are part of an imagined "Israeli consensus", and building a wall that annexes Palestinian land beyond the Israel-West Bank "green line", contribute to a settlement? Could it be that Israel's government is not committed to ending the conflict?

The obvious answer is that – at least since the advent of the "no partner" thesis in July 2000 – it is not. The military's premise, shared unquestioningly by Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and now Ehud Olmert, is that the Palestinian leadership (secular-nationalist and Islamist alike) is unable or unwilling to accept whatever Israel can offer. The premise can be rephrased into a question: is Israel's government willing to make any compromises that might help end the conflict?

This approach can explain why Sharon and now Olmert (by destroying the Palestinian Authority, or undermining its ability to operate) have chosen to close any possibility of political engagement – and instead sought a decisive military victory and "interim" (but long-term) arrangements that they can dictate and enforce. Yet as proven over and over again, military victories over the Palestinians are never decisive, and dictated interim arrangements are all but long-term.

Time to rethink

This point highlights the flaws in the assumptions, mentioned above, on which Israel's government is acting. First, Israelis must acknowledge the relations between our government's actions and the alleged Palestinian "leadership vacuum". Israel left Gaza without an agreement and closed it with an electric fence; prevented it from operating a seaport and an airport, while also limiting the movement of goods in and out of the confined area by land; denied access to workers seeking jobs in Israel and hence contributed to Gaza's economic crisis; confiscated the PA's tax revenues which Israel collects; and now stopped Gaza's supply of fuel and electricity, which Israel controls.

To make sure the elected government does not function Israel bombed its offices; to make sure there is really "no one to talk to on the other side", it arrested almost half of its government while threatening to kill the other half. True, the absence of agreement among Palestinians on the means of ending the occupation contribute to the inability of any one figure to assert his clear authority. Yet this does not logically entail the disregarding of the entire leadership strata. It is the duty of Israel's government to talk with any Palestinian leader that is willing to negotiate with it – including Hamas.

Second, Israel has to rethink its ideological fixation concerning Hamas. By labelling the movement as "fundamentalist", Israel characterises Hamas as riddled with certitudes and religious convictions that predetermine its political goals. This has prevented Israelis from recognising the importance of Hamas's evolution from a virulent revolutionary opposition fighting Palestine's ruling regime to a reformist political party that participates in democratic life. Hamas is still viewed in Israel as pursuing a politics of sacred mission, when in fact its recent development – such as its decision to maintain a ceasefire for almost a year and half, persistent efforts to normalise its relationship with Fatah, and agreement on the prisoners' document – point to a much more complex reality.

Here, Hamas's dramatic evolution parallels the incorporation of Hizbollah into Lebanon's institutionalised political sphere and the metamorphosis of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (carefully documented by Mona El-Ghobashi). These comparable processes in turn have striking parallels to the transformation of other radical, violent and revolutionary anti-systemic forces, including European socialists in the early 1900s and a broad array of communist groups in late 20th-century Latin America, and recently in Nepal.

If history can teach anything, it is the fact that even the most ideologically committed parties are transformed in the process of interacting with competitors, citizens and the state. Mona El-Ghobashy forcefully argues that participation in electoral politics has historically had a profound moderating effect on the political thought of formally radical movements. Islamist parties are no exception. They must be seen in the texture of history and precedent, and not in a vacuum.

For the last two years, since Ariel Sharon has presented his unilateral disengagement plan, the Israeli left has been paralysed. Rami Kaplan and I have written about the reasons for this paralysis, and how it contributed to the demise of the vociferous soldiers' "refusal" movement.

Yet we have also argued that the Israeli refusal movement has left an enduring legacy. When it becomes apparent that the government is using excessive force without any commitment to solving the conflict, a wave of dissent is likely to erupt which transforms the establishment's discourse and reopens public debate. There are signs – in renewed demonstrations in Israel and the notably critical stance that Ha'aretz has taken against the government's actions in Gaza – that such a moment is again approaching.

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