North Africa, West Asia: Analysis

The war that Israel lost

On the tactical level, Israeli armed forces have superior weapons, but on the strategic level, they are losing international legitimacy

Shir Hever
21 May 2021, 10.56am
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he shows a slideshow during a briefing to ambassadors to Israel on 19 May 2021
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UPI / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Back in 2000, the right-wing Israeli politician Ariel Sharon marched into the Al-Aqsa Mosque with a detachment of bodyguards. The provocation sparked the second Intifada, which lasted until 2005. Sharon was the leader of the opposition Likud party at the time. The fighting that erupted after his visit also stoked the flames of populism and nationalism in the country, and less than a year later, in March 2001, the Labor Party government of Ehud Barak collapsed and Sharon became prime minister.

The events of this May in Israel-Palestine are a frightening repetition of what happened in 2000.

The results of the March 2021 elections in Israel, the fourth elections in a two-year period, were inconclusive. Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud) failed to gather a majority in his allocated time to form a government. Shortly after the president gave the opportunity to opposition leader Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party, Netanyahu sent Israeli police to storm the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem during the Al-Qadr Night prayers on 8 May, and injured 330 Palestinians.

On 10 May, Palestinian groups in the besieged Gaza Strip (namely Hamas and the Islamic Jihad) fired rockets in response to the violation of the mosque. Pogroms in Jerusalem in which angry mobs went hunting for Palestinians to beat up or kill spread to other cities. In Lod and in other so-called “mixed cities”, Palestinian citizens of Israel organised their own groups, and one Jewish Israeli was killed. The Israeli air force began a brutal bombardment campaign of the Gaza Strip, but the rockets from Gaza did not stop. By the time the ceasefire came into effect, 11 days after the fighting started, 232 Palestinians (including 65 children) and 12 Israelis, had been killed.

A political manoeuvre

Four consecutive elections in two years did not achieve a clear majority for any candidate in Israel. Politicians are expected to show loyalty to their identity group rather than to values and ideals. Ultra-Orthodox Jews are suspicious of middle-class secular Jews, Orthodox religious nationalists despise the LGBT community – and Palestinians, of course, are hated and marginalised by all Zionist parties.

To the general Israeli public and media, Netanyahu’s manoeuvre is fully transparent

In this latest election round, however, one of the four parties comprising the Joint List which represents the largest part of the Palestinian citizens of Israel and part of the Jewish Israeli left, broke off from it. Ra’am, the party that left, is headed by Mansour Abbas, a conservative Muslim. This split in Palestinian political representation ironically strengthened Palestinian legitimacy, with Abbas playing the role of kingmaker, who neither the right nor the left can afford to alienate.

When the violence erupted, Israeli politicians, especially Netanyahu supporters, escalated racist incitement against Palestinians (whether in Gaza, the West Bank or inside Israel’s borders). An atmosphere of hate and fear took the country by force. Since the parties engaged in negotiations to form a coalition without Netanyahu represent opposing identity groups – aside from Lapid’s Yesh Atid, which represents secular, middle class Jews, and Ra’am, there was Naftali Bennet’s New Right, which represents Jewish religious nationalists – they could no longer cooperate and coalition talks collapsed.

Meanwhile, Lapid failed to utter a single word of criticism about the killing of Palestinians by the military and the police. He has until 2 June to find a majority and form a government, otherwise new elections will be declared, with Netanyahu staying on as interim prime minister.

Already, two party leaders with whom Lapid has been negotiating – Bennet and Gideon Saar (a defecting member of Likud, unhappy at Netanyahu’s alleged corruption) – have both hinted that they could renege on their campaign promises not to join Netanyahu’s government. As soon as Bennet and Saar shifted their positions, Netanyahu quickly accepted Egypt’s proposal for a ceasefire with Hamas.

To the general Israeli public and media, Netanyahu’s manoeuvre is fully transparent. The state of emergency gives him a chance to stay on as prime minister, and to stave off his corruption trial.

Israeli politicians critical of Netanyahu, however, are afraid to talk about his cynical manipulation of the violence. If they do, they will be branded as “leftists” or “Arab lovers”, both considered insults in Israeli politics. Inside Israel, the fear of having one’s loyalty and nationalism brought into question is stronger than the fear of Hamas’s rockets.

A heavy toll

To date, thousands of people are injured and hundreds have been killed, while economic damage is counted in the billions of dollars – but most of the suffering has been borne by Palestinians, especially in the Gaza Strip.

Incitement and populism are taking a heavy toll on Israeli society. Most young Israelis do not enlist in the military anymore. Not because of a political opposition to the actions of the army, but simply out of personal priorities. Corruption is rife in the government, so why should ordinary citizens be expected to hold themselves to a higher standard and give up years of their lives to the army?

Amid this “everyone for themselves” mentality, public institutions are collapsing. The police have proven incapable or unwilling to stop pogroms, to protect demonstrators or to arrest violent Jewish rioters. When the chief of police urged calm and spoke of “terrorists on both sides,” he was immediately rebuked by Amir Ohana, Likud minister of public security, who branded him a leftist.

Israelis are internally divided, and politically paralysed

Similarly, the military does not function as an organised army, but as an undisciplined angry mob. The brutal bombing of Gaza was poorly coordinated and even the quality of propaganda that the Israeli military produces in order to justify the bombing is lower than ever.

On 14 May the Israeli military press unit deceived foreign media, claiming that Israeli ground troops were marching into Gaza in order to get Hamas fighters to take shelter in tunnels, which were promptly bombed. The lie failed, because the military press unit did not send the same misinformation to the Israeli newspapers. Hamas officers saw through the trick and avoided entering the tunnels.

Israel’s security agencies could have prepared for rockets from Gaza, or for the protests in the West Bank and inside Israel, but they hadn’t. Their only strategy was deterrence – causing enough death and suffering to convince Palestinians to stay docile out of fear. But when Palestinians overcome their fear, as they have been doing in recent weeks, deterrence becomes meaningless.

A show of strength

The general strike by Palestinians across the entire territory of Israel-Palestine on 18 May showed an unprecedented level of unity, and only highlighted how divided the Israeli public has become.

The surprising military strength of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the angry Palestinians rising up after decades of discrimination and humiliation, the protests spreading into the West Bank, Palestinians disappointed by the decision to cancel the expected elections this year – all this has created panic in Israeli public discourse, especially in the media.

Critical Israeli journalists have been silenced, some have received death threats and sought protection from security guards. Other journalists, by contrast, have called for more violence, even for a massacre of Palestinians. (In the media, an often-used euphemism for a massacre is “victory picture” – a symbolic image of destruction that would deny Palestinians the opportunity to claim victory.)

On the tactical level, Israeli armed forces have superior weapons, but on the strategic level, they are losing international legitimacy. The Israeli side is completely predictable. Military operations are dictated by the short-term political interests of Netanyahu. Israelis are internally divided, and politically paralysed. Fear of losing face prevents them from seeking compromises.

In contrast, the Palestinian side is united but unpredictable, and has many options for how to proceed. The military operation, dubbed “Guardian of the Walls” by Israel, may have ended with a ceasefire. But it appears that despite the horrifying death toll among Palestinians, the Israeli side has lost.

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