Here’s the awful truth about the Gaza war in which Israeli air strikes are matching Hamas rockets number for number.
This kind of violence is likely to become the new normal now that both Israelis and Palestinians believe the peace process is over. Israelis have enjoyed a relative calm for the past several years, with West Bank Palestinians confined behind a separation fence and Gazans locked inside their wretched strip.
That calm won’t last once the idea of two states is buried for good.
Under such conditions, extremists on both sides will flourish – like the Palestinians who kidnapped and killed three Israeli youths and the Israelis who retaliated by burning a Palestinian teen to death. Growing frustrations on both sides will ignite violence that will become harder and harder to control.
Neither Israel nor Hamas political leaders in Gaza sought the current confrontation, according to Israeli journalists: The Hamas cell on the West Bank that seized the Israeli teens may have acted without orders from Gaza. Suffering from lack of cash, and having lost its patrons in Iran and Cairo, Hamas hadn’t fired a rocket from Gaza since Israel’s last punitive attack in November 2012, and had suppressed fire from smaller jihadi groups since then.
Still, the group’s military wing decided to resume fire, with little concern for trapped Gazan civilians; perhaps the group hoped to drag Israel into a bloody war that will outrage global opinion against Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears anxious so far to avoid another Operation Cast Lead – the 2008 invasion of Gaza that killed at least 1,200 Palestinians and caused a public relations disaster for his country.
But the pressure from Israel’s potent far right and its public – fueled by the belief that the peace process is dead – shows how easily things could spiral out of control.
On Tuesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, backed by other militant ministers, called for Israel’s military to “go all the way” and reoccupy Gaza. He insisted that another cease-fire would only give Hamas time to “prepare for the next round,” so the Israeli military must destroy Hamas once and for all.
This is a dangerous fantasy that is gaining strength due to Israeli frustration. An invasion would cause untold civilian deaths and enmesh Israel troops once more in a full-scale Gaza occupation. At present, Israel controls Gaza’s air and sea space, electric grid, exports and imports, and most of the border. But because it no longer has any military or civilian presence in Gaza, it can technically claim it no longer occupies the strip.
Israel’s military is unenthusiastic about a ground war, and at this writing, Netanyahu is resisting an invasion. But this kind of thinking will flourish in an atmosphere where most Israelis no longer believe peace is possible. Short of flattening the strip (does the Russian-born Lieberman envision an operation comparable to Moscow’s destruction of Chechnya?), there’s no physical way to eliminate Hamas.
The best way to undermine Hamas would be to help President Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority (PA), which administers the West Bank, reassert control over Gaza. A credible June poll shows that a remarkable 88 percent of Gazans prefer the PA to Hamas.
But rather than strengthen Abbas’ hand, the Netanyahu government has continually undermined him, most notably by its massive expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank during last year’s peace talks. Martin Indyk, former chief U.S. envoy for Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, says settlement activity effectively killed the talks, undercutting Abbas by making it look as if he accepted the expansion.
The ever-growing settlement network that crisscrosses the West Bank has convinced Palestinians that Israel will never accept a Palestinian state.
Of course, the rockets from Gaza and the growing Mideast turmoil have also convinced most Israelis that a Palestinian state would be too dangerous. Just last week, Netanyahu said the lesson of the Gaza escalation was that Israel could never relinquish security control of the West Bank. (Actually, he has been saying similar things for the last two decades.)
Yet even if the regional situation looks grim, and despite the Gaza turmoil, it is extremely risky for Israel to extinguish Palestinian hopes for a better future.
Yuval Diskin, director of Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security service from 2005 to 2011, warned in December of the dangers inherent in “the enormous frustration of the Palestinians in the West Bank who feel their land is being stolen from them, who gather that the state they yearn for is slipping away from them.”
Israelis have been lulled into believing the status quo can last. In part this is because PA security forces have helped Israel keep the West Bank quiet for the past seven years. They have helped to control Hamas on the West Bank and offered to help patrol the Gaza-Egypt border if a cease-fire with Hamas can be reached.
Such cooperation won’t last if settlement activity continues to devour the West Bank. Abbas could dissolve the PA, compelling Israel to reoccupy the West Bank.
In other words, a status quo where Palestinians are irrevocably bound together with Israelis is untenable. As Diskin also warned, “the combustible fumes in the air have reached a level (where) even a small spark can ignite a huge explosion.” His predictions are already coming true.