December 28, 2008

Why Gaza? Why Now?

By Charles Chuman

The Israeli attacks on Gaza took the world by surprise. Why? Why now? And is it surprising?

A common response about the reason for the current military action is that “the Israelis are tired of daily qassam attacks against Sderot and Ashkelon and require their government do something.”

This simplistic explanation answers the “why?” but not “why now?” When confronted with the further evidence that Israel has sustained barrages of up to 60 qassams a day for years, this explanation makes Israel’s attacks (or counter-attacks) seem even more surprising and disproportionate. It leaves observers confused.

Why did Israel suddenly launch this attack? Why so massive? Why doesn’t Israel target the individual qassam launchers, or mount smaller, more frequent operations? There is no pattern. That might be the point, but it partially explains the shocked reactions.

It’s All About Politics

Others, like Katya Adler of the BBC, believe that the Israelis mounted the attack for political reasons. According to this thesis, the Israelis chose to act now because:

1. Israel holds elections in 2009. The winner of these elections will confront a number of existential questions about Israel’s existence: from the debate over Jewish communities in the West Bank, to the creation of a Palestinian state, to negotiations with the Syrians and the Arab League.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni of Kadima and Defense Minister Ehud Barak of Labor see that Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud is significantly ahead in preliminary polls. However, many Israelis are still skeptical of Netanyahu and are concerned that Likud’s Knesset list is too far to right (see Moshe Feiglin).

The attacks on Gaza prove to the Israeli people that Kadima and Labor - the parties that failed to win the 2006 war - can still defend their country. Israelis do not need to compromise their social and existential beliefs in the name of defense.

2. US President George Bush has given Israel a free hand. President-elect Barack Obama is an unknown quantity, and it is widely assumed that he will be more critical of Israel. If Israel wants to launch a large-scale attack, the assumption is that it is best to do it now under Bush than to wait until Obama enters the White House.

The political explanation was my knee-jerk reaction; however, this explanation is also simplistic.

Military Action

The IDF released pre-attack aerial images of many of the destroyed sites. I have yet to see independent confirmation that these specific sites are actually what the IDF alleges, and that these were the sites destroyed. Regardless, the images show myriad alleged training camps, arms caches and military installations.

This list of targets most likely existed for a long time.

On December 20, 2008 Hamas ended the six month Egypt-brokered truce with Israel claiming that the Israeli blockade of Gaza broke the agreement. The Israelis allegedly wanted to extend the truce, and justified the blockade because of the ongoing qassam attacks that Hamas did not or could not stop.

When the cease-fire ended, the Israelis promised violence would result for obvious reasons: Hamas was re-declaring war. Hamas manifested little interest in negotiations and has shown no interest in returning Gilad Shalit, the IDF soldier Hamas holds hostage since his capture in 2006.

As in 1967, the Israelis chose to act first before Hamas had a chance to launch an attack or kidnap another soldier.

Unlike 1967, Gaza is blockaded, semi-contained, and Hamas does not pose an immediate existential threat to Israel, as Egypt and Syria did. The attacks alienate Palestinian populations in the West Bank, provoked the ire of the Arab League, and have incensed international observers.

The death of 300 people and the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people is tragic. However, I am at a loss to see what other options are available to the Israeli political and defense establishments and to the Israeli voters in Sderot and Ashkelon.

Before these attacks, Gaza was a human rights disaster. Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and attacks immediately began. The February 2007 Saudi-sponsored Mecca Agreement to bring Hamas and Fatah together after the Palestinian elections failed miserably when Hamas militarily took control of Gaza and forced Fatah out. Kidnapping skyrocketed. Churches were ransacked. Rocket attacks on Israel increased. The blockade was ineffective, and Hamas called off the ceasefire.

Israel’s response is destructive and asymmetric. That is the point. Israel is proving to Hamas that it is willing and able to mount a war, regardless of Arab and international opinion, if that is what Hamas desires. Hamas and Hezbollah taught Israelis that unilateral withdrawal from territory only prolongs the violence. If Israel’s enemies are willing to use violence, Israel has no qualms about using violence. If, like Syria, Israel’s enemies remain non-belligerent, those enemies can exist in perpetuity. In fact, Israel might even help its enemies achieve their goals, as it has done with the Syrian regime.

A critical re-think of the situation is imperative to end this cycle of violence. The state of Israel is predicated on survival, and it has powerful allies to assist it. The Palestinians need and deserve a state, but rejection of the state of Israel is not how that state and a future peace will occur.

International demonstrations on behalf of Palestinians or Israelis supporting human rights and rejecting violence are commendable as manifestations of humanitarian concern and expressions of free speech. However, ideologies and facts on the ground must change before a solution is found.

Political decisions undoubtedly played a part in the current attacks on Gaza, but this is part of an on-going war and cannot be viewed as a solitary act.

Posted by Charles Chuman at December 28, 2008 3:24 PM

From what I have been reading today, some informed commentators believe that this is an all-out attempt to destroy Hamas. If they can destroy Hamas enough to make it vulnerable, anti-Hamas forces in Gaza may well take power away from them. Also, up to forty tunnels were providing a super-highway for arms smugglers and Israel knew that if it wanted to avoid a Hezbollah 2006- type of contest it needed to get in early. It never ceases to amaze me that Israel has to constantly plead its case in public forums when it protects its citizens from terror attacks.

Posted by: PresterJohn Author Profile Page at December 28, 2008 4:10 PM

Why Gaza?

Is this really a question?

Why Now?

I do not burden myself with over speculation. Only Israeli brass knows why now.

As far as I am concerned it was long overdue and that is all.

"It never ceases to amaze me that Israel has to constantly plead its case in public forums when it protects its citizens from terror attacks."

I hope after Russia's foray into Georgia Israel is free to do whatever the hell it wants.

Posted by: leo Author Profile Page at December 28, 2008 10:01 PM

Why now? As noted, Likud's standing in recent polls (much to my satisfaction) and Washington, 20 January 2009 looming on the horizon. A more appropriate question is why not before now? How long would the U.S. tolerate a rocket and mortar barrage along the Rio Grande? As for the despicable cowards in Hamas who embed among civilians to gain the publicity civilian casualities bring, a U. S. military term is appropriate: irreconcilables, in reaction to which only one response is appropriate.

Posted by: Paul S. Author Profile Page at December 28, 2008 11:54 PM

Go Israel! Don't stop the terrorist b****tds.

They have my full support, and I make sure my politicians know it (not that it necessarily makes a difference, but....)

Posted by: rsnyder Author Profile Page at December 29, 2008 4:01 AM

"On December 20, 2008 Hamas ended the six month Egypt-brokered truce with Israel..."

The timing seems rather lackadaisical, considering that Hamas' rate of outgoing rocket fire had increased dramatically back in November. It wasn't zero during the "truce" either.

Posted by: fche Author Profile Page at December 29, 2008 4:55 AM

While I more or less agree with the article, the opening rhetorical question is rather bewildering. Why Gaza, why now? Come on, you can do better than that. The ceasefire only ended a week ago, didn't it?

The author is also wrong in saying that halting the qassam fire is a "simplistic" explanation for the attack. Actually, this is the explanation for the attack. Period. The rest of the stuff - elections, etc. is circumstantial. Otherwise stated, Israel is fighting this war to win. Without knowing,(obviously) I feel quite certain that when it's all over Haniyeh will be dead or in an Israeli prison, like Saddam Hussein. Israel will not leave Hamas in place. They will not negotiate with it. This is a war to restore Israel's deterrent capability and Israel will go all the way.

There's been a creeping assumption around the world that Israel must learn to live with enemies that threaten it's existence. That's about to be reversed. The new lesson will be that countries (or pseudo-countries) that threaten Israel's existence are themselves under existential threat.

Posted by: MarkC Author Profile Page at December 29, 2008 6:31 AM

Media bias: Israel's response:

"Israel does not intentionally hurt Gaza civilians, while Hamas intentionally aims for Israeli civilians, Livni said in the interview. Hamas bears the responsibility for any civilian casualties in Gaza, because the group's terrorists hide among the civilian population, she said. “Hamas is indifferent to the fate of Gaza's inhabitants,” Livni added."

When your survival is at stake you do what's necessary. Others, reacting to spun media reports, don't get it? Too bad.

Posted by: Paul S. Author Profile Page at December 29, 2008 4:33 PM

Why do the Palestinians deserve a state? What have they done to deserve it? Hamas throws its enemies off of tall buildings and has summary executions in the street. It wants to destroy Israel and...what else? They had Gaza and had a chance to do something with it, had a chance to demonstrate that they could do something besides try to kill their neighbors in Sderot.

Arafat, of course, had a chance to have a state, and pissed it away; of course, his life was dedicated to murder, so he couldn't accept Israel's 97% of the West Bank being offered to the Palis. So he caused the death of thousands on both sides, and was fully supported in this by the Palestinians, who in every poll, supported the intafada and the suicide bombings.

They had their chance, now they can strictly go to hell, and if takes Israel to send them there, good!

They deserve NOTHING until they can prove they want to live in a real peace, and give up their dreams of death and murder and destruction. Until then, while they dream of the sword, they can just die by the sword. Harsh? You betcha, but I have no remorse over this position.

The sad, sad irony is that were the Palis to say, "enough, we want peace for your children and our children", most Israelis would extend a hand and would help the Palis become something, have good lives, just as the Israelis themselves have tried to do, even under onerous conditions. And no, it has not been because they screwed over the Palis, the Palis screwed themselves over.

So, no, the Palis deserve NO state until they can prove they do deserve it.

Posted by: Maurice S Author Profile Page at December 29, 2008 5:38 PM

"Unlike 1967, Gaza is blockaded, semi-contained, and Hamas does not pose an immediate existential threat to Israel, as Egypt and Syria did. The attacks alienate Palestinian populations in the West Bank, provoked the ire of the Arab League, and have incensed international observers."

Charles - I am reading a great book today called "Kingdom of Iron", about the rise and fall of Prussia. An interesting item was the use of "re-emptive" war by Frederick when faced by "existential" threats from Austria or France. In that case the threat was not "imminent", but could be foreseen eventually and the enemy was certainly quite capable of ending Prussia's existence. Anyway, it struck me that taking action against a foe BEFORE they are capable of ending your existence has a very long history that we all appear to have forgotten about (esp. when it comes to Bush II).

Now, with Israel, is it your position that Israel should wait until Hamas has the weapons and population capable of ending its existence BEFORE they can use full force to defend themselves? I am not trying to bait you, but to properly understand the argument here. Thanks!

Posted by: sean Author Profile Page at December 30, 2008 8:51 AM

How long would the U.S. tolerate a rocket and mortar barrage along the Rio Grande?

It might be as long as 5 minutes.

After that, various people in Mexico City would be informed that if the situation is not remedied RFN, someone else will be in charge of Mexico shortly.

I don't see any reason for the Israelis to take a different approach.

Posted by: rosignol Author Profile Page at December 31, 2008 6:03 AM
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