Over the last week, the BBC’s reporting from Gaza has been consistently referring to Israel’s “ferocious, vicious and devastating attack”. It has also described Gaza as one of the world’s most densely populated urban regions. Were that so, the death toll would be much higher than the number accounted for. The killing of Ahmad Ja’abari, the commander of the Hamas forces responsible for the rocket attacks, has also been criticised as Israeli provocation and an “extra-judicial” execution. Listening to mainstream media in the West, one gets the sense that it was peevish for Israel to react to rockets being launched daily at its population, forcing over two million citizens to always be in range of a bomb shelter. After all, according to the BBC, the rockets have terrible aim and there have been few Israeli casualties. The fact that rockets fell on kindergartens and schools when the children weren’t there because the IDF instructed to close the schools is, of course, irrelevant. Israel is expected to understand that Hamas has to let off steam, to compete with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and to show that it is no less militant than Hezbollah. For responding to the rocket attacks, Israel is told it is being “disproportionate”. Israelis find themselves in a state of cognitive dissonance.
There is a point at which a population gets fed up with being targeted by rockets. Ultimately, the prime duty of government is to provide security for its citizens. If it doesn’t do that, its other achievements are irrelevant. In 2011 there were 630 rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza and Israel did not respond. That was up from 230 in 2010. In 2012 before the latest Israeli offensive there were 797 attacks with 3 killed and 32 injured. Rocket attacks since 2004 have killed 61 and wounded 1719 Israelis. Before the killing of Ahmad Ja’abari on November 14, there were incessant rocket attacks. These included four cross border attacks on Israeli patrols in which a number of soldiers were killed near the fence. Israel responded, killing several members of the Hamas teams on the border. Hamas responded with rocket and mortar fire. (For every rocket, there are a few mortar shells.) In the week before Ja’abari’s death, more than 100 rockets were fired. At that point Ja’abari was targeted.
There are few conflicts where dozens of soldiers warn residents by telephone that they are going to bomb a house and allowing them (and the terrorists) time to get out, or where soldiers abort missions when the terrorists herd civilians onto the roofs as human shields. Were Israel to employ the same level of tolerance for civilian casualties as the British and American armies did in Iraq and Afghanistan, there would be many more civilian casualties in Gaza. The average ratio of civilian to military casualties in conflicts since World War II has been (including Iraq and Afghanistan) three civilians to one soldier. In Israel’s actions in Gaza, the ratio has been one civilian casualty for two military deaths. As for Ahmad Ja’abari, there is no doubt that his elimination was called for in the light of the ongoing attacks that he was responsible for. The Israeli strategy does not assume that such targeted killing can stop terrorism altogether. But such killings can create confusion, send a message of deterrence and make the other leaders go into hiding, thus reducing the effectiveness in preparing and carrying out terrorist operations.
The Israeli public has no appetite for an invasion of Gaza and to sacrifice their sons there. As long as the number of Israeli civilian casualties remains low, the government can refrain from a land offensive. However, it all depends on the wind — if there is a direct hit in a building with a group of children and the Israeli public sees pictures of dead Israeli children, there will be a land operation. One of Israel’s large incursions in Lebanon, in 1978, came in the wake of a terrorist attack in which small children were killed and the then Chief of Staff, Rafael Eitan, justified the action by quoting Israel’s national poet Haim Nahman Bialik:
“Revenge for the blood of a small child — even the devil has not devised”. One might argue that Israel should act according to the Christian principle of turning the other cheek, but it seems that even in the post-modern West, this custom is more honoured in the breach than in the observance.
Clearly, there is no military solution. No Israeli deludes himself into thinking there is. However, Israeli public opinion is highly influenced by the perception of the partner as truly interested in peace. The dramatic swing from those opposing peace with Egypt to those supporting it after President Sadat’s visit to Israel 35 years ago demonstrates that. But as long as Israel sees the aims of Palestinians as the destruction of Israel and targeting civilians, there will be no appetite for the compromises necessary for peace.
Meanwhile, inter arma silent musae. The region has changed beyond recognition since the time of the last operation in Gaza. The security envelope that Israel relied on has eroded. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood is in power. This is a movement that — like Iran’s theocrats — calls for the total elimination of the Jews (not “Israelis” or “Zionists”). The Jordanian regime is being threatened more and more by the subversion of an even more radical anti-Israeli Brotherhood. Even the regime in Syria — as odious as it is to us — has not challenged Israel or allowed cross-border attacks. If it falls, it will leave a void to be filled by a motley group of Jihadists who share an anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli fixation. Therefore, actions we may take today that will keep terrorists threats (or a nuclear Iran) at bay may not be feasible tomorrow. From the West, it may sound like empty rhetoric to broadcast slogans quoting the Islamic Hadith which states that ”the Last Hour will not come until you kill the Jews . . . Then the stones and trees will call: ’Oh Muslim, servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.'” But most Israelis, 70 years after the end of World War II, believe that if someone calls for elimination of the Jews, given the opportunity, he will try to act on it.
Israel expects the international community to recognise that there are no extenuating circumstances for terrorism. Were the international community to take steps to totally de-legitimise the Hamas regime in Gaza and make it clear to the Palestinian Authority that the relations with them are predicated on their distancing themselves from Hamas, that would have a positive effect. For the peace process to work, one cannot let a group willing to compromise be diluted by hard-liners whose raison d’être is the destruction of Israel and genocide of the Jews. The only way forward is to create a separation so that the more moderate elements in the Palestinian camp can, without fear of the radicals, meet Israel half-way. While I am not a disciple of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, he made an interesting observation in his essay “The Iron Wall,” on November 4, 1923: ”Only when not a single breach is visible in the iron wall, only then do extreme groups lose their sway, and influence transfers to moderate groups. Only then would these moderate groups come to us with proposals for mutual concessions.”