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Special Edition: Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - November 19, 2012

The War in Gaza

Yossi Alpher 186x140.jpgIn a Special Edition of Hard Questions, Tough Answers, Yossi Alpher tackles Why Israel chose the current timing to respond with a major military campaign to rocket attacks from Gaza; why Hamas does not take into consideration that Israel has a much stronger military capacity; whether Egypt and the international community are working for a ceasefire; what positions Israel and Hamas are presenting to all these mediators regarding ceasefire conditions and if these demands are achievable; whether Hamas military leader Ahmed Jaabari should  have been targeted in Israel's opening salvo; how this operation is different in objectives and its operational profile from the Second Lebanon War in summer 2006 and Cast Lead in 2008-9; whether Hezbollah and Syria are connected to the current Gaza war; does he feel pessimistic about the long-term effect of anything Israel does against Hamas; and where do Israelis seem to feel this is going?

APN Resource Page on the Gaza Crisis

Readers are also referred to two op-eds by Yossi Alpher published since the war began and available at the following links:

Q. Why did Israel choose the current timing to respond with a major military campaign to rocket attacks from Gaza? Had there been a significant increase in those attacks?

A. In recent months Hamas, after long abdicating the rocket firing to Islamic Jihad and various Salafists, again took the lead in attacking Israel. Not just by rockets, but also through attacks on and through the green line fence into Israel. Some 800 rockets were fired at Israel during 2012 prior to the Israeli response. Repeated Israeli warnings and threats directed toward Hamas were ignored. That's why this campaign is directed specifically at Hamas and its military leadership.

The timing of Israel's response probably also has something to do with Israeli elections, though no government minister will acknowledge this. The situation in southern Israel was becoming unbearable for one million people, and both Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak undoubtedly saw this as a political liability with elections near. Nor could they postpone this until too close to elections, lest that too become a liability.

Another rationale for the timing could be to place the PLO initiative for United Nations General Assembly recognition, scheduled for Nov. 29, in a different perspective. PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is asking the UN for recognition of a state that includes Gaza, yet he obviously does not control Gaza. Gaza is a warlike quasi-state attacking Israeli civilians--the very opposite of the Palestinian Authority under Abbas.

Q. But if Hamas is launching or consenting to the attacks on Israel, why does it not take into consideration that Israel has a much stronger military capacity? Even with new varieties of rockets, Hamas will never match Israel's capacity to wreak destruction on the Gaza quasi-state.

Of course Hamas knows Israel is stronger. But it also knows that Israel won't take the one measure that would close Hamas down once and for all: re-conquering the Gaza Strip, thereby angering the entire world and placing nearly two million civilians under direct Israeli rule. Hamas also likes to play the underdog--guerilla or "resistance" style. It has tens of thousands of cheap rockets to attack the Israeli civilian population. And its fighters ostensibly do not fear martyrdom.

But most of all, Hamas feels empowered to challenge Israel by the tacit support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Hamas--the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood--sees itself, not without reason, as the vanguard of the rise to power of the Brotherhood in the Arab Middle East by democratic vote. Hamas won its vote in early 2006, then took over Gaza by force in mid-2007. Hamas expects its fellow Brothers, led by Egypt, to support it as it fights "their" war. It has been trying for months to persuade Egypt to recognize Gaza as an independent or quasi-independent Palestinian state and to shower economic and military aid on it. But Egypt--even Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood--is wary of taking on Gaza as a protectorate and, in effect, releasing Israel of its "responsibilities" toward the Palestinians.

In this sense, this little war is very much about Egypt. Israel and the United States are testing whether Egypt under the Brotherhood will behave responsibly and opt for peace and quiet by demanding of Hamas a ceasefire, so the Egyptian leadership can set about collecting the billions of dollars it needs to keep Egypt afloat economically. Hamas is testing to what extent Egypt will back it up with threats against Israel, possibly even by radically downgrading relations with Israel. On Saturday, Egyptian PM Kandil led a delegation into Gaza, where he offered lavish verbal support but promised only medical supplies. He apparently also began discussing a ceasefire.

Q. Indeed, aren't Egypt and the international community working for a ceasefire?

A. The Egyptians, Turks, Qataris and Hamas met on Cairo in Sunday precisely toward this end. According to some reports, a senior Israeli official was also there. All four of these Muslim actors, it should be noted, represent the vanguard of political Islam in the Middle East. The Turks and Qataris aren't Muslim Brothers but are close to the movement, with the Turks casting themselves as a role model for Arab regimes and Qatar using its purse-strings to play an independent role that has lately included a royal visit to Gaza and generous financial aid.

Israel and Egypt are also in close touch with the Obama administration and European leaders regarding a ceasefire. President Obama has reportedly placed heavy pressure on Egypt's President Morsi to rein in Hamas. France's foreign minister was in Israel today. And United Nations Secretary General Ban ki-Moon is scheduled to arrive in Israel on Tuesday. All are apparently urging Netanyahu to avoid a ground war in favor of a quick ceasefire.

Q. What positions are Israel and Hamas presenting to all these mediators regarding ceasefire conditions?

A. Broadly speaking, Israel wants a verifiable Hamas commitment to cease all attacks from Gaza--meaning to police other, more extreme organizations' activities as well as its own--and close down its arms importing and indigenous arms production projects. Hamas reportedly wants an end to all aspects of the Israeli blockade of the Strip as well as an end to Israeli preventive security measures on the Gaza side of the border fence. Presumably, both Israel and Hamas are making security and other demands on Egypt as well. And each side wants to end up in a situation where it proclaims victory.

Q. Are these demands achievable?

A. Israel is backing up its demands with escalation. Most recently, it expanded its list of targets for air and naval attacks to include Hamas government institutions (after Hamas fired a rocket in the direction of Jerusalem and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh claimed they were aiming for the Knesset) as well as rocket-firing positions and other military institutions placed by Hamas deliberately in the midst of the Gazan civilian population. By Sunday, Israel was calling up large numbers of reserves and threatening a ground operation.

Hamas was responding with rockets and bravado. Morale appeared to be high in Gaza, uplifted by clips of Tel Avivians running for cover (and reflecting a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes Israel tick; but that's another story). If matters continue this way, at some point, inevitably, a large number of Gazan civilians could become casualties, thus embarrassing Israel and bringing down upon it heavy regional and international pressure.

Hence it's almost certain that at the end of the day, one way or another, this will end in yet another limited ceasefire that falls short of both sides' aspirations.

Q. Some Israelis argue that Hamas military leader Ahmed Jaabari should not have been targeted in Israel's opening salvo; that he was engaged in an attempt to achieve a long-term ceasefire and was a figure of moderation.

A. Obviously, if you oppose the entire notion of targeted assassination with its heavy moral ramifications, the Hamas military leader should not have been targeted. But a succession of Israeli (and American) governments have adopted this tactic and consider it both effective and acceptable in wartime. As for Jaabari himself, even as he was ostensibly involved in ceasefire discussions he was sponsoring escalated Hamas attacks on Israeli civilians and building up a murderous arsenal for use against Israeli civilians. In my view, he was fair game and his death a genuine blow to Hamas.

Q. Apropos the likely outcome, how is this operation, dubbed Pillar of Cloud or Pillar of Defense, different in its objectives and its operational profile from the two previous IDF offensives against neighboring non-state actors, the Second Lebanon War in summer 2006 and Cast Lead in 2008-9?

A. Apropos the names of the operation, note that Pillar of Cloud is a murky name reminiscent of the biblical "pillar of fire", while Pillar of Defense is a more PR-conscious name for use by Israeli public diplomacy. So far, "Pillar" has avoided use of ground forces or artillery, obviously in the hope of reducing highly problematic Palestinian civilian casualties. Air force bombing and rocketing techniques, especially by drones, have been refined admirably toward that same end.

This operation, accordingly, opened with the targeted assassination of a single prominent Hamas military figure, Jaabari, whereas Cast Lead opened with a kind of "shock and awe" approach that featured a controversial attack on a parade of Hamas civilian police. Both Pillar of Defense and the Second Lebanon War opened with a largely successful attempt by the Israel Air Force to eliminate the enemy's stores of long-range rockets so as to limit to the greatest extent possible the geographic extent of the enemy's rocket offensive.

Another difference concerns war aims. Cast Lead of 2008-9 was presented to the Israeli public on several occasions as an attempt to eliminate Hamas rule from Gaza. This corresponded with the declared aim of the economic blockade of Gaza that began in 2007. Not just the Kadima government of the day harbored these aims; prominent Labor supporters from the political left at one point petitioned Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Barak to go all the way, re-conquer Gaza and reinstall the PLO in power there (at the tip of Israeli bayonets, thereby totally discrediting the PLO) in the hope of facilitating a peace process.

Now, war aims are ostensibly more realistic. Accordingly to Barak, then as now defense minister, the objective this time is to cease rocket fire, eliminate Hamas militants and weaponry, and protect Israeli civilians. In other words, Hamas can remain as long as it stops attacking Israelis. Personally, I doubt that under current circumstances even these objectives can be attained and maintained over any period of time.

On the truly positive side, this operation takes place under the "cover" of the Iron Dome anti-rocket missile system, which has effectively reduced Hamas' capacity to really hurt the Israeli civilian rear. This gives IDF war planners breathing room, relatively free of public pressure, to try to achieve their objectives. Accordingly, it may be said to actually relieve the IDF of the need to attack aggressively and seek retribution for Israeli losses.

Amir Peretz, who was minister of defense during the Second Lebanon War and bore much of the criticism for that campaign's seeming failure, deserves great credit for having insisted on developing Iron Dome to protect Israeli civilians from rocket attack despite the opposition of the traditional security community with its emphasis on offense rather than defense. Peretz, former mayor of Sderot and former head of the Histadrut labor union, showed how a "civilian" defense minister with a strong socio-economic background can see things differently, to the benefit of the overall war effort. And two American presidents, Bush 43 and Obama, deserve credit for having helped finance the Iron Dome project.

One final and ironic comparison: the Second Lebanon War, waged by Peretz and PM Ehud Olmert, was roundly criticized in Israel for its indecisive outcome, with Hezbollah, Iran, and the Arab public trumpeting claims of victory over Israel. Yet since that war ended more than six years ago, Hezbollah has not lifted a finger to attack Israel--an apparent tribute to the deterrent success of Israel's war effort. In contrast, Cast Lead was seen as a triumph that rehabilitated Israel's deterrent profile. Yet its deterrent effect lasted barely a few months. Of course the two movements, Hezbollah and Hamas, are different entities operating under very different circumstances, particularly with regard to the "Arab spring": Hezbollah supports Syria in opposing the wave of Sunni Islamist revolution; Hamas is part of that wave.

Q. Apropos Hezbollah and Syria, are they connected to the current Gaza war?

A. Neither Syria nor Hezbollah has in any way intimated they would intervene to support Hamas. Here it's helpful to recall that Hamas has, in recent months, broken with Syria and Iran and moved into the triumphant Muslim Brotherhood orbit with its fellow Sunnis. Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which is also firing rockets from Gaza and at times opposes Hamas' weak attempts to exercise control over it, does retain links to Iran and Syria. But PIJ is not a major factor and the only relevant question connected with it is whether and when Hamas will behave in Gaza like the sovereign it aspires to be and take control over all aggressors there.

All in all, at the regional level, the current Gaza conflict is about how the emerging Muslim Brotherhood leadership in Gaza, Egypt and North Africa will deal with Israel. At least until now, it is not about Iran and Syria.

Q. Your assessment seems to reflect a sense of pessimism regarding the long-term effect of anything Israel does against Hamas.

A. Neither Israel nor anyone else confronting a non-state actor motivated by an extremist Islamic outlook has found a viable strategy for dealing with it. Look again at Barak's war objectives (above) and note that they are tactical, not strategic. Israel has to confront the fact that it has no effective strategy for dealing with Hamas: economic blockade has failed; re-occupying the Strip would be hugely counterproductive. The only strategy Israel has not tried is talking to Hamas, which in any case refuses to talk to Israel and proffers outlandish conditions for agreeing merely to a permanent ceasefire (e.g., return to Israel of five million Palestinian refugees). I don't know whether such a strategy of engagement, with the aim of long-term coexistence, has any chance of success, but I still feel it is worth a try.

Note, though, that to engage Hamas directly without preconditions means abandoning the "Oslo" conditions agreed with the United States and European Union. It also means, in effect, telling the PLO in the West Bank, Israel's peace partner, that it is no longer understood to represent Gaza, thereby implying a three-state reality or solution and not a two-state solution. And as noted, such a gambit could very possibly fail, if only due to Hamas' out-and-out rejection of all the elements of peaceful recognition and coexistence established by 20 years of the Oslo process.

With the spread of political Islam on Israel's borders, an attempt at engagement with Hamas may be the best one can hope for by way of a strategy. Obviously, Israel's political leadership, left as well as right, is not there.

Q. Finally, now that rocket attacks have reached the Tel Aviv area where you live, what are your thoughts?

A. First of all, civilian morale is extremely high. I've taken shelter outside my home twice, in each case ending up meeting interesting people for exactly two minutes and going on my way; three grandchildren in Tel Aviv appear to be taking this in stride. But in the Tel Aviv area, the few rocket attacks thus far are more a source of curiosity than anything else. In the south, the accumulated trauma of, for those closest to Gaza, 12 (!!) years of rocket attacks is something else entirely. Thus not surprisingly, Israelis from the northern Negev attach extremely high hopes to this campaign, egged on by government rhetoric to the effect that this is the war against Hamas to end all attacks forever.

As we've seen, that is probably not a realistic aspiration. Already, after over 1,000 targets have been attacked in Gaza, more than 51 Palestinians and three Israelis killed, and at least 270 rockets successfully intercepted, Israelis are inevitably asking where this is going.