Gaza ver­sus Go­liath

The Pak Banker - - Front Page -

FIVE days into Is­rael’s aerial and naval as­sault on Gaza, I’m still wait­ing for the other shoe to drop. De­spite the call-up of 75,000 re­servists, the Is­raeli De­fence Force’s ar­mour and troops re­main poised to launch their expected ground as­sault.

By the time you read this, Is­rael may well have un­leashed its army, but as days pass, there is grow­ing rea­son to hope that the con­flict will not be es­ca­lated fur­ther. There are some grounds for cau­tious op­ti­mism: Is­rael may well de­cide that the cost in terms of in­ter­na­tional criticism may be too high.

The fact is that in the IDF’s last ground as­sault on Gaza in Jan­uary 2009, Is­rael was able to take ad­van­tage of the tran­si­tion be­tween the Bush and Obama pres­i­den­cies to try and bat­ter the tiny Pales­tinian ter­ri­tory into sub­mis­sion. Even though Obama has pub­licly given Ne­tanyahu the green light, in­di­ca­tions are that be­hind the scenes, his ad­min­is­tra­tion is try­ing to rein the Is­raelis in.

Po­lit­i­cally, too, Is­rael lives in a very dif­fer­ent neigh­bour­hood. Nearly four years ago, it faced no op­po­si­tion from au­to­crats that were al­lied to Wash­ing­ton. Now, the Egyp­tian prime min­is­ter and the Tu­nisian for­eign min­is­ter have vis­ited Gaza to show their sup­port, and even Qatar, an­other US ally, has been vo­cif­er­ous in its con­dem­na­tion of Is­rael.

This is not to sug­gest that Is­rael has lost the over­whelm­ing mil­i­tary su­pe­ri­or­ity it has long en­joyed over any com­bi­na­tion of Arab states. What has been eroded is its com­plete free­dom of ac­tion: be­fore the Arab Spring, it had a free hand in de­cid­ing which tar­get to at­tack, and when. Now, it must fac­tor in the prob­a­ble re­ac­tions from Ankara to Cairo.

To­day, bat­tles – es­pe­cially com­pletely asym­met­ri­cal ones – are waged as much on TV screens as they are on the bat­tle­field.

Given this de­vel­op­ment, even pro-Is­raeli lead­ers in the West are ad­vis­ing against a ground in­va­sion as this would cost Tel Aviv dearly in the me­dia war. Chemi Shalev, writ­ing in Haaretz, the Is­raeli daily, cap­tures this re­al­ity well:

“Tele­vi­sion cam­eras get closer to the bat­tle, usu­ally from the Pales­tinian an­gle, and the view of the cam­paign shifts to the side that is dra­mat­i­cally out­manned and out­gunned. Lonely gun­men in nar­row al­leys of poverty-stricken slums con­front IDF tanks and the homes of in­no­cent civil­ians are seized, if not de­stroyed, as des­per­ate old women wail in the back­ground and dazed chil­dren peer di­rectly and plain­tively into the cam­eras. From this point on, it is only a mat­ter of time be­fore even Ha­mas ter­ror­ists are sud­denly cast as valiant free­dom-fight­ers op­pos­ing the forces of dark­ness, the op­pressed fight­ing off the op­pres­sors…

“This is the in­evitable bot­tom line of the so-called asym­met­ric war­fare that Is­rael has been wag­ing for the past three decades against Hezbol­lah, Fatah and Ha­mas. It is a di­rect con­se­quence of the con­tin­u­ing oc­cu­pa­tion of the West Bank, which, whether jus­ti­fied or not, pre­vents Is­rael from main­tain­ing the higher moral ground for any length of time. No mat­ter how de­spi­ca­ble the spe­cific group Is­rael is fight­ing against, how vil­lain­ous its deeds or how de­praved its ide­ol­ogy, the ‘David ver­sus Go­liath’ sce­nario in­evitably kicks in, and it is Is­rael, much to its sur­prise, that is once again cast as the gi­ant brute im­pos­ing his will…”

Clearly, it is the very fact of oc­cu­pa­tion and op­pres­sion that is the trig­ger for con­flict, and un­til Is­raelis and their sup­port­ers ac­cept this sim­ple truth, the on­go­ing cy­cle of vi­o­lence will continue. But as more time passes, the more dif­fi­cult it be­comes to reach a ne­go­ti­ated peace. Is­rael’s un­end­ing con­struc­tion ac­tiv­ity on oc­cu­pied land has made a two-state so­lu­tion all but im­pos­si­ble.

How­ever, given the rapidly shift­ing po­lit­i­cal align­ments in the re­gion, Is­rael’s 45-year old oc­cu­pa­tion of the West Bank may soon be more vig­or­ously chal­lenged than it has been thus far. An­other truth that pol­icy-mak­ers in Tel Aviv and Wash­ing­ton will have to come to terms with is that as pop­u­lar gov­ern­ments are elected in Arab coun­tries, lead­ers will be more re­spon­sive to their peo­ple. And the vast ma­jor­ity of Arabs are fed up of Is­raeli op­pres­sion in the West Bank, and its siege of Gaza.

From Ne­tanyahu’s point of view, he has an elec­tion to fight in Jan­uary, and no Is­raeli politi­cian has lost votes by be­ing tough on Pales­tini­ans. Then, he needs to show Ha­mas and Hezbol­lah that de­spite the Arab Spring, the IDF can pound its en­e­mies any time it chooses. And he also wants to send out a sig­nal across the re­gion that Is­rael re­mains the bully on the block.

Ha­mas was forced to re­spond when its mil­i­tary com­man­der Ah­mad Jabari was as­sas­si­nated by Is­rael. But once it be­gan launch­ing its rock­ets, at­tract­ing aerial re­tal­i­a­tion, it could not stop on the “use them or lose them” prin­ci­ple: once Is­raeli fight­ers and drones started tar­get­ing the rock­ets, there was a real dan­ger they would be de­stroyed on their launch­ing pads or stor­age ar­eas.

Thus far, Is­rael claims to have de­stroyed over 800 tar­gets. How an im­pov­er­ished, densely pop­u­lated lit­tle strip of land could have 800 tar­gets worth de­stroy­ing is be­yond me. And a se­nior Is­raeli com­man­der has claimed his forces would “bomb Gaza back to the Mid­dle Ages.” Con­sid­er­ing that the ter­ri­tory is al­ready the poor­est place in the re­gion, his valiant forces won’t have to do much to achieve his aim.

For Obama, this is a lose-lose sit­u­a­tion. Given the open-ended sup­port Is­rael has tra­di­tion­ally re­ceived from Wash­ing­ton, he can­not with­hold his pub­lic bless­ings from a ground as­sault on Gaza. Yet he knows that by re­fus­ing to con­demn the re­lent­less pound­ing of a vir­tu­ally de­fence­less peo­ple, he risks alien­at­ing newly elected Arab gov­ern­ments. If Wash­ing­ton wishes to re­tain some influence in the new Mid­dle East that’s be­ing shaped to­day, it will have to re­think its lock-step al­liance with Is­rael.And Is­rael, too, will need to re­think its pol­icy of con­tin­u­ing its colo­nial poli­cies in the West Bank, as well as its siege of Gaza.

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