The Israeli incursion into the Gaza strip is now into its second week. Keen observers of the Middle East have wondered about both the timing of the Israeli offensive and the ultimate goal. The politics of the policy have also been both rather muddy and quite cynical.
Politics first; Israel began the actual offensive at an opportune time. The air campaign began just after Christmas in the doldrums of the news cycle. Israel knew that Washington would not interfere with its bombardment. The political swamp in the tidelands of the Potomac was deeply frozen in the interregnum between Bush and Obama. The President Elect was emphasizing the political and constitutional reality of his position—he does not come into real power until January 20th 2009 and until that time George W Bush still holds the office of president of the United States of America. Wiser heads have complained that this policy of “one president at a time” actually boils down to no president at all. Bush’s natural tendency in the Middle East is to do nothing to reign in Israel.
The present leaders of Israel not only knew that they needed to move fast on the military front due to change of power in Washington but also because of the political realities in Israel. With Olmert a political dead man walking the present Israeli coalition government had to find a way to prevent Benjamin Netanyahu from evicting them from their seats of power. Polls showed a narrow majority of Israelis preferring Netanyahu’s hardliner stance. To prevent the triumph of Likud the Kadima-Labour coalition out Netanyahued Bibi in their militaristic approach to Hamas.
Hamas of course was thrilled with Israel’s decision to use a sledgehammer of its military might against the gnat of Hamas’ rockets. After the Israeli debacle in Lebanon Hamas figured it could draw Israel into the type of asymmetrical urban warfare that its fighters excelled at. Hamas understood very well how Israel would ultimately loose in such a situation. What Hamas still does not understand is how an Israeli loss is not necessarily a victory for Hamas.
By accident or design Israel has embarked on a strategy where Hamas does loose. Because of an ideological blindspot in Hamas thinking, because it is informed by the political Islamist mindset of the Muslim Brotherhood, it assumes that if it survives an Israeli attack--that is if Israel fails to completely wipe Hamas out, it “wins.” As long as Hamas can still fire its inaccurate and pointless missiles into Israel it sees itself as carrying on to eventual victory. Ideology will do that to a person; it will make one blissfully unaware of the facts on the ground.
Those facts are incredibly grim. Israel has ground the Hamas infrastructure into fine powder. This is a literal fact as Israeli bombs and artillery shells have blasted the structures of Hamas governance to smithereens. Police stations, security infrastructure, schools and even Hospitals have been blasted to bits. Israel has been very careless about collateral damage during this incursion leaving some 800 Palestinians dead. Emblematic of this bloody-minded ruthlessness was the attack on Nizar Rayyan. To get to Rayyan the Israelis were willing not only to bomb him in his own domicile but were also willing to snuff out the lives of two of his four wives and other members of immediate family.
If the Israelis are brutally clueless the Palestinians are hopeless. To quote the late Abba Eban they “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” The Palestinian mindless opposition to having any kind of independent nationalist Jewish presence in their midst has lead them from one disaster to another. From the Balfour Declaration to the present day the Palestinians have followed rigid, unrealistic and bigoted leaders who have told them that despite the obvious facts on the ground somehow all those troublesome Zionists would melt away. They are unable or unwilling to accept the consequences of foolish decisions made in the 30’s (let’s back the Nazis against the British) or the 40’s (let’s reject the UN compromise and settle this via a war of conquest, after all how can we possibly loose with such large armies?) or the 70’s (let’s start a campaign of terror inside and outside the Middle East, that will win us friends in the international community—we will begin by slaughtering Israeli Olympic athletes in Munich, Germany.)
Every decade the Palestinians (ably assisted by the Israelis) reached for the same tactic of political rejection and violence against Israel and every decade they landed in worse political shape. They lost large chunks of land in 1948 and then again in 1968. They lost their safe haven in Jordan and then lost one in Lebanon. They lost both intifadas and they are about to loose in Gaza.
Even before this latest escalation Gaza was nothing more than an over-glorified prison. The Israeli warden had been tightening the screws on Gaza ever since Hamas won elections there two years ago. Egypt, wanting no part of the Hamas Islamist contagion was more than happy to surreptitiously assist in Israel’s cordone sanitaire. Gaza became a political and economic basket case. Only the largess of the E.U. keeps Gaza from imploding into a full-scale humanitarian disaster. Gaza, through no fault of its people, is a beggar state.
Still never underestimate the ability of the Palestinian leadership to make a bad situation worse. By attacking Israel Hamas ensured a disproportionate response. No sovereign state worth the name would fail to respond to the goading. During the days of Poncho Villa the United States ripped through large swaths of Mexico under much less provocation than what was offered up by Hamas to Israel.
Hamas earnestly wished to incite Israel into an all-out invasion of Gaza wrongly expecting a repeat of Israel’s disastrous incursion into Lebanon. Hamas leaders figured that a ground occupation by Israel would enable their fighters to kill or better yet capture Israeli soldiers. They got their fondest wish and a clear propaganda victory over Israel at the cost of their entire governmental infrastructure. The Israelis are carving up Gaza into tiny bite sized chunks, ripping out schools, hospitals, mosques and apartment buildings as they go. Hamas still has its fighters but is slowly loosing the support structure that keeps them active and viable. The common people of Gaza are the big losers; they are becoming the victims in a cold, crass game between Israel and Hamas of who can be more callous with their lives. Hamas is willing to make martyrs out of the Gazans for secular political and Islamic ideological reasons and Israel is willing to kill the “martyrs” to get to Hamas. Israel’s contempt for innocent lives is illustrated by its use of White Phosphorus in Gaza.
W.P. as it is known in military parlance is a dual use munition. It can be used as for illumination at night or obscuring during the day. Alternatively W.P. can also be used as a NBC (Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical) agent. When W.P. gets on skin it burns right down to the bone. Using W.P. in a densely inhabited area like Gaza insures that people are going to get horribly maimed or killed. It is brutal, nasty stuff that does not discriminate between terrorists and infants.
Israel’s callousness though is both matched and exceeded by Hamas. To achieve their four confirmed rocket kills of Israelis they accepted the accidental deaths of an almost equal number of Gazans killed by those very same rockets. And Hamas knew that by attacking Israel they placed their populace at extreme risk from Israeli counter attack. Hamas increased that risk even more by burrowing into the urban civilian background, daring the Israelis to follow them. Hamas is challenging Israel to find its 12,000 fighters hidden among 1.5 million civilians and the Jewish state is bloody-mindedly taking them up on the offer.
Hamas fails to understand the real peril they are in. Hamas thinks that because it has the Arab street and the sympathy of the world community (especially in Europe) that this is a victory for them. They forget that Israel has the unbending support of the Bush Administration. They forget Israeli has at least two more weeks to pummel Hamas in any way it sees fit. They forget that Europe does not matter, that the Arab street does not matter; the only game changer out there is the U.S. Government. And the Government of the United States is institutionally tied to Israel. Hamas may have protesters in Cairo waving banners and signs but Israel has AIPAC in D.C. Hamas gets sympathy; Israel gets the latest and greatest military toys from the U.S. Hamas gets to rule Gaza but Israel gets to turn it into a pile of rubble. Because Hamas refuses to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist it insures that the people of Gaza will only be allowed to merely exist. Israel looses, Hamas looses, everyone looses.