‘They left us no choice’: On military escalation and its Israeli rationale

The alternatives to military action shouldn’t only be examined when things blow up, but rather in the context of the months and years that preceded this latest round of fighting.

When it comes to using military force, I find Netanyahu to be one of the most restrained prime ministers Israel has ever had. I don’t think Bibi wanted this escalation, nor does he believe that it serves his immediate political interests. He did give Hamas a chance for a ceasefire, and the army is escalating its attacks on Gaza very gradually – unlike in Operation Cast Lead for example, in which it adopted the notorious “shock and awe” doctrine.

Once rockets fall on Israeli cities, the government’s response immediately enjoys local and international legitimacy. I would have liked to see the army use more restraint, but it is clear that responding to rockets is the norm in the international system, regardless of the “who started” debate. When Hamas or any other organization fires rockets on Be’er Sheva or Tel Aviv, it supposedly doesn’t leave Israel with much choice but to retaliate. At least that’s how the argument goes.

But things also have a certain context that the Israeli public simply ignores. Hamas is weaker than ever. The tunnels to Gaza were destroyed and Egypt closed the border. Israel is preventing Hamas government employees from receiving their salaries, and has even threatened to deport the UN official who tried to solve the latest crisis. In recent weeks, Hamas’ politicians in the West Bank were also arrested.

Hamas isn’t just a militant organization. It is also a movement that represents half of the Palestinian people in the occupied territories and runs the lives of 1.8 million people in Gaza. Leaving Hamas with its back to the wall gives the organization an interest for this kind of escalation, despite the fact that Hamas knows that Palestinians will pay a much greater price than Israelis.

Some questions need to be asked: maybe the months and years of relative calm before this escalation were a good time to lift the siege on Gaza? Perhaps Israel should have recognized the new Palestinian technocratic government? Maybe there was a way for Hamas to undergo a process of politicization, similar to that which Fatah went through?

All these issues were never discussed in Israel; raising them now, in the current atmosphere, is seen as “giving in to terror.”

Palestinian women mourn the death of Mahmoud Raed Saddllah, a 4-year-old child, killed in a bombing attack on Jabalia, Gaza Strip, November 16, 2012.
Archive photo: Palestinian women mourn the death of Mahmoud Raed Saddllah, a 4-year-old child, killed in a bombing attack on Jabalia, Gaza Strip, November 16, 2012.

“They left us no choice” is the ultimate Israeli argument. Yes, it makes sense that when Palestinians hurl stones on Israeli cars at night, in the West Bank or within the Green Line, Israeli security forces will be sent to make them stop, just as they are sent to treat any issue of law and order. When a protester throws a stone at a soldier near the West Bank village of Bil’in, the soldier is left with no choice but to respond. But what was this soldier doing on the village’s confiscated land in the first place?

The West Bank has been relatively calm for the past five years, yet Israel has never bothered to conduct a much-delayed national conversation on ending the occupation. Instead, it waged propaganda wars on the Palestinians, built settlements and confiscated more land.

Almost five years after Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s Gaza policy – from the naval blockade to the “no go zone” it maintains at the edges of the strip – has never been questioned. Five years in which people have been warning this government that things will eventually blow up, and when they finally did, the same government responds with military force, because “we are left with no choice.”

Technically its true, but on a more substantial level, this is no more than a deception.

       Live blog: Escalation in Gaza – July 2014

The same thing happened this week in the Negev desert, where dozens of Bedouin were arrested for blocking roads and hurling stones. In recent years, Israel stepped up its “enforcement” policies, which is a euphemism for massive home demolitions. It got to the point where the person in charge of implementing the Prawer Plan, retired Gen. Doron Almong – by no means a leftist – wrote a public resignation letter in which he warned that without a constructive plan for the unrecognized villages, enforcement on its own will end in disaster.

Did this change anything for the government? The Bedouin still don’t get zoning plans, their homes are declared “illegal” and many are destroyed, and when a hundred people throw stones one night, the media warns of “riots.” The police arrested minors and adults alike “because we were left with no choice,” and because no other country would accept stone throwing on its highways.

But there is always a choice. The state could offer the Bedouin a fair solution, which recognizes their rights as indigenous people of this land. The village of Bil’in could get its land back. Israel might accept the fact that the Hamas is part of Palestinian society, and start dealing with it politically. The siege on Gaza could be lifted. Hamas’ government employees could get their salaries and buy food for their families. Perhaps then Hamas will feel that it has something to lose from another escalation.

And more than anything, the Israeli leadership could start dealing with the root causes of those various problems, rather than waking up when everything is on fire, scoring some easy points by manipulating the public’s rage, and, once more, declaring that they left us no choice but to go to war.

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One personal note: I was 16 when the First Gulf War broke out. Ramat Gan, the city I grew up in, suffered the worst impacts in Israel. A girl in my class had her entire home destroyed. Even my grandparents’ home suffered some minor damage. Yet me and my friends couldn’t care less, spending hours at each other’s homes or in the empty streets. I remember being the only ones in a movie theatre, just us with our gas masks.

One cannot really compare the small Hamas rockets to Saddam Hussein’s fearsome Scuds, not to mention the fact that we now have the Iron Dome system, which intercepts most of the rockets. But having my own kids at home – a baby and a three year old – makes the entire experience way more stressful. My thoughts are also with the people of Gaza, whose suffering is way greater than ours (life pretty much goes on in Tel Aviv). This exchange of rockets and bombs is a morbid and pointless ritual; the sooner a cease fire is negotiated, the better for everyone.

This is a slightly modified version of a post on my Hebrew blog at Local Call

Live blog: Escalation in Gaza – July 2014
Dispatch from Gaza: You can never be emotionally ready
[ARCHIVE – 2012]: Gaza operation will be declared a success, until the next war

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