Monday, July 21, 2014

War in Gaza: Some Thoughts

There is a great deal going on this 14th day of Israel's Operation "Protective Edge."  I have not been writing very many articles recently but I thought an article about the ongoing war with Hamas was overdue.  There are many different angles to cover and many different viewpoints across the Internet, the media and public opinion.  Much of the writing is of course very one-sided.  A great deal of the anti-Israel rhetoric has included vitriolic anti-Semitic attacks unrelated to any legitimate points.  On the other hand, some of the rhetoric on the Israeli side can be criticized as well for being propaganda rather than serious commentary.  Ultimately, anyone writing about this conflict will have a set viewpoint that will colour his or her analysis.  But it is not always the case that there are two sides to every story.  Some fights really are fights of good against evil (or various shades of that theme) and history is filled with examples of such conflicts.

It is not my intention to paint everything as simply black and white but rather to review some key points that have emerged from events so far.

1.  Hamas is a terrorist organization that is intent on killing Israelis and has no interest in peace.

While this sounds like harsh, one-sided rhetoric, it is unfortunately true.  Not long after 2005, when Israel pulled up its settlements from Gaza and left most of it, Hamas was elected as the leadership in Gaza and solidified its hold on Gaza society.  Since then, there have been three significant military conflicts with Israel, all precipitated by Hamas intensifying its use of rocket fire at Israel.

How is this really helping or assisting the people of Gaza?  It is really hard to come up with a good answer to this question - other than "it isn't."  When Israel left Gaza, it left greenhouses in tact, and it left the Palestinians in control of a large amount of prime beach front territory.  With enormous amounts of U.N. aid coming to Gaza, the Palestinians could have chosen a different path.  They could have build hotels in Gaza to build tourism.  They could have put the money into schools, education, sewage, infrastructure.  The current war between Israel and Hamas has shown that enormous resources have simply been used to stockpile different types of rockets and to build extensive tunnels that allow Hamas terrorists to make their way into Israel underground to try to kill or kidnap Israelis.

2.  Israel was left with no choice but to fight this war.

This is the corollary to the first point and it has been reinforced in the events that followed the commencement of the war.  The war was not started because of the Hamas kidnapping and murder of three Jewish students nor was it started because of the reprisal attack carried out by some Israeli vigilantes who murdered an innocent Arab boy.  It was started by Hamas making a decision to fire an unceasing barrage of rockets at Israeli civilians.

What would any other country do?  How could Israel not respond to this?

The difficulty that Israel has faced is that the rockets are being fired at Israel from built up residential areas, mosques, schools (even U.N. run schools), and other densely populated places.  Israel has the capability of determining where the missiles originated from.  Most countries, faced with repeated missile fire from a certain area, would simply destroy the whole building or area.  Certainly the U.S., Russia, France and many of Israel's other vocal critics (with respect to the issue of "restraint") would have little hesitation in destroying everything in sight, even if that meant a large number of civilian casualties in order to stop missile attacks on their country.  If Israel were using this method of responding to rocket fire, the deaths of Palestinians would be in the thousands by now, not the hundreds.

3.  The Cost of the War is high for both sides.

The current war has resulted in many deaths and injuries on both sides.  The media love to report raw numbers as if the numbers were the most important thing.  It is true that the Iron Dome missile defence system has done an incredible job of protecting Israelis from most of the incoming missiles.  It is also true that the people of Gaza do not have properly equipped bomb shelters, missile warning systems or sophisticated means of protecting themselves from the Israeli army.

But on the other hand, it is Hamas that is putting these civilians at risk by firing missiles at Israel from civilian locations.  It is no answer to say that Israel should exercise "restraint" or not respond, start a unilateral cease fire or take some other one-sided action that sees Israel continuing to absorb Hamas rocket fire.  Israel must respond, even if the response causes civilian casualties in Gaza.

For Israel, the soldiers are mostly conscripts from Israeli society who are serving their country and who are asked to trust that the political and military leadership are making decisions that will minimize the short and long term likelihood of a prolonged war.  They hope that Israel's leadership will protect the security interests of Israel's citizens.  The soldiers are friends, family members, acquaintances.  They are called into action to protect the people of Israel and answer the call.  The loss of even one soldier in Israel is a difficult, tragic and heart wrenching event for the people.  The loss of 18 soldiers over this past weekend and 7 more today was simply horrible.

This is not all intended to downplay the value of life or the loss of life of Palestinians.  Many Palestinians have been killed and injured.  The numbers are much higher than the number of Israelis.  But that is the unfortunate and tragic result of this type of war, which was started by Hamas.  Hamas was offered two different cease fires so far, after the war began, both of which were brokered by Egypt, accepted by Israel but  but rejected by Hamas.  Hamas has chosen to fight or continue the fighting three times now where there were alternatives.  It is Hamas that is endangering Palestinian civilians by continuing this war.

One can only hope that the people of Gaza will start to see that a different approach in dealing with Israel would have very different results.  Contrast the situation in Gaza with the situation in the West Bank to understand that point clearly.  Under the leadership of the Palestinian Authority, many West Bank Palestinian are working with Israelis in productive ways and are reaping the benefits of economic progress, stability and relative calm.

4.  Hamas has very few friends right now - which makes a cease fire difficult to arrange.

Much of the world realizes that Israel has few alternatives and that Hamas is a terrorist organization.  In the past, Hamas relied on Egypt to quietly supply it with weaponry, permit it to smuggle items in to Gaza through the Rafah border crossing and then pressure Israel into a cease fire before it could damage Hamas.  The situation is quite different now.  The current Egyptian government has little time for Hamas and recognizes that Hamas has embarked on a dangerous operation with no realizable end-goal that makes any sense.  Russian President Putin has been remarkably restrained, at least as reported publicly.  Canada has been strongly supportive of Israel and the U.S. has been publicly supportive.  While there have been anti-Israel demonstrations across the world, most western governments seem to have realized that Israel is facing a terrorist threat and has few alternatives but to continue its current operation.

The most vocal supporter of Hamas has been Turkish president Erdogan, who has made the ludicrous allegation that Israel is "far worse than Hitler." Yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu rightly commented in a press conference that this is the type of statement we would expect to hear from Hezbollah, Al Qaidah, or Iran - not from Turkey.  That is all not necessarily a surprise but it is quite disappointing to consider that this is the direction Turkey seems to be heading.  Of course the proper response would be to ask Erdogan about Turkey's genocide against the Armenian people and to put everything into context.  How crazy is it for the leader of a country which has never really accounted for its massacre of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Armenians to be comparing Israel to the Nazis in the context of a war in which hundreds of civilians have been killed, unintentionally.

The challenge that the world faces right now is the lack of a broker to arrange a deal between Hamas and Israel.  John Kerry has no credibility with Hamas (the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with Hamas and views them as a terrorist organization).    So Hamas has turned to Mahmoud Abbas, Turkey and Qatar.  To be an acceptable mediator, it seems, you have to be prepared to describe Israel in Nazi-like terms.  Much like Palestinian leader Hanan Asharawi has done in calling the Israeli operation a giant war crime while refraining from saying anything about Hamas and its tactics.  So the question remains - who can broker a cease fire or push Hamas into accepting some type of deal?  The answer is unclear.  For the Israeli political and military leadership, the best answer is that more time is needed to further limit Hamas' ability to start another war any time soon.

5.  Prime Minister Netanyahu has been very measured

Prime Minister Netanyahu has generally acted in a manner which has been statesman like and impressive.  He pushed his cabinet to agree to two different cease fire proposals, even though acceptance would have meant that Israel would fall short of its aims.  He made every effort to avoid launching a ground war in Gaza until he was forced to do so.  He has ordered the army to take every precaution to minimize the number of Palestinian civilian casualties even while Israel has been facing unceasing rocket fire.  Prime Minister Netanyahu has been holding together a coalition that includes members who have publicly advocated re-occupying Gaza completely - along with other members who strongly support continuing peace talks as quickly as possible.  

6.  Things must change or this will happen again soon

What can Israel do to prevent this from happening again soon?  That is the really challenging question.  For those on the left and sometimes, for Israel's critics, the answer is that Israel should simply "end the occupation" and everything would be fine.  But isn't this what Israel tried in 2005 in Gaza?  Israel left unilaterally.  The result has been three wars.  Unilateral disengagement has not worked in Gaza and it will not work in the other territories.  Ultimately, Israel needs a genuine, enforceable peace deal with a partner that is committed to the arrangement.  As long as Hamas continues to run Gaza, there can be little hope of an arrangement like this any time soon.  Perhaps the people of Gaza will realize this and will bring about a change in their political leadership.  But at this point, many will have been scarred bitterly by this war and will want nothing to do with a government that takes a moderate approach to Israel. 

Unfortunately, the picture is grim.  A cease fire deal with Hamas in the short term will not lead to peace or to any long term solution of the current issues unless Hamas changes its positions dramatically which is not about to happen.  Accordingly, Israel has little alternative but to destroy as much of Hamas as it possibly can and destroy the terror tunnels that lead from Gaza to Israel.  Perhaps in these circumstances, a different type of government will emerge that has an interest in some kind of deal with Israel.

In the meantime, I am certainly hoping and praying for a speedy but successful end to this war and for Israel's soldiers to return home safely and in good health.  I am also hoping that civilian deaths in Gaza can be minimized and that the Palestinians can find a way to make much better decisions.  They deserve better than these Hamas-led wars.