Israel's war without end, again

Israel’s war without end, again

An Israel that preserves itself through sporadic conflict, rather than peace, is gaining traction

Palestinian civilians shield a rescue site with blankets and pieces of cloth in order to ensure respect for the victim's dignity, as rescue workers remove the body of a woman from the rubble of an apartment building, destroyed by an Israeli strike, in Gaza City on July 21, 2014. (Hatem Moussa/AP)
Palestinian civilians shield a rescue site with blankets and pieces of cloth in order to ensure respect for the victim’s dignity, as rescue workers remove the body of a woman from the rubble of an apartment building, destroyed by an Israeli strike, in Gaza City on July 21, 2014. (Hatem Moussa/AP)

The battles have come and gone. Operations the Israelis have variously dubbed “Summer Rains,” “Autumn Clouds,” “Hot Winter,” “Cast Lead,” and “Pillar of Defence.”

Since the government of Ariel Sharon dismantled Jewish settlements and pulled its security forces out of Gaza in the summer of 2005, “disengagement” has proven a hard promise to keep. Continued cross-border raids and rocket and mortar fire from the Hamas-controlled territory have frequently been answered with overwhelming force. But the war seems no closer to an end.

As the latest skirmish, Operation Protective Edge, entered its third week, the death toll among Palestinians had already topped 600, more than 400 of them civilians. On the Israeli side, there had been 30 fatalities, including 28 soldiers. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said it had struck more than 1,700 sites in the 365-sq.-km strip, home to 1.8 million people—a little less than half of the hostile targets identified by its intelligence services. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accused Hamas of using the Gaza population as human shields for its fighters. Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority have described the IDF strikes as “massacres” and “war crimes.”

Despite the rhetoric, this flare-up, too, will end. The United States, Qatar, Turkey, Egypt and the UN Security Council are all busy trying to broker a ceasefire. And it’s clear the Israelis are already looking for an exit—unwilling to fully reoccupy the territory and try to root out their foe. Speaking to the nation, Netanyahu set out his rather limited goals for the all-out assault: to deal a “harsh blow” to Hamas and restore “quiet to the citizens of Israel for a long period.”

But is anything likely to really change as a result? Western reaction to the offensive has been mostly tepid, with condemnations of the mounting civilian deaths carefully balanced out by recognition of Israel’s right to defend itself against attacks. (In an unguarded moment, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was caught sarcastically praising the IDF’s “pinpoint” operations, but he quickly reverted to more diplomatic language when pressed on the issue.) And Israel’s traditional allies—Canada chief of among them—seem more preoccupied with the downing of Malaysia Airways Flight MH17 and Russia’s links to that tragedy.

Jonathan Rynhold, a foreign policy analyst and director of the Argov Center for the Study of Israel at Bar-Ilan University, says it is hard to detect any sort of diplomatic fallout from the latest round of fighting. “There’s a general fatigue with the Middle East, but that’s neither here nor there, from the Israeli point of view,” he says. “If people are indifferent, that’s okay. We’re worried about being hated.” In fact, Rynhold argues that the crisis has so far proved more damaging for America’s international reputation than for the Jewish state’s. “It doesn’t look like the Americans know what they are doing,” he says, pointing to the Obama administration’s muddled response to competing Egyptian and Qatari ceasefire proposals. “I think the U.S. has been so busy trying to stay out of things in the region that they are left floundering when action is required. It’s not in their playbook.”

That’s an assessment that may not be entirely fair. After all, Kerry, with President Barack Obama’s strong support, spent more than a year engaged in shuttle diplomacy between Netanyahu and Abbas, desperately trying to restart the peace process. And it seems that progress was being made when negotiations collapsed last April, falling victim to the same old frustrations and mistrust.

The opportunity may have been slim, but it did exist. Hamas had been at a low ebb as a political force. The Syrian civil war had driven a wedge between the terrorist group and its major patrons—Sunni Hamas supports the rebels, while Shia Hezbollah and the Iranians have sided with the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Egypt had gone from being a close ally under the rule of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood to openly hostile under former general, now president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. And the formation of a unity government, joining Abbas’s Fatah movement and Hamas, offered at least the prospect of Gaza and the far more moderate West Bank again marching in the same direction.

Khalil Shikaki, an analyst and pollster with the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, says public optimism was running high prior to the outbreak of hostilities. “People were excited about the reconciliation. There were tremendous expectations that things would improve,” he says. “And most people didn’t view the new government as closing the door to negotiations with the Israelis.” In his last poll, conducted over the first week of June, support for Fatah in the upcoming elections, was running about eight points ahead of Hamas, even in the Gaza Strip, and there had been a slight uptick in those endorsing a two-state solution. But Shikaki says he expects those trends have now been reversed, based on what has happened after past Gaza conflicts. “In all those cases, the immediate reaction was increased popularity for Hamas, and a weakened Palestinian Authority and Abbas.”

In the two decades since Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo Accords, supposedly putting the Israelis and the Palestinians on the road to a permanent peace, there have been many more downs than ups. And the outlook of average Palestinians has become gloomier with each passing year. Yet Shikaki says the desire for peace among the general populace remains strong. “There is significant public support for compromise and an opposition to violence,” he says. “But people have become pessimistic. They don’t believe the conflict will be resolved any time soon.”

Unfortunately, that might be the one place where there truly is common ground between Israelis and Palestinians. In the wake of the collapse of the negotiations this spring, there was widespread public support for Netanyahu’s refusal to have anything do with a Palestinian government that included members of Hamas. And when a pollster asked Israelis to identify what should be the country’s top priority, peace came in dead last at nine per cent, well behind the economy at 47 per cent, and more affordable housing at 21 per cent.

The notion that the Palestinian problem is basically unsolvable—at least in the foreseeable future—has taken hold not only politically, but militarily, as well. Earlier this year, two noted defence scholars, Efraim Inbar and Eitan Shamir, published a paper in the Journal of Strategic Studies that sought to outline the new reality, entitled “Mowing the Grass, Israel’s Strategy for Protracted Intractable Conflict.” Traditional ideas of victory no longer apply, they argued. A more realistic approach is to settle for brief and intense conflicts that inflict maximum damage on Israel’s opponents, costing them much “blood and treasure” and buying short periods of calm while they rearm.

“It’s better to settle for limited goals,” Shamir, the former head of the National Security Doctrine Department in the Israel Ministry of Strategic Affairs, told Maclean’s. “People say that this is a cycle of violence, but it does have utility. You have to mow the grass every once in a while. Otherwise, it grows and covers you over.”

There are costs both domestically, in terms of economic disruption and dead soldiers, and in damage to Israel’s reputation abroad. “The picture of a dead child will always be more shocking than one of a child in a bomb shelter,” says Shamir. But as part of a larger tool kit that includes diplomacy, arms interdiction and even targeted assassinations, he argues that a nation that preserves itself through sporadic conflict is more viable than current Western bias might allow. After all, the English and French survived their Hundred Years War, he notes. And the Romans managed to keep restive German tribes at bay for centuries. Of course, that all came to an end when the Visigoths sacked Rome in 410 CE. “It didn’t go so well for them in the end,” admits Shamir. “But the strategy did work for 500 years. Hopefully, it will work better for us.”

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