Sunday, December 28, 2008

Israel and its Arab antagonists have gone to war again. No, that’s not it. In a valiant defense of its citizens, Israeli forces have neutralized Hamas terrorist rocket launchers and other terror infrastructure. No, that can’t cut it. So how to make sense of it all?

For me, this is a replay of 2006, when Israel warred against Hezbollah, in the process killing about 1,000 Lebanese and wrecking much of the south of that country. It was horrifying, saddening, and quite maddening as well. Now the target is a similarly extremist group in an even more embattled piece of real estate. So far, at latest count, something like 270 Gazans have been killed out of a total population of 1.5 million. After the ceasefire ended many had a dread feeling something big was going to happen. Not for me: it was after the events that had preceded that by several months, like closing the crossings that blocked off international humanitarian aid, denying access to all foreign correspondents, etc.

Once again, this writer needs to attempt to take on an impartial, balanced approach and try to piece together the facts, but that proves difficult because my tribal allegiances are quite clear. Does my Jewish identity prevent me from looking at this situation with a clear head and clear conscience? The events of the last couple of days have constituted a huge propaganda victory for Hamas and other “Islamic resistance” movements the world over and, of course, throughout the entire Arab world. That said, Israel has the right to protect its citizens, as does any state. But when does “defense” stretch into oblivion? When does protection of people’s lives, much holier and sacrosanct in places like Sderot and Ashkelon (and, of late, Ashdod) than in Gaza City and other wards, mutate into a hideous exemplar of collective punishment?

Here are the facts, as best as can be ascertained: since 2006 (again, that year) Gaza has been under a state of siege and Israel proper — in a certain radius from Gaza — has been subjected to incessant rocket fire, by the hundreds if not thousands, from these Hamas militants, who were duly elected into power by the Gazans themselves in the January elections. There had been maybe a few Israeli casualties from these “rockets,” in reality makeshift cylinders with some explosive but no guidance system and they cause little physical harm except psychological distress and terror. The people of Sderot have suffered, there is no doubt; but how can it be denied that the people of Gaza have also suffered, indeed suffered a hundred times more?

Good reporters don’t, and cannot, “take sides.” More often than not, they will take pains to present as even-handed a picture, as neutral a picture, as possible. They will say things like: “In response to Hamas terrorist actions against Israel, the Israel Air Forces have commenced operations to take out Hamas; incidentally, nearly 300 casualties.” If one strays from that style, one becomes either an IAF spokesman or a Hamas apologist, and obviously that’s bullshit. Allow me to explain.

It is indisputable that Hamas is committed, by its charter, to destroy the Israeli state, especially by terroristic means like the obscene suicide bombings, which have thankfully ceased but may resume should things get worse. It is also not in dispute that since 2006, but probably earlier, a humanitarian crisis has befallen Gaza and the agent, regrettably and painfully, is Israel. The aim was clear: punish the people for electing Hamas into power, in a democratic election. The methods of punishment have been varied: closures of the main crossings, control of the borders so as to allow military incursions at will and with impunity, the use of sonic weapons to terrorize the population and, lastly, clearing out the foreign correspondents and international humanitarian aid. Only now has it morphed to an explicit stage: massive bombardment.

Isaac Luria, a representative of the pro-Israel lobbying group J Street, also writes of the conflict about the conflict: “I felt immediate pressure from friends and family to pick a side. Did I think that Israel’s actions were fully justified or disproportionate? Did Hamas bring this on itself by firing rockets and provoking Israel or are the strikes an act of aggression against a people trapped in misery and poverty? Couldn’t I see who’s right and who’s wrong?” Luria concludes by saying, “Israel has a special place in my heart. I lived there last year while my wife was studying to be a rabbi. But I recognize that neither Israelis nor Palestinians have a monopoly on right or wrong. While there is nothing ‘right’ in raining rockets on Israeli families or dispatching suicide bombers, there is nothing ‘right’ in punishing a million and a half already-suffering Gazans for the actions of the extremists among them.”

Shortly before the flare-up, Nathan Jeffay, writing in The Forward, observed that the ceasefire that was broken right up to the bombings, both sides were left militarily strengthened, sharpening their knives: “For Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza after winning a 2006 election there, the cease-fire was a chance to stockpile its arsenal, increasing the number and capability of its rockets. On December 21, two days after the cease-fire ended, Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, reported to Israel’s Cabinet that it believes Hamas now has rockets that can reach a 25-mile radius from Gaza. This would mean they could hit the outskirts of Beersheba, Israel’s fourth largest city. It also brings the port city of Ashdod into range.”

Jeffay quoted Eyal Zisser, “a terrorism expert at Tel Aviv University,” who said, “Gaza is the only place in the Arab world where Islamists are in power, and they have shown themselves able to rule and to successfully negotiate and benefit from a cease-fire.” Jeffay adds that “the lull gave the army a chance to practice its range of possible responses to Hamas rockets, from targeted killings to a full-scale operation in Gaza. Security experts say it was a period of intense preparation. ‘The [Israel Defense Forces] will have prepared intelligence and used the chance for the training of troops,’ said Ely Karmon, former adviser to the Defense Ministry and senior researcher at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.”

In the London Review of Books, Sara Roy wrote, also before the operation (“Cast Lead”), that “Israel’s siege has two fundamental goals. One is to ensure that the Palestinians there are seen merely as a humanitarian problem, beggars who have no political identity and therefore can have no political claims. The second is to foist Gaza onto Egypt.” After describing the economic strangulation at considerable length and detail, Roy noted: “The breakdown of an entire society is happening in front of us, but there is little international response beyond UN warnings which are ignored. … How can keeping food and medicine from the people of Gaza protect the people of Israel? How can the impoverishment and suffering of Gaza’s children — more than 50 per cent of the population — benefit anyone? International law as well as human decency demands their protection. If Gaza falls, the West Bank will be next.” It is superfluous to add that Sara Roy is the child of survivors of the Nazi Holocaust.

Developments are changing constantly. As of “press” time, Ha’aretz reports that Israeli Arabs are demonstrating, burning tires and Israeli flags. Not surprising, but a potential powder-keg: one-seventh of Israel’s population is Arab. This could quite possibly turn into another intifada if the bloodbath continues. Gideon Levy, one of the sharpest editorialists in the Israeli press, wrote immediately after the attacks started, “Once again, Israel’s violent responses, even if there is justification for them, exceed all proportion and cross every red line of humaneness, morality, international law and wisdom. What began yesterday in Gaza is a war crime and the foolishness of a country.”

Israel will doubtless suffer further attacks against its own citizens if words from people like Levy are ridiculed or ignored, the necessary, at times painful, voices of dissent that put a worthy nation on the right track if, and more often when, it goes perilously astray.

No comments: