TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

On the Gaza War

This talk was presented at the 2009 Telos Conference.

When my wife and I arrived in Israel a few days before the Gaza war began, we were taken aback by the focus on the increase in rocket attacks from Gaza after Hamas had decided to end the “truce.” Friends from across the political spectrum were incensed. During the truce, Hamas used the Arabic world for lull as a dozen rockets and mortars a day came into Southern Israel, but the count had jumped to 70 to 80 a day, and Southern Israel was forced to live in constant fear. The attacks were barely mentioned in the Western press.

We were struck by the unusual concurrence on what to do about the attacks. Generally our left-wing, upper-middle-class North Tel Aviv friends and our middle- and lower-middle-class friends from Hadera, whose middle Israel population of Mizrahim (Jews from Arab countries) is hawkish, agreed on little. But to our surprise their responses to the Hamas rocketing were in both emotional tone and political conclusion virtually identical. They all wanted both separation and normality—meaning as much separation from the Arabs and as much of a conventional Western life as possible.

In effect, the left had won the argument with the right over the settlements. The current center-right Kadima government came into power after Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza on the platform of pulling out from the West Bank as well. But as in Lebanon the dovish hopes of land for peace had been replaced with land for rockets. When it came to Hamas, the right had won the argument over whether there was anyone to negotiate with.

The withdrawal from Gaza had produced a new moral clarity. And the Hamas coup against Fatah meant that there was no ambiguity about the options at hand to halt the rocket fire. The BBC, which had usually been taken seriously by Israeli doves, was mocked for talking about how Hamas had come to power democratically. It’s true it was noted that they had outpolled Fatah in the 2005 election, but they then seized power violently, something that the BBC overlooked. When I joked how hard it was to distinguish the BBC from Al Jazeera, I was, unlike in the past, met with agreement from doves. Hamas, they noted, was not only opposed to the existence of Israel but to the existence of a Palestinian state as well. What they wanted was a restoration of the Caliphate, so that the Islamic umma could rule on the basis of Sharia law. All the doubletalk about being a national liberation movement that Arafat had once perfected—he was a third world nationalist on Mondays and a Islamist on Tuesdays and so on—was absent with Hamas. This time when I talked to doves about the fungibility of pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism I received a receptive hearing.

As the war unfolded, I was further surprised by the widespread dismay of critics who found Israel’s response disproportional. In the words of one friend, I guess the problem for these critics is that not enough Jews had been killed. But what he pointed out was in part a matter of target hardening. Kindergartens, for instance, had been built with thick metal roofs, and an air-raid siren gave warning to incoming attacks so people could flee into bomb shelters—something it was noted that Hamas had no interest in building for its population. The effect was that most Israelis were no longer willing to submit to the moral blackmail whereby Hamas could attack and then hide behind civilians to deter a response. Palestinian casualties were seen as a function of Hamas’s choices and not Israel. And in fact the casualty ratio of civilian to military deaths compared quite favorably with Kosovo, Fallujah, and the Afghan-Pakistan border. Essentially, as in Western Europe, where Jihadis game the freedoms offered by Western liberalism to undermine it, Hamas fights by Jihad rules while relying on its enablers in the West to invoke the Western rules of war.

The war was not begun with the end of the Bush administration in mind; it was begun because of the end of the cease-fire, the explosion of the number of attacks launched by Hamas, and the sense of shame that the people of the South had been abandoned, which led to what was seen as a justified war of choice. But the war was clearly brought to a halt by the desire not to get off on the wrong foot with the incoming Obama administration. The war’s end resumes the electoral campaign that had been put on ice. The left parties are complaining that there were too many civilian casualties in Gaza, the right that the job should have been finished. But by and large, the public is satisfied with the outcome—they accept the argument that both deterrence and a pride in the military, which were diminished in Lebanon, have been restored.

The worry now is over how to respond if Hamas carefully calibrates its attacks so that it fires only 2 or 3 rockets a day. But more basically, Israelis are puzzled by the military dissolution of Hamas. After all the talk of welcoming martyrdom, most of Hamas either fled through the tunnels into Sinai or simply hid. Why? What does this mean? Few expect much from the corrupt and ineffectual Fatah, at least half of whose members would love a return to jihad.

A big change for Israelis is that the question of Islam is now on the table as never before. We were on the Lebanese border twice about six weeks before the Hezbollah war. When, looking out onto Lebanon, we tried to raise the question of Islamism, we couldn’t get a hearing. That’s all changed now, so that in the words of a friend, “Jihad is 1300 years old. We can’t end its pathologies, we can’t negotiate with them, we can only manage them.”

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