Five days into Israel’s aerial and naval assault on Gaza, I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop. Despite the call-up of 75,000 reservists, the Israeli Defence Force’s armour and troops remain poised to launch their expected ground assault.
By the time you read this, Israel may well have unleashed its army, but as days pass, there is growing reason to hope that the conflict will not be escalated further. There are some grounds for cautious optimism: Israel may well decide that the cost in terms of international criticism may be too high.
The fact is that in the IDF’s last ground assault on Gaza in January 2009, Israel was able to take advantage of the transition between the Bush and Obama presidencies to try and batter the tiny Palestinian territory into submission. Even though Obama has publicly given Netanyahu the green light, indications are that behind the scenes, his administration is trying to rein the Israelis in.
Politically, too, Israel lives in a very different neighbourhood. Nearly four years ago, it faced no opposition from autocrats that were allied to Washington. Now, the Egyptian prime minister and the Tunisian foreign minister have visited Gaza to show their support, and even Qatar, another US ally, has been vociferous in its condemnation of Israel.
This is not to suggest that Israel has lost the overwhelming military superiority it has long enjoyed over any combination of Arab states. What has been eroded is its complete freedom of action: before the Arab Spring, it had a free hand in deciding which target to attack, and when. Now, it must factor in the probable reactions from Ankara to Cairo.
Today, battles – especially completely asymmetrical ones – are waged as much on TV screens as they are on the battlefield.
Given this development, even pro-Israeli leaders in the West are advising against a ground invasion as this would cost Tel Aviv dearly in the media war. Chemi Shalev, writing in Haaretz, the Israeli daily, captures this reality well:
“Television cameras get closer to the battle, usually from the Palestinian angle, and the view of the campaign shifts to the side that is dramatically outmanned and outgunned. Lonely gunmen in narrow alleys of poverty-stricken slums confront IDF tanks and the homes of innocent civilians are seized, if not destroyed, as desperate old women wail in the background and dazed children peer directly and plaintively into the cameras. From this point on, it is only a matter of time before even Hamas terrorists are suddenly cast as valiant freedom-fighters opposing the forces of darkness, the oppressed fighting off the oppressors…
“This is the inevitable bottom line of the so-called asymmetric warfare that Israel has been waging for the past three decades against Hezbollah, Fatah and Hamas. It is a direct consequence of the continuing occupation of the West Bank, which, whether justified or not, prevents Israel from maintaining the higher moral ground for any length of time. No matter how despicable the specific group Israel is fighting against, how villainous its deeds or how depraved its ideology, the ‘David versus Goliath’ scenario inevitably kicks in, and it is Israel, much to its surprise, that is once again cast as the giant brute imposing his will…”
Clearly, it is the very fact of occupation and oppression that is the trigger for conflict, and until Israelis and their supporters accept this simple truth, the ongoing cycle of violence will continue. But as more time passes, the more difficult it becomes to reach a negotiated peace. Israel’s unending construction activity on occupied land has made a two-state solution all but impossible.
However, given the rapidly shifting political alignments in the region, Israel’s 45-year old occupation of the West Bank may soon be more vigorously challenged than it has been thus far. Another truth that policy-makers in Tel Aviv and Washington will have to come to terms with is that as popular governments are elected in Arab countries, leaders will be more responsive to their people. And the vast majority of Arabs are fed up of Israeli oppression in the West Bank, and its siege of Gaza.
From Netanyahu’s point of view, he has an election to fight in January, and no Israeli politician has lost votes by being tough on Palestinians. Then, he needs to show Hamas and Hezbollah that despite the Arab Spring, the IDF can pound its enemies any time it chooses. And he also wants to send out a signal across the region that Israel remains the bully on the block.
Hamas was forced to respond when its military commander Ahmad Jabari was assassinated by Israel. But once it began launching its rockets, attracting aerial retaliation, it could not stop on the “use them or lose them” principle: once Israeli fighters and drones started targeting the rockets, there was a real danger they would be destroyed on their launching pads or storage areas.
Thus far, Israel claims to have destroyed over 800 targets. How an impoverished, densely populated little strip of land could have 800 targets worth destroying is beyond me. And a senior Israeli commander has claimed his forces would “bomb Gaza back to the Middle Ages.” Considering that the territory is already the poorest place in the region, his valiant forces won’t have to do much to achieve his aim.
For Obama, this is a lose-lose situation. Given the open-ended support Israel has traditionally received from Washington, he cannot withhold his public blessings from a ground assault on Gaza. Yet he knows that by refusing to condemn the relentless pounding of a virtually defenceless people, he risks alienating newly elected Arab governments. If Washington wishes to retain some influence in the new Middle East that’s being shaped today, it will have to rethink its lock-step alliance with Israel.And Israel, too, will need to rethink its policy of continuing its colonial policies in the West Bank, as well as its siege of Gaza.
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