Michael Totten

Why Gaza? Why Now?

By Charles Chuman
The Israeli attacks on Gaza took the world by surprise. Why? Why now? And is it surprising?
A common response about the reason for the current military action is that “the Israelis are tired of daily qassam attacks against Sderot and Ashkelon and require their government do something.”
This simplistic explanation answers the “why?” but not “why now?” When confronted with the further evidence that Israel has sustained barrages of up to 60 qassams a day for years, this explanation makes Israel’s attacks (or counter-attacks) seem even more surprising and disproportionate. It leaves observers confused.
Why did Israel suddenly launch this attack? Why so massive? Why doesn’t Israel target the individual qassam launchers, or mount smaller, more frequent operations? There is no pattern. That might be the point, but it partially explains the shocked reactions.
**It’s All About Politics**
Others, like “Katya Adler”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7801657.stm of the BBC, believe that the Israelis mounted the attack for political reasons. According to this thesis, the Israelis chose to act now because:
1. Israel holds elections in 2009. The winner of these elections will confront a number of existential questions about Israel’s existence: from the debate over Jewish communities in the West Bank, to the creation of a Palestinian state, to negotiations with the Syrians and the Arab League.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni of Kadima and Defense Minister Ehud Barak of Labor see that Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud is significantly ahead in preliminary polls. However, many Israelis are still skeptical of Netanyahu and are concerned that Likud’s Knesset list is too far to right (see “Moshe Feiglin”:http://www.forward.com/articles/14760/).
The attacks on Gaza prove to the Israeli people that Kadima and Labor – the parties that failed to win the 2006 war – can still defend their country. Israelis do not need to compromise their social and existential beliefs in the name of defense.
2. US President George Bush has given Israel a free hand. President-elect Barack Obama is an unknown quantity, and it is widely assumed that he will be more critical of Israel. If Israel wants to launch a large-scale attack, the assumption is that it is best to do it now under Bush than to wait until Obama enters the White House.
The political explanation was my knee-jerk reaction; however, this explanation is also simplistic.
**Military Action**
The IDF released pre-attack aerial images of many of the destroyed sites. I have yet to see independent confirmation that these specific sites are actually what the IDF alleges, and that these were the sites destroyed. Regardless, the images show myriad alleged training camps, arms caches and military installations.
This list of targets most likely existed for a long time.
On December 20, 2008 Hamas “ended”:http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1048055.html the six month Egypt-brokered truce with Israel claiming that the Israeli blockade of Gaza broke the agreement. The Israelis allegedly wanted to extend the truce, and justified the blockade because of the ongoing qassam attacks that Hamas did not or could not stop.
When the cease-fire ended, the Israelis promised violence would result for obvious reasons: Hamas was re-declaring war. Hamas manifested little interest in negotiations and has shown no interest in returning Gilad Shalit, the IDF soldier Hamas holds hostage since his capture in 2006.
As in 1967, the Israelis chose to act first before Hamas had a chance to launch an attack or kidnap another soldier.
Unlike 1967, Gaza is blockaded, semi-contained, and Hamas does not pose an immediate existential threat to Israel, as Egypt and Syria did. The attacks alienate Palestinian populations in the West Bank, provoked the ire of the Arab League, and have incensed international observers.
The death of 300 people and the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people is tragic. However, I am at a loss to see what other options are available to the Israeli political and defense establishments and to the Israeli voters in Sderot and Ashkelon.
Before these attacks, Gaza was a human rights disaster. Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and attacks immediately began. The February 2007 Saudi-sponsored Mecca Agreement to bring Hamas and Fatah together after the Palestinian elections failed miserably when Hamas militarily took control of Gaza and forced Fatah out. Kidnapping skyrocketed. Churches were ransacked. Rocket attacks on Israel increased. The blockade was ineffective, and Hamas called off the ceasefire.
Israel’s response is destructive and asymmetric. That is the point. Israel is proving to Hamas that it is willing and able to mount a war, regardless of Arab and international opinion, if that is what Hamas desires. Hamas and Hezbollah taught Israelis that unilateral withdrawal from territory only prolongs the violence. If Israel’s enemies are willing to use violence, Israel has no qualms about using violence. If, like Syria, Israel’s enemies remain non-belligerent, those enemies can exist in perpetuity. In fact, Israel might even help its enemies achieve their goals, as it has done with the Syrian regime.
A critical re-think of the situation is imperative to end this cycle of violence. The state of Israel is predicated on survival, and it has powerful allies to assist it. The Palestinians need and deserve a state, but rejection of the state of Israel is not how that state and a future peace will occur.
International demonstrations on behalf of Palestinians or Israelis supporting human rights and rejecting violence are commendable as manifestations of humanitarian concern and expressions of free speech. However, ideologies and facts on the ground must change before a solution is found.
Political decisions undoubtedly played a part in the current attacks on Gaza, but this is part of an on-going war and cannot be viewed as a solitary act.