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A Crisis And An Opportunity

CNN International’s coverage of yesterday’s fighting in Gaza concluded at midnight with a rush of images: mangled civilians writhing in the rubble, primitive hospitals overflowing with the wounded, fireballs mushrooming between apartment complexes, the funeral of a Palestinian child. Missing from the montage, however, was even a fleeting glimpse of the tens of thousands of Israelis who spent last night and much of last week in bomb shelters; of the house in Netivot, where a man was killed by a Grad missile; or indeed any of the hundreds of rockets, mortar shells, and other projectiles fired by Hamas since the breakdown of the so-called ceasefire. This was CNN at its unprincipled worst, grossly skewing its coverage of a complex event and deceiving its viewers. Yet Israel should not have been surprised.

Over the past few weeks, as the tahdiyah (“period of calm” in Arabic, the termed similarly preferred by the Hebrew press) unwound and finally dissipated, Israel’s policy has been to refrain from responding militarily to Hamas rocket fire. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni went to Egypt and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appeared on al-Arabiya TV to bear the message that Israel did not want war with Hamas; instead, Israel was committed to renewing the tahdiyah. The purpose was to build up a moral case for retaliating against a recalcitrant Hamas and limiting the international fallout that invariably follows any Israeli attempt at self-defense. But the tactic has never really worked and failed this time as well. Within minutes of the first Israeli air strike, the Arabs were screaming “massacre” and the media had all but forgotten the serial assaults that provoked it. The press once again attached the word “disproportionate” and the “continuing cycle of violence” term to describe a supremely justified and largely surgical (the targets were exclusively military, the victims overwhelmingly Hamas gunmen) operation. As of this writing, the Security Council is meeting and will no doubt find Israel and Hamas equally guilty for disrupting the ceasefire and demand its immediate restoration.

One wonders why Israel even bothers. Instead of undermining the Zionist ethos of defending Jews’ lives at all costs irrespective of bad publicity and perilously broadcasting weakness to its enemies, perhaps Israel should simply declare that the slightest violation of the ceasefire--a single Qassam--will precipitate an immediate and disproportionate response. Since it’s going to be condemned for it anyway, shouldn’t Israel smash Hamas promptly and massively and reap the benefits in terms of self-respect, deterrence, and a respite for its embattled citizens?

The confusion surrounding Israel’s tactics in the Gaza--Israeli tank and infantry forces are now gathering for a possible ground incursion--is indicative of a deeper bewilderment. The government is purportedly divided over the operation’s goals, with Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak in favor of toppling Hamas, while Olmert prefers to revive the tahdiyah. Nobody seems to know how long Tempered Lead will last or the criteria for deeming it successful. No Israeli leader, whether from Kadima, Labor, or Likud, has articulated a clear vision for Israel’s relationship with the obstreperous Strip.

Here, too, there is nothing original. Back in 1949, at the end of Israel’s War of Independence, Israeli forces surrounded Gaza in an attempt to conquer it and annex it to the nascent Jewish State. Frustrated in that gambit, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion secretly sought to purchase Gaza from the Egyptians in the early 1950s, and then, during the 1956 Suez Crisis, Israel briefly occupied the Strip. Israeli soldiers in 1967 received unequivocal orders not to enter Gaza, but they did so anyway, and remained there for the next ten years until Prime Minster Menachem Begin tried to convince Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to take control of Gaza--fruitlessly. Israel proceeded to build settlements in the Strip, but not enough to stake a firm territorial claim. It installed a PLO administration there, but later disavowed it as corrupt and terror-ridden. It initially coddled and finally combated Hamas. Finally, in 2005, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, former champion of the Gaza settlements, uprooted all 21 of them and their 8,100 inhabitants. Once renowned for his brutal suppression of Gaza terrorists, Sharon also ignored the 1,000 Qassam rockets that flew on the heels of Israel’s withdrawal. Hamas was consequently empowered and eventually took over the Strip, creating the Hobbesian conditions that Israel faces today.

Nevertheless, the current round of fighting provides Israel with an opportunity to end its painful chronicle of indecision on Gaza and to embark on a lucid and realizable policy. Can Israel co-exist with a Hamas-dominated Gaza? What are the alternatives (the reintroduction of Egyptian forces, for example) to a renewed Israeli occupation of the area? To what degree will the international community accept a zero-tolerance approach to rocket attacks against Israel, and, more crucially, will the incoming Obama administration publicly endorse that stance? These and other questions might be answered in the coming days if Israel, withstanding the media backlash, dares to ask them.

Michael B. Oren, a professor at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a distinguished fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, is the author of Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present.

Click here to read Shmuel Rosner on why Israel wants the war in Gaza to be brief.

By Michael B. Oren