Operation “Protective Edge” and the Left’s beautiful friendship with Netanyahu

[Published in Hebrew on July 30, 2014, before Hamas captured an Israeli soldier]

?????????????????????????The war between Israel and Hamas has been raging for three weeks already, and no one knows when it will end. It has killed more than 1,100 people in the Gaza Strip, of whom 80% were civilians, including 220 children and 120 women. It has wounded thousands and displaced some 400,000. It has destroyed water and electricity infrastructures and hundreds of homes. But like most wars, it did not begin when the first shot was fired. We may take as its starting point June 15, when Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared Hamas to be responsible for the abduction of three yeshiva students in the Hebron area, although Hamas denied all involvement. Netanyahu used the abduction as a pretext to make war on Hamas, re-arresting Palestinians who had been released from Israeli prisons as part of the 2011 deal freeing Gilad Shalit. Netanyahu provoked Hamas, and now he is requesting help from the US, Egypt, and even Abu Mazen to get him out of the hole he dug.

The war that was not meant to be

Netanyahu was motivated by narrow political considerations. His war on Hamas had nothing to do with Gaza. The government of Israel had just abandoned nine months of futile talks with Abu Mazen, mediated by US Secretary of State John Kerry. Israel’s refusal to discuss core issues, particularly borders and the dismantling of settlements, had caused the talks to break down. Moreover, Netanyahu had violated his promise to release a group of Palestinian political prisoners. As a result, the White House blamed Israel for the breakdown, and Israel became isolated on the world stage. This was the moment Hamas had waited for: It approached Abu Mazen to form a Palestinian unity government. While Netanyahu reacted by calling Abu Mazen the “head of a terror group,” the US and Europe expressed support for the unity government.

According to Netanyahu’s calculations, the current war was not supposed to happen. Hamas was almost finished: The military coup in Egypt had brought down the elected government of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’ main friend there. Egypt’s new president, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, added Hamas to the list of terror organizations. He did all he could to crush it, destroying the smuggling tunnels between the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula, as well as closing the above-ground Rafah border-crossing. In the new situation, Hamas’ ardent wish was that Abu Mazen would take responsibility for paying the wages of Hamas government officials and act to lift the siege on Gaza. But Netanyahu, certain that Hamas was on its last legs, took advantage of the abduction of the three students to begin the above-mentioned arrests in the West Bank. He also pressured the US to prevent Qatar from sending money to Hamas that could have been used to pay public servants in the Strip. Today the magnitude of his error is apparent. Hamas has bounced back thanks to Netanyahu’s generous assistance, while Israel’s citizens and thousands of Gazans are paying the price.

The military operation began on July 8. For an entire week, Israel bombed the Strip from the air, destroying hundreds of buildings and killing 250 Palestinians, including women and children. Israel’s Iron Dome rocket-defense system held its own against Hamas rockets and prevented Israeli losses, while the Palestinians received the full force of the onslaught. Netanyahu and his partners – Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and Chief of Staff Benny Gantz – were sure the war was winding down. On July 15, Egypt came up with its ceasefire proposal: stop fighting now, talk later. Israel accepted it, because it suited its policy of “quiet in exchange for quiet.” The Egyptian proposal was like a gift for Israel, but it signified punishment and surrender for Hamas, because General Sisi was not prepared to guarantee the opening of the Rafah crossing or the lifting of the blockade on Gaza.

Hamas’ rejection of the ceasefire proposal supplied Netanyahu with an excuse to step up the operation, and he sought an acceptable justification for sending in limited ground forces. It seems the US was not willing to give him a blank check, so Netanyahu found a new issue – the tunnels. Since July 18, Israeli TV channels have brought up this subject again and again, until every Israeli has become an expert on the technical intricacies of tunnel construction and the difficulties involved in digging them.

The leftwing is with Netanyahu… the US is not

Using the tunnels, Netanyahu has managed to unite the entire nation behind his war, from the ultranationalist settlers to liberal-left Meretz. The incursion of ground troops created an Israeli consensus which holds that this is Israel’s most justifiable war in many years. The sirens in Tel Aviv brought Hamas into every home, and Israelis were suddenly attracted to Netanyahu’s “balanced reasoning.” The Iron Dome intercepting Hamas rockets above the cities made people forget that it was Netanyahu who set the bloody ball rolling, and all the world’s wisest are having a hard time stopping it. Meretz fell in love with the Egyptian proposal and the possibility of resuscitating the “moderate axis,” which includes Abu Mazen, the Jordanian and Saudi Abdullahs, and of course General Sisi.

The celebration could have continued if two important factors had not arisen. First, unlike the previous Gaza incursion (“Cast Lead”), in which 10 Israeli soldiers died, the current war has claimed the lives of 53 soldiers so far. Second, the international community was not prepared to accept the images of death and devastation in Gaza. Two days after the start of the ground incursion, the magnitude of the destruction became apparent with the flattening of the Shijaiyah neighborhood. Kerry’s response, “A hell of a pinpoint operation,” expressed the revulsion felt around the world. For the first time in its history, Israel discovered that the US does not necessarily stand by it automatically.

Not only was the US administration disgusted by the images from Gaza, it also rejected the Egyptian proposal as the basis for ending the war. When Hamas presented the Qatar-Turkey proposal, which made a ceasefire dependent on lifting the Gaza blockade, the US located itself between the two proposals. For this, it was reviled by the entire political spectrum in Israel, including the leftwing, which had always sided with the US administration against Netanyahu’s government. This is a strange situation; after all, the elements – Egypt, Abu Mazen, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and of course Israel – are all US allies. It is an internal “family dispute,” and there is no axis of evil against which to unite.

But in fact, the stand of the Obama administration is consistent. The Israeli Left fell in love with the “moderate” Arab camp, and embraced it in its struggle against the extreme Israeli Right, which refuses any political agreement; however, the US views the moderate camp as problematic and unable to bring regional stability. The US considers the Saudi regime to be a base for the Islamic fundamentalism that nurtured Bin Laden, while the Egyptian regime is seen as a caricature of the Mubarak regime, which came to power following a military coup and resulted in a harsh dictatorship. In contrast, the US sees the Muslim Brotherhood as a moderating influence on fundamentalist extremism (as represented by the Islamic State of Iran and Syria—ISIS). The US believes that the Brotherhood has deep roots in and significant influence on Arab society. It believes that under normal circumstances, the Brotherhood would be willing to play the democratic game, as Islamic parties do in Turkey and Tunisia. The US thinks that the path of General Sisi and his Saudi partner leads only to a dead end—to ongoing political instability, corruption and oppression—and that it fails to address the economic problems besetting Egypt.

Between harsh alternatives

US policy is based on cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood. This explains US support for the Palestinian unity government against which Netanyahu has been waging an all-out battle. But Netanyahu has no alternative to Hamas or a Palestinian unity government. He himself fears Hamas’ total collapse, because ISIS, from the House of Saud, is likely to fill the vacuum; he therefore seeks a way out which will not compel him to make far-reaching concessions.

Thus those who want to strengthen Abu Mazen at Hamas’ expense, on the basis of the Egyptian initiative, find themselves in the same camp as Netanyahu. Only the Palestinian people can strengthen Abu Mazen, but the more that Israel and the Zionist Left embrace him, the more the Palestinian people reject him. At the same time, all those who want to strengthen Sisi at the expense of the Muslim Brotherhood, like many of the secular liberals in Egypt, are joining up with a murderous dictator. Currently, Egypt is negotiating an interim agreement, known as the “amended Egyptian initiative.” The US is trying to bring its quarrelsome partners back together and work out a compromise between Egypt and Qatar. The agreement being cooked up looks something like this: Abu Mazen will get control of the Rafah crossing; Hamas will get the blockade partially lifted; Sisi will earn himself some legitimacy; and Israel will get its yearned-for quiet. In the meantime, the residents of the Gaza Strip are suffering death and devastation for the third time since Hamas took control of the territory.

The war will eventually come to an end, but the problems underlying it will only get worse. The Occupation, source of all evil, will continue to shake up Israel again and again. Those who support Netanyahu’s “justified war,” including the Israeli Left and opinion makers in the media, forget that the world is sick of the Occupation, of gross violations of human rights, of closures and the Separation Wall, of the settlements and settlers, of the checkpoints, of bored soldiers who fire at students, and of the repeated destruction in Gaza.

Instead of waking up only when rockets are fired in its direction, Israeli society must take responsibility for the fact that the government imprisons the Palestinians in its name and embitters their lives. The wide-eyed innocence of many Israelis who repeat the mantra, “We got out of Gaza, so what do they want from us?” is sanctimonious hypocrisy. Israel withdrew its forces from the Gaza Strip unilaterally—while continuing to control the air, the sea, and most of the land gateways—as punishment for the Palestinians. It was an attempt to weaken the West Bank and divide the Palestinian people. Tricks like these—plus various alliances, military and technological superiority, and the Iron Dome—cannot purify what is rotten to the core. The Occupation must end and a peace agreement must be signed including both parts of the Palestinian people, those in the West Bank and those in Gaza. Only in this way will Israel regain international legitimacy, and only in this way will it halt its headlong rush towards catastrophe. The more it destroys the future of the Palestinian people, the more it will become a barbaric and Kahanist society.

– Translated by Yonatan Preminger


About Yacov Ben Efrat