Saturday, August 02, 2014

Stuck in Gaza?

What a difference one day can sometimes make during a war.

=> On Thursday, which already seems a long time ago, William Saletan of Salon wrote a piece that pulled together some of the most compelling reasons why the Israeli government ought to be trying to find ways to bring its military operation in Gaza to an end as soon as possible. Saletan, it should be noted, was not among the people who had been issuing blanket condemnations of Israel from the start of the war, along with wild claims that the Israelis were just indiscriminate and sadistic baby-killers. I think his overall argument was pretty cogent, whether or not one agreed completely with every specific point, and it remains worth reading today. (I recommend it.) The subtitle of the piece was "Operation Protective Edge needs to end", and the main title was "12 Signs It’s Time to Get Out of Gaza". Those 12 signs, or rather reasons, listed by Saletan were the following:
1. Your enemy refuses to protect its people. [....] When your enemy shows no mercy for its own people, that responsibility falls to you. [....]

2. You’re killing too many civilians. Last time I checked, on a per-strike basis, Israel’s rate of inflicting civilian casualties was lower than NATO’s in the Kosovo war. But in just three weeks, Israel has launched so many strikes that its civilian casualty toll has eclipsed NATO’s. [....] What’s happening is entirely predictable: Israel has shifted from guided weapons to old-fashioned shelling. Everyone, including Israel, knows that this will increase the error rate, with lethal results. [....]

3. Your civilian protection measures are failing. I’ve praised the IDF for its exemplary double-layered warning system: phone calls to residents of buildings, followed by dummy bombs designed to scare people out of the building before the real strike hits. The IDF has also robo-called and leafleted neighborhoods, warning people to clear out before the area is invaded. But these measures are failing. [....] The further the IDF advances into overpopulated Gaza, the harder it is for civilians to find a refuge. At some point, you have to acknowledge that your worthy efforts aren’t enough. [....]

4. Your mission and methods keep expanding. [....]
5. The payoff is declining. [....]
6. You’re losing too many soldiers. [....]
7. You’re close to losing another Gilad Shalit. [....]
8. You’re picking fights with everyone. [....]

9. Your eldest statesman says it’s time to stop. A week ago, Shimon Peres stepped down after seven years as Israel’s president. [....] On Wednesday, he visited wounded Israeli soldiers and praised them for fighting Hamas terrorists “who have no respect for human lives.” But he also concluded that the war had “exhausted itself” and “now we have to find a way to stop it.” For this, Israel’s housing minister called Peres’ remarks “unacceptable” and accused him of undermining military morale.

10. Your army hints that it’s time to stop. [....]

11. Your ethics are degenerating. Israel accuses Hamas of using Palestinian civilians as human shields. As an indictment, that’s correct. But Israel has also peddled this as an all-purpose excuse for the IDF’s role in civilian deaths. [....] Once you’ve devised a moral argument that excuses anything you do, you’re lost. [....]

12. The West Bank is boiling.
Two of the main themes running through this argument were that Israel was experiencing mission creep in a way that would suck it ever deeper into Gaza, with increasing costs of all kinds and diminishing possible benefits, and that as the war went on, it was becoming increasingly difficult to avoid unintentionally killing Palestinian civilians (which, despite propaganda to the contrary, the Israelis have clearly been trying to avoid). Point #12 is also a crucial consideration, and it continues to become even more dangerous as the war continues.

As of Thursday night, there seemed to be signs that the Israeli government—or, at least, the majority of the cabinet—were in accord with the main thrust of this argument, and was looking for ways to extricate itself from the Gaza war before it escalated further. That was probably part of the reason why the Israeli government accepted the proposal for a 72-hour cease-fire due to begin at 8 a.m. on Friday, followed by negotiations in Cairo.

=> But then on Friday morning the cease-fire collapsed almost completely, since Hamas proved to be unwilling or unable to maintain its side of the truce. And it also turned out that Saletan's warning in his point #7 was especially on-target. In one of the operations they carried out while breaking the cease-fire, Hamas grabbed a major prize by capturing an Israeli soldier. Unfortunately, as Anshel Pfeffer and others immediately pointed out, this brilliant success will almost certainly help prolong the fighting in Gaza, and quite possibly help to escalate it as well.
Efforts are already afoot to try and revive the 72-hour ceasefire which was blown to smithereens this morning but it will be next to impossible now for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who withstood the pressure in the cabinet to expand the operation, to agree to any ceasefire in the coming days.
Joshua Keating's assessment was especially pessimistic:
A number of humanitarian cease-fires had already been called in the now nearly monthlong war in Gaza, but the one that was supposed to go into effect for 72 hours starting this morning [i.e., Friday] felt different. [....]

Now, Hamas has apparently captured an Israeli soldier using a tunnel near Rafah, and Israeli bombardments have resumed. Israel says the capture came after the cease-fire went into effect. Hamas says it was before.

This would seem to mark the end not just of this cease-fire but of a phase in the conflict where a series of rolling cease-fires leading to a diplomatic solution was a plausible strategy.

Even if Netanyahu wanted to de-escalate the conflict, that seems politically impossible now with an IDF soldier in custody. [....] Hamas, meanwhile, is unlikely to give up its prisoner anytime soon. [....]

A few days ago, it seemed possible that Israel might be on the verge of simply declaring its military goals accomplished and pulling out. But rescuing a prisoner likely being held somewhere underground in Gaza is going to take a lot longer than simply destroying tunnels. The violence seems likely to continue for some time now, and a long-term reoccupation of Gaza—a scenario called for by some senior Israeli officials—now seems a lot more likely than it did a few days ago.

This iteration of the long-running Israel-Hamas conflict seemed as if it was likely to end with case-fires and a return to the grim status quo after a few weeks, like previous iterations in 2008 and 2012 had. But it’s starting to look like we’re witnessing something much worse.
Various bits of that analysis are questionable, and I think (and hope) that the speculation about a renewed long-term Israeli of Gaza is unrealistic and excessively alarmist. (This report today would seem to help confirm that impression.) But its true that the breakdown of this cease-fire, combined with Hamas's capture of an Israeli prisoner, has produced a situation in which the prospects are indeed quite bad.

We don't know precisely how all this happened, and it's hypothetically possible that the Hamas leadership didn't deliberately intend to blow up this cease-fire. But it's also possible that they did so precisely because Hamas, or at least whoever is controlling Hamas's military operations on the ground in Gaza, doesn't want a cease-fire under conditions short of 'victory' (however they define it). In that case, they can control the agenda.

Like all too many wars, this one may prove to be easier to get into than to get out of. Meanwhile, we have to hope that the worst possibilities don't actually come to pass. And let me repeat that from the Israeli perspective, the main thrust of Saletan's analysis back on Thursday remains valid. Let's hope it hasn't already become obsolete.

—Jeff Weintraub