Monday 20 January 2020

Iron dome cannot protect Israel's image

Hamas cannot match its neighbour's military might, but it knows that provocation can help win propaganda war, writes Willie Kealy

Smoke rises after an explosion in Gaza yesterday. Some Israeli ground forces withdrew from the Gaza Strip , two Israeli television stations reported, after the military said it was close to achieving its main war goal of destroying Hamas cross-border tunnels. Photo: Reuters/Siegfried Modola
Smoke rises after an explosion in Gaza yesterday. Some Israeli ground forces withdrew from the Gaza Strip , two Israeli television stations reported, after the military said it was close to achieving its main war goal of destroying Hamas cross-border tunnels. Photo: Reuters/Siegfried Modola

Willie Kealy

History is a bitch. Germany tried to wipe out the Jewish race. After the war the surviving Jews were owed something. That something was a homeland which the Western powers (including Russia) carved out of Palestine. It was a betrayal of their Arab allies who had been promised this would not happen. But on balance it was probably thought treachery was less evil than genocide. So the seeds of confrontation were sown in murder and betrayal.

Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East - with some flaws - would probably be happy enough to live in peace with its neighbours. Hamas wants the State of Israel to disappear off the face of the earth, and all of Palestine to be for the Palestinians. Thus the "Two-State" solution works for only one side at the moment.

Israel, thanks in no small part to a huge hand-out of billions of dollars from the US annually, is dominant militarily and has defeated its enemies in the region (not just the Palestinians) in successive wars.

Hamas is beleaguered in Gaza and has lost most of its traditional allies after the Arab Spring. Its other neighbour and once great backer, Egypt, is no longer supportive since the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted from government there. So Hamas has tried to reassert itself among its own people by showering Israel with missiles.

Israel has a very effective missile defence system - the Iron Dome - so this has not been a catastrophe. But no one wants to live under these conditions indefinitely, where people have to seek shelter several times a day when the air raid sirens wail.

So eventually the Israelis said, to hell with this, we will start hitting back. Which they did. When that didn't work they decided to go in and try to neutralise their tormentors for once and for all.

The problem is that although they were responding to provocation of the worst kind, because they are so militarily superior (and of course Gaza has no iron dome) their response was much more effective.

This means that buildings and infrastructure were destroyed on a daily basis, some Hamas terrorists were killed. But also hundreds of innocent civilians, including women and children, died.

There were ceasefires, but they were temporary or didn't hold. Some were rejected, usually by Hamas which insisted that the long-running siege of Gaza by Israel, now in place for seven years, should be lifted, as a pre-condition. This was not acceptable to Israel which believes the lifting of the siege would be used by Hamas as a chance to re-stock its weapons supply. Hamas still has some allies, notably Iran, which would be willing to help anyone who is an enemy of Israel.

But the net effect of the siege has been to render Gaza a failed state where Hamas dominates, though the entire citizenry do not necessarily support their terrorist actions. But the people are so beaten down that it is easy for them to rally to a cause that seems to be demanding no more than an improvement in their Spartan living conditions, which some Israelis have rather unhelpfully referred to as the Palestinian "diet".

Every time there were civilian deaths in Gaza, the Israelis responded defensively, either saying that they had actually killed terrorists, not civilians, or that the terrorists were deliberately hiding behind civilians and therefore putting them in danger (which is true), and all the time insisting that they were using the most up-to-date technology to ensure their strikes were "pinpoint." (An exasperated John Kerry was heard to say "some pinpoint!"). They told the people of Gaza where they would be striking next so they could get out of the area and go to suggested places of safety.

Israel quickly began to lose the propaganda battle. By virtue of their military superiority, they were killing many more Palestinians then Hamas was killing Israelis, storing up another few decades worth of grievance. Given the density of the population and the tiny size of Gaza, civilian casualties were almost inevitable anyway.

But it was the media focus on child casualties that really turned world public opinion strongly against Israel - even in America, where the people, if not the Congress, are now split 50/50, according to the latest poll.

When four children who had gone to a supposed place of safety - a beach - were killed by an Israeli strike, right in front of the hotel where all the international media were staying, it looked awful for Israel. It didn't help that they first claimed it was terrorists who had been killed and then that some building close to where the children died was a terrorist holding.

Then the schools began to be attacked - again on the basis that terrorists were hiding among the teachers and pupils. And finally, the supposedly only real places of safety - the UN shelters - were attacked. The UN had supplied the coordinates of its shelters to the Israelis in advance, so they thought they were safe.

The Israelis were reduced to saying they would have to check if it was actually their fire power that was responsible and if it was, they would apologise. But the UN were in no doubt that they had been hit by Israeli fire.

So now the gloves are off. Israel seems intent of rooting out the cancer of Hamas for once and for all, no matter what the cost in innocent Palestinian lives.

Hamas, for their part, do not expect to defeat Israel militarily. But they do hope to damage the image of Israel, no matter what it costs in the lives of their own people. They also expect to improve their own standing among Palestinians as the only defence against Israeli aggression.

They hope too, to re-ignite solidarity among lapsed Arab allies. And if they can get enough international pressure to force Israel to lift the blockade of Gaza, the whole bloody exercise will have been a great success. Meanwhile, they will continue to hold their long-term aspiration - the abolition of the Israeli state.

It is a pretty hopeless mess. There does not seem to be any person or institution or state acceptable to both sides as an intermediary. They share nothing except mutual hatred.

Realistically, Israel can carry on killing more and more innocent Palestinians until they feel they have achieved their objective, and then withdraw, leaving the blockade in place.

But after a while, Hamas will resume their missile attacks, as they did after the last invasion in 2008. The blockade has never managed to stop them re-arming.

Or, Israel could agree to yet another ceasefire and lift the blockade, in return for a non-aggression guarantee from Hamas. That would require Israel to make an act of faith in what they regard as a terrorist organisation. They would prefer to only talk to the Palestinian Authority - unfortunately it has little authority right now, and anyway, Hamas is included in the current Cairo delegation. 
Such a concession by Israel would also require Hamas to start behaving properly.

And if Israel does lift the blockade, and if in six months or a year, Hamas rejects the opportunity to allow its own civilian population to develop their small state into a viable trading community - as they have been in the past - and starts attacking Israel again, the people of Israel will be no worse off than they are now.

But they will have gone a long way to win back hearts and minds around the world. And if there is a next time, that could be vital.

Sunday Independent

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