To clear a few things up. Whether or not HAMAS’ central command ordered the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teens is largely irrelevant: the real trigger for this round of fighting was the escalation in HAMAS’ rocket attacks—more than 450 since January and nearly 100 on the day before Operation PROTECTIVE EDGE began—and HAMAS’ construction of tunnels into Israel designed to enable further atrocities against her civilians.
All rhetoric about the cruel, arbitrary Israeli blockade that would not even allow in cement to the people of Gaza who needed it to create jobs and to reconstruct their schoolrooms and homes is now overthrown and we see the truth: what little cement did get into Gaza was siphoned off by a tyrannical and aggressive elite to build tunnels to murder civilians and bunkers to protect themselves and their weapons. More than that, they used child labour that killed 160 children to construct these tunnels. HAMAS might well have miscalculated, as some have said—it might have intended only for a minor set of Israeli strikes to rally the “resistance”—but that only underlines the recklessness and wickedness of the organization. HAMAS knows it cannot win this war so they intend to get as many Gazans as possible killed to mobilize global political pressure against Jerusalem for concessions on the blockade—that HAMAS can then use to reequip for another war in its never-ending quest to destroy the Jewish State.
The key aspect of this war that has gotten nothing like the attention it deserves is Clerical Iran. HAMAS had a public break with Tehran over Syria in December 2011 when it was announced that HAMAS’ leader Khaled Meshal would leave Damascus for Doha. In February 2012 he did so. In October 2013, however, HAMAS came back into the fold. At the end of February, the Israelis stopped a shipment of weapons from Iran to Gaza. The few who have noted Iran’s role make clear it is from Iran that the tunnel-building expertise comes—via its North Korean friends—and the intention is to shift this war onto Israeli territory, which is why Israel is so determined to prevent it by shutting down these tunnels.
A Strained Alliance
The silence of the Sunni Arab world is incredibly noticeable in this because they understand that Israel is at war with the Iranian “Resistance Axis” that is the greatest threat to them. I have noted before the way that the Obama administration seems to be preparing a full-scale rapprochement with Iran, not just a nuclear deal, which would leave Tehran dominant in the Fertile Crescent, with many negative consequences. A subset of this is now playing out in Gaza, where the U.S. is deliberately not seeing the Iranian dimension and is turning to the most Iran-friendly States, Turkey and Qatar, as its means of ending hostilities.
On Friday, John Kerry presented a ceasefire agreement to the Israelis that, as a brilliant report from Barak Ravid in Haaretz made clear, took them entirely by surprise: “not only because it was the opposite of what Kerry told them less than 24 hours earlier, but mostly because it might as well have been penned by Khaled Meshal.” Israel’s offensive would have been stopped immediately, HAMAS would have been recognised as an interlocutor, the Egyptian border-crossings that Cairo has completely sealed would have been opened, and nearly $50 billion in humanitarian aid would have been given to the Palestinian Territories including Gaza, in effect to HAMAS since this unity government remains in control and HAMAS’ use of aid as a political instrument is notorious*.
Israel rejected this ceasefire but HAMAS had already rejected the ceasefire on the table since before the Israeli incursion, and HAMAS has also rejected two further ceasefires Israel has observed and one she tried to extend, firing all the way through all of them. HAMAS killed four people in southern Israel today with rocket fire during a humanitarian ceasefire.
Still, the Obama administration doubled-down on their bet that Turkey and Qatar could be useful in finding a solution. Kerry even went to Paris to meet with their representatives, leaving out not only Israel and the Gulf States but the PA, which protested vociferously at what it (correctly) saw as a pro-HAMAS overture. Doha openly funds HAMAS and Recep Tayyip Erdogan is going mad in full public view. “They always curse at Hitler, but they now even exceed him in barbarism,” was the Turkish Prime Minister’s considered statement on this crisis.
This daylight between the United States and Israel is not good. It’s not only a diplomatic blunder for any State to be distancing herself from an ally and ingratiating herself to barely-concealed-adversaries but it actually pushed a ceasefire further away. An Israel that already feels herself adrift from America because of President Obama’s machinations over Syria and Iran is not likely to adhere to American entreaties over Gaza when the U.S. publicly opposes her over that as well. Kerry’s diplomacy has emboldened HAMAS and made Israel feel even more vulnerable. The chances of an escalation are now very great.
The Media War
If it is generally true, as David Frum has put it, that “modern warfare is PR by other means,” then this is especially true for Israel, and she has suffered very badly in the media war. Channel 4, led by Jon Snow, has been given over entirely to the anti-Israel perspective, and there are concerning (if probably unintentional) things about BBC coverage. A very interesting and as-yet-unknown factor here is the condition of journalists on the ground in Gaza.
Let me pose a simple question: When was the last time you saw a picture of a HAMAS fighter? I thought not. This is not incidental: this is part of HAMAS’ war strategy. As mentioned, they know they cannot win militarily and intend instead to win a propaganda victory that brings international pressure on Israel. This too is drawn from Iran’s playbook.
After the Israel-Hizballah War in 2006, the Brookings Institution looked at the way the media is used in asymmetric warfare. They found that Hizballah operatives in Lebanon “always enthusiastically steer[ed] [journalists] to better pictures of Lebanese casualties” but journalists “could only take pictures of sites approved by their Hezbollah minders. Violations, they were told, would be treated harshly.” While Israeli tanks and military personnel were freely photographed, “the rarest picture of all was that of a Hezbollah guerrilla. It was as if the war on the Hezbollah side was being fought by ghosts.” The point was to increase the sense of ‘disproportion,’ of Israel as a bully. And it largely worked—as it is this time.
There are other indications that the journalists on the ground are not exactly free to report what they see. One journalist in Gaza makes clear how isolated journalists are from the immediate blast-sites, and adds:
Aside from a spokesman I interview at Shifa hospital, Hamas is an invisible presence. They are all in hiding or underground, or fighting in neighborhoods like Shejaiya. Local journalists say we will never get an honest answer about Hamas from residents; Hamas is feared.
Shifa hospital, the main journalistic outpost—no matter how limited access elsewhere is, there’s always access here to take pictures of the wounded for the nightly news—is being used by HAMAS as a media outpost and by some reports a military one too. Reporters in Gaza who have, via Twitter and other means, pointed out that HAMAS is using human shields and dressing its fighters as civilian women, have been called spies and threatened with death.
The intimidation of Western journalists in Gaza is a systematic distortion of the coverage:
These included cases involving photographers who had taken pictures of Hamas operatives in compromising circumstances—gunmen preparing to shoot rockets from within civilian structures, and/or fighting in civilian clothing—and who were then approached by Hamas men, bullied and had their equipment taken away. Another case involving a French reporter was initially reported by the journalist involved, but the account was subsequently removed from the Internet. …
“We have no doubt that Hamas, through coercion and violence, limits the freedom of foreign journalists in Gaza,” an Israeli official told The Times of Israel. … “We know that downstairs [in the Shifa hospital] there is a Hamas command and control center and that Hamas leaders are hiding there … [but reporters are] only allowed to work upstairs to take pictures of casualties, the pictures that Hamas wants them to take.”
The fear Palestinians have about speaking against HAMAS, the restrictions on journalists to negatively report on HAMAS, and the dubious military tactics of HAMAS in basing itself in residential and medical areas has been excluded from most of the coverage.
Israel and her supporters have tried to push back. Presumably by now everybody has seen the video put out by the International Solidarity Movement, ostensibly of an Israeli sniper shooting dead an injured Palestinian. Perhaps it is real, but there is a staged feel to it and at moment 2.28 the supposed victim appears to apply fake blood actually on camera. Since ISM is responsible for the Rachel Corrie provocation, such a thing would not be surprising, and nor is the fabrication of images anything new. In the 2006 Hizballah War Reuters had to withdraw nearly a thousand faked anti-Israel photographs. Probably the most infamous incident of the Second Intifada was the death of Mohammed ad-Dura, falsely blamed on Israel.
Israel has put out the videos of the IAF calling off air strikes when children have been seen in the way and of HAMAS firing from schools, graveyards, and hospitals. HAMAS publicly called for Gazans to ignore Israel’s warnings for civilians to evacuate, its interior ministry has been found to tell its social media activists to claim all Gazan deaths as civilians and ensure that no military installations are photographed, and its fighters fired mortars at the field hospital set up by the IDF to treat Gaza’s wounded.
On July 24, there was a strike on a school, which supposedly caused fifteen deaths, mostly women and children. Most commentary omitted that not once but twice over the preceding week UNRWA—UNRWA!—had put out a statement saying that rockets had been found in schools it runs in Gaza, rockets that promptly went missing (i.e. back to HAMAS.) The U.N. itself condemned this as “turning schools into potential military targets, and endangering the lives of innocent children“. And if UNRWA is reporting this, and doing so twice, one can only imagine how bad the real situation is. Israel said at the time she was not sure that it was her fire that hit the school—some significant percentage of HAMAS’ rockets land in Gaza (unless Iron Dome stops them falling on the Palestinians). It turned out Israel had struck the school, but there was not a single person inside. This did not get quite the play on the Western television news channels that the original report had.
These facts don’t seem to be doing Israel much good, nor the much-vaunted hasbara—a word, it seems, anti-Israel advocates now pronounce as a catch-all explanation for why there are any pro-Israel advocates at all.
Human Rights in a Muddle
Judging the casualties is itself a problem. The Palestinian casualties being reported from Gaza come from the HAMAS-run ministry of health in many cases, and even more independent NGOs are often either linked to or under pressure from HAMAS. But these complications have not modulated some respondents.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have unfortunately come to sound like anti-Israel activists and this is a great shame. Both organizations have shown troublesome trends on this question for some time. Amnesty referred to Guantanamo Bay detention facility as the “gulag of our times” and hired Moazzam Begg, while firing Gita Sahgal, and HRW’s own founder has accused the organization of having an anti-Israel slant. The effects of this are very serious.
Take the infamous incident where the Israeli Navy is said to have shelled civilians on the Gaza seafront. Say it’s true. What Israeli, even of the most dovish persuasion, is going to put themselves at the mercy of a human rights ‘community’ and an ‘international community’ that has been so unfair to the Jewish State? Last Wednesday night, the U.N. Human Rights Council voted 29-to-1 with 17 abstentions to refer Israel—just Israel—to the international courts for a war crimes investigation, with China, Cuba, Russia, and Saudi Arabia all voting in favour. HRW director Kenneth Roth might think America being the only vote against is being “shamefully alone,” but there is certainly an argument to say that right is not determined by a vote and in this case there was some nobility in being alone.
The tragedy is that the damage the human rights groups are doing to their credibility is damaging to the cause of human rights globally. What happens now when some despot says he is being singled out and misrepresented, if HRW and Amnesty do actually behave this way toward some countries? Everyone might know that it is only really Israel and sometimes America to which this applies, but how can it be proven that said tyrant is not also on the list? This was what Daniel Patrick Moynihan referred to in his famous and brilliant speech to the United Nations in 1975 denouncing the “Zionism is Racism” resolution:
Today we have drained the word “racism” of its meaning. Tomorrow, terms like “national self-determination” and “national honour” will be perverted in the same way to serve the purposes of conquest and exploitation. … [H]ow will the small nations of the world defend themselves, on what grounds will others be moved to defend and protect them, when the language of human rights, the only language by which the small can be defended, is no longer believed and no longer has a power of its own?
A Mistaken Escalation
It is with all that in mind that I still say Israel should not have invaded Gaza and should now look to get her troops out as soon as possible. Look at the two pictures below from the Shejaiya neighbourhood in Gaza, where Israel and HAMAS engaged in intense fighting on the night of July 19/20.
It doesn’t matter that Israel did everything she could to avoid civilian casualties. It doesn’t matter that the reason casualties were as high as they were was because HAMAS embedded itself in a civilian population that it refused to allow to leave—as even Channel 4’s tendentious coverage made clear. A price in PR and lives this high should only be paid if Israel means to finish with HAMAS once and for all, and she doesn’t. There are some good reasons for this. The Pentagon’s intelligence chief has said that if HAMAS is destroyed “something like ISIS” will replace it. There are arguments for saying that the risk of solving one problem potentially leading to a worse problem is no reason for not solving the first problem: all foreign policy comes with unintended consequences and all that solving one crisis ever does it present a new set of problems. But in this case there is reason to heed Michael Flynn’s advice: there is no other organised force to take power in Gaza. Everybody’s wish that the PA will retake control is a fantasy. The only other scenarios if HAMAS were to be destroyed are chaos or a renewed Israeli occupation—in my judgment both worse for Israel than a HAMAS-run Gaza.
The Israeli air strikes were justifiable: deterrence has to be maintained and those tunnels had to be destroyed. Tony Badran, who has been the primary source for pointing out that the Obama administration is making a move toward partnership with Iran, pointed out that Israel instilled deterrence against Iran with her strong reaction to Hizballah in 2006, despite the operation being bungled. (Badran also points out that many Lebanese and Syrians wish Israel had instilled such deterrence to stop the Party of God getting involved in Syria. Israel and the Syrian rebellion are on the same side, loathe though large sections of both sides are to admit it.)
It might well be said that airstrikes cause more civilian casualties than a ground operation. In general, in counter-insurgency (COIN) situations things like drones should be used sparingly. The dense urban environment in Gaza means that air strikes inevitably cause heavy civilian casualties; a case can be made that sending in troops increases Israeli military casualties but minimises Gazan civilian losses. But with troops come tanks and in narrow warrens it is questionable how much better these are than air strikes. The primary reason in any case for preferring air strikes to a ground invasion are political, not military. Mistakes are bound to happen in such an environment and HAMAS’ opportunities for causing civilian casualties increase by making Israeli soldiers guess which non-uniformed Gazan is a fighter and forcing the IDF to choose between their own lives and those of Gazan civilians. In the atmospherics, an operation like DEFENSIVE SHIELD is simply less optically offensive than CAST LEAD.
I’m not completely sure how this war affects HAMAS’ popularity but there is good reason to think it won’t damage it—and right at this moment it has certainly increased it**. If HAMAS allowed to run in Elections, as I think it should be, there is every chance that this has helped them. I’m very sceptical that this conflict ends, period, and even more sceptical still that it ends by the signing of a treaty guided by the United States. It would be welcome but seems unlikely, and a Palestinian Election would likely show that the Palestinians do not want a two-State solution. This is therefore about management, since—make no mistake about it—we will be back here again in 18 months to two years. This invasion has not made that task any easier. The spiralling violence on the West Bank that has already got people talking about a “Third Intifada” is easier to tamp down when hostilities are not ongoing in Gaza, and those hostilities are easier to end when soldiers do not have to be extricated. Global opinion will next time be mobilised much more quickly against Israel even if it is only an air campaign after the scale of this war. Israel’s critics condemn her no matter what she does and throw around vicious slanders comparing her with Apartheid South Africa and even Nazi Germany. The key is to keep such people on the fringes but this invasion has given such people many more chances to influence the credulous.
[*] A secondary row has blown up because Laura Rozen of Al-Monitor—an outlet that is not exactly hostile to Iran—has circulated a document given to her by al-Jazeera, the Qatari State outlet, that calls Ravid and Israel liars. Haaretz it should be noted is to Israel roughly what the Guardian is to Britain or The New York Times is to America: the major Left-wing paper, notoriously hostile to the Netanyahu government.
[**] Michael Doran gave this very interesting assessment of how Gazan public opinion will be affected by this, believing HAMAS will be the major loser of this war:
[T]he mere fact of surviving will give Hamas the ability to claim victory, like so many Arab leaders have done in the past after taking their people into fruitless wars. …
Hamas looks strong now, because of the surge of public opinion in its favor. But that is transitory. After the dust settles, even Palestinian public opinion will not support Hamas at renewed levels. Six months from now, many Palestinians, especially those in Gaza, will ask themselves what all the pain and destruction that Hamas brought down on them was worth. Their disgruntlement will not weaken Hamas’s grip on power, because it is a dictatorship supported by foreign money. …
As for the ‘support’ that Hamas gets from public opinion in other parts of the Arab world that will certainly dissipate. Of course, it’s never been worth much anyway … because it never translates into lasting change in the behavior of states, the true power brokers in the region.
Meanwhile, Hamas will have lost considerably on the battlefield. Its extensive tunnel network will have been destroyed, and it will have lost many fighters. Its capabilities will be so degraded that it will take years to rebuild. And the reconstruction will take place in more difficult conditions, given that Hamas is now surrounded by a vice in the form of the Egyptian-Israeli alliance. …
So I am defining “loss” as a massive sacrifice, both by the organization and the people over whom it rules, in return for less than nothing.
Update: A report in The Daily Beast on July 31 buttresses several of the main points made here: Israel is trying for behaviour-change not regime change mostly because she fears that to topple HAMAS would either lead to an ISIS-type group taking over or she would have to re-occupy the Strip, “Which raises the question: Why are Israeli forces in Gaza—at the cost of more than 1,300 lives and a rising tide of global condemnation—in the first place?” Exactly.