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10 Jan 2009 05:00
The scenes of calamity just get worse. This week readers awoke to an image that will haunt many for years to come: three young children, their eyes closed as if in sleep, laid out dead on a hospital floor.
One was no bigger than a baby; next to him, a toddler wearing junior tracksuit trousers, the kind your own son might wear.
Somehow, and quickly, even that horror was surpassed with the news that a UN school, used as a shelter, had been hit, killing more than 40 Palestinians, more than half of them women or children. Israel says Hamas fighters were launching mortar shells from the UN facility, which is why Israel hit back. Either way, Operation Cast Lead seems designed to leaden the heart with sorrow.
Still, Britons and Americans have no cause for self-righteousness. The scale of the Israeli offensive is shocking and yet the killing is not of a greater order than that of the two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which British troops are taking part. I spoke this week to one foreign diplomat based in Jerusalem who recalled how, during an earlier posting in Afghanistan, he had seen the remains of an entire village razed by American fighter jets in pursuit of a couple of Taliban commanders.
“All that was left was rubble and body parts,” he says now. Seen in the context of the past seven years, the grim truth is that Israelis are not guilty of a unique crime in Gaza.
When and how will this end? “The sooner, the better,” says Ehud Olmert, the accidental prime minister whose tenure began with the pounding of southern Lebanon and will end with the pummelling of Gaza. He told the Ha’aretz newspaper this week that he is in touch with world leaders seeking a diplomatic way out - but he did not sound like a man in a hurry.
The conventional wisdom suggests crises like this conclude when the international community finally says enough is enough. But in the Middle East, the international community is a fiction. The only pressure that counts is Washington’s and nothing is coming from that direction.
That leaves the only pressure that can divert Israeli governments: Israeli public opinion. If the fathers and mothers of Israel’s soldiers turn on this operation, then its days will be numbered. For that to happen, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) would have to sustain serious casualties. Support for the 2006 war in Lebanon melted once too many Israeli families were burying their dead.
But that does not seem to be about to happen. For one thing, the IDF is currently winning plaudits from the Israeli press for proceeding gingerly, pushing its ground troops forward with caution as if they have learned some of the operational lessons of 2006. More importantly, Hamas is not staging anything like the opposition mounted by Hezbollah in Lebanon, when Israeli fatalities reached triple figures.
It lacks the resources of Hezbollah, with its open border and supply lines to Syria. Hamas is in tiny, sealed-off Gaza. True, it is backed by Iran - which partly explains the strength of support for Cast Lead from an Israeli public long fearful of an Iranian proxy on its southern border - but relying on smuggled kit is not the same as having a powerful patron across the border.
Unless, of course, this is all a fiendish plot by the Hamas leadership.
On this theory, they are not really cowering in their underground bunkers—too scared to resist, saving their own skins, as the uncle of those dead toddlers accusingly said. Instead they are waiting to lure the IDF in, enticing Israeli troops deep into Gaza’s cities where they will be most vulnerable.
But in the absence of such a lethal Hamas fightback, the ending of this conflict will be in Israel’s hands. The Israelis won’t end it now, not when they are still finding weapons caches or other Hamas military capacity to be degraded. It is too tempting to press on, to crush the enemy. That way Israel gets to claim what it could not in 2006: a clear and total victory.
But there is a massive risk here. Such a victory will not just achieve Cast Lead’s original stated aim, namely altering Hamas’s calculus—reducing its incentive to fire rockets at civilian targets inside Israel—but could topple the Hamas government altogether.
When one Israeli minister hinted that the goal was “regime change” in Gaza, he was rapidly contradicted by his colleagues. But that may end up being the result: intelligence reports suggest the organisation has been eviscerated, its ability to govern all but destroyed.
Israeli leaders will crow at that; their poll numbers will surge. But it will surely prove a pyrrhic victory. For what would be the consequences of crippling the Hamas administration in Gaza? Israel would be confronted with a sharp dilemma. Either it would have to stay, resuming the occupation it sought to end in 2005 - a notion with zero popular appeal in Israel. Or it would have to withdraw, leaving behind a huge and dangerous question mark.
For Gaza could become a vacuum, rapidly descending into Somalia, a lawless badland of warlords and clans. A new force could seek to replace Hamas. Most likely it would be even more radical: al-Qaeda has long been pushing at the edges of Gaza, eager to find a way in.
Would either of those options appeal to Israel? Of course they wouldn’t.
As one Israeli commentator put it this week: “In this context the IDF is afraid of being too successful.” Israel’s preferred scenario, having pushed Hamas out of the way, is for the pro-Western moderates of Fatah to take over. But Fatah knows that to return to Gaza on the back of an Israeli tank is the kiss of death: it would forever be branded collaborators with the enemy.
Israel may try to dump responsibility for Gaza on a coalition of moderate Arab states and others, including the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. But would any of them be willing to take it on? Analyst Ahmad Khalidi notes that the “amount of aid, reconstruction and psychological nursing is of such intensity” that surely no one would step in. Israel may be left recalling what Colin Powell once called the Pottery Barn rule: “You break it, you own it”.
And from the rubble of Gaza, the attacks on Israel will surely resume.
Hamas is too deeply rooted to disappear. New cells will arise, more filled with hatred and bent on revenge than ever. Already there are warnings of a return to suicide bombing, inside Israel and beyond. And, warns Khalidi, there would be no Hamas leadership - with undeniable discipline over its forces and the pragmatism to see the benefits of a ceasefire - to rein in these new, angry fighters. The great irony is that Israel may well decapitate Hamas - only to regret the passing of a Palestinian administration with sufficient stature to bring order.
Perhaps Israel’s leadership will see this danger and hold back, pushing for a ceasefire that would be robust and externally supervised but would ultimately, if indirectly, amount to a deal with Hamas.
If that is the outcome, it will be a strange kind of victory. For Israel could have got that through diplomacy, without causing the death, mayhem and damage to its international reputation now unfolding before our eyes.
If it goes further, it will have removed one danger—only to have replaced it with one far greater.—
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