This week, Alpher discusses the key dynamics from Israel’s standpoint of the ten-year anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from the Strip and a low-key interception and thwarting by Israel of a flotilla trying to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza; regarding the publication of a UN report on human rights aspects of last summer’s Gaza war, whether there is anything that Israel can constructively build on as it looks to future conflicts; whether it made sense that the Netanyahu government refused to cooperate with the Human Rights Commission and refused to allow the latest flotilla to approach the Gaza coast; and why the Gaza Strip is relatively quiet, with Hamas seemingly collaborating with Israel by pursuing the occasional more extreme Islamists who fire isolated rockets at Israel.
Q. The past week witnessed publication of a UN report on human rights aspects of last summer’s Gaza war, the ten-year anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from the Strip and, early this Monday morning, a low-key interception and thwarting by Israel of a flotilla trying to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza. Yet the Strip itself is quiet. What are the key dynamics involved here from Israel’s standpoint?
A. I would start with the ten-year anniversary. Because it offers a bit of perspective, it allows us to focus on what I consider to be one obvious, and painful, dynamic: Israel Intelligence was and remains unable to anticipate directions of decision-making regarding war and peace on the part of neighboring non-state Islamist leaders.
From a fascinating reconstruction of the Gaza withdrawal decision-making process published over the weekend by Alex Fischman of Yediot Aharonot, it emerges that then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided in 2003 to withdraw from the Strip without even consulting the Israeli Intelligence establishment. Further, Israel’s Intelligence chiefs assessed at the time of withdrawal in the summer of 2005 that the Hamas leadership in Gaza would behave rationally, would not challenge Fateh’s overall leadership and would not attack Israel--all mistaken judgments.
Fast-forward to last summer’s war. Once again, Israeli Intelligence proved unable to intuit or anticipate a Hamas decision-making process that ignored ceasefire opportunities early in the conflict and continued stubbornly to wage a war that witnessed more and more civilian casualties in the Strip with little to show for the effort from Hamas’ standpoint.
This intelligence lacuna is not unique to Israel and not unique to its attempt to understand Hamas. In the Levant, despite a massive American-led military intelligence effort, the Islamic State and Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra regularly launch successful surprise attacks on targets in Iraq and Syria. And on Israel’s northern borders, though the IDF appears to have reached some sort of temporary understandings with the more moderate Islamists in Syria, this is not the case with Hezbollah and its patron Iran. If there is a current danger of Israel being dragged into the fighting because it is unable to anticipate enemy moves, it is with the latter Shiite Islamist enemy and not the Sunni Islamists. (Note that even the murderous attack last week by Golan Druze on two helpless Sunni Arab wounded combatants being transported to an Israeli hospital as part of an Israeli humanitarian effort did not produce a violent Sunni rebel response against Israel or Syria’s Druze, thereby enabling the IDF to stay out of the fray.)
The 2005 withdrawal with its violent aftermath also gave a bad name in Israel to unilateral withdrawals from neighboring territory in general. The settler movement has exploited this diligently in an effort to prevent future West Bank settlement evacuations, which would almost certainly be on a scale ten times as large in terms of numbers of settlers removed. In particular, the orthodox ideological settlers have expanded their presence (and influence) in Israel’s security institutions and within the ruling Likud party.
Since withdrawing a decade ago, Israel has been attacked three times from Gaza and has responded with naval and land blockades in a seemingly endless cycle of violence. Following the rise to power in Cairo two years ago of a virulently anti-Islamist government under President al-Sissi, Israel has been joined in this approach by Egypt, which seems equally clueless when it comes to reading the intentions of either Hamas in Gaza or the Islamist militants fighting in Sinai.
Q. Can you return to the human rights report? Is there anything here that Israel can constructively build on as it looks to future conflicts?
A. Israel’s refusal to cooperate with the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Independent Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza Conflict, particularly after the Commission’s blatantly anti-Israel chairman William Schabas was forced to resign, bears serious scrutiny. Indeed, that refusal might seem even counter-productive now that the commission’s relatively balanced report has been published and the commission’s chairwoman, Judge Davis, has stated outright that the report would look even better from Israel’s standpoint had it agreed to testify and provide both evidence and access to the commission. Certainly it was ridiculously arrogant of Prime Minister Netanyahu to condemn the report without even bothering to read it.
The report is surprisingly evenhanded in its attempt to understand Israel’s dilemma in responding to Hamas’s attacks and in its criticism of blatant human rights violations by Hamas. Its focus on Israeli military tactics that took an unusually large toll in Gazan civilian lives is worthy of Israel’s attention. Can the IDF find ways in future to avoid the use of one-ton bombs near civilian neighborhoods? Can it deal with the abduction of Israeli soldiers without invoking the “Hannibal” protocol of massive artillery fire in the general direction of the abducted soldier and his captors? And can it find a substitute for the “knock on the roof” light missile that is supposed to alert dwellers of a multi-story building to flee before it is attacked but apparently does not work very well? Hamas has rejected all the report’s accusations against it. Israel can do better.
Having said this, it is nevertheless vital for objective members of the international community to recognize the double standard it is applying to Israel. Since its establishment, the UNHRC has focused more attention on Israel than the rest of the world’s countries combined. This particular report insists on focusing on human rights issues without investigating the intricacies of asymmetric warfare against a guerilla enemy embedded amidst hundreds of thousands of civilians and targeting Israel’s civilians. Indeed, the two-person commission is expert in human rights, not military tactics.
Further, when Chairwoman Davis states that she has no alternative under international law but to deal on an equal basis with Israel--a sovereign state with its own military legal standards and personnel--and Hamas, a terrorist entity not recognized by most of the world, she is making her task too easy. The report’s “Legal framework” (part III) states that “All parties to the conflict are bound by the relevant provisions and rules of international humanitarian and human rights treaty and customary law”. “The authorities in Gaza,” it goes on to specify, “must respect and ensure human rights norms because of their exercise of government-like functions”. Must respect? Government-like functions? Even the report’s own language is discriminatory. Hamas is not a party to any treaty and respects no customary laws. Why is this vital fact glossed over?
Is this a back-handed acknowledgement that the norms apply less to Hamas in Gaza than to Israel. Why shouldn’t the UN say so and admit that the relevant human rights treaties and customary laws were made for sovereign states fighting one another but can be openly flouted by non-state actors behaving as terrorists? That, accordingly, would imply that this UN inquiry, like its predecessors, is lopsided in both concept and application. Unless, of course, the UN recognizes the Gaza Strip as a sovereign state, in which case Hamas must be called upon to display sovereign responsibility toward its neighbors and its own population.
A second instance of double standards presented by this report concerns its allegations that Israel carried out “disproportional” attacks. Disproportional compared to what? The US and its allies fighting in Iraq a decade ago reportedly killed five times as many civilians as combatants. In Gaza last summer, the IDF kill ratio was around 1:1. The Davis report does not provide any sort of universal standard for judging this issue because, in an era of asymmetric warfare, such a standard simply doesn’t exist.
Q. The Netanyahu government refused to cooperate with the Human Rights Commission and refused to allow the latest flotilla to approach the Gaza coast. Does this make sense?
A. At least it is consistent. And I don’t say this facetiously. Israel argues that it has the right to blockade Gaza from the sea (a right reaffirmed by the Palmer Commission that investigated the Mavi Marmara deaths at sea in 2010) and that it is being targeted in an unacceptable manner by the international community for its wars of self-defense against Hamas.
Israel’s real problem here is that it is unable to provide the international community with a persuasive alternative standard. The distinguished generals it recruited from around the world to look at last summer’s war and declare that the IDF performed in a fair and humanitarian manner may persuade Israelis and their supporters. But they don’t persuade the growing international public that seeks to boycott and punish Israel. In this sense, bringing the generals was a worthless exercise--something akin to stating, for the Nth time, that the IDF is the most moral army in the world.
As for the land and sea blockade, it is understandable to Israelis because Hamas, along with a growing more extreme jihadist camp in the Strip, is intent on rebuilding the military infrastructure that is apparently deemed necessary for another attack on Israel. But after a decade or so the blockade is simply incomprehensible to most of the world. Even Israeli hawks have to acknowledge that it reflects the obvious lack of a viable strategy for dealing with Gaza.
The alternatives were to cooperate with the Human Rights Commission and make Israel’s case directly and more persuasively, and to allow the flotilla (after inspection at sea) with its modest humanitarian cargo to reach Gaza. But this approach would oblige Israel to comply with the Commission’s demands and recommendations and to allow more flotillas to come. Bearing in mind that Israel will very likely have to fight more wars with Hamas, this would make sense only if it adopted a different and more viable strategy for dealing with Hamas. And that, as anyone engaged in fighting a non-state, militant Islamist enemy can testify, is not a simple matter.
Q. So why is the Gaza Strip relatively quiet, with Hamas seemingly collaborating with Israel by pursuing the occasional more extreme Islamists who fire isolated rockets at Israel?
A. This is not an easy question to answer because, as noted above, it is difficult to get inside the heads of militant Islamist decision-makers. What seems clear is that a number of factors are at work.
First, the recent emergence of an aggressive Saudi regional approach and Saudi success in coordinating it with Qatar and Turkey have resulted not only in a beefed-up rebel performance against the Assad regime in Syria and a (less impressive) military intervention in Yemen. They have also produced pressure on Hamas to cut its Iranian ties, coordinate with Egypt against Sinai-based Islamists, and talk indirectly with Israel about a long-term ceasefire that might include agreement to construct port facilities in Gaza. How far this effort will go and to what extent the dominant Hamas military leadership is committed to it remain to be seen.
Second, the Israeli military authorities are gradually relaxing the Gaza land blockade and permitting the entry into Gaza of more construction materials and the exit of goods and people. That this liberalization is dependent on the absence of violent attacks from the Strip is underlined by the IDF’s decision to close the crossings between Israel and the Strip every time a rocket is fired. Egypt, too, has lately opened its border with Gaza to limited commerce and passage, though this may be only a short-lived Ramadan gesture.
And third--and this must be acknowledged whatever our humanitarian qualms--the heavy punishment inflicted by the IDF last summer on Gaza and its population is apparently the only tactic that has a deterrent effect. This fact is completely ignored by the UN Human Rights commission in its condemnation of disproportional damage. Wars, after all, are usually decided precisely by the application of disproportionate force. Note that Israel’s front with Lebanese Hezbollah has remained quiet for nine years, reflecting similar circumstances of heavy civilian damage and losses inflicted by Israel in the 2006 Second Lebanon War.
Is periodically “mowing the lawn” (an IDF term) brutally against a neighboring Islamist non-state enemy that is dedicated to Israel’s destruction a viable strategy? Or is it simply the only unpleasant game in town?