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'They left us no choice': On military escalation and its Israeli rationale

The alternatives to military action shouldn’t only be examined when things blow up, but rather in the context of the months and years that preceded this latest round of fighting.

When it comes to using military force, I find Netanyahu to be one of the most restrained prime ministers Israel has ever had. I don’t think Bibi wanted this escalation, nor does he believe that it serves his immediate political interests. He did give Hamas a chance for a ceasefire, and the army is escalating its attacks on Gaza very gradually – unlike in Operation Cast Lead for example, in which it adopted the notorious “shock and awe” doctrine.

Once rockets fall on Israeli cities, the government’s response immediately enjoys local and international legitimacy. I would have liked to see the army use more restraint, but it is clear that responding to rockets is the norm in the international system, regardless of the “who started” debate. When Hamas or any other organization fires rockets on Be’er Sheva or Tel Aviv, it supposedly doesn’t leave Israel with much choice but to retaliate. At least that’s how the argument goes.

But things also have a certain context that the Israeli public simply ignores. Hamas is weaker than ever. The tunnels to Gaza were destroyed and Egypt closed the border. Israel is preventing Hamas government employees from receiving their salaries, and has even threatened to deport the UN official who tried to solve the latest crisis. In recent weeks, Hamas’ politicians in the West Bank were also arrested.

Hamas isn’t just a militant organization. It is also a movement that represents half of the Palestinian people in the occupied territories and runs the lives of 1.8 million people in Gaza. Leaving Hamas with its back to the wall gives the organization an interest for this kind of escalation, despite the fact that Hamas knows that Palestinians will pay a much greater price than Israelis.

Some questions need to be asked: maybe the months and years of relative calm before this escalation were a good time to lift the siege on Gaza? Perhaps Israel should have recognized the new Palestinian technocratic government? Maybe there was a way for Hamas to undergo a process of politicization, similar to that which Fatah went through?

All these issues were never discussed in Israel; raising them now, in the current atmosphere, is seen as “giving in to terror.”

Palestinian women mourn the death of Mahmoud Raed Saddllah, a 4-year-old child, killed in a bombing attack on Jabalia, Gaza Strip, November 16, 2012.

Archive photo: Palestinian women mourn the death of Mahmoud Raed Saddllah, a 4-year-old child, killed in a bombing attack on Jabalia, Gaza Strip, November 16, 2012.

“They left us no choice” is the ultimate Israeli argument. Yes, it makes sense that when Palestinians hurl stones on Israeli cars at night, in the West Bank or within the Green Line, Israeli security forces will be sent to make them stop, just as they are sent to treat any issue of law and order. When a protester throws a stone at a soldier near the West Bank village of Bil’in, the soldier is left with no choice but to respond. But what was this soldier doing on the village’s confiscated land in the first place?

The West Bank has been relatively calm for the past five years, yet Israel has never bothered to conduct a much-delayed national conversation on ending the occupation. Instead, it waged propaganda wars on the Palestinians, built settlements and confiscated more land.

Almost five years after Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s Gaza policy – from the naval blockade to the “no go zone” it maintains at the edges of the strip – has never been questioned. Five years in which people have been warning this government that things will eventually blow up, and when they finally did, the same government responds with military force, because “we are left with no choice.”

Technically its true, but on a more substantial level, this is no more than a deception.

       Live blog: Escalation in Gaza – July 2014

The same thing happened this week in the Negev desert, where dozens of Bedouin were arrested for blocking roads and hurling stones. In recent years, Israel stepped up its “enforcement” policies, which is a euphemism for massive home demolitions. It got to the point where the person in charge of implementing the Prawer Plan, retired Gen. Doron Almong – by no means a leftist – wrote a public resignation letter in which he warned that without a constructive plan for the unrecognized villages, enforcement on its own will end in disaster.

Did this change anything for the government? The Bedouin still don’t get zoning plans, their homes are declared “illegal” and many are destroyed, and when a hundred people throw stones one night, the media warns of “riots.” The police arrested minors and adults alike “because we were left with no choice,” and because no other country would accept stone throwing on its highways.

But there is always a choice. The state could offer the Bedouin a fair solution, which recognizes their rights as indigenous people of this land. The village of Bil’in could get its land back. Israel might accept the fact that the Hamas is part of Palestinian society, and start dealing with it politically. The siege on Gaza could be lifted. Hamas’ government employees could get their salaries and buy food for their families. Perhaps then Hamas will feel that it has something to lose from another escalation.

And more than anything, the Israeli leadership could start dealing with the root causes of those various problems, rather than waking up when everything is on fire, scoring some easy points by manipulating the public’s rage, and, once more, declaring that they left us no choice but to go to war.

* * *

One personal note: I was 16 when the First Gulf War broke out. Ramat Gan, the city I grew up in, suffered the worst impacts in Israel. A girl in my class had her entire home destroyed. Even my grandparents’ home suffered some minor damage. Yet me and my friends couldn’t care less, spending hours at each other’s homes or in the empty streets. I remember being the only ones in a movie theatre, just us with our gas masks.

One cannot really compare the small Hamas rockets to Saddam Hussein’s fearsome Scuds, not to mention the fact that we now have the Iron Dome system, which intercepts most of the rockets. But having my own kids at home – a baby and a three year old – makes the entire experience way more stressful. My thoughts are also with the people of Gaza, whose suffering is way greater than ours (life pretty much goes on in Tel Aviv). This exchange of rockets and bombs is a morbid and pointless ritual; the sooner a cease fire is negotiated, the better for everyone.

This is a slightly modified version of a post on my Hebrew blog at Local Call

Live blog: Escalation in Gaza – July 2014
Dispatch from Gaza: You can never be emotionally ready
[ARCHIVE – 2012]: Gaza operation will be declared a success, until the next war

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    1. Goldmarx

      It’s fascinating that Richard Galber claims to agree with Noam Sheizaf, and Noam correctly calls Galber out on his bullshit.

      Hey Dick – shut up and listen.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Danny

      Noam, by saying that Netanyahu didn’t want this current escalation you are giving him a free pass which he doesn’t deserve. This escalation to a large extend was engineered by Netanyahu and the current fighting in Gaza is exactly what he wanted. The Israeli public – ever the flock of sheep that it is – has put aside their political, social and economic grievances and united behind their wartime shepherd. The thing that scared Netanyahu more than anything is international recognition for Hamas, which was starting to become a reality. So he set out to destroy the Hamas leadership using any means necessary. The kidnapping of the 3 settlers gave him the perfect opportunity to do so, which he has shamelessly exploited. He is perhaps the most vile and despicable person to ever sit in the prime minister’s office. He literally couldn’t care less that kids in Sderot wet their beds at night, much less kids in Gaza. He is a serial child abuser. Don’t give him any free passes because he simply doesn’t deserve any.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ira Rifkin

        It’s refreshing, and all to rare, to read a balanced piece on +972. Thanks, Noam.

        Reply to Comment
      • Vadim

        Oh Danny, only you may be a true shepherd of the flock of sheep that we are. Come and guide us, for only you see the truth.

        For example only a great truth seeker like yourself can call the cold blooded murder of 3 teenagers (one living in a settlement, not that it makes any difference) – “The kidnapping of the 3 settlers”. You must be a great person and a moral giant…

        The rest of your comment is just as grand. Come quickly.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Theodore Jacobsen

      Noam Sheizaf: you state that the ‘Palestinians recognized Israel, and that’s enough.’ When? Both Palestinian charters emphatically reject recognition of the ‘Zionest entity’ in any fashion. This has not changed. The terrorist branch, Hamas, perceives Israel as a blot on Islam, which must be extinguished.

      Danny: I do not understand your vituperative attacks on Israel and it’s leaders, nor do I understand your willingness to excuse the Arab leadership in the disputed territory, and in the Arab Nation, of any responsibility for the decades of war waged against Israel since its independence. The core of this tragic impasse between Israel and the Palestinians is the scriptural/cultural prohibition against the recognition of any infidel [non-believer] as equal in status to Muslims. This injunction applies extremely against the Jews, who, from their [Islam] perspective, are ‘dishonouring’ Islam by ‘occupying’ land once ruled by Muslims.
      You lose credibility when you are so vehemently opposed to Israel, even accusing the three kidnapped/murdered Israeli teenagers of being ‘settlers’, which is an egregious lie. They may have attended a school in the ‘disputed’ territory, but all lived in Israel proper.

      As a Canadian Jew, I cannot understand the dynamics in the Middle East as well as Israelis. However, I am saddened nevertheless that you hate your own country so much that you [and Noam] cannot be objective about the responsibility for this crisis and every crisis since 1948.

      Reply to Comment
      • Johnboy


        The recognition of the state of Israel occurred in an official exchange of letters between the leader of the PLO and the Prime Minister of Israel.

        The Palestinian commitment was this:
        “The PLO recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security.”

        The Israeli response was this:
        “the Government of Israel has decided to recognize the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people and commence negotiations with the PLO within the Middle East peace process”

        Note the huge difference between those two commitments.

        The Palestinians unconditionally recognized that the state of Israel had a RIGHT to exist and, furthermore, to exist in “peace and security”.

        And Israel?

        Well, the Israelis said that, yeah, OK, we recognize that the PLO is the only Palestinian group that we will agree to talk to.

        No recognition that there is a state of Palestine.

        No recognition that a Palestinian state has a RIGHT to exist.

        No recognition that any such Palestinian state had a right to “peace and security”.

        Nothing of the sort.

        Just a curt: OK, we agree to talk to you dudes, but we aren’t promising nothin’…….

        Reply to Comment
    4. Rab

      If Israel would have lifted the blockade, what would have prevented Hamas from importing more (and better) rockets? Israel permitted construction materials into Gaza and then discovered massive tunnels into Israel that required sufficient materials to build buildings.

      The problem isn’t that Israel’s strategy is confused regarding Gaza, it’s that Hamas has clearly stated objectives and they aren’t budging…and these clearly expressed objectives are to attack and destroy Israel.

      Ultimately, at some point, people have to stop dreaming about some sort of magical peace when one side clearly has no interest. If there’s nobody with whom to speak and their hostility is evident, then why would anybody take the risk of allowing these enemies to become stronger?

      Reply to Comment
    5. Weinstein Henry

      What about Hamas rationale?
      Why Hamas persists with rocket attacks? What is the rationale for firing uneffective rockets provoking effective air strikes?
      More civilian deaths in Gaza, more “martyrs”, more graphic footage in the media?
      What about Hamas dumb asymmetrical rationale?

      Reply to Comment
      • Rab

        They don’t have a dumb rationale. Hamas stays in power by letting its people know it’s not “weak” like the Fatah dudes. Also, by remaining on war footing with Israel, all exigencies and suffering they inflict on their own population are deemed acceptable – including making millions off tunnel smuggling operations.

        Reply to Comment
        • Reza Lustig

          Yes, of course. They made you do it. Famous last words of every unrepentant criminal ever dragged off by the bailiffs.

          Reply to Comment
      • Johnboy

        “What about Hamas rationale?”

        Well, that’s pretty obvious.

        Israel’s preferred state of affairs is to lock up the Gaza Strip, throw away the keys, and then banish all thoughts regarding it from their mind.

        The rockets are a reminder that the Gaza Strip can’t be so easily dismissed.

        Seen in that light Hamas’ rationale is perfectly sane, and eminently sound.

        If Hamas decided to just sit in their box and not make a sound (which, apparently, is what you want from them) then that would suit Netanyahu just dandy.

        He certainly wouldn’t dream of easing the blockade to reward such “good behaviour”.

        We know that for a fact, because the **only** reward he has ever offered them is this: “quiet for quiet”.

        Which means nothing more than this: if you sit there in your box then I will happily ignore you.

        But he has never offered a way for them to get out of that box, and everything about his career suggests that he never, ever will.

        Reply to Comment
        • Reza Lustig

          Hamas is hardly an innocent actor here. They are apparently ordering civilians to stay in their homes, despite the danger of being bombed. To both Hamas and Bibi, lives and homes mean nothing, next to fear of being seen to be “weak.”

          Of course, this should not serve to enable the Israeli government’s “they made us do it” excuse; they have the choice not to respond disproportionate two-eyes-for-one-eye attacks on urban areas they know will result in the deaths of innocents.

          Reply to Comment
        • Rab

          There’s an Egyptian border in Gaza and the Gazans are welcome to use it. The Sinai is three times Israel’s size and they speak the same language.

          Reply to Comment
          • Reza Lustig

            I’ve seen few comments here quite so callous towards the people of Gaza here. I’d tell you where to stick it, but I won’t waste my time; you already know.

            Reply to Comment
          • Rab

            What’s callous is continually excusing Palestinian violence directed against Israeli civilians. Make peace and there will be peace. Keep struggling for war and you’ll get war. And then, when you get war, stop relying on the propaganda of your civilian getting hurt to wiggle your way out of a situation that put them in danger in the first place.

            Reply to Comment
          • Reza Lustig

            By the way, I wasn’t aware that Egypt was particularly welcoming to Palestinian refugees. As you and your friends take delight in reminding us.

            Reply to Comment
    6. Henry Weinstein

      Apparently Israeli military rationale was/is to strike the homes – and therefore families – of Hamas senior militants…
      Wonder then what is the difference, the moral difference, with Hamas terrorist rationale. How to describe these air strikes targeting homes & families? Asymmetric terrorism would be more appropriate than counter-terrorism, because the terrorist rationale of both sides is symmetric.
      Dumb & dumber rationale leading to more violence & hatred.

      Reply to Comment
      • Henry Weinstein

        In other words, mimetic asymmetric violence against civilians. It makes sense only for Dumb & Dumber.

        Reply to Comment