Israel is scoring an impressive string of tactical victories over Palestinian terrorism. Against a daily list of anywhere from 30 to 70 suicide bombing alerts, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the Shabak (General Security Service) succeed in preventing over 95 percent of the attacks. In this endeavor they have developed real time systems for coordinating sophisticated aerial, electronic and human intelligence with the soldier in the field--systems that are studied by security establishments all over the world. Hamas' inability to mount a series of suicide bombing "punishments" against Israel in the aftermath of the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin offers striking confirmation of this achievement.
As Brigadier General Gadi Shamni put it in early March 2004, upon completion of his tour of duty as IDF Gaza commander: "We are winning in this conflict. In the military arena we are winning every day, several times."
But that is precisely the problem: if you have to win several times a day, then your repeated victories are tactical rather than strategic; they have little or no cumulative effect. One of Shamni's senior officers grasped the problem a few weeks earlier, when he noted that the IDF had "defeated all the terrorist gangs in Gaza save one: the entire population."
In other words, there is no military solution, no strategic military "victory" against a popular insurrection provoked by prolonged occupation. You cannot "win" this war unless you win the peace as well.
Outgoing Israel Air Force commander Dan Halutz recently defined victory as "bringing about a situation wherein the political echelon is free to take decisions without terror-induced constraints." Mission accomplished. The only constraints Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is operating under appear to be political and judicial, not terror-induced.
That is why he is changing the rules of the game. What Sharon's disengagement plan from the Gaza Strip seeks to do is declare victory and withdraw.
But this will be a hollow victory. While disengagement is a way of improving the security situation, deflating the conflict and preserving Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, it cannot replace a peaceful political solution. Moreover, Sharon appears to view withdrawal from Gaza and a small part of the West Bank as a way of tightening Israel's grip on most of the West Bank, where he will, in effect, declare victory and stay. This will hardly contribute to a reduction in the conflict there.
Israeli disengagement can be seen as a tactical victory for the Palestinians, too--but not a strategic triumph. The Palestinians can correctly conclude from Israel's withdrawal plans that the Jewish state only respects force--it is reasonable to assume that, had Gaza remained tranquil over the past three years, Sharon would not have undertaken to withdraw--and that they have also won the "battle of the bedroom," i.e., victory in the demographic war. But Israel is leaving an "asset" that most Israelis never valued anyway; the withdrawal in no way implies that force will push Israelis out of Ashkelon or Ashdod. And the Palestinian population growth rate, now among the highest in the world, impoverishes an already desperate people and renders real social, economic and political well being for Palestinians a distant dream for more than a generation to come. This is a heavy price to pay for "victory".
Unless we alter our entire value system and determine that wholesale martyrdom, i.e., death, constitutes victory, then for Palestinians, too, the only reasonable way to win a victory is to win an equitable peace. That means a "win-win" situation. And for that to happen we need leaders who have realistic strategies for winning the peace rather than mere tactics for winning battles in the war.
Neither Sharon nor Yasser Arafat qualifies.
Hence, for the time being we'll have to settle for tactical victories. Disengagement, if carried out without foreclosing political options, is the best idea in a narrow field.
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
In Israel and Palestine today, we are all seeing the natural fallout of divergent views of victory, whether they be ideological or political.
Among Palestinians, although there exists more than one definition of victory, the goals of ending the Israeli occupation, including banishing the occupation's control from East Jerusalem, achieving independence and self-determination, in addition to resolving the refugee problem with a package of solutions that incorporate the right of return, all constitute a common denominator for victory among the Palestinian majority.
There are, of course, more immediate expressions of Palestinian victory.
The current Israeli government, made up of the same political parties that previously formed the opposition to the peace process, is launching a war against Palestinians. Its approach is the wielding of force rather than negotiations. Its goals include maintaining Israeli control over as much land as possible while relinquishing itself of as many of the Palestinian people as it can. Because this contradicts the position of the Palestinian leadership, getting rid of this leadership and all its stands for is also an Israeli government objective.
As a result, victory in its most immediate sense means for Palestinians to succeed at standing steadfast and preventing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from achieving these objectives. That means only that Palestinians must maintain the three and a half million Palestinians currently living in their homeland, stick to the same political positions and ensure the survival of the same leadership that continues to advocate a political stand based on the stipulations of the relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions.
Based on these criteria, there is no feeling of defeat among Palestinians, with the exception of some intellectuals who feel that these goals represent the lowest common denominator of strategic planning or that Palestinians are not meeting even these.
The very important other side to this, and another aspect of the confrontation, was represented by the victory achieved by Sharon in his last visit to Washington, which generated deep feelings of hopelessness among Palestinians. Sharon managed to get the president of the United States to suspend international law, predetermine the outcome of the serious final status issues, and encourage and legitimize Israel's settlement policy, all of which will help to bring about Sharon's political and ideological goals.
But Palestinians feel that time is on their side. If Israel accepts a solution based on international legitimacy, then this will certainly constitute a victory. But if Israel continues to prevent a Palestinian state along the borders of 1967, then Israel will face a more problematic future, including a developing apartheid situation and what it argues is the growing demographic "threat" of the Palestinian population.
Speaking practically, the only feasible victory for Palestinians is that which is a victory for Israel and the only feasible victory for Israel is that which is a victory for Palestinians. Nor is that impossible according to the declared objectives of the two sides. Ending occupation, bringing about independence and solving the refugee problem are not incompatible with lasting and comprehensive peace and security for everyone, as well as regional integration and economic prosperity. In fact, these two sets of objectives complement each other. Now we need to get back on track and bring them all to fruition.
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is minister of labor in the Palestinian government and for many years prior was featured in the press as a political analyst.
Since September 2000 the Palestinians have waged a war against Israel in violation of their 1993 commitments to give up terror. Even a minimalist interpretation of the Palestinian goals, in contrast to the credible assertion that the Palestinian body politic still favors the destruction of the Jewish state, shows rather meager results for the campaign. After more than three years of terror, the Palestinians are not one inch closer to the establishment of a Palestinian state. As a matter of fact, much of the infrastructure for such a state was gradually destroyed in the armed struggle, leaving the Palestinian Authority in shambles. While important Palestinian systems, such as education and health, still continue to function, other vital services have drastically deteriorated, most notably public order and the dispensation of justice, eroding public trust in the nascent Palestinian entity.
This entity has gradually turned into a fragmented society run by thugs and local warlords. The international community increasingly views the Palestinians as unable to govern themselves successfully. Even their supporters are airing proposals for an international trusteeship--an unlikely scenario--to help the Palestinians in their transition to statehood.
In contrast, Israel has succeeded in denying Palestinian goals and was successful in overcoming the international constraints on its freedom of military action against targets in Palestinian-ruled territories, thereby denying the Palestinian terrorists safe sanctuaries. Since Operation Defensive Shield (March-April 2002) the terrorists, primarily in the West Bank, are on the run. While some aspects of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) operations still meet with international criticism, there is much greater understanding for the Israeli need to carry out offensive actions in self-defense against terrorism. Israel’s record in this respect, the foiling of over 90 percent of suicide bomber attacks, is remarkable.
Undoubtedly, 9/11 was a turning point in the Israeli-Palestinian war. This event sensitized much of the world, particularly the US, to the Israeli dilemmas in fighting terrorism. In contrast, the Palestinian leadership was hardly cognizant of the 9/11 effects and failed to change gear by distancing the Palestinian struggle from terror. While the suicide attacks constituted a serious security challenge to Israel, the indiscriminate killings of civilians were clearly not perceived by the international community as a legitimate act of resistance. The suicide bombers actually helped Israel in the struggle over international public opinion.
The Palestinians were also intent on internationalizing the conflict and eliciting international intervention in accordance with the Kosovo model. They failed, however. There is little willingness to send international forces to serve as a buffer between Israelis and Palestinians. Moreover, there is declining international readiness to render financial support to the Palestinians, due to widespread corruption. The resulting calls for greater transparency have slowed down the stream of euros that basically allowed for greater intransigence among the Palestinians. In addition, the emergence of new foci for humanitarian aid, Iraq being only one example, limits the amount of international funds available for transfer to the Palestinians.
Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestinian national movement, who was the darling of even enlightened Western European states, has been recognized as a curse for his people and an obstacle for peace. Much of the world has learned to see Arafat as a leading factor in radicalizing Palestinian society and pushing it to the brink, rather than building a state.
The greatest Palestinian loss was the alienation of the center of the Israeli political map and much of the Israeli left. The Israeli left successfully championed greater empathy for the Palestinians and for the corrupt Palestine Liberation Organization leadership. This was crucial for moving Israeli society into greater readiness for territorial concessions. Yet the Palestinian war discredited Yossi Beilin--now leader of the new Yahad Party--and his contemporaries, moving Israeli society into more centrist positions much less in accordance with Palestinian demands. The majority of Israelis woke up from the “peace trip” increasingly reluctant to take security risks for an agreement with the untrustworthy Palestinians.
Israel's proposed unilateral disengagement is a Palestinian achievement because Israel does not get anything in return for removing settlements and for withdrawing from most of Gaza. Nevertheless, in light of Israel’s traditional readiness to accept partition and the general consensus about the need to leave Gaza, unilateral disengagement is not a Palestinian victory. If implemented, it will not drastically alter the basic geostrategic equation. Even a similar limited withdrawal in the West Bank will not be an Israeli defeat as long as Israel continues to have freedom of action to police Palestinian territories and to control entry.
The war will continue for a while with oscillating levels of violence. As war is a competition in inflicting pain, Israel is in a better position to harm the Palestinians than vice versa. In this war, the Palestinians have suffered more than the Jews. The constraints imposed by Israel’s democratic character have spared the Palestinians more pain, but may have prolonged the conflict because the Palestinians have demonstrated their ability to sustain pain. Similarly, Israeli society has shown remarkable tenacity and determination not to give in to Palestinian terror. An assessment of the second equation in waging war--the ability to bear pain--indicates inconclusive results. This is not that surprising, as protracted conflict in other ethnic conflicts usually shows that societies muster tremendous energies and willingness to pay a heavy price in the attainment of collective goals.
Efraim Inbar is professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and the Director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He is currently visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW|
Ridding ourselves of slavery
a conversation with Abdel Aziz Rantisi, one day before his assassination
bitterlemons: If it is said that Palestinians and Israelis are engaged in a war, how then will Palestinians know that they have achieved victory?
Rantisi: We, the Palestinians, have been engaged in a war that the Zionists have imposed upon us ever since 1948 when they left their countries to occupy ours--from that time, they imposed the war on themselves.
By their crime of occupying Palestine, they have caused and created suffering for Palestinians for 56 years. In those years, they slaughtered dozens of thousands of Palestinians aggressively and unjustly, and exiled millions of them from their original lands and properties. The exiled are still looking forward to returning to their lands, cities, villages and houses. The Zionists also imprisoned dozens of thousands of Palestinians; 7,000 of them remain imprisoned today.
The Zionists continue destroying our lives for no reason but that we demand our legitimate rights and because we fight to put an end to the tragedy and multi-faceted suffering of our people. Therefore, we think that if the suffering of the Palestinians stops we have achieved victory.
bitterlemons: Are there different levels of victory, or will only a complete victory be enough?
Rantisi: Of course there are different levels of victory, whereas sometimes you can win by executing a plan to push Israeli tanks away as they invade any area in our country--because at that time, you would protect our children from being slaughtered by the Zionists. Accordingly, that is a victory.
Also, when we force the enemy to leave any piece of our land without giving up any of our legitimate rights as a price for that, we consider this victory.
We might also win a round of confrontation or win the media war, thus producing a victory in this expanding war. All of the things I have mentioned are partial, field or periodic victories, but the perfect and complete victory that Palestinians seek is that which can put an end to their suffering, and achieved by regaining all of their comprehensive and complete stolen rights.
bitterlemons: How does Islam define victory and is this important in the Palestinian context?
Rantisi: In Islam, there is no specific definition of victory. Muslims’ concept of victory is the same as others’. How did the French understand it when the Nazis occupied their lands? Or the Algerians, when the French occupied their lands? The Vietnamese? Or even the Americans themselves?
All of [these people] are still celebrating the anniversary of the date that they pushed back the invaders or occupiers of their lands and liberated their lands, accordingly ridding themselves of the slavery and humiliation practiced by their occupiers. We as Muslims taste victory the same way they did.
Therefore, I don’t think that there is any misunderstanding between the Palestinian factions, national or Islamic, about the definition of victory; we all have the same concept of victory.
bitterlemons: Has the Palestinian definition of victory changed in the last 50 years?
Rantisi: I think that the majority of Palestinians have the same concept and definition of victory from 50 years ago, otherwise they would have accepted all what has been offered them from 1948 until today. [By this], I mean solutions that detract from their rights and international resolutions, peace initiatives or signed agreements.
Some might say that the Palestinians have missed many opportunities, but the fact is that they rejected defeat. Or we might say that they were and are still seeking victory.
It is obvious that Palestinians still want and insist on regaining their comprehensive and complete rights. They have consciously refused any solution that detracts from their national and legitimate rights. The Palestinians also have defended this decision strongly and paid a precious price for that. [They have] sacrificed and are still sacrificing because Palestinians understand that victory means liberating the entire land.
bitterlemons: Is it possible that Palestinians might win the battle with Israel but lose the battle within their own society?
Rantisi: I don’t think it is possible, because Palestinians cannot win the battle with the enemy unless they are able to win it within their society after defeating the enemy.
Look at the deep significance of verses 40 and 41 from Surat al Hajj (which is Sura 22 in the Holy Quran). In this verse, Allah says that those who win rule themselves after they defeat their enemy, because the people that are controlled by various groups that fight each other as they fight the enemy cannot achieve victory. And if one day any one people achieves victory, it will be due to their national triumph. If they were unified during the battle, then they will be able to protect and maintain their unity after achieving victory. Allah said this in his Holy Quran, Surat al Anfal verse 46 and Surat al Assaf, verse 4.
bitterlemons: Do you believe that you will see victory in your lifetime?
Rantisi: I hope so, but I don’t know when I will die, therefore, I can’t be certain that I will see it, or that I will not.
But I want to remind you that the enemy's might does not distance or prevent the possibility of achieving victory. So many unjust countries have collapsed while at their strongest. This is what happened to Germany, to the former Soviet Union. It would not be strange for the Zionist entity and the United States of America to collapse while they are strong.
I think that the strong will of Palestinian youth is mightier than that of the Zionist soldier by thousands of times. The battle itself has never been one only of weapons because if that were so, the Zionists would have conquered the Palestinian people by practicing their various kinds of destruction and terror against the Palestinians. If that were the case, [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon would have been able to destroy the intifada and the Palestinian resistance in 100 days, as he promised.
Abdel Aziz Rantisi gave this interview as the political leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. It was to be his last interview with the press. One day later, he and his bodyguard and driver were killed by an Israeli missile attack on his car. Rantisi was named the head of Hamas in Gaza in late March, after the group's spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was also killed in an Israeli missile strike.
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