Early on the morning of Sunday, June 25, several Palestinian organizations led by Hamas carried out a bloody attack on an Israeli military emplacement at Kerem Shalom abutting the southern Gaza Strip. In a rare exception to their terrorist rule, the Palestinians attacked Israeli soldiers (abducting one) rather than civilians, and operated fully inside sovereign Israeli territory. The attack, and the anticipation of Israel's response, temporarily overshadow the day-to-day reality of recent months.
But not for long. In Gaza, Palestinians are still fighting Palestinians; even the Hamas leadership is conflicted. From Gaza, Palestinians are attacking Israeli civilians with rockets, even though (or because?) we have left the Strip and withdrawn to the 1949 armistice line. The town of Sderot has been traumatized by the attacks. Israel's armed response against Palestinian terrorists in Gaza, increasingly based on air power, has in recent weeks inadvertently killed a disproportionate number of Palestinian civilians, sparking protests in Israel and beyond and Palestinian calls for revenge.
While these peaks of violence may increase or decline from time to time, and bearing in mind that Israel's response to Sunday's attack may be dramatic, there is every likelihood that this pattern of violent events will continue, along with the protests, condemnations and traumas that accompany it. It poses a by-now familiar dilemma for Israeli society that can be summarized in two questions. What is the nature of Israeli responsibility for the Palestinian civilian deaths? And how should Israel respond to ongoing Palestinian attacks that target its civilians?
Most Israelis, this writer included, believe that there is no moral equivalency between Israeli civilians deliberately targeted by Palestinian terrorists and Palestinian civilians inadvertently killed in the course of attacking the terrorists as a response to terrorism. We would much rather fight our Palestinian wars at the military-to-military level like at Kerem Shalom, despite Israel's losses in that attack and despite the undoubted moral advantage we believe we have in the war against terrorism.
The Palestinian leadership, both Fateh and Hamas, argue a reverse lack of moral equivalency: Israel deliberately targets Palestinian civilians in acts of state terrorism, whereas Palestinian attacks on Israelis are a justified response to aggression. Variations on this Palestinian line include the claim that all Israelis are in some sense soldiers, hence fair targets, and that the Israeli aggression being responded to did not necessarily happen yesterday, but goes back to 1967, or 1948. Polls consistently show that a majority of Palestinians continues to support suicide bombings to this day.
In between is the argument, voiced by part of the left in Israel, a few Palestinian moderates and various international actors, that Israel's response is disproportionate and that the Israel Defense Forces knowingly and deliberately fire at targets surrounded by civilians and are prepared to justify heavy Palestinian civilian casualties in the course of eliminating terrorists.
Apropos, since 2003 the Israel Air Force has improved its ordnance and attack tactics: for the past two years only one-twelfth as many civilians were killed in the course of targeted assassinations of terrorist leaders and operatives. The recent higher level of Palestinian casualties is apparently an indication that terrorists in Gaza increasingly confine their activities to heavily populated areas, precisely in order to thwart the Israeli tactics.
The Kerem Shalom attack affords the opportunity for a rare moment of clarity in both Israeli and Palestinian thinking about the conflict in and around Gaza. Either Palestinian leaders Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Ismail Haniyeh exercise extraordinary leadership, return the abducted soldier and enforce a genuine ceasefire, or Israel is likely to radically escalate its military response. One objective could be to eliminate Gaza-based Hamas entirely. Another certainly would be for PM Ehud Olmert to demonstrate that disengagement doesn't tie Israel's hands in defending its civilians and its territory, and that security fences are necessary even when Palestinian militants go over and under them.
I believe that the Israeli moral equivalency argument is a powerful one: terrorists deliberately target civilians; we don't, and when we hit civilians in the course of protecting ourselves, we agonize over it. There is an element of the "clash of civilizations" in this equation that we may have to call on in explaining to the world why the IDF has launched a massive retaliation against Hamas and other terrorist groups in Gaza.- Published 26/6/2006 © bitterlemons.org
The dramatic Palestinian attack on an Israeli military post on the border with the Gaza Strip did not come as much of a surprise to anybody. On the contrary, it represented the gradual and consistent escalation of violence that has been witnessed since the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the subsequent siege that was imposed on Gazans.
And while, as usual, both sides have been blaming each other, the overwhelming weight of responsibility lies at Israel's door. Israeli violence, not just in the Gaza Strip but in the West Bank, has been steadily increasing. Assassinations and arrests often ending in killings, often of civilians, have been increasing and a months-long campaign of constant artillery fire has blighted Gazans' lives.
This violence has come in tandem with an Israeli siege that almost hermetically sealed off Gaza from the outside world and shut the door in the face of any chance that Gazans' lives and livelihoods might improve after the withdrawal. On the contrary, according to all relevant international agencies, especially the World Bank, the siege caused a sharp economic deterioration and poverty and unemployment rose dramatically as a result. The siege, furthermore, was in direct contravention to bilateral agreements that sought to avoid exactly such an eventuality.
Israel wanted to have its cake and eat it. Starting from the time of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, Israel did not want to continue with the implementation of the peace process, and since then Israel has shown no interest in bilateral negotiations on the basis of international legality. Instead, successive Israeli governments have pursued a unilateral strategy, a strategy that is about Israeli behavior to achieve Israeli interests with no regard for international legality and certainly not for the Palestinian side. At the same time, Israel expected the other side to abide by the rules of a game that was created by the peace process.
It is this Israeli position--deviating from the bilateral process and its legal agreements--and the behavior that arises from it, that encourages, and in the eyes of many Palestinians justifies, Palestinian military activities.
But there are also ways of looking at these developments in the light of the internal Palestinian situation. There are two possible motives for Hamas to resume its involvement in military activities against Israel. The first is that Hamas' restraint in the face of these continuous Israeli attacks negatively affected its strong public position. The relatively moderate position of Hamas brought on by the responsibility of having formed a government created a vacuum that was being filled by other more extreme elements within Palestinian society that tried to answer the public's desire to avenge the continuous Israel attacks and the siege.
The other possible motive is to escape the responsibilities of government. Having won parliamentary elections, Hamas was unable to fulfill the obligations of governing. The faction is also unable to admit this or go for an alternative governing arrangement such as a coalition government, because that would imply that the movement has failed.
Of late, many politicians and analysts have warned that a continuation of the political vacuum will inevitably encourage and increase violence. In this context we must learn from the missed opportunities of the recent past. The post-Israeli and Palestinian elections period was an opportunity for third party initiatives to resume the political process, as was the period after President Mahmoud Abbas succeeded the late Yasser Arafat.
In both cases the international community failed to grasp the opportunity. This encouraged other elements, whether from the Israeli or Palestinian side, to try to fill that vacuum with alternative initiatives and programs of the kind that are responsible for the current deterioration.
It would take a bold initiative from a strong third party toward a bilateral political process based on international law rather than the balance of power and the use of force to bring back hope of any civilized and non-violent way out of the current situation.- Published 26/6/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is the former Palestinian Authority minister of planning, and has been a political analyst and media contact for many years.
AN ISRAELI VIEW|
A violent asymmetrical struggle
by Shlomo Gazit
Nearly a year has passed since the Israeli settlements were removed and the Israel Defense Forces withdrew from the Gaza Strip. Israel has returned to the pre-Six-Day War armistice line.
The principal reason for PM Ariel Sharon to carry out the disengagement was the pointlessness of 8,000 Jews living among 1.3 million crowded Palestinians whose rate of annual natural growth is five times the number of the settlers. But Sharon was also prompted in his decision by another factor: after five years of violent confrontation and considerable operational success, it was clear that Israel could not eradicate Palestinian violence in the Strip.
Israel hoped that, once the disengagement was completed, two things would happen: on the one hand, the Palestinians would have no cause to continue carrying out terrorist acts once the rationale of removing the occupation was gone; on the other, the urgent need to organize the lives of the local Palestinian population would alter domestic Palestinian priorities.
Neither of these things happened. In Palestinian eyes, the evacuation from the Strip was an unequivocal victory for armed struggle, and what "succeeded" in Gaza in their view would produce a similar success in the West Bank, Jerusalem and--why not--in Beersheba, Tel Aviv and Haifa. In parallel, a series of domestic Palestinian problems, together with the Hamas election victory and the absence of effective central government, diverted nearly all Palestinian efforts toward more violent struggle, with the needs of the local population completely neglected.
In the absence of IDF forces, and with the Sinai border virtually wide open, the Gaza Strip has become a giant depot for the development, manufacture and import of ordnance that fuels an unending attack on Sderot and the other Israeli settlements around the Strip. Not only did Israel's departure not bring an end to the shooting, but today Palestinian fire is directed, without exception, at towns and villages within the green line, where there is no controversy regarding Israel's sovereignty.
The Palestinian objective is to attack and kill any Jew, indiscriminately, within Israel. Palestinian terrorists prefer to attack innocent civilians, particularly in crowded population centers. Israel for its part cannot acquiesce in the firing of Qassam rockets at civilian settlements. The IDF has no technological solution for intercepting the rockets before they reach their target. This leaves it no alternative but to pinpoint and strike at the terrorists, their organizers and commanders, while taking care not to hurt innocent civilians--an intent that unfortunately cannot be fully realized without mishaps, particularly in the crowded Gaza Strip. Alternatively, the IDF can bombard areas in the northern Strip where the Qassam rocket launchers are deployed.
Thus do the actions of both sides reflect a sad characteristic of the violent asymmetrical struggle between Israel and the Palestinians. The terrorist organizations don't care whether, where and how many innocent Israelis they hit; on the contrary, this is their objective. They have never lost any sleep over the massive murder of Israeli boys and girls who just wanted to have fun in a Tel Aviv beach disco or the dead and wounded among hundreds of guests who came to celebrate Pesach at a hotel in Netanya.
This is not the case with Israel and the IDF: if and when Israeli fire hits an innocent Palestinian, Israel is called upon to prove and, what is even more difficult, to convince the world that the victim indeed chanced to be positioned next to terrorists who were defined as legitimate targets by any standard, and that under these tactical circumstances of a counter-terrorist operation casualties among the innocent were unavoidable. Still, the expressions of regret by IDF authorities and the government of Israel are not accepted at face value; the Palestinians present them as a cynical gesture--crocodile tears.
The Palestinian establishment hastens to exploit every child or adult victim of Israeli retaliation in Gaza for an effective propaganda campaign aimed at blaming Israel. With great ado, it condemns IDF actions and demands a total cessation of Israeli fire and targeted assassinations, while completely, and not accidentally, ignoring the Qassam rockets fired at Israeli communities that IDF fire sought to prevent or at least reduce in effectiveness. Moreover, this portrayal of injured Palestinian civilians is accompanied by a total disregard for the real targets of these IDF operations (who are usually killed or injured): terrorists actively involved in firing Qassams.
There is yet another asymmetrical aspect. The Palestinian terrorists well understand the strategic significance of their rocket barrages. If Israel fails to stop the rockets--and this it can only do through dialogue and a genuine agreement with the Palestinians or, sadly, by using force on a far higher level than that invoked until now--and if the threat to the residents of Sderot prevails, then inevitably Sderot will become a ghost town.
Such an achievement would be the terrorist organizations' biggest victory. Even if the IDF invades the Gaza Strip, ostensibly in retaliation for Sunday's attack on a military target at Kerem Shalom, there is nevertheless no parallel Israeli threat to the residents of Gaza.- Published 26/6/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Major General (res.) Shlomo Gazit was Israel's first Coordinator of Government Operations in the Administered Territories (1967-1974), and Head of Military Intelligence (1974-1979).
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
an interview with Eyad Sarraj
bitterlemons: After Sunday's operation at Kerem Salem/Shalom, Israeli PM Ehud Olmert is threatening that the era of Israeli restraint is over. What is your reaction?
Sarraj: Well we have already seen, over the last few years, the ugly face of Israel, a face that has no respect for human life or peace. It is not surprising that this is what he is saying. I think it is a sign of the pressure he is under after the insult to his army with the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier.
Israel talks about restraint, but the Israeli army has been killing children, killing families, destroying homes and destroying lives. The Gaza Strip has been suffering a months-long constant artillery barrage. Israel has really been restraining itself. It is a restraint we are very familiar with. It is nonsense.
bitterlemons: Can you give a sense of what this artillery barrage has done to ordinary people?
Sarraj: It is devastating. Some families have had to give their children sleeping pills at night because otherwise they can't sleep. Many have had to leave the affected areas, and there are harsh economic consequences for those living off farms in the north. People are desperate and helpless.
This situation, in fact, is one of the reasons for the popular pressure on Palestinian groups to stop firing rockets into Israel.
bitterlemons: Were you surprised by Hamas' decision to end the truce earlier this month?
Sarraj: No, I'm not surprised. Hamas really did restrain itself for over a year. It did not undertake a single military operation. But Israel did not respond. So, after the international boycott and conspiracy against the Hamas government, and in addition to the continuous Israeli killings, I think I understand why Hamas ended the truce.
bitterlemons: Was Hamas under popular pressure to end the truce?
Sarraj: Hamas was not under real pressure from the people to end the truce. On the contrary, the public mood was in favor of truce and reconciliation, and the pressure was on Hamas to end its defiance and climb down its tree so the peace process could go on and we could have a secure and quiet life. That was the pressure Hamas was under.
But ending the truce was the result of the continuous Israeli violence and killings of ordinary people.
bitterlemons: Does Sunday's operation constitute an escalation?
Sarraj: I don't consider it an escalation. I consider it legitimate resistance against the occupation. It is not against civilians, it is not any form of terror. I think to the Israeli army and Israel's supporters it is surprising and shocking that Palestinians can execute such heroic operations.
If the world is concerned about escalation, the international community should have been condemning Israel for the continuous killing of children and families. But it didn't.
bitterlemons: Are you concerned about a major Israeli ground invasion as a result of the missing Israeli soldier?
Sarraj: I am concerned. I hope Hamas will use this soldier to bargain with Israel to release Palestinian prisoners. I hope it can use the kidnapping effectively.
Israel knows that if it invades populated areas of Gaza, so much damage and so many casualties, including Israeli casualties, will result. Israel will be very cautious. We have been here before and the Israeli army suffered badly. But as we know, Israel will want its soldier back and will go to any length to secure this.
bitterlemons: Is there an international climate to prevent Israel from doing what it feels is in its interest?
Sarraj: Unfortunately the international community, headed by the US, is pressuring the Palestinians rather than Israel. Also, the Palestinians in the past five years have not done well to gain the support of the international community, particularly because of terror inside Israel and particularly because of the destruction of the peace camp in Israel, caused by the terror. This situation also arose because of the corrupt regime championed by Arafat and the paralysis of the new regime headed by Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas].
All these factors have left Palestinians without the necessary international support. In addition the international community is under the control of the Americans, who, as we know, are very biased toward Israel.- Published 26/6/2006 © bitterlemons.org
Dr. Eyad Sarraj is the head of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program.
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