Despite his deserved reputation as an extremist and rejectionist of the first order, Binyamin Netanyahu, unlike most of his predecessors, had until this week never initiated a war. He appears not to have planned one this time either.
Bibi’s template for the current assault on the Gaza Strip may well have been the events of September 1996, when 17 Israeli soldiers and 70 Palestinians were killed in the clashes that followed Israel’s festive opening of the Western Wall Tunnel in the heart of occupied East Jerusalem. It happened during Netanyahu’s previous term in office, and consists of three simple steps. 1. Launch an outrageous provocation guaranteed to elicit an armed response. 2. Use overwhelming firepower to kill Arabs and remind them who is boss. 3. Mobilise foreign parties to quickly restore calm on improved conditions.
This time round, on 8 November, a week before Ahmad Jabari was assassinated, Israeli soldiers shot dead 13-year-old Ahmad Abu Daqqa while he was playing football outside his house in Gaza. Palestinian militants retaliated with a bomb and then a missile fired at an armoured personnel carrier, wounding several Israeli soldiers. Israel responded by shelling first another football field and then a mourning tent, killing four civilian non-combatants and wounding dozens. Four Israelis were wounded by the inevitable Palestinian missile volleys that followed. Egypt’s General Intelligence Directorate, which typically brokers security agreements relating to the Gaza Strip, stepped up its efforts.
By 12 November, amid demands from Israel’s Home Front Defence minister, Avi Dichter, to ‘reformat’ the Gaza Strip and calls from the transport minister, Yisrael Katz, to cut off the supply of all goods and services to Gaza’s population of 1.5 million until they begged for air, the Egyptians had crafted a ceasefire proposal that was accepted by the Palestinians and – according to the Egyptians – Israel too. With responsibility not only for fighting Israel but also enforcing agreements with it, Jabari began implementing the ceasefire. Two days later he was blown up. Several hours and several dozen air raids later, Israel triumphantly announced that it had successfully decommissioned long-range missile capabilities within the Gaza Strip. After first hitting cities as far afield as Beersheba and Tel Aviv, the first Hamas rocket yesterday reached the western outskirts of Jerusalem. Today, Israel has attacked Hamas government compounds, killing at least eight more Palestinians, and troops are reportedly massing along the border with Gaza.
Electoral considerations are likely to have played a role in Israeli decision-making, but hardly driven them. Both Netanyahu and his defence minister, Ehud Barak, had been smarting since March from a previous Egyptian-mediated ceasefire, according to which they informally agreed not only to stop attacking the Gaza Strip but also to discontinue assassinations. An Islamic Jihad leader I interviewed at the time reckoned this was a climbdown too far for Israel’s leaders and they were bound to renew hostilities sooner rather than later.
Pummelling Gaza yet again was intended to remind all concerned – not least the new Egypt – who makes the rules, though it would also reassure the Israeli electorate they need not fear the prospect of Obama punishing Israel for Netanyahu’s embrace of the Romney/Adelson ticket. As expected, the Obama White House has reiterated its commitment to Israel, and Congress has been busy passing unanimous resolutions supporting Israel’s right to self-defence in its colonial possessions. The positions of most European states have been only marginally less obscene.
While Hamas would like to frustrate Netanyahu’s re-election as they ruined Shimon Peres’s prospects by sending suicide bombers into Israel after the 1996 assassination of Yahya Ayyash, launching missiles at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv is for them probably achievement enough, particularly if going further may endanger their continued rule of the Gaza Strip. As it is, nearly eight times as many Israeli reservists have been put on standy-by as were deployed during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9.
Israeli hesitation about what may lie ahead, in combination with furious diplomacy directed at Washington by Egypt, Turkey, Qatar and others, may lead to a new ceasefire agreement in the coming days. If not, the primary issue for those committed to peace in the Middle East will be to ensure Israel is deprived of the impunity it enjoyed during and after Operation Cast Lead.