Fighting fire with fire


Both Israel and Hamas were prepared for the ultimate war, but saw it as a last resort and decided to avoid it this time

By Efraim Halevy, Former Director, Mossad

Raining terror Israeli women take cover in a stairwell against incoming rockets in Ashkelon
Photo: AP

CLOSE TO a week after the outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Hamas occupied centrestage, intense fighting has given place to a fragile ceasefire brokered by Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, supported by the US and the international community. The events leading up to this temporary finale need to be recapped. Israel’s lightning response to incessant Hamas shelling of a growing swathe of its territory in recent months caught Hamas unawares; over a thousand sorties of the Israel Air Force inflicted havoc on the Hamas military machine at the same time that the latter intensified its rocket attacks on cities in central and southern Israel.

Therein lay the basic difference between the campaign of the two warring parties; the one moved to knock out a military machine with precision bombing coupled with a supreme effort to avoid civilian casualties, whereas the other intensified its indiscriminate targeting of civilians with the aim of undermining the morale of the population.

This week saw the destruction of numerous arms dumps of medium-range Iranian manufactured Fajr 5 missiles that had been smuggled into the Gaza Strip through subterranean tunnels for several years. The loss of most of this Iranian investment followed closely on the tails of yet one more debacle — the slide of Iranian-backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad en route to his ultimate fate.

Events of the past week caught up with US President Barack Obama on his first trip abroad after his re-election, this time to Southeast Asia. As the president moved from capital to capital, he kept his hand on the West Asian pulse, overseeing the Egyptian effort to fashion an exit strategy for all concerned.

At the outset, Israel set itself a short list of moderate, but vital, aims. It wished to secure a very long term of quiet for its citizens, a restoration of its deterrent capability and an end to arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip. The Hamas wished to emerge from the fighting with its iron-fisted control over the Gaza Strip’s 1.5 million population intact. Both sides prepared for the jugular: Israel readied a ground force capable of entering Gaza and uprooting the terrorist-inclined Hamas, whereas the latter steeled itself for a protracted bout of urban warfare against an invading force, resulting in a possible high level of casualties on both sides. Both were prepared for the ultimate, but see it as a last resort and prefer to avoid it this time.

INDEED, ISRAEL and Hamas needed to heed their constituencies. Israel had to listen to public opinion both at home and abroad, and factor in the interests of other players, both in the region (Egypt and Jordan, with whom it has peace treaties, and Turkey and Saudi Arabia, who will be affected by the events) and beyond — the US, Europe and many other friendly countries such as India. Hamas had to pay attention to its growing isolation in the region — it has lost its vital base in Syria, it is estranged now from Iran, whereas Egypt, though a newfound brotherly relative in the regional scheme of the Muslim Brotherhood is wary — very wary — of Hamas involvement in terrorist activities in the vulnerable Egyptian sovereign region of Sinai. Egypt was the only real friend Hamas has left and it had a vital interest in crafting a successful deal on ending the fighting. So there are constraints all around.

If the conclusion of this chapter in the Israel-Palestine conflict will restore calm for a year or two, efforts can begin to lay the blocks of an historical conciliation based on mutual acceptance for the benefit of the parties themselves and their friends and well-wishers around the world; the alternative is more strife later on. It looks far-fetched at this point, but the prize awaits those who will put their hands in the fire. There is no cause more worthy than true peace.

Views expressed here are the author’s own


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