Updates: I hope to post regular updates on the situation. Links to the updates will be posted here as well.
Originally, I planned to come home from work today and write a follow up about the primaries which took place this week in two Israeli parties: in Meretz on Sunday and in HaBayit HaYehudi on Tuesday, ahead of the general election planned for January 22nd.
But in Israel, reality has a funny way of refusing to sit still long enough to be written about. One minute, the elections are one of the only things being talked about, and the next, they have been completely driven out of mind.
This afternoon, Israel began Operation “Cloud Pillar” (in Hebrew. In English it has been dubbed “Pillar of Defense”), named after the biblical pillar which protected the children of Israel when they travelled throught the desert after leaving the slavery of Egypt. The operation began with an extensive air strike, in which a number of key Hamas militants were sent to join their 72 virgins in hell, including Hamas’s chief of staff, Ahmed Ja’abri, and a large number of long-range missiles were destroyed.
What is this all about?
To answer that, one has to go back to the year 2005. Israel was occupying the Gaza strip. There were a number of Israeli settlements in the Gaza strip, most of them at the northern end of the strip. The rest of the strip was populated by approximately 1.5 million Palestinians. The IDF controlled the main roads, but did not enter Gaza city often, as it was controlled de-facto by the Hamas and other terrorist organizations. For five years, the Israeli towns around the Gaza strip had been periodically bombarded by Hamas’s newest invention: Qassam rockets. These missiles are not much more than metal pipes, stuffed with explosives, mounted on simple launchers and fired away in the general direction of Israelis.
Ariel Sharon, who was Prime Minister at the time, decided it was time for a change, and presented his plan for “disengagement”. Israel would leave the Gaza strip entirely, uprooting thousands of Jews who had lived in the strip for over 30 years, after being sent to live there by previous Israeli governments. This was not a withdrawal as part of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Israel expected nothing in return for handing over the land. The idea behind the plan was that if Israel were to withdraw, the Palestinians would no longer have a reason to continue their aggression against Israel. We would no longer be occupying the Gaza strip, thousands of Palestinians who were making a living off terrorism and UN funds would have to find real jobs, and peace would reign at last. A majority of Israelis didn’t buy this story, but the disengagement plan went ahead nonetheless.
However, it was not a complete disengagement. Israel continues to provide Gaza with electricity, water, fuel and food to this day, even though it has another border- with Egypt, through which it can acquire the supplies it needs. When Israeli electric-company teams need to repair power lines going into Gaza, they need two trucks: one truck lifts the electric-company workers, the other lifts an iron sheet in order to protect the workers from Palestinian sniper fire.
Shortly after Israel left Gaza, Hamas, an armed terrorist organization, which has been behind thousands of attacks on Israelis, including stabbings, bombings, shooting drive-bys and suicide bombings, took over the Gaza strip. Hamas waged battle against Fatah, another terrorist organization which still rules over Judea and Samaria and is considered to be more moderate than Hamas, because it is a secular organization, and it no longer preaches violence, at least not for western ears. At the end of the battle between Hamas and Fatah, Hamas held the entire Gaza strip.
And lo and behold, the missile fire didn’t stop. It became more persistent. Hamas improved its ranges, and more cities came under the reign of terror coming from Gaza. Hamas is believed to possess missiles capable of reaching as far as Tel-Aviv now, although it has not used them. Yet.
Israel’s spokespeople often compare the situation thus: imagine that a drug cartel takes over Mexico and begins firing rockets at Arizona. The reaction of the United States would most likely be to send its massive army to “facilitate a regime change”. Heck, the last time the US was hit by a major terrorist attack, it conquered two countries.
Why has Israel not fought back?
It has. But Israel has no interest in holding onto Gaza. A full scale attack on Gaza, for some reason, does not garner the international support that the US enjoyed when it destroyed Afghanistan and Iraq. Most of the time, Israel has used its technological capabilities to launch pinpointed air strikes against missile launching teams, arms stores and in extreme cases, also against Hamas leaders.
At the end of 2008, during the Hannukah holiday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decided that enough was enough, and launched operation “Cast Lead”, named after a verse in a well-known Hannukah song by Haim Nahman Bialik (“My teacher gave me a dreidel/ of cast lead/ do you know what for?/ for Hannukah!”). During the operation, thousands of Israelis were called up for reserve army service (myself included). The IDF entered Gaza and attempted to destroy missile launching and other military capabilities of Hamas. After three and a half weeks, a cease fire was called.
What led to Operation Cloud Pillar?
Over the past months, Hamas and the other organizations in Gaza have been becoming bolder. Missiles have been raining down on towns in the south of Israel without stop. Every few weeks, Hamas escalates the violence and instead of firing one or two missiles a day, they fire a few dozen. Israel retaliates with air strikes, and after a few days things calm down until the next round.
Imagine living like that. When the siren sounds, Israelis living in Sderot have 15 seconds to find shelter, or else they might be dead. Children have to get up during the night, sometimes several times, to run to the nearest bomb shelter. If their school is open the next day, I doubt their learning is effective. Imagine jumping every time you hear a motorcycle drive by, like we used to jump during the first Gulf War. For a split second you aren’t sure if what you’re hearing is the siren or a motorcycle. If you can’t imagine it, here is a link to a short video clip to show you what it’s like:
For the past week, over 1 million Israelis have had to live in bomb shelters, or within 15 seconds of them. This is not acceptable. It has to end.
What does Israel intend to achieve by this operation?
Israel harbors no illusions about its ability to destroy all of Hamas’s rockets. The purpose of the operation is to reinstate a balance of fear. Hamas must know that rocket fire on Israeli citizens will no longer go unpunished, and it must know that it is not worthwhile. This afternoon, Hamas’s top military commander was eliminated, along with other high ranking militants. That and more is the price Hamas will continue to pay until the rocket fire stops.
What can we expect to happen over the coming days?
Hamas has already responded with a barrage of over 100 rockets. The rocket fire will most likely continue for a few days until the message sinks in. Meanwhile Israel will continue to destroy Hamas military targets. Also, the IDF has begun shifting ground forces towards the Gaza strip. If the rocket fire does not cease, Israel may begin a ground invasion. A news correspondent suggested earlier this week that the IDF may re-occupy the Philadelphi corridor, a narrow strip of land along the border between Gaza and Egypt, in order to take control of the tunnels used for smuggling arms into the strip from Egypt.
“But the Israelis are too trigger happy!”
Trust me, we aren’t. A ground invasion means thousands of Israeli men being called up for reserve duty. Thousands of people who with only a day’s notice will have to leave their families and their jobs for an unspecified number of weeks, endangering their own lives in order to protect others. A military operation in Gaza means that until the operation is completed and the rocket fire stops completely, over one million Israelis will be living in their bomb shelters. They will not be able to go to work or school. A military operation is not something to be undertaken lightly.
“But Israel is killing innocent civillians!”
False. As always, Israel undertakes supreme efforts to avoid civilian casualties, even among the enemy. Israel is targeting only terrorist organization members and facilities. However, in war, mistakes are made and civilians may get hurt. Palestinian terrorist organizations capitalize on this and deliberately operate from within densely populated areas. Hamas has fired rockets from private homes, schools, mosques and hospitals, hoping that Israel will fire back and incur international wrath for killing civilians. Naturally, the IDF prefers to protect Israeli civilian lives, but it makes every effort to protect Palestinian civilian lives as well.
“But the Palestinian casualties are much higher than the Israeli ones!”
That is true. This war is an a-symmetric war. One side is firing non-guided rockets at civilian populations, while the other side is launching pinpointed strikes at the perpetrators of this. If a rocket falls in Sderot or Be’er Sheva or Netivot or Ashkelon, most of the people will already be hiding in bomb shelters and will be protected. Ahmad Ja’abri and his ilk, on the other hand, will be hunted personally and by much more accurate means. Therefore, we will be seeing a much higher Palestinian casualty rate than the Israeli casualty rate. Does that mean Israel is committing war crimes? Definitely not.
“But the Hamas spokesmen said that- …!”
I have seen two false statements made by Hamas spokesmen over the past few days:
1. Hamas has been firing rockets at Israeli military targets.
False. Hamas’s rockets have no guidance systems. They can not claim to be firing at Israeli military targets, because they do not have that capability. All they can do is point the rockets in the general direction of Israeli cities and hope for the worst. Israeli cities have been hit. Israeli homes have been destroyed. Hamas is not aiming at soldiers. It is aiming at anyone it can hit.
2. Israel is attacking Palestinian civilians.
If you call the chief of staff of a terrorist organization a civilian, that would be true. But Ahmed Ja’abri was as much of a civilian as Osama bin-Laden. Israel has no wish to harm civilians. All we want is some peace and quiet.
“What about negotiating?”
Why didn’t the US negotiate with Osama bin-Laden?
Israel has been down the road of negotiations many times, and it has repeatedly hit dead ends. Hamas is not interested in peace. Hamas is interested in obliterating Israel, piece by piece. This is not paranoia, it is written in the Hamas charter. Cease fires have been made many times in the past, but they have not been observed. Negotiations are only effective if the other side has a good reason to fulfill his side of the bargain. The time has come for Israel to make it worth Hamas’s while to keep the peace.
“But I heard that this whole operation is just because of the upcoming election”
The timing is bad. No doubt about it. This operation, if it fails, could cost Netanyahu the election. It could also help him if it succeeds. But the real question is-
If 20% of your country’s population was hiding in bomb shelters every other week, could you let it slide?
Updates: I hope to post regular updates on the situation. Links to the updates will be posted here as well.