A Palestinian shouts in front of what witnesses said are destroyed tunnels after an Israeli air strike in the border of southern Gaza Strip November 21, 2012. Reuters/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa
Like its predecessor four years ago, Israel’s most recent assault on Gaza began shortly after the US elections, and before the inauguration of President Obama. This time, as then, the attack began shortly before scheduled Israeli elections. In this new crisis, as then, the US role is primary. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak had it right four days after this escalation began. “This effort could not have been concluded without the generous and consistent support of the American administration led by President Obama,” he said. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu certainly calculated that a new Israeli war would compel Obama to publicly reassert Washington’s uncritical backing of every Israeli move, regardless of post–Arab Spring changes in the region, and regardless of Tel Aviv’s violations of international humanitarian law, UN resolutions, the Geneva Conventions or anything else. Even so, it’s unlikely that Netanyahu believes that pushing Washington to defend Israel’s so-called “right to self-defense” will somehow recalibrate his tense relationship with the US president. That tension will no doubt rise if the Israeli leader orders a ground invasion of Gaza.
As before, the Israeli military is using US-made and US taxpayer–funded F-16s and Apache helicopters; as before, the United States is directly complicit in Israel’s actions. And this time Israel can argue that it’s merely channeling Washington’s latest mode of warfighting. In the past the United States, however hypocritically, often criticized Israel’s “targeted assassinations.” But Obama’s drone warfare, which has killed thousands in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and perhaps beyond, has made disapproval of Israel’s assassination policy impossible. It would take a level of chutzpah beyond even Susan Rice’s to condemn Israeli assassinations when the tactic has become such a hallmark of Obama’s wars.
At press time, the Israeli offensive has killed at least 115 Palestinians—half of them civilians—and injured some 840, including 225 children. Among the injured were eight journalists, including one whose leg was amputated. On November 18 alone, ten members of the Dalu family were killed in Gaza City, all but one of them women and young children. The assault recalls Operation Cast Lead of 2008–09, when more than 1,400 Palestinians, most of them civilians and 313 of them children, were killed, along with thirteen Israelis—almost all soldiers, four of whom were killed by friendly fire.
But the pattern of Israeli attacks goes beyond the shockingly disproportionate casualties. As was true in earlier assaults, Operation Pillar of Defense began with the assassination of a militant Palestinian leader while he was engaged in negotiations for a cease-fire. In 2002 it was Hamas leader Salah Shehadeh, assassinated in his home in Gaza while reading the latest long-term cease-fire proposal. This time it was Ahmed Jabari, who in 2011 had negotiated the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian political prisoners. Jabari was assassinated on November 14 while overseeing Hamas negotiations with Israel for a long-term truce.
So why the escalation? Israeli army chief of staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz told Army Radio last year that Israel would soon need to launch another “swift and painful” attack on Gaza, to restore what he called Israel’s power of “deterrence.” This offensive was long planned. The specific timing of the attack, though, was partly about Netanyahu shoring up his electoral base. He’s seeking re-election in January and has antagonized many Israelis by deliberately dissing President Obama. Netanyahu needs to reassure his far-right supporters (an increasing cohort) that even if he doesn’t bomb Tehran, he can still bomb and assassinate Arabs with impunity. Once again it is Palestinians who will pay the price.
Israel chose this moment to attack despite its increasing isolation. This is not the same Middle East that confronted Israel four years ago; Tel Aviv no longer operates in a region where popular animosity to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians was kept in check by US-backed dictatorships. Hamas has broken with the Syrian regime, and its ties with Iran have been reduced as its strategic connections to the governments of Egypt and Turkey take hold. As a result, Hamas’s important new supporters in Cairo and Ankara happen to be the same governments Washington most urgently needs to keep close. Hamas is now arguably less isolated, certainly in the region, than Israel itself. Witness the solidarity visits to Gaza of Egypt’s prime minister, the Tunisian foreign minister, the emir of Qatar. Witness the Turkish prime minister calling Israel “a terrorist state.”
At press time, negotiations for a cease-fire were accelerating, with Egypt as a key interlocutor. Israel, buttressed by unlimited US support, had little reason to hurry and was holding out for the right to continue its assassination policy. Five days into the assault, former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s son Gilad described in a Jerusalem Post op-ed what Israel should do before any cease-fire is considered: “We need to flatten entire neighborhoods in Gaza. Flatten all of Gaza. The Americans didn’t stop with Hiroshima—the Japanese weren’t surrendering fast enough, so they hit Nagasaki, too…. There should be no electricity in Gaza, no gasoline or moving vehicles, nothing. Then they’d really call for a cease-fire.”
The danger is that Sharon fils is not being marginalized as an extremist advocating genocide. An immediate cease-fire is urgently needed. But there will be further rounds of violence unless Israel ends the siege of Gaza—and its occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Only then will it be possible to negotiate a long-term, just and comprehensive peace.
Sharif Abdel Kouddous describes how newly elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, at the center of cease-fire talks between Hamas and Israel, is under heavy domestic and international pressure from all sides.