Last Christmas, I was able to return after almost a decade’s absence to Hebron, a Palestinian city that since the end of the Six Day War in 1967 has been the epicenter of the conflict between Palestinians and Israeli settlers. I was there as a Fulbright lecturer at the Hebron Polytechnic and the University Graduates Union during the first Intifada in 1987 and 1988, and was deeply moved to see how well I was remembered. In fact, I was ushered into my old office which, shortly after my departure, became Yasir Arafat’s office. The Intifada presaged many changes for the Palestinians.
The first Intifada was a largely spontaneous uprising against the Israeli Occupation and in Hebron, the presence of the settlers, many from Gush Emunim and the racist Kach movement of Rabbi Meir Kahane. The violence that followed was terrible indeed, and was memorialized in the famous poem by Nizar Qabbani, “The Children of the Stones.” The second Intifada, called the Al Aqsa Intifada because of the attack on the Temple Mount/Al Aqsa Mosque in 2005 was much more violent. Yet in both, the sense of helplessness and hopelessness was nothing like what was being experienced today due to the virtual impunity granted to Jewish radical settlers in the West Bank under the current Israeli governing coalition.
As bad as this was, it pales in comparison to the situation in Gaza, which under Hamas rule has been blockaded by Israel for the last 15 years. According to UNICEF: "Largely due to the blockade, poverty, high unemployment rates and other factors, nearly 80 per cent of Gazans now rely on humanitarian assistance. More than half of Gaza’s just over 2 million people live in poverty, and nearly 80 per cent of the youth are unemployed."
With this as an introduction, many Mandinar readers might with a groan suspect that this will be an apologia for the actions of Hamas or a condemnation of Israel. It is neither. I have as many friends and colleagues in Israel as I do in Palestine, have been to Israel many times, and written numerous academic articles about the country, a few of which have been translated into Hebrew and published in Israeli journals. The Middle East is a region where simple stereotypes and Hollywood good guy/bad guy scenarios are always misleading.
Both Intifadas were popular uprisings by Palestinian civilians. While there were sporadic terror attacks in Israel itself, the bulk of the conflict was contained in the Palestinian territories. Terror groups were present but hardly a leading force. Moreover, in retrospect (though it did not seem so at the time), the Israeli response was measured and controlled. The Hamas attack on Israel was something else entirely.
Many of the old catalysts were there. There was a violent confrontation with Israeli extremists led by a cabinet minister on the grounds of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Violence in West Bank cities is at an all time high, and more than 300 Palestinians had been killed, as well as over 100 Israelis this year alone. And in Gaza, poverty, drugs and desperation ruled the day. The situation seemed over the Christmas visit ripe for another uprising, but this did not happen.
Instead, a highly organized multi-front attack by Hamas militants entered Israel itself in force. This was a hybrid military and terrorist assault, unique in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which combined conventional engagements with the IDF, murderous attacks on civilians and mass kidnappings of Israeli and some foreign citizens to use both as shields or bargaining chips. What was stunning was not the attack itself, but it’s meticulous planning and precision, as well as the effective use of rockets and other weapons which Hamas had not hitherto been thought to possess.
This constituted the greatest Israeli intelligence failure since the successful crossing of the Suez by Egyptian forces in 1973. Yet this was worse by many magnitudes. The Egyptians took advantage of Israeli complacency after the sweeping victory of 1967 combined with the Yom Kipper holiday which allowed many military personnel leave to return to their families. But the Egyptian attack was purely military and the massive tank battle that followed was conducted in the isolation of the Sainai desert.
The Hamas attack came at such a time of maximum distraction. For months the Netanyahu government, clinging to power only through the support of Ultra-Orthodox and extremist political parties, left Israel at its most divided and weakest point in its history. Massive demonstrations in opposition to judicial reform have packed the streets of Tel Aviv and other cities for months. Reservists, particularly in the vital Air Force Reserve, have resigned or refused to serve while a growing resistance to either military service or serving in a way deemed contrary to democracy had left the Israeli military fearing for its readiness and ability to sustain combat operations.
The objectives of Hamas were not territorial, they were focused on inflicting maximum casualties on civilians. Emblematic of the Hamas raids was the attack on the Nova music festival which was bombarded with rockets and small arms fire, killing 260 and providing Hamas with a selection of young captives. This is not an uprising against the Israeli occupation, nor is it revenge for anything done by Israeli settlers or military forces. It is terrorism in its rawest form and any claim to the world’s sympathy, despite pro-Hamas demonstrations from London to Stockholm, is forfeit.
To such violence against civilians there can be no answer beyond force. And Israel is using such force, blockading Gaza and bombing both Hamas sites and the surrounding civilian population which is in such close proximity it is impossible to selectively target Hamas forces. It is a tactic that is common to terrorists but states will in the long run pay a price for too high a civilian casualty count.
Israeli forces will inevitably prevail over Hamas, but there are considerable security and geopolitical risks yet to be faced. Most immediate is whether the five and a half million Palestinian residents of the Palestinian Authority will remain on the sidelines. The Palestinian Authority itself, deeply unpopular for its corruption and ineptitude, will certainly want no part of the conflict and benefits greatly from the destruction of its Hamas rival. But the Palestinian public had been pushed to its limit and may choose to open another front, at least on the militia and popular level. This, however, is at present unlikely barring violent Israeli military or settler actions.
The greater questions are geopolitical. Hamas did not receive its weapons by magic. Iran is clearly behind the attacks, although Israelis are debating to what degree. On a deeper level, the tactical sophistication of the attacks, in my view, bear the unmistakable fingerprint of Lebanese Hezbollah. Hezbollah is a state within a state in Lebanon, with a powerful parliamentary bloc, a conventional military force that could easily defeat the Lebanese Army if it had a mind to, militia force enhancers deployed throughout the Middle East and Africa to great effect, and a terrorist wing that is both effective and self-financing.
By the Israeli military’s own reports, Hezbollah defeated the IDF in its war with Israel in 2006. How they did so is now for American military and intelligence planners a part of training. This is summarized in an unclassified report that was written for the US Joint Military Operations Department. It’s title, “2006 Israeli-Hezbollah War: a Fight of Operational Synchronization,” describes the basic structure of the Hamas infiltration into Israel and its multiple simultaneous strikes.
That Hezbollah is deeply implicated in the attacks is, in one sense, a bonus for Israel and its Western supporters, particularly the US. It indicates that Iran itself has no intention of becoming directly involved—a development that would surely convulse the region in war.
The final challenge is how to manage the aftermath of the conflict. Hamas will be, if not destroyed, effectively crippled for some time to come. What then will happen to Gaza is the next question. Surely there will be a direct occupation but a long term solution, from pacification to the expulsion of the Palestinian population, remains on the table. If the Iran-Hezbollah nexus is indeed found to be responsible, there will be reprisals in some form or other.
The greatest changes however, will be in Israel itself. As after 9/11 in the United States, the divided Israeli public have been brought back together. There will be no room for extremists in the broad security cabinet that has been formed, and pressure from the Ultra-Orthodox to provide them with yet greater exemptions from military service and yet more funding for their institutions will be for a time set aside if the Ultra-Orthodox parties have any political sense at all.
In the end, the greatest changes will not be among the Palestinians, but within Israel itself.