By ROGER COHEN
Published: November 19, 2012
Damon Winter/The New York Times
HOW does it end in Gaza?
This has been the issue with all the self-defeating Israeli military offensives of the past 16 years — Operation Grapes of Wrath in Lebanon, Operation Cast Lead in Gaza and now Operation Pillar of Defense, all of them, not coincidentally, initiated on the eve of national elections in Israel.
Gilad Sharon, the son of Ariel Sharon who orchestrated Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, has an idea for an ending. He expressed it this way in The Jerusalem Post:
“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.”
Atomic bombs, blackness, stillness, nothingness — Sharon allows himself to indulge the old Israeli dream that the Palestinian people should just disappear. But of course they do not. They regroup. They find new leaders. They endure with hatred of Israel reignited by loss.
This is an old story. As early as 1907, Yitzhak Epstein, a Zionist, wrote an article called “A Hidden Question” in which he observed: “We have forgotten one small matter: There is in our beloved land an entire nation, which has occupied it for hundreds of years and has never thought to leave it.” Zionism, Epstein warned, would have to face and solve “The Arab Question.”
The specific question for Israel in the run-up to this operation was what to do about rockets launched from Gaza at its citizens. No government can accept having its civilians subjected to regular rocket attacks from a neighboring territory.
As usual, the prelude was messy — a rocket fired from Gaza hitting southern Israel on Nov. 3; a Palestinian killed near the border on Nov. 4; three Israeli soldiers wounded in a blast at the border on Nov. 6; a Palestinian boy killed by Israeli machine-gun fire on Nov. 8; four Israelis soldiers wounded by an anti-tank missile on Nov. 10; four Palestinian teenagers killed when Israel fires back; steadily increasing rocket fire from Gaza. (That is just a rough summary, and of course each side has a different version.)
The question for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was what to do: Escalate or pursue the cease-fire negotiations then being conducted on an unofficial basis through Egyptian good offices with Ahmed al-Jabari, the head of the military wing of Hamas and the man responsible both for the abduction of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and his release a year ago. The aim of the cease-fire talks, in the words of the independent Israeli negotiator Gershon Baskin, “was to move beyond the patterns of the past.”
On Nov. 14 Netanyahu made his decision: Jabari was assassinated, with accompanying video of his exploding car. (One imagines the reaction of a kid seeing it: “Dad, I did that yesterday!”)
And here we are in the patterns of the past: Palestinian children among at least 90 people already killed in Gaza, three Israelis dead from rocket fire, Palestinian government buildings being blown up, diplomats scrambling for a cease-fire, the U.S. Congress isolated in its blanket approval, Israel casting around for a plausible endgame as regional fury mounts.
Is all this good for Israel? No. Unless good is defined as policies that radicalize the situation, erode middle ground, demonstrate the impossibility of agreement, and so facilitate continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the expansion of settlements there and the steady eclipse of the idea of a two-state peace. This may well be Netanyahu’s criteria for a tactical victory from Operation Pillar of Defense (along with victory for Likud on Jan. 22.)
There will be no other Israeli “victory.” As Aluf Benn, editor in chief of the Israeli daily Haaretz, commented, “The assassination of Jabari will go down in history as another showy military action initiated by an outgoing government on the eve of an election.” Jabari, Benn argued, was in effect Israel’s point man in a money-for-truce exchange that worked imperfectly. Now, “Israel will have to find a new subcontractor to replace Ahmed Jabari as its border guard in the south.”
In other words Hamas will not go away. It will have to be dealt with. The United States now deals with the Muslim Brotherhood (the parent of Hamas) and Salafis in the new Egypt. Dealing with reality is a good thing.
Israel, I learn from my colleague Ethan Bronner, has a preferred metaphor for its repetitive security operations: “Cutting the grass,” as in “a task that must be performed regularly and has no end.” But of course bombing Gaza is potent fertilizer to the grasses of hatred.
What, I wonder, does Shalit think? His Hamas tormentor freed him in the end.
The Middle East has opened up. Young Arabs are thinking about their own societies. Israel, stuck in the patterns of the past, has another option: Testing Palestinian good will rather than punishing Palestinian bad faith. Under Netanyahu, it has not even tried. Until it does the endings will be bad.