Much has been written about the impotence and uselessness of the United Nations and its various Middle East missions. Peacekeeping operations like those in Lebanon fail to keep any sort of peace, while refugee organizations like those in the the Gaza Strip fail to resolve refugee crises. But one thing has to be admitted: when they step up to help Israel’s enemies in times of war, they do so enthusiastically and even comprehensively. Because modern wars are fought both in the media and on the battlefield, UNRWA officials make a point of assisting Hamas in both arenas.
The documentation on how UNRWA tried to manipulate the media during Israel’s 2009 Operation Cast Lead is extensive – a 43-page pdf study can be found here – but probably the most surreal example came when UNRWA Commissioner Karen Abu Zayd hastily called a video press conference to blame Israel for the war. Claiming that “it was obvious that Hamas was trying” to observe a truce and that “only one rocket… went out on Friday [before the operation],” she accused Israel of violating an “informal 48-hour lull.” The degree to which Abu Zayd just flat fabricated that story can’t be overemphasized. Suffice to say that not only had Hamas been firing rockets at Israel for months, but on that very Friday morning they had fired 25 shells. That’s a lot more than the 1 Abu Zayd counted, but global media outlets duly parroted her propaganda anyway.
For the second time in a week, Hamas gunmen have assaulted a transportation hub supplying Gaza. Last week the fuel transfer station at Nachal Oz was attacked. Today Hamas attacked both the Kerem Shalom crossing, through which humanitarian aid is supplied to Gaza, and, once again, the Nachal Oz station.
But wait: aren’t the Israelis the ones who want to stop fuel and humanitarian aid from getting to Gaza? In a strange new twist, Israel and Hamas have reversed their alleged roles: Israel is trying to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and Hamas is trying to create one.
The reason for these attacks? Hamas needs media attention to survive. The worst thing that could happen to Ismail Haniyah and Khaled Meshaal is for the world to stop paying attention to the disaster they’ve created. So if Hamas can’t convince Israel to shut the lights off with Qassam rockets (which the group routinely aims at the power station inside Israel that supplies Gaza with most of its electricity), or by confiscating half the fuel supplies that do make it into Gaza, it attacks Nachal Oz and Kerem Shalom directly. Anything to advance the false narrative of the Israeli blockade, keep Gaza in the headlines, and demonstrate the efficacy of Hamas’s resistance.
I wonder whether those members of the international community whose consciences are finely attuned to Palestinian suffering will respond to all of this by denouncing Hamas for its collective punishment of Gaza, for attempting to instigate a humanitarian crisis, for endangering the ability of hospitals to remain open, etc. You know: all the things Israel is routinely accused of doing, but which only Hamas ever seems to perpetrate.
A final thought on J Street: during the call yesterday, one of the organization’s leaders defended J Street’s advocacy of Israeli negotiations with Hamas by citing the fact that 64 percent of Israelis favor the same thing. Do they? Take it away, Gideon Lichfield:
Three weeks ago Ha’aretz’s pollster, Camil Fuchs, published a poll showing that 64% of Israelis favour holding talks with Hamas in order to get a ceasefire and release Gilad Shalit, the captured soldier. Today [March 18th] the Tami Steinmetz Centre has issued the latest monthly Peace Index. It says that only 25% of Israelis and just 17% of Israeli Jews favour negotiating with Hamas. …
The Ha’aretz poll asked people if they supported talks with Hamas: yes or no. The Steinmetz poll asked them the best way for Israel to deal with the Qassam rockets from Gaza: (1) talks with Hamas; (2) a relatively restrained military response . . . (3) a bigger but still limited response (ie, like the ground incursion that killed 110 people or so earlier this month); (4) a massive ground operation to reoccupy Gaza; (5) another option of your choice; (6) don’t know.
When you put the question like this, more Israeli Jews support reoccupying Gaza than talking to Hamas.
It seems to me that the J Streeters are never going to be able to escape the fact that, sitting in Washington, they are advocating policies for Israel that are overwhelmingly unpopular among Israelis — and attempting to brand this paternalism as “pro-Israel.”
As Eric Trager has pointed out, Israel’s sealing off of Gaza raises some dangerous potentialities. One such potentiality has come to life, as Hamas just toppled a fence on Gaza’s Rafah border crossing allowing thousands of Palestinians to stream into Egypt. The New York Times describes the event as “a great bazaar” and seems to think the security breach represents a problem no greater than, say, Black Friday shoppers sustaining injuries during a door-buster sale. Meanwhile, the potential for arms replenishment is sure to be exploited to the hilt (as David Hazony notes below). But what really jumps out at the reader is this:
People began pouring over the fence before dawn, said one witness, Fatan Hessin, 45. She had crossed into Egypt to be reunited with a childhood friend from whom she had been separated by the border. “I am a Palestinian. I am not Hamas or Fatah, but I thank Hamas for this,” she said.
Ms. Hessin, who had used the breach of the border to meet up with her friend, Inshira Hanbal, on the Egyptian side of the border, said: “We are extremely tired of this life. The closure, the unemployment, the poverty. No one is working in my household.”
In these two quotes we see the flimsy declaration of Palestinian victimology for what it is: I’m not a terrorist or even politically-minded. I’m just a human being who wants to live freely. If Hamas delivers this freedom, then I thank them. But as for the poverty, the restrictions, and the violence that continue to quash my hopes for a decent existence—well, I’m extremely tired of it.
Ms. Hessin should thank Hamas for furnishing the daily hell that is her life in Gaza. Yet, she makes no connection between the Qassam rockets that regularly land on Israeli homes and the miserable conditions in which she lives.
Israel’s new strategy for dealing with the continuous barrage of Qassam rockets fired from Gaza has many troubling implications. For Palestinians, the fuel cuts mean the severe rationing of electricity, little or no heat during the cold of winter, and very limited mobility. Most alarmingly, the power shortage has threatened hospitals, with half the surgeries that were scheduled for Monday delayed at Gaza’s main hospital. Unfortunately, Palestinian civilians are unlikely to enjoy relief any time soon: Hamas’ leadership remains more committed to exploiting the crisis for propaganda purposes than simply ending the rocket attacks, and its first act in the wake of Israel’s fuel cut was to turn off the lights and hit the airwaves. We can thus expect to see more gas lines and bread lines in the days to come.
But Israelis should also be concerned. The decision to firmly seal Gaza, shut off its fuel supply, and limit the import of food suggests that Israel’s leadership has completely run out of ideas for how it should address Hamas’ continued aggression. Indeed, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has thrown Israel’s counterterrorism playbook out the window, subjecting 1.5 million Gazans to an existence that is merely better than a “humanitarian crisis”—in Olmert’s own words—rather than narrowly focusing his strategy against the terrorists. Olmert’s lack of creativity has extended to his defense of this approach, which has implied vindictiveness. As he told Kadima officials on Monday, “As far as I am concerned, all of Gaza’s residents can walk.”
The sealing of Gaza has serious strategic consequences for Israeli policy. When acting against aggression, Israel typically faces a limited timeframe in which it can accomplish its goals before international pressure forces it to cease operations. It is for this reason that its greatest military successes—including the 1967 war and 2002 Operation Defensive Shield—have come with remarkable swiftness. Alternatively, its greatest failures—the 1973 war and 2006 Lebanon War—have come when conflict was halted before Israel could realize concrete strategic accomplishments. Particularly when fighting guerrilla warfare—which rarely lends itself to swift victories—Israeli leaders must therefore aim to establish conditions under which the IDF is afforded a maximal timeframe in which it can operate. This increases the likelihood of success.
Yet Olmert’s strategy in Gaza does the opposite. From the moment the fuel was cut, the clock has been ticking rapidly, with the international community deeply concerned that a serious humanitarian crisis looms. Yesterday, Israel retreated under pressure from its ill-conceived policy, delivering a new supply of diesel and cooking-gas a mere 24 hours after Olmert vowed to not do so. Meanwhile, rockets have continued to hit Israel at a steady pace.
If the cuts to Gaza’s energy supply do not stem the flow of rockets in the next few days, Olmert will probably be forced to retreat further. Thereafter, it may be a while before Israel is granted a free hand to deal with terrorism emanating from Gaza. In the worst-case scenario, a spiraling humanitarian situation might increase the pressure on Israel to reach a truce with Hamas. In short, insofar as the current strategy takes too great a toll on Palestinian civilians, it is unsustainable and self-defeating.
What should be done about the “the ignominy of Sderot”? That is Hillel Halkin’s term for the fact that a “reasonably prosperous city of some 20,000 inhabitants, an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv, [has been] reduced to a state of shell-shocked panic by scattershot Qassam attacks from the Gaza Strip, its life paralyzed . . . while the country’s government and army seem powerless to do anything about it.”
How can the Qassam rockets be countered?