Monday, December 29, 2008


The Israeli air assault on Gaza enters its fourth day, and the possibility of an accompanying ground assault is increasing. The suffering of the Palestinian civilian population in Gaza is becoming ever more appalling and unbearable. [A long history of errors and miscalculations by all sides has led up to this situation, but that is not my immediate concern here. This is a moment for sober thinking by Israel's leaders.] The narrower goals of the Israeli operation--with the telling name "Cast Lead"--are the humiliation of Hamas, the degrading of its military capacity, the restoration of the cease-fire in Gaza, and the rehabilitation of Israeli deterrence that was left in tatters after the summer 2006 Lebanon War. But broader goals have also been mentioned, though in vaguer terms. Among them is the hope of producing a long-term change in Hamas’ behavior or even of eliminating it. To attain such goals, Israeli leaders repeatedly assert, this operation will last a long time. That would be a grave mistake for the following three reasons.

First, Israel is about to exhaust obvious and legitimate military targets, especially those available for aerial bombardment, even under their broadest interpretation. Admittedly Hamas never seriously tried to separate its political and military wings--unlike, say, the Basque nationalist ETA (who have had both the clandestine ETA and various incarnations of the Hari Batasuna Party) or the Irish Republicans (who had the IRA and the Sinn Fein Party), partly because it does not really have a political strategy distinct from its military one. Even so, bombing Hamas police stations and Hamas's organizational structure is different from striking the Hamas broadcasting center, let alone the Islamic University in Gaza City. Attacking distinctly civilian targets and the infrastructure of civil life is a potential war crime. It is also counterproductive. The number of civilian casualties will rise, and the international community will be mobilized to chip away at the immunity Israel now seems to possess in targeting Hamas.

Second, the degree of tacit support Israel has so far enjoyed for this operation is fragile. It is remarkable that Mahmoud Abbas, Egypt, and even Saudi Arabia (through its semi-official Asharq Alawsat) blame Hamas for the Israeli operation even though none of them justifies it. All three were involved in either arranging the cease-fire between Hamas and Israel or promoting Fatah-Hamas talks and, consequently, hold Hamas responsible for ending the cease-fire with a bang and, by so doing, inviting Israel to undertake this operation. Indeed, it is becoming ever clearer just how grave Hamas’s miscalculation was in taking control of the Gaza Strip through a local coup d’êtat in June 2007. As a result of the coup Hamas has isolated itself in the Arab world and is viewed as a surrogate of Iran. Its Arab “allies” are keen to see it weakened, even if through Israeli pounding. But it is doubtful how long Egypt and Saudi Arabia will be able to withstand the pressure of the demonstrations throughout the Arab world that call for closing the Arab ranks behind the Palestinian cause. Hamas's ability to draw support from reluctant Arab governments will increase the longer the Israeli operation goes on.

Third, and most crucial, Israel has already attained many of its narrower military aims and is not likely to accomplish its larger political goals. Contrary to much wishful thinking that presents itself as realism, a genuinely realistic analysis has to begin by recognizing that violence against Israel is Hamas’s raison d’être. Its non-military goals, such as they are, call for Israeli concessions without tying its own hands in the future. Furthermore, by casting its “truce” proposals not in international diplomatic terms that can be monitored and enforced by the UN but in Islamic terms (hudna) that may be interpreted only within Islamic jurisdiction, it removes the possibility of an agreement with a non-Islamic adversary. All this might, hypothetically, change in the future, but Hamas is not going to suddenly transform its core identity under military pressure.

Hamas's alleged pragmatism has evaporated since its coup and we are left with the reality of an exclusively military world view. The consequences have been disastrous for Palestinians, not just for Israelis. But deploring this reality is less important than facing up to it. How else can one explain the fact that instead of hunkering down after the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in September 2005 and letting Kadima implement its planned withdrawals from the West Bank, Hamas chose to allow the rocketing of nearby Israeli towns thus effectively destroying the Kadima plan. How else can one account for the fact that Hamas defends the firing of rockets that are singularly ineffective and cause more psychological than actual damage in Israel? At a strategic level, Hamas is not interested in political alternatives to armed confrontation. But whether one wants to call the Hamas strategy resistance or terrorism, the lack of a serious political plan to accompany military strategies is always counterproductive, as it is has been for Hamas and for the people of Gaza.

It will be equally counterproductive for Israel. It appears that Israeli political leaders and military planners labor under the illusion that there is a military “solution” to Hamas. The extended military operation in Gaza is expected to serve as a pedagogical tool for moderating or eliminating Hamas. But this will not work, and the idea that a ground invasion of Gaza could actually eliminate Hamas as a force in Palestinian politics is delusional. The Israeli approach is every bit as driven by militarism as Hamas’ strategy is. Beyond a certain point, it can serve no realistic political goals. In fact, I would offer a concise definition for militarism as not knowing when to stop. Israel is in danger of recapitulating in Gaza the last few weeks of the war against Hezbollah, which increasingly turned into a war against Lebanon.

Continuing the reciprocal militarisms of Hamas and Israel can do no more than prepare the ground for another and probably more lethal round. Hamas is not about to change, but Israel now has the opportunity to act in a way that is realistic and might limit the suffering inflicted on the civilian Palestinian population. Olmert and Livni have both stated that they are fighting Hamas, not the Palestinians of Gaza. To show this, rather than just state it, Israel should now stop its military operation for a stated period while indicating that they are doing so to give Hamas a chance to return to a de facto cease-fire. At the very least, that would demonstrate the alleged good will of an Israel seeking to defend its citizens, rather than harm the citizens of Gaza. If Hamas ignores or rejects that opening, the gap between Hamas and the real interests of the Palestinian civilian population would become even more visible. But an Israeli initiative of this sort would also put Hamas under tremendous pressure to reciprocate by restoring is side of the cease-fire. And once the rocket attacks on Israeli towns have actually been stopped, after having provoked this massive Israeli retaliation, it would not be easy or costless for Hamas to allow their resumption.

The strongest argument in favor of such an approach is that all the available alternatives--including the currently stated Israeli policy of seeking ‘to educate’ or eliminate Hamas--lead nowhere and can only yield disastrous and counterproductive results, along with unnecessary human suffering. Israel has made its point. Now it should know when to stop.


Macs said...

I think it's despicable to call the killing of over 300 people "making a point". The author seems to believe that Israel could just call off the assault, bring everything back o the way it was a month ago, and everything would be just fine. Perhaps for Israel, but not for the starving Gazans. The blockade of Gaza is an act of war. Hamas is correct in saying that it must be relieved for there to be peace.

It is also misleading to say that Hamas has no political agenda. They obviously do whether you agree with it or not. As for their offers for a truce, Israel has made nothing comparable nor accepted theirs. One can believe that it would be futile, but that is still in the realm of speculation. Israel must accept the Hamas government as a negotiating partner, then we will see if there can be any political progress. Until that condition is met there will be no progress towards peace.

Oscar said...

I thought this was "Informed" Comment? Sounds like a version of the usual AIPAC spin, but in a slightly admonished form due to more and more people seeing through the BS.

Anonymous said...

"Coup d’êtat?" If I remember correctly Hamas was elected by the Palestinian people as the majority government. Israel (with American support) supplied arms to Fatah in hopes that they would defeat Hamas. They didn't. Hamas drove them to the West Bank.

I don't think that qualifies as a coup.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous re. Coup d'état... you remember well

Frankly I stopped reading when I reached this sentence

A long history of errors and miscalculations by all sides has led up to this situation, but that is not my immediate concern here.

Equating the victim/occupied to the criminal/occupier...

I wonder if the author would use this same logic if he was writing an article on the Warsaw Ghetto onslaught during the second world war or any event for that matter on that period.

Broadly this comment is also valid for Informed Comment were this equation is nonetheless pervasive...

(I have a problem with my login – Name: G. Damiani)

Stern Gang said...

Speaking of Informed comment, have folk noticed that informed comment shuts the down the comment section on any issue that touches on the crimes of the Zionist entity, that giant collective European World War II Memorial in the Levant?

It was the same with the Obama appointment of Rahm Immanuel as his chief of staff -- comments were suddenly shut down when widely ajar for the previous post during the same day!

It could be said that the crimes of the Jewish state would facilitate emotive responses. However all opinions to some extent are hued with the pallet deep sentiment expressed with master strokes of the pen. I hope Mr. Cole has not chosen this fearful mode because of probable loss of donors.

Point of the matter is, many who cry and shed tears writing long tracts about censorship and silencing debate over the ultimate result of the Balfour declaration perpetrate the same acts of curbing discourse themselves. Hypocrisy is the biggest evil in the world.

Juan Cole, open up the comment sections on this massacre of civilians in Gaza, now!

gdamiani said...

To Stern Gang

Indeed ... that is why I mentioned here Informed Comment in my previous comment.

Anonymous said...

Remind me how getting angry (this comment thread) illuminates anything? I am very capable of getting angry just by looking at the photos. I come here for some lucid analysis. One kind of analysis is the kind that shows how the people I wish to understand argue- in this case, Israeli foreign policy argument. Knowing what options Israelis might have is a good thing for getting out of this, and knowing what options Israelis might think they have is good for figuring it out.

So can we talk about what options Israelis think they might have and whether the analysis of Hamas is accurate? Then we can go back to throwing things at the TV.

Elrig Ciles said...

The greatest weakness of this opinion is to consider that Hamas develops its strategies through quiet retreats in Monterrey, with hot chocolate in hand.
Separate the political and military? That option never started considering that Israel and the West shut down the door to political action, by rejecting the results of a democratic election (won fairly by Hamas after about a year of switch from violence to political action). As we closed the door on the political, what remained?
Then, correct me if I'm wrong, but the truce first broke when Israel bombed an alleged tunnel under construction and killed half a dozen Gazans. Hamas tries to differentiate itself from Fatah seen as "collaborating with" rather than facing Israel. They will not turn the other cheek when bombed. (Yes, it would be better if they just chilled during a truce, and if Israel stopped buying guns. But that's not what a truce is.)
Finally, you pick on calls to exterminate Israel by Hamas; but you do not pick on calls to have a hundred year truce with Israel also from Hamas; and you do not pick on Israeli extremist religious groups also calling for extermination of Palestinians (and the quiet implementation of eviction and conquest). Given the absence of dialogue and the crushing occupation of Gaza (it IS an occupation), the radical voices rise to the top. The more radicals are empowered by absence of progress.
The to-date 300 deaths did not create 300 moderates, believe me. Don't expect Hamas to call for millennium of peace while folks are being killed.
Let's stop asking Hamas to be a Swiss confederation collective; let's talk where talk can take place and seek to make progress. Which means take away control through a crushing occupation.

Hamas won't start calling for the celebration of Hannukah during the occupation. Can we now talk seriously?

Whatswrongwitheverything said...

There are lots of wonderful onomatopoetic words of insult in Yiddish: Putz, schlep, klutz, nebbish, schlemiel… but from what I read, the worst, the one that is truly a fighting word, is “Freier.” Loosely, it means “sucker,” but it seems to be a compound of all the derogatory things an Israeli can say with a sneer about a fellow human.

And a much more poignant article on part of what might be at play in Israel, vis-à-vis the rest of the world:

The part we should really like, though, is that while the worst thing an Israeli can be thought to be, or called, is a “freier,” it’s apparently one of their favorite terms for the people and government of the United States. Who send them billions in cash, high-tech transfers, intelligence (willingly or by espionage against their “ally” (remember Jonathan Pollard?) And of course they have pulled some pretty deadly stunts on that Freier of an “ally,” like bombing, strafing and torpedoing the USS Liberty, a Navy ELINT ship that had the audacity to peek at what was happening during the 1967 Israeli war with everybody else in the Mideast. Hey, only 34 US seamen were killed in that series of attacks that has been papered over with layers of silence for decades.

But so much for name-calling. Whatever multiple reasons the Israeli leaders, civilian and military and religious, have for whatever they are doing now re Gaza and Palestinians, it’s nothing new, and it’s not likely to stop. Humans are stupid and have a collective death wish, it would appear – why else do we live amongst suicide pacts from Massive Deterrence and Mutual Assured Destruction and the likelihood of “nuclear winter” as an anodyne for global warming, to the tit-for-tat catalysis of reciprocal violence across the borders of the “holy land?”

NOBODY in this prolonged danse macabre has clean hands, wears shining armor, rides a white horse, gets to don the White Hat, and make any of those spurious claims to righteousness and/or Victimhood. It warms the self-destructive murderous cockles of millions of hearts to know that the killings will go on and on, via bombs and rockets and Jihadicide belts on “martyrs” suckered by the Imams and mullahs. And SOMEBODY will continue getting rich off all this.

Here’s a rather long article that spells a lot of how-it-really-works out, if partisanship for Your Tribe will let you ingest the facts without rejection:

Note that as many have observed, at the tops of antithetical political structures, it gets pretty hard to tell one set of pigs from another.

“Animal Farm,” anyone?

Anonymous said...

What Israel is doing is terrible, just terrible.

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Elrig Ciles said...

In response to Whatswrongwitheverything. (1) I can't get to the link; maybe it's down. (2) in terms of death pacts, that was the title of one of my entries a few months before this war. see

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YMedad said...

Eight years later and this "Continuing the reciprocal militarisms of Hamas and Israel can do no more than prepare the ground for another and probably more lethal round. Hamas is not about to change, but Israel now has the opportunity to act in a way that is realistic" has meant, well, nothing. Hamas gets the license to do and act as it wishes and Israel is lambasted.

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