Monday, 19 January 2009


The Gaza offensive has succeeded in punishing the
Palestinians but
not in making Israel more secure.

By John J. Mearsheimer

Israelis and their American supporters claim that Israel learned its
lessons well from the disastrous 2006 Lebanon war and has devised a
winning strategy for the present war against Hamas. Of course, when a
ceasefire comes, Israel will declare victory. Don’t believe it.
Israel has foolishly started another war it cannot win.

The campaign in Gaza is said to have two objectives: 1) to put an end
to the rockets and mortars that Palestinians have been firing into
southern Israel since it withdrew from Gaza in August 2005; 2) to
restore Israel’s deterrent, which was said to be diminished by the
Lebanon fiasco, by Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, and by its
inability to halt Iran’s nuclear program.

But these are not the real goals of Operation Cast Lead. The actual
purpose is connected to Israel’s long-term vision of how it intends
to live with millions of Palestinians in its midst. It is part of a
broader strategic goal: the creation of a “Greater Israel.”
Specifically, Israel’s leaders remain determined to control all of
what used to be known as Mandate Palestine, which includes Gaza and
the West Bank. The Palestinians would have limited autonomy in a
handful of disconnected and economically crippled enclaves, one of
which is Gaza. Israel would control the borders around them, movement
between them, the air above and the water below them.

The key to achieving this is to inflict massive pain on the
Palestinians so that they come to accept the fact that they are a
defeated people and that Israel will be largely responsible for
controlling their future. This strategy, which was first articulated
by Ze’ev Jabotinsky in the 1920s and has heavily influenced Israeli
policy since 1948, is commonly referred to as the “Iron Wall.”

What has been happening in Gaza is fully consistent with this

Let’s begin with Israel’s decision to withdraw from Gaza in 2005. The
conventional wisdom is that Israel was serious about making peace
with the Palestinians and that its leaders hoped the exit from Gaza
would be a major step toward creating a viable Palestinian state.
According to the New York Times’ Thomas L. Friedman, Israel was
giving the Palestinians an opportunity to “build a decent mini-state
there—a Dubai on the Mediterranean,” and if they did so, it would
“fundamentally reshape the Israeli debate about whether the
Palestinians can be handed most of the West Bank.”

This is pure fiction. Even before Hamas came to power, the Israelis
intended to create an open-air prison for the Palestinians in Gaza
and inflict great pain on them until they complied with Israel’s
wishes. Dov Weisglass, Ariel Sharon’s closest adviser at the time,
candidly stated that the disengagement from Gaza was aimed at halting
the peace process, not encouraging it. He described the disengagement
as “formaldehyde that’s necessary so that there will not be a
political process with the Palestinians.” Moreover, he emphasized
that the withdrawal “places the Palestinians under tremendous
pressure. It forces them into a corner where they hate to be.”

Arnon Soffer, a prominent Israeli demographer who also advised
Sharon, elaborated on what that pressure would look like. “When 2.5
million people live in a closed-off Gaza, it’s going to be a human
catastrophe. Those people will become even bigger animals than they
are today, with the aid of an insane fundamentalist Islam. The
pressure at the border will be awful. It’s going to be a terrible
war. So, if we want to remain alive, we will have to kill and kill
and kill. All day, every day.”

In January 2006, five months after the Israelis pulled their settlers
out of Gaza, Hamas won a decisive victory over Fatah in the
Palestinian legislative elections. This meant trouble for Israel’s
strategy because Hamas was democratically elected, well organized,
not corrupt like Fatah, and unwilling to accept Israel’s existence.
Israel responded by ratcheting up economic pressure on the
Palestinians, but it did not work. In fact, the situation took
another turn for the worse in March 2007, when Fatah and Hamas came
together to form a national unity government. Hamas’s stature and
political power were growing, and Israel’s divide-and-conquer
strategy was unraveling.

To make matters worse, the national unity government began pushing
for a long-term ceasefire. The Palestinians would end all missile
attacks on Israel if the Israelis would stop arresting and
assassinating Palestinians and end their economic stranglehold,
opening the border crossings into Gaza.

Israel rejected that offer and with American backing set out to
foment a civil war between Fatah and Hamas that would wreck the
national unity government and put Fatah in charge. The plan backfired
when Hamas drove Fatah out of Gaza, leaving Hamas in charge there and
the more pliant Fatah in control of the West Bank. Israel then
tightened the screws on the blockade around Gaza, causing even
greater hardship and suffering among the Palestinians living there.

Hamas responded by continuing to fire rockets and mortars into
Israel, while emphasizing that they still sought a long-term
ceasefire, perhaps lasting ten years or more. This was not a noble
gesture on Hamas’s part: they sought a ceasefire because the balance
of power heavily favored Israel. The Israelis had no interest in a
ceasefire and merely intensified the economic pressure on Gaza. But
in the late spring of 2008, pressure from Israelis living under the
rocket attacks led the government to agree to a six-month ceasefire
starting on June 19. That agreement, which formally ended on Dec. 19,
immediately preceded the present war, which began on Dec. 27.

The official Israeli position blames Hamas for undermining the
ceasefire. This view is widely accepted in the United States, but it
is not true. Israeli leaders disliked the ceasefire from the start,
and Defense Minister Ehud Barak instructed the IDF to begin preparing
for the present war while the ceasefire was being negotiated in June
2008. Furthermore, Dan Gillerman, Israel’s former ambassador to the
UN, reports that Jerusalem began to prepare the propaganda campaign
to sell the present war months before the conflict began. For its
part, Hamas drastically reduced the number of missile attacks during
the first five months of the ceasefire. A total of two rockets were
fired into Israel during September and October, none by Hamas.

How did Israel behave during this same period? It continued arresting
and assassinating Palestinians on the West Bank, and it continued the
deadly blockade that was slowly strangling Gaza. Then on Nov. 4, as
Americans voted for a new president, Israel attacked a tunnel inside
Gaza and killed six Palestinians. It was the first major violation of
the ceasefire, and the Palestinians—who had been “careful to maintain
the ceasefire,” according to Israel’s Intelligence and Terrorism
Information Center—responded by resuming rocket attacks. The calm
that had prevailed since June vanished as Israel ratcheted up the
blockade and its attacks into Gaza and the Palestinians hurled more
rockets at Israel. It is worth noting that not a single Israeli was
killed by Palestinian missiles between Nov. 4 and the launching of
the war on Dec. 27.

As the violence increased, Hamas made clear that it had no interest
in extending the ceasefire beyond Dec. 19, which is hardly
surprising, since it had not worked as intended. In mid-December,
however, Hamas informed Israel that it was still willing to negotiate
a long-term ceasefire if it included an end to the arrests and
assassinations as well as the lifting of the blockade. But the
Israelis, having used the ceasefire to prepare for war against Hamas,
rejected this overture. The bombing of Gaza commenced eight days
after the failed ceasefire formally ended.

If Israel wanted to stop missile attacks from Gaza, it could have
done so by arranging a long-term ceasefire with Hamas. And if Israel
were genuinely interested in creating a viable Palestinian state, it
could have worked with the national unity government to implement a
meaningful ceasefire and change Hamas’s thinking about a two-state
solution. But Israel has a different agenda: it is determined to
employ the Iron Wall strategy to get the Palestinians in Gaza to
accept their fate as hapless subjects of a Greater Israel.

This brutal policy is clearly reflected in Israel’s conduct of the
Gaza War. Israel and its supporters claim that the IDF is going to
great lengths to avoid civilian casualties, in some cases taking
risks that put Israeli soldiers in jeopardy. Hardly. One reason to
doubt these claims is that Israel refuses to allow reporters into the
war zone: it does not want the world to see what its soldiers and
bombs are doing inside Gaza. At the same time, Israel has launched a
massive propaganda campaign to put a positive spin on the horror
stories that do emerge.

The best evidence, however, that Israel is deliberately seeking to
punish the broader population in Gaza is the death and destruction
the IDF has wrought on that small piece of real estate. Israel has
killed over 1,000 Palestinians and wounded more than 4,000. Over half
of the casualties are civilians, and many are children. The IDF’s
opening salvo on Dec. 27 took place as children were leaving school,
and one of its primary targets that day was a large group of
graduating police cadets, who hardly qualified as terrorists. In what
Ehud Barak called “an all-out war against Hamas,” Israel has targeted
a university, schools, mosques, homes, apartment buildings,
government offices, and even ambulances. A senior Israeli military
official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, explained the logic
behind Israel’s expansive target set: “There are many aspects of
Hamas, and we are trying to hit the whole spectrum, because
everything is connected and everything supports terrorism against
Israel.” In other words, everyone is a terrorist and everything is a
legitimate target.

Israelis tend to be blunt, and they occasionally say what they are
really doing. After the IDF killed 40 Palestinian civilians in a UN
school on Jan. 6, Ha’aretz reported that “senior officers admit that
the IDF has been using enormous firepower.” One officer explained,
“For us, being cautious means being aggressive. From the minute we
entered, we’ve acted like we’re at war. That creates enormous damage
on the ground … I just hope those who have fled the area of Gaza City
in which we are operating will describe the shock.”

One might accept that Israel is waging “a cruel, all-out war against
1.5 million Palestinian civilians,” as Ha’aretz put it in an
editorial, but argue that it will eventually achieve its war aims and
the rest of the world will quickly forget the horrors inflicted on
the people of Gaza.

This is wishful thinking. For starters, Israel is unlikely to stop
the rocket fire for any appreciable period of time unless it agrees
to open Gaza’s borders and stop arresting and killing Palestinians.
Israelis talk about cutting off the supply of rockets and mortars
into Gaza, but weapons will continue to come in via secret tunnels
and ships that sneak through Israel’s naval blockade. It will also be
impossible to police all of the goods sent into Gaza through
legitimate channels.

Israel could try to conquer all of Gaza and lock the place down. That
would probably stop the rocket attacks if Israel deployed a large
enough force. But then the IDF would be bogged down in a costly
occupation against a deeply hostile population. They would eventually
have to leave, and the rocket fire would resume. And if Israel fails
to stop the rocket fire and keep it stopped, as seems likely, its
deterrent will be diminished, not strengthened.

More importantly, there is little reason to think that the Israelis
can beat Hamas into submission and get the Palestinians to live
quietly in a handful of Bantustans inside Greater Israel. Israel has
been humiliating, torturing, and killing Palestinians in the Occupied
Territories since 1967 and has not come close to cowing them. Indeed,
Hamas’s reaction to Israel’s brutality seems to lend credence to
Nietzsche’s remark that what does not kill you makes you stronger.

But even if the unexpected happens and the Palestinians cave, Israel
would still lose because it will become an apartheid state. As Prime
Minister Ehud Olmert recently said, Israel will “face a South
African-style struggle” if the Palestinians do not get a viable state
of their own. “As soon as that happens,” he argued, “the state of
Israel is finished.” Yet Olmert has done nothing to stop settlement
expansion and create a viable Palestinian state, relying instead on
the Iron Wall strategy to deal with the Palestinians.

There is also little chance that people around the world who follow
the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will soon forget the appalling
punishment that Israel is meting out in Gaza. The destruction is just
too obvious to miss, and too many people—especially in the Arab and
Islamic world—care about the Palestinians’ fate. Moreover, discourse
about this longstanding conflict has undergone a sea change in the
West in recent years, and many of us who were once wholly sympathetic
to Israel now see that the Israelis are the victimizers and the
Palestinians are the victims. What is happening in Gaza will
accelerate that changing picture of the conflict and long be seen as
a dark stain on Israel’s reputation.

The bottom line is that no matter what happens on the battlefield,
Israel cannot win its war in Gaza. In fact, it is pursuing a
strategy—with lots of help from its so-called friends in the
Diaspora—that is placing its long-term future at risk.

John J. Mearsheimer is a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and coauthor of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.


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