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Politics

Disproportionate Force 2

13 July 2006

Disproportionate Force 2

By Gwynne Dyer

“The objective of the operation is clear to no-one — not the government, not the prime minister, not the Israel Defence Force with all its commanders,” wrote journalist Hagay Huberman on Thursday in the conservative Israeli newspaper Hatzofe. “No-one tried to think 20 steps ahead. When an operation is called a ‘rolling operation’ they mean that the operation continues to roll independently and then we will all see where it leads.”

In just a few days, the situation has spun completely out of control. Beirut airport’s runways have been cratered by Israeli fighters, rockets have landed on Haifa, Israel’s third-biggest city, and the Israeli army has crossed into southern Lebanon. Israeli troops were there for eighteen years after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, and they took hundreds of casualties and killed several thousand people before they finally withdrew. Now they’re back, for God knows how long.

Less than a year ago, the IDF also pulled out of the Gaza Strip. They’re back there now, too, blasting away at houses and government offices and police stations, not because they really think that that will help them find their kidnapped soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit, but because they cannot think of anything else to do. The whole game-plan has unravelled, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has run out of strategies. He is just responding by reflex — and the habitual Israeli reflex, when confronted with a serious challenge, is to lash out with overwhelming force.

That’s understandable, because Israel’s great asset is exactly that: overwhelming force. Its armed forces are incomparably superior to those of all its neighbours combined, both because they have state-of-the-art technology and because they simply outnumber all the other armies they face. Only Israel in the region is rich and well organised enough to mobilise its entire population for war, with the result that it has actually had numerical superiority at the front in every war it has fought since 1948. When you have that kind of advantage, it seems foolish not to use it.

Except that winning all the wars and killing tens of thousands of Arabs never seems to settle anything. There are only six million Israelis, and about a hundred million Arabs live within 500 miles (750 kilometres) of Israel. Sooner or later, if Israel is to have a long-term future, it must make peace with its neighbours — and that depends critically on making peace with the Palestinians, the main victims of the creation of Israel.

That is not impossible, for the Palestinians are pretty desperate after almost forty years of Israeli military occupation. Most of them are willing to settle for a pretty meagre share of what used to be Palestine — say, the twenty percent that they retained until Israel conquered them in 1967. But that has never been on offer.

The so-called “peace process” has been paralysed for fifteen years by bitter Israeli arguments over whether the Palestinians should be allowed to have fifteen percent of former Palestine for their state, or ten percent, or none at all. Almost nobody in the Israeli debate was willing to let the Palestinians have everything they had controlled in 1967, because that would mean abandoning the Jewish settlements that had been planted all over the occupied territories.

Ehud Olmert’s goal, inherited from former prime minister Ariel Sharon, has been to impose a peace settlement on the Palestinians that leaves East Jerusalem and all the main Jewish settlement blocks in the West Bank in Israeli hands. “Impose” rather than negotiate, since no Palestinian would ever agree to such a deal, but Israel could only justify such an arbitrary act if it could plausibly claim that there were no reasonable Palestinians to negotiate with.

The Palestinians’ election of a Hamas government that rejected any kind of peace with Israel helped Olmert to make that case. The killing of two Israeli soldiers and the abduction of Cpl. Shalit by Hamas’s military wing three weeks ago should have reinforced that case, and initially it did. But then the temptation of overwhelming force kicked in.

Since Shalit was taken prisoner, increasingly indiscriminate Israeli military strikes in the Gaza Strip have killed close to a hundred Palestinians. Arabs elsewhere watched in helpless rage, and eventually, last Wednesday, the Hizbollah guerillas who drove the Israelis out of southern Lebanon six years ago struck across Israel’s northern border, killing three Israeli soldiers and taking two others hostage.

Everyone knows that the Lebanese government does not control Hizbollah, but Israel held Beirut responsible, rolled its tanks across the border, and launched a wave of air strikes that has already killed over fifty Lebanese. That won’t free the hostages, and it poses the risk of a wider war that could involve not only Lebanon but Syria, but at least it protects Olmert from the accusation of being “weak,” always the kiss of death for an Israeli politician.

Both Hamas and Hizbollah are adept at pushing Israel’s buttons and getting it to overreact (even if that does involve Israel destroying what little infrastructure there was in the Gaza Strip, and destroying Lebanon’s infrastructure all over again). The dwarf superpower of the Middle East is good at smashing things up, and so long as the real superpower behind it does not intervene, nobody else can stop it. But nobody in this game has a coherent strategy for getting out of it.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“That is…territories”)