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Cast Lead

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Gaza: Another Pre-Election War?

19 November 2012

Gaza: Another Pre-Election War?

By Gwynne Dyer

Let’s be fair: there does seem to be some sort of pattern here, but it is not very consistent. Five times in Israel since 1980 a right-wing government has called an election WITHOUT launching a complementary military operation. The right lost two of those elections outright (1992, 1999), more or less tied two others (1984, 1988), and won only one of them decisively (2006).

On the other hand, critics of Israel point out, three times since 1980 right-wing Israeli governments have combined an election campaign with a major military operation against some Arab or Palestinian target. And this combination, it has been argued, yields decisive electoral success for the right.

Menachem Begin’s government won the 1981 election three weeks after carrying out a dramatic attack on the Osirak research nuclear reactor that France had sold to Iraq. In the view of most outside observers, the reactor, which was closely supervised both by the French and by the International Atomic Energy Agency, was not suited to the large-scale production of enriched uranium and posed no threat to Israel, but the attack was popular in Israel.

Ehud Olmert’s coalition launched the “Cast Lead” onslaught against the Gaza Strip in December 2008-January 2009. The three-week campaign of massive bombardments and some ground incursions left 1,400 Palestinians and thirteen Israelis dead. The election was held a month later, and Binyamin Netanyahu emerged as the leader of a new right-wing coalition.

So here we go again, perhaps? Netanyahu is still the prime minister, and the next elections are due in January. What better way to ensure success than to go and bash the Palestinians again? A week later, with eighty-six Palestinians and three Israelis dead, his reelection is assured: Israelis overwhelmingly support the current military operation.

That’s the case that is made against Israel. Does it hold water? Well, actually, no, it doesn’t.

Begin’s attack on the Osirak reactor in 1981 may well have been an electoral stunt, although he was clearly paranoid about the possibility of a nuclear weapon in Arab hands. But Ehud Olmert, though undoubtedly a man of the right, was not leading a right-wing government in 2008. He was the leader of a new centrist party, Kadima, that had been formed by defectors from both the right-wing Likud Party and left-wing Labour.

Moreover, Olmert had already resigned in mid-2008 over a corruption scandal, and was merely acting as interim prime minister by the time the “Cast Lead” operation was launched in December of that year. If it was an electoral ploy despite all that, it didn’t work. It was the right that actually won the election in early 2009, and formed a government led by the Likud Party’s Binyamin Netanyahu.

It is equally hard to believe that Netanyahu is seeking electoral gain by attacking Gaza this month. Every opinion poll in Israel for months past has been saying that he is going to win the January election hands down. For him, all the risk of “Operation Pillar of Defence” is on the downside: a major loss of Israeli lives in the campaign, while unlikely, could only work against him.

So why is this happening now? Historians traditionally split into two camps: those who see purpose and planning and plots behind every event, and those who think most events are just the random interaction of conflicting strategies, imperfect information and human frailty. This latter approach is known in the historical trade as the “cock-up theory of history,” and it is very attractive as an explanation for the current situation.

Netanyahu, cruising home to an easy electoral victory in January, had absolutely no need for a little war with the Palestinians. Indeed, his strategy of continuously shouting “wolf” about Iran and its alleged nuclear weapons programme has succeeded in distracting international attention from the Palestinians, leaving him free to expand Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank unhindered.

Similarly, the Hamas leaders who ruled Gaza had no interest in triggering a military conflict with Israel. They had every reason to believe that the sweeping political changes in the Arab world were strengthening their position internationally, and they had no need to remind Arabs of their plight. So how did this idiocy happen? Another cock-up, of course.

Hamas has been trying to maintain calm in Gaza and extend a ceasefire agreement with Israel, but it has little control over various radical jihadi groups who build popular support by making utterly futile rocket attacks on Israel. Even if they kill a few Israelis, so what? How does that serve the cause?

Hamas faces the permanent political danger of being outflanked by more extremist rivals, so it cannot crack down too hard on the jihadis. Israel, fed up with their pinprick attacks, was looking for somebody to punish, and since it couldn’t locate all the jihadi leaders it decided to assassinate Ahmed al-Jabari, the head of the military wing of Hamas. Even though that was bound to end the ceasefire.

So then Hamas fired a few of its own rockets into Israel, and Israel retaliated massively, and we were off to the races once again. A complete cock-up, and a pointless waste of lives.

But since the mini-war doesn’t really serve the purposes of any major player, it will probably be shut down again fairly soon.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 13, 14 and 15. (“Hamas…lives”)


Israel and the Aid Flotilla: Worse than a Crime

1 June 2010

Israel and the Aid Flotilla: Worse than a Crime

By Gwynne Dyer

The remark was originally made about Napoleon’s decision to kidnap the Duc d’Enghien and have him judicially murdered more than two centuries ago: “It was worse than a crime; it was a blunder.” It is often quoted when a government makes a decision, usually involving violence, that obviously harms its own cause. Like, for example, Israel’s decision to seize the flotilla of ships bringing aid to the besieged Palestinians of the Gaza Strip.

Imagine that you are the Israeli official charged with recommending the best course of action for dealing with that flotilla. Exactly what position you hold in the government doesn’t matter: somebody will have been given that job. So what things will you consider while you ponder your recommendation?

You are well aware that the purpose of the flotilla is mainly propaganda: to highlight the suffering of ordinary Palestinians as a result of Israel’s three-year blockade of the Gaza Strip. Some of the organisers doubtless hope that Israel will use violence against the aid ships, as that would give them even more publicity, but they’ll settle for just delivering the aid.

Israeli intelligence has its agents among the people organising the flotilla, of course, so you know that there is nothing dangerous in the 10,000 tonnes of cargo. Most of it is concrete and steel to help in the reconstruction of homes and schools destroyed during Israel’s “Cast Lead” operation against Hamas militants in the Strip early last year.

The Cypriot authorities have checked all the ships meticulously before they sailed for Gaza and certified that they are not carrying weapons or other dangerous cargo. The actual amount of aid is not big enough to take the pressure off the Palestinians. Israel is allowing about 15,000 tonnes in a week by land, which the United Nations says is about a quarter of what is needed. A once-only delivery of an extra 10,000 tonnes won’t change anything.

Anyway, be realistic: there’s all sorts of contraband coming into the Gaza Strip all the time through the tunnels on the Egyptian border. Why don’t we just wave these ships through as a “humanitarian gesture”? That will spoil their little propaganda game, and they haven’t the resources to do it twice.

True, our military guys say that they can just arrest all the ships en route and take them to one of our own ports in Israel: no muss, no fuss. But what if it goes wrong? We’ve had one propaganda disaster after another recently, and it’s starting to do real damage.

Operation “Cast Lead” itself was not exactly a propaganda success: even our own official figures say we killed over four hundred Palestinian civilians, and most people outside Israel think the number was closer to a thousand. Then there was that unfortunate announcement about building more Jewish homes in East Jerusalem while US Vice-President Joe Biden was in the country: President Obama hasn’t really been speaking to us much since that.

Just last week we had a really damaging revelation about how Israel offered to sell nuclear weapons to South Africa back in the apartheid days. And now we have this flotilla thing, just as Obama has finally invited Prime Minister Netanyahu to Washington for a kiss-and-make-up session. Oh, and most of the people on the flotilla come from Turkey, the one Muslim country that sees Israel as an ally.

Do we really want to risk screwing all that up just to starve the Palestinians of an extra 10,000 tonnes of supplies? Let’s just allow the flotilla through, and get the credit for being reasonable and even magnanimous.

I presume that the above is a fair representation of what went through the Israeli official’s head as he or she considered what to do about the aid flotilla. But in the end, the decision went the other way. Why? Probably just because Israeli reflexes kicked in: an early resort to force has become the government’s default mode of problem-solving in recent years.

So people said things like “We mustn’t look weak” and “What could possibly go wrong?”, and Israel launched the military operation we saw on Monday, with the results we know: at least ten dead civilians, another propaganda disaster, and its alliance with Turkey in ruins.

Israeli spin-doctors try to shift the blame to the victims, but they cannot get around the fact that their heavily armed troops illegally boarded a foreign ship in international waters, and that those troops then killed at least nine foreign civilians and wounded about thirty others. Just one Israeli soldier was seriously injured, though nine others apparently suffered scraped knuckles and bloody noses.

The gradual decline of the Israel Defence Forces from a disciplined military force to an armed rabble is the result of decades of occupation duties, which ultimately rot the soldierly qualities of any army. In the occupied Palestinian territories the IDF has the right, in practice, to beat or kill practically anybody it wants, but it has not fought a battle against a first-class army for a generation.

Do the Israeli spokespersons even understand that any professional army in the West that carried out such a botched and bloody operation would immediately suspend the commanders responsible and launch a major investigation? No, probably not. They have lost all perspective on themselves.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 14. (“The Cypriot…anything”; and “The gradual…generation”)