From Daniel Byman
The Israeli assault on Gaza is about more than ending the latest spate of rocket attacks from Gaza or even forcing Hamas to the negotiating table to renew the ceasefire it foolishly ended. Israeli is also trying to exorcise several ghosts in its fight against terrorism, some from the past and some it fears in the future.
Israel’s 2006 debacle in Lebanon is the most recent specter haunting Israel. In the summer of 2006, the Lebanese terrorist and guerrilla group Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and killed several others, sparking a massive air assault and, eventually, a ground invasion of southern Lebanon. Although Lebanon itself suffered tremendously, the war was widely perceived as an Israeli defeat. As is the case with Gaza today, Israel’s attacks did not stop Hezbollah rockets. Many Hezbollah fighters died facing the Israelis, but their effective resistance led the movement to be lionized throughout the Muslim world. Beyond Lebanon, the continuing civilian suffering over time discredited moderate Arab leaders who criticized Hezbollah for initiating the violence.
Israel is also haunted by Hamas’ subsequent seizure of power in Gaza after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from there in 2005. Many Israelis hoped that when they truly left Gaza, Hamas and other militant groups would eventually give up the fight. Continued rocket attacks, as well as belligerent rhetoric, convinced many Israelis that Hamas was inherently hostile: it was not fighting for its own state, but rather simply sought to destroy Israel. In addition, the unilateral nature of the withdrawal bolstered the credibility of Hamas and other rejectionists, who pointed out that their violence had achieved far more than all the conciliatory gestures of Palestinian moderates.
A third Israeli fear concerns the West Bank, where the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority holds sway. Although many Israeli leaders see President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as well-intentioned, they also view them as weak. Security-minded Israelis fear that Hamas might take over the West Bank eventually, brushing aside Abbas and other moderates as Hamas did in Gaza in 2007. And while short-range rockets launched from Gaza cannot reach deep into Israel’s residential and commercial heart, almost all Israel’s major cities, its international airport, and other nerve-centers are near the West Bank. The recent Hamas rocketing of major cities like Beersheva and Ashdod are thus seen as a taste of the future should Hamas become stronger on the West Bank. Even short-range, inaccurate Katyusha rockets in the West Bank would devastate Israel, forcing more Israelis to live in fear and destroying investment and tourism.
All these concerns come together in Israel’s current operations in Gaza. Israel seeks to teach Hamas a lesson by deliberately carrying out a highly destructive and lethal series of strikes. Part of Israel’s lesson from its war in Lebanon in 2006 and its withdrawals from Gaza in 2005 and before that in Lebanon in 2000 was that it did not hit back hard enough when provoked. Israel seeks to restore fear in its deterrent capabilities.
Yet just as Israel considers these past blunders and future fears, it should also learn from them. Lebanon in 2006 should have taught Israel that perceptions matter as much as military reality in this type of war. If the world and most Palestinians come away convinced that Hamas won, then Hamas will simply recruit more, and its overall stature will increase. In addition, a perceived Hamas victory would further weaken the stature of moderates like Abbas and Fayyad, who look feckless as Israeli bombs kill Palestinians. This could ultimately lead to exactly the result that Israelis fear most: a Hamas take-over in the West Bank.
Furthermore, Israel should recognize that time is not on the country’s side and that extending its retaliation will work against it. In the short-term, the daily devastation fosters the impression that Israel is being deliberately cruel even though Israel’s cause is legitimate. As the coverage of civilian deaths in Gaza grows, the pain Israelis suffers under Hamas rocket attacks is quickly forgotten.
In the long-term, more Israelis must recognize that the country needs a robust peace process. Israel has tried destroying terrorist groups through direct action, and it has tried turning its back in unilateral withdrawals. Neither has worked. Simply restoring Israel’s deterrence capability does little to help restore Palestinian moderates and thus ensure that the West Bank does not become a Hamas hotbed. Israel needs a negotiated settlement and should use the diplomatic energy created by the latest crisis to press for one.
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