"The "Israel Has Gone Mad" Routine Cannot Be Repeated"

January 23, 2009
By Dan Jacobson
By Dan Jacobson

Haim Nachman Bialik, a highly-esteemed Jewish poet, coined the following sentence in response to the pogroms in the Ukraine a little more than a 100 years ago. Freely translated from Hebrew it reads:  "Vengeance for the spilled blood of a child is too much even for Satan himself to create."

Tragically, this quote applies today to the children of Gaza killed and wounded as a result of the excessive use of force by the Israeli military. As an Israeli citizen, I cannot escape bearing responsibility for this. I want to be quite clear about that moral responsibility I bear as an Israeli, irrespective of what I have to say about the political dimension later on. The deaths of whole families, including children, will burden our conscience. However, Bialik's quote also applies to Israeli children terrorized for years by indiscriminate Hamas rockets into towns and villages in Israel's South. It is just by a sheer stroke of luck that a rocket has never hit a crowded Israeli school or kindergarten. The quote also applies to the way Hamas willingly used human misery and human shields of its own Palestinian people as a means to maintain power and promote a radical, suicidal ideology. The fear, the hatred, the deep trauma instilled in children on both sides of the fence is unpardonable. It is perhaps the most profound price for what has happened.  This terrible price with its implications on the mindsets of these children and their families will reflect deeply on future prospects in the region. To be sure, let me also say that from a moral point of view, in mentioning together Palestinian civilians in Gaza, and Israeli civilians in Israel's South as innocent victims, I do not mean to equalize the degree of suffering on both sides. No. The fact that Israel is materially and militarily infinitely superior, that it is an occupier power for more than 41 years now, carries with it in my mind a much greater measure of political responsibility. 

Things could not go on as they did

Clearly to anybody who lived in Israel during the months preceding the Gaza campaign, things could not go on as they did. It's not just the over-used cliché that a sovereign country has the basic obligation to defend its citizens. The very social fabric of major parts of Israel's periphery was at stake and being put into question. A situation in which a million citizens are being held hostage to miscellaneous rockets and mortar fire even if they, thank God, frequently missed, was intolerable. The public perception was that "look, we have withdrawn from Gaza, admittedly unliterary, and then Hamas took over forcibly and instead of using the first-time-in-history opportunity to govern themselves and build up a functioning Palestinian society in Gaza engaged in creating a forward Iranian base or proxy whose first priority was to abolish the secular PLO dominated Palestinian Authority even before targeting Israel in the name of the Islamic Resistance Movement".

The crucial question is whether Israel under these given circumstances had a choice? Could anything be achieved otherwise? Where the objectives justified? Are we any closer now to a better future? The tragic paradox four weeks ago was that any course of action Israel would have chosen had the potential of being self-defeating. Further restraint would have signaled to the radicals in the region to go on the offensive, further weakening the voices of reason and moderation in the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Jordan and others in the region. The use of enormous firepower, the choice Israel made, would quickly cause a shift in world public opinion against Israel, as it actually did. Obviously, television viewers shudder when they see bodies of Gaza’s slain children, thus allowing Hamas to leave the war as the recognized victim and Israel as the villain. Bad choices. In the final analysis the success of military campaigns is measured by political results. What were Israel's objectives against which we can measure those results?

Could anything be achieved otherwise?

Israel's first goal: to restore normalcy in the southern districts between Beersheba and Ashkelon and Sderot. Has this been achieved? We hope so, for now at least.

The second goal, and perhaps in terms of importance the first one, was to restore deterrence after what was perceived as a set-back in Lebanon. Israel was concerned about how others in the region would interpret further restraint in the face of those rockets. Because Israel was concerned that restraint is interpreted in this tough neighbourhood as weakness, it decided to attack. The intended receiving end of this message was, I believe, supposed to be Iran much more than Hamas in Gaza. Failing sanctions, and in the absence of effective pressure by the world community against the nuclear designs of Iran, Israel perceiving a real existential threat wanted to convey the message that "it has gone mad or crazy", so to speak. That Israel is unpredictable, hence the excessive use of force, the surprise, etc.  Whether this worked, remains to be seen.

My personal opinion is that this policy towards Hamas was flawed to begin with. It used Hamas and the Gaza population as a policy tool against Iran. This is both ineffective and immoral. Wise diplomacy on the question of Hamas could have prevented Israel from reaching such a situation. It is true that the US, in the name of democracy, forced Israel and the PA to allow Hamas to participate in the Palestinian elections against its will. Nevertheless, once elections did take place, their results had to be respected. Israel should have accepted the Palestinian unity government established as a result of the Mecca accord. Moreover, Israel could have made more progress in the negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas and thus promoted a political horizon and alternative that would have discouraged many among Hamas from attacking.

Be this as it may, and as we seek a solution to the current mayhem, policy towards Hamas should stand at the core of our efforts. Against all the death and suffering this campaign has brought to innocent people, against all the destruction and hatred and potential for catastrophe it has created, the war has given us one important benefit. Hamas's fighting spirit and terror machine has been hurt substantially. But it is a defeat that avoids unnecessary humiliation of the enemy.  These loses might actually help reverse the disastrous course we have been on, and help a new American president together with the European leaders who expressed their renewed commitment this week send some real ''hope" and ''change" our way. We should not wait for a Hamas surrender which is not going to come. If Israel had tried to eradicate Hamas, casualties would be even more horrific, and the aftermath could be Somalia-like chaos. But Hamas, badly beaten but not humiliated, is now again faced with the choice: Are you about destroying Israel or about re-building Gaza? Choosing the latter will provide you with the legitimacy you were seeking all along within the framework of a united Palestinian authority.

Specifically, this would mean a return of the Ramallah-based PA to the envelope of the Gaza Strip and the crossings to Egypt and Israel. Hamas could be allowed to continue to rule the internal municipal and provincial affairs. The PA, together with international support, would have to ensure that the envelope would be demilitarized – no weapons or armaments could pass. If done cautiously and with the appropriate conditions in place, the Gaza Sea port and Airport could be opened. After several decades in which Gaza was treated by both Egypt and Israel as a hot potato, its population could finally be liberated and have free movement to the world. Europe should push other international actors to use the current tragedy as a doorway for a better future for the people of Gaza. It is only with the improvement of their livelihood that the Israeli citizens living in Southern Israel could achieve real security.

Finally, we must not look at Gaza alone

We must look through a broader lens and not lose sight of the bigger picture. For Israel's national interest, Gaza in itself has minor significance. Israel's future will be determined in the West Bank. For this reason we must end the occupation, reach a solution on the Golan Heights and stabilize the region to deal with the major problem of the Iranian nuclear program. The "Israel has gone mad" routine cannot be repeated. We must re-create a political horizon that shows all in the region that more can be reached through negotiation in a political environment conducive to non-violence, than through terror and the use of force. The Arab League Peace Initiative offers such a horizon. If an effective, proactive international umbrella can be mobilized we may still be able to turn a new leaf.