Drawing historical parallels, trying to compare different events in history, is by nature a problematic and imperfect endeavor.
Two situations are never exactly the same. Conditions are different, circumstances differ, the players involved are animated by disparate considerations, and the international atmosphere is never completely analogous.
But still, it is difficult not to look on with horror at last week’s kidnappings of Eyal Yifrach, Gil-Ad Shaer, and Naftali Fraenkel and not think of similar events in the country’s recent past, and then compare and contrast the government’s actions now, to the government’s actions then.
Two events at first blush seem especially ripe for comparison.
The first one that stands out is Yitzhak Rabin’s mass deportation of 415 Hamas activists from the Gaza Strip and West Bank to southern Lebanon in December 1992, following the organization’s kidnapping in Lod and killing of Border Police officer Nissim Toledano. This abduction and murder occurred less than a week after Hamas killed three IDF soldiers in the Strip.
Rabin’s decision to swiftly deport the Hamas activists stands out now, because of the idea floated this week to deport Hamas leaders as a way of punishing and pressuring the organization for the abduction of Yifrah, Shaer and Fraenkel.
In office then for only five months, Rabin eventually had to retract the deportations, and all the deportees – following massive international pressure on Israel – were back in their homes within a year. The move not only failed to harm Hamas, but brought it large doses of international sympathy, due to pictures of avuncular- looking men in knit caps living in tents in the harsh Lebanese winter.
Those pictures drowned out any international memory of what led to the deportations.
Furthermore, the deportations allowed the Hamas operatives to congregate together in southern Lebanon, under Hezbollah tutelage and unhindered by the IDF, to plan and hone their terrorist tactics and abilities.
The other historical parallel difficult to avoid is the events of June-July 2006, and the reaction of thenprime minister Ehud Olmert.
Olmert’s new government – it had only been in power for less than three months – was immediately challenged by the well-orchestrated kidnapping on June 25 of Gilad Schalit, in a brazen cross-border, tunnel-aided raid that left two other soldiers dead.
And then, just over two weeks later, Hezbollah staged an equally audacious raid in the north, just inside the Israeli border, kidnapping two Israeli reservists – Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev – and killing seven IDF soldiers, including four in hot pursuit of their two abducted comrades.
As a pained and angry public clamored for action, as this kidnapping followed rocket attacks from the North and other attempted kidnappings on the northern border, Olmert launched the Second Lebanon War. That war was later criticized – including by the Winograd Commission – of having been hastily planned and poorly waged.
It is safe to assume that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his senior ministers and advisers were carefully studying both the 1992 and 2006 incidents this week when planning the government’s next steps in Operation Brother’s Keeper, which is a campaign with two primary objectives.
The first and supreme objective is to return the three teenage boys back to their families. That is the primary reason for the nightly raids and arrests in the West Bank: to follow every lead, and uncover every rock, looking for the three youths. These nightly raids, and the morning radio reports of how many people were arrested the night before, bring to mind the peak of the second intifada, when similar raids were routine occurrences and were instrumental in bringing about an end to that intifada.
Subsumed under the primary aim of bringing the boys back safe and sound are the operation’s secondary objectives, which from an Israeli strategic perspective are also extremely important. These objectives include significantly degrading Hamas’s operational abilities in the West Bank and delegitimizing the terrorist organization in the eyes of the world, a world which in its eternal hope that every story can have a have happy ending seemed to incrementally be coming around to the idea that Hamas was a legitimate partner.
The script regarding how the world was slowly coming to accept Hamas inside the tent was on the wall for all to see. First, recognize – as the US did, much to Israel’s chagrin – a “technocratic” Palestinian government backed by Hamas. Then, after the planned Palestinian elections in six months’ time, deal with that government, even if Hamas moves from behind the scenes to center stage.
Because, the world would argue, how can you deny the will of the people? Because, the world would argue, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has given assurances that the government is committed to a peaceful solution with the Jewish state; ignoring Hamas in 2006 only made the situation worse, not better; and Israel is continuing to build homes in Gilo, Efrat and Ora, and must see that there are negative consequences for its impudent behavior.
One of the most oft-heard criticisms of Netanyahu is that he is indecisive, that he flip-flops. His management of the current crisis so far, however, paints a different picture. He has proven decisive, though not necessarily to those clamoring for a more robust military response..
When it comes to military action, Netanyahu has consistently shown that he moves only with great caution. This, by the way, is in stark contrast to his image and characterization abroad as the great Israeli hawk.
As Conrad Myrland, head of a pro-Israel Norwegian group called Med Israel for Fred (With Israel for Peace) points out, crunching the grisly statistics of both Israelis and Palestinians killed during Netanyahu’s terms in office, both from 1996-1999 and from 2009 until today, shows that during his tenure the number of people killed on both sides has dropped significantly.
For instance, for the four-year period from 2010-2013, a total of 491 Palestinians, both terrorists and civilians caught in the crossfire, were killed – or an average of 123 a year. This is a significant drop from the four years from 2005 to 2008, when an average of 531 Palestinians were killed a year. (The year 2009 is excluded since that was when Operation Cast Lead in Gaza took place, in the months before Netanyahu came to power in April.) The same trend is evident in looking at casualty figures from the three years in the late 1990s when Netanyahu was prime minister.
From 1997 through 1999, an average of 20 Palestinians were killed a year – again, both terrorists and civilians killed inadvertently – as opposed to an average of 126 killed each year from 1993 to 1996, before he took office.
What those figures indicate is that Netanyahu – contrary to his perception abroad – is not quick on the trigger, and uses military power with great caution and in a controlled manner. That same characteristic was on display this week, when despite the emotional turmoil the kidnappings caused the Israeli public, and despite the reflex to lash out, the sweeps in the West Bank have been controlled – and have not led to massive casualties on the Palestinian side.
(It is also telling to note that the number of Israelis killed in terror attacks under Netanyahu’s tenure is also significantly lower than in the years directly preceding his election victories. For instance, from 1997-1999, during Netanyahu’s first tenure, an average of 22 Israelis were killed a year, compared to an average of 46 killed from 1993 to 1995. And that number stood at 12 terrorist fatalities a year for the period 2010-2013, compared to an average of 33 Israelis killed by terror each year from 2005 to 2008 under Olmert and Ariel Sharon.) Netanyahu’s decisiveness during the current crisis has not been in launching a massive Defensive Shield-type operation, but rather in unequivocally pinning the responsibility for the kidnapping on Hamas, and in swiftly trying to both denigrate Hamas’s operational capabilities in the West Bank and casting the organization to the world in its true light: an unreformed terrorist group hell-bent on kidnapping and killing innocent Israelis.
When looking at historical parallels, one well-worth keeping in mind that former Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) head and minister Avi Dichter noted this week was the striking similarities between the Fraenkel-Shaer- Yifrah kidnappings, and that of Schalit. The similarities were not in the way they were carried out, but rather in the timing and Palestinian political constellation that spawned each attack: Hamas-Fatah unity.
When looking at the two kidnappings and their timing, he said, “It is amazing to see how similar the situations are.”
In February 2006, Dichter pointed out, a Palestinian unity government was established under Abbas, with Hamas’s Ismail Haniyeh the prime minister. Four months later, the attack that led to Schalit’s kidnapping took place.
Hamas, Dichter said, reshuffled the deck for Abbas in a way that he never believed would happen.
“Eight years later, another unity government is set up, with the same recipe and the same main actors, and this time – just days later – Hamas carries out the kidnapping of the children, and shuffles the deck again for Abu Mazen [Abbas]. Therefore, when you look at these two events, these two attacks, you understand that this cannot be coincidence.”
In other words, there is an emerging pattern. Despite what the world wants to believe, a unified PA and Hamas-Fatah reconciliation does not lead to positive developments in the diplomatic process – but disastrously negative ones.
Netanyahu, a seasoned politician with a keen sense of political moment, seized the moment to show this to the world and chip away at the growing tolerance for Hamas, even as the IDF – in a controlled manner characteristic of the way the prime minister deploys military might – continues to search for the boys without unleashing a major conflagration.
He has, it appears, looked carefully at certain aspects of recent Israeli history.
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