A sharpeville moment?

Given the international outcry, will Israel’s third major Gaza battle in less than six years lead to international isolation?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a news conference at his office in Jerusalem, August 6. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a news conference at his office in Jerusalem, August 6.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
ISRAEL WENT into Operation Protective Edge in early July fighting a ruthless band of Islamist terrorists; it emerged a month later accused of the slaughter of innocent Palestinians. French President Francois Hollande called it a “massacre”; the US withheld surface-to-air missiles partly because it felt Israel had not done enough to avoid civilian casualties; in the UK a large majority thought Israel had used disproportionate force; there were angry anti-Israel demonstrations across Europe; the UN appointed a panel to investigate potential war crimes.
Given the international outcry, will Israel’s third major Gaza battle in less than six years turn out to be its South Africa-like Sharpeville moment on the road to international isolation? Or will it have only fleeting impact? Much will depend on the larger question of Israel-Palestine, and whether or not Israel is able to exploit new opportunities for a wide-ranging settlement opened up after the fighting.
The hostilities in Gaza brought two diametrically opposed narratives to the fore. For Israel’s critics, Gaza is a huge prison. Hamas and the other militia groups fired virtually harmless rockets into Israel with the legitimate goal of lifting the siege. Israel overreacted, deliberately targeted and killed civilians as collective punishment and was guilty of war crimes.
According to Israel, after it withdrew from Gaza in 2005, the small Mediterranean enclave could have become a Palestinian Singapore, a model for a full-fledged Palestinian state. Instead Hamas used billions of dollars of aid money to build rockets and war tunnels, murdered political opponents and waged cynical wars against Israel deliberately putting civilians in harm’s way. The blockade Israel imposed was to counter Hamas’s smuggling of weapons and war materiel.
In fighting Hamas – which aimed to establish an Islamic Caliphate on territory including Israel – Israel was waging a proxy war for the moderate Sunni world and the West against the region’s dangerous Islamist radicals.
It was a war it had to fight to deter other regional predators. Disproportionate force? Hamas rockets and tunnels were intended to kill; Israel was in the dock partly for defending itself too well, developing the highly effective Iron Dome rocket interceptor system and building bomb shelters to protect its constantly threatened civilian population.
In the battle for public opinion Israel finds itself in a precarious, almost no-win situation.
By deliberately storing rockets in and firing from civilian areas and protected sites like mosques, schools and hospitals, and building military tunnels under clusters of civilian homes, Hamas ensures a relatively high civilian death toll and massive property destruction. This is how it turns Israel’s overwhelming firepower to its advantage and makes Orwellian strides toward achieving its most significant strategic goal: the delegitimization of Israel in Western eyes.
In Europe and America two very different pictures emerged. In Europe, public opinion turned sharply against Israel. Governments, however, took a more balanced line and the EU backed one of Israel’s key demands: disarming Hamas. In the US, crucially, public opinion stayed with Israel. The administration, though fully supportive of Israel on the strategic level, from time to time sent critical messages. Taken together, the nuanced EU-US government approach amounted to a carrot-and-stick policy designed to press a recalcitrant Israeli leadership into moving towards a long-term postwar accommodation with the Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank.
European public opinion was shaped by media that in the main bought into the Palestinian narrative. Israel was acting disproportionately and showing scant regard for Palestinian civilian life. The implication in some cases was that this was part of a deliberate policy of collective punishment.
For example, UK Channel 4 News anchor Jon Snow began a “tough” interview with Hamas spokesman Osama Hamdan in late July with an insidiously loaded question.
“Israel,” he said, “has demonstrated that it is prepared to go on killing Gaza’s women and children, civilians generally. Why are you encouraging them by still continuing to fire your ineffective rockets into their territory?” That Snow could characterize the conflict as a case of Hamas playing into Israel’s deliberately murderous hands and, on another occasion, peremptorily brush aside as nonsense claims that Hamas was deliberately placing civilians in harm’s way as part of a sophisticated strategy aimed at delegitimizing Israel both reflected and fueled an unprecedented degree of anti-Israel feeling in British public discourse.
In European reporting from Gaza there was little transparency. There was no mention of the way Hamas prevented journalists from filming or reporting the use of civilian shields and the abuse of protected institutions; nor of the fact that some reporters who failed to comply were expelled; or that news people were not allowed to attend the funerals of militants, so that Hamas claims that nearly all the dead were civilians could not be challenged.
BUT MORE than anything else, it was the constant flow of horrific, heart-rending images from Gaza along with mounting civilian casualty figures that turned opinion against Israel. The high proportion of civilians killed seemed to confirm allegations of disproportionality in Israel’s military response.
In early August, however, the figures, which had come largely from UN and Palestinian sources, were questioned by both the BBC and The New York Times. The BBC found that according to UN casualty lists over three times more “civilian” men had been killed than women, and asked how this was statistically possible if Israel’s attacks had been so indiscriminate. The New York Times found that among the dead, males aged 20-29 were significantly over-represented.
The IDF claimed that of the dead (put by other sources at between 1,500 and 2,000), 1,068 were confirmed militants.
By way of comparison, in three days in February 1945, British RAF and American USAF bombers dropped 3,900 tons of bombs on the German city of Dresden, killing an estimated 25,000 civilians. In Gaza, the IAF dropped far more, around 6,000 tons. There was also a hard-fought ground operation in built-up areas, in which the IDF fired thousands of tank and artillery shells.
Israeli spokesmen argued that had the IDF been deliberately targeting civilians or firing indiscriminately, the death toll in such a densely populated space, without bomb shelters or anywhere to flee, would have been considerably higher. And, assuming the war was unavoidable, the question is could the IDF or any other army in similar circumstances have done any better? The IDF went into urban areas with legal experts attached to ground troops to ensure compliance with international law. It claims targets and munitions were carefully chosen to minimize civilian casualties. It noted that cases where overwhelming firepower was used – for example, to help extricate dead and wounded under fire in the Shejaia neighborhood (600 artillery shells fired in less than an hour) or in the controversial “Hannibal procedure” activated in an abortive effort to thwart the capture by Hamas of an officer in the Rafah area (1,000 artillery shells in three hours) – are under investigation.
Israeli arguments to the contrary notwithstanding, the common perception in Europe was that the IDF had acted with excessive force. A comparison between British and American attitudes is instructive. An early August poll in the UK found that 52 percent of Britons believed Israel had acted disproportionately and only 19 percent justified its response. Moreover, a massive 41 percent said their opinion of Israel had worsened.
In the US, a majority of 42 to 38 percent thought Israel’s actions were justified. Moreover, 54 percent backed Israel and only 7 percent Hamas.
The public mood in the UK sparked a string of anti-Israel and some anti-Semitic manifestations. For example, although it later backtracked, the Tricycle Theatre in London refused to host the UK’s annual Jewish Film Festival on the grounds that it was partly sponsored by the Israeli Embassy; top British lawyers wrote to the International Criminal Court at The Hague urging it to launch a preliminary enquiry into abuses committed during the conflict; George Galloway, an eccentric British member of parliament with strong Arab ties, declared his Bradford constituency an “Israel-free” zone, echoing calls for a “Judenrein” Europe; BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) activists converged on a Belfast supermarket clearing its shelves of products made or sold in Israel.
Already official EU moves are having an effect on produce from the settlements. But it is far too early to say whether the BDS movement will be able to convert current anti- Israel sentiment into wider boycott action by consumers against Israel itself.
Significantly, on Gaza, European governments have on the whole been more favorably disposed toward Israel than their constituents. For example, all 17 EU members currently on the UN Human Rights Council abstained on Resolution S-21/1 setting up the “fact-finding commission” to be headed by Canadian law professor William Schabas. The Italian delegate explained that “the resolution fails to condemn explicitly the indiscriminate firing of rockets into Israeli civilian areas as well as to recognize Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself.”
A notable exception was a British government decision, bowing to public, parliamentary and coalition pressure, to suspend 12 licenses for arms exports to Israel “in the event of a significant resumption of hostilities.”
Meant as censure for Israel, it seemed more like an incentive for Hamas to start shooting again.
MORE IMPORTANTLY, the EU is ready to play a significant role in post-Gaza peacemaking.
After a key meeting of the European Council in Brussels on July 22, it called for the disarmament of “all terrorist groups,” offered to reactivate its border monitoring mission at the Rafah crossing point between Egypt and Gaza, and reaffirmed its readiness to back a final Israeli-Palestinian peace deal with a “package of European political, economic and security support and of Special Privileged Partnership with the EU” for both sides.
EUBAM, the “EU Border Assistance Mission,” started work at the Rafah crossing point in 2005 after agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but was expelled two years later when Hamas forces seized control of Gaza.
In early August, the E-3, Germany, France and the UK presented a formal peacemaking plan to the Israeli government. It had five main points: • A commitment to prevent the rearmament of Hamas and other militants • A pledge to work for the rehabilitation of Gaza • The creation of an international mechanism to prevent the entry of prohibited materials into Gaza • M oves t o f acilitate t he P alestinian A uthority’s return to Gaza • The return of EUBAM to help man the Rafah border crossing point along with PA security forces.
Ironically, the biggest concern for Israel was not Europe, but its closest ally, the US.
On the face of it, it looked like business as usual. In late July, Congress passed a Concurrent Resolution denouncing Hamas’s use of civilians as human shields “in violation of international humanitarian law.” A bipartisan group of 35 Senators wrote to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon denouncing the Human Rights Council’s decision to launch a “one-sided investigation into Israel’s actions,” while turning “a blind eye to Hamas’s brazen and depraved use of civilians as human shields, the tunnels it has built to cause mayhem in Israel, and its deliberate targeting of civilians.” And in early August, by a total of 535 votes to 8, both houses of Congress approved a further $225 million for Iron Dome.
The problem was the Gaza war exacerbated already severely strained relations between the Obama Administration and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Exasperated by Netanyahu’s cavalier treatment of US Secretary of State John Kerry after the secretary’s tireless peacemaking and cease-fire efforts, and disturbed by what they saw as Israel’s heavy-handed battle tactics, US officials described the Israeli leader as “reckless and untrustworthy” and accused Netanyahu’s Israel of “not understanding its place in the world.”
In late July, as a signal of his displeasure, President Barack Obama delayed the supply of Hellfire air-to-ground missiles for US made Apache attack helicopters. The move had little military or economic significance.
But it reflected presidential impatience with Netanyahu not only over Gaza. The deeper reason for US anger and frustration was Israel’s failure for five years under Netanyahu to make genuine moves toward a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
ALMOST AS soon as the fighting stopped in Gaza, the broad Israeli consensus in favor of the war and its conduct broke down. Centrist politicians slammed Netanyahu for carelessly undermining Israel’s greatest strategic asset, its close, intimate relationship with the US. The left attacked him for getting into a war they said he could have avoided. They argued that if instead of rejecting it, Israel would have recognized the Fatah-Hamas unity government formed in April as an opportunity, both sides would have been in a very different place today.
Now with moderate Sunnis in favor of a deal that weakens the radicals, the EU ready to play a significant role, and the US, despite tensions with Israel, ready to underwrite an agreement, both the center and the left are urging Netanyahu to build on a Gaza ceasefire for a broader peace with Gaza and the West Bank.
Israel is at a crossroads: The center-left is pressing for sweeping peace moves that would ameliorate Israel’s standing in Europe, mend fences with the US and, most importantly, prevent future wars and loss of life.
The right, convinced that the lesson from Gaza is that it would be suicidal for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank, is digging in for what will inevitably become fortress Israel closing in on itself, less democratic and more threatened by international sanctions.
Netanyahu, it seems, is now ready to recognize the Fatah-Hamas government. The big question is whether he will be ready and able to go from there to build a more stable modus vivendi with the Palestinians and with it a better place for Israel in the region and the international community.