An Escalation to Order?
IT did not take long for the Israeli military to celebrate Netanyahu's visit to Washington and Obama's obliging appearance at the conference of Zionist lobby group AIPAC. To be fair, the US president, unlike his Republican opponents, did not proclaim war on Iran, but nor did he rule it out. Netanyahu for his part did not hesitate to play on paranoia, gentile guilt feelings, and hypocrisy, by invoking "Auschwitz", as though the Israeli state was a beleagured, innocent and helpless civilian populace being led to slaughter, and not a military power with a strong air force and the only nuclear power in the Middle East.
He used the occasion to ask for more advanced and destructive weaponry, such as bunker-busting bombs (tested in Lebanon), from the United States, in return for "restraint" in using it.
On Friday the air force attacked Gaza, targeting the leader of the Palestinian Resistance Committees, and provoking a response from militant groups in the Strip who fired rockets into Israel. While some Western media as per habit reported this as though it was the Palestinians who fired rockets first, or more "neutraly" as an "exchange of fire", the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) issued their own explanation, claiming that the Popular Resistance Committees were responsible for an attack into Israel last August, and were planning further attacks.
The Jerusalem Post wrote:
When the IDF decided on Friday afternoon to assassinate the leader of the Popular Resistance Committees in the Gaza Strip, it knew what it was getting itself into.
Assessments ahead of the decision to bomb the car carrying Zuhair Qaisi predicted that around 100 rockets could be fired into Israel during each day of the round of violence expected to erupt. This was a price the government felt it was capable of paying.
Knesset member Danny Danon (Likud) was not satisfied, calling for "all of those in possession of weapons in the Gaza Strip" to be targeted because of the "million people living under fire".
As Australian-based blogger Sol Salbe points out, he means a million residents of southern Israel. "Only they live under fire. By yesterday afternoon, the bodies of 15 Palestinians were already laid out on the other side of the Gaza border. There were eight people injured on this side, and the Iron Dome antimissile system chalked up the successful interception of 25 rockets."
By today we knew the Palestinian victim toll had risen to at least 18, including a ten year old boy on his way to school. Well, you never know, he and his classmates could have been dreaming up all sorts of actions.
Still, I like that bit about the government being prepared to pay the price. Should any of those rockets from Gaza kill anyone it would more likely be ordinary members of the public, possibly even friends or relatives of mine, than members of the government. I am not sure they feel ready to pay the price for whatever their government's intentions are. But I see a religious charity is collecting for books and food, so it says, for people under fire or in shelters in the south. I'm sure this won't be necessary as the government is prepared to pay the price.
But what was this attack really about? In the past, Israelis argued that targetted assassinations were justified if they hit someone about to carry out an attack. In 2006, in his last court ruling handed down before his retirement, then Supreme Court President Aharon Barak barred such killings when they were meant to be "a deterrent or punishment."
According to the IDF, Zuhair al-Qaissi, the secretary general of the Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza, was responsible for the attack over the Egyptian border last August - which would make his killing an act of "deterrence or punishment." But to be on the safe side, it also noted that he had "led and directed plans to carry out a terror attack within Israel, which was in its final stages of preparation."
The air strike also killed Mahmoud Hanani, described by the IDF as Al-Queisi’s ”collaborator.” The IDF Spokesman’s communique said that “the IDF is not interested in an escalation, but is ready and willing to defend the citizens of the State of Israel and respond with force and determination against any attempt to carry out terrorist activity.”
The attackers last August did not come from Gaza, but from Sinai. This did not stop the IDF from killing six members of the PRC leadership several hours after the attack, nor did it prevent Prime Minister Netanyahu from announcing that “those responsible for the attack have already been punished.” Two months after the attack, someone in the security establishment leaked to Alex Fishman of Yedioth Ahronot enough information for Fishman to write the truth: the attack did not come from Gaza but rather from Sinai. The PRC had nothing to do with it. A few weeks later, the Egyptian army arrested a resident of Sinai, charging him with planning the Eilat attack.
So it looks like the IDF, unfazed by the suggestion that its version was either a lie or based on false intelligence, has made it serve twice. As for the popular resistance committees preparing new attack, Defence Minister Ehud Barak admits the intelligence on this was hazy.
In Israel, if the people in the shelters had their doubts, they won't be much heard above the ordnance and the media din, and the government has sent a message reassuring the mayors, so that's OK. There are critics of the government and the IDF, but who listens to them?
Certainly not Israel's backers in the West.
"US officials condemned the latest round of rocket fire from Gaza. The secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said Israel had the right to defend itself, and a state department statement called on both sides to restore calm.
"We condemn in the strongest terms the rocket fire from Gaza by terrorists into southern Israel in recent days, which has dramatically and dangerously escalated in the past day," the statement said. "We call on those responsible to take immediate action to stop these cowardly acts. We regret the loss of life and injuries, and we call on both sides to make every effort to restore calm."
The Gaza front had been quiet. Hamas has not only adhered to a ceasefire but in entering an agreement with Fatah effectively signalled its readiness to go along with Palestinian Authority negotiations with Israel. It is Netanyahu who chose to interpret this the opposite way, to reject negotiation, and in setting out with US backing to block recognition of Palestine, made nonsense of any pretended interest in a "two state solution".
The Israeli government needs a supposed threat from Iran both to foster "national unity" smothering social unrest at home, and to present itself as the brave underdog facing annihilation, rather than a brutal occupying power. At the same time it wants to be seen as the sole guard dog for Western interests.
That Hamas, viewing the bloodbath in Syria, has turned away from alliance with Hizbollah, and hence Iran, and is renewing old links with the Muslim Brotherhood and counting on help for Gaza from Egypt, does not suit the Israeli scenario. Nor does it restraining Islamic Jihad. The Israeli intelligence may have been concerned not with preventing more trouble but with ensuring it, as Zvi Bar'el suggests:
To make matters worse, from Netanyahu's point of view, there is the possibility that the United States and EU might feel safer trusting in their Arab allies rather than being saddled with responsibility for Israel's actions.
There is also the possibility of change in Iran. Not regime change so much as a more intelligent diplomacy offering compromise with Europe and the USA that would leave Israel looking like a liability, if not the villain that it is. Ayatollah Khamenei, who has been reasserting his authority as supreme leader, has issued a fatwa saying that posession of nuclear weapons is a sin and forbidden by Islam. He has also praised Obama for saying there could be a peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue. President Ahmadinejad, who has enjoyed playing to the gallery and been Israel's bogeyman, could be ousted next year.
This may seem a reassuring development for anyone fearing a future nuclear holocaust in the Middle East, even though Khamenei's conservatism offers little in the way of freedom or progress for the people of Iran. But for the Israeli leaders and their increasingly fanatical backers in the United States it might be all the more incitement to hurry towards a war, before peace starts breaking out.