With the decision on July 22 by most airlines to suspend services to Tel Aviv, the stakes of Israel’s military confrontation with Hamas were taken to an unprecedented level.
With the termination of this vital lifeline for Israel, no longer can it be claimed, even by those most cynical of Israel, that the missile defence system Iron Dome – as revolutionary and life-saving as it is – has neutralised Hamas’ rocket threat and obviated the need for Israel to use force to respond to Hamas’ rocket strikes.
Such arguments were always weak. As even the Palestinian representative to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva has noted recently, every single rocket fired at Israel’s population centres is a war crime. Every one of them is potentially lethal, even if intercepted.
As we go to press, Israeli troops are still engaged in a fraught battle in Gaza, an incursion that was ordered after Hamas had begun to launch waves of terrorists into Israel using its unexpectedly massive network of secret terror tunnels.
Literally dozens of tunnels have been detected – multi-million dollar tunnels constructed out of reinforced concrete, often utilising construction materials Israel allowed into Gaza for humanitarian reasons.
Time and again in Israel’s history, the country has been pushed into a situation where it has run out of peaceful options for restoring security to its citizens and it has had to fight its way back to a position of deterrence and calm. “Ein breira” (“no choice”), Israelis say about such a war. Today, across Israel’s political spectrum, there is near-complete unanimity that Operation Protective Edge is such a campaign.
The rockets began falling in mid-June, after Hamas members kidnapped and then murdered three Israeli students. In the first week or two, Israel refused to retaliate, sending messages to Hamas that it was not seeking any escalation. Hamas contemptuously rebuffed the overtures, and the rockets increased in frequency and range.
Finally, Israel responded with its military operation on July 8, starting with a precision bombing campaign on high-value military targets, especially those associated with the rockets.
True to form, and in contravention of international law, Hamas stores much of its war material in densely populated civilian areas.
The IDF – also true to form – took every reasonable precaution to avoid harming Gazan civilians through the dropping of leaflets, sending text messages, making phone calls, and even “knocking” on the rooftops with a unique, loud but weak ordnance, to give residents a chance to reach safety.
Hamas’ response was to instruct Gazans to ignore the IDF’s warnings and remain in combat zones. The horrific images we have seen of dead or wounded civilians have been the tragic result.
Former US President Bill Clinton has rightly noted that Hamas has “a strategy designed to force Israel to kill… (Palestinian) civilians so that the rest of the world will condemn them.”
Hamas’ despicable tactics create the lopsided casualty rates. Once again, in this escalation as in previous ones, critics of Israel have rolled out the old chestnut that Israel’s response somehow violates the principle of “proportionality” in armed conflict.
Yet critics who accuse Israel of a disproportionate response never seem to provide any better solution to fighting a terror group such as Hamas in an asymmetrical urban war.
When Israel responds to rocket attacks with pinpoint aerial targeting of Hamas assets – coupled with warnings for civilians – it is condemned for the civilian casualties that inevitably result from any urban warfare. When it starts using ground troops, it is condemned for “escalating” the conflict. When it attempts to contain Hamas within Gaza and limit the Hamas threat through a blockade, it is accused of turning Gaza into “the world’s largest prison camp” and starving Gazans. In other words, “proportional” self-defence seems to effectively mean no self-defence.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop joined other world leaders, to their credit, in rightly placing the blame for the escalation on Hamas and, together with Shadow Foreign Minister Tanya Plibersek, condemned the terror group’s refusal of an Egyptian ceasefire plan after Israel accepted and held its fire.
For its part, Hamas, together with its backers Qatar and Turkey, is demanding ceasefire terms that would include an end to the blockade of Gaza by both Israel and Egypt, payment of salaries for Hamas workers, free operation on the West Bank for Hamas, release of prisoners and other concessions.
Most responsible players in international diplomacy understand that handing Hamas such a victory would be suicidal for Israel.
And not for Israel alone. Other extremist groups will be watching the Hamas example. Imagine if the principle is established that any response to a terror group firing rockets or launching terror from civilian areas is illegitimate because of the inevitable civilian casualties, and the only recourse the targeted party effectively has is to grant the terror group’s demands.
Terror groups, especially those backed by states, would widely seek to imitate Hamas tactics of using human shields – at huge costs to people’s lives, and to basic international stability.
If there has been a lesson from the events of the past few weeks, it is that Hamas shows no interest in serving the needs of Palestinians or progressing a two-state resolution. On the contrary, it is committed more than ever to a campaign of terror – and courting Gazan victims to use as props for propaganda when Israel responds.
Anyone who genuinely cares about the misery the repeated wars around Gaza are inflicting on its civilian residents must – for their sake – unite behind Israel’s efforts to degrade Hamas’ military assets, destroy its rockets and terror tunnels, and ensure that Hamas lacks the means to rebuild its terror infrastructure. Anything else will just mean another, and probably even worse, war in a few months or years – in which Gaza civilians will once again inevitably experience great suffering.