The Rockets of November

The Rockets of November
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Amotz Asa-El

Tel Aviv tends to revel in its image as a bastion of hedonism and frivolity that defies Middle Eastern tensions, but as autumn’s seagulls overflew its fishermen’s piers the city received a stark reminder of where it is situated.

As sirens ululated across the cosmopolitan metropolis, sending thousands running for cover, Tel Aviv’s elegant boardwalk absorbed what it had last heard in 1991, when Saddam Hussein lobbed Soviet-made Scud missiles in its direction. Saddam and his supplier are now long gone, but the urge to target Israel is alive and well, and it now produced a week-long military conflict whose military, political, and diplomatic repercussions will become apparent in upcoming months.

Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defence began with the targeted killing, via an air-launched missile, of Ahmed Jabari, leader of Hamas’ military wing and mastermind of numerous attacks on Israeli troops and civilians. The most famous of these was the abduction of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, held captive for more than five years.

In recent weeks, Jabari’s troops repeatedly fired at soldiers on the Israeli side of the international border, and in one case, detonated explosives through a tunnel dug under the fence. However, attacking soldiers was the exception. The rule was attacks on Israeli civilian communities in the form of a constant dripping of mortars, missiles and rockets aimed at towns and villages throughout the northern Negev Desert, to Gaza’s east, south and north.

The salvos in Israel’s direction had resumed gradually over the past year until the quiet that had followed Operation Cast Lead, in December ’08-January ’09, effectively ended. By the end of northern summer 2012, with a million Israelis constantly rushing out of work and school to take cover from rocket attacks, the government had to act.

The IDF’s opening strike included, besides Jabari’s killing, a heavy aerial attack on Hamas’ long-range missiles, whose locations throughout the densely built strip had been diligently mapped over months of painstaking intelligence work. Consequently, Hamas’ original intention to massively rocket central Israel at a time of Hamas’ choosing had been thwarted, with its arsenal decimated – and with the timing selected by Israel.

Moreover, all but one of the few rockets that reached Tel Aviv and its suburbs were successfully intercepted by the Israeli-made Iron Dome anti-missile system, and neutralised in midair. In all, some 1,500 rockets were fired at Israel during the showdown, and almost all of those that approached residential areas were successfully intercepted by Iron Dome. Missiles approaching open areas were allowed to reach the ground relatively harmlessly. The result has been a relatively low rate of Israeli casualties, two soldiers and four civilians.

Iron Dome, in the meantime, emerged from conflict as a major success, a suddenly famous weapon which is already in demand by foreign governments.

Israel’s initial defensive success was also aided by a well organised Home-Front Command that efficiently kept the population in pre-designated bomb-proof areas. The main exception, the deaths of two men and a woman in the town of Kiryat Malachi – halfway between Gaza and Tel Aviv – resulted from the victims’ failure to obey an earlier directive to move to a nearby stairwell.

The IDF, at the same time, pounded hundreds of pre-selected targets throughout Gaza, mainly missile-launching sites, military commanders, and military and government installations. At the same time, 75,000 IDF reservists, mainly infantrymen and tank crews, were called and assembled near Gaza to prepare for a potential invasion, – which in the end was avoided.

On the fifth day, a mistaken identification led to an Israeli Air Force aircraft landing a bomb on the wrong house, tragically killing 11 civilians. Even so, within Israel there was general agreement that the offensive must be pursued, as Hamas started the violence and was deliberately targeting and hiding among civilians, while Israel was doing its best to avoid or at least minimise civilian casualties.

Even so, the operation’s eventual sum of Palestinian civilian casualties, 91 according to the Palestinians and 57 according to Israel, was lower than the previous bout’s, Operation Cast Lead four years ago, thanks to improved intelligence concerning locations of targeted munitions and terrorist leaders, improved Israeli measures to warn civilians, and the lack of ground operations.

When the fighting ended Netanyahu summed up the Israeli attacks’ impact saying that with Hamas’ munitions stockpiles drained and quiet restored – he is satisfied.
The fighting generated a sense of solidarity and volunteerism throughout Israel. Dairy farmers from the north went south to relieve local farmers as they struggled to milk their cows while continuously dodging rockets. In Jerusalem, 2,500 soccer fans from the south were admitted free of charge to a premier-league game. And before that, as the Sabbath approached, Israelis living outside rocket range volunteered to host evacuees from the south.

The spirit of national unity was reflected in rare political harmony. All major parties backed the operation, and the government’s condition for halting its fire – “quiet for quiet” – won wall-to-wall backing.

When the fighting ended, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu emerged as a consensual and wartime leader, now improbably challenged from the right. In some southern cities there were street protests, where residents said Israel should have invaded, even if it meant more casualties and extended inconvenience for the South’s citizens. Among the politicians, Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz voiced similar misgivings.

However, Mofaz is now on the political margins, while the natural right-wing voice, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, found himself acting as the Government’s advocate. Having merged with Netanyahu’s Likud and now been part of the foursome that managed Israel’s fighting, alongside Netanyahu, Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Chief of Staff Benny Gantz – Lieberman defended the decision not to invade Gaza, saying the cost in human lives would not have justified the benefits.
In fact, as the fighting subsided, the IDF said the blow dealt to Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and the assorted splinter groups that had fired on Israel should prevent renewed bombardments in the near future.

Diplomatically, Hamas’ worst miscalculation – even more than in underestimating Iron Dome’s efficiency and the Israeli public’s resilience – lay in the sweeping backing throughout the world for Israel’s offensive.

Led by US President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, leaders across the world agreed that no country would be expected to sit idly while its citizens were being rocketed.

Meanwhile, Turkey was marginalised, having long lost Israel’s trust, and at the same time failed to convince Egypt to share with it the role of mediator and the diplomatic credit that accrued from this. Egypt, for its part, emerged from the skirmish a winner.

In a minimal show of protest, President Mohammed Morsi recalled his ambassador from Tel Aviv, but avoided expelling Israel’s envoy in Cairo. As Morsi prepared for a visit in Washington, Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amer mediated negotiations in Cairo between representatives of Israel and Hamas, ultimately reaching oral agreement of “quiet for quiet.” In addition, Israel agreed to consider expanding the depth of maritime penetration that its navy will allow Gazan fishermen. Israel has been blockading maritime access to Gaza citing weapon smuggles.

Morsi’s approach reflected shared interests with Israel, even though emotionally he remains hostile to the Jewish State, avoiding even mentioning its name in public. For Morsi, the main concern is not Hamas’ pride, but the restless and endangered livelihood of Egyptians in general, and, in the context of Gaza, the volatility of the Bedouin in the nearby Sinai.

Indeed, unlike non-Arab and relatively distant Turkey, Egypt is Gaza’s geographic backyard and political front-yard. This would be true under any Egyptian leadership, but it is doubly so under the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’ spiritual mentor and parent organisation. The Gaza clash was therefore a supreme test for Morsi the statesman. He seems to have passed it quite handily.

The soft-spoken and uncharismatic Morsi had already surprised, first by getting elected, then by swiftly removing the military from politics. Obviously, none of this offers any hint concerning Morsi’s longer-term designs for Gaza. The probability that he will allow it to retain its role as a thorn in Israel’s side remain high, but what he makes of Iran and its un-denied role in supplying and inciting Gaza remains unknown.

The day after the ceasefire’s announcement, a mob approached the border fence from within Gaza, and tried to scale the fence and hang on it a Hamas flag before being chased away by Israeli troops, who also shot dead one of the assailants. Hours later uniformed Hamas troops arrived at the fence and prevented locals’ access to it. The following week, the Mufti of Gaza issued a fatwa banning ceasefire violations. East and north of there, meanwhile, from Beersheva to Tel Aviv, quiet had returned to Israel’s streets.