Israeli operations in Gaza continue

Jan 16, 2009 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

January 16, 2009
Number 01/09 #06

This Update continues this week’s focus on various important aspects of the ongoing fighting between Israel and Hamas.

First up is David Schenker, Arab politics expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Writing in the Boston Globe, Schenker argues that effectively closing down Hamas’ smuggling tunnels that run under the Egypt-Gaza border is the key to a lasting ceasefire, and could be “the difference between war and peace.” He further explains how ending the smuggling is in Cairo’s interests, as well as Israel’s and the Palestinian Authority’s. For his complete analysis, CLICK HERE. Some additional commentary  on how preventing the smuggling through the tunnels into Gaza requires the support of the Egyptian government, which has its own interests in the matter, is here.

Next up, Israeli intellectual Natan Sharansky takes on Israel’s critics who argue that its military response to Hamas has been disproportionate and/or that non-military means such as sanctions or negotiations would achieve better results. He argues that although going after the terrorist infrastructure militarily is often messy and may bring international condemnation, it is sometimes both necessary and the most effective approach. For more of his insights, CLICK HERE. A comprehensive military analysis of how the IDF is going about accomplishing its goals in Gaza, from Washington Institute defence fellow Jeffrey White, can be found here.

Finally, US journalist Jeffrey Goldberg uses his 2006 interview with Nizar Rayyan, a Hamas official who was killed in the first week of the Gaza clashes, as a backdrop to explain why engaging with Hamas will not work. He concludes that Hamas’ ideological/religious beliefs are so deeply ingrained that it can neither be “cajoled” nor “bombed into moderation”. Instead, the US, Europe and moderate Arab states must build up the West Bank under Fatah and use that as an example of what Gazans could have. For his full argument, including some interesting asides on the Hamas-Hezbollah rivalry and its effect on the current situation, CLICK HERE. On his blog, Goldberg posts Reuel Gerecht’s direct rebuttal of the idea that Hamas cannot be defeated militarily.

Readers may also be interested in:

  • According to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the UNRWA complex in Gaza was hit only after Hamas operatives launched attacks from the area and the IDF returned fire.
  • Contrary to widespread media reports, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Jakob Kellenberger, says Gaza’s hospitals have enough equipment and supplies. Gerald Steinberg has a good critique of some of the other claims made by international NGOs, including on Israel’s use of white phosphorus.
  • An IDF strike Thursday killed Hamas Interior Minister Said Sayyam. Two profiles of Sayyam, who was one of Hamas’ top five leaders in Gaza and a hardcore opponent of both Israel and Fatah, are here and here.
  • Two Grad-type rockets hit Beersheba, wounding six people, including a 7-year old boy.
  • Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni gave an excellent interview with Matt Brown on ABC’s 7.30 Report the other night. The video of the interview can be downloaded/viewed here.
  • Israeli historian Benny Morris defends Israel’s right to self-defence against Hamas, and addresses other threats facing Israel on ABC’s Radio National’s “Breakfast” program. His recent opinion piece in the New York Times, referred to at the beginning of the interview, can be found here.
  • Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh reports on the unreported war against Hamas led by Fatah in the West Bank. Meanwhile, a pro-Gaza demonstration scheduled for Ramallah was cancelled due to lack of protestors.
  • Isi Leibler praises the performance of the IDF and Israeli government in the operation so far, especially compared with their performances in the 2006 war with Hezbollah. But he cautions against agreeing to an ineffective ceasefire.
  • Concern that Turkey’s criticism of Israel’s Gaza incursion is a further sign of the country’s worrying move away from the West over the last decade.
  • British columnist Melanie Phillips has a smart take-down of British Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s view of the ‘war on terror’ as “mistaken and misleading”, saying it shows “a deeply alarming level of shallowness and ignorance.”
  • Cuban-born writer Carlos Alberto Montaner calls new-found demands that both sides in a war should suffer proportionate casualties for it to be legitimate “surprising”. And Martin Sherman notes that many of Israel’s European critics had a different view of proportionality during NATO’s air campaign against Serbia in 1999.
  • More than 20 Muslim leaders in Britain signed a letter condemning the rise of antisemitic attacks in response to Operation Cast Lead.
  • In case you missed it, AIJAC Executive Director Colin Rubenstein explains in the Canberra Times why Hamas is the true obstacle to  prospects for peace, while Bren Carlill of AIJAC tackles the widespread hypocrisy seen in much of the reaction to the current fighting.

Gaza tunnels: No path to peace

By David Schenker 
Boston Globe, January 14, 2009

EGYPT has long been considered a “bridge” between the East and West. Yet, two weeks into the Israeli campaign against Hamas in Gaza, Egypt is probably better known for its role as a tunnel, serving as the primary smuggling route for Hamas weapons into militant-controlled territory. As pressure mounts for a cease-fire, the disposition of these tunnels – and specifically, what actions Cairo is prepared to take to close them – seems likely to prove the difference between war and peace.

Given the circumstances, Cairo should be anxious to end the smuggling. Egypt has been at peace with Israel since 1979 and has strong ties with the more moderate Palestinian Authority led by President Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas, with its historic links to the anti-government Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, represents a significant threat to Cairo.

For decades, Egypt fought the Muslim Brotherhood, eventually getting the upper hand; today, while the Brotherhood remains quite popular, it ostensibly abjures violence. For Cairo, the prospect of Hamas hooking up with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood raises serious concerns of ideological contagion. Also troubling is Hamas’s close ties to Iran, Egypt’s foremost regional rival and detractor.

Egypt’s security concerns hit home in January 2008, when Hamas destroyed the fence between Gaza and Egypt, allowing an estimated 700,000 Palestinians to cross the border. By March it was reported that Egypt had accepted $23 million from Washington to help secure the border and detect tunnels.

In June, Egypt brokered a cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas. But during the six-month period of relative calm that ensued, Hamas capitalized, improving its military capabilities by smuggling in some 80 tons of weapons from Egypt, including longer-range Iranian-made rockets that brought 10 percent of the Israeli population within striking distance.

It’s unclear exactly what Egypt was doing while Hamas was engaged in this smuggling. According to Egyptian sources, its capacity to counter Hamas’s extensive tunnel network was hampered by the peace treaty with Israel, which limits the number of troops allowed to be deployed in the Sinai. Or perhaps Cairo tolerated a certain extent of smuggling to demonstrate sympathy for Palestinians and maintain a modicum of goodwill with Hamas.

Despite what appears to have been a relatively laissez-faire attitude toward the tunnels, since the onset of the Israeli military campaign Cairo has kept the Gaza frontier closed, against Hamas’s expressed wishes.

Today, as calls for a cease-fire reach fever pitch, a clear convergence of interest has emerged among Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority. All parties would like to see Hamas weakened. While it may be overly ambitious to hope the Israeli operation will result in regime removal in Gaza, ending the pipeline of weapons to the militant group would be an important step toward clipping its wings.

Given the dynamics on the border, any meaningful step toward curbing tunnel smuggling is likely going to have to occur on Egyptian territory. This will require Israeli flexibility and a commitment on Cairo’s part. Although Cairo would likely be hesitant to accept additional foreign troops on its soil – multinational force observers are already in the Sinai monitoring the Israel-Egypt peace agreement – some element of international forces may be required to interdict the tunnels and seal the cease-fire deal.

Cairo has a clear interest in stopping the smuggling. By closing the tunnels, Egypt stands to temporarily stall if not reverse the regional trend toward “resistance” being promoted by Tehran. For Cairo, which has seen relations with Washington deteriorate during the Bush administration, seriously dealing with the tunnels would also present an opportunity to get off on the right foot with the Obama administration.

Countering the smuggling tunnels is the key to an enduring cease-fire. Should Cairo take a tough stand on the tunnels, Iran and its allies will no doubt be critical. But if Egypt is determined to stop the bloodshed, it will have to work with Israel and the Palestinian Authority to find an effective strategy to stem the flow of weapons. On Gaza, Cairo is the lone bridge to a solution.

David Schenker is director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

© Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

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Save Gaza by destroying the heart of terror

By Natan Sharansky
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 14, 2009

Israel’s war in Gaza has been met with cries of protest around the world. They come from two sources.

First, there are those who oppose any Israeli effort to defend itself, mainly because they don’t believe a Jewish state should exist at all. This is a form of anti-Semitism, and such a view should be rejected outright rather than argued with.

Second, there are those who support Israel’s existence, but believe it is wrong to wage so harsh an assault on the Gaza Strip. This argument also takes two forms: First, that Israel’s response is disproportionate and therefore wrong; and second, that there are less violent ways to handle Hamas — through international pressure, sanctions or negotiations.

Both of these claims, as logical as they may sound, ignore the lessons of history, including Israel’s recent history in fighting terror. In the 10 years I served as a minister in Israel’s security cabinet, I learned just how mistaken such arguments can be.

On June 1, 2001, a suicide bomber attacked the entrance to the Dolphinarium discotheque in Tel Aviv. Twenty-one Israelis, mostly young people, were killed, and more than 130 injured. This was the latest in a long string of suicide bombings that had been launched since the start of the Second Intifada in September 2000.

The next day, I took part in a dramatic cabinet meeting to discuss our options — a Sabbath-day meeting, which only a true emergency could justify. Most of the ministers felt decisive action had to be taken. Military officials presented a plan for uprooting the terror infrastructure, through a complex campaign in the heart of Palestinian cities and refugee camps. Though the attack had been carried out by Hamas, it was clear that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had given them a green light. We had both the right and the ability to strike back.

Throughout the meeting, though, our foreign minister kept going in and out of the room, talking to world leaders and reporting back. His message was clear: Right now Israel enjoys the sympathy of the international community. As long as we keep our military response to a minimum, the world will continue to be on our side, and increased diplomatic pressure will rein in the terror. But if we launch a full-scale attack on the terrorists, we risk losing the world’s support and turning Arafat from an aggressor into a victim.

Eventually the prime minister was convinced of this approach, and the decision was made to stick to a proportionate response — pinpoint attacks on terror cells, special operations, arrests — and to allow diplomacy to work its magic.

Over the next nine months, Israel held its fire, and the world indeed condemned terrorism. But the attacks only increased. In the heart of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, suicide bombers blew up coffee shops, buses and hotels. Nightlife ground to a halt, tourism was decimated and hotels had to release most of their workers. One of my colleagues in the government, Rehavam Zeevi, was gunned down by terrorists. In the meantime, the U.S. suffered its own terror attacks on Sept. 11 and put intense pressure on us not to retaliate against the Palestinians, for fear of complicating its own war on al-Qaeda.

The situation came to a head in March 2002, when more than 130 Israelis were killed in a single month alone — most infamously on March 27, Passover Eve, at the Park Hotel in Netanya. The next day, the cabinet convened — again, in an extraordinary meeting during a religious holiday. The meeting started at 6 p.m. and lasted the night. This time, however, the government decided to launch Operation Defensive Shield — the same plan the Israel Defense Forces had offered the previous year.

In the international arena, our worst fears were realized. The United Nations condemned us, and the U.S. dispatched Secretary of State Colin Powell to tell us to stop the assault immediately. The global media mounted a brutal campaign depicting us as war criminals, spreading false rumors of the wholesale butchering of Palestinian civilians, describing the operation as the worst atrocity of modern history.

The most outrageous of these rumors was the Jenin libel, which was portrayed in a film produced largely from the fertile imagination of its director, and then shown around the world. It didn’t matter that, in fact, Israel had taken unprecedented measures to minimize civilian casualties, including refraining from using either aerial or artillery bombardment, putting its own soldiers at unprecedented risk; or that the UN commission that was created to investigate Jenin was soon disbanded for lack of evidence; or that the director of the film admitted that he had misled his audience.

For years to come, the “Jenin massacre” was the centerpiece of the anti-Israel propaganda machine, reverberating across Europe and on U.S. campuses as the symbol of Israeli iniquity. Our reputation was in tatters.

Yet all this was a small price to pay for what Israel gained. Within a few weeks, Palestinian terror was rendered ineffective, with the number of Israelis killed falling from hundreds per month to fewer than a dozen over the next year. Life returned to Israeli streets. Tourists returned by the hundreds of thousands. The economy started moving again.

No less important, though, was the effect Defensive Shield had on the Palestinians themselves. With the terror infrastructure removed, Palestinians could begin rebuilding their civic institutions and changing their attitude toward violence. Over time, Arafat’s policy of promoting terror was replaced by the far more cautious approach of his successor, Mahmoud Abbas.

In more than six years since the operation, the West Bank’s economy has boomed. If there is hope in the West Bank today, it is because Israel abandoned the ideas of proportionality and diplomacy in handling terror. The West Bank Palestinians know this; for this reason, they have not joined in the world’s rampant condemnation of Israel in the current war. While tens of thousands protest in Europe, West Bankers are mostly silent.

Understanding the war in Gaza means recognizing the lessons of 2002. During the three years that passed after pulling out all troops and settlements from the Gaza Strip in 2005, Israel chose to respond to Hamas’s deadly, daily rocket attacks with proportionality and diplomacy. The result? More rockets, more missiles, more misery for Palestinians — and enough breathing space for Hamas to take over the Gaza Strip, devastate its society, build a much more powerful arsenal than it had in 2005 and become the vanguard of Iranian expansionism in the region.

Terrorism is a cancer that can’t be cured through “proportional” treatments. It requires invasive surgery. It threatens not only democratic states that are its target, but also — foremost — the local civilians who are forced into its fanatical ranks, deployed as human shields, and devastated by its tyranny.

The longer one waits to treat it, the worse it gets, and the harsher the treatment required to defeat it. In southern Lebanon, where Israel failed to defeat the terrorists in 2006, the disease has only spread: Hezbollah now has three times the missiles it had before, and the terrorists have gained a stranglehold on the Lebanese government. Israel is determined not to repeat this mistake in Gaza.

Just as in 2002, Israel has chosen to fight the heart of terror, in the face of worldwide denunciation, mass demonstrations, UN resolutions, and talk of crimes against humanity. Now, as then, it is the right decision.

The operation is painful: The number of civilians hurt and killed, while far fewer than in comparable operations around the world, is still intolerably high — a reflection of the size and depth of the terror infrastructure that has grown there over the last three years.

As in 2002, the real beneficiaries of a successful Israeli campaign will be the Palestinians themselves. Peace can be found only when Palestinians are given the freedom to build real civic institutions, and a leadership can emerge unafraid of telling its own citizens that violence, fanaticism and martyrdom aren’t the Palestinian way. But this can happen only once the malignancy of terror is removed from their midst. As ugly as it sounds, it is the only source of hope for Gaza.

Natan Sharansky is chairman of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies in Shalem Center, a former deputy prime minister and the author of the recently published “Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy.” He wrote this column for Bloomberg News.

© 1998-2009 Seattle Post-Intelligencer

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Why Israel Can’t Make Peace With Hamas

By Jeffrey Goldberg
New York Times, January 14, 2009


IN the summer of 2006, at a moment when Hezbollah rockets were falling virtually without pause on northern Israel, Nizar Rayyan, husband of four, father of 12, scholar of Islam and unblushing executioner, confessed to me one of his frustrations.

We were meeting in a concrete mosque in the Jabalya refugee camp in northern Gaza. Mr. Rayyan, who was a member of the Hamas ruling elite, and an important recruiter of suicide bombers until Israel killed him two weeks ago (along with several of his wives and children), arrived late to our meeting from parts unknown.

He was watchful for assassins even then, and when I asked him to describe his typical day, he suggested that I might be a spy for Fatah. Not the Mossad, mind you, not the C.I.A., but Fatah.

What a phantasmagorically strange conflict the Arab-Israeli war had become! Here was a Saudi-educated, anti-Shiite (but nevertheless Iranian-backed) Hamas theologian accusing a one-time Israeli Army prison official-turned-reporter of spying for Yasir Arafat’s Fatah, an organization that had once been the foremost innovator of anti-Israeli terrorism but was now, in Mr. Rayyan’s view, indefensibly, unforgivably moderate.

In the Palestinian civil war, Fatah, which today controls much of the West Bank and is engaged in intermittent negotiations with Israel, had become Mr. Rayyan’s direst enemy, a party of apostates and quislings. “First we must deal with the Muslims who speak of a peace process and then we will deal with you,” he declared.

But we spoke that day mainly about the hadith, the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, that specifically concerned Jews and their diverse and apparently limitless character failings. This sort of conversation, while illuminating, can become wearying over time, at least for the Jewish participant, and so I was happy to learn that Mr. Rayyan had his own sore points.

“Hezbollah is doing very well against Israel, don’t you think?” I asked. His face darkened, suggesting that he understood the implication of my question. At the time, Hamas, too, was firing rockets into Israel, though irregularly and without much effect.

“We support our brothers in the resistance,” he said. But then he added, “I think each situation is different.”

How so?

“They have advantages that we in Gaza don’t have,” he said. “They have excellent weapons. Hezbollah moves freely in Lebanon. We are trapped in the Israeli cage. So I don’t like to hear the sentence, ‘Hezbollah is the leader of the resistance.’ It’s a very annoying sentence. They are heroes to us. But we are the ones fighting in Palestine.”

“And they’re Shia,” I said. Mr. Rayyan, who was educated by Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia, was known in Gaza as a firm defender of Sunni theology and privilege, and sometimes lectured at the Islamic University of Gaza on the danger of Shiite “infiltration.”

“Yes! There are many different secret agendas,” he said. “We have to be aware of this.”

Hamas men across Gaza were of two minds on the subject of Hezbollah: One night, I met the members of a Hamas rocket team in the town of Beit Hanoun, on Gaza’s northern border with Israel. The group’s leader, who went by the name of Abu Obeidah, said that he, too, was frustrated by Hezbollah’s success against Israel; he even asked if Hamas’s rocket attacks that summer were featured on television in America, and seemed to deflate physically when I told him no.

“Everyone, all the media, says that Hezbollah is wonderful,” he complained. “We stand with our brothers of Hezbollah, of course, but, really, look at the advantages they have. They get all the rockets they will ever need from Iran.”

Hamas is not a monolith, and opinions inside the group differ about many things, including engagement with the Shiites of Hezbollah and Iran. The former Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi told me shortly before he was assassinated by Israel in 2004 that it would be “uncharitable” to find fault with Iran.

“What do the Arab states do for us?” he asked. “Iran is steadfast against the Jews.”

Today, there is no doubt that Rantisi’s view holds sway inside the organization, and many in Hamas wish for even closer ties with Tehran, particularly over the past month as they have absorbed a battering from Israel. Even those who believe that Iran is secretly trying to bring Sunni Palestinians to Shiism acknowledge anti-Israel Shiites as ideals of resistance.

As the Gaza war moves to a cease-fire, a crucial question will inevitably arise, as it has before: Should Israel (and by extension, the United States) try to engage Hamas in a substantive and sustained manner?

It is a fair question, one worth debating, but it is unmoored from certain political and theological realities. One irresistible reality grows from Hamas’s complicated, competitive relationship with Hezbollah. For Hamas, Hezbollah is not only a source of weapons and instruction, it is a mentor and role model.

Hamas’s desire to best Hezbollah’s achievements is natural, of course, but, more to the point, it is radicalizing. One of the reasons, among many, that Hamas felt compelled to break its cease-fire with Israel last month was to prove its potency to Muslims impressed with Hezbollah.

Another reality worth considering concerns theology. Hamas and Hezbollah emerged from very different streams of Islam: Hamas is the Palestinian branch of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood; Hezbollah is an outright Iranian proxy that takes its inspiration from the radical Shiite politics of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. But the groups share a common belief that Jews are a cosmological evil, enemies of Islam since Muhammad sought refuge in Medina.

Periodically, advocates of negotiation suggest that the hostility toward Jews expressed by Hamas is somehow mutable. But in years of listening, I haven’t heard much to suggest that its anti-Semitism is insincere. Like Hezbollah, Hamas believes that God is opposed to a Jewish state in Palestine. Both groups are rhetorically pitiless, though, again, Hamas sometimes appears to follow the lead of Hezbollah.

I once asked Abdel Aziz Rantisi where he learned what he called “the truth” of the Holocaust — that it didn’t happen — and he referred me to books published by Hezbollah. Hamas and Hezbollah also share the view that the solution for Palestine lies in Europe. A spokesman for Hezbollah, Hassan Izzedine, once told me that the Jews who survive the Muslim “liberation” of Palestine “can go back to Germany, or wherever they came from.” He went on to argue that the Jews are a “curse to anyone who lives near them.”

Nizar Rayyan expressed much the same sentiment the night we spoke in 2006. We had been discussing a passage of the Koran that suggests that God turns a group of impious Jews into apes and pigs. The Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, among others, has deployed this passage in his speeches. Once, at a rally in Beirut, he said: “We shout in the face of the killers of prophets and the descendants of the apes and pigs: We hope we will not see you next year. The shout remains, ‘Death to Israel!’”

Mr. Rayyan said that, technically, Mr. Nasrallah was mistaken. “Allah changed disobedient Jews into apes and pigs, it is true, but he specifically said these apes and pigs did not have the ability to reproduce,” Mr. Rayyan said. “So it is not literally true that Jews today are descended from pigs and apes, but it is true that some of the ancestors of Jews were transformed into pigs and apes, and it is true that Allah continually makes the Jews pay for their crimes in many different ways. They are a cursed people.”

I asked him the question I always ask of Hamas leaders: Could you agree to anything more than a tactical cease-fire with Israel? I felt slightly ridiculous asking: A man who believes that God every now and again transforms Jews into pigs and apes might not be the most obvious candidate for peace talks at Camp David. Mr. Rayyan answered the question as I thought he would, saying that a long-term cease-fire would be unnecessary, because it will not take long for the forces of Islam to eradicate Israel.

There is a fixed idea among some Israeli leaders that Hamas can be bombed into moderation. This is a false and dangerous notion. It is true that Hamas can be deterred militarily for a time, but tanks cannot defeat deeply felt belief.

The reverse is also true: Hamas cannot be cajoled into moderation. Neither position credits Hamas with sincerity, or seriousness.

The only small chance for peace today is the same chance that existed before the Gaza invasion: The moderate Arab states, Europe, the United States and, mainly, Israel, must help Hamas’s enemy, Fatah, prepare the West Bank for real freedom, and then hope that the people of Gaza, vast numbers of whom are unsympathetic to Hamas, see the West Bank as an alternative to the squalid vision of Hassan Nasrallah and Nizar Rayyan.

Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, is the author of “Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror.”

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

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