Aug 07, 2014

    Nothing routine in Israel-Hamas clash

    THE air-raid siren sounded over Tel Aviv and I was roused by the hotel staff from my room. When the Hamas missile threat had passed, we were allowed to go back to our rooms. Then the hotel loudspeaker bellowed: "Dear guests, you may return to your routine."

    With Israel and Hamas winding down their latest war, I could only wonder whether the hotel manager was also speaking to them.

    More than 60 Israeli soldiers and some 1,800 Hamas fighters and Gazans - hundreds of them civilians and children - killed, and everyone just goes back to their routines? I don't think so.

    Some new and significant things were revealed here.

    Let's start with the fight. Since the early 2000s, Iran and its proxies Hizbollah and, until recently, Hamas, have pursued a three-pillar strategy against Israel. The first is asymmetric warfare, primarily using cheap rockets, to paralyse Israeli towns and cities. For now, Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system appears to have nullified this weapon; Hamas rockets did virtually no damage.

    The second pillar, which debuted in the 2006 Israel-Hizbollah war, is to nest Hamas fighters and rocket launchers among the densely packed Gazan population and force Israel into a war where it can only defeat or deter Hamas if it risks war-crimes charges.

    I don't believe Israel was targeting Gazan civilians but, at the end of the day, it was not deterred by the prospect of substantial collateral civilian casualties. Hamas used Gaza's civilians as war-crimes bait.

    The third pillar of the Iran/Hizbollah/Hamas strategy is: Israel must forever occupy Palestinians in the West Bank because the perpetuation of that colonial occupation is essential for delegitimising and isolating Israel on the world stage - especially among young Westerners - and energising Muslims against Israel.

    On this, Hamas scored a huge victory. We saw that in the decision by the United States' Federal Aviation Administration to briefly order a ban on US flights to Tel Aviv, after a single Hamas rocket landed just over a mile from the airport. That was exactly the message Hamas wanted delivered: "If we can close your airport, your global lifeline, with one rocket from Gaza, imagine what happens if you leave the West Bank, right next door."

    And then there were the Hamas tunnels. I toured one just across the Gaza border, near Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha. It had one purpose: to shuttle fighters into the kibbutz. And there were many of these.

    I was awed by the sheer dedication it took to dig this tunnel, but sickened by what fuelled that dedication: an apocalyptic jihadist agenda. The religious nationalist forces have the real energy in this region today. More and more, this is becoming a religious conflict. The Times of Israel reported that, at the start of this war, one of Israel's top officers on the Gaza front "told his subordinates that 'History has chosen us to spearhead the fighting (against) the terrorist "Gazan" enemy which abuses, blasphemes and curses the God of Israel's (defence) forces.'" Frightening.

    Jihadists are now sweeping across Iraq and Syria, wiping out Christians and other minorities. As the Lebanese writer Hanin Ghaddar noted: "The region seems to be going back to tribalism, as if a century of intellectual awakening and secular ideas are being erased and our identities are evaporating."

    Here is where Israel does have a choice. Its reckless Jewish settlement project in the West Bank led it into a strategy of trying to keep the moderate Palestinian Authority there weak and Hamas in Gaza even weaker. The only way Israel can hope to stabilise Gaza is if it empowers the Palestinian Authority to take over border control in Gaza, but that will eventually require making territorial concessions in the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority, because it will not act as Israel's policeman for free.

    This is crunchtime. Either Arab and Israeli moderates work together, or the zealots are going to take over the neighbourhood. Please do not return to your routines.