I just flew overnight from Tel Aviv to New York. As I dozed in my seat, crossing the Atlantic, Israeli forces killed some 30 Palestinians in Gaza, bringing the death toll up past 80 on the beginning of third day of Israel’s latest air offensive on the Strip.
Among those killed in the night’s airstrikes was a family of eight in southern Khan Younis, a five-year-old boy in northern Beit Lahiya. Another nine were killed when warplanes targeted a cafe on the beach, where locals were gathered to watch the World Cup semifinal match. By the time you read this piece, the toll will have risen over the 100 mark. The majority of the dead will be civilians. Innocents who want to flee to protect their families will have nowhere to go, and will sit in their homes in the thick summer heat, listening to explosion after explosion, praying for their children’s sake the bombs stay far away.
As the bodies pile higher, the unanswerable question “How could anyone do this?” pounds louder in the ears of the observer. An easier question, perhaps, is “Why is Israel doing this, again, right now?” Through the rising smoke of the airstrikes, the answer becomes clear: To keep Gaza isolated, to keep Hamas radical, and to satisfy the Israeli public.
This, of course, is not the official version of the story. Israeli authorities and its military have an official explanation for why they started the escalation. Weeks before “Operation Protective Edge” began on Tuesday, Israel had been increasingly intent on targeting Hamas. According to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, members of the Islamist faction were responsible for kidnapping and murdering three Israeli teens — Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah. Israeli forces responded by rounding up and jailing much of Hamas’s remaining leadership in the West Bank. And as tensions soared amid the Israeli army’s military search campaign in Hebron and Nablus, which killed six Palestinians, militant groups in Gaza fired hundreds of rockets at Israeli communities. Holding Hamas responsible for all rockets launched from the Strip, Israel vowed to strike the faction’s powerhouse hard, destroying its military infrastructure and assassinating its key leaders.
Indeed, in speeches, on social media, and in propaganda campaigns targeting Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli authorities have in the summer months focused their energy on defaming Hamas, as if in preparation for the Gaza air offensive. Cultivating political capital from the teen murders into clout, Israel prepared the international community for the deadly campaign it was about to carry out in Gaza.
“The despicable kidnapping of and murder of the students can not go by in silence, and those responsible in Gaza must pay the price,” Deputy Ministry Tzipi Hotevely said the evening the teens were found dead near Hebron.
“The government of Israel must declare a war to the death on Hamas, which is responsible for the murders, and return to a policy of assassination.”
There’s one problem. Hamas leadership in Gaza almost certainly did not have any involvement whatsoever in the killing of the teenagers. In fact, at the time of the kidnappings, Hamas was moderating itself. In Gaza it had been starved out, blockaded with no support from the international community, not even Egypt, and in June it agreed to let the Palestinian Authority take over Gaza. Implicit in that reconciliation deal was a commitment to nonviolence and recognition of Israel, though Hamas would have to gradually introduce those policies as not to lose popular support on the ground. Things may have finally been improving for Gaza residents, as the international community welcomed the shift in government (much to Israel’s chagrin). Why, at that point, with its head barely above water, would Hamas choose to do something as stupid as commanding an attack that would ruin its last attempt to stay afloat?
As many have noted, one of the two prime suspects in the case is Marwan Qawasmeh, a known member of a radical family clan known to stir up trouble during Hamas-Israel ceasefires. As Shlomi Eldar says in his late June analysis of the kidnapping, the actions of the Qawasmeh family have perhaps resulted in the assassinations of more Hamas leaders than actions of the leadership itself. The family claims Hamas affiliation, but Hamas has repeatedly, if quietly, denounced the clan’s actions. Israel knows this, but is always keen to find opportunities to smack Hamas down. In addition to however many uninvolved Palestinian civilians stand in the way.
And there are several other problems with Israel’s explanation for its latest round of lethal airstrikes on the Strip. First of all, the rockets being fired at Israel from Gaza before Tuesday were not launched by Hamas. Given, for Israel, Hamas — as the authority in the Strip — is responsible for all rocket fire coming from its territory. But as of early June, Hamas is actually not the authority in Gaza. The Palestinian Authority is. Hamas leader Ahmad Yousef stressed this point days before Israel launched its operation.
“From a political point of view, (PA Prime Minister) Rami Hamdallah is responsible and he can give orders to security services to intervene” to prevent rocket attacks, Yousef said.
“Hamas is not ruling the Gaza Strip and so it’s not responsible for protecting borders.”
Finally, and perhaps most importantly: militant groups in Gaza are only an extremely minor threat to Israel. Their rockets are usually homemade, inaccurate, and ineffective. Many of them are intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome system as well. While Hamas’s rockets are slightly more effective than those of Islamic Jihad and other factions, they still rarely do any damage or cause injuries. Since 2001, approximately five Israelis have died from rocket fire each year. Meanwhile, over 80 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli airstrikes in three days. Israel didn’t have to deal with Hamas rockets due to the 2012 ceasefire, but this week, leadership chose to engage in open war with Hamas, a war that would garner public support for Israel nationally and internationally as it pummeled its opponent and Palestinian passersby.
Dissecting Palestinian unity
So if Israel isn’t striking Gaza to protect its citizens or to get direct revenge for the murder of the three teens, then why?
For starters, Israel’s political interests were threatened the moment Hamas signed a reconciliation deal with the PA. Contrary to Israeli leaders’ statements, a moderate Hamas would be far more challenging to Israel than a radical one. The unity government sworn in in early June was an opportunity for Gaza to access the international community. Gaza’s government would be considered legitimate unlike the former Hamas government. The economic blockade that had been in place since the Islamist movement took power would no longer be considered justified, and would be gradually lifted, loosening Israel’s grip on the coastal enclave. With the West Bank and Gaza united under one government, Palestinians would have taken another step toward a two-state solution, earning praise from Washington, Europe, and the like.
But as has been made increasingly obvious, Israel is not interested in a two-state solution, at least not the one the international community envisions. It is interested in confiscating more land and continuing settlement expansion, in gaining control over more natural resources, in pushing Palestinians into Indian reservation-like bubbles of territory, in judaizing East Jerusalem and completing the construction of its illegal separation wall. Meanwhile, it is also interested in continuing to receive three billion dollars yearly by the US.
In order to maintain this status quo largely under the guise of security concerns, Israel needs to be perceived as under constant threat. A militant, isolated Gaza and a radical, violent Hamas are a perfect means for Israel to achieve its goal of perpetuating the post-Oslo reality. The real threat to this Israeli interest was the new Palestinian unity government and the international community’s failure to reject it at Israel’s request. This in addition to a few other embarrassments to Israel’s reputation vis-a-vis the US.
Another important element to remember is that war in Gaza is seen as necessary to Israeli society. The left calmly nodded that force was needed in response to rocket attacks but that the air force should do its best to avoid civilian deaths. The right, meanwhile, had already responded to the deaths of the three students with calls for Palestinian blood (which was spilled, we all remember, a day after the teens’ funerals). Now, as the airstrikes hit Gaza one after the other, Israelis gather on hilltops to watch. Officials serve blood and vengeance up on a platter for Israeli society to consume. And when Israel comes under international scrutiny for killing an excess of civilians, it simply blames Hamas.
One can only conclude that now more than ever, Israel is acting to promote its political agenda at any cost, all with a complete disregard for the humanity of Palestinians. And unfortunately, the international community is much too quick to accept the Israeli narrative than it is to see what is altogether clear from the facts on the ground: Israel is not threatened. The Israel offensive on Gaza has nothing to do with self defense. The offensive isolates Gaza, radicalizes Hamas, and satisfies Israelis, all while garnering international support.
In the few hours it took me to write a first draft of this article, Israeli warplanes killed five more Palestinians. One of them was an eight-year-old boy in Deir al-Balah, who died when an airstrike hit his home. As I send it off to be published, the number has already passed 100. The names of the victims are enumerated in this constantly-updated list.