Israel, Gaza, and the patterns of the past

November 19, 2012

About 10 months after the last Israeli forces left Gaza as part of January 2009's Operation Cast Lead, some Israeli military intelligence officials met with their American counterparts at the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv. The Israelis said they believed that the invasion had accomplished one of its primary goals, which was to reduce Hamas's arsenal of the rockets and mortars it fires into Israel, as well as the group's ability to produce more such weapons. But they added, according to a State Department cable later released by Wikileaks, that Hamas was already rebuilding, and that smuggling into Hamas was continuing. The writing was on the wall: Invasion had been a temporary solution.

Just a few hours before an Israeli airstrike on Wednesday killed senior Hamas military commander Ahmed Jabari and set off a new round of fighting that analysts fear could potentially spiral into another ground war, Jabari received the draft of an Israeli-Hamas peace agreement. Though we don't know if he carried the draft in his hands when the drone-launched missile slammed into his car, killing him and his son, the irony would have been appropriate. The tool of war and the tool of peace coming together, the one obliterating the other.

Partisans of the Israeli-Gazan conflict could argue for days — and often do — over who bears more responsibility for the cycle of violence. Even in this latest round of fighting, despite the neat symbolism of the Israeli strike on Jabari so soon after he received an unofficial draft peace proposal, the picture is not clear. Every "provocation" is seemingly preceded by another, a long progression of people on both sides making choices that have, taken as a whole, kept Israel and Gaza on a seemingly circular path of violence and recrimination.

A phrase often used to describe Israel's apparent strategy in Gaza is "cutting the grass." In this thinking, when Hamas began rebuilding its weapons capability so soon after the January 2009 invasion, it was a sign not that Operation Cast Lead had failed to prevent rockets from flying out of Gaza, just that another military operation might some day be necessary to ensure that Hamas could not fire too many. It treats the problem of Hamas as something to be managed rather than solved. Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin, who helped negotiate the draft peace agreement, writes in an op-ed in Saturday's New York Times that "we must ask whether there is another way to achieve the same goal without the use of force." He says of the peace proposal, "The goal was to move beyond the patterns of the past."

As the forces of the Arab Spring change the political mechanisms of the Middle East, those patterns of the past might be changing as well, and perhaps not on Israel's terms. The question this time around, as the New York Times' Ethan Bronner put it, "is whether the changed regional circumstances will make it harder to 'cut the grass' in Gaza this time and get out." He writes:

The combination of longer-range and far deadlier rockets in the hands of more radicalized Palestinians, the arrival in Gaza and Sinai from North Africa of other militants pressuring Hamas to fight more, and the growing tide of anti-Israel fury in a region where authoritarian rulers have been replaced by Islamists means that Israel is engaging in this conflict with a different set of challenges.

The Middle East of 2012 is not what it was in late 2008.

Middle Eastern politics could even be inching closer to Hamas, The Post's Abigail Hauslohner writes. "Arab governments are throwing their weight behind the territory’s long-isolated Islamist leaders in a reflection of the region’s shifting political dynamics after nearly two years of upheaval." Turkey's leaders, after recent years of deeply chilling what were once productive ties with Israel, could also show greater sympathy to Hamas and to Gaza.

At this particular moment, the region's shifting politics could actually lead Middle Eastern leaders to (perhaps inadvertently) aid Israel's "grass-cutting" approach. As Daniel Levy writes at the Daily Beast, Arab and Turkish leaders "will themselves be keen for this crisis to be over ASAP. Their priority right now is Syria," from which the Gaza crisis is a major distraction. So they, Levy suggests, may pressure Hamas to move rapidly toward peace, which increases the odds that Israel will be able to look back on these strikes as a successful short-term solution.

In some ways, though, the larger question facing what the Israeli Defense Forces have termed Operation Pillar of Defense is not so much their level of success in cutting the grass this time around, but whether or not that remains a viable, long-term strategy for Israel, if it ever was. And Hamas, though perhaps emboldened by the changing regional dynamics, faces a similar version of the same question: Its stringently anti-Israeli ideology and mission clearly does not square with its obvious inability to come anywhere near achieving that goal. The last Israel ground invasion of Gaza cost over 1,400 Palestinian lives and perhaps $2 billion in damages; another is not likely to serve Gazan interests.

Finding a way out of the patterns of the past would not be easy for Israel or for Gaza, and the cynicism that often follows Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy such as the unofficial peace proposal draft of last week is informed by a long history of disappointments. The foreseeable exits from this cycle would require historic efforts to reach: Gazans rejecting the leadership of Hamas, for example, or Israelis moving West Bank Palestinians toward a political independence that could offer Gaza a better example, as the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg has suggested. At some point, though, the costs of the status quo may begin to exceed the costs of breaking it, if they have not already.

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Max Fisher · November 18, 2012