Analysis from Israel

Israel marked the 10th anniversary of its unilateral pullout from Gaza this week with a rare consensus: The disengagement was a disaster. Even opposition leader and Labor Party chairman Isaac Herzog admitted that “from a security perspective, the disengagement was a mistake. While he still considers it “essential” demographically, he isn’t sure he would have voted for it had he known then what he knows now. And this is the man who, back in 2005, declared that, thanks to the disengagement, “for the first time in decades there is genuine hope” for “lasting peace.”

Equally remarkable was a poll of Israeli Jews earlier this month asking whether they supported or opposed the pullout at the time. An overwhelming majority of respondents – 59 percent – asserted that they had opposed it, while only 34 percent admitted to having supported it. That, of course, is far from the truth; polls at the time consistently showed solid pluralities or majorities favoring the disengagement, while only about a third of Israelis opposed it. But this revisionist history accurately reflects Israelis’ current view of the withdrawal: Many of those who once backed it are now convinced they must actually have opposed it, because they simply can’t imagine they would have supported any idea as disastrous as this one proved to be. And even among those still willing to admit they once supported it, almost one-fifth now regret doing so.

It’s not just the obvious fact that the Palestinians turned Gaza into a giant launch pad from which some 16,500 rockets and mortars have been fired at Israel over the past decade, whereas exactly zero have been fired from the Israeli-controlled West Bank over the same period. It’s not just that quitting Gaza has resulted in more Israeli soldiers being killed, and also more Palestinians, than occupying Gaza ever did. It’s not just that after Israel withdrew every last settler and soldier from Gaza, the world has sought to deny it the right to defend itself against the ensuing rocket attacks by greeting every military operation with escalating condemnation, accusations of war crimes, and attempts to prosecute it in the International Criminal Court. It’s not just that the withdrawal ended up worsening global anti-Semitism, since every military operation in Gaza has served as an excuse for a massive upsurge in anti-Semitic attacks worldwide. It’s not just that Israel received zero diplomatic credit for the pullout, with most of the world not only still insisting that Gaza is “Israeli-occupied territory,” but excoriating Israel with escalating ferocity, and even threatening sanctions, for its reluctance to repeat this disastrous experiment in the West Bank, while assigning Palestinians zero responsibility for the impasse.

All these are certainly reasons enough to consider the pullout a disaster. But there’s one final negative outcome, as reflected in another poll released last week: Due to this Israeli reluctance, born of hard experience, a majority of overseas Jews now deems Israel insufficiently committed to peace. And that, in some ways, is the worst betrayal of all. Most Israelis don’t expect much from the Palestinians or the UN or Europe. But they do expect their fellow Jews to sympathize with their fear that withdrawing from the West Bank would simply replicate the Gaza disaster on a much larger scale.

After all, none of the negative consequences that ensued in Gaza can be blamed on the popular distinction between the “moderate” Fatah, led by Mahmoud Abbas, and the “hardline” Hamas. For Gaza wasn’t handed over to Hamas, but to Abbas. He’s the one who first enabled the escalation by refusing to use his forces to stop it; consequently, there were more than four times as many rocket attacks in 2006, the first year after the disengagement, as in either of the previous two years. And he’s the one who lost Gaza to Hamas in a bloody coup in mid-2007 when the latter decided it no longer needed a fig leaf.

Thus Israel has no reason whatsoever to think giving Abbas the West Bank wouldn’t produce the same result, except with even more disastrous consequences. Hitting major Israeli population centers from Gaza requires long-range rockets; from the West Bank, easily produced short-range rockets suffice. Nor should we forget suicide bombings, which, during the second intifada (2000-2005), caused more Israeli casualties in four years than all the terror attacks of the entire previous 53 years combined. Those attacks were launched almost exclusively from parts of the West Bank controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and they stopped only when the Israeli army retook control of these areas – meaning Israel’s previous experiment with ceding parts of the West Bank was even less encouraging than the Gaza experiment has been.

Most Israelis would still be willing to trade land for peace, but they’ve had enough of trading land for terror. And until overseas Jews can produce a convincing argument for why the next pullout would be any different than all the previous ones, it would be nice if they instead practiced the traditional Jewish value of giving fellow Jews the benefit of the doubt. To interpret caution born of grim experience as disinterest in peace isn’t merely unfair; it’s downright malicious.

Originally published in Commentary on July 29, 2015

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ISIS Borrows a Tactic from Hamas

The U.S. Army recently announced that it has horrifying video footage of Islamic State fighters herding Iraqi civilians into buildings in Mosul. The plan was not to use them as human shields–that is, to announce their presence in the hope of deterring American airstrikes. Rather, ISIS was deliberately trying to ensure that American troops killed them, by “smuggling civilians into buildings, so we won’t see them and trying to bait the coalition to attack,” an army spokesman said at a briefing for Pentagon reporters. The motive, he explained, was hope that massive civilian casualties would produce such an outcry that the U.S. would halt airstrikes altogether.

There’s an important point to this story which the spokesman neglected to mention: This tactic is borrowed directly from Hamas. And it was borrowed because the world’s response to successive Hamas-Israel wars convinced ISIS that creating massive civilian casualties among residents of its own territory is an effective strategy. Admittedly, Hamas hasn’t yet been caught on video actually herding civilians into buildings before launching attacks from them. But there’s plenty of evidence that Hamas prevented civilians from leaving areas whence it was launching rockets or other attacks at Israel, thereby deliberately exposing them to retaliatory strikes.

During the 2014 Gaza war, for instance, the Israel Defense Forces warned civilians to evacuate the town of Beit Lahiya before launching air strikes at Hamas positions. But according to Palestinian human rights activist Bassem Eid, who based himself on interviews with Palestinians in Gaza, Hamas gunmen showed up and warned that anyone who left the town would be treated as a collaborator. Since Hamas executes collaborators, that was equivalent to saying that anyone who tried to leave would be killed on the spot. Thus, faced with the alternative of certain death at Hamas’s hands, most Beit Lahiya residents understandably opted to stay and take their chances with the IDF.

There’s also plenty of evidence that Hamas deliberately launched attacks from buildings where it knew civilians were present. Just last month, for instance, I wrote about a case during the 2009 Gaza war in which Hamas directed sniper fire at Israeli troops from the third floor of a well-known doctor’s home, thereby forcing the soldiers to choose between becoming sitting ducks or shooting back and risking civilian casualties. Unbeknownst to the soldiers, Hamas was also storing explosives in the house (using civilian buildings as arms caches or wiring them with explosives is standard practice for Hamas). Consequently, when the soldiers fired at the Hamas position, an unexpectedly large explosion ensued, killing three of the doctor’s daughters and one of his nieces.

In short, Hamas repeatedly used tactics aimed at maximizing the number of civilian casualties on its own side. Yet instead of blaming Hamas for this, the world largely blamed Israel. Mass demonstrations were held throughout the West condemning Israel; there were no mass demonstrations condemning Hamas. Journalists and “human rights” organizations issued endless reports blaming Israel for the civilian casualties while ignoring or downplaying Hamas’s role in them. Western leaders repeatedly demanded that Israel show “restraint” and accused it of using disproportionate force. Israel, not Hamas, became the subject of a complaint to the International Criminal Court.

Hamas thereby succeeded in putting Israel in a lose-lose situation. Either it could let Hamas launch thousands of rockets at Israeli civilians with impunity, or it could strike back at the price of global opprobrium.

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