If you get your news from the American mass media, you know that there's a nice simple explanation for the massive Israeli attack on Gaza. That explanation comes straight from the Israeli government, via the White House: Hamas, the group that controls Gaza, is responsible for all the violence. "These people are nothing but thugs," a White House spokesman said. "Israel is going to defend its people against terrorists like Hamas." End of story. As usual, Israel is depicted as the innocent victim of an evil it did nothing to provoke.
But if you read Israel's most respected newspaper, Ha'aretz, you find out that things are rather more complicated. (All the quotes below come from Jewish journalists writing in recent editions of Ha'aretz.)
You know the reality of Gaza today: "The tremendous population density in the Gaza Strip does not allow a 'surgical operation' over an extended period that would minimize damage to civilian populations." "There are many corpses and wounded, every moment another casualty is added to the list of the dead, and there is no more room in the morgue. . A mother whose three school-age children were killed, and are piled one on top of top of the other in the morgue, screams and then cries, screams again and then is silent."
And you know that some Israelis are outraged: "Israel's violent responses, even if there is justification for them, exceed all proportion and cross every red line of humaneness, morality, international law and wisdom."
The justification Israel offers is the increased firing of rockets from Gaza. But Israelis can read that Hamas is responding to Israeli provocation. "Six months ago Israel asked and received a cease-fire from Hamas. It unilaterally violated it." "On November 4, an Israeli operation sparked a new round of dangerous, if controlled, violence," "when it unnecessarily bombed a tunnel."
About the same time, Israel cut off transport of food, medical supplies, and electricity to Gaza. "Food insecurity in Gaza currently runs at 56 percent and is deteriorating rapidly, 42 percent of the Strip's population is unemployed and 76 percent is receiving humanitarian assistance (all UN figures)." "A million and a half human beings . live in the conditions of a giant jail." "Why should Gazan citizens tolerate such a long and severe siege for so long?"
General Shmuel Zakai, former commander of Israel's troops in Gaza, says: "We could have eased the siege over the Gaza Strip, in such a way that the Palestinians, Hamas, would understand that holding their fire served their interests. But when you create a tahadiyeh [cease-fire], and the economic pressure on the Strip continues, it's obvious that Hamas will try to reach an improved tahadiyeh, and that their way to achieve this, is resumed Qassam [rocket] fire. . You cannot just land blows, leave the Palestinians in Gaza in the economic distress they're in, and expect that Hamas will just sit around and do nothing."
Nevertheless, just a few days before the attack, "Palestinian sources said they do not believe Hamas plans to launch a massive rocket strike on Israel unless the IDF begins offensive operations in the Strip." Israel claims it wants peace, yet it "did not exhaust the diplomatic processes before embarking on another dreadful campaign of killing and ruin." And "no military operation has ever advanced dialogue with the Palestinians."
In fact military force is self-defeating, because "no Palestinian will consent to having his people and his homeland destroyed in this way." "Hamas will not be weakened due to the Gaza war; to the contrary." If predictions of a strengthened Hamas prove wrong, the other possibility is obvious: "A siege designed to depose Hamas rule . risks triggering a social collapse that would have devastating consequences for all concerned. . An Israeli military escalation would likely accelerate the splintering of Hamas' leadership and the emergence of more radical alternatives."
One way or another, more rockets are sure to fall on Israel. Of course that might be one goal of the attack. Israeli leaders may be trying to avoid dialogue. More intense fighting would let them claim they have no one to negotiate with, especially if Gaza breaks down in chaos. Israeli leaders may also have an eye on Palestinian elections coming up soon. They want to persuade the Palestinians to support the more conciliatory Fatah party by destroying Hamas, or at least showing what happens to its supporters.
But "working toward long-term goals that would completely change the landscape in the region, like toppling Hamas from power in Gaza, is liable to turn out to be a wild fantasy." "Israel must understand that Hamas rule in Gaza is a fact, and it is with that government that we must reach a situation of calm. . We can't impose regimes on the Palestinians." The idea "that a military operation would suffice in toppling an entrenched regime and thus replace it with another one friendlier to us is no more than lunacy."
Why would Israeli leaders pursue such a dangerous fantasy? When Ha'aretz journalists want to explain it, they (like all other Israeli journalists) focus most on politics -- not Palestinian, but Israeli. Israel, too, will hold elections in just a few weeks. "Israelis are being treated to a predictable dose of political posturing and chest-thumping."
The polls show the hawkish Likud party ahead, partly because "Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to topple the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip if elected prime minister. . Under his leadership, Israel would move from a policy of absorbing blows to a policy of being on the offensive."
Perhaps that's why the current (soon to retire) prime minister, Ehud Olmert, launched this week's offensive, cheered on by his party's candidate to replace him, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. She's now talking tough, too. "'The state of Israel, and a government under me, will make it a strategic objective to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza,' Livni told members of her centrist Kadima party." "We cannot allow Gaza to remain under Hamas control." "Vice Premier Haim Ramon also said . that Hamas must be removed from power."
"Ramon, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz and others harshly criticized Defense Minister Ehud Barak's handling of the situation" -- because Barak, a former prime minister, is also running to regain that post, trying to resurrect his once-powerful Labor party. "The beginning of the raid in Gaza bears the wily and deceptive fingerprint of Barak. . It may deliver him and his party from the humiliating defeat the polls are predicting." "If Hamas is beaten and Israel receives some peace under favorable terms, Labor and Barak may gain force."
Politicians of every party want to prove that they are "not a bunch of wimps." So they've staked their future on the same goal: one way or another, topple the democratically-elected government of Gaza.
But Israel is also a democracy. The politicians are catering to public opinion: "This war was preceded by a frighteningly uniform public dialogue in which only one voice was heard -- that which called for striking, destroying, starving and killing." "The hysterical reaction by the public as a whole and politicians in particular stems mainly from the fact that the country is in an election period. And when elections are in the offing people speak from the gut rather than the brain. . They're suddenly strutting their macho stuff."
"Politicians and the public at large have been enthralled by a new prospect: that of a wide-scale military operation in the Gaza Strip. Such a prospect answers all their heart's secret wishes. . The public's imaginations are let loose as they chant a battle-cry." "Speeches have a tendency to identify goals that are by nature unreachable: phrases like 'destroying the Hamas government' (which is actually likely to be strengthened)."
With so many Israelis pointing out how self-defeating this attack on Gaza is, why would a majority of Israeli voters still push their leaders to more military action?
One theory looks to an inflated self-image: "Israel is striking at the Palestinians to 'teach them a lesson.' That is a basic assumption that has accompanied the Zionist enterprise since its inception: We are the representatives of progress and enlightenment, sophisticated rationality and morality, while the Arabs are a primitive, violent rabble, ignorant children who must be educated and taught wisdom -- via, of course, the carrot-and-stick method, just as the drover does with his donkey."
But there's an opposite theory: The failed war in Lebanon two years ago deflated Israelis' self-image, and now they are out to inflate it again. "The pictures of blood and fire are designed to show Israelis, Arabs and the entire world that the neighborhood bully's strength has yet to wane. When the bully is on a rampage, nobody can stop him." "Israel goaded its enemies to provoke it because [the enemies] ceased believing that Israel would agree to pay the price of using force."
Eventually, though, "after the politicians flex their muscles, the analysts blow smoke and the citizens of Israel have their 'honor restored,' a new exit from Gaza must be sought." "Most dangerous of all is the cliche that there is no one to talk to. That has never been true. There are even ways to talk with Hamas."
"Hamas would have -- and still would -- accept a bargain . [to] halt the fire in exchange for easing of the many ways in which Israeli policies have kept a choke hold on the economy of the Strip." "Hamas leader, Mahmoud Zahar, has said that his Palestinian militant group is willing to renew the recently ended truce in Gaza with Israel."
"Hamas has clear conditions for its extension: The opening of the border crossings for goods and cessation of IDF attacks in Gaza, as outlined in the original agreement. Later, Hamas wants the cease-fire to be extended to the West Bank. Israel, for its part, is justifiably demanding a real calm in Gaza; that no Qassam or mortar shell be fired by either Hamas, Islamic Jihad or any other group. Essentially, Israel is telling Hamas it is willing to recognize its control of Gaza on the condition that it assumes responsibility for the security of the territory, like Hezbollah controls southern Lebanon. It is likely that this will be the outcome of a wide-scale operation in the Gaza Strip."
"In a short time, after the parade of corpses and wounded ends, we will arrive at a fresh cease-fire, as occurred after Lebanon, exactly like the one that could have been forged without this superfluous war." "Why, then, not forgo the war and agree to these conditions now?"