War of Choice: How Israel Manufactured the Gaza Escalation

has repeatedly claimed that it had "no choice" but to wage war on Gaza
on December 27 because Hamas had broken a ceasefire, was firing rockets
at Israeli civilians, and had "tried everything in order to avoid this
military operation," as Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni put it.

This claim, however, is widely at odds with the fact that Israel's
military and political leadership took many aggressive steps during the
ceasefire that escalated a crisis with Hamas, and possibly even
provoked Hamas to create a pretext for the assault. This wasn't a war
of "no choice," but rather a very avoidable war in which Israeli
actions played the major role in instigating.

Israel has a long history of deliberately using violence and other
provocative measures to trigger reactions in order to create a pretext
for military action, and to portray its opponents as the aggressors and
Israel as the victim. According to the respected Israeli military
historian Zeev Maoz in his recent book, Defending the Holy Land,
Israel most notably used this policy of "strategic escalation" in
1955-1956, when it launched deadly raids on Egyptian army positions to
provoke Egypt's President Nasser into violent reprisals preceding its
ill-fated invasion of Egypt; in 1981-1982, when it launched violent
raids on Lebanon in order to provoke Palestinian escalation preceding
the Israeli invasion of Lebanon; and between 2001-2004, when Prime
Minister Ariel Sharon repeatedly ordered assassinations of high-level
Palestinian militants during declared ceasefires, provoking violent
attacks that enabled Israel's virtual reoccupation of the West Bank.

Israel's current assault on Gaza bears many trademark elements of
Israel's long history of employing "strategic escalation" to
manufacture a major crisis, if not a war.

Making War 'Inevitable'

The countdown to a war began, according to a detailed report by Barak Raviv in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz,
when Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak started planning the current
attack on Gaza with his chiefs of staff at least six months ago - even
as Israel was negotiating the Egyptian brokered ceasefire with Hamas
that went into effect on June 19. During the subsequent ceasefire, the
report contends, the Israeli security establishment carefully gathered
intelligence to map out Hamas' security infrastructure, engaged in
operational deception, and spread disinformation to mislead the public
about its intentions.

This revelation doesn't confirm that Israel intended to start a war
with Hamas in December, but it does shed some light on why Israel
continuously took steps that undermined the terms of the fragile
ceasefire with Hamas, even though Hamas respected their side of the

Indeed, there was a genuine lull in rocket and mortar fire between
June 19 and November 4, due to Hamas compliance and only sporadically
violated by a small number of launchings carried out by rival Fatah and
Islamic Jihad militants, largely in defiance of Hamas. According to the
conservative Israeli-based Intelligence and Terrorism Information
Center's analysis of rocket and missile attacks in 2008,
there were only three rockets fired at Israel in July, September, and
October combined. Israeli civilians living near Gaza experienced an
almost unprecedented degree of security during this period, with no
Israeli casualties.

Yet despite the major lull, Israel continually raided the West Bank,
arresting and frequently killing "wanted" Palestinians from June to
October, which had the inevitable effect of ratcheting up pressure on
Hamas to respond. Moreover, while the central expectation of Hamas
going into the ceasefire was that Israel would lift the siege on Gaza,
Israel only took the barest steps to ease the siege, which kept the
people at a bare survival level. This policy was a clear affront to
Hamas, and had the inescapable effect of undermining both Hamas and
popular Palestinian support for the ceasefire.

But Israel's most provocative action, acknowledged by many now as
the critical turning point that undermined the ceasefire, took place on
November 4, when Israeli forces auspiciously violated the truce by
crossing into the Gaza Strip to destroy what the army said was a tunnel
dug by Hamas, killing six Hamas militants. Sara Roy, writing in the London Review of Books, contends this attack was "no doubt designed finally to undermine the truce between Israel and Hamas established last June."

The Israeli breach into Gaza was immediately followed by a further
provocation by Israel on November 5, when the Israeli government
hermetically sealed off all ways into and out of Gaza. As a result, the UN reports
that the amount of imports entering Gaza has been "severely reduced to
an average of 16 truckloads per day - down from 123 truckloads per day
in October and 475 trucks per day in May 2007 - before the Hamas
takeover." These limited shipments provide only a fraction of the
supplies needed to sustain 1.5 million starving Palestinians.

In response, Hamas predictably claimed that Israel had violated the
truce and allowed Islamic Jihad to launch a round of rocket attacks on
Israel. Only after lethal Israeli reprisals killed over 10 Hamas gunmen
in the following days did Hamas militants finally respond with volleys
of mortars and rockets of their own. In two short weeks, Israel killed
over 15 Palestinian militants, while about 120 rockets and mortars were
fired at Israel, and although there were no Israeli casualties the calm
had been shattered.

It was at this time that Israeli officials launched what appears to
have been a coordinated media blitz to cultivate public reception for
an impending conflict, stressing the theme of the "inevitability" of a
coming war with Hamas in Gaza. On November 12, senior IDF officials
announced that war with Hamas was likely in the two months
after the six-month ceasefire, baldly stating it would occur even if
Hamas wasn't interested in confrontation. A few days later, Israeli
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert publicly ordered his military commanders
to draw up plans for a war in Gaza, which were already well developed
at the time. On November 19, according to Raviv's report in Haaretz, the Gaza war plan was brought before Barak for final approval.

While the rhetoric of an "inevitable" war with Hamas may have only
been Israeli bluster to compel Hamas into line, its actions on the
ground in the critical month leading up to the official expiration of
the ceasefire on December 19 only heightened the cycle of violence,
leaving a distinct impression Israel had cast the die for war.

Finally, Hamas then walked right into the "inevitable war" that
Israel had been preparing since the ceasefire had gone into effect in
June. With many Palestinians believing the ceasefire to be meaningless,
Hamas announced it wouldn't renew the ceasefire after it expired on
December 19. Hamas then stood back for two days while Islamic Jihad and
Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades militants fired volleys of mortars and rockets
into Israel, in the context of mutually escalating attacks. Yet even
then, with Israeli threats of war mounting, Hamas imposed a 24-hour
ceasefire on all missile attacks on December 21, announcing it would
consider renewing the lapsed truce with Israel in the Gaza Strip if
Israel would halt its raids in both Gaza and the West Bank, and keep
Gaza border crossings open for supplies of aid and fuel. Israel
immediately rejected its offer.

But when the Israel Defence Forces killed three Hamas militants
laying explosives near the security fence between Israel and Gaza on
the evening of December 23, the Hamas military wing lashed out by
launching a barrage of over 80 missiles into Israel the following day,
claiming it was Israel, and not Hamas, that was responsible for the

Little did they know that, according to Raviv, Prime Minister
Olmert, and Defense Minister Barak had already met on December 18 to
approve the impending war plan, but put the mission off waiting for a
better pretext. By launching more than 170 rockets and mortars at
Israeli civilians in the days following December 23, killing one
Israeli civilian, Hamas had provided reason enough for Israel to
unleash its long-planned attack on Gaza on December 27.

The Rationale for War

If Israel's goal were simply to end rocket attacks on its civilians,
it would have solidified and extended the ceasefire, which was working
well, until November. Even after November, it could have addressed
Hamas' longstanding ceasefire proposals for a complete end to
rocket-fire on Israel, in exchange for Israel lifting its crippling
18-month siege on Gaza.

Instead, the actual targets of its assault on Gaza after December
27, which included police stations, mosques, universities, and Hamas
government institutions, clearly reveal that Israel's primary goals go
far beyond providing immediate security for its citizens. Israeli
spokespersons repeatedly claim that Israel's assault isn't about
seeking to effect regime change with Hamas, but rather about creating a
"new security reality"
in Gaza. But that "new reality" requires Israel to use massive violence
to degrade the political and military capacity of Hamas, to a point
where it agrees to a ceasefire with conditions more congenial to
Israel. Short of a complete reoccupation of Gaza, no amount of violence
will erase Hamas from the scene.

Confirming the steps needed to create the "new reality," the broader
reasons why Israel chose a major confrontation with Hamas at this time
appear to be the cause of several other factors unrelated to providing
immediate security for its citizens.

First, many senior Israeli political and military leaders strongly opposed
the June 19 ceasefire with Hamas, and looked for opportunities to
reestablish Israel's fabled "deterrent capability" of instilling fear
into its enemies. These leaders felt Israel's deterrent capability was
badly damaged as a result of their withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, and
especially after the widely criticized failures in the 2006 Israeli war
with Hezbollah. For this powerful group a ceasefire was at best a
tactical pause before the inevitable renewal of conflict, when
conditions were more favorable. Immediately following Israel's aerial
assault, a New York Times article noted that Israel had been eager "to remind its foes that it has teeth" and to erase the ghost of Lebanon that has haunted it over the past two years.

A second factor was pressure surrounding the impending elections set
to take place in early February. The ruling coalition, led by Barak and
Livni, have been repeatedly criticized by the Likud leader Benjamin
Netanyahu, the former prime minister, who is leading in the polls, for
not being tough enough on Hamas and rocket-fire from Gaza. This gave
the ruling coalition a strong incentive to demonstrate to the Israeli
people their security credentials in order to bolster their chances
against the more hawkish Likud.

Third, Hamas repeatedly said it wouldn't recognize Mahmud Abbas as
president of the Palestinian Authority after his term runs out on
January 9. The looming political standoff on the Palestinian side
threatens to boost Hamas and undermine Abbas, who had underseen closer
security coordination with Israel and was congenial to Israeli demands
for concessions on future peace proposals. One possible outcome of this
assault is that Abbas will remain in power for a while longer, since
Hamas will be unable to mobilise its supporters in order to force him
to resign.

And finally, Israel was pressed to take action now due to its sense
of the American political timeline. The Bush administration rarely
exerted constraint on Israel and would certainly stand by in its waning
days, while Barack Obama would not likely want to begin his presidency
with a major confrontation with Israel. TheWashington Postquoted a Bush administration official
saying that Israel struck in Gaza "because they want it to be over
before the next administration comes in. They can't predict how the
next administration will handle it. And this is not the way they want
to start with the new administration."

An Uncertain Ending

As the conflict rages to an uncertain end, it's important to
consider Israeli military historian Zeev Maoz's contention that
Israel's history of manufacturing wars through "strategic escalation"
and using overwhelming force to achieve "deterrence" has never been
successful. In fact, it's the primary cause of Israel's insecurity
because it deepens hatred and a desire for revenge rather than fear.

At the same time, there's no question Hamas continues to callously
sacrifice its fellow Palestinian citizens, as well as Israeli
civilians, on the altar of maintaining its pyrrhic resistance
credentials and its myopic preoccupation with revenge, and fell into
many self-made traps of its own. There had been growing international
pressure on Israel to ease its siege and a major increase in creative
and nonviolent strategies drawing attention to the plight of
Palestinians such as the arrival of humanitarian relief convoys off of
Gaza's coast in the past months, but now Gaza lies in ruins.

But as the vastly more powerful actor holding nearly all the cards
in this conflict, the war in Gaza was ultimately Israel's choice. And
for all this bloodshed and violence, Israel must be held accountable.

With the American political establishment firmly behind Israel's
attack, and Obama's foreign policy team heavily weighted with
pro-Israel insiders like Dennis Ross and Hillary Clinton, any efforts
to hold Israel accountable in the United States will depend upon
American citizens mobilizing a major grassroots effort behind a new
foreign policy that will not tolerate any violations of international
law, including those by Israel, and will immediately work towards
ending Israel's siege of Gaza and ending Israel's occupation.

Beyond that, the most promising prospect for holding Israel
accountable is through the increasing use of universal jurisdiction for
prosecuting war crimes, along with the growing transnational movement
calling for sanctions on Israel until it ends its violations of
international law. In what would be truly be a new style of foreign
policy, a transnational network that focuses on Israeli violations of
international law, rather than the state itself, could become a
counterweight that forces policymakers in the United States, Europe,
and Israel to reconsider their political and moral complicity in the
current war, in favor of taking real steps towards peace and security
in the region for all peoples.

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