Friday, January 02, 2009

T H E F I R S T W E E K O F T H E W A R

FRIDAY: Thank you President George W. Bush

Six days into Israel's confrontation with Hamas, just one world leader has steadfastly shown genuine understanding of our dilemma - George W. Bush.

The initial reaction of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, for instance, was commonsensical: "I understand the Israeli government's sense of obligation to its population." That sympathy, though not dissipated, was soon watered down as the Foreign Office brought London's policy into harmony with the European Union by calling for an immediate cease-fire.

In contrast, from Texas, where the president has been marking the holidays, his spokesman Gordon Johndroe placed the onus for the hostilities where it belongs: "Hamas's continued rocket attacks into Israel must cease if the violence is to stop," he said. The administration was satisfied, Johndroe added, that the IDF was doing everything possible to avoid civilian casualties. Moreover, he said, the best way to ensure that violence didn't flare up again was for Hamas to stop smuggling weapons into Gaza.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also blamed Hamas: "We strongly condemn the repeated rocket and mortar attacks against Israel and hold Hamas responsible for breaking the cease-fire and for the renewal of violence there."

As the week progressed, however, a certain slippage in Rice's rhetoric was discernible. "The cease-fire must be restored immediately and fully respected," she said.

But absent a fundamental deterioration in Hamas's military capabilities, a premature cessation of IDF operations would simply set the stage for more violence later.

In all fairness, Rice has been grappling with the wording of a binding UN Security Council draft resolution trying to mediate between the Israel, EU, Arab and other positions.

The Arab League version "strongly condemns all military attacks and the excessive, disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force by Israel…" It makes no mention of Hamas's aggression.

At some point, Rice will meld her own proposals with those of French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (who ostentatiously boycotted Israel on his fact-finding tour of the region), and the proposals of a bitterly divided Arab world, along with Israel's thoughts, to produce a workable cease-fire proposal.

As this scenario plays out, we hope Hamas's military capacity will, meanwhile, become considerably eroded.

With sirens wailing and the population of Israel's South absorbing blow after blow from Hamas gunners, with everyday-life from Beersheba to Ashdod torn asunder, and with our citizen-army poised at the gates of Hamastan, this newspaper expresses its appreciation to President Bush for his goodwill, and for the diplomatic backing of his administration. We do not take this support for granted.

IN JUST 18 days, Barack Obama will be sworn in as America's president. We are reasonably confident that the incoming administration will cut Hamas no more slack than the outgoing one.

As Obama said in July on a visit to Sderot: "When bombs are raining down on your citizens, there is an urge to respond and act and try and put an end to that."

Sure, there will be those, like former State Department official Aaron David Miller, who argue that by fighting Hamas, Israel is making "a difficult situation even tougher" and reducing the prospects for a durable Palestinian-Israel agreement.

In fact, the opposite is the case. A negotiated settlement requires Arabs and Israelis to want to live in peace. Hamas, meanwhile, is uncompromisingly dedicated, in creed and in deed, to pursuing a zero-sum struggle against Israel. No amount of territorial concessions, no matter how far-reaching, will make a Jewish state palatable to the Hamas fanatics.

Thus any policy predicated on bolstering the relative moderates in the Palestinian polity - Mahmoud Abbas and Salaam Fayad, for example - must, logically, seek to chip away at those who denigrate them as Zionist collaborators.

For 100 years, Palestinian politics has seen rejectionists assassinate those who voice any willingness to accommodate Jewish national aspirations. Put differently: If Hamas thrives, peace dies.

Miller isn't entirely wrong about the "Arab street" being resentful of Washington's commitment to Israel's survival. The smart response, however, is not to force Israel into making suicidal territorial concessions - which would only promote endless upheaval - but to help broker the kind of peace that both Israel and the Palestinians will see as just and lasting.





THURSDAY: Europe has a plan


Toward the end of 2005, after Israel unilaterally pulled its citizens and soldiers out of Gaza, Jerusalem consented to the presence of European Union "monitors" at the Rafah Crossing connecting the Strip to Egyptian Sinai. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised the arrangement as giving "the Palestinian people the freedom to move, to trade, to live ordinary lives."

Rafah was opened on November 26, 2005 in a ceremony attended by Mahmoud Abbas. Just two months later, Palestinians voting in the West Bank and Gaza gave Hamas a majority in the Palestinian parliament. But because Hamas was an international outlaw, forces loyal to Abbas continued to oversee Rafah's terminal, providing security for some 70 EU monitors. They had the authority to "reexamine" and "reassess" anyone or anything which struck them as suspicious.

Little, however, struck the monitors as suspicious. When Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar's brother strolled past them on his way into Gaza, the Europeans answered Israeli complaints by arguing that Jerusalem never gave the monitors a list naming those it wanted barred.

When Zahar himself and another Hamas official crossed over with some dozen suitcases containing $20 million, EU monitors did not look the other way. They protested to Abbas's Palestinian Authority, which promised to investigate.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana told this newspaper in October 2006 that Israelis were over-obsessing about security at Rafah. He didn't think Hamas wanted to destroy Israel; it simply wanted to liberate Palestinians.

After Gilad Schalit was captured by Hamas in a June 2006 cross-border raid, the EU monitors complained that Israel was keeping the Rafah crossing closed more days than it was open, and threatened to walk off the job. The threat became moot in June 2007: Hamas expelled Fatah, and the monitors fled.

THIS slice of history is pertinent in the wake of an offer by EU foreign ministers, meeting Tuesday night in Paris, to send monitors to Rafah and other crossings to ensure their smooth operation. The proposal came in the context of the EU's demand for an "unconditional halt to rocket attacks by Hamas on Israel and an end to Israeli military action." The ministers concluded with what is, for them, a truism: "There is no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in Gaza or elsewhere."

Hamas, for its part, appears somewhat less certain about this point. Its founding charter asserts: "Israel... will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it."

Tuesday a Hamas spokesman said on television: "The children of Gaza will be collecting the body parts of [Israeli] soldiers and the ruins of tanks" if IDF ground forces moved in to halt Hamas rocket launchings.

As a Grad slammed into a Beersheba kindergarten, empty at the time, European and US press reports lamented that hopes for an early end to the fighting had "faded" - as if they had existed in the first place - because "Israel rejected international calls for a 48-hour cease-fire to allow the supply of humanitarian aid." Never mind that 179 shipments of international supplies including food and medicines, donations from various governments, blood and 10 ambulances were being conveyed to Gaza.

Other media carried the boilerplate: "Hamas says it will keep up its attacks if Israel does not stop its assault" - which begs the question of why Hamas had been attacking us before the IDF went into action Saturday.

Europe's press is wont to dub the Kassams "rudimentary" because these explosive- and shrapnel-filled rockets lack any guidance system. Hamas-developed Kassams were first launched against Gaza's Jewish settlements in October 2001. By March 5, 2002 they had been sufficiently perfected to hit Sderot. Further refined over the years, more than 10,000 Kassams have smashed into Israeli targets, killing scores, wounding hundreds and terrorizing tens of thousands. After Israel's disengagement from Gaza, Hamas smuggled in tons of advanced weaponry, including the Grad. It too is "primitive" - early versions were fielded by the Soviets in 1963. The model now being fired at Beersheba, 40 km. from Gaza, is Chinese-made.

HAMAS was established in 1987 because the local Muslim Brotherhood doubted the PLO's continued commitment to the destruction of Israel.

Brussels may have the luxury of deluding itself about Hamas's intentions and capabilities. Jerusalem does not.




WEDNESDAY: Cease terror, not cease-fire

On day four of Operation Cast Lead, international demands notwithstanding, it is way too premature for Jerusalem to be entertaining thoughts of a cease-fire. It is Hamas that needs an exit strategy to extricate it from a devastating situation of its own making.

Hamas leaders ordered the cross-border attack against Israel in June 2006 in which two IDF soldiers were killed and Gilad Schalit was taken hostage. They grabbed power away from Fatah the following year, transforming Gaza into a spoiling-for-a-fight Islamist stronghold. Hundreds of Palestinians have lost their lives as a result of Hamas's warmongering.

They locked themselves into the old Arab mantra of "no recognition, no negotiation and no peace." They refused to honor agreements the PLO signed with Israel. They oppose the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. And they've kept Gaza an impoverished basket-case.

Despite their vitriol and bravado, since Israeli military operations began Saturday, the Hamas government has buckled: 400 targets have been struck; most of the regime's symbols have either been pulverized or are tottering. Hamas officials have gone into hiding, providing no succor to the masses, whose distress is directly attributable to Hamas's bellicose policies.

LET US keep our eyes on the prize. The government has belatedly but rightly declared the imperative to change the security environment in the south and stop Hamas from attacking our population. No country - not Germany, Britain, France, or Russia; not Turkey, Greece, Korea or the United States - would tolerate missile attacks on its homeland. Neither can Israel.

The effort to bring long-term peace to southern Israel is in its early stages. Military analysts estimate that half of Hamas's arsenal remains intact. Most of its armed forces are safely hunkered down. Put another way, Hamas is saving itself as it leaves the people of Gaza exposed and leaderless. The longer Israel can keep Hamas from exercising authority, the more the Islamists' legitimacy is weakened.

That being the case, Hamas is keen to change the equation, to goad Israel into launching a predictable land campaign. It wants Israeli tanks mired in the mud of Gaza. Its continued launching of missiles, rockets and mortars at Ashdod, Ashkelon, Sderot and the Negev is Hamas's way of taunting Israel into playing its game, by its rules. Hamas knows that there are certain targets, for instance - munitions storage facilities situated in the heart of residential areas - that have been off-limits to Israel's air force. It also knows that airpower alone can't stop the rocket-launching crews.

Hamas must not get what it most wants. Hamas wants Israel's home front to be demoralized, to feel under siege. It wants to stampede our government into sending ground forces into Gaza's camps and alleyways, to ensnare our fighters in ambushes it has spent long months setting.

IF HAMAS can't hoodwink Israelis into self-defeating policies, it is counting on pressure from within Israel or without to produce at least a temporary halt to the operation, during which it could regroup, or better yet a cease-fire. It needs this to claim a "moral victory" over the IDF; to demonstrate that the West has no response but appeasement to violent Muslim extremism. Finally, Hamas needs a cease-fire on its terms, or it will lose face vis-a-vis Mahmoud Abbas.

Some of what Hamas wants, it is getting. It wants AP and Reuters to continue to disseminate casualty figures which obscure the fact that most of the killed and wounded are gunmen. It wants the wire services to distribute photos and TV footage depicting mostly Palestinian, not Israeli trauma.

The air force will soon have done all it can at the present time - yet, frustratingly, Hamas will still retain its capability to lash out. That's when Israel's historic capacity for military innovation - for utilizing unexpected strategies against its enemies, rather than following a battle-plan for which the enemy has prepared - should be utilized.

Sooner or later, furthermore, Hamas's political and military echelon will emerge from hiding, and the air force will have more work to do. Meanwhile, the homefront's mettle will truly be tested; we will need to demonstrate our patience and resilience.

There should be no talk of a cease-fire until the declared goal of achieving long-term normality in the South has been attained.





Tuesday: Arab elites vs Hamas

Predictably, it's started. Europe's pro-Palestinian lobby, instinctive anti-war campaigners, Muslim extremists and the so-called Arab street have all been demonstrating against Israel's military operations in Gaza.

In London, Muslim and leftist protesters rallied raucously outside the Israeli embassy. Marchers protesting the Palestinian "holocaust" were held in Copenhagen, Paris and Madrid. A protest by the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party in the northern city of Mosul ended abruptly when a suicide bomber on a bicycle blew himself up, killing one and wounding 16. Some might wonder why al-Qaida would attack other Sunni anti-Zionists. Plainly, the extremists' lust for chaos and bloodshed trumps all.

Pro-Hamas rallies were organized from Teheran to Beirut, and from Baghdad to Cairo. Arab citizens of Israel observed a general strike, accompanied by sporadic rock-throwing and tire-burning. An Arab minister in the Israeli government protested by refusing to attend a cabinet meeting; Palestinian youths in east Jerusalem rioted as their elders honored the strike.

We find it curious that the weekend deaths of 13 schoolchildren in Afghanistan at the hands of an Islamist bomber; the Taliban suicide attack in Pakistan, which claimed 30 Muslim lives, and the unremitting internecine slaughter in Iraq (9,000 dead in 2008 alone) fail to incense the Arab street half as much as the Jews exercising their right to self-defense.

THAT SAID, it is instructive to look beyond the mobs with their incendiary placards, shrill chants and de-rigueur burning of Israeli flags and take note of a remarkable rupture in the Arab and Muslim world.

The Arab elites, comprising statesmen, academics, journalists and businesspeople, may preface their criticism with references to Israel's "crimes," but a significant facet of this class - it would be simplistic to label them "moderates" - appreciates that Hamas is to blame for what is taking place in the Gaza Strip.

Moreover, their hearts may tell them to bankroll Hamas, but their brains tell them that the fanaticism, political intolerance and social backwardness championed by the Islamists pose a profound threat to the Arab future.

These predominantly Sunni elites - whether they sit in Cairo, Riyadh or Amman, in the Maghreb, the Gulf or in the West - don't want their societies to ape the Taliban or the ayatollahs.

HIZBULLAH leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, still in hiding two years after supposedly defeating Israel in the Second Lebanon War, has been denouncing this attitude as he seeks to salvage Hamas's fortunes - in which he and his Iranian patrons are heavily invested - by mobilizing the Arab street.

He has practically called for a revolution in Egypt. As Al Jazeera reported: "Nasrallah urged Egyptians... to force their government to open the country's border with Gaza. 'If the Egyptian people took to the streets by the millions, could the police kill millions of Egyptians? People of Egypt, you must open this border by the force of your chests.'"

What Hizbullah's demagogue in-chief pointedly neglected to tell the throngs watching him on a giant TV screen as he spoke from his bunker, was that Hizbullah and Iran were egging Hamas on to pick a fight with Israel while Egypt (and Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas) were working overtime to convince Hamas to honor the cease-fire.

Nasrallah is half-right. Arab elites suffer from a sort of split personality disorder. Even as they are trying to pull Hamas's chestnuts out of the fire by pressing Washington to lean on Israel to back off, they know that Hamas (like Hizbullah and the Muslim Brotherhood) threatens not just their own regimes, but political development in the Arab world. If only the Jordanian and Saudi monarchs, Gulf emirs and the Egyptian president would stand up to the Islamists.

How? They should be incrementally fostering transparent government and the rule of law, and socializing their masses to the idea of tolerance and majority rule while respecting the minority. That would promote political institution-building and social stability.

The Arab elites need to offer their people an alternative to Islamist extremism. They could begin by redefining what it means to be pro-Palestinian and dissociating the Palestinian cause from anti-Israel rejectionism.

In this context, if Israel can deflate Hamas, it will be advancing an Arab interest as much as its own citizens' security.




MONDAY: Gaza portrayed

With the exception of the White House - which reacted to Israel's Gaza operation by labeling Hamas leaders "nothing but thugs" and blaming the "terrorists" for igniting the violence - international political and media reaction has, by and large, fallen into two broad categories: low-key evenhandedness and knee-jerk condemnation.

The evenhanded school appreciates that no country can permit, indefinitely, its citizens to be bombarded by an enemy committed to its annihilation. Still, they oppose "disproportionate" Israeli measures - basically those that might actually compel Hamas to end its campaign of terror.

Among these evenhanded are Quartet envoy Tony Blair, French President Nicholas Sarkozy (who also holds the EU presidency), British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

The quintessentially evenhanded Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy czar, holds any non-combatant deaths on the Palestinian side "unacceptable." His advice? Hamas should stop attacking Israel, and Israel should stop retaliating.

But it is the Vatican's reaction that captures the very essence of evenhandedness: "Hamas is a prisoner to a logic of hate; Israel to a logic of faith in force as the best response to hate." What to do? "One must continue to search for a different way out, even if that may seem impossible."

THERE are those who make no pretense at being evenhanded. For them, Hamas has been exercising its inalienable right to resist "the occupation" by violently opposing the existence of the Jewish state. For them, practically out of the blue, the Zionists went berserk, massacring women, children, and the occasional Hamas "martyr."

Desmond Tutu weighed in by calling Israel's use of its air force to stop Hamas "a war crime." Peter Beaumont, foreign affairs editor of Britain's Guardian, said that Israel's actions ranked with what he termed the massacres of Deir Yassin and Sabra and Shatilla.

Tim Butcher of London's Telegraph aimed to provide context. As time goes on, he explained, Israel lowers the threshold for who it considers a legitimate target. In 2004, "an elderly man in his wheelchair, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, was killed by an Israeli missile as he was pushed out of a mosque after weekly prayers." Butcher went on to note that Yassin "was the Hamas leader responsible for ordering suicide bombings." Still, his point was that, nowadays, "any Hamas traffic cop on a street corner" has become fair game.

ISRAEL embarked on this operation to compel Hamas to stop terrorizing our population in the South. It did so reluctantly, and only after Hamas rejected multiple appeals from Mahmoud Abbas and the Egyptian government to maintain the "cease-fire."

Despite the difficulties inherent in presenting Israel's position to a not always sympathetic media, the Prime Minister's Office, Foreign Ministry and IDF recognize that public diplomacy is an integral element in getting Hamas to stop its attacks. To that end, the articulate former UN representative Dan Gillerman has been appointed to coordinate the Foreign Ministry's response to the crisis. On the whole, Israeli spokespeople have rarely been more proactive or competent.

Israel has had no military or civilian presence in Gaza since 2005. Quiet would prevail across the Israel-Gaza border, and the Palestinians could build a model state, if their Hamas leadership were not insistently bent on attacking Israel. Hamas acknowledges as much. Even as its spokesman Taher al-Nunu was telling al-Jazeera and other channels of the current "ferocious Zionist massacre," he was also emphasizing that Hamas will never abandon its determination to destroy Israel.

The declared Israeli aim in the military operation - putting an end to a neighboring terror-state's ability to threaten our populace - is precisely the goal that any other nation would set itself if attacked as Israel has been.

All of this should be obvious to fair-minded observers everywhere. But when dramatic pictures from Gaza threaten to overwhelm clear thinking, Israeli leaders have in the past two days often formulated effective reminders. "Military actions are not easy to support," Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni noted in one interview on Monday, for instance. "But this is the only way we can change realities on the ground... This is our responsibility as a government to our citizens."

Carefully chosen words set against dramatic images? It's an uneven media battlefield. But at least, this time, Israel is fighting.




SUNDAY: A time to fight

On Friday, a Hamas spokesman made Israel the following proposal: You keep the stream of humanitarian aid and supplies flowing into Gaza and we will keep launching rockets and mortars at Israeli civilians.

It was an offer Israel had little choice but to refuse.

For weeks Israel has been imploring Hamas to stop shooting across the border, to stop tunneling in preparation for the next round of violence, and to allow our farmers to tend their fields. The Islamists responded that they were not afraid of the IDF and that they reserved the right to resist "the occupation" - meaning the existence of a Jewish state. They brazenly told Israel to get used to the idea that no amount of humanitarian gestures would stem their behavior.

At 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Israel finally told Hamas that it would not be bled, slowly, to death. Thanks to excellent intelligence and superb training, a haughty enemy was caught off-guard. Targets up and down the Strip were hit and large numbers of Hamas personnel including senior military figures were killed. Key facilities were turned into rubble; well-camouflaged equipment was destroyed.

In launching "Operation Cast Lead," Defense Minister Ehud Barak, declared, "There is a time for calm and there is a time for fighting, and now is the time for fighting." And Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, flanked by Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, said that Israel had done everything possible to avoid this escalation, but that its entreaties for quiet had been met with disdain.

The IDF's mission is not to bring down the Hamas regime, but to bring quiet to the South. In a sense we are asking Hamas to stop being Hamas. The Islamists need to decide whether they want to go down in flames or are prepared to take on the responsibilities that come with control over the Strip. They may give Israel no choice but to topple their administration.

To their credit, Israeli decision makers are avoiding the kind of bombastic rhetoric all of us came to regret in the course of the Second Lebanon War and its aftermath. Now, what ordinary Israelis demand is that their government deliver, as promised, quiet to the South. We do not expect this operation to be fast or easy. We do expect it to succeed.

Israelis must unite and be vigilant. Regrettably, we've already seen rioting among some east Jerusalem Palestinians. The possibility of disturbances among our Arab citizens cannot be discounted. Hamas rockets may reach targets heretofore thought to be beyond enemy range; their threats to launch suicide attacks must be taken with utmost seriousness. And Diaspora Jews also need be on alert.

ON A quiet post-Christmas weekend, the events in Gaza have captured world attention. From an unsympathetic foreign media, we are already hearing complaints that Israel's retaliation is "disproportionate" and a form of "collective punishment." That over 200 Palestinians have been killed compared to only one Israeli leads some journalists to conclude that Israel is inherently in the wrong. One British news anchor wondered why her government had not already demanded that Israel halt its operation. There was a grudging understanding that Hamas uses Palestinian non-combatants as human shields, along with an unreasonable demand that Israel magically find a way not to harm any of them.

The formula for purchasing the affection of those who suffer from moral relativism is sickeningly clear: if one Jew is killed, we get very little piety. If, heaven forbid, an Israeli kindergarten was to take a direct hit - Israel might, temporarily, gain the sympathy of news anchors from Paris to London to Madrid.

At that price we would rather forgo their sympathy.

Nevertheless, we expect our diplomats to work 24/7 to make Israel's case to the international community. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has begun that process. In an English-language address she said, "Enough is enough" - Israel would not continue to absorb rockets, mortars and bullets without retaliating.

At this newspaper, we wonder how an international community that can't bring itself to explicitly support Israel's operation against the most intransigent of Muslim fanatics expects to play a positive role in facilitating peace in this region.

Hamas must be stopped. And the civilized world must help stop it.

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