Israel in Gaza: why now, and why so bloody

Behind Gaza Operation, An Uneasy Triumvirate –

This article gets it right. As the Canadian Globe and Mail‘s Patrick Martin noted in a recent front-pager, Hamas’ rocket attacks pose no existential threat to Israel, and have caused virtually zero casualties until the recent escalation. Why, then, such a bloody, heavy-handed response?

With national elections just over a month away…the offensive in Gaza is proving popular with Israelis, and [Foreign Minister Tzipi] Livni and [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak are reaping the benefits. Recent polls show them closing the gap with Likud party leader [Benjamin ‘Bibi’] Netanyahu, who had opened up a wide lead based on his promise to take a hard line against Israel’s main adversaries — Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran.

Political analysts said the looming elections forced Livni, leader of the centrist Kadima party, and Barak, head of the center-left Labor Party, to opt for military action when Hamas resumed its rocket fire in mid-December, after a six-month truce.

“With Netanyahu leading in the polls, and the security situation deteriorating, it would have killed Livni and Barak if they had let 50 or 60 rockets land every day and done nothing,” said Reuven Y. Hazan, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

All campaigning for the Feb. 10 vote has been temporarily suspended. But Barak, a former prime minister and ex-army commando, is expected to make the case that he can defend the country in times of crisis. Livni, meanwhile, is seeking to overcome concerns that as a woman who never served in the armed forces, she is not tough enough to lead Israel.

So, the irony is that the ‘centre-left’ and ‘centrist’ candidates are using Gaza as a proving ground to demonstrate their tolerance for causing ‘collateral damage.’  By showing how much Arab blood they’re willing to spill in ‘defense’ of the south, they hope to out-hawk the notoriously opportunist hawk Bibi.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will not be a candidate in the elections and may be indicted on corruption charges. But the Gaza offensive could be his last chance to rehabilitate a legacy badly tarnished by Israel’s failure to achieve a clear-cut victory against the Lebanese Hezbollah movement in 2006.

Waiting in the wings is a fourth leading politician, former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. He has long advocated military action in Gaza and, political analysts say, is well positioned to capitalize on Israeli anxiety if the rockets continue to fly…

…Having long called for a military campaign against Hamas, he is now openly supporting the government’s decision — but he also suggests that he would go even further if he were in charge.

“I think ultimately we’ll have to remove that regime,” Netanyahu said of Hamas during a Tuesday interview with CBS. “Not necessarily right away, but I think ultimately that has to be done.”

In a further twist of irony, Bibi, who panders shamelessly to the more jingoisitc elements of Israeli soceity, has rarely, if ever, followed through on his aggressive rhetoric. What we have, then, is the ultimate in double-speak: hawks talking tough, but doing nothing, ‘doves’ claiming to practice mere self-defense, but in fact proving just how blood-soaked they’re willing to become to win over an angry, traumatized population.

Lost in the din, sadly, is any sense of a coherent long-term vision. This is the achilles heel of Israeli society: it has much to lose, but no plan. Hamas, on the other hand, has nothing to lose, but has an ambitious, almost mythic, plan: settle for nothing less than just retribution for 1948, and for the west’s humiliation of the Muslim Middle East in general. For Hamas, if it takes another generation of shaheeds, so be it.

This moral tragedy is the result of an enduring, ill-adapted identity politics. Zionism, Palestinian nationalism, and Hamas’ Islamism all stem from non-Christian responses to the widely influential nationalistic European chauvinism of the 19th century. Ironically, Europe, and the rest of the OECD, now seem to view themselves as above this ‘primitive’ way of thinking. Yet they had to engender two world wars to get there, and the indigenous European response to non-European–even Eastern-bloc–immigration is not always encouraging.

At the current human price, it seems high time for Zionists and Islamists alike to shed their predecessors’ ideological responses to European chauvinism, and to start imagining new, more adaptable identities. The current feedback loop of violence, however, will likely lead in precisely the opposite direction.

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