Israel, Palestine and Gaza

January 1, 2009

In what will be a very long post, I want to set out my views on the current war between Israel and Hamas, and the broader Israel-Palestine conflict. I’ve wanted to do this anyway, but the epic thread over at Larvatus Prodeo has crystallized a lot of the issues for me. I’d like to thank all the commenters who participated in that thread, and Mark B.  for hosting it. I don’t think we ended up agreeing on much, or anything at all, perhaps, but at least we kept it civil.

I’m going to do this as a series of three (or maybe four).  This is part one.

UPDATE: Michael J Totten on the legality of the war.  The upshot:

Hamas, then, is legally to blame for all, or nearly all, injuries and deaths of both Israelis and Palestinians.

Part I: The war in Gaza

Let’s get the most difficult bit out of the way first with a bald statement of position that many will find unacceptable, or at least insufficiently ‘nuanced’.

Israel’s war against the terrorist organization Hamas is both justified and just. Its use of military force against Hamas is fully consistent with its own responsibilities to its citizens, and with its broader legal and moral obligations.

It is the ultimate duty of a democratically elected government to protect the people and the state from armed attack. In the final analysis, if it fails to uphold that obligation, it has no right to demand that its people surrender to the government either power, through the democratic process, or money, through the systems of taxation. Therefore, the State of Israel is obliged – indeed, required – to use armed force to protect its people from attack, and to prevent further attacks from occurring. How it executes that obligation depends on the nature and circumstances of the attacks.

So to the present case.

For more than three years now, since Israel’s occupation of Gaza ended in 2005 with the withdrawal of all Israeli military and civilian personnel from the Strip, Israel has endured an unrelenting attack from Gaza. The attack has taken many forms.  Suicide bombers have infiltrated Israel to murder civilian targets indiscriminately and in as large numbers as can be managed. Tunnels have been dug under the border with Israel with the objective of kidnapping Israeli soldiers and holding them as political hostages, in the knowledge that Israel will do almost anything to get its soldiers back, even if all it recovers are body parts.  This is Israel’s Achilles’ heel, and Hamas knows it well.

Most notably and obviously, the attack has come from missiles. Qassam rockets were fired into Israel on the very day of the final withdrawal and escalated rapidly into a continual barrage, often scores in a single day. Qassam manufactories exist all over Gaza – indeed, it appears to be the only viable industry in the Strip. The casings delivering the explosive payload are commonly made from traffic light posts, of which there are, reportedly, none remaining in Gaza. These rockets are unguided, and can only be fired in the general direction of their target. They appear crude, but they are in fact fully fit for purpose.

Every Qassam is fired with the specific objective of killing or maiming Israeli citizens, or destroying their property, or both. Often they do. Many civilians have been killed by Qassams, and many others injured. But beyond killing and destroying, the missile barrage is intended to create such a climate of fear in Israel’s southern towns that their inhabitants are forced to evacuate north to find safe havens.  Even if the imprecisely-aimed rockets fail to find a human target, they still get the job half done.

These rockets are fired from within densely populated civilian areas of the Strip, and are protected by the civilian infrastructure. The purpose of such siting is twofold: to deter military retaliation by Israel, and to ensure that civilian casualties are almost inevitable in the event of a strike from the air or by ground artillery. Such casualties are useful to Hamas in garnering international sympathy.  Whether Israel retaliates or not, Hamas wins, either way.

It is not quite fair to say, as many have done, and angrily, that the government of Ehud Olmert has done nothing in the face of these attacks. It has struck back at specific launch sites, often killing the launch crews. It has restricted movement across its border with Gaza to interdict shipment of materials capable of being weaponised, and to detect and detain or kill suicide operatives. In 2006 it launched a major operation into Gaza to try to recover a kidnapped soldier, Gilad Shalit. ‘Summer Rains’ was unsuccessful, and Shalit remains captive in the hands of Hamas or one of its proxies.

But nothing succeeded in stemming the rockets’ barrage or relieving the pressure on the southern towns. Because the range from Gaza is so short, the residents of Sderot and other neighbouring towns have only a few seconds to reach cover when the alert is sounded. They have no idea where the missiles will land, and the general atmosphere of fear and confusion is heightened by the fact that firings are deliberately timed to coincide with the beginning and end of the school day. So children and their parents have particular cause for dread.

No effective missile defence system can be implemented to protect the south of Israel, because the Qassams have no guidance system to lock onto. Electronic  counter-measures, the conventional defence against missiles,  are therefore virtually impossible.  This, too, the terrorists well know.  That’s why they’re content – for now – with their clumsy rockets.

Sporadic punitive responses apart, Israel held its hand, despite some posturing and rhetoric.  This provoked bitter and understandable complaints from the beleaguered residents of the south that they had been sacrificed for the sake of international public and media opinion, and that the government had failed utterly to uphold its obligation to protect its citizens. Until the current operations, it was difficult to deny there was a large measure of justice in that claim.

This has gone on almost every day for three years. At no time did Hamas or Islamic Jihad or other terrorist groups show the slightest inclination to terminate the barrage except on terms manifestly unacceptable to Israel – which is why, of course, those were the only terms ever offered.

All this while, Israel continued to supply power, fuel, medical supplies and other necessities to an enemy government sworn to destroy it by force and terror. Such shipments were routinely appropriated by Hamas and used as bargaining chips for political gain within the Strip, where criminal, terrorist and clan groupings – Hamas itself among them – vie for power and position. On occasion, in response to particularly vicious attacks, Israel temporarily suspended the delivery of humanitarian aid, and limited the supply of fuel.

In June this year, Egypt brokered an agreement for there to be a six-month hudna (a lull, or pause) in the rocket barrage. Importantly, this was not a truce – a formal suspension of hostilities – although it is sometimes described as such.

Many in Israel believed the hudna would be used to re-stock and re-supply in preparation for the next wave of attacks, in accordance with Islamic tradition. Few believed that it  would either be honoured by Hamas when it was in force, or renewed when it expired. Prudently, and with the lessons of Lebanon and the findings of the Winograd Commission in mind, the IDF, now under the control of  Minister of Defence Ehud Barak (a very capable soldier, whatever some might think of him as a politician), made extensive preparations for a wide-ranging response should the barrage be renewed at the end of the hudna.

The rocket firings did not cease, as required by the agreement.  They continued throughout the period of the hudna, although in greatly diminished numbers. Despite claims to the contrary, I have seen no credible evidence that Hamas offered to renew the pause on terms remotely acceptable to Israel either during the hudna or after its expiry.  Throughout the hudna, the government of Israel pretty much sat on its hands.  As we now know, it was biding its time.

On 19th December, Hamas formally and unilaterally announced that the hudna was terminated, and publicly declared they would not renew it. Rocket firings recommenced with particular ferocity, reaching Sderot and Ashkelon, in particular. On the 21st alone, 50 rockets fell.  On the 24th, sixty. The Negev was manifestly under siege.  Israel itself was under siege.

Nine days after the hudna ended, with the rocket fire unabating, Israel struck at Gaza in force, with multiple air strikes targeting Hamas personnel and infrastructure. Warning messages were sent via SMS through the cell-phone network, and leaflets were also air-dropped, advising residents to stay clear of Hamas installations as they were about to be attacked. In doing so, of course, Israel sacrificed the advantage of surprise, and presumably gave many of its targets the opportunity to escape. It did so in order to minimise civilian casualties.

Perhaps again recalling the experience of Lebanon, when the international media turned venomously against it, the IDF also released  videos of the strikes as a public relations effort.  This was despite the fact that it thereby revealed its own military capabilities to the enemy – and to other enemies in the region, such as Iran, whom it will likely prompt to take anticipatory counter-measures. These videos (posted on YouTube, among other Web locations) demonstrated unequivocally that the attacks were targeted with pin-prick precision to minimize the likelihood of casualties among non-combatants. Inevitably, however, given Hamas’ deliberate tactics of operating from civilian areas, some non-combatants were killed in the attacks, along with hundreds of militants.

That is the sequence as I understand it. If it is wrong, I am happy to be corrected. But if it is correct, it demonstrates that the statement with which I began this  post is wholly sustainable. Israel acted properly and lawfully in attacking Hamas in Gaza to protect its citizens. It did so after Hamas unilaterally ended the hudna – which, on any reading, was a last-ditch effort to prevent war – and directed a ferocious and unremitting rocket barrage into southern Israel.

War is always messy, and no doubt mistakes will be made.  They always are. But in prosecuting this war, on the evidence to date, Israel is fully observing its constitutional, military, legal, and more broadly, its moral responsibilities.  Whilst attacking its enemy in strength, it is employing every measure possible, within the limits of current military technology and doctrine, to reduce the level of risk to non-combatants to a minimum.  And it is doing so in a horrendously difficult battlespace that would challenge even the most effective military force on this or any other planet.

It needs to be said, with a twist of bitterness, that none of the above is true of Israel’s enemies.  And neither, by some kind of strange and malevolent alchemy, is it ever expected to be.


Next:  The platform for a lasting peace



  1. A very good summation of the situation Rob Well done

  2. Thanks, Iain, much obliged. Stay tuned for next instalments.

  3. […] to the current “situation” and of the ways things are currently standing can be found HERE. I strongly recommend reading it as a means of understanding what is going […]

  4. Hey, can we put this (and future installments) up on GNblog?! This is the best summary and analysis of the situation I’ve ever come across.

  5. Yaeli,

    Yes, of course. If you want to lift the whole thing, feel free. I’ve spent some time fiddling with it, but I’m happy with it now. I’d be delighted to see it on GNBlog.


  6. I included this in a round up of news and posts that I am going to put on my blog a bit later.

  7. […] Seraphic Secret just released Why We Fight II. At The Better Part of Valour Israel, Palestine and Gaza. […]

  8. Rob, it is up at http://gnblog.com now and getting pretty detailed responses 🙂 So looking forward to part II!!

  9. Thanks, Yaeli, I’ll try and get the next part done in the next couple of days.

  10. So you consider starving 1.5 million humans is OK.
    Hamas decided to not renew the peace triety because of Israels blockade of the Palestinian people. No running water or electricity for almost 3 months, and then you expect Hamas to be quiet?? They are people smart ass, not chairs. And the israelis are complaining about 10Kg TNT unguided missiles while your beloved air force is dropping 1,2,3 ton missiles on civilian areas. That is just wrong. Review your conscious and stop spreading that PR shit around please.

  11. […] you want to read just one post as to what’s really going on, read this (part […]

  12. […] you want to read just one post as to what’s really going on, read this (part […]

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