The big news yesterday evening was that Israel and Hamas had agreed on a 72 hour “humanitarian” ceasefire, which is better than nothing, but let’s not kid ourselves; the only real “humanitarian” thing that can be done here is a full and indefinite stop to the violence. But 72 hours gives you time to get some aid to the Gazan people, to maybe restore some basic services like water, maybe even dig out some of the dead bodies that are buried under rubble. Nothing that can make up for this:
But 72 hours without bombs is 72 hours without bombs. Then came the big caveat:
A source in the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “Israel has accepted the US/UN proposal for a 72-hour humanitarian ceasefire beginning 8:00 am Friday.”
The ceasefire was a joint US-UN initiative and would give civilians “a much needed reprieve,” Kerry said in New Delhi.
“This is a respite, a moment of opportunity — not an end. It’s not a solution,” he warned, saying Israel would still be allowed to carry out “defensive” operations to destroy tunnels.
This concession may have been necessary to get Israel to agree to stop
shelling schools and markets their military activity, seeing as how Netanyahu had only hours earlier said that he was “determined” to see all the tunnels destroyed “with or without a ceasefire.” But even if that were the case, a “ceasefire,” and maybe I’m just being a stickler for the actual meanings of words and terms, but a “ceasefire” in which one of the two warring parties is actually allowed to “keep firing” is not, technically, a “ceasefire.”
So a collapse was inevitable, and to give both sides their due they didn’t waste any time pretending otherwise. Less than two hours into things, a group of IDF soldiers was apparently destroying a tunnel near the southern part of the Gaza Strip, near Rafah, when they ran into some Palestinian fighters, Hamas or Islamic Jihad most likely, who were either there deliberately to pick a fight with some Israeli soldiers or just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. They killed two of the IDF soldiers and kidnapped a third, and so Israel responded proportionally by dropping artillery on the whole place and killing at least 40 more people. Each side accused the other side of having broken the truce, and then they did the Hokey Pokey and they turned themselves around, because that’s what it’s all about.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest (and really, what an ironically appropriate name for a guy in that job) went on the teevee and called the capture of the Israeli soldier “a rather barbaric violation of the ceasefire agreement.” Now, I’m not arguing that it’s bad to go capturing soldiers, but compared to the rest of this conflict/extermination/whatever, capturing a soldier barely registers on the “barbarism” scale:
Really, why not keep fighting? It’s not like the Israelis are really feeling it that much, and it’s certainly not like Khaled Mashaal, the Hamas leader who’s set foot in Gaza precisely once in his life and who lives in what is undoubtedly very comfortable “exile” in Qatar, is feeling it either. And Israel has to destroy those tunnels, like the tunnel that generated electricity for most Gazans, and the tunnels that provide them with clean water., and especially the tunnels that UNRWA runs, the ones where they teach Palestinian kids and, at times like this, shelter Palestinian civilians. The IDF is “the most moral army in the world,” and if you don’t believe it just ask them, but being “the most moral army in the world” is a little like being named “most ethical subprime derivatives trader” in Goldman’s annual report. It might be true, but it doesn’t really mean all that much.
Hamas is a violent group and there’s no place for them in an independent, stable Palestine unless they either renounce that violence or are driven out of the political process. The thing is, if the Palestinian people were allowed to govern themselves without having hardship and violence imposed on them by Israel, then there’s a fairly good chance that Hamas would either renounce violence or lose its political support. Gaza is deeply impoverished, which is mostly about the blockade but is also about Hamas’s decision to use what little material that does come into Gaza for its own aims rather than for the good of Gaza’s citizens. In a normal political environment, they would have to pay a serious price for that kind of outright theft of resources, but every Israeli bombardment of the civilian centers in Gaza makes it that much less likely that the Gazans will ever hold Hamas accountable for anything. This particular bombardment has already probably quashed the Palestinian unity government, which Israel hated but which, let’s be frank, was the single best opportunity to moderate Hamas that has come down the pike since Hamas was founded in the 1980s. If the unity government does indeed fail, there probably won’t be another chance like that again.
I wonder if anybody in Israeli leadership can look beyond tomorrow’s worst case scenario and see a bigger picture, and by “can” I mean “is able to” but I also mean “is allowed to given Israel’s domestic political situation.” The specter of a horde of rampaging Palestinian terrorists suddenly bursting through a tunnel into an Israeli village is certainly frightening enough to make it Doing Something a political necessity, even though that scenario has never happened and the tunnels were mostly built for evading the Gaza blockade, not for terrorism, and even though the tunnels will certainly be rebuilt unless Israel either lifts the blockade or decides to just ethnically cleanse the entire Strip. Israeli politicians on the militant right can use that specter to scare voters into voting for militant right wing parties, but then those parties have to respond to the fear they’ve helped create. When people are frightened they demand their government Do Something, and for Israel “Do Something” almost always means “lob some ordinance on Gaza.”
But far more worrisome than the tunnels, from my perspective, is that between Operation Protective Edge, the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead, and the 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense, there is now a full generation of kids in Gaza whose earliest memories will be of the Israeli artillery fire that destroyed their home, or the Israeli airstrike that killed their family members, or the Israeli missile that cost them an arm or a leg. The trauma those children will live with for the rest of their lives is horrifying enough, but do you imagine, does anybody in Israeli leadership imagine, that when these kids grow up they’ll be keen to make peace with Israel? For a little temporary relief from the hypothetical “Terror Tunnel” scenario, how many decades has this operation set the peace process back?
Or is that the point? I see in Israel’s (still relatively recent) hard right turn (at least when it comes to the peace process) echoes of how hawks here view the ongoing nuclear talks with Iran. There is a sentiment in the Iran hawk community that argues that no Iranian concession, no compromise that they would accept, can ever be enough, because if they’re willing to go that far then just a little more threatening or some good old fashioned violence will get them to go even father. The Iranians, so they claim, “respect only strength” (that’s a direct quote), which is the polite 2014 way of saying “the savages only understand violence.” It’s bullshit, meant to dehumanize the Iranian people so that we can justify brutalizing them basically for the sake of brutalizing them, because that kind of thinking certainly isn’t a path toward an agreeable compromise. If that’s not Israel’s position with respect to the people of Gaza at this point, then it’s on them to show it by taking a step toward peace. If the only path to peace that Israel will follow involves annihilating Gaza, then that’s not really a path to peace at all.