By P. David Hornik
The hollowness of the “ceasefire” the Israeli cabinet declared on Saturday evening is all too easy to point out. No sooner was it declared than Hamas fired eight rockets at Israel. On Sunday it fired about 15 more before announcing at 2 p.m., along with Islamic Jihad, a ceasefire of its own conditional on Israel’s evacuating Gaza within a week. Four hours later two more rockets hit Israel. During last year’s “ceasefire” from June 19 to December 19, a total of over 500 rockets and mortars hit Israel from Gaza.
In announcing Israel’s latest ceasefire on Saturday night, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that “our targets, as defined when we launched the operation, have been fully achieved, and more so.” The proclaimed targets were to put an end to the rocket fire and to Hamas’s smuggling of weapons across the Gaza-Egypt border. The first, clearly, was not achieved; what about stopping the smuggling?
On Friday afternoon Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced a remarkably hasty Memorandum of Understanding under which the United States is supposed to work together with the whole international community to halt the smuggling of Iranian weapons into Gaza. On Sunday European and Arab leaders converged at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh ostensibly to discuss the smuggling among other issues.
Since the early 1990s successive Israeli governments have been consumed with the idea that Israel need no longer defend its own borders because other parties will do so instead. The last few days, though, have seen a new milestone: now it is not just the likes of UNIFIL, the Lebanese army, or Egyptian border guards who are supposed to protect Israel, but the whole international community—the same community that races to slap ceasefires on it the minute it lifts a finger to defend itself and whose media, NGOs, governments, and institutions fiercely condemn it with words and imagery evoking classic anti-Semitism.
Meanwhile at Sharm el-Sheikh, French president Nicolas Sarkozy proclaimed that “Israel should state immediately and clearly that if rocket fire will stop, the Israeli army will leave Gaza. There is no other solution to achieve peace.” As for Egypt, its president Hosni Mubarak had already made clear on Saturday that “I demand from [Israel’s] leaders an immediate and unconditional ceasefire and I demand from them a full withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Strip.”
He said further that “Egypt will never accept any foreign presence of monitors on its land. I say this is a red line I have not and will not allow to be crossed.” His foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit added that Egypt had “no commitment toward this [U.S.-Israeli] memo [of understanding] whatsoever” and that “Israel is drunk with power and violence.” He also said the U.S. and Israel could “do what they wish with regard to the sea or any other country in Africa, but when it comes to Egyptian land, we are not bound by anything except the safety and national security of the Egyptian people and Egypt’s ability to protect its borders.”
The head of Israel’s General Security Service, Yuval Diskin, told the cabinet on Sunday that Hamas would resume the smuggling within a few months and would soon rebuild the tunnels that Israel destroyed during Operation Cast Lead—these having numbered in the hundreds although a large quantity still remain.
Regarding both goals of Operation Cast Lead, then—the rocket fire and the smuggling—the outlook was bleak.
And by Sunday night Israel was already complying with Hamas, Sarkozy, and Mubarak’s wishes—though without Sarkozy’s proviso of a stoppage of the shelling—and starting to withdraw from Gaza. It was doing so without having secured the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier kidnapped by Hamas in June 2006 and held—presumably—in Gaza ever since without visits by the Red Cross or anyone else. Olmert and other top officials told a perturbed Israeli public that dealings were afoot on the matter of Shalit and it was best to keep these hushed; few if any were convinced.
Israel could resume the fighting if the provocations get intolerable. At this point, though, its abandonment of the campaign appears propelled mainly by (1) the international pressure that became monolithic with the U.S. failure on January 9 to veto UN Security Council Resolution 1860 and (2) fear of incurring the displeasure of the incoming Obama administration. It is true that this time Israel, particularly the Foreign Ministry and the army’s PR machine, made a determined effort to show the justice of Israel’s cause, emphasizing the long years of rocket fire on Israelis and Hamas’s abuse of the civilian population of Gaza for its military and propaganda purposes.
The international community, though—which is also indifferent to much larger-scale atrocities in Darfur or the Congo—has never cared about the shelling of Israeli towns and there was no reason for this to change. What does get this community riled up is TV images of Palestinian civilian casualties, and these were of course served up aplenty by the same terror-friendly media that worked so smoothly with Hezbollah in 2006. Israel’s moral arguments took a distant back seat to an oil-dependent world’s anxiety to get the embarrassing images off the TV screens as fast as possible.
Even if the Olmert government had relatively clear aims for the war, it had no clear idea of how to go about achieving them—let alone enough backbone to face the fact that the only effective force against the smuggling is a restored Israeli presence along the border with Egypt. Though all the assessments concur that Hamas suffered a considerable blow, fanatic movements with powerful state sponsors can recover surprisingly fast. The one lasting positive outcome may be the manifest improvement in Israel’s military performance compared to Lebanon in 2006—amounting, according to the more optimistic readings, to a restoration of deterrence.
The geopolitical implications, however, are grim, since even proficient armies usually cannot achieve their goals—or anything close to them—when the international community gives them a timeline of a few weeks at most. Could a tougher Israeli government have better withstood the pressure? With Israeli elections scheduled for February 10, and with the problem of Hamastan hardly solved, we may soon find out.