Albert Einstein famously defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. There is a series of repeating patterns in Israel’s behaviour and the response of its enemies.
Israel unilaterally withdrew from Southern Lebanon in 2000, and Hezbollah set up a presence as a launching pad for rocket attacks. Then Israel had to go in there in 2006 and do its best to destroy that capability. Since then, the weapons build up has continued in the face of toothless UN resolutions. In 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip and Hamas quickly took over, setting up a launching pad for rocket attacks. After enduring these attacks for several years, Israel finally launched Operation Cast Lead in 2008. The rockets subsided for a time, but the weapons build up continued. After the attacks escalated again this year, Israel is currently engaged in Operation Pillar of Cloud to again make a dent in Hamas’s rocket capability.
It certainly looks like an ongoing pattern that never ends: withdraw from territory; enemy sets up shop; rocket attacks; destroy rockets. Rinse and repeat.
So is anything different now? Given that the prospects of peace are dim at best, should we just mark 2016 in our calendars for the next Israeli offensive?
Firstly, let’s contextualize the current conflagration. Those who decried Israel for this latest offensive, or who called for Israel to “stop the war in Gaza” just don’t get it. Following withdrawal from Gaza and the takeover by Hamas, the region effectively became a de facto state. In any other situation between two countries, rockets and cross-border attacks are an act of war. In any other situation, a country would have every right to maintain a blockade, or limit trade, with another country that was at war with it. So in real terms, this war between Israel and Hamas has been going on for some eight years, punctuated by the occasional escalation.
This “long war” is fought on several fronts. Besides the physical war with Gaza, there is the war being waged in the court of public opinion. Here in Australia, like in many places, the mainstream media is far from Israel-friendly. The indiscriminate rocket attacks and their effect on hundreds of thousands of civilians within the strike zone barely rate a mention.
But things have been a bit different this time around. Israel has been especially proactive in the social media front with live tweets and video of the current offensive. While this particular tactic was greeted with typical cynicism, there has been a noticeable change to the world response and media coverage. Obama was unusually forthright in his defence of Israel’s right to protect its citizens, and laying blame on the Hamas rocket campaign. The media has also recognized the significance of the rocket strikes rather than laying the blame on Israel. Furthermore, stories and subplots the likes of which we’ve never seen are getting significant coverage. The fraudulent photos and videos – either from the Syrian conflict, of Palestinian children killed by Hamas’s own rockets then blamed on Israel, or of Palestinians staging injuries – are finally being exposed on a larger scale. The extrajudicial killing of collaborators in Hamas has also been revealed in all its horror for the world to see.
There is another significant change, and that relates to the role of Egypt in the conflict. Hamas has shifted its alliance from Iran to the Muslim Brotherhood – the controlling party in Egypt. Either the Egyptians don’t want to get involved in armed conflict at this time, and/or see themselves as being able to take a prominent role in stabilizing matters on their border. Whatever the motivation (which we will only learn in the fullness of time), at the time of writing a ceasefire has been imposed, and the ground forces have been (for now) pulled back from brink. So compared to 2008, both the rocket fire and the world media (sometimes it seems like they have too much in common) have been managed well.
While the current offensive has not been the “knockout blow” many have demanded, and this war is still far from over, Israel does seem to be learning to adapt its responses. Hamas and others often speak with a long term outlook – 10-year hudnas and 100-year plans to “retake” Jerusalem. Perhaps Israel has realized it too needs to play the long game.