This Gaza war was not inevitable; its continuation is even less so. Its presentation as a no choice (ein breira) confrontation may serve as a rationalization for current actions, but does not in of itself mean that decision-makers had no alternative but to engage militarily or that now they must continue with what has developed into an alarming escalation whose dynamic is frightening and end unclear. Operation Protective Edge is a product of tunnel vision, prompted not only by the single-minded Hamas stockpiling of sophisticated rockets and construction of offensive tunnels while its people have been drowning in dire poverty and hopelessness, but also by the reluctance of Israel’s current leadership to look beyond the here and now and offer workable options to ongoing conflict and strife.
There is light at the end of the tunnel. Finding it is a function of shedding the passivity inherent in the “no-choice” mind-set and all that it entails and designing a diplomatic compromise which can still yield that lasting quiet which no military operation in Gaza has been able to achieve to date.
The inability to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has led, especially since the collapse of the Oslo process, to the entrenchment of a bunker mentality which has fortified extremists on both sides at the expense of the silent majority that — with all its fears and anxieties — has nevertheless maintained a belief in the necessity of a just political solution. The unwillingness of the present Israeli government to relinquish the so-called status quo, thereby perpetuating Israel’s control over the West Bank and the siege on Gaza (with all their ramifications), could neither quash Palestinian resistance nor guarantee Israeli security. This failure was compounded by a misplaced emphasis on strategic threats from afar and a studious neglect of regional shifts closer to home. Without a grasp of the larger picture and devoid of a concrete vision of a workable and desirable future, it has been difficult to avoid sinking into a pattern of repetitive military forays in the groundless hope that they would yield different results.
When the Kerry initiative collapsed a few months ago — in no small measure due to the obstinacy of the ruling coalition and the subsequent withdrawal of the international community — the groundwork was prepared for further deterioration. The events leading up to the present Gaza war proceeded rapidly: the creation of the Palestinian reconciliation government and its rejection by Israel, the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens, the round-up of Hamas activists on the West Bank and the arrest of released prisoners, the revenge killing of a Palestinian youth, the resumption of rocket attacks from Gaza, the initial restraint of the Israeli government which gave way to aerial bombardments in self-defense, the discovery of a sinuous network of tunnels leading to Israeli population centers within the 1967 boundaries, the initiation of a ground war and the rising number of deaths, injuries and destruction.
As this retrogressive spiral has progressed, its underlying tunnel vision has become more pronounced. Each step has been depicted as a necessary response to a specific danger, until all these measures together have been transformed into what is being presented as an increasingly embracing existential threat. While the extent of Hamas ruthlessness is now more evident than ever before and the determination of its leadership to pursue its goal of eradicating Israel even more painfully apparent, so, too, is the sense among large portions of the Israeli public that Israel is compelled to push back against this evil with even greater force. This prevailing view feeds on tangible fear and a natural desire for self-preservation; it also capitalizes on raw nerves and constant disruptions in daily routines. The reality of the first three weeks of this war cannot but sow widespread anxiety and arouse a desire for closure leading to a modicum of certainty. This does not mean, however, that the Hamas really poses a serious threat to Israel’s being. Neither does it imply that Israel, beyond some ephemeral tactical achievements, has much to gain strategically from yet another round of Gaza-centered warfare which — far from enhancing security and augmenting defense — might yet bolster precisely those forces that nurture terror and additional extremism.
As each phase in this deadly dynamic has unfolded, less and less room has been available for discussion; the overwhelming mantra of inevitability has overtaken public discourse. If, at the beginning of this operation, there was a fairly open public debate on the pros and cons of military action, with television studios packed with spokespeople expressing a variety of views, as the days have passed, less and less tolerance exists for such a multiplicity of voices. The few who try to articulate divergent opinions have found themselves attacked — physically as well as verbally — by vehement advocates of unbridled military action. The freedom of speech of the former has been curtailed by the intolerable incitement of the latter. In the name of national unity, the cohesion of Israeli society is being torn asunder as anti-Arab sentiments have gained traction and intolerance runs rampant.
Beneath this heavy facade, many doubts about the advisability of government decisions continue to simmer — rarely breaking to the surface. Discussions on how to end the war in Gaza have mostly been hijacked by military cognoscenti who have yet to link their proposals to the rising unrest in the West Bank or to elaborate on how to tie the end of hostilities to the emerging alliance between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.
The tunnel vision that has propped up the current military operation and sustains it politically and socially nurtures a form of collective resignation which perforce stunts creativity. This frame of mind is reinforced by the pain that comes with the growing number of dead, injured and traumatized at home, as well as by the increasing comprehension of the disproportionate depth of the human and physical devastation in the Gaza strip. As more questions arise and the loyalty of those with the courage to articulate them has been challenged, something has begun to unravel at the core of Israeli society. This confrontation, however, is not about who is or is not a true patriot, but rather about different ways to safeguard Israel’s citizens and ensure their long-term well being. It is, then, fundamentally about the moral and human face of Israel and its practical ramifications.
There is not only one, single, abiding truth in this morass. The light at the end of the tunnel will be discovered by exploring and exploiting the various shades of gray which most people on both sides sense but are afraid to pursue. This is the true challenge today: how to inject moderation in the face of extremism; how to search for other ways out of the predictable conundrum; how to weigh available options instead of bowing to the seemingly inexorable; how to take control over the future by looking beyond the present.
The tomorrow of Israelis and Palestinians — and by extension their neighbors — depends to a great extent on their capacity to proactively shape a different course for their societies. Only a small number can, in truth, say (in the words of Ernest Henley’s “Invictus”) that “I am the Master of my fate, the captain of my soul”. Failure to do so, however, will mean only one thing: that nothing much will change even if the guns are silenced temporarily.
There is a diplomatic horizon, albeit one fraught with new obstacles and risks. It rests on utilizing the impending ceasefire to lay the groundwork for the rehabilitation of Gaza through lifting the decade-old siege and thereby undermining the infrastructure of hunger, despair and fatalism on which terrorism breeds. It requires the resumption, within a regional framework, of negotiations to end the occupation and ultimately the conflict. It foresees an Israel in coalition with other moderate countries in the Middle East. With the good sense of Israelis and Palestinians — coupled with the active involvement of the international community — such an initiative can be set in motion expeditiously and effectively. Only then will it be possible to remove the blinders that have hampered progress in the past and begin to mend the deep social strains engendered by years of interminable conflict.