Oren Kessler
Author, “Palestine 1936”

On terror tactics and ‘mutual restraint’

Israel this weekend accepted an extension to a UN-brokered 24-humanitarian ceasefire, which Hamas promptly rejected. Two weeks ago Israel accepted an Egyptian-mediated, US-backed ceasefire that would have ended the current operation completely. Then too, Hamas refused and continued firing the rockets – more than 2,500 over three weeks – that have threatened 80 percent of Israel’s population and sent half its people into bomb shelters. The farce of equal responsibility for this conflict should now be clear.

War, as the maxim goes, is the continuation of diplomacy by other means. So too with Hamas, which for years has used “negotiation by rockets” to extract concessions from the Israeli government, as in the lead-ups to Operation Pillar of Defence in 2012 and Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009. This time, however, it “promised” to stop the rockets only if Israel released convicted terrorists, allowed virtually free trade with the Gaza Strip – including, of course, weapons materiel – and facilitated the transfer of public-sector employees’ salaries from the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.

Residents of southern Israel, however, have had enough, and the massive public pressure they applied upon their government is what prompted Jerusalem to launch the current offensive. After all, no democracy can stand idly by as its citizens’ nursery schools, summer camps and homes are imperiled. That is why elected officials from across the Israeli political spectrum – including committed members of the “peace camp” who had been skeptical of prior operations – have thrown their weight behind the current campaign.

That is also why the international response to the operation – while expressing concern over the inevitable toll paid by civilians – has been nearly unanimously supportive of Israel’s self-defense. On Tuesday the European Union “recognized Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself” and condemned Hamas rockets as “criminal and unjustifiable acts.” A day earlier In the House of Commons, Prime Minister David Cameron observed, “Those criticizing Israel’s response must ask themselves how they would expect their own government to react if hundreds of rockets were raining down on British cities.” And a day before that, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, “War is ugly…but they (Hamas) need to recognize their own responsibility,” while President Barack Obama said simply that “No nation should accept rockets being fired into its borders, or terrorists tunneling into its territory.”

As we in the West watch the fighting from afar, it is crucial to remember how the two parties arrived at this point. First, despite Hamas protestations, there is no “occupation” of Gaza – Israel withdrew its soldiers and civilians in 2005, amid promises from the international community that such a step would help birth regional peace. Instead, the Gaza withdrawal sparked a four-fold upswing in rocket fire on innocent civilians.

Then last month, Hamas operatives abducted and murdered three Israeli teens hitchhiking home from a religious seminary. Although Hamas denied planning their murder, its leadership praised the act and promised similar attempts in the future. When Israel responded by arresting Hamas leaders in the West Bank, the terror group launched a major rocket barrage at civilians. This is not a “cycle of violence,” but the culmination of deliberate decisions made by Hamas’s upper echelons to provoke an Israeli response.

Still, while underscoring Israel’s right to defend itself, pundits and policymakers resorted to the usual platitudes about “mutual restraint.” In the words of US President Barack Obama last week, “All parties must protect the innocent and act with reasonableness and restraint.” For his part, UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon added, “The deteriorating situation is leading to a downward spiral.” Both leaders’ comments treat the current confrontation in neutral terms, as if the violence were something neither side wanted, but was imposed by circumstances beyond their control. Nothing could be further from the truth: the present crisis is a direct result of Hamas’s long-standing tactic of terrorising civilians with rockets in an attempt to blackmail Israel into meeting its demands.

Israel’s campaign – codenamed Operation Protective Edge – is aimed at reestablishing the country’s deterrence and allowing its citizens to lead normal lives. The current ground incursion is a necessary measure to inflict a decisive blow to Hamas’s terror infrastructure.

As Israel completes its mission, all parties interested in Middle East peace must retain their moral compass.  As a Western-oriented democracy battles an unrepentant terrorist group, the West should remain crystal-clear about which side it expects to show “restraint.”

About the Author
Oren Kessler is author of “Palestine 1936: The Great Revolt and the Roots of the Middle East Conflict,” one of the Wall Street Journal’s 10 Best Books of 2023