It is not easy to wage war against a cluster of organizations that operate within a weak or non-existent state.
Unfortunately, that is what Israel faces among the Palestinians and Lebanese. It is also what the United States faces in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Who is the enemy? The fighters wear no uniforms, although some of them don distinctive headbands or masks. The organizations compete among themselves, each claiming to be closest to the toughest, or most in touch with the religious or national ideal. In reality, ideology or theology may only be a facade for what really drives them: we are better than them (i.e., other organizations), our extended family, clan or tribe must stand against a family, clan, or tribal enemy as well as against the targets currently described as the enemies of the nation or religion (i.e., Israel, the United State, Britain, or "the West").
Who is in control? One war lord or another, some of whom may be nothing more than neighborhood gang leaders, or fighters who exploited personal charisma or toughness to climb to the top of a small group of aspiring heroes who have nothing better to do than band together, go through rudimentary training, and set out on the missions they define for themselves.
How to arrange a cease fire, armistice, or truce with these groups? First you have to learn who is in charge. But if no one is in charge, and there are several groups competing with one another while they are fighting you, the process can be difficult in the extreme. Maybe impossible. Never say never, but this is a tough problem. Witness Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza, and the West Bank.
In recent weeks Israel began what it hoped was a cease fire in Gaza. It pulled out its tanks and troops, and stopped targeted killings. Some of the Palestinian organizations may have stopped hostile actions, but others continued to fire their homemade rockets toward Israel. Among their reasons: Israel continued to battle their fighters in the West Bank, where no cease fire had been agreed with any Palestinian organization. A persuasive reason or just an excuse for continued action?
Some of their missiles landed in Israeli settlements and damaged property, but did nothing serious until last night. They kept up the pressure on settlements close to the Gaza, and an increasing number of politicians and screaming residents demanded that the prime minister stop what they perceived was a one-sided cease fire.
The prime minister refused to do more than warn the Palestinians that they must stop the firing; that his own patience was wearing thin. He argued to his Israeli critics that the cease fire, even though dangerous, was gaining Israel credit internationally, and was promoting understandings with moderate Palestinian leaders like Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazan). In return, his critics argued that Abbas was an unreliable partner, and that the continued cease fire was signaling weakness to Palestinians intent on Israel's destruction.
Last night the Palestinian misslemen got lucky. A shot landed close to two Israeli teenagers.
The first response of commentators and the prime minister's political opponents was, "That's the end. Now Israel will have to enter Gaza in a small or large way, and put an end to the threat once and for all times."
Before this morning's meeting of the prime minister and key officials concerned with security, other commentators were saying that there was some value in continued restraint. To break the cease fire, even though it was largely one-sided, would push all of the Palestinian organizations into the camp of the violent, and end what might become an opportunity for political progress.
By all signs, complete restraint had become impossible. The cost had proved too great, with two Jewish lads on the operating table, one in danger of losing a leg or even his life. Palestinians might retort that is nothing compared to the 400-500 Palestinians who lost their lives in the months before the cease fire. Israelis would respond that is the problem of Palestinians. We have to take care of our own.
The latest decision of the prime minister and his colleagues is to retain the cease fire, but now to target those who fire rockets, or who might fire them toward Israel. Cynics are calling this a mini-one-sided cease fire, which is neither meat nor milk, and will neither defend Israelis or promote the prospect of peace. Supporters are saying that it is an appropriate way of coping with the need to defend our people and to give peace a change.
But again, that is not easy while it remains unclear who, if anyone, rules the Palestinians, and who can reach agreements that will be enforced on them all.