Israel copes, and pays the price of unsolved problems in uncertainty and frustration.
Last weekend was difficult. The period of calm with Gaza had formally ended, after ending in practice some time earlier. The rain of rockets and mortars increased. Also increasing was the incidence of Israeli politicians calling for a solution.
We have heard it all before: cut off supplies; invade; respond with bombardments for every missile fired at Israel; destroy the Hamas regime; make Gazans pay with their blood for the constant tension, the property damage and injuries caused by their missiles and mortars.
The political campaign focused on February 10th added to the intensity of opposition candidates. If they were in the government, Israel would act rather than dither. The present leadership is failing once again.
Other politicians urged restraint and criticized their colleagues for stirring passions. The counter messages were also well known: the military is prepared for all contingencies; it has the power to do what it must; however, we will choose the right time to implement our plans; Hamas will pay a heavy price for its actions; before doing anything, we must take account of the Israeli prisoner, the response of the international community to civilian casualties among the Palestinians, and the capacity of Hamas to use newly acquired weapons (smuggled from Egypt) that can cause greater damage, further from Gaza, than what it is using currently.
Adding to the discussion was a reminder from an official charged with interpreting international law: the IDF must not bombard civilian areas.
Ordinary citizens are not so certain about international law. If Hamas and its friends send missiles and mortars toward Israeli civilians, why cannot Israel respond in the same way? What about the right of defense? And what about international law that assures Gilad Shalit visits from the Red Cross to see that he is being treated humanely?
It is not so simple, respond the experts. "National defense" is important, but does not provide total freedom of action. Hamas is a gang that operates outside of the law. Israel is a sovereign state committed to the rule of law.
Must Israel act differently than the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan or Russia in Georgia?
Of course. One expert admitted that great powers can thumb their noses at notions of international law. He asserted, however, that when they bomb indiscriminately and violate rights in prisons like Guantanamo they suffer not only criticism but also a lack of cooperation from governments that pride themselves as law abiding.
Israel is not so privileged. It has enjoyed some latitude to defend itself as against the attacks of Hizbollah, and will enjoy some latitude to deal with Hamas. But the international community provides its latitude on a short string, depending on how much time it takes and how horrendous the civilian casualties.
International law is more nuanced in practice than the laws applied at home about criminal violence or financial misdeeds. If Israel wants to maintain membership among the civilized, and enjoy opportunities for trade, scientific cooperation, travel and other modern conveniences, it must accommodate itself to the tolerances of greater powers.
Currently the Gaza front is complicated. Hamas and its friends are sending mixed signals. They want to reestablish the period of calm. Some messages indicate they demand greater concessions from Israel, such as extending the calm to the West Bank (i.e., no more seizures of Hamas operatives there) and opening the borders to Gaza for the transfer of supplies. Some messages indicate that they will accept an agreement about calm without any change in conditions.
One moment Egyptian authorities say they are fed up with Hamas and will not mediate between Gaza and Israel. The next moment Egyptian authorities urge restraint on Israel.
Hamas declared a one day unilateral cease fire. It passed with only six rocket attacks.
According to one report it was in response to Egyptian requests to allow mediation to proceed. According to another report it was in order to allow the transfer of humanitarian supplies from Egypt to Gaza.
With the end of the one day cease fire, attacks have began in greater earnest.
Turkish officials, currently mediating talks between Israel and Syria, warn that their success may depend on Israeli restraint toward Gaza.
Senior military officials are saying that a destructive attack is ready, and will be implemented when the time is right. One has hinted that it will come when the weather clears. Another says that even one day of calm is worth reconsidering a move that would escalate the violence.
Can Israel attack on Christmas? Maybe after Hanukah.
There have been no Israeli deaths and few injuries in this flurry of missiles and mortars. There have been a number of Palestinian deaths, including those of civilian bystanders, due to limited attacks on those firing, or preparing to fire at Israel. The people of Gaza continue to suffer from the nonviolent economic constraints. One day the border is open for supplies. The next day it is closed in response to a rocket attack.
How much more do we want to do, and how much of a cost in retaliation or international censure do we want to endure? If you think the answers to those questions are easy, think again.
While thinking, enjoy the holidays, but do not overeat. We are not as young or as healthy as we used to be.
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Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Dept of Political Science
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem