On Tuesday evening, June 17th, the Egyptian government announced that a truce agreement between Israel and the Hamas in Gaza would commence at 6 A.M. on Thursday, June 19. This understanding means essentially that Israel indirectly recognizes and is negotiating with a terrorist organization dedicated to its destruction. Earlier in the week, there were acrimonious debates and exchanges of recriminations regarding the question whether or not Israel should enter Gaza with massive armed force in order to bring an end to acts of terror which include the launching rockets and mortars against the civilian population of the Western Negev and of Askelon. On June 16 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement informing the public that "the very fact that Hamas carried out a violent coup against the more pragmatic Palestinian Authority, led by Abu Mazen, proves that they are not willing to participate in the process of achieving peace through compromise between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that was sarted in 1993 with the Oslo Accords."
It is likely that any arrangement with the Hamas will be temporary and last only as long as it suits them. In exchange for an undetermined pause in hostilities, Israel plans to give up the advantages of relative military strength, while its enemy prepares for the next round, training its forces, building fortifications, and smuggling in new weapons. The prototype for this transaction was the Truce of Hudaybiyyah of 628 CE which Muhammad signed with the Quraish tribe of Mecca at a time when his forces were relatively weak. Later, when he gained more followers, he broke the treaty and defeated this tribe. According to the website, Israel Forum, "This truce became a model and a precedent in Islamic law for all agreements with infidels, never lasting more than ten years (with the possibility of another ten years extension, no more)." Within a broader perspective, the major objective of any guerilla movement, as Mao once wrote, is simply to stay in existence. In this respect, the State of Israel has been needlessly helpful to the Hamas.
The implications of the alternative policy choices: a truce or possible military actions in Gaza have not been the subject of a serious public debate, and some of the main issues have been obfuscated. Also, the tendency of the media to present recent developments mainly in the perspective of the present, as if they were entirely new, is misleading.
About a year ago today, on June 20th 2007, Israel lost Ze'ev Schiff, one of its finest military analysts. Twelve days before his passing, one of his last articles, "An Israeli Defeat in Sderot," appeared in Ha'aretz. Although a year has passed, his article has reatined its value. If Schiff were alive today, he could have written the same article with only minor changes. Some of his conclusions are as follows:
1. Israel has been defeated in Sderot;
2. The enemy has silenced an entire city and brought normal life there to a halt;
3. The people in Sderot do not feel that the country is standing behind them;
4. The government did not succeed in turning bombarded Sderot into a national defense project, which reinforces the assessment that this government is incapable of leading the nation in a major military confrontation;
5. The enemy that defeated Sderot is a terror organization that is militarily weak, yet in spite of its weakness, it has succeeded in achieving deterrence vis-à-vis Israel, just as Hizbollah did;
6. Israel finds itself in a military draw with Hamas. That is a serious national failure, which ... is worse than the failure of the Second Lebanon War;
7. Contrary to the tradition established by David Ben Gurion, it is the enemy who has brought the fighting to Israeli territory.
More rockets have fallen on Sderot since Ze'ev Schiff first wrote, and more mortars have fallen on the surrounding region. Several Grad missiles have hit Ashkelon. People are leaving some of the areas near the Gaza border. It is noteworthy that Schiff's description of defeat was closely associated in his mind with the government's abandoning the traditional "core values" of Israeli society. He also called the situation a "national disgrace."
The government of Israel has been slow to act effectively against Hamas terror, particularly the launching of rockets and mortars on Jewish towns and agricultural settlements. One of the reasons is that both the government and the army have been unable to respond to the challenge of political warfare. Although the army has done fairly well with the logistics and creative problem solving relating to combat in densely populated areas, as was the case with Jenin in 2002, it has made the mistake of "taking the purely military viewpoint." The army and the political leadership failed to defend Israel's legitimacy and the exercise of the sovereign right to protect its own civilian population. This failure has become painfully apparent as Israel finds itself in a state of protracted conflict.
In the past, the State of Israel insisted on the principle of accountability in its dealings with regimes which allowed their territories to be used as a staging point for terror. At present, it is clear that the State has given up its traditional policy of making others pay the price for terror against Israeli civilian populations. Indeed, the fact that Israel has not insisted upon its legitimate claims in the war of words and ideas represents a serious omission on the part of the government.
Under the present circumstances, a massive military operation in Gaza could be a serious mistake. The population is heavily armed and the area is densely populated. Further, there is also no compelling reason for Israel to incur losses in order to make way for the weak and discredited regime of Abu Mazen. If long-term results are to be achieved in Gaza, it is necessary to bring about a fundamental regime change in the spirit of the American occupation of Germany and Japan after World War II.
It would be necessary to remake and reform the Hamas institutions of civil and political society and create a totally new entity not associated either with the Palestinian Authority or with the Muslim Brotherhood. A new basic law would have to replace the Hamas Charter. This endeavor would require sustained police action; legal reform, rebuilding the judiciary, and the education system; political purges, censorship of the press and of the sermons in the mosques; and the rewriting of school textbooks. Such a program would place upon Israel the responsibility to provide for the health, welfare and feeding of the civilian population of Gaza, a heavy burden which is beyond its capability and resources.
It is likely that the new truce agreement will not result in a cessation of hostilities. Since this understanding will enable the enemy to prepare for the next round, Israel must also prepare for the worst case scenario. What is left, effectively, is the option of deterrence. Israel should launch a permanent and effective information campaign in order to safeguard its right to defend itself and to discredit the enemy. It should endeavor continuously to undermine the support of the Gaza population for the Hamas regime and to the extent possible, gain some understanding in the Arab world. It is inconceivable that a terrorist organization engaged in the murder of Israeli civilians should benefit from rights conferred by international law. Thus, Israel must be prepared to stand up against heavy international pressure. In combination with a vigorous information campaign, Israel must be prepared to employ measures of forceful deterrence and retaliation. Certain military options, such as artillery and rocket attacks, aerial operations, as well as targeted assassinations, may be employed to convince the other side that any attack on Israeli civilians will result in costly and painful consequences.
Dr. Joel Fishman is a Fellow of a research center in Jerusalem.
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