Just two weeks after the tragedy of an Israeli
soldier kidnapped by Hamas into Gaza, history repeated itself on the Lebanese
border, this time as farce. Hezbollah, the Middle East's most sophisticated
guerilla, managed to kidnap two Israeli soldiers into Lebanon. Once again it
took the Israeli army almost an hour to figure out that two of its troops were
missing. The soldiers must have been already "far, far away," as the charismatic
Hassan Nasrallah said contemptuously, when the army took the odd decision to
send a tank into Lebanon to get them. Just 70 meters north of the border fence,
the Merkava – "one of the
most protected tanks in the world" – drove over a powerful bomb and was completely
destroyed. All four crew members were killed instantly. It then took the army
more than 12 hours to extricate the wreck and recover the bodies, under heavy
fire in which yet another soldier was killed, bringing the total number of Israeli
casualties in the incident to eight. The strongest army in the Middle East seems
unable to protect its own soldiers, let alone Israel's citizens. A sane state
would send its talented chief of staff home; Israel, instead, sent him to wreak
havoc in Lebanon.
From Lebanon to the Wall
This was just one in a long series of humiliations
for Israel's military. In summer 2000 it had to admit its defeat in Lebanon
and withdraw from its southern part, which even Ben Gurion had considered a
desirable "natural border"of the Jewish state. The Second Intifada, initiated
by PM Ehud Barak just a few months after that withdrawal, was intended, among
other things, to reconcile the army by giving it a fresh playground. The reoccupation
of the entire West Bank in the bloody days of 2002 – "Operation Defense Shield"
– looked like a happy return to the good old days of the military as the nation's
pride. With former generals Barak, Sharon, Ben Eliezer, and Mofaz playing musical
chairs with the seats of prime minister and/or minister of defense, the military
enjoyed unlimited resources and political power.
But once again, just like in Lebanon, the army failed. Terrorizing the Palestinians
and the total destruction of their physical, social, and political infrastructure
were carried out very efficiently, but failed to provide security to Israel's
citizens; and presumably that's what armies are for. Yielding to popular pressure,
PM Sharon was forced to endorse the construction of a fence to stop suicide
bombers from entering Israel. In his strategic ingenuity, Sharon came up with
the brilliant idea of erecting the Wall as deep as possible in Palestinian territory,
ensuring that the barrier would not be the beginning of the end of Israel's
colonialist project, but rather perpetuate and entrench it even further.
Unlike its illegality,
the effectiveness of the Wall is controversial: on the one hand it makes access
of suicide-bombers into Israel more difficult. On the other hand, the enormous
land confiscations, dispossession, strangulation, and pauperization that go
hand-in-hand with its construction ensure unlimited supply of desperate Palestinians
with very little to lose. At any rate, for the Israeli army the Wall is bad
news. It reduces the brave fighters into bored jailers and gatekeepers, whose
most glorious mission is the daily – or rather nightly – incursions into Palestinian
bedrooms. What will the aging generals tell their grandchildren? That their
greatest achievement was to deceive
the Supreme Court in order to rob a few more acres of Palestinian land?
As Amira Hass
shows, the spearhead of the occupation has now been relegated to clerks and
bureaucrats, responsible for Israel's demographic policy of ethnic cleansing.
Generals love the color red – as in blood, not as in red tape.
Back to Gaza
The military defeat in Gaza was yet another blow
to the army. Again, it failed to protect the citizens and stop the homemade
Qassam missiles. Not only did it have to pull out of the Strip last summer,
it was also forced to evict settlers – the soldiers' brethren-in-arms for 40
years, the civilian corps of the army.
The Palestinian elections and the victory of Hamas sounded like excellent news
for the army, but the Israeli elections were probably too much to take. During
the campaign, all political parties pledged to cut Israel's enormous defense
budget; and what is worse, in the new government both Prime Minister Olmert
and Minister of Defense Peretz are not army veterans, an almost unprecedented
state of affairs in the past one-and-a-half decades.
At last, the humiliated, frustrated military took command. It had been demanding
a massive attack on Gaza long before the Israeli soldier was kidnapped. The
government seemed somewhat reluctant. But the ground was consistently prepared
by a calculated escalation: repeated killing of civilians and children,
assassination of a top
PA official, even making so-called "arrests"
in Gaza for the first time since the pullout. Following the kidnap (June 26),
the cabinet could not stop the army anymore. The chief of staff revealed the
true relations between the army in charge and its obedient cabinet, saying he
"supported" the cabinet's policy not to "surrender to blackmail" and not to
negotiate with the soldier's kidnappers; as Akiva Eldar of Ha'aretz (July
4) correctly wondered, what if the cabinet changed its mind? Would Soldier No.
1 announce he does not "support" it anymore? Using a similar vocabulary, Amir
Oren reported in Ha'aretz (July 3) that "The Israel Defense Forces said
it will not support a deal that would release terrorists…. The army would be
willing to release individuals who are being held under the Prevention of Terrorism
Ordinance," etc. Israel's elected government enjoys a certain amount of freedom,
but the army dictates just how much.
Olmert and Peretz by now probably are convinced that the army is doing just
what they always wanted. They also hope that a macho image is just what the
Israeli voter wants, especially from politicians who lack military experience
– precisely the reasoning behind Shimon Peres' pounding of Lebanon in 1996,
leading to his defeat in the general elections soon after.
Back to Lebanon
Israel's chief of staff, whose analytic capacities
are as inspiring as his moral faculties,
termed the kidnap and attack on his soldiers near Gaza "an act of terror." PM
Olmert termed the identical kidnap by Hezbollah two weeks later "an act of war."
Guerilla attacks on soldiers are never "terror," but kidnapping soldiers – or
civilians – and holding them as bargaining chips is banned by international
law. Israel, however, is in no position to complain: this is precisely what
it did with a group of Lebanese nationals, detained in Israel for many years
as bargaining chips; even the Supreme Court did not dare face the military,
and upheld this breach
of international law. Despite official
denial, the arrest of some 60 Hamas members following the kidnap, including
several ministers, serves the same illegal function.
The background of Hezbollah's illegitimate kidnap, however, is different:
six weeks before (May 26), Israel assassinated a senior Jihad member, Mahmoud
al-Majzub, by a booby-trapped car in Sidon. When Syria assassinates
a political leader in Lebanon, the whole world is in an uproar; when Israel
does the same, the only one daring to react is Hezbollah, by an attack on northern
Israel, killing one soldier. There was nothing unusual about that either; the
skirmish fell well within the quiet understandings. Very unusual was Israel's
disproportional response: "an exceptionally harsh Israeli reaction," which the
military explicitly described as "a change of policy" (Amos Harel in Ha'aretz,
May 29), hitting front-line Hezbollah bases all along the border. The Israeli
army later boasted that Hezbollah was "caught by surprise" or had even "fallen
into a trap," and that it would now think twice before acting. Hezbollah, apparently,
thought twice and thrice, and decided to make it clear that the rules of the
game cannot be changed unilaterally.
What is Israel's running wild likely to achieve?
Not much. As for the kidnapped soldiers, any action other than negotiations
is gambling with their lives, as their families
now start to say out louder. As for the missiles shot from Gaza, the military
could not stop them when it was sitting inside the Strip – obviously, it cannot
stop them by casual incursions and air bombing. As for Lebanon, the disproportional
Israeli reaction made Hezbollah fire missiles at the whole of northern Israel,
both at communities that had enjoyed relative quiet since 2000 and at places
that had never experienced any Lebanese missiles before. The army now turns
to Israel's citizens, begging them to show restraint and endurance while they
are bombed – as if the citizens are supposed to be there for the army rather
than vice versa.
As often in war time, most citizens do flock together behind the army, no matter
how much they suffer. What Israel fails to grasp is that this simple logic applies
to the other side as well: devastating Gaza will only increase support for the
Palestinian militants, just like Hezbollah being the only power that effectively
fights Israel is not likely to strengthen the weak Lebanese government, whose
vested interest and legal obligation is indeed to disarm Hezbollah. So in a
final analysis, the main achievements of the Israeli brutality will be more
and more bloodshed and devastation on both sides, and a lot of entertainment
for the bored Israeli military. When they get tired of playing (and/or losing),
Israel will negotiate a prisoner swap and return to the status quo ante,
in Gaza as well as in Lebanon, till next time. For many families on both sides,
this will be too late.