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January 19, 2009

Shock, Awe, and Belated Soul-Searching in Israel

by Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

JERUSALEM – "If only my three daughters will be the last victims of this horrible conflict," wept Dr. Ezzadin Abu al-Aish, a Palestinian gynecologist recovering from his wounds in Tel Aviv's Tel Hashomer hospital. An Israeli tank shell killed three of his nine children, aged 20, 15, and 14, as well as a 14-year-old niece in their home in the Jabaliya refugee camp Saturday. Israel says its forces were responding to sniper fire.

Israeli TV viewers had already become familiar with the doctor, who had trained at the Israeli hospital and maintained regular professional contact with Israeli colleagues. During the war, through Israel's Channel 10 network, he regularly brought accounts of Gaza's humanitarian plight into Israeli living rooms.

"I raised my children to be soldiers of peace – I believed medicine could be a bridge between our two peoples," Dr. Abu al-Aish said in an impromptu televised news conference. Many viewers expressed their shock at his tragedy. But there were other reactions: "Shame on you – why was your building used to fire on our sons?" one woman yelled.

The woman, Levana Stern, later identified herself as the mother of three paratroopers, one of whom was serving in Gaza. Other parents accused the TV stations of promoting "Palestinian propaganda." This mix of repentance and the contrasting refusal to countenance repentance have both been triggered by the accumulative damage on Israel's "image" because of the horrors of the army's three-week "shock and awe" war on Hamas.

Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak paraded the "successful achievement of all our objectives" as underlying Saturday night's unilateral cease-fire declaration – a "belated" decision in the view of several top politicians and army commanders alike. Over the previous few days there had been a growing perception that the unremitting onslaught on Hamas had reached the point of diminishing returns.

There's no formal agreement with Hamas. Israel wants to avoid the Islamist organization being put on an equal footing.

Olmert and Barak warned that if Hamas refuses to hold its fire, Israel will respond forcefully. On the ground Sunday morning, the only incidents were those initiated by Hamas. For now, Israeli forces remain in all areas of Gaza they have conquered. Indications are that Israel does not intend to stay for long.

The outcome is not quite as clear-cut as the Israeli leadership would have it. Is the military and political battering Hamas has sustained enough to deter it long-term? Will Israel emerge from the war as diplomatically boosted as many Israelis would like to imagine?

"Israel has become a country riven by hatred and almost as bloodthirsty as its enemies," wrote columnist Ofer Shelach in the center-right newspaper Ma'ariv. "A country that once had the ambition, in the Biblical phrase 'to be a light unto the nations,' is now proud to have adopted the value system of Vladimir Putin. If that is victory, woe unto the victors!"

Less concerned with war ethics and more with the military situation on the ground, Israeli hardliners still doubt the merit of their government's understanding reached with Egypt, the U.S., and the Europeans about curbing weapons smuggling into Gaza to resupply Hamas.

Some Israelis also doubt whether the one-sided cease-fire guarantees Israel's deterrent capabilities. Yossi Peled, a former army general and candidate for the right-wing Likud in the forthcoming elections, said bluntly on Israeli television, "Unilateralism is a proven dirty word – look how badly we came off from our unilateral withdrawals from south Lebanon [in 2000] and Gaza [in 2005]. I fear that in the not-too-distant future we'll have to take on a strengthened Hamas."

The cease-fire also signals the start of the election campaign for the Feb. 10 Israeli national poll. Olmert (who isn't running) and Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni (who are challenging the front-running right-wing Likud candidate Benjamin Netanyahu) all anticipate plaudits for their belated cease-fire decision when a sextet of top European leaders arrive in Jerusalem Sunday night following their summit in Sharm el-Sheikh with Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, the power behind the cease-fire plan.

But this is only a prelude. Urgently anticipated is the intervention of the new U.S. administration. That's been widely expected ever since President-elect Barack Obama himself said he would not waste time getting involved. The cease-fire only parries speculation about the context in which Obama will choose to build his venture into the Middle East minefield: Will he simply become embroiled in the familiar charges and counter-charges of who was justified and who was to blame for this war? Or will he go so far as to grasp the delicate situation by the horns and embark on an immediate and forceful peace offensive?

Even as he was declaring the cease-fire, Olmert at least again put on record the need to work for the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza prepared to live in peace alongside Israel. Israeli political scientist Zeev Sternhell was more explicit: "The war's objective must ultimately be political," he wrote in Ha'aretz. "The devastation visited upon Gaza must be the launching pad of vigorous negotiations under international auspices for an all-out peace."

(Inter Press Service)

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Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler's Bio

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.

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