What does Israel want?

November 19, 2012

Days of intensive Israeli bombing of Gaza and the threat of an invasion by ground troops have pushed the Middle East to the brink. Toufic Haddad, a Palestinian-American writer and researcher and author of Between the Lines: Israel, the Palestinians, and the U.S. "War on Terror," answered questions from Sherry Wolf about the factors and motivations behind Israel's onslaught and the impact of the Arab Spring upheavals on this first major confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians of Gaza.

WHY DO you think Israel launched this assault now?

BEFORE GOING into analyzing the larger political and strategic questions of the Israel assault and its timing overall, I think it's important to first acknowledge the assassination of Ahmed al-Jabari, which set off the chain of events that led to the Israeli assault. Too often, we jump over trying to understand Israel's "provocations," without realizing that they can also help explain what is happening specifically and generally.

Jabari was a pivotal figure in Hamas' military wing, responsible for greatly improving its prowess and overseeing the major increase of its capabilities in recent years. He outlived and gleaned the experience of most of the founders of the Hamas military brigades, digesting their insight and vision during his 13 years with them in Israeli prisons and then during the second Intifada, when he was a top field commander.

He was considered by Israeli military intelligence to represent the "most extreme" wing of Hamas, in terms of radicalness, opposition to Israel and dedication to armed struggle. This differentiated him from what Israeli intelligence believes to be the movement's more "pragmatic" wing, which Israel hopes to foster.

A man and three children wounded by Israeli air strikes in Gaza
A man and three children wounded by Israeli air strikes in Gaza

Jabari had also spent two years in a Palestinian Authority prison before the second Intifada. He played a key role in the decision to finally seek to remove the CIA-backed Fatah coup attempt being planned with Mohammed Dahlan after Hamas won elections in 2006. It is also well known that he was the central negotiator of the successful prisoner exchange involving Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, which Israel never digested nor forgave.

Jabari also maintained--and this is quite crucial--that the military wing of Hamas would have the last say in the movement's decisions. The weight of his words was on a par and even trumped that of any other Hamas leader. Jabari was the most powerful man in Gaza.

His death is a big loss for Hamas. But Hamas is not devastated. In contrast to the institutionalist development model being implemented across the West Bank in the form of "Fayyadism," Jabari molded in Gaza a mass-based guerrilla army, with command and control, supply, training, intelligence, infrastructure and education. It was not his work alone, but he was its faithful and most dedicated field leader.

He therefore leaves behind much depth in the Hamas military leadership bench, despite his passing. The ongoing Palestinian defense against Israel's assault in Gaza and the likely ensuing ground war will be, in many ways, Jabari's defense.

As to the vicious assault that Israel has launched on Gaza, that is another question. What were Israel's intentions behind the Jabari assassination and the ensuing--and completely predictable conflagration?

Israel certainly wanted to kill Jabari, and Netanyahu might simply have not been able to resist the temptation to do so when the opportunity arose. Jabari was extremely careful to have lasted this long, so something clearly broke down in his security coordination in his last days.

I have the feeling that although the contingency plan of an Israeli attack on Gaza existed on the shelf for the generals to put into motion when the political conditions arose locally, regionally and internationally for such an attack or provocation to be seen as necessary, there is an element of serendipity to Israel's actions. This explains Israel's surprise with elements of the response of the resistance--though, of course, the first days of an assault like this always entail the monitoring, calibration and adjustment of Israel's military response and goals.

In this regard, Israel most certainly could not have launched the Jabari attack without knowing that it would entail a large retaliation, including the deployment of many rockets directed at Israeli towns and settlements and the transitioning the theatre of struggle into a far more open military confrontation.

This allows Israel to more actively confront Hamas and, importantly, the population of Gaza, which remains supportive of a resistance-backed agenda in Gaza. This is crucial to understand, since Gaza's resilience and its functioning under Hamas control, however confined, remains outside the Western-led peace process, which the other main political wing of the Palestinian movement--Fatah--still maintains as its strategic framework for achieving Palestinian rights.

That is to say that the Hamas model embodies an understanding of Palestinian agency in their own liberation, built upon organizing toward a common resistance-oriented program to achieve Palestinian rights. It is antithetical to the model of rights-seeking embodied in the Fatah model, which relies on passivity and indirect means--trying to muster diplomatic leverage, while building up Palestinian governance and economic potential (invariably in select private-sector hands), but not through popular mobilization of the masses.

The act of killing Jabari, however, was consistent with Israel's historical practice of "reaping the whirlwind" when it needs to move tactically on the ground for certain policies. This makes it necessary to tread cautiously when interpreting what is going on, as many factors are in play.

On the one hand, Hamas has been gaining strength: the Shalit deal was a success; Hamas has successfully maintained ranks and social order in Gaza, generally with a popular mandate despite the U.S.-Israeli siege since 2006 (though this may have been deteriorating); it has smuggled in many weapons; and it has built resistance infrastructure and trained many new guerrilla fighters. And it is buoyed by the Arab Spring, especially in Egypt.

With this as the operational situation between Israel and the main organized resistance formation aligned against it, we can understand the Israeli assault. The main military objective would appear to be to create an opportunity to deflate Hamas militarily and politically. The question is how seriously Israel intends to go about this.

Did Israel intend for this to lead to war--a fundamental break from previous patterns of confrontation--or did it seek a repetition of the pattern of a "painful flare-up"? Does Israel want a ground invasion? Does it want to test and deplete Hamas' rocket capability? Does it want to decapitate Hamas and is now the time to do it? Does it want to make the Gazan population pay an overwhelming price for maintaining their resolution and make this an example for their West Bank brothers and sisters to see?

All these questions are in the mix--and the coming days will clarify which combination of goals is realizable.

What about the larger potential strategic objectives that an operation of this kind inevitably entails? Is this about forcing the hand of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, trying to expose them as doing nothing or being impotent for Palestine? Or is this about creating a more polarized atmosphere in the region that will consolidate Western support around "democratic Israel" versus the Muslim/Palestinian Arab periphery.

There is a possible scenario here in which Israel wouldn't mind the breakdown of the Camp David Accords because it has reached a dead end with the Oslo paradigm, locally and regionally, and would consider it helpful for things to return to the way they were 30 years ago between Israel and "the Arabs." This is because in the pre-peace process days, there was no "confusion" over who the "good guys" were and who "the bad guys" were.

The events of the Arab Spring, however contradictory the outcomes, have crucially served to humanize Arabs and Muslim in the eyes of Western populations, thereby withdrawing a crucial card from Israel's hand--the racism card--which Israel relied on to ground Western popular support for their governments' imperial backing of Israeli policies.

I think this scenario--Israel's intention to destroy Camp David--is inevitable, but I'm not sure it is about to take place now. The U.S., as Israel's master, may ultimately have the final word here. It deserves nonetheless to be considered as a scenario, because after all, Israel's actions point us toward this question.

The class of Zionist generals who control Israel's strategic thinking may still be divided about whether the time is right to have a situation of real enmity on the Egyptian front. But with developments in Sinai, Cairo and the Arab world at large, the Zionist leadership may be thinking about preparing for this in the future. After all, if you cannot have "peace" with "moderate Arab" dictators, then it's preferable to have "war with political Islam."

If Israel is ultimately shooting for a situation where Palestinians are one day fully ethnically cleaned from Palestine (Israel's long-term goal) and if Zionists continue to understand their role as protecting U.S. and European imperial interests in the region--by backing Arab dictators and subverting Arab unity, military prowess and economic integration--then reshuffling the balance of forces might be what is ultimately in play.

SINCE THE revolution that overturned Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's relationship with Israel has been in flux, and this is the first big test of what the government, now headed by the Muslim Brotherhood, will do? What are Palestinians thinking about this question?

I THINK a lot of people are watching what Egypt will do. It's a test of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's leadership, and it's difficult to say what will happen. In any case, I imagine the response will evolve over time.

But Palestinians are certainly expecting a stronger Egyptian position on the Palestinian cause, and Gaza in particular--so I suspect President Mohamed Morsi's actions will be a quick litmus test role for Palestinians to determine whether he is hollow or serious. This could have important ramifications for the direction of the entire Arab Spring.

HAS THERE been a response to the Gaza onslaught in the West Bank?

THE WEST Bank has erupted in a sea of protests. There is unapologetic popular solidarity with Gaza and the resistance forces there, and a sense of resolve to find out what West Bankers can do in this struggle with the Occupation.

Demonstrations are taking many forms, both at points of "confrontation" with the Israeli occupying army near settlements and checkpoints, and within the Palestinian "controlled" areas. A spirit of mobilization is riding high, at least for now. Palestinians in the West Bank are fed up with their lot and look to the situation in Gaza as possibly being able to change the miserable status quo.

Understanding this status quo is also fitting, as events in Gaza could lead to quite distinct dynamics developing in the West Bank, with regards to both Israel and to the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. Keep in mind that the West Bank population accepted nonviolent resistance to the Palestinian Authority agenda under Abu Mazen and subsequently Fayyad, even though this represented an abrogation of their democratic rights by parts of their own leadership.

The fear of shedding more internal blood prevented this resistance, but it remained a bitter pill to swallow. It meant accepting the reign of a new class of political, economic and security elites who reproduced much of the same nonsense witnessed in the run-up to the second intifada under the PA, with the help of international donors: corruption, a police state, and no hope that the Fatah leadership offered any way forward as far as furthering national goals for which Palestinians have sacrificed and struggled for so long.

In a nutshell, there is strong support mixed with cautious observation of developments. The fear of an enormous Israeli military action on the ground in Gaza, backed by 75,000 Israeli reservists, should not be taken lightly by anyone--and it is crucial that Palestinians and solidarity forces alike organize and prepare themselves for the dangers ahead.

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