Tuesday, February 12, 2008

All My Sons

It is getting harder and harder to find leaders in the Kadima-Labor government who are not calling for a massive invasion of Gaza. Here, in this heartbreaking video, is Israeli Interior Minister Meir Shitreet, responding to the latest barrage of Qassam rockets in Sderot. An 8-year-old boy, Oshri Twito, and his 19-year-old bother, Rami, were critically injured. The pair were walking in the street on a Saturday evening (and imagine, if you can bear it, the affection with which an older brother watches over his little brother on a Saturday evening). Oshri lost his leg and is still in intensive care; his big brother’s legs were seriously damaged; their parents are being treated for shock.

Shitreet, for his part, is a longtime Likud centrist, himself from the south, a decent man who supported the Oslo process, and joined Kadima to back Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza. He is now calling for leveling neighborhoods from which Qassam rockets originate—albeit, after warning their inhabitants to clear out. Tzahi Hanegbi, the chairman of Kadima and head of the Knesset’s Foreign Policy and Security Committee, spoke on Israeli radio Monday morning. The proper response is a full-scale war, like the one Shitreet hinted at—and not some dithering invasion like the belated one against Hezbollah in the summer of 2006, he said.

Even Haim Ramon, Olmert’s closest adviser in the cabinet—somebody who’s said in the past that he opposes this kind of action—is telling the press that the combination of steps against Hamas in Gaza will bring an end to the Hamas regime in Gaza. “It might take a few months,” Ramon said, “but the Hamas regime in Gaza will not last.” As for the rightist opposition, there is support for invasion wall-to-wall.

PRESUMABLY, A MILITARY operation would root out Hamas and destroy terrorist cells—surgery followed by chemotherapy. Israel would enter Gaza in force and engage Hamas fighters on the ground. It would kill as many Hamas leaders as it could find and destroy the factories that make the rockets. Israel would then allow, even encourage, donor nations to invest in rehabilitating Gaza infrastructure. And in that context, Hanegbi concluded, Israel would probably agree to a sizable multi-national force, like the one in southern Lebanon, to enter Gaza and monitor the cease-fire.

Which raises a question. Why not try to get to a general cease-fire and multi-national force without the intervening bloodbath? Hamas, as it happens, has been asking for exactly this. To entertain the question, so the argument goes, is to overlook how Hamas is bent on Israel’s destruction, with Iran’s backing, and would use the time to get even stronger. Fine. Leave aside Hamas's aims, which seem more nationalist than jihadist to my Palestinian friends, and stick to the strategic problem. Hamas would of course use the time to increase its capabilities. But the same could be said about Hezbollah in the north, which Israel has concluded a cease-fire with. Nobody imagines that either Hamas or Hezbollah, even strengthened, would ever dream of successfully invading Israel. Their threat is the pain inflicted by their rockets, which a reciprocal cease-fire would stop.

There are a few other things advocates of an invasion are overlooking. Attacking Gaza cannot root out Hamas any more than attacking in south Lebanon rooted out Hezbollah. When guerrillas are the product of a broad based resistance to occupation, and they have nothing to offer but a fight to the finish, attacking them only strengthens them. They throw sucker punches all the time. Besides, Hamas leaders can go underground or escape to Egypt; if you manage to kill them, they will quickly be replaced. How long did it take for Ismail Haniyeh to replace the assassinated Abdel Aziz Rantisi?

The rocket factories will never be shut down, anymore than the tunnels to Egypt will be closed. The only way Israel could ever make a difference on this score is if it would reoccupy Gaza block by block; this would only make Israeli soldiers sitting ducks for suicide bombers. The soldiers could then do what Shitreet says, what enraged people dream of doing, which is to level every block fire is coming from. This is exactly what rightist leader Rehavam Zeevi, himself eventually assassinated in the mounting violence, said at the beginning of the Al-Aqsa Intifada in 2000.

But then you’d have to start leveling virtually all the housing stock in the Gaza Strip. You’d almost certainly have to maim hundreds of children like Oshri, whose torment would be played again and again on televisions around the world. How long, in that case, could such a sickening operation continue? How long, if it did continue, would Abbas’s government survive in the West Bank without repudiating peace negotiations? Abbas, after all, is claiming to be negotiating with a proxy from ordinary Gazans who, in their desperation, will see him as a collaborator. Then again, how long could the Egyptian peace treaty survive an invasion? How long before Hezbollah opened a second front in the north? How long before the boards of global companies started steering investments away from Israeli companies?

BUT THE BIGGEST thing Shitreet is overlooking is that the soldiers who will be ordered into Gaza are children, too. So are those who will happen to be walking near a Hamas commander when the helicopter gunship blows him apart. So, probably, will be the Hamas commander. And so will be the thousands of “wanted militants” whom the army will detain in its various sweeps.

Fifteen year-old Mohammed Salem Al-Harbawi from Hebron is a case in point. According to the Defense for Children International, he was arrested in the beginning of July of 2003 and taken to Atzion detention centre. Like many other prisoners, the report continues, Al-Harbawi was visited by a lawyer, but was unable to see or communicate with his family:

The unhygienic conditions in this centre mean that most inmates, including Mohammad, have contracted skin diseases, including boils. By July 28, 2003, Mohammed was affected so badly that he was taken for hospital treatment. After the doctor had examined him, Israeli border guards took him back to the prison. On the way, the guards stopped the jeep and started to attack him inside the vehicle. The five guards beat him to such an extent that he lost consciousness.

I stumbled over this report of his stay in prison when I Googled Al-Harbawi’s name. Last Monday, now a child of 20, he blew himself up, along with Lyubov Razdolskaya, 73, in the streets of Dimona, which precipitated the intensified wave of targeted killings, which prompted the intensified Qassam barrage, which wounded Oshri Twito.

(Illustration by Susan Avishai)