Sunday, December 28, 2008

Teaching A Lesson


Actually, we see what you see at times like this, images transformed into (momentary) icons, the continuous loop of 24-hour news: Gazan teens, shocked and fascinated, milling around smoking buildings; Gazan men, mobilized, pulling an unconscious man from the back seat of a car, too many frantic hands loading him onto a stretcher; grimy bodies in the rubble, a mourner kissing something. Then, the other side, our side, an apartment block where ambulances, lights flashing, had carried away a victim of a missile; the hole in the wall of a living room, the pictures above it strangely undisturbed.

But above the images, we hear commentators you probably do not hear: laconic former generals, mainly, speaking in measured, rationale sentences; not bullies or even mean men, not fanatics, war-weary, proud of their lives; the people we really do rely on to train our youth and keep us safe, now pundits with a special authority. They speak about the need to "fundamentally change the character of the south," to attack "terrorist infrastructure," to show that the "lives of Israelis are not cheap," and that the citizens of the south, who have suffered "for seven years," cannot expect their state to turn them into hefker, in effect, treat them like abandoned property. Hamas will "now think twice," they say, and that is the point. The attack will "lower their motivation."

There is no gloating, none, yet there is an obvious satisfaction that the air force and intelligence services are "back to normal"; that only enormous care has kept down the number of "non-combatants" killed; that the IDF seem to have planned this attack much more professionally than the impetuous Lebanon war in 2006; that the political leaders have learned to keep pronouncements modest, solemn--not set unreasonable expectations or tip the IDF's hand.

The IDF, the experts, say, "have acted with precision and tactical surprise." There was training, planning, and operational success. "The lessons of the Lebanon war have clearly been learned," one military correspondent said. As I write, 6500 reservists are being mustered. There is talk of a ground invasion. When will the operation be over? "In its time," a general said. Reticence is competence.

AND YET THIS time, other journalists, even one TV anchor, are asking quetions. What are the end goals, they ask, echoing the Winograd Report? What will change once the guns fall silent? Didn't politicians all rally to the government in 2006 only to see that getting into punitive raids is not as hard as getting out? There are other implied questions, tactless to raise just now on television, but there between the lines. Didn't the first two days of the Lebanon retaliation seem a tactical success, too? And yet if the missiles keep coming, who has won? Then again, how can the missiles stop coming without a ground invasion? And if there is a ground invasion, how can Gaza be held without recreating the deathtrap Israeli soldiers were in before 2005 ?

And if the missiles stop because of a cease-fire, which depends on a new negotiation and Hamas restraint, why was there not a negotiation in the first place? Did Hamas need to be taught a lesson, of all things, that Israel is powerful and ruthless, or is this the lesson Hamas is trying to teach everybody else? While we're on the subject, did Hamas, alone, break the last cease-fire or did Israel break it, too, by refusing to apply it to the West Bank, closing the border and trying to starve the regime? Is it necessary to isolate Hamas, if this is the price--would it not be better to isolate Hamas in a sea of hope generated by a peace deal with Fatah? Did not Fatah people, and Irgun people, for that matter, engage in terror? If terror means killing categories of people at random to make a political point, whose hands are clean?

What is Hamas infrastructure if not the ambient support of the population? Doesn't this attack make support stronger in the long run? Can any ground operation hope to topple the regime? What will stop the attack if not world opinion, that will not think about missiles on Shderot, but a "disproportionate response" to missiles on Shderot? Come to think of it, will they not think about Gaza under siege and what brought the place to desperate poverty? How will West Bankers react when they see Hamas standing up and dying while they feel the settlements growing around them?

And how will Egyptians react? And Jordanians? And Israeli Arabs, who are spontaneously demonstrating against the attack? And the Intel board, whose $4.5 billion dollar fab is in range? How do we build a future with Palestine when we are seen through a prism of vendetta? Will not the families and widening circles around the dead hate you forever? Do not terrorists come mainly from the ranks of youth who are ashamed to have survived? Was there not another way all along, which we cannot see now?

OUR GENERALS DO not address these questions. That is not their job. They speak instead about the need for hasbara, literally "explanation," public relations, those critical soft skills the people in the Foreign Ministry are supposed to have, but judging from the world's reaction seem not to have in abundance, at least, not to compare with the competence of generals, proven once again.


(Photo: Dudu Bachar, from today's Haaretz)