So, on Saturday, January 3, 2009, we got the new ground war:
Thousands of Israeli troops backed by columns of tanks and helicopter gunships launched a ground offensive in Gaza Saturday night, with officials saying they expected a lengthy fight in the densely populated territory after eight days of punishing airstrikes failed to halt militant rocket attacks on Israel.
The incursion set off fierce clashes with Palestinian militants and Gaza’s Hamas rulers vowed the coastal strip would be a “graveyard” for Israelis forces.
“This will not be easy and it will not be short,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on national television about two hours after ground troops moved in.
Urban warfare in a densely populated area filled with those who truly hate you is always awful – there’s too much cover, ways without number to be ambushed, and civilians everywhere, most of whom are actually civilians, but many of whom are not. Massive, overwhelming firepower cannot be brought to bear – there are no open fields of fire, as you get up close with the bad guys, and your whiz-bang technology can be circumvented by one clever sniper or by a single act of crude sabotage (a sabot is, after all, just a wooden shoe). Choosing what is pretty much urban warfare in this case is throwing away your superior military advantage – hoping you retain enough residual power, somehow, to clean out the place. You do not choose to go in unless you really must. You want to take care of things once and for all.
But that doesn’t seem to be the case here:
Israeli leaders said the operation, known as Cast Lead, was meant to quell militant rocket and mortar fire on southern Israel. They said it would not end quickly but that the objective was not to reoccupy Gaza or topple Hamas. The depth and intensity will depend in part on parallel diplomatic efforts that so far haven’t yielded a truce proposal acceptable to Israel, the officials said.
So the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) are rolling into Gaza to find and eliminate stocks of the short range rockets Hamas has been lobbing into Israel, dismantle any staging areas, destroy the tunnels used to smuggle such things into Gaza – and then hang around until that most unlikely of things happens, all parties agree to some sort of peace proposal, shake hands, and everyone goes home for a nap. Maybe there is a reason they called this operation Cast Lead – it’s likely to sink like a stone.
Of course there had been a ceasefire in place, but that expired in December, and as Ha’aretz reports, it was always kind of a joke:
Sources in the defense establishment said Defense Minister Ehud Barak instructed the Israel Defense Forces to prepare for the operation over six months ago, even as Israel was beginning to negotiate a ceasefire agreement with Hamas. According to the sources, Barak maintained that although the lull would allow Hamas to prepare for a showdown with Israel, the Israeli army needed time to prepare, as well. Barak gave orders to carry out a comprehensive intelligence-gathering drive which sought to map out Hamas’ security infrastructure, along with that of other militant organizations operating in the Strip.
This intelligence-gathering effort brought back information about permanent bases, weapon silos, training camps, the homes of senior officials and coordinates for other facilities. The plan of action that was implemented in Operation Cast Lead remained only a blueprint until a month ago, when tensions soared after the IDF carried out an incursion into Gaza during the ceasefire to take out a tunnel which the army said was intended to facilitate an attack by Palestinian militants on IDF troops.
On November 19, following dozens of Qassam rockets and mortar rounds which exploded on Israeli soil, the plan was brought for Barak’s final approval. Last Thursday, on December 18, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the defense minister met at IDF headquarters in central Tel Aviv to approve the operation. However, they decided to put the mission on hold to see whether Hamas would hold its fire after the expiration of the ceasefire. They therefore put off bringing the plan for the cabinet’s approval, but they did inform Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni of the developments.
Neither side meant the ceasefire to be anything but preparation time. Israel was intent on fighting, or refighting this war – so was Hamas. It never was a matter of who broke the ceasefire, in spite of all that was said as this all flared up again.
And now we get this rationale:
The IDF Spokesperson’s office issued a statement, emphasizing that this stage of the operation will further the goals of the eight-day offensive as voiced by the IDF until now: To strike a direct and hard blow against the Hamas while increasing the deterrent strength of the IDF, in order to bring about an improved and more stable security situation for residents of Southern Israel over the long term.
Modest enough – but Andrew Sullivan is puzzled:
How does just war theory defend the deaths of many innocent civilians as a means to increase “deterrent strength?” But notice also the modesty of Israel’s apparent war-aims: a more stable security situation for residents of Southern Israel over the long term. They’re not optimistic about ending those rocket attacks, are they?
He finds it hard to find any solid strategic argument for entering Gaza and occupying parts of it for an unspecified amount of time, but even if factions in the IDF opposed the invasion, it is what we now have.
Sullivan cites Spencer Ackerman here:
Israel should arbitrarily declare victory and get the hell out of Gaza.
Hamas will claim victory too. But it was always going to claim victory, and every hour Israel is in Gaza pummeling them without destroying them is an hour that Hamas will be able to claim that more plausibly, just like Hezbollah did in 2006.
That’s how these types of asymmetric wars work; and also why it’s better for the larger party not to launch them.
Israel may not want to hear this now, but it’s playing on Hamas’ strategic terms. Stepping back is the truer “success” at this point.
Even the right-wing hawks at Hot Air find this is rather stupid:
The JPost [Jerusalem Post] says the goal of the operation is to destroy Hamas infrastructure and seize control of launching pads in the north. For how long, though? Until they pull out in two weeks and the pads are re-seized by Hamas?
I don’t see how Israel “wins” in Gaza any more than I can see how the US can “win” in Iraq. Maybe this current leap into the asymmetric abyss is a necessary proof before neoconservatism really does commit suicide. The danger is: the neocons may take Israel down with them.
Well, if you are going to take one more leap into the asymmetric abyss you might as well call that leap Operation Cast Lead.
And where do we fit into all of this? See Glenn Greenwald:
Anyone minimally objective and well-intentioned finds Hamas rocket attacks on random Israeli civilians to be highly objectionable and wrong, but even among those who do, one finds a wide range of views regarding the Israeli offensive. But not among America’s political leadership. There, one finds total, lockstep uniformity almost more unyielding than what one finds among Israeli leaders themselves – as though Israel’s wars are, by definition, America’s wars; its enemies are our enemies; its disputes and conflicts and interests are, inherently, ours; and America’s only duty when Israel fights is to support it uncritically.
Many see this as madness, but elsewhere Greenwald asks this question:
Is there any other significant issue in American political life, besides Israel, where (a) citizens split almost evenly in their views, yet (b) the leaders of both parties adopt identical lockstep positions which leave half of the citizenry with no real voice? More notably still, is there any other position, besides Israel, where (a) a party’s voters overwhelmingly embrace one position (Israel should not have attacked Gaza) but (b) that party’s leadership unanimously embraces the exact opposite position (Israel was absolutely right to attack Gaza and the U.S. must support Israel unequivocally)? Does that happen with any other issue?
Well, no – but the Israelis may sense they have gone too far, and worry that the next American president, Obama, may want to look at things with fresh eyes, or so argues Thomas P. M. Barnett:
Israel can always cite cause, but you have to wonder if Tel Aviv isn’t simply getting its licks in while it can in order to set the table to its liking vis-a-vis the new administration.
Or this may be an entirely local issue, or so argues Robert Dreyfuss:
In Israel, the bloody holocaust they’ve unleashed is an election game, wherein Netanyahu and his slightly more moderate rivals in the Olmert-Livni bloc compete with each other to show who is best at slaughtering Palestinians. In Palestine, a similar election dynamic is underway.
Is this our business? Whose side should we be on?
Andrew Sullivan tries to look at it fairly here:
Israel’s actual resources of military and economic power far exceed Hamas’s; and its pulverization of Gaza has led to a huge imbalance between the victims of Hamas’s war on Israel and Israel’s war on Hamas. The Palestinians are suffering something like ten times the trauma and deaths of Israelis. What they have endured in Gaza for the past couple of years must also be taken into account. It is not a function of appeasement or wimpiness or fondness for Jihadism that makes this conclusion inescapable. It is simply being human.
And so you have an excruciating confluence of the questions of proportionality in a just war and asymmetry in the war against terrorism. What renders the current awfulness particularly wrenching is that the immoral means Hamas uses are logical from the point of view of an entity that is committed to Israel’s destruction but not powerful enough to achieve it. And the response of Israel is logical from the point of view of a Western country enduring constant terrorist bombardment. Hence the never-ending argument in which both extremes reinforce themselves. This is not, one remembers, a Likud government. This is what the center left needs to do in Israel to stay in power at this point. And it has the backing of Egypt.
So we are where we are:
The nature of the conflict therefore ensures that Israel will kill and injure and traumatize far more human beings than Hamas can, even though Israel’s intentions may be more honorable (and the relative lack of civilian deaths, given the pounding that has been going on in Gaza, is striking evidence for Israel’s relative scrupulousness). This means that Israel will continue to lose the war of ideas and that Hamas will benefit from the impasse. Meanwhile, Jewish Israelis face a demographic reckoning and the forces of Jihadism gain a new recruiting tool. Abbas is temporarily weakened; and Iran’s ideological strength temporarily waxes. …
And we’re stuck:
This is all horrible news for the Jewish people; and deeply disturbing for the rest of us. America’s president and president-elect must ensure that the US is not drawn into this battle on one side or the other any more than is absolutely necessary. …
But it might be wise to be honest about it all, or so says Frederick DeBoer:
I know this with a certainty that I feel in my heart and my bones: if you support this assault, and justify its collateral damage, but will not come out and state the actual logical conclusion of what you are saying – that you justify the killing of innocent Palestinian children – then you are an intellectual coward, in the most damning and complete sense. If you justify the attack and its collateral damage you justify the consequences.
So all of you, have the courage to stand for what you mean. Have the basic integrity to stand behind what you are saying. Look me in my face, so to speak, and tell me about the justice of another dead Palestinian child.
If you don’t want to do that, there is this warning from Matthew Yglesias:
Under the circumstances, throwing up our hands and saying “it’s too hard!” isn’t an option. We can decide we don’t want to be involved, which would mean unwinding the ties of collaboration and assistance between the US and Israel, or we can try to play a constructive role in bringing an end to the conflict. I’m not personally sure of how you do that. But I’m quite certain that the first step would be pressing Israel – hard – to stop expanding settlements in the West Bank and start dismantling them. To show to Palestinians interested in a two-state solution (perhaps including some Hamas people or perhaps not) that there’s credibility on the other side. I think Israelis wouldn’t welcome such action by us, but ultimately it would be in their own best interests.
On the other hand, those who really do think the best thing for the United States is to just wash our hands of the whole mess have an obligation to really stand behind that belief and urge us to wash our hands of the situation. But just proclaiming a pox on both houses, while in practice heavily subsidizing one side, isn’t a viable option.
So, where do we stand? We have never had a president – at least since 1948 – who has ever wavered in the slightest from the proposition that Israel can do no wrong, ever. The Israelis know this. Obama is the most likely to be the first who even considers steeping back and saying, well, let’s think about this – but he can hardly dare do that. The political cost is too high – he’d be run out of town on a rail. The Israelis know that too. In short, no president is going to say, publically, that Israel may be making a mistake here, that there are better ways than another ground war to assure your own security, that walking into this particular asymmetric abyss is doomed to fail, and will clearly make your enemies stronger and seem heroic to the very people you want to win over. No president is going to say that because that is just what we do all the time. Obama might say that – but probably not.
All this – our subservience to Israel and our blindness to the limits of force – makes almost anything we do in the Middle East futile, although that seems far too weak a word. Every other nation in that region knows who we are and what we do. They can count on it.
No good will come from any of this of course – it’s just cast lead.
So just watch this video clip – our former UN Ambassador, John Bolton, on Fox News, explaining that, given what Israel is up to now, this is the perfect time to launch a full-scale nuclear attack on Iran, to settle everything, once and for all.