From the Archives: The New Year’s War in Gaza

Posted on November 16, 2012


With it kicking off in Gaza again, I thought I’d post an unpublished article I wrote in late 2009 about what I called the New Year’s War in Gaza. Some of the observations are understandably dated, but I think the piece is still relevant.

At eleven o’clock Saturday morning, on December 27th 2008, the New Year’s War in Gaza began. It was at this time the payload from Israel’s first airstrike detonated. The attack was the country’s initial response to the missiles directed at its southern cities by Hamas, the political party and paramilitary group which had seized the Gaza Strip over a year before. No war happens unexpectedly, and the New Year’s War in Gaza was long in the making. Throughout the three weeks’ fighting, ancient and recent grievances were said to be the cause from Hamas’ insistence on firing rockets into southern Israel to the existence of Israel itself. What drove the two belligerents specifically towards this conflict, however, was the dynamic which replaced the old one motivating the Arab-Israeli rift. The new dynamic reflected divisions in the internal politics of both Israel and Palestine precipitated by shifts in attitude, as well as pressures from elsewhere in the Middle East. It created circumstances that made war inevitable as well as necessary if the peace process were to move forward. When unilateral ceasefires were declared on January 18th, over a thousand Palestinians had been killed and nearly twenty Israelis. In the coastal enclave itself, one in seven buildings had been completely or partially destroyed, with losses estimated at two billion dollars. But whatever the anger and destruction caused, this was an important conflict because it created the conditions necessary for peace negotiations and highlighted the changed character of warfare in the early 21st Century.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

The old dynamic motivating the Arab-Israeli rift is the one which many continue to use when discussing the problem despite its rapid disintegration four years ago. It was between an expansionist Israel whose governments either encouraged its settlers in Gaza and the West Bank or failed to rein them in and a Palestinian Authority more concerned with maintaining, not solving their eternal feud. The process was self-perpetuating. More Israeli settlements meant greater Palestinian resistance; greater Palestinian resistance meant tougher Israeli responses, demanding further resistance. Like spoilt children, Bradley Burston wrote recently in Ha’aretz, each side claimed the other ‘started it’ and an act of violence necessitated retribution for the sake of fairness. The disintegration of the old dynamic and its replacement by a new one happened over a period of two years and began with Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. It triggered the transition between the two dynamics by not only removing an ancient grievance from the equation but also splitting the traditionally hard-line Likud. Some argue that whether a party is left-wing or right in Israel’s fractious political culture depends on their willingness to cede land in return for a peace deal, but Ariel Sharon’s decision to remove Jewish settlers from the Strip caused a shake-up in the country’s politics. His new party, Kadima, sought to manoeuvre between hardliners and the more conciliatory centre-left. It was a deft balancing act that Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert, was arguably ill-suited to pull off. And the task was made increasingly difficult by the vacuum which the withdrawal created in Gaza. Dennis Ross, the chief American negotiator in the region for twelve years, has argued that instead of making things better the Israeli evacuation simply worsened the situation. ‘It became completely lawless’. Hamas capitalized on the subsequent discontent with Mahmoud Abbas and the moderates Fatah to win the 2006 Palestinian elections. The victory undermined the old dynamic further. Although the group omitted its desire to destroy Israel from its election manifesto, it refused to reject this as a long-term goal, as well as refusing to eschew violence. This meant the risks to Kadmia’s middle-of-the-road approach became more serious, especially after the infamous remark by Iranian president Ahmadinejad about wiping Israel ‘off the face of the map’. It was the war in Lebanon that summer which put an end to the old dynamic and created the circumstances that led to the fighting in Gaza.

How Hamas and the Israeli government handled the latter’s conflict with Hizbullah, the Lebanese paramilitary group three years ago created a dynamic that only further war could resolve. The incoherent response by Olmert to the threat posed by Iranian proxies on Israel’s borders reflected his inexperience in national security policy. Although the Israeli Defence Forces were more successful than is popularly remembered, its apparent failure against the Islamists impacted on Israeli defence strategy and its domestic politics. The most powerful and sophisticated armed forces in the Middle East had been seen off by ‘irregulars’ equipped with standard or improvised weapons. It undermined the aura of invincibility the IDF has cultivated for decades to deter hostile neighbours at a time when Iran was becoming more and more belligerent. This raised the electoral stakes for Olmert to perform on defence issues and heightened domestic pressure on Kadima’s balancing act over a peace settlement. Negotiations with Abbas and the Palestinian Authority couldn’t move forward so long as the Israeli government hadn’t the political capital to restrain settlers in the West Bank. Meanwhile, Hamas’ relationship with Fatah stretched to breaking point when the former supported Hizbullah in the summer of 2006 by attacking Israel in the south. Patience snapped, and the Palestinian territories were effectively partitioned between the two factions in the ensuing fight. The next year was characterised by intermittent ceasefires between Hamas and Israel, and the Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu harried Olmert for failing to tackle the group seriously. He and others argued that the ceasefires allowed Hamas to rearm via secret tunnels under the Strip’s border with Egypt despite a blockade that organizations like Amnesty International condemned as inhumane. Whereas the old dynamic had been a self-perpetuating process, the new relationship was static. The only way to break the stalemate was by radically altering the balance-of-power. Hamas’ refusal to renew the ceasefire on December 19th provided the Israeli government with the opportunity to create another dynamic in its favour. It would restore the country’s military prestige as well as strengthen Kadima’s domestic support. ‘We will not agree to return to the old rules of the game,’ declared Olmert. ‘We will act according to new rules that will guarantee that we are not dragged into an incessant tit-for-tat war’.

Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal

Before one can begin to look at the conflict, it is necessary to look at the problems Hamas poses the international community (its implications as a military opponent are explored below). Like Hizbullah or the Sadrists in Iraq, Hamas combines the ethnic nationalism of a separatist movement with the absolutist beliefs of revolutionary Islam. ‘We will not rest until we destroy the Zionist entity’, said Fathi Hammad, a senior figure in the organization. Another felt Hamas was ‘not just fighting for food to be brought in, but for al-Aqsa’, the Islamic holy site in Jerusalem. The challenge the international community faces with absolutist beliefs like these is that negotiation is made impossible, as how can one negotiate the will of God? With regard to the Palestinian question, this has worrying implications. ‘Are we going to preserve the Palestinians as a cause that is national,’ Dennis Ross has asked, ‘or are we going to deal with [Palestinians] who’ve become an Islamist cause?’ If one attempts to negotiate with Hamas, however, efforts are quickly hampered by their unlimited objectives, as well as the organization’s fractured hierarchy. If a demand is met then new ones follow, and unless they are met too, peace is out of the question. Haniya, the Hamas leader in the Strip, said ‘The aggression must stop, the crossing must open and the blockade must be lifted and then we can talk about other issues.’ In other words, discussing the rocket-fire was only possible if all the obstacles put in the group’s way to acquire rockets were removed. Alternatively, demands are so unreasonable that no one can agree to them. ‘Egypt should allow Palestinians into the country without condition’, argued Haniya. ‘Only the sick and wounded – I won’t allow that.’ Hamas is also plagued by a fractured decision-making process spread across the region making it difficult to know who to talk to. Authority is divided between Haniya in Gaza and the overall leader, Khaled Mashaal, in Syria. Power struggles within the Strip also led to a rift between the political leadership and the military wing which the fighting in January accentuated. Only by understanding Hamas’ complex web of beliefs, structure and decision-making process can we study the New Year’s War in Gaza.

The Israeli offensive lasted twenty-three days and was carried out in two phases, a sustained attack on the Strip through airstrikes and naval bombardment followed by a large ground invasion. Ostensibly, the aim of the operation was to silence Hamas’ rockets, which the Olmert government repeated throughout the conflict. ‘We are not war hungry,’ said defence minister and Labour Party leader Ehud Barak, ‘but we shall not allow a situation in which our villages, towns and civilians are constantly targeted’. This was easier said than done, however. In the first four days of the conflict, Hamas managed to fire two hundred and seventeen rockets into southern Israel and ninety-five mortar shells. Moshe Arens warned in Ha’aretz that if the IDF failed to suppress the rocket-fire then the Islamists would be seen as the victors by not only Iran and the Arab states but also the wider international community. A second defeat like Lebanon would serve as ‘an invitation to further provocations and aggression by Israel’s enemies in the years to come.’ Others argued that the objective of the war should be Hamas’ extermination. This certainly was the attitude of hardliners, with Netanyahu warning that his government will have ‘no choice’ but to ‘finish the work’ if Likud won the February elections. It is difficult to know what ‘extermination’ means, however. Although one could try to kill every Hamas agent and operative in Gaza, how would you ‘exterminate’ the ideas they represent? The Israeli military worried that if the army pursued each and every Islamist to the last abandoned house or barricaded alleyway then the power vacuum left in the Strip could throw up enemies much worse. (Al Qu’aida has always wanted a presence in Palestine). Instead, the war would do two things. Firstly, targeted airstrikes and the Special Forces units sent into the territory would ‘behead’ Hamas’ political and military leadership. On January 1st 2009, an airstrike killed Nizar Rayyan, a senior commander in the organization who advocated a return to suicide bombings. Three more senior Hamas figures were killed three days later. Secondly, the scale and ferocity of the Israeli offensive would restore the armed forces’ deterrent quality by undermining the assumption held by Islamists like Hamas and Hizbullah that they dictate the beginning and end of conflicts. If there were to be a ceasefire, it would be on Israel’s terms. The Israeli commentator Ofer Shelah wrote how the country will present itself to its enemies as the ‘crazy country’, responding to even the slightest provocation with a ‘massive and unfettered assault’, albeit after a period of patient endurance. ‘We restrained ourselves for a long time but now is the time to do what needs to be done’, warned Barak. Whatever the ostensible aim for the war, one can argue that the above two were the underlying objectives.

Until the army moved into the Strip on January 3rd, many worried Israel would repeat the mistakes of Lebanon, when the government assumed the air force could achieve most of its objectives single-handedly. ‘There is no way to take Hamas out without going into Gaza,’ said Yaakov Amidror, a retired Israeli general. But memories of its ‘indifferent’ performance against Hizbullah had made a deep impression on the IDF, The Economist reported. ‘This time military spokesmen say that planning has been meticulous and training for the operation long and careful.’ By January 4th, the territory was split in two and Israeli forces were engaging Hamas fighters around Gaza City, as well as Beit Lahiya and Jabaliya. The town Beit Harroun was surrounded and Raffah suffered an overnight naval bombardment. Khaled Meshaal had warned that ‘doom will await’ the soldiers of Israel if it embarked on a ground assault. ‘Our people will fight from one street to the next, from one house to the other, and on every inch of land.’ Fiery rhetoric like Meshaal’s is typical of the sort all paramilitary groups use to mask defeat, but it reflected how out-of-touch the external leadership was about the realities in the Strip. The IDF understood how bloody fighting the Islamists from street to street would be and instead surrounded Hamas strongholds while continuing sustained airstrikes. How absent the external leadership were from the conflict was further apparent as rocket-fire became sporadic and the fighting slowed into a stalemate weighed in Israel’s favour. The Gazan leadership were more amenable to a ceasefire based on an international force while those elsewhere dismissed it outright. ‘The idea of an international force is rejected and such forces…will be dealt with as [an] enemy,’ declared Osama Hamdan, the group’s representative in Lebanon. Meanwhile, fearing assassination, Haniya and others fled into hiding and communication between the political wing and the militants broke down. Israeli commanders joked how the leadership no longer had offices to meet in and Israeli intelligence reported that, if a ceasefire were negotiated, it wasn’t sure whether Hamas’ fighters would accept it. On January 18th, the Olmert government ordered an end to the offensive, believing its objectives had been achieved. ‘The operation had real accomplishments.’ Barak concluded. ‘Our deterrence has been restored. Hamas was dealt a blow like no other since its creation.’

Over a thousand Palestinians had been killed by the end of the fighting, three times that number wounded; most civilians. Images of the death and destruction were heartrending but these scenes are becoming grimly common today as the distinction between war and peace and civilians and combatants is increasingly blurred. The ambiguity simply reflects the enemies Western powers currently face. We no longer fight countries but fight within them against paramilitaries or terrorists who purposefully integrate their fighters’ into the civilian community. Like Hizbullah, the centrality of Hamas to its host community lets them infiltrate all aspects of daily life and integrate their military wing into densely populated urban areas. It is a strategy based on brinkmanship. An army cannot achieve specifically military objectives without incurring disproportionally high civilian causalities, which outrages international opinion (images of bombed schools and bloody, limbless torsos) and rallies the population and its kin around the ‘resistance’. Insurgents bet on the outside force blinking first by cynically manipulating the rules of war they have signed up to as well as the basic humanity of the soldiers and their commanders. The New Year’s War in Gaza was an important conflict because it captured the changing character of warfare in the early 21st Century and the difficulties for Israel in the new paradigm. In both Gaza and Lebanon, Israel faces nationalist aspirations coloured by sixty-years of conflict mixed with the goals of revolutionary movements who are proxies of a hostile regional power. Hamas and Hizbullah have so infiltrated every aspect of daily life in their countries that Israel cannot attack their military infrastructure without killing innocents. The latest counterinsurgency theories developed in the United States by experts like John Nagl and David Kilcullen are inapplicable to the situation, however. Kilcullen and others argue that emphasising the well-being of the population by living amongst them and keeping them safe, you isolate the insurgents. The difficulty in this for Israel is that its soldiers living amongst the Palestinians was the problem in the first place and led to their withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. But Hamas’ goal to destroy Israel means it would be fatal to allow them to exist. An irresistible force met an immovable object in December last year. The only way the stalemate could be broken was through radically altering the balance-of-power between the two forces. By mid-January, it was undeniable Israel had altered it in their favour and it was not important that the occasional rocket was still fired because Hamas had been seen to be defeated. They could not defend the people they claimed to represent and their fiery rhetoric was no substitute for ineffective counter-attacks. Only by rendering the group impotent could the underlying confrontation begin to be resolved, but it was a bloody and brutal achievement for Israel.

French President Nicholas Sarkozy with Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni

‘Like in every hot conflict between Israel and radical Palestinians,’ observed the German liberal newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, ‘…diplomatic machinery has been kick-started that will merely heighten the general frustration.’ Throughout the three weeks’ fighting, diplomats and politicians from Europe and the Middle East flew to one another’s capitals expressing outrage at what was happening in Gaza and attempted to broker a ceasefire. But these efforts at knee-jerk diplomacy were undermined from the beginning by an uneasy marriage between the cynical reasons Arab states had to end the fighting and a misguided belief by the Europeans that peace means the absence of war. Images of bombed schools and bloody, limbless torsos succeeded in angering the international community but in the Middle East the rage had revolutionary potential. Over two thousand protesters gathered across Cairo demonstrating against the conflict and rumours were widespread that the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was encouraging the Israelis to exterminate Hamas. He was therefore quick to try to mediate between the two belligerents, having succeeded numerous times before. Nicholas Sarkozy, the most theatrically inept Frenchman in foreign affairs since Napoleon III, appointed himself peacemaker in the dispute. ‘France holds a special responsibility because it has succeeded in creating a band of trust with all those involved’, he said. Attempts to negotiate a ceasefire were undermined from the beginning, however, as one initiative after another failed on the most basic levels. ‘I don’t see how this can help,’ commented Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister and Olmert’s successor as head of Kadima. The failure reflected a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of the conflict. An irresistible force had met an unmoveable object and it was only through changing the military situation on the ground could any political solution be attempted later. The Israeli government understandably rejected ceasefire initiatives like those pushed by the French because they would recreate the dynamic that led to war in the first place. ‘A temporary solution might sound nice, but it’s a mirage’ argued Mark Regev, a senior Olmert spokesman. ‘It will blow up in our faces in a couple of weeks or a month.’ In the Middle East, the Süddeutsche Zeitung continued, strength is what counts but uncoordinated proposals by conflicting diplomats and politicians conveyed only weakness. The unilateral ceasefires declared by Israel and Hamas on January 18th reinforced the failure of the international community to influence events in the region. It was the American approach that, although criticized at the time, allowed the creation of a new dynamic that President Obama has utilized.

What is the dynamic operating in the region now and is it conducive to peace? The developments which occurred in the aftermath of the New Year’s War have created new circumstances that could lead to an agreement. Although no deal can be reached without Hamas, the conflict neutralized the Islamists as an immediate threat and a current factor in negotiations. Israel restored its deterrent myth and, by striking the organization with such ferocity, tangled them in infighting. Amnesty International reported in February that twenty-four Palestinian men were shot and killed by Hamas as ‘collaborators’ during the Israeli offensive. Fatah accused them of rounding up at least a hundred and seventy-five of its members and torturing them. Ehab al-Ghsain, a Hamas spokesman said: ‘The internal security service was instructed to track collaborators and hit them hard.’ There has also been dissension within the paramilitary group and challenges by more extreme factions. In September, Hamas fighters took back a mosque in Raffah which the ‘Warriors of God’ had seized to challenge the ruling Islamists and proclaimed stricter religious laws. The threat posed by Hamas has been weakened further by the election of Likud and its governing coalition with other hardliners. Gaza proved a crucial issue in the Israeli election in February, but despite widespread approval for how Livni and Barak handled the conflict, Netanyahu capitalized on the feeling it didn’t go far enough. ‘After this operation,’ declared Likud’s ‘Benny’ Begin at a rally in Jerusalem, ‘the terrorists came out of their hiding places waving not white flags but the green flags of Hamas!’ One can therefore imagine leaders in the Strip thinking that, if they received such a pounding from a weak prime minister and a fractious government, what could they expect from Netanyahu? By neutralizing Gaza as an immediate issue, however, attention has shifted to the West Bank and Israeli settlements are now seen as the main impediment to a peace agreement. ‘For peace to come, it is time…to live up to our responsibilities’, said President Obama in his Cairo speech; construction of settlements ‘undermines efforts to achieve peace.’ The extent to which Netanyahu can use his reputation as a hardliner to calm his supporters and make a deal with Abbas will determine how successful the latest dynamic will be in achieving peace in the region.

The danger when writing about foreign affairs is crudely shaping the fate of millions through the shaping of one’s prose. In looking at the New Year’s War in Gaza, this article has tried to explore only the high politics and military strategy of the conflict, as well as underlying currents. The ancient grievances motivating the belligerents are no longer a local issue or a cause celebre. A sudden conflict like the one last December and January could impact on the stability of regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the wider confrontation with Iran and the counterinsurgencies in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Last year, American inactivity was a tactical strength; in any new outbreak of fighting, an inability by the current administration to force an immediate end would be a strategic disaster. It is too early to assess President Obama’s efforts at a broader peace agreement, and the fascinating overlap of history and religion, politics and economics, ideologies and personalities involved would already require an extensive study. One thing can be said confidently, though. The old view of the Arab-Israeli rift – simply a matter of an expansionist people and an oppressed one – is inadequate given the new overlap of nationalism, religious ideology and geopolitics and the relation of those three themes to the overarching ‘War on Terror’ and Iranian nuclear ambitions. As the character of warfare is changing this century, so is the Palestinian question. If we are to resolve the issue soon, it is important old divisions are healed and antiquated beliefs shed.