A profound pessimism has taken hold of Israel

By Jonathan Steele (THE GUARDIAN, 10/11/06):

The Israeli artillery fire that claimed 18 civilian lives in Beit Hanoun this week is the worst single attack in Gaza for six years. Whether it will prompt an end to Hamas’s moratorium on suicide bombings hangs in the balance, but the attack – said by Israeli officials to be an error – has clearly put Israel on the moral defensive.Even if the shells had been properly aimed, they would still reflect the same shockingly disproportionate response that Israel inflicted on Lebanon this summer after two soldiers were captured in a cross-border operation by Hizbullah guerrillas. Three months after the 34-day war against their northern neighbour, Israelis are still debating what, if anything, it achieved.

Israel failed utterly to achieve the stated goal of its prime minister, Ehud Olmert: getting the soldiers back. Nor, in spite of relentless bombing and repeated incursions by Israeli troops, did Israel succeed in eliminating the threat from Hizbullah’s short-range rockets, hundreds of which remain in south Lebanon.

The UN resolution that ended the war calls for Lebanon’s government to take control of the border regions, but – as most observers predicted – neither the Lebanese army nor the enlarged international force is willing to disarm Hizbullah. Indeed Hizbullah has emerged from the war not only with greater support among Arabs around the Middle East but also with new clout in Lebanon, where it is pressing the government for more cabinet seats.

It is a spectacular litany of failure for a confrontation about which the analyst Ze’ev Schiff said: «Israeli civilians have not suffered such frontal attacks since Israel’s war of independence in 1948.»

Naturally, Israeli officials dispute this. While admitting to surprise at the sophistication of the rocket-launching platforms and communications technology in the underground bunkers that Hizbullah has built since Israel withdrew from its previous occupation, they say Israel has destroyed most of them in the border areas. Though not disarmed, Hizbullah will not be able to rebuild its infrastructure so near Israel again. Israel also says it has the names of at least 500 Hizbullah fighters who were killed, making a large dent in the militia’s strength.

Shlomo Brom, who headed the Israeli armed forces’ strategic-planning department in the 1990s, argues that the main failure was political. «Olmert’s stated goals in the first days of the war had nothing to do with the real goals,» he says. «I was astonished by him and the defence minister. I couldn’t imagine that these goals were what the military proposed. It’s obvious that you cannot rescue soldiers with a war. The most you can do is to capture people from the other side and do an exchange.»

Brom believes the air force achieved considerable success in the first 10 days of the war by hitting most of Hizbullah’s long-range rockets, doing enough damage to force Lebanon’s government to confront Hizbullah politically, and showing that Israel’s threats to strike hard were credible. The error was to launch a ground invasion with troops who were unprepared for determined guerrilla fighters. The techniques used in the West Bank, where the army largely operates as a gendarmerie rather than a fighting force, were insufficient. «We went into a bad ground war because of a failure to stop in time,» he says.

While the experts argue over how much was achieved, the public is in a state of shock and frustration. Anything less than victory is seen as a serious setback, and people blame the military as much as the politicians. Schiff says the war «gave Israelis a sense of impotence».

The war’s biggest winners were the West Bank settlers. Olmert’s plans for a partial pull-out have been shelved, and the political consensus for withdrawal has gone. Israel left Lebanon in 2000 and Hizbullah built up an arsenal of rockets, Israelis say; it pulled out of Gaza in 2005 and Hamas and Islamic Jihad are importing explosives and rockets through tunnels from Egypt in an effort to copy Hizbullah.

«There’s a big ‘I told you so’ which the settlers are exploiting and it’s very hard to argue against,» says Tom Segev, a historian who opposed the Lebanese war from the first day. He deplores the fact that so few people criticised the war’s rationale rather than just complaining about its outcome. Peace Now, the mainstream anti-occupation movement, broadly supported the war. Even Meretz, the small leftwing party in the Knesset, was split, with some members in support of the war, others silent, and only a few willing to denounce the war as soon as it began.

If the settlers were the main winners, Gazans were the main losers. While the Lebanese war was under way, the world ignored Gaza. Israeli troops killed 300 people with scarcely a line in the media. This week’s world outcry has at least put Gaza back in the headlines.

But for Palestinians to launch homemade rockets into southern Israel is pointless and counterproductive, serving only to strengthen Israelis’ hardline views. Meanwhile, the US is arming Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah organisation for a confrontation with Hamas that risks plunging Gaza into all-out civil war. It wants thousands of rifles to be sent to Fatah from Egypt and Jordan, and is seeking to persuade Israel to permit the Badr brigade, a pro-Fatah militia stationed in Jordan, to cross into Gaza.

Five years ago most Israelis seemed to want a deal with the Palestinians. The war with Lebanon and the rockets from Gaza have reinforced the mood swing that Sharon launched with his mantra: «Israel has no partner for peace.» Segev is deeply pessimistic: «It’s no longer politically correct to say one believes in peace. Young people don’t. It’s legitimate to hate Arabs and want them to disappear somehow.» Looking back on the decades since Israel occupied the West Bank and Jerusalem, Segev adds: «In 1967 there was a choice: give the territories back and make peace, or settle them and make Israel strong. It hasn’t worked. What a terrible waste of time the last 40 years have been.»

Gideon Levy is one of the few Israeli journalists who still goes to Gaza – a venture that increasingly requires physical as well as moral courage. «A generation on both sides is growing up which never meets each other. In the past there was a relationship. Palestinians were working here. The relationship was unequal, but it wasn’t just a matter of hate. Everyone believes we are facing monsters, not human beings.» Desperate words, but they have the ring of truth.