Here are the two takes from the Israeli military on the Gaza border clashes on Monday, during which soldiers killed at least 60 Palestinians: “We won.” And, “Well, not so much.”
“We won” is my abbreviation of the banner headline in the daily Yediot Ahronot. As the paper’s military commentator explained, the army kept demonstrators from crossing the border and entering Israeli communities, and no Israelis were hurt. If you measure victory by whether you held your territory, and by the relative body count, that’s a win.
“Not so much” is the very short version of what an Israel Defense Forces spokesman reportedly said during a briefing organized by the Jewish Federations of North America on Tuesday. Explaining why the army hadn’t been able to keep down civilian casualties, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said, “Hamas wanted people to die. Hamas wanted the pictures of the wounded.” The result, he admitted, was a public-relations “knockout.”
If you knew that the point of the demonstrations was to call world attention to Gaza, and if you believed that Hamas wanted casualties for that purpose, then victory would have meant containing the demonstrations with a minimum of injuries. The death toll was a military defeat, even before we discuss the moral cost, and an investigation is essential.
It’s very possible that the army, belatedly, will develop better nonlethal means for controlling mass demonstrations at a distance.
If the new methods succeed, though, they will only underscore the interlocked problems Israel’s army has had for years regarding its dealings with Gaza. First, it has sometimes been slow in accepting that it needs new tactics as Hamas and other militants change theirs. Second, tactical successes will never be enough when the government you serve has no strategy to end to the conflict.
The Gaza Strip, with its crowded refugee camps and dearth of hope, was once a source of terror attacks, in Israel and against Israeli settlers in the area. With a well-guarded border fence and checkpoints, Israel made it much more difficult for terrorists to cross into Israel. In 2005, Ariel Sharon’s government removed the settlements and the soldiers who protected them in its unilateral withdrawal.
By then, Hamas and other radical factions were attacking over the fence, with mortar shells and rockets. The answer to that was Iron Dome, Israel’s sophisticated antimissile system. In the early days, then-Defense Minister Amir Peretz had to overcome resistance from the generals to budget Iron Dome.
Yet even before Iron Dome was ready, Hamas and its rivals were digging tunnels under the fence. The army ignored experts’ proposal for high-tech means of detecting tunnels until the Gaza War of 2014, when the shock of attacks from below ground spurred an Israeli ground invasion. Israel is now using technology to find existing tunnels, and building an underground barrier to block new ones.
To which Hamas has responded with mass marches aimed at going through the fence. I don’t know if anyone in the organization really expected to get through or to carry out the promise of Palestinian return to long-lost homes in what became Israel. The immediate goal, though, was to focus the world’s attention on the blockade of Gaza and to the stalled Palestinian struggle against Israel.
I certainly hope the Israeli army finds nonlethal tactical responses. That is a moral imperative in itself.
But the army can’t solve the underlying political problem of Gaza. And Israel’s current leaders have no answer, no vision of a plausible peaceful outcome.
By “disengaging” from Gaza in 2005, Sharon hoped to disengage from any diplomatic process with the Palestinians. The policy of Netanyahu’s government — as shown by its deeds if not always by its statements — is to maintain Israeli rule of the West Bank, with the Palestinian Authority as a subcontractor for endless occupation.
Yet there is no political solution for Gaza without the West Bank. So the Israeli government relates to Gaza as a chronic, incurable disease and relies on the army to come up with new prescriptions to relieve the pain. Without an outside intervention, the next spasm of Gaza fever seems inevitable.
Gershom Gorenberg is an Israeli historian and journalist. His books include The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977 and The Unmaking of Israel. He is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect and has written for The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, and The New York Review of Books.