Paul Wood says that Israel’s ‘shock and awe’ in Gaza caught Hamas off-guard and was a ferocious demonstration of willpower. But the Islamist organisation is far from finished
A couple of months ago in Gaza, I found myself sitting across a table from a young Palestinian woman who had volunteered to become a suicide bomber. Umm Anas was 18 years old and wearing a niqab which revealed only her large brown eyes. She was full of implacable hatred for Israel and impatient for the ceasefire to end. ‘This is a gift from God,’ she said, talking about the opportunity to kill herself and as many Israelis as possible. ‘We were created to become martyrs.’
She went on: ‘If we just throw stones at the Jews they get scared. Imagine what happens when body parts fly at them.’
The suicide belt was on the table. It was, more accurately, suicide underwear, al-though Umm Anas was too modest to unfold the sturdy pair of wool knickers with its pouches for bricks of high explosives.
‘That’s not real, is it?’ our Australian cameraman, Sarge, asked a little nervously. ‘Yes!’ she said enthusiastically. We declined her offer to show us exactly how the three-stage trigger, with built-in fail-safes, worked. Her minders fussed around, placing a pair of Kalashnikovs behind us in a picturesque manner. They were from Islamic Jihad, which was running a school for female suicide bombers at a secret location in Gaza. Over the summer, many young women like Umm Anas graduated from the school. At the same time, Gaza’s armed groups were stockpiling rockets, thousands of them, according to Israeli Intelligence, with new, more potent explosives smuggled in from Egypt.
But Israel was playing the same game. The Israeli military used the six months of calm — or ‘tadhiya’ — to draw up an exhaustive list of targets. They did not want to run out of things to bomb, as in the Lebanon war of 2006. For both sides, the ceasefire that ended on Saturday with F-16s over Gaza was always a phony peace.
The depth of the hatred on both sides makes it clear that neither party was really ready for compromise. Umm Anas explained to me that she was equally happy killing soldiers or civilians, ‘because both took our land’. But, she said, she would probably end up being used against soldiers since ‘they are the easier target — when they come here, to Gaza’.
By the time you read this, the threatened Israeli ground operation may have begun and Umm Anas may have realised her dream of martyrdom. But it’s equally possible that the Israeli military will judge that air strikes are enough. They want to avoid getting bogged down in a messy ground war, as in Lebanon, and from their point of view the air war so far has been a triumph.
The first success was the element of complete surprise. On Friday, Israel briefly lifted its closure of Gaza to allow about 100 trucks of international humanitarian aid to enter. With hindsight, this was all part of the diplomatic strategy to ensure that Israel would not be criticised for starving Gaza while bombing it. But Hamas, the Islamic movement which rules Gaza, read it as a sign that there was still something to talk about, that an attack was not imminent. In carefully managed leaks to the Israeli press, defence officials briefed that any decision on a military campaign would not be taken until the security Cabinet had met on Sunday. Soldiers in the Southern Command went off on their regular Friday leave. All these developments were monitored by Hamas. Finally, Hamas reasoned, the Jews wouldn’t attack on their Sabbath, would they?
The first bombs detonated at 11.15 a.m. on Saturday morning. No one in Gaza even heard the F-16s approach. They had dropped their payloads more than ten miles out and then watched the bombs coast silently to their targets. Hamas was caught completely unawares. The police chief for the whole territory was at his headquarters watching a passing-out parade for new graduates. He was killed, along with as many as 80 of his new officers, whose first duties would probably have been directing traffic in Gaza City.
At that point, everything became horribly clear. This was not the limited operation against the smaller armed groups that Israeli defence officials had suggested. Hamas was being held responsible for the rocket fire into Israeli towns and Hamas was the target.
Defence officials in Tel Aviv described what was happening as ‘Israel’s shock and awe’. Waves of bombers hit police stations, security compounds, the Hamas TV station and even the Islamic University, from which most of the Hamas leadership graduated.
Israel is preventing journalists from reaching Gaza. The BBC is one of the few international news organisations to maintain a permanent office there. On the phone to our local staff, we could hear the 1,00lb bombs exploding in the background. Like all Gazans, they had grown up with explosions and gunfire, but this time they were stunned by the scale of what was happening.
‘Gaza has never seen anything like this,’ they said over and over again. And indeed, the territory had not come under such intense bombardment since the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. The Palestinians have suffered their greatest losses in a single day since 1948.
Many of the television pictures that came out of Gaza were too graphic and horrific to broadcast: the police parade ground awash in blood and entrails; a dead child on the operating table; an injured man reciting the Muslim prayer for the dying before gasping his last breath. Doctors at the main hospital told us they estimated that a third of the dead were civilians.
Israel has a different story. Israeli officials said they were confident that most of those killed wore a military or police uniform. ‘There is no limit to the number of militants we will kill to bring peace to Israel,’ an official in the prime minister’s office told me. Any anyway, even if there was a loss of civilian life, the response was proportionate and in accordance with international law, he said, because civilians were not being deliberately targeted — which was not the case with Palestinian rocket fire into Israeli towns.
So what is Israel’s war aim? If civilian lives are to be lost, there must be a clear objective. It is not to topple Hamas, although that remains a long-term strategic goal. It is to restore the principle of deterrence — as they understand this in the Middle East, which means to bludgeon your enemy into submission until he is too cowed to try anything.
The simple truth is that Israel politicians have been embarrassed and frustrated over the past 12 months as their modern and sophisticated armed forces — the most powerful in the region — have proved unable to stop crude rocket fire from Gaza.
Now there is a new Israeli military doctrine: go nuts. The Israeli commentator Ofer Shelah put it more elegantly: ‘In the face of enemies who have opted for a strategy of attrition and attacking from a distance, Israel will present itself as a “crazy country”, the kind that will respond (albeit after a great deal of time) in a massive and unfettered assault, with no proportion to the amount of casualties it has endured.’
So far, it is working. Just a handful of rockets or mortars have been fired from the Gaza Strip since the operation began, although Israeli Intelligence believes the militants are capable of firing up to 300 a day.
Residents of the Israeli towns closest to Gaza certainly believe in the success of their air force’s punishing and lethal assault. In the town of Sderot, people honked car horns and applauded as the F-16s flew overhead coming back from their first bombing run. ‘It’s about time,’ one man declared to a passing TV crew. ‘This is a Hanukah miracle.’ (Israelis will not have missed the significance of calling the operation ‘Cast Lead’. This refers not only to a bullet, but to the popular Hanukah children’s song, about a joyful holiday spent playing with a spinning top made of cast lead.)
So is Operation ‘Go Nuts’ a success? We must remember that these are early days. In the initial stages, Lebanon too looked like a success before Israel withdrew, battered and humiliated. The real success of the operation depends on the response from Hamas.
One view is that before the Israeli attacks, Hamas were set to consider more peaceful terms. Towards the end of the ceasefire last week, they allowed the rocket fire to steadily escalate, some say in order to negotiate better terms for the next truce. In particular, Hamas wanted to ease the crippling Israeli blockade of the territory, which has seen 80 per cent of Palestinians there reliant on international aid to put food on the table.
If so, they badly miscalculated. When the bombs began to fall, the leadership issued the expected calls for revenge — ‘Israel will shed tears of blood’ — but then went to ground. The BBC couldn’t raise any of the usual spokesmen or officials by phone, which wasn’t surprising, since they would have assumed, correctly, that the Israelis would be tracking their mobiles.
Days later, though, Hamas still appears disorientated. They have yet to formulate their strategy. Honour will require some Israeli blood to be shed, but the big question is whether this will be a token response or the all-out onslaught promised by the fiery rhetoric of their initial statements.
In the meantime, there are concerns about how far Operation Cast Lead could destabilise the moderate, secular Palestinian leadership in the West Bank. In Ramallah, policemen fired over the heads of demonstrators carrying Hamas flags. The Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, issued the required condemnation of Israel for using excessive force but said the blame lay with Hamas for not continuing with the ceasefire.
Even as Israeli bombs are falling, no one should underestimate the bitterness of the Hamas-Fatah dispute. At a dinner party in Ramallah just before the current bloodshed, I was chatting to a tough-looking young officer in an elite unit of the Palestinian security forces. He brandished his forearm, declaring: ‘If you cut my veins open, the blood will fall on the ground to make the word “Fatah”.’ Who was the most important enemy: Hamas or the Israelis, I asked. Hamas, everyone told me. They had to be dealt with before anything else could be accomplished.
Israeli officials say privately that Hamas would take over the West Bank if Israeli forces did not back up the Palestinian Authority. This is one reason why the Israelis will not leave the West Bank — why there will be no Middle East peace agreement — until the problem of Gaza is solved.
But even if Israel has the tacit support of Fatah, it’s difficult to imagine that war is the best preparation for peace. The peace process seems more irrelevant than ever to what is happening on the ground. In fact, if Israel does succeed in destroying Hamas, it might risk replacing it with more militant jihadists, just as Hamas came to power to replace a weakened and discredited PLO. It is certainly too soon to write off Hamas. Its very name means ‘resistance’. Perhaps it will hang on long enough for international opinion to turn against Israel, as it did in Lebanon.
Israel seems to believe that it has to accomplish its objectives before Barack Obama is inaugurated. But it is playing a very dangerous game. What if Hamas does decide to launch rockets in large numbers — what then does Israel do? Re-occupy Gaza? All Israel’s eggs are in one basket — in their conviction that the new doctrine of deterrence will work, that Hamas will be cowed in the face of this massive and deadly assault.
But will Hamas, stunned and bloodied, step back? The history of the conflict thus far does not suggest that the answer to that question will be yes.