Opinion |

The Real Reason the Gaza War Broke Out

The Netanyahu-Hamas axis: At Sheikh Jarrah, Damascus Gate and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, no mistakes were made by Israel, like journalists have you believe – policies were undertaken to inflame the area. The same goes for the rockets from Gaza

Adam Raz
Adam Raz
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An Israeli man walks past a BMW car which was set ablaze in the middle of the night next to a residential building in Jaffa, a mixed neighborhood of Tel Aviv, yesterday.
A man walks past a BMW car that was set ablaze next to a residential building near Jaffa's flea Market, in May.Credit: Avshalom Halutz
Adam Raz
Adam Raz

There’s no shortage of pieces in Haaretz based on the political theory that the great ones – to borrow from Bertolt Brecht – often slip on banana peels as they go about the work of government.

Consider Haaretz’s Hebrew edition this past Wednesday: Columnist and business editor Sami Peretz explained to his readers that the current round of violence “began with a series of mistakes by the Israel Police” in Jerusalem. Senior Middle Eastern affairs analyst Zvi Bar’el wrote that “thanks to Israel’s mismanagement, Hamas identified an opportunity” to marginalize the Palestinian Authority. And top Military correspondent and defense analyst Amos Harel added that in recent days Israel “underestimated Hamas’ intentions and operational capabilities. But it’s possible that now the Hamas leadership in Gaza is making the same critical mistake.”

Another Haaretz military correspondent, Yaniv Kubovich, reported on that same day that defense officials incorrectly believed that Hamas would be deterred from fighting, while chief intelligence and strategic affairs columnist Yossi Melman adopted Barbara Tuchman’s “March of Folly’’ thesis to explain how sometimes leaders act just plain foolishly. As Melman put it, the measures being taken now “violate the self-interest” of Benjamin Netanyahu. In other words, according to Wednesday’s Haaretz, the prime minister and Israel’s other decision-makers are, to put it crudely, thickheaded – as if they were making mistakes day in and day out.

Mr. Melman, like other writers, insured himself against the risk that facts would emerge to destroy his thesis, so he added that we can’t rule out that “folly doesn’t apply to what’s happening to us right now.”

Mr. Harel wrote in a similar vein when he wondered – as many have wondered – whether there’s a connection between the current bloody events and the progress that had been made in Israel toward forming a pro-change government, which would oust Netanyahu in the worst time possible for him – as Netanyahu stands trial on charges of fraud, bridery and breach of trust. As he put it, “This begs the question of which of this past month’s events were coincidence and which were spurred by moves made by the government.”

He doesn’t answer the question, but says a “great deal of naivete would be needed to believe that everything that happened was the result of cosmic coincidence, that it was fate that led to the situation in which, moments before swearing in a government ... nationalist and religious tensions ... suddenly spiked.”

So, is it a mistake or is it policy? The reader is left only half satisfied.

It’s hard to interpret unfolding events; one reason is that available information isn’t reliable enough and comes by way of interested parties. That’s nothing new, of course. In 1854, Karl Marx noted how the elites in France and Britain manipulated and deceived the public. “So, as it has always been,” Marx wrote, “it will only become known 100 years from now.”

But even without any available “historical” documentation, we can reach a few firm conclusions about the current conflict via a critical, political reading of Wednesday’s Haaretz. We simply have to address the mistakes being spoken about.

The classification “mistake” that Haaretz used so often on Wednesday is easy to employ. A “mistake” doesn’t have to be explained, it explains itself. But how do the learned writers know that action A or B that they’re referring to was indeed a “mistake”?

Beware of 'senior officials'

One possibility is that this is how the writers interpret it. Let’s assume that the following is our commentators’ train of thought: A rational prime minister doesn’t want missiles falling on Israel. He “erred” in his assessment of how Hamas would react because the organization did in the end launch a barrage against Israel (and not just at areas near Gaza).

Another possibility is that the journalists were told by a “senior official” that mistakes had indeed been made. But why believe an anonymous “senior official”? How do we know he didn’t tell the journalists it was a “mistake” to conceal his true motivation?

Mr. Kubovich addresses this issue of mistakes and defense officials’ differing viewpoints on the way Hamas would act. He notes that there were people in Military Intelligence and the Shin Bet security service whose views differed from those being conveyed in the Israeli media by the Defense Ministry.

He quotes an anonymous source who noted that Hamas’ response to the Jerusalem clashes wasn’t spontaneous (as most had claimed) because “it requires days of preparation, during which the entire upper echelon is getting ready to oversee it from their tunnel command post.” In other words, defense officials knew what was happening and debated among different views.

Meanwhile, Harel’s claim that the military “was caught having erred in some assessments” isn’t accurate. It wasn’t about a mistake but about differing assessments. The army didn’t err but debated. By the way, no one has explained in Israel why it was decided not to destroy long-range rockets. But let’s move on.

If you exclude from the discussion the classification “mistake,” you can begin to look at events from a macro and micro perspective in a totally different way. You only have to adopt Machiavelli’s view: “You must never believe that the enemy does not know how to conduct his own affairs.”

On a macro level, this view is based on findings no one can really argue with; they’re backed by ample evidence. For example, Netanyahu and Hamas have cooperated for years. There's lots of talk about the understandings between Israel and Hamas regarding the cash-filled suitcases that fund the organization and have allowed it to strengthen militarily.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg of cooperation. Israelis are less aware of the fact that the organization has grown stronger in Jerusalem and the West Bank (under the aegis of the Netanyahu government, Qatar and Turkey). It’s the other side of a clear Israeli policy of seeking to weaken the Palestinian Authority.

Netanyahu’s strategy is well-known, even if it’s never explicitly stated – to keep Hamas as a key player in the dispute with Israel in order to undercut the PA in Ramallah. Why? Because with Hamas there’s no talk about a negotiated solution to the conflict. Over the years, the chatter about Netanyahu’s reluctance to use the military is based on a simplistic understanding of war. In reality, Netanyahu plays a central role in keeping the Middle East conflict on a low boil. For him, a big war could be a real problem; for example, by dealing Hamas a fatal blow (thereby strengthening the PA).

The cops aren't dumb

Only in the context of the macro reality described in the preceding paragraph can you understand the events of the last few days. It starts with a basic fact: The partners in the pro-change government were very close to reaching a coalition agreement and a few days later Netanyahu would have been removed from power. This represented a danger not only to Netanyahu but also to his allies in the region, first and foremost Hamas. This danger demanded that his longtime allies cooperate and move quickly to head off the possibility of a different government taking power, one that could oppose Hamas’ hegemony.

In recent days, the Jerusalem police haven’t made any “mistakes” – rather, they understood which way the wind was blowing. Thus, you can agree with Harel, who wrote that the police “didn’t need explicit directives from above to know that they were expected to show an iron fist.”

That’s a little vague, but the underlying meaning is clear, so it should be stated: At Sheikh Jarrah, Damascus Gate and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, no mistakes were made – policies were undertaken to inflame the area. (And remember, Hamas had prepared its rockets – it wasn’t a spontaneous attack on Israel.) Even the makeshift office of the national tinderbox, extreme right politician Itamar Ben-Gvir, which remained open a full 24 hours in Sheikh Jarrah, was no mistake, just one component of a strategy of frustrating the forming of a new government by igniting passions. In fact, a junta in Israel and in Hamas prepared the groundwork for violence in case the Netanyahu-Hamas axis faced an immediate danger.

It’s important to stress that Hamas very much fears Netanyahu’s departure and the weakening of the political line he represents. In practice, the work of strengthening the organization in Jerusalem and the West Bank (under the sponsorship of Qatar and other reactionaries) is at a genuine risk if Netanyahu isn’t in power.

Hamas knows very well that another prime minister may resume cooperation with whoever is leading the PA and thereby deal a fatal blow to Hamas. So Hamas fulfilled its part of the unwritten agreement, as partners are expected to do, and inflamed the situation as a terrorist organization knows how to do (rockets, remember, with Qatari-Israeli financing). In other words, the group made no mistake when it exercised too much force, as the commentators claimed.

Israel (that is, Netanyahu) hasn’t responded to Egyptian proposals to calm the situation. It has bolstered support in the Arab world for Hamas and exacerbated the situation even more. Hamas has pushed the PA even further to the margins in recent days and strengthened its hold on Palestinian society (for example, in Israel young people’s support for the organization was very small until now) as the one fighting for Jerusalem. (While in the past the group’s legitimacy was limited to Gaza.) In practice, the PA and Jordan have lost their hold on the ground to Hamas.

The above is a short explanation for what has happened over the last few days without resorting to the classification of “mistake,” all based on what appeared in Wednesday’s newspaper. Now the discussion can be framed properly, not as a war between enemies but as collaboration between colleagues.

Adam Raz is co-editor of "Telem: A Journal for the Israeli Left," published by the Berl Katznelson Foundation.  

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