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Shock and aweful

Both sides, Israel and Palestine, blame the other. So a more useful exercise is not to ask whether the current action is legitimate, but whether it is wise, writes Jonathan Freedland.

india Updated: Jan 05, 2009 21:14 IST

All those involved, and most of those following the bloodshed in Gaza, are sure who is in the right and who is in the wrong. For Palestinian supporters, Israel is committing a war crime, hammering a besieged population and claiming to aim only at Hamas but inevitably striking civilians. Israel’s cheerleaders are just as clear. Israel is the victim, hitting out in self-defence. Its southern citizens have sat terrorised in bomb shelters, fearing the random rockets of Hamas, since 2005, longer than any society could tolerate without fighting back.

Both sides say they would have maintained the six-month ceasefire that had held until December 19 had the other side not broken it first. And who did break the deal first, Hamas with its rockets or Israel with its blockade? Both sides blame the other. So a more useful exercise is not to ask whether the current action is legitimate, but whether it is wise.

Israel, say its spokesmen, seeks not to trigger an Iraq-style “regime change” in Gaza but simply to alter Hamas’ calculus, so it concludes that hurling rockets is against its own interests. Israel can then get on with pursuing a pact with the Fatah-led Palestinians of the West Bank.

But does it make sense? Israeli officials say yes. But there are immediate questions: how exactly does this end? If Israeli tanks go into Gaza, won’t they get bogged down in the mud and narrow streets known intimately by Hamas? Moreover, the grounds for questioning the wisdom of Operation Cast Lead, even from Israel’s own point of view, go much deeper.

First, even if Israel gets the quiet it wants there is every reason to believe it could have got that without resorting to war. Palestinian analyst Hussein Agha says it would have been “straightforward: if they had lifted the blockade, the rockets would have stopped”. Some diplomatic sources dispute this, arguing that Hamas saw an advantage in the sanctions regime. “Opening up would have loosened Hamas’ grip,” says one. Hence the cases of Hamas firing on border crossings as they were opened. But most Palestinians insist that a relaxation of the blockade would have granted Hamas its key objective: a chance to prove it can govern effectively.

Put that to Israelis, and they admit that prospect was unpalatable too: they can’t allow Hamas to gain the appearance of legitimacy. But if, as Israel insists, its chief objective is quiet in the south, then there was at least another, non-military path it could have taken — one that those who know Hamas best insist would have stopped the Qassams. Besides, any ceasefire will involve easing the blockade, so Israel will end up making those concessions anyway.

Second, if Israel hoped to break Hamas’ hold on Gaza it has gone precisely the wrong way about it because they have again misread the way Arab societies work. They believe that if they hit Gaza hard enough, the locals will blame Hamas for bringing tragedy upon them. Instead, Gazans blame Israel — and close ranks with Hamas.

Third, Israel’s best hopes lie with the so-called moderate Arab leaders. But they have been badly undermined by this exercise, and none more so than the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, whose peace talks with Israel now look like consorting with a brutal enemy. And this is without mentioning the fresh supply of hatred Israel has stored up against itself, creating a new generation of Gazans bent on revenge.

So, yes, there may be short-term advantage for Israel’s politicians, eyeing the election calendar, in hitting Hamas hard. But the senior European official who told me that this is “tactics, not strategy by the Israelis, who are expert in dealing with symptoms, not causes” is surely right. This is the act of a nation that has plenty of tactics for war — but no strategy for peace.