The result of the latest round of fighting in the besieged Gaza Strip, when the Israeli army tried to carry out a covert military operation even while the Egyptians were in the final stages of mediating a ceasefire between armed factions in Gaza and the Israeli government, proved that Palestinian can damage Israel, as never before. Israeli media provided some statistics in this regard that were unprecedented and, from an Israeli point of view, appalling.
The Israeli army killed seven Palestinians while attacking more than 160 targets; that was the usual story. What was new was that, in retaliation, 460 rockets were fired from Gaza, in just 25 hours. The barrage caused considerable damage in Israel, leaving at least two people dead and an unknown number injured. The Israeli “Iron Dome” anti-missile system managed, according to the media, to intercept around 100 rockets; the rest reached their targets. The difference this time was the accuracy of the projectiles and their explosive strength.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut short a trip to France and called an almost immediate halt to military action. His coalition government’s Defence Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who ordered the botched covert operation, accused Netanyahu and the rest of the Israeli cabinet of cowardice and then resigned.
Human beings differ in their response to confrontation, so it is never really a good idea to call anyone a coward as it is often very subjective, while labelling a whole group as such is another thing altogether. Nevertheless, we should take Lieberman’s accusation seriously as it helps us to understand the collective mindset and values of the Israelis, not least because an opinion poll suggests that a majority of Jews in Israel opposed the ceasefire and thought that the army should have bombed Gaza even more.
There is no question that Israel has always demonstrated great brutality in its military action against the Palestinians. The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) are armed with the latest weapons and munitions which, when deployed against largely unarmed civilians — as they are in the Gaza Strip — can and do kill thousands of men, women and children and destroy the civilian infrastructure, including schools, hospitals, water and electricity facilities, places of worship and homes.Israel’s is a society unlike any other, built on land taken from other people; it is a state created by a UN resolution and follows an ideology forged in response to oppression in Europe and Russia. With Jewish citizens who have ostensibly fled from anti-Semitism in their home countries, how can they be asked to put their lives on the line in what is effectively a foreign country?
The answer to this been to create conditions whereby Israeli soldiers are well-trained, well-armed, feted as heroes and protected from legal accountability for breaches of international laws and conventions (as, indeed, the state itself is protected). Israel and its backers, principally the US government, have always sought to ensure that it maintains its military hegemony in the Middle East, enabling its troops to inflict death and destruction on others while being safe from serious opposition. These conditions have made many Israelis believe that they are omnipotent and able to act with arrogance towards everyone else.
Thus, if an Israeli soldier or civilian is killed as a direct consequence of the state’s aggressive military policies, it is catastrophic for society, not only because a life has been lost but also because it is realised that, like other human beings, they are vulnerable. There then usually follows a blame game: the authorities will blame “terrorists”; the people will blame the government for not protecting them; and the army will conduct a “thorough investigation” which will absolve itself of any blame, before declaring that the enemy will pay a heavy price as it reinstates the IDF’s deterrent factor.
The IDF has had a number of military setbacks recently. Unlike the wars against Arab armies, its offensives against the Palestinian factions are not so successful. Although Arab soldiers are usually better trained and equipped than Palestinian resistance fighters, they don’t have such good morale. Almost all Arab regimes are despotic in nature and demand loyalty by force, and many are making overtures for normalisation of relations with Israel. Ordinary citizens, therefore, tend to suspect their government’s seriousness about fighting the Zionist state. Palestinians, on the other hand, are more obviously self-motivated, and have built a small but effective group of resistance forces.
Israel’s policies have gone more or less to plan for the past 20 years or so. All the major Arab armies have either been neutralised by peace treaties, such as the Egyptians and Jordanians; destroyed like the Iraqi army; or completely bogged down in civil wars, like the armed forces in Syria and Yemen. The rest are either intimidated or sidelined by ongoing normalisation with Arab countries, especially in the Gulf. Even though it has always envisaged itself facing annihilation at the hands of the Arabs, Israel is now in a position to lead its neighbours in a potential confrontation with Iran. The government in Tehran is now Israel’s main bogeyman, while the Palestinian resistance in Gaza represents a smaller but costlier threat. The Arab public might support a war against Iran but will oppose a war against the Palestinians.
With a little push from Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, who is in dire need of Israel’s support in the aftermath of the Jamal Khashoggi murder, we might be seeing the biggest Muslim countries knocking on Netanyahu’s door very soon. Another Israeli military offensive against the Palestinians in Gaza is likely to endanger all of these developments for which Israel longs.
Nevertheless, the current ceasefire in Gaza might not hold for long. Almost all Israeli politicians derive their public support from presenting themselves to voters as tough guys ready, able and willing to prevent another Holocaust. To demonstrate that they are more capable than their political opponents, they have to wade ever deeper in Palestinian blood. This might be essential for Netanyahu if he wants to win the next general election against his likely main opponents, Lieberman and Education Minister Naftali Bennett.
Lieberman’s resignation exposes how fragile Israel is. Despite Netanyahu’s acclaimed “diplomatic victories”, one military encounter with the besieged Gaza Strip was enough to strike a fatal blow to his government and might even bring it down. The simple conclusion to draw from all of this is that Israel does not survive because it is strong; it is where it is because it succeeds in weakening its enemies, no matter what the cost.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.