27 Jul 2014

Gaza conflict: an Israeli soldier’s question

“Why the world hate Israel?” the soldier whispered.

Aged about 20, he’d been crouching to pray against our bus shelter in his shawl, with small religious caskets strapped to his head and arms. Now he packed the shawl away and shouldered an assault rifle.

He came up to me while his captain was telling us why we delayed crossing the border into Gaza. But they didn’t really need words; the dull hump of outgoing artillery fire, maybe five kilometres away, was the explanation.

There was genuine confusion in his eyes. He whispered again: “Why the world hate us?”

I explained that a lot of the world does not hate Israel, but that they are seeing every night pictures of Palestinian children killed, and proof of massive civilian casualties, and have concluded – from the UN to the thousands on the streets of London yesterday – that the force used is disproportionate and prima facie in breach of international law.

PALESTINIAN-ISRAELI-UNRESTAbove: a Palestinian child waits to fill a water bottle in Gaza

It was the second conversation of the day along the same lines: the guy who issued my press pass made the same points to me as the soldier: that “we don’t target civilians” and that Hamas’ infrastructure hides within civilian homes, hospitals etc.

To anybody who’s been anywhere near a military staff college, or an international law course, there is an obvious missing point in these justifications: soldiers, and their commanders, also have a duty to take precautions against killing civilians.

Not taking those precautions can be just as criminal as getting a rocket and firing it indiscriminately towards civilian areas as Hamas is doing.

If you read the Jerusalem Post you can understand the background to this persistent gap in Israeli military reasoning: in its lead article – summing up the whole of the action since Friday – it says: “The IDF has killed 250 terrorists in Gaza since the start of the ground offensive on July 17. The IDF hit 75 targets on Friday and 3590 targets since the start of Operation Protective Edge on July 8.”


No mention of civilian casualties at all – but a feature article on the next page, written from a single unnamed military source, claims that Hamas operatives, commanders and “rocket cell members” routinely keep part of their home for military, and part for civilian purposes.

Meanwhile, Israeli TV stations are not routinely showing Palestinian casualties; routinely when those casualties are mentioned, the picture showing is that of a demolished house.

‘Finish the job’

For these reasons the soldier in the shawl was actually well ahead of many Israelis, even for asking the question.

Smoke rises from Gaza as Israel continues shellingAbove: Smoke rises from Gaza City

The counter-demonstrators I saw last night, taunting the anti-war demo in Tel Aviv, though fronted by football fans, included a lot of very angry young women. Listening to them, they literally cannot conceive of why anybody would object to what the IDF is doing.

They inhabit a Twittersphere and Facebook network that is immured from criticism and debate, and which produced – during the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers in June, an online anti-Arab racism campaign.

Unlike the soldier in the shawl, they exhibit no understanding whatsoever of what this is doing to Israel’s reputation, or its diplomatic bargaining power.

Tensions Remain High At Israeli Gaza BorderAbove: a demonstration in support of Israel’s Gaza military action, in Tel Aviv

It’s this part of Israeli society that is in the majority and the ascendancy: they want the IDF to “finish the job”; their slogan is “let the IDF win” – ie stop pussyfooting around.

You have to be here to understand the pressure this creates on a party like Likud, which has to straddle the masses – who fantasise about “finishing the job” – and diplomacy, realpolitik and international law, which make that fantasy impossible.

In fact, Hamas’ strategic position looks weak. There will never be another Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt; Iran’s main concern now is ISIS, Hamas’ allies in the Turkish AK party are reeling under the impact of revolts and corruption scandals at home.

So though it is riding high among Gaza’s population, Hamas will have at some point to negotiate with Israel, if only by proxy through a unified Palestinian Authority government.


But meanwhile something has changed for Israel just as fundamentally as for Hamas. Like many “old” things in the modern world, the Gaza conflict has come newly alive with information. You could look at Gaza now as the front edge of a global information war between Israel, the Palestinians and their allies.

I’ve pointed out before, the Israeli government exhibits almost no understanding of this. Though social media and instant digital reporting makes no difference on the ground, at the strategic level it is forcing people who have never even heard of Hamas to decide what they think of the dismembered bodies of Arab children, and the men who pulled the trigger.

This in turn is making life very hard for liberal supporters of Israel in the west, so that one by one major opinion formers have started to plead for the army to stop, or show restraint, in a way that would get them screamed at if they said it in Tel Aviv.

It’s clear that the IDF has defined operational goals: knock out the tunnels, degrade Hamas as a fighting force. But in diplomacy, ideology and military action it feels like tactics without strategy.

One danger of this situation is that parts of the Israeli population come to believe the real strategy is to collectively punish Gaza’s population through a military occupation.

When it comes to civilian casualties, the UN Human Rights Council has cited “widespread, systematic and gross violations of international human rights and fundamental freedoms” as a result of Israel’s military action. It is investigating alleged war crimes.

Only the USA voted against that resolution: and though the USA remains solidly in support of Israel, its global retreat, diplomatic flailing, ineptness and disengagement – which has characterised its behaviour from Syria to Ukraine to Iraq – would worry me if the USA was my only ally in the world.

That’s a long answer to a short question from a bewildered and exhausted guy, but the best I can offer.

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