An Unnecessary War without Clear Objectives

By Noureddine Jebnoun

According the United Nations, the war on Gaza has already killed over 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis, half of them women and children. It has wounded and maimed more than 5,300 inhabitants, and targeted without distinction Hamas militants, UN schools, mosques, ambulances, hospitals and refugee camps in Gaza. As we watch the unbearable images of what amounts to the liquidation of an entire civilian population, an analysis of the Israeli government’s motives and objectives of the war is required.
It has been argued repeatedly that Israel’s objectives are to shut down Hamas, which would benefit the Palestinian Authority, and, in particular, Mahmoud Abbas (the moderate); to strengthen the image of Kadima-Labor coalition in time for the upcoming elections in February 2009; or, to reestablish the power of an Israeli army seriously crippled by Hezbollah in 2006. The only certainty at this stage is in the timing of the operation, which was undertaken at a time which takes advantage of the holiday season slowdown (like the  July 2006 war in Lebanon) and the political transition in the White House. It is also true that Hamas’ victory in the January 2006 elections, in a process described as democratic and transparent by international observers, was hardly to the taste of the Israeli leadership, which imposed an embargo on the Gaza Strip. The Israelis also succeeded in mobilizing the international community, as well as the Palestinian Authority, in favor of a condemnation of the Islamist movement. Whether or not they were informed of the Israeli operation in Gaza, Mahmud Abbas and his government are today discredited within the Palestinian population because the war is not just against Hamas, but it is seen as a war against all Palestinians, despite contradictory statements by Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak (returned to the front of the stage thanks to this war) who blame Hamas for the grave humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
As much as Israel justifies this attack, the choice of targets resonates as a repetition of the same basic considerations which have always proved wrong, war after war. In spite of this Israel continues to persist and has decided to strike the Palestinians in order to “teach them a lesson.” This is a consideration that has accompanied the Zionist discourse since its genesis and is based on a racist equation: Israel is a representative of progress and enlightenment, complex reason and morality, while the Arabs are primitive and violent, kids who must be educated and returned to the right path using – of course – the carrot and stick method, as with the driver and his donkey.
The bombing of Gaza is also expected to “overthrow the Hamas regime,” which is shackled with the raison d’être of the Zionist movement since its foundation. That is, it is possible to impose on the Palestinians the creation of a “moderate” leadership, i.e. a team that will renounce their national aspirations.  Following this line of thought, Israel still believes that by inflicting pain and massive destruction on Palestinian civilians, it will cause them to revolt against their national leaders.  History shows us, however, that nothing is further from the truth.
All of Israel’s wars are based on one or another of these considerations that have existed since its establishment and can be summarized by the phrase, “Israel was only defending itself.” The entire Gaza strip has undergone an interminable siege imposed by Israel. This has destroyed any prospect of living with dignity for at least a generation of Gazans.
The fact remains that Hamas is not a terrorist organization that holds hostage the people of Gaza. Rather, it is a religious and nationalist movement that has the support of the majority of Gazans. Israel can obviously trigger an attack against Hamas, especially given the upcoming Israeli elections on February 10, 2009. But there is another historical truth that it is perhaps worth recalling – that since the dawn of the Zionist presence in the land between the Mediterranean and Jordan, no military operation has ever been able to advance any dialogue with the Palestinians.
Most dangerous of the stereotypes, undoubtedly, is that there is no one to talk with on the Hamas side. In reality, there is always room to talk, including to Hamas, because Israel has something to propose to this political organization that would dramatically improve living conditions for Gazan citizens: the lifting of the siege of Gaza and the restoration of freedom of movement between Gaza and the West Bank.  But Israel has preferred to start a war with no discernible goals.
It was strongly proclaimed by Israeli media that the offensive was prepared over a year ago by the IDF; a maneuver to rehabilitate its image after the failed campaign against Hezbollah in July-August 2006.  It is hard to see what has changed in the strategy and tactics, the expected results and those which are possible, in the results of the “collateral damage,” are obviously immeasurable. This shows that the “lessons learned” from the summer 2006 campaign was that the losing strategy was nevertheless the good one and that the general political situation and the world would have to live with it. Against an opponent which lacks the stature of Hezbollah, with the usual litany of destruction and civilian casualties in a conflict far more devoid of political perspectives than the case of Lebanon in 2006, the IDF merely repeated from bad to worse, the demonstration of chronic impotence of military force based on the brutality of technology in situations of Fourth generation war-type, which now constitute the bulk of the military contemporary event.

On 31 December 2008, Robert Fisk summed up the outlook for the IDF: “Israel, however – always swift to announce its imminent destruction of “terrorism” – has never won a war in a built-up city, be it Beirut or Gaza, since its capture of Jerusalem in 1967. And it’s important to remember that the Israeli army, famous in song and legend for its supposed "purity of arms" and "élite" units, has proved itself to be a pretty third-rate army over recent years. Not since the 1973 Middle East conflict – 35 years ago – has it won a war. Its 1978 invasion of Lebanon was a failure, its 1982 invasion ended in disaster, propelling Arafat from Beirut but allowing its vicious Phalangist allies into the Sabra and Chatila camps where they committed mass murder. In neither the 1993 bombardment of Lebanon nor the 1996 bombardment of Lebanon – which fizzled out after the massacre of refugees at Qana – nor the 2006 war was its performance anything more than amateur. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the fact Arab armies are even more of a rabble than the Israelis, the Israeli state would be genuinely under threat from its neighbors.”

What does the U.S. gain by unconditionally supporting Israel’s policies towards Gaza?  The U.S. maintains an ultra privileged relationship with a strategic partner that is the only owner of the atomic bomb within the Middle East. But there remains a major issue: how is the result of the Israeli-American policy of the past forty years likely to consolidate it in its choices? Three of its fundamental axes continue to prove ineffective and dangerous. First, the U.S and its strategic partner seek political domination through the all-powerful military force. In Iraq, as in the occupied territories, the equation did not work.  Second, the U.S. and Israel seek to control their adversaries by implementing sectarian division. In addition to its systematic policy of parceling out and crumbling the occupied territories, all indications are that Israeli policy nourishes the dream of expelling non Jewish populations from Israel by promoting separation throughout the territories. Israeli policy seeks to dismember the area, in as many sectarian pieces as possible, with Gaza representing one isolated fragment.  Finally, by endorsing the policy of fragmentation along religious lines Israel risks the specter of ethnic cleansing.
By dealing with the Palestinians with contempt, extorting concession after concession from them, encroaching upon more and more territory – a piece of Jerusalem here, a settlement there –who will end up stronger? What we are witnessing is frightening; it is the gradual transformation of a negotiable situation into explosive and unmanageable disaster.
If Israel and the U.S. persist in denying the unspeakable humiliation of the Palestinians, dangerous for all, that their policy generates, then this despair will continue to spread through the Middle East area. And, in this escalation, each day will be one day too many. If they continue in their obstinacy, denying the reasons for which a youngster threw a stone in 1987; a behavior which has metamorphosized seven years later into a human bomb, then the disenfranchised young people will be increasingly likely to be candidates for death.
Why not say things as they are? If the United States and Israel together have failed, to-date, to protect the future of Israel, it is because their method is not good. If they do not change their policy, Gaza the infernal prison with an open sky, will be an indication of what Israel’s future will hold. 

– Noureddine Jebnoun is a Visiting Professor for Arab Affairs at The University of Montana’s Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center in Missoula. He contributed this article to

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