Michael Bell is adjunct professor of political science at the University of Windsor, and also teaches at Carleton University. He has served as Canada’s ambassador to Jordan, Egypt and Israel.
The ongoing Israeli military buildup of ground forces around the Gaza Strip, involving thousands of reservists, demonstrates that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not hesitate to use an iron fist when the Israeli people and their population centres are threatened by missile attacks, no matter how minimal the casualties.
No Israeli cabinet of any political stripe would behave differently, such is the fear that dominates both the historic Israeli narrative and Israelis’ vulnerability today. The basic duty of any legitimate government, anywhere, is to protect the security and well-being of its citizens when threatened.
There will be a land invasion of Gaza, if that’s what it takes to induce Hamas and its even more radical Palestinian competitors to terminate their attacks. The Iranian-built Fajr-5 and the Syrian-built Khaibar rocket give Gaza’s militants the ability to put nearly all of Israel at risk. The U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv has been closed; never before in my experience has this happened. As of writing, there have been no signs that the militants are ready for a ceasefire.
Much attention has focused on the Palestinians killed and wounded in Israeli air strikes. For the innocent, this suffering is heart-rending and cannot be ignored. But the Israeli military has been deliberate in forewarning those in jeopardy that their homes and surroundings are at risk. This is never foolproof, but it does save many more lives than the alternative.
Hamas may well have initiated this confrontation, riding a crest of outrage at the angry, twisted Israelis who burned an innocent Palestinian youth alive after Palestinian terrorists killed three young Israeli West Bank settlers. Now, however, the Hamas leadership has reason to back down, unless it reads the situation with a jaundiced eye. Despite intense international concern (characterized by the first-ever call by a United Nations secretary-general for an emergency Security Council meeting), no outside player, including the United States, is alone able to wield the power and influence necessary to curtail Hamas’s adventurism. The only possibility would be a sharp reduction of financial support by the movement’s bankers, Iran, Qatar and self-chosen Arabian princes.
At best, one can argue that Hamas leader Khaled Mashal has been unable to force Islamic Jihad and other, even more radical groups, to back off from the confrontation with Israel. He seems to have concluded that he had no choice but to join the fight – otherwise, he would further lose credibility in the eyes of his militant base. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has found himself in a more difficult position yet, beset by internal dissent and accusations of “appeasement,” a term of shame, for maintaining close security co-operation in the West Bank with Shin Bet and the Israel Defence Forces.
Current and former Israeli military commanders have stated that there is no military solution to the conundrum, and that any viable way forward must result from a broad-ranging political agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. Particularly noteworthy, therefore, is the public address made by Philip Gordon, the White House’s Middle East peace process co-ordinator, in the midst of the Gaza imbroglio. The timing could hardly be coincidental. On the record, Mr. Gordon said: “Israel confronts an undeniable reality: It cannot maintain military control of another people indefinitely. Doing so is not only wrong but a recipe for resentment and recurring instability. It will embolden extremists on both sides, tear at Israel’s democratic fabric, and feed mutual dehumanization.”
These were among his milder words. He laid responsibility for the impasse and consequent fallout on Mr. Netanyahu, but had kind words for Mr. Abbas. It was Mr. Netanyahu (who has his own internal radicals to cope with) who stopped negotiations under the Kerry process on military and security matters, where surprising progress had been made between the sides. Mr. Gordon said that were a peace agreement to have been concluded, given the special provisions that would have been put in place, Israel would have had “one of the most secure borders in the world.”
There is no justifiable reason why Israel should bear the brunt of missile attacks on its citizenry, but the only way to deal with this, despite its inevitable flaws and risks, is through a viable agreement that brings peace with honour and dignity to both parties via a comprehensive two-state solution based on the 1967 ceasefire lines. Without this, both sides are going to face more of the same, seemingly in perpetuity.