Laying the Ground for War in Israel
By Irris MaklerNovember 14, 2012
Don’t be distracted by the shelling from Syria. In Israel, the real — and suddenly intensifying — danger is in Gaza, where tens of thousands have moved into bomb shelters as the country prepares international public opinion for a possible ground war.
Summer is taking its time about departing in Israel, elections are in the (hot, dry) air, and there is military activity on borders north and south. Some of it is new, some of it familiar if you have been a correspondent here during the past decade, as I have. All of it is worrying.
Israel and Syria share a border, which is usually quiet. Syrian troops fighting with rebels in the southern town of Deraa have fired shells across the border into Israel three or four times in the space of a week. On Sunday, the Israeli military returned fire — “a warning shot” as they describe it — firing into Syria for the first time in almost four decades, since the 1973 Yom Kippur war.
A day later, another Syrian mortar landed in Israeli territory, and they fired again — a second warning shot. How many warning shots can you fire before you start firing in earnest? This time an Israeli tank scored a direct hit, taking out two mortar launchers. After media reports that two Syrians were injured in this strike, the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) accused Israel of aiding the government of president Bashar al Assad. The FSA said it would consider any further cross-border action by Israel an act aimed at “thwarting the revolution”.
Israel doesn’t believe the fire from Syria is intentional, and it doesn’t want to be dragged into Syria’s suppurating civil war. But, no different than Turkey concerning its border with Syria, Israel wants to draw a red line, to indicate that even unintentional attacks are unacceptable.
Inside Israel, reaction is mixed as to whether this will be effective. Some commentators say it’s futile; there is far too much conflict going on inside Syria for warning shots to have any impact. Others, such as veteran Arab affairs analyst Ehud Yaari, believe there is a point; the message will get back up to the Rais — or ruler — Assad.
Israel’s military leaders say they are not worried about the mortar attacks leading to a Syrian military strike. They know Assad has enough on his plate. What really worries them — despite general sympathy for the people of Syria among Israelis watching the bloodshed to their north — is what will happen after Assad goes.
Where will the armed, battle-hardened Islamist groups among the rebels turn their attention then? The Israeli military is busy fortifying its border fences and filling the gaps in its minefields, indicating what it anticipates.
Inside Deraa itself, which is close to Israel’s border with Jordan, where the uprising against Assad began 20 months ago, the locals are not concerned about the Israeli intervention.
“Assad didn’t fire a shot against Israel in 40 years, instead he fired on his own people,” says an opponent of the regime who only gave his first name, Hamed. “So now he is trying to worry us with this? It is just propaganda.”
So that’s the north. Uncharted territory. And a long-term threat. The south is much more familiar. In fact, an escalation along the Gaza border is so familiar that it appears routine. But it is there that the tension is high and the danger real, right now, in the short term. With the first winter rains, the Gaza border has suddenly burst into dangerous life. There’s rocket fire from Palestinian militant groups into southern Israel, and Israeli air and artillery strikes into Gaza.
This latest flare-up began at the weekend, when Palestinian militants fired an anti-tank missile at an Israeli military jeep patrolling the Gaza border. Four Israeli soldiers were wounded. Israel returned fire with artillery shells. Four Palestinians were killed. Palestinian militants fired a barrage of rockets into Israel — more than 150 over the past two days alone. There hasn’t been rocket fire at this intensity for years; not since 2008, in the lead-up to the Gaza War.
As a result, tens of thousands of people in southern Israel have moved into bomb shelters, their lives on hold while they wait out the bombardment. Israeli air strikes and artillery attacks saw two more Palestinians killed in Gaza, bringing the total to six dead since Saturday, with about 30 more wounded.
The quickening pace of these clashes is particularly worrying. It feels as if the two sides are goading each other into harsher responses — more intense rocket fire, more air strikes, more Palestinian funerals, more intense rocket fire — until it’s tumbling out of control, until the rhythm of the escalation rules, rather than the parties. Perhaps the frustration and despair of so many Israelis locked in bomb shelters, unable to go to work or school, are also harder for Israeli politicians to ignore in the lead-up to an election.
“Israel will not sit by idly in the face of the attempts to attack us from the south, and it is prepared to step up its reaction,” Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said on Sunday.
To many in the Israeli government, it seems that the de facto ceasefire that has been in place since 2009, after the Gaza war ended, is now falling apart. The periods between clashes are becoming shorter, while the clashes themselves are becoming more protracted and costly.
Suddenly there is talk of a ground offensive in Gaza. The prime minster’s bureau says Israel is starting to prepare international public opinion for this possibility.
Netanyahu began on Monday by calling dozens of foreign ambassadors to Israel to a meeting in Ashkelon, a coastal town within rocket range of Gaza. When they were seated, Netanyahu told them that if they heard a siren now they’d have 30 seconds to get to a bomb shelter. Netnanyahu likes a cheesy gesture, as anyone who saw his presentation at the United Nations earlier this year, with its cartoon drawing of a bomb, will know. At the Ashkelon meeting, he had invited children into the audience, and called on them to stand up while he described their lives, under constant rocket fire.
“None of your governments would accept such a situation,” he said. “We do not accept such a situation, and I, as Prime Minister of Israel, am not prepared to accept this situation, and we will act to stop it.”
When the cameras left, one ambassador asked, if Israel was prepared to negotiate with the Islamist group Hamas for the release of a captured soldier, why not now? Netanyahu did not give a clear answer, but for this right-wing government, negotiation with Hamas is not on the cards. Hamas doesn’t recognise the Jewish state, and the Gaza it governs has attracted groups of more extreme Islamists and Salafists.
Israel’s military and many of its politicians see a ground offensive as the best option for restoring calm on the Gaza border. Military analyst Alex Fishman, usually an incisive, moderate voice, wrote in an Israeli newspaper on Monday: “It doesn’t look like there is any way back. Hamas has crossed the line. It has pushed the political echelon in Israel — on the eve of elections — into a corner and portrayed the IDF as a band of impotent wimps who are incapable of defending the civilian population.”
No way back? A band of impotent wimps? The last time I heard rhetoric like that was in the lead up to the 2008 Gaza War.
Watching this flare-up, remembering that war, with its high cost for ordinary people in Gaza — 1,400 Palestinians killed, about half of them civilians — and the stalemate it left behind, I hope someone takes charge, on either side or both, and pulls them back from the brink.
Irris Makler is a foreign correspondent and the author of Hope Street Jerusalem.