Wednesday, February 27, 2008


This map shows Ashqelon, north of Gaza (Map: Perry-Castanada)

Today's escalation in qassam rocket fire makes for an interesting case study. Hamas had been slightly increasing its rocket launchings in the past few days, hitting targets in the western Negev and Sderot that led to casualties. The Israeli air force's operation on Wednesday morning, which seems to have killed at least five members of Hamas's military brigades traveling in a van (New York Times), elicited a massive response from the organization. Hamas is reaching deep into its arsenal, employing those missiles capable of hitting Ashqelon, which suffered several hits today. In response, the Israeli air force struck hard, destroying Palestinian government buildings. One thing that this episode tells us is that Hamas reacts most strongly when senior members of its organization are killed, using its ability to strike Israeli civilian targets as deterrence against Israeli air strikes. For Israel, Ashqelon seems to have become the red line, at which it turns to considering assassinations of Hamas's political leadership.

UPDATE: Amos Harel has a good analysis of the escalation, which I think supports my take.

The Jewish State Again

Michel Aflaq, Arab nationalist (Photo)

Before I wrote my post on A Jewish State, several weeks ago, a good friend of mine took objection to my lament that no one seems terribly concerned about the fact that there are many "Islamic States" in the world or that various countries in the region define themselves as "Arab states."

I cannot do justice to his entire argument here, and I anticipate that he will view whatever I post as a distortion of what he was saying. Furthermore, since he has not given me permission to do so, I cannot quote his words directly. Nevertheless, here is my attempt.

According to my friend, the comparison of "the Jewish state" with Islamic states lacks rigor. Islamic states such as the Islamic Republic of Iran are "Islamic," he argues, because they derive their laws from shari'ah (Islamic religious law). But Israel's laws are not derived from halakhah (Jewish religious law). Rather, the Jewishness of the state, according to him, is something that resides in people not texts. Citizenship is linked to blood in a way that citizenship in Islamic states and Arab nationalist ones was never conceived. That is, citizenship in Arab states was not a matter of "Arabness" - as evidence, he cites the Armenian citizens in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt, and the Kurdish citizens of Iraq.

I think my friend is confused and mistaken on several fronts, but I have a feeling that this argument resonates with some people. I would like to use this opportunity to resume the discussion we began in the last post, by subjecting the argument above to critique in the comments.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Failed Gaza Policies

Map of the Gaza Strip (Source)

The latest Haaretz-Dialog poll shows that a majority of Israelis support direct talks with Hamas in order to achieve a cease fire and free Gilad Shalit. Most Israelis are simply fed up with the continuing rocket fire on Sderot, and they are skeptical about the military's ability to bring about a lasting solution. They also do not want Gilad Shalit to become another Ron Arad. However, significant obstacles stand in the way of such talks. Israel is bound by commitments it has made to the U.S. and the Palestinian Authority's Abu Mazen.

Both Israel and the U.S. have been pursuing a policy of regime change with respect to the Hamas government in Gaza. The aim of the blockade is not only to prevent the smuggling of weapons and materials for rocket production but also to thwart the Hamas government's ability to function. The hope seems to be that Hamas's inability to provide services and the Gaza Strip's growing isolation would lead Palestinians to reject Hamas in favor of Fatah. This policy has so far failed. While Hamas has not necessarily gotten stronger, it has not declined significantly enough. Furthermore, Fatah forces are not ready for a take-over, and even if such a thing were to happen, it is not at all clear that they would have the support of a majority of the population.

Israel's other policy vis-a-vis Gaza has evolved in the face of the continued qassam attacks since the disengagement. Today, it consists of frequent incursions to arrest wanted men, infantry ambushes of Palestinian fighters, air force attacks against qassam crews, and occasionally artillery strikes. The goal has been to dislodge Hamas and other Palestinian forces from the border with Israel. Occasionally, Israel has also assassinated military and political leaders. Alongside this activity, there has been extensive planning for a major ground operation similar to Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank in February 2002. The aims of all of these policies are mainly tactical; they do not necessarily seek to bring down the Hamas government but rather try to make it difficult for Palestinian forces to mount attacks against Israeli military and civilian targets.

There is no doubt that Hamas will use any chance it gets - whether through a formal cease fire, informal truce, or direct talk - to build up its offensive arsenal and its defensive capabilities, taking Hizbullah as its model. Thus, the worst solution would probably be an informal truce or deescalation, of the type that has existed sporadically between Israel and Hamas. While it may guarantee temporary security to the residents of Sderot, it will endanger their lives to an even greater extent in the long-term and yields no real guarantees of any kind in the interim. Direct talks, however, are probably off the table - certainly as long as President Bush is in power. Thus, what we are likely to see is an ongoing war of attrition, that may explode into a full-out IDF offensive when a qassam rocket achieves a direct hit killing a family or a group of schoolchildren. Such an offensive, however, will hardly be able to eradicate the qassam firings. Without a diplomatic horizon, all the IDF can hope to do is to keep the various militant organizations operating in the Strip off-balance. That is a very modest aim that can hardly justify an operation with dozens of IDF casualties.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Gaza Offensive from Gaza

While the much-anticipated Gaza offensive by the IDF is far from operational, it appears that the Palestinians are planning an offensive of their own against Israel. We will find out in a few hours how Hamas's attempts to replicate last month's border-breaching action turn out. Unlike the well-planned events that transpired on the Egyptian border with Gaza in January, however, any such actions at the Erez crossing and other sites will lack the crucial element of surprise. It remains to be seen how the world would react to such a mass demonstration. It is likely to increase pressure on Israel to lift the blockade on Gaza, although the chaotic scenes on the Egyptian border did not exactly bolster the reputation of the Hamas government on the international scene.

A staged "popular" mass action, choreographed for international cameras, perhaps involving the deaths of a few civilians sent to the fence will provide plenty of ammunition for those long opposed to Israel's blockade of Gaza. From the beginning of this embargo, which followed the election of Hamas in January 2006, the blockade has been denounced for its injustice; the fence on Israel's southern border has been denounced as a "cage" and an "apartheid wall." Such condemnations are ludicrous. There is nothing immoral about Israel's blockade of the Hamas government in Gaza. We are talking about a fence that basically runs along armistice lines - the route of the border is not in dispute, except among those who oppose the existence of the Israeli state in toto. No state has an obligation to open its borders to non-citizens, let alone to those from a hostile country. It is quite telling that no one has ever described the blockades of Israel by the Arab states as "apartheid."

I may be wrong, but the practice of sending civilians to deliberately violate the sovereignty of a neighboring state seems to me unprecedented. It is, however, indicative of the mechanisms of rule employed by Hamas in Gaza and previously by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. When Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, it did so with the expectation that the Palestinians would establish sovereignty in the territory and perhaps focus on building institutions resembling those of an independent state.

With Israeli forces and settlements gone, it seemed to many Israeli and international observers that the key motivations for armed struggle would be eliminated. But the Palestinians have done nothing of the sort. Instead, the terrorist organizations and later the Hamas government have banked on a kind of anarchic, anti-sovereignty to legitimate their authority and rule. From the beginning of this new state of affairs, Hamas has fostered all the attempts to improve the qassam rockets and launching operations that daily terrorize the residents of the western Negev. No real effort has been undertaken to better the economic situation of ordinary Gazans. The only improvement that Hamas rule has achieved is entirely destructive - the various gangs of terrorists have become better at firing rockets at Israeli civilians. I refer to this as "anti-sovereignty," because the Hamas government has deliberately abstained from establishing a monopoly of violence, instead fostering a competitive atmosphere of factions whose sole reason for existence is the violation of Israel's sovereignty, by continually endangering Israeli civilians.

A sign in Sderot (Photo)
("Boom"; "We want to sleep in peace!"; "Stop the qassam [sic]!")

In other words, the Hamas government cannot be expected to act like a rational state. This government thrives on the state of siege and tension that it prolongs with every qassam launch. Its domestic and international support rests on the misery of its population, which is attributed entirely to Israel - despite the fact that the occupation ended two years ago. The obvious parallel to the situation which the Hamas government is aiming for is that of post-withdrawal southern Lebanon. How one deals with such an entity - on the military, economic, and diplomatic fronts - is still an open question.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Squeezing the Central Bank

Stanley Fischer (Photo)

A coalition of populist (or demagogic) forces is pressuring Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer to lower interest rates (see Ha'aretz). Those pushing for the change are the Israeli Manufacturers' Association, which is suffering because of the high shekel, on the one hand, and parliamentarians ranging from Shelly Yachimovich (Labor) to Amnon Cohen (Shas). They want to see a reduction in interest rates to help workers in the export industry. If implemented, their agenda would set Israel back two decades. This kind of short-sighted intervention in fiscal policy by politicians, concerned about upcoming elections rather than the long-term economic growth of the country, will severely undermine investors' confidence in the Israeli market. The Central Bank's role is to check inflation by maintaining a strong currency; it should not be instrument of particular economic and social sectors. The export industry will have to adjust, just like the exporters in other countries who have experienced increases in the value of their currency against the dollar.