Thursday, January 22, 2009

'Operation Cast Ballot'

By Tom Streithorst ∙ The American Conservative via AntiWar.com ∙ January 22, 2009

The current issue. According to the Israeli media, four days before Gaza was attacked, Hamas offered to extend the ceasefire and end all rocket fire into southern Israel. In return, they asked for a lifting of the blockade choking Gaza and an extension of the ceasefire to the West Bank—reasonable enough demands. But the Israeli cabinet rejected the offer and decided to go to war.

Let us not forget who broke the ceasefire. Until Nov. 4, when the Israelis sent in commandos and killed six Palestinian militants near Khan Yunis, for the most part the ceasefire held. During the six-month truce, despite the Israeli stranglehold on Gaza’s borders, not one Israeli died or was wounded from rocket attacks.

After the Israeli incursion in early November, retaliatory rocket fire naturally ratcheted up, providing the provocation that led to the Israeli invasion. Since the beginning of the Israeli bombing, four Israeli civilians have been killed by rocket fire, four more than died during the previous six months. More rockets have been fired out of Gaza just about every day since the war began than during the entire six months of the truce. It seems that if the Israeli goal was to protect their citizens, they aren’t going about it very well.

I would suggest, from personal experience, that protecting the citizens of Sderot might not be the main motivation of the Israeli government.

In 2002, toward the end of the second Intifada, I was working in Jerusalem for an American television network. Essentially I was on suicide-bomb watch. Although we would do an occasional story on the 24-hour curfews randomly imposed on the West Bank or on Palestinian children killed while riding their bicycles in broad daylight in a middle-class neighborhood in Jenin, the reason our bosses in New York paid us to sit in Jerusalem was to cover suicide-bomb attacks on Israelis. Dead Palestinians rarely make news. Dead Israelis do.

For the first six weeks of my tour, tranquillity reigned within Israel. No suicide bombs anywhere. While being paid combat wages, I mostly lollygagged by the pool. A colleague told me, “It’s too quiet, Sharon is going to do something.” I thought he was paranoid, perhaps even anti-Semitic.

On Friday, July 19, 2002, we heard that Hamas was about to declare a truce. If a bunch of journalists knew about it, surely the Israeli government did, too. Although I was happy that peace was about to break out in the Holy Land, I was sorry that my sinecure was about to end. Without the threat of suicide attacks, my bosses would surely pull me out.

Over the weekend, the rumors coalesced. The truce was to be declared on Tuesday. But on Monday night, 12 hours before Hamas was to declare a unilateral ceasefire, the Israelis decided to bomb the center of Gaza City, targeting a Hamas leader. They killed him along with 14 civilians, nine of them children. To no one’s surprise, Hamas decided not to declare a truce. A week later, the first suicide bomb in months. The day after, the shocking attack on Hebrew University, which killed five students. The war was back on.

The Israeli government explained the air attack of June 22, 2002 by saying that they found a high-value target, Saleh Shahada, and had to take advantage of the actionable intelligence. At the time Shahada was sleeping in his home. He probably had slept there before. Was taking him out worth disrupting the proposed ceasefire? Kill one man, make a martyr of him, and someone else will inevitably replace him. It doesn’t seem logical if your goal is peace and tranquillity.

There is, of course, a cynical viewpoint, one shared by most journalists and just about all the Palestinians I talked to at the time: disrupting the proposed ceasefire was not a regrettable result but the very purpose of the attack. A truce without preconditions would make Hamas seem moderate and sensible and would not play well in Israeli propaganda. Better to goad them, even at the cost of increased hostility, even if it provoked retaliation, even if it meant more Israelis would die.

On Feb. 10, Israel holds elections. Before the invasion, the ruling Kadima Party was expected to lose. Since the invasion, their poll numbers have risen. Perhaps this, rather than the protection of Sderot from homemade rockets, better explains the slaughter in Gaza.

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Tom Streithorst has worked as a cameraman for 20 years.

Copyright © 2009 The American Conservative

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