The Siege of Gaza Has Failed

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published January 30, 2008, issue of February 01, 2008.
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There are times we are drawn to reject that which is obvious. If the answer’s so simple, how can it be true? Anyone would have known it, so it can’t be right.

For example: Israel’s sealing of the Gaza borders and its withholding of fuel and electricity from Gaza was a stupid act. In retrospect, just about everyone seems to know that; it’s obvious.

To say that is not for a second to suggest that the Qassam rockets are acceptable or that the citizens of Sderot and nearby communities do not deserve sympathy and support. Nor is it to absolve Hamas of responsibility for the Qassams.

But as it has predictably turned out, Israel’s reaction has accomplished nothing — or, if you count the strain on its relations with Egypt, the additional burden it places on a fragile peace process and the sympathy for the Palestinians it has engendered, less than nothing.

The question is not, however, what Israel should have done by way of trying to put an end to the Qassam attacks. That’s a fair question, and an important question — but it is not just yet our question.

Our question is about what Israel in fact did and is doing, not about what it might have done. And you don’t have to know what its other options were to make a judgment regarding the option it chose: In life in general, as here is particular, the absence of any constructive alternative is insufficient reason to choose a destructive alternative.

There are three possible explanations for the choice Israel made: First, there may have been those who supposed that the pain and suffering of the Gazans would be so keen that they would, finally, rise up against Hamas, the ultimate source of their pain. But there is no precedent that would give rise to such an expectation, no instance in Israel or elsewhere of a people rebelling against its governors because their lives have been made miserable by an outside power.

On the contrary: As any number of studies show, large-scale bombardment of a civilian population, far from demoralizing the people who are its targets, raises their fighting spirit; so, too, siege. In short, if it was Israel’s hope that starving the people of Gaza would incite a rebellion against Hamas, that hope has now been smashed.

Indeed, there may now be members of the European Union who are wondering whether there’s a point to their participation in the boycott of Hamas. Why add to the misery of Gazans if there’s no political benefit?

Not long ago, there were fragmentary reports that the people of Gaza had had it with Hamas. So much for that wishful thinking.

A second possible reason for the Israeli folly: There are those who are convinced that short of a full-scale invasion of Gaza, there is no way to stop the Qassams. Starve the population and even more Qassams will be launched.

As more Qassams are launched, Israelis will support a reoccupation of Gaza, even though it is bound to be quite bloody. Indeed, even elsewhere in the world, Israel will be seen as acting only after brutal provocation, acting, therefore, reasonably.

But the fact that some thousands of Gazans and some hundreds of Israelis are likely to lose their lives in such a battle, all this against the background of a policy of collective punishment of an entire population, denied food, medical supplies, fuel — that is not measured only on a wise/foolish scale; it is also measured on a humane/inhumane scale.

And in fact, Israel’s state prosecution this week told the High Court of Justice that Israel was restoring the supply of industrial-use diesel oil to pre-blockade levels, because the pre-blockade levels were the absolute minimum required in order to meet the basic humanitarian needs of Gaza’s civilian population. In so testifying, it was in effect admitting that the sharp reduction imposed by the blockade was below that critical minimum.

The third possible reason? The Israeli public demanded action, if not action that might put an end to the Qassams at least tit-for-tat action, retributive action.

Life goes on. The latest polls in Israel report that most Israelis regard 2007 as having been, at the personal level, a good year, and that they expect 2008 to be even better. Gaza? A distant planet.

Here in America, Gaza cannot so smoothly be put out of mind. Members of Congress and even presidential candidates tumble over each other to proclaim Israel’s inherent right of self-defense; American Jewish organizations do much the same, or stay silent.

Most of Israel’s friends in the United States grit their teeth and either suspend their critical judgment or actually choose to withhold such judgment. They were and remain distressed by the Qassams, and they are loath to pile on a beleaguered Israel.

In the meantime, the anti-Israel crowd is busy doing exactly that — piling on, condemning Israel without even taking note of the provocation. Tomorrow, the organizations will be lamenting the alienation of the left from Israel, but they will not connect the dots that lead from fuel cuts that left about 500,000 people in central Gaza without power, deprived about 40% of Gaza’s people of running water and compelled Gaza to dump untreated sewage into the Mediterranean to that alienation.

The siege, like so many efforts before it, has failed. What, then, to do? Must Israel repeat the tedious and bloody efforts that have uselessly drained it and demeaned it in the past?

Or is it not time to throw away the old playbook and, directly or through third parties, seek an understanding with Hamas? Such talks might well prove fruitless — but what good purpose is served in refusing to pursue them?

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