This past week marked the anniversary of Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli incursion into Gaza last year. Here are two ways of looking at it. One says it marked a turning point in the moral vision of Israeli society. The other says it was successful in reducing terrorism and saving Israeli lives.
The first one comes in an essay by human-rights lawyer Michael Sfard. It’s published on Coteret, a progressive Israeli blog, mostly press round-up in translation, that reports regularly on things you wish you didn’t have to know. The second is a year-end report released December 30 by the Shin Bet security service on the dramatic decline in Palestinian terror attacks in the past year, as summarized in Maariv. (The original is in Hebrew only — I’ve translated the numbers.) At the end is a link to a strong analysis describing the trade-off between protecting Israeli lives from terrorism, on one hand, and building the trust necessary to move toward peace.
Here are a few key excerpts from the Michael Sfard essay on Coteret:
Looking back, Operation Cast Lead was a turning point in the way Israeli society expresses its values. There, in besieged Gaza Strip, we exposed ourselves to a crystal-clear, shameless, and unmasked truth that we had thus far avoided by using repression and self-deceit methods that became more complex and clever with every war and operation we waged. Like that macho man who grew tired of pretending he was politically correct and angrily yelled at his wife to go back to the kitchen, we came out of the closet. We are who we are and we are proud of it! For three weeks, during Operation Cast Lead, we sent fighter jets to drop bombs on one of the world’s most densely populated areas. We aimed our guns at clearly civilian targets. We used [white?]phosphorous bombs. We deliberately and systematically demolished thousands of private houses and public buildings, and all the while we maintained a tight siege on the Gaza Strip, preventing civilians who wanted to from fleeing the war zone. We did not erect a temporary refugee camp for them. We did not create a humanitarian no-mans’-land corridor for them. We did not spare hospitals, food repositories, or even UN aid agencies’ buildings. At the same time, we did not express fake regret. We did not argue we made tragic mistakes… Operation Cast Lead was our second war of independence. In the first, we freed ourselves of 2,000 years of living under and being oppressed by foreign regimes. In the second, we broke the shackles of Jewish morality and heritage that were shoved down our throats for years. We liberated ourselves of the ancient Jewish ban against killing the innocent with the evil, from the self-evident lessons and inevitable insights we should have reached of the our collective experience as a downtrodden nation that was denied its own civil rights, that was silenced, knocked down, downgraded, and treated as subhuman. Yes, we violated some of those rules in the past, but we did not even reveal that to ourselves.
Now, on the other hand, here are the key points in the Shin Bet report, as reported by Ofer Buchbut in Maariv:
The General Security Service [i.e. Shin Bet - jjg] published a year-end report yesterday on terrorism, which showed “a significant decline in the scope of Palestinian terrorism.”
- 15 Israelis were killed in Palestinian attacks, nine of them during Cast Lead itself, versus 36 during 2008.
- 234 Israelis were wounded in Palestinian attacks, 185 of them during Cast Lead, versus 679 in 2008.
- 455 rockets were fired at Israel, 406 of them during Cast Lead, versus 2,048 rockets in 2008, a drop of almost 75%.
- No suicide attacks inside Israel in 2009. This is the first year since 1992 during which there were no Palestinian suicide attacks.
The report continues on to discuss current security inside Gaza, including the disturbing rise of global jihad groups. Maariv doesn’t mention the increasingly violent confrontation between these jihad groups and Hamas, which views them as a threat. (What? Wasn’t Hamas supposed to be part of global jihad?!)
Now, before you start saying it’s just those bad old Israeli spooks talking, think back to November 2003, when Yediot Ahronot convened four former heads of the service — that is, four of the five living ex-chiefs of Shin Bet — for a round-table discussion of the intifada, the peace process, terrorism and settlements. It’s worth re-reading to remind yourself of how the Israeli security establishment views the conflict, in stark contrast to the political establishment and, perhaps, current public opinion. They agreed that Israel can reach a viable peace agreement with the PLO, that the PLO is a serious partner—even under Arafat, who was still alive at the time. That much of the ill-will that grew up between Israel and the Palestinians in the wake of the Oslo accords could have been avoided if Israel had begun dismantling settlements on its own initiative. That the Israeli leadership often uses continued terrorism as an excuse to avoid negotiating. And more, including a discussion of why it is that Israeli defense and security heads so frequently come out as peaceniks after they retire, and why they don’t voice those views while they’re serving, when they presumably would have more impact. It’s well worth a peek.
On that note, it’s important to point out that the report, or at least Maariv’s account of it, doesn’t factor in the improved performance of the Palestinian security forces during the past year, as acknowledged on various occasions by official Israeli sources (see here, here, here and even here — the last being a casual throwaway in a Fox News report). At the same time, PA security isn’t rounding up Hamas and other violent actors in Gaza, so it’s safe to assume that at least some of the decline results from the deterrent effect of the Gaza operation.
Here’s an opinion piece from Ynet’s English Web site that lays out, in coldly depressing terms, what it describes as the inescapable trade-off between protecting Israelis’ personal security, through acts of deterrence and repression, and the trust-building effort that’s necessary to move toward peace. It’s by Gidi Grinstein, a former aide to Yitzhak Rabin who now heads the Reut Institute, an Israeli policy think-tank.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).