Sunday 25 January 2009

A Hindsight View of the War

All events in history seem different when they are looked at with the benefit of hindsight. This is not only because new information comes to light after the event which allows us to judge the event more fairly, it is also due to the fact that things always seem to look different when they are considered from a distance. I am not exactly sure how much time is required to pass until this different view can truly be seen, I have, however, discovered that after only one week since the ceasefire has been in effect following Operation Cast Lead, there are some things that I am already seeing in a different light.

Before examining the things that I see differently, there are some things about which my views have not changed. Firstly, my admiration for the IDF and for all the reservists and standing soldiers has not changed. I feel immense gratitude for the bravery shown by all of these people. The willingness on the part of reserve soldiers to drop their lives and run to the front line in defence of our homeland is an act of patriotism that defies all expectations. All Israelis, and Jews around the world, owe these men and women and their families a debt of gratitude. It is my contention that there cannot be another holocaust whilst we have a strong Jewish army. I feel strong in my belief that a holocaust is surely a long way off with this Jewish army. The lessons of the Second Lebanon War were learned, and we have seen the signs of this.

The second thing that my views remain the same about, is my admiration for the fortitude and resilience of the citizens of Israel, particularly those in the south who came under daily rocket attack. The way in which they kept the home front strong under extremely difficult circumstances, supported the efforts of the army and refused to give up when weaker people would have surrendered bodes well for the future of our country and our people.

The third thing that I have not changed my views about is Hamas. The choices that they make and the tactics that they use to try to destroy Israel and its people seem to sink to lower levels every day. They way in which they make use of the civilian population, women and children especially, to try to exploit Israel's sensitivity to getting civilians involved in war, and to try to create negative headlines when civilians get caught up in the war should be despised by all decent humans. Reports emerging from the war zone that Hamas has considerably inflated the numbers of their civilian casualties for the purpose of negative press against Israel, reinforce my previously held contempt for this organisation.

I do, however, regard the ceasefire implemented a week ago in a different way. This reflects my view of the political establishment and the job that they have done in managing the events of the war, and the way in which it was ended. I wish to make it clear that I fully support the decision made by the politicians to go to war, and I believe that their conduct during the war was exemplary. It is clear to me that they too learned the lessons of the Second Lebanon War.

When considering the decision to declare a unilateral ceasefire, however, I am not fully in agreement. What seemed like quite a good idea a week ago, in the interests of getting our soldiers out of Gaza as soon as possible, now looks like a flawed decision. When the IDF was sent into Gaza at the start of the operation, the pretext was the ongoing rocket fire aimed at Israeli towns and cities around the Gaza Strip. This rocket fire, whilst substantially reduced during the course of the war, was not stopped. I accept the fact that Hamas had plans to dramatically increase the rocket fire and also to extend the towns and cities that were targeted in the event of a war. This plan was very effectively snuffed out by the IDF. And yet, we were unable to stop the rocket fire completely. I wonder whether we can honestly say we have achieved our objectives when rockets were still being fired in the period immediately following the ceasefire.

Also linked to the decision to declare a ceasefire is the not-so-small issue of our kidnapped soldier, Gilad Shalit. It feels incomprehensible to me that we can send the might of our army into Gaza where Gilad is being held, and stop fighting before we have him in our hands. I desperately wish to believe all the reports that that negotiations for his release are progressing, and have been greatly enhanced by the war. In my view, if Gilad is not released under some sort of deal within the next month, I will judge the political decision to declare a ceasefire a failure.

I am delighted with the government's decision to go to war, and with the way in which the army executed its responsibility. The rocket fire, albeit still a threat, has stopped for now. What remains is to bring Gilad home.

Saturday 17 January 2009

How to Win the Peace

Operation Cast Lead, otherwise known to most of us as the Gaza War, seems to have progressed broadly according to our expectations. The IDF has done an admirable job of dismantling Hamas positions that endanger Israeli lives. Many Hamas militants have been neutralised and weapons destroyed. Although the daily barrage of rocket fire has not been stopped entirely, it has been substantially reduced. With each passing day of the war, we suffer less rocket fire. And even though we mourn the loss of every precious life of those who have been prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice in the defence of the homeland, we are thankful that the casualties that we have suffered have not been greater.

Some voices from the military establishment are now saying that they have achieved all that they can hope to achieve. I interpret this to mean, all that can be achieved without unnecessarily and arbitrarily risking lives on either side in a negligent manner. So, what happens when the military job is done? Can we trust our political leadership to operate in the same precise and patriotic way to captalise on the great job done by the IDF? Once the war is won, how will we win the peace?

The answer to this question centres on what we can expect out of a ceasefire agreement. Given that we do not officially recognise Hamas as the entity which governs Gaza, there is an interesting question as to whether we should even enter into a formal ceasefire with Hamas. If not with Hamas, then with whom? I don't believe we have much of a choice. It is clear that this war is with Hamas, and nobody else. If so, the ceasefire agreement must be with Hamas, and nobody else. Having said that, it seems clear that there should be other parties to the ceasefire agreement. Egypt has an important role in helping to prevent a future build-up of arms in the Gaza Strip. This is also true of other members of the international community in helping to police any agreement that may be implemented.

In light of the above, the ceasefire agreement that I would want Israel to sign would contain the following key aspects:
1. Release Gilad Shalit. For me, this is not negotiable, and would appear on the top of my agenda. With the Hamas infrastructure severely damaged and the leadership structure weakened, this must surely be the best moment to demand Gilad's release. I would not cease the war in Gaza without this term being agreed to.
2. Dismantle the rocket launchers in the Strip. These are the main source of insecurity to Israeli towns and settlements surrounding the Gaza Strip. By dismantling these launchers, it allows Israeli civilians to get back to their regular daily existence, something that they have looked forward to for the best part of 8 years.
3. Stop the arms smuggling. The Gaza border with Egypt is riddled with many hundred tunnels dug below the surface. These tunnels are used to bypass the Israeli control over Gaza which attempts to deny Hamas the means to obtain weapons to attack Israel. The tunnels and the associated trade on the Egyptian side of the border are an economy unto itself. Not only are they used to smuggle food and other daily subsistence goods, they are a conduit for huge sums of cash and large quantities of arms being brought from Iran and other countries. This must be stopped to guarantee future peaceful coexistence.

In return for the above, I would cease the current Operation Cast Lead and would be prepared to agree to other terms including the provision of humanitarian aid and an attempt to conduct peaceful coexistence with Gaza and its citizens. Of course, any act that reneges on the agreements would result in a very significant and harsh response from Israel.

The Israeli political establishment is currently making a number of different statements about a ceasefire, two of which seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum. On the one hand, there seems to be support for a unilateral ceasefire. I have no idea what this would achieve. To me, it appears to throw away all advantage that has been gained by the military. Without understanding what may be giving rise to such a thought, it seems a ridiculous prospect to me.

The other view coming out from the politicians is that there should be no ceasefire unless Hamas agrees to a cessation of hostilities for a period which is longer than a year. We all know that Hamas has, as its main objective, the destruction of the State of Israel. So how can any period of cessation of hostilities be significant and worthy of trusting? Whatever period is agreed upon, the next round of hostilities appears inevitable. And the timing will be according to whatever Hamas wishes and is unlikely to be determined by any ceasefire agreement.

It is difficult to measure the effectiveness of the current round of hostilities. History will, no doubt, judge this in hindsight. There can be no doubt, however, that the military success is heavily dependent upon the success that the politicians can extract from the situation. It is my hope that the politicians do their job well on this occasion and, as a very minimum, succeed in bringing home Gilad Shalit. In my view, this would win the peace.

Saturday 10 January 2009

Not Déjà Vu

When I heard the news on Thursday morning that bombs were landing on Nahariya, it felt like déjà vu. It took my mind racing back to the Lebanon War in the summer of 2006 when bombs were raining down on the northern parts of Israel.

But this is no déjà vu. Almost two weeks into the Gaza War, I can safely say that this war bears no resemblance to the Lebanon War whatsoever. And I am really happy to be able to say that. In retrospect, the Lebanon War was not a loss for Israel, but it was certainly not a victory. It contained certain aspects that none of us were proud of. Some of the problems experienced during the war could be felt even by civilians, and these feelings were borne out in the findings of the commission of enquiry that was established to investigate the conduct of the war by Israel. Suffice it to say that this war was not Israel's proudest military moment.

In saying this, I should add that I am no military expert or commentator. In military terms, I am a complete outsider and novice. I made aliyah at an age when the military was not interested in my services. As such, I have little or no understanding of the internal workings of the IDF, of military terms, tactics or strategies at all. My comments are being made in my capacity as a citizen of the State of Israel who expresses a purely amateur and uneducated view on military matters.

From the very outset, the Gaza War seems to have been conducted in a highly professional manner. Everything about it seems to have been well thought-out, communicated and executed. The initial strike took Hamas by surprise. The politicians were well prepared in their addresses to the Israeli and foreign press. Their messages were consistent, the text well drafted and well presented. This is a welcome contrast to the haphazard briefings during the Lebanon War, many of which came too late and with poor language and message choice. The Minister of Defense at the time, Amir Peretz, was a poor choice during peacetime. During a time of war, he proved to be hopelessly out of his depth and a disastrous choice.

During the Lebanon War, there was a constant stream of complaints coming from serving soldiers and reservists alike. The equipment was inadequate, old and outdated. Soldiers were not being provided with food and water required for a basic survival. The military plans appeared poorly thought out, and many soldiers felt that their lives were being unnecessarily placed at risk by being sent into operations that had no prospect of success. This amounts to negligence on the part of the military leaders as a minimum. Private individuals and organisations were raising funds to buy their loved ones, and fellow members of their units, protective military equipment to compensate for the extremely poor way in which the soldiers were equipped. The call went out up and down the country for food and water to be provided to feed our soldiers and to quench their thirst. This does not leave a country feeling confident that its military is "on top of things" and ready to defend the nation. In fact, quite the opposite, it left the army with low morale, and the citizens with a view that they army could not be depended upon. On a daily basis, the citizens of Israel had the impression that the military actions taken by our army were having little or no impact upon our enemies. I have no doubt that the lack of preparedness also cost lives of soldiers and civilians.

The messages coming back from the front-line this time are completely different. Soldiers are well equipped with all that they need including military gear, food and water. Organisation of the call-up of reservists has been good, including training and preparation work done after the call-up. Morale on the front-line is high, and the nation is right behind our military in supporting them emotionally as best we can. There has been loss of life including some soldiers unfortunately killed by friendly fire. But there is no sign of the haphazard way in which things were previously done. On the contrary, we have the feeling that our soldiers are able to influence and impact the behaviour of our enemies, albeit not stop them entirely - yet. We are being told how the protective equipment has saved numerous lives and injuries. Overall a most positive picture which indicates the best is being extracted from our military effort under enormously difficult circumstances.

So what has happened in 18 short months since the last war, that can make this one feel so completely different? Ironically, we have the same Prime Minister at the helm. Olmert is what would usually considered to be a lame-duck Prime Minister in the final days of his tenure. He has been smart in keeping a low public profile during the course of the war, and has preferred to give Tzipi Livni (Foreign Minister) and Ehud Barak (Defense Minister) greater public roles. We cannot escape from the fact that Olmert, lame-duck or not, is leading this effort. Whatever one may think about Olmert (and he has provided significant food for thought), he seems to be doing an admirable job on this occasion. Barak and Livni are new to their roles since Lebanon 2006, and have presented themselves excellently. Barak is a breath of fresh air in comparison to Amir Peretz. Not only has he been well prepared, he is a military man who engenders a sense of comfort in the population by his actions and confidence.

Most significant since the summer of 2006, is the fact that the Chief of General Staff, and almost the entire upper echelon, of the IDF have been replaced. With those changes have come new training methods, additional equipment and a new approach to fighting terrorism and groups like Hamas. The army has been well prepared and well equipped for the task. The results of these changes are evident in the method of approaching the task, the morale of the soldiers and the casualties that we have suffered to date.

But I do not have any illusion that this war will lead to any greater prospect for lasting peace in the Middle East. On the contrary, I see it as yet another battle in the ongoing war for Jewish survival. It is said that there will only be peace when the Arabs recognise Israel's right to exist. With groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, whose main objective is the demolition of the State of Israel and it citizens, this will not happen any time soon. Golda Meir's famous quote is as relevant today as it was when she first stated: "We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children, but we can never forgive them for making us kill their children. We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us."

Until that day comes, our army will defend our right to exist in this land, and protect our Jewish freedoms. It is my prayer that each of our soldiers will return safely to their families after having safely seen off this latest threat to our existence.

Sunday 4 January 2009

The Gaza Withdrawal in Retrospect

As I write this piece, the IDF ground troops are entering Gaza in order to stop the attacks that Israeli citizens have had to endure. The Gaza War over the past week has brought Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza more than 3 years ago into sharp focus. The obvious questions arise as to whether this was the right thing to do, and whether it may have contributed to the war that is currently being fought. It would be fair to say that there are more than a few Israelis, aside from the evicted Gaza settlers, who feel strongly that the decision to evacuate Gaza was wrong.

I was a supporter of the Israeli government's decision to withdraw from Gaza at the time that it was done, and remain convinced that it was the right decision. My support for this decision brought me into direct conflict with many people, even members of my own family. The view of those who did not support withdrawal is that any decision to give up Jewish land shows a weakness on the part of Israel that we cannot afford to demonstrate at this stage in our history. This view is even more strongly felt in the case of the Gaza withdrawal, where the land was given up unilaterally without any agreement giving Israel something in return. And, if the truth be told, I agree with this view too. So, how can I be a supporter of both positions?

The purpose of the Gaza withdrawal, according to the government's official position, was to reduce Palestinian attacks on Israeli citizens. In December 2003 PM Ariel Sharon said that the withdrawal was to "increase security of residents of Israel, relieve pressure on the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and reduce friction between Israelis and Palestinians". When measured in these terms, I would have to agree that the withdrawal has not achieved its objectives. It is always difficult to compare what has happened to what might have been in the event that we would have remained in Gaza. In objective terms, however, it would be true to say that there continues to be a lack of security for residents of Israel (in Sderot, Beer Sheva, Ashdod and Ashkelon and areas near Gaza instead of those living in the Gaza Strip), the IDF continues to experience pressure on the Gaza borders and that there continues to be friction between Israelis and Palestinians. Is this more or less than before the withdrawal? Or what would have happened if we continued to stay in Gaza? I have no answer, but clearly the security situation since withdrawal has not been good and the withdrawal has failed to achieve the stated objectives.

The critical point that allows me to seemingly stand on two sides of one argument, is the minor issue of 1 million Arabs living in the Gaza Strip. If the Gaza Strip was a piece of land which had few or no Arabs living there, or at least a Jewish majority, I would advocate hanging onto it with every part of our being. It is land that Jews have a historical link to, that many Jewish lives have been lost in defending and which large amounts of Jewish time and money have been invested. This piece of land, however, comes with 1 million enemy citizens all of whom have to be taken care of. It is my view that no Israeli government wishes to, or should agree to take responsibility for 1 million citizens who are not at all part of its constituency. More than this, the large majority of these people actually advocate the destruction of the people and nation that this same government represents. Although this point was never raised by the government at the time of the withdrawal from Gaza, I believe it to be a significant factor. In most countries around the world, this is known as treason. So why should the Israeli government have to tolerate it in Gaza?

If it is accepted that we do not want our government taking responsibility for the welfare of enemies of the state, it leaves only one of two options to alleviate the problem. The first option is expelling the enemies of the state entirely. This option appears to be unrealistic in the extreme, as the prospect of uprooting 1 million people and settling them elsewhere is impractical and would do Israel no public relations favours. The second option is to withdraw from governing over these people. This is what was done.

What advantages did this withdrawal bring?
The first, and most important advantage, is that the government no longer has to take care for the welfare of enemies of the state.
The second advantage is that Israel can no longer be accused of "occupying" the Gaza Strip. This has long been held up as the reason for all terror activities against Israel, and has now been removed as an excuse. The response by the Palestinians in Gaza has been to link Gaza to Judea and Samaria, and to justify any terror activity on the fact that the West Bank remains "occupied". We know that the real reason for the terror activity is the intention to destroy Israel.
The third advantage is the separation of our responsibility to defend ourselves against terrorists, from the responsibility for the welfare of the citizens. This allows Israel to treat the enemies as exactly that, and not to have a dual responsibilities that contradict each other.
The final advantage is the fact that the entire Gaza Strip is free of Jewish citizens and soldiers. This effectively means that the entire area can be declared enemy territory which allows the IDF and the IAF to utilise different military options which are appropriate to this situation.

I am extremely sensitive to the strong Jewish links to the land, and to the memory of those who were lost fighting for it. I believe that Israel, with the little land that we have, could benefit immensely from having Gaza within its borders. I believe that Gaza could equally benefit from Jewish care and investment in bringing to be a thriving and viable area. I can never be convinced, however, that governing over 1 million enemies of the state is desirable or justifiable. For me, it is better that we withdrew from this harsh responsibility.

Godspeed to our Soldiers

I wish Godspeed to our soldiers as they enter Gaza on a dangerous and difficult mission to secure the safety of the Land of Israel and its inhabitants. In so doing, they are also fighting to secure freedom for Jews around the world against the many forces that wish to destroy us. I wish our soldiers success in their efforts, and I look forward to the day that they will all return safely to their families who have lent them to us for this task. May this day come soon.

It is my prayer that this mission will be a significant step in bringing for Jews, in Israel and beyond, the ability to live in peace and security without continuing threats to our existence.