Gaza and ‘game changers’

Paul Danish | Boulder Weekly

Editor’s Note: Long-time Boulder Weekly columnist Paul Danish has made numerous trips to Israel during times of conflict. So we asked him for his opinion of what is happening in the region at this time.

What started with the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers last month — which Israel blames on Hamas (and Hamas denies) — has morphed into a war, which probably will not end quickly and could get much larger.

As a result of the kidnappings, Israel arrested Hamas operatives all over the West Bank. Hamas used this, and the revenge killing of an Arab teenager by Jewish extremists, as a pretext to begin firing rockets at Israel from Gaza.

Neither the Israeli government, nor the Israeli public, which had been transfixed by kidnap drama for a month, was in a mood to be trifled with and responded to the rocket salvos with airstrikes on Hamas rocket launching and production sites and other military infrastructure throughout the Gaza strip.

During the first week of the conflict, Israeli aircraft attacked roughly 200 targets a day in the 141-square-mile Gaza strip, a very intensive level of attacks in a small area. (By way of comparison, during the 1991 Gulf War, U.S. and allied airstrikes in Kuwait, which is about 50 times the size of Gaza, averaged 900 and 1,000 a day.)

Despite the mauling, Hamas has succeeded in firing more than 1,400 rockets into Israel. These caused relatively few casualties (one dead and about 60 wounded as of Wednesday) and relatively little property damage, largely because Israel’s Iron Dome antimissile defense system shot down most of those headed for built-up areas.

The Israeli air-strikes on the other hand killed 220 Palestinians and wounded about 1,500 more as of press time Wednesday. Israel claims that 70 percent of the casualties were terrorists. A UN organization in Gaza claims up to 85 percent were civilian. The difference probably stems from differences in how the two sides define who’s a civilian. (More about that some other time).

Last Monday (July 14) Egypt proposed a cease-fire — based largely on ideas that had been proposed earlier by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Israel accepted it and discontinued its airstrikes for several hours Tuesday. Hamas rejected it and kept firing rockets at Israel, which resumed airstrikes Tuesday evening, along with an announcement that it intended to intensify its attacks.

It also warned tens of thousands residents of northern Gaza and eastern Gaza City to leave their neighborhoods by 8 a.m. Wednesday ahead of further attacks, air or ground not specified.

As of noon Wednesday, Israel time, most of them hadn’t left, possibly because they thought Israel was bluffing or possibly because Hamas was threatening retaliation against those that did, (which is probably a war crime).

So where do things go from here? When the fighting began (on Tuesday, July 8) Israel said its war aim was “calm for calm,” to get Hamas to quit firing rockets.

After the collapse of the Egyptian-proposed cease-fire, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raised the bar. He called for the “demilitarization of Gaza” by the removal of Hamas’ remaining rockets and the dismantling of its rocket production infrastructure under international supervision. Although he didn’t say it, Gaza could also be demilitarized by the expulsion of Hamas, and its evil twin Islamic Jihad (which is an Iranian client these days) from Gaza.

Such events are not unprecedented.

The PLO was forcibly expelled from Jordan in 1970 by King Hussein and from Lebanon in 1982 by Israel. Libya’s and Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs were both dismantled under international supervision.

So how likely is it that either of those things will happen?

A lot more likely than it was on Monday, July 7.

That is because Hamas’ success at firing salvos of rockets from one end of Israel to the other and at targeting all of its main population centers — despite the on-going attacks from the Israeli air force — seems to have convinced the Israeli government, military and public that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are luxuries they can no longer afford.

Wednesday saw a groundswell of public opinion in Israel for a ground operation in Gaza, sparked by Hamas’ deliberate targeting of the cities and Israel’s civilian population. But if anything prompts Israel to go for Hamas’ throat, it will be the realization that if Hamas can target all of Israel’s cities, it can also target all of Israel’s air bases. And if it can target all of Israel’s air bases, Hamas graduates from being an ongoing pain in the ass to an existential threat.

An off-hand observation by the late Israel diplomat and politician Abba Eban a couple  years after the Six Day War is as true today as it was then: Israel’s survival depends on a small number of aircraft. If an enemy or combination of enemies can take out Israel’s air force with a barrage of rockets and ballistic missiles, the country’s qualitative edge over its enemies goes away, and there is a real chance it can be defeated.

According to the Israeli military/security website, some of Hamas’ rocket barrages have been intended to challenge the Iron Dome system and probe it for weaknesses. Others have targeted the air bases to test their preparedness and what sort of a response an attack on them would elicit.

The fact that the Iron Dome system has shot down most of the rockets that otherwise would have landed in built-up areas is almost beside the point. If Hamas survives this round, it will come to the next round with more rockets and more accurate rockets than this time, and with a much deeper understanding of how to defeat the Iron Dome.

One of the narratives to come out of the first week’s fighting is that the Iron Dome system is a “game changer.”

It is, but the real game changer is Hamas’ rockets — and chances are this time the game will go on until they’re gone.