Civilian crawling over debris in Gaza, 2006. (Photo: Zoriah)
Israel's hawks are starting to make frightening noises.
If Israel attacks Gaza again, Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant will run the operation. Galant recently said that right now "the sun is shining - but one can see dark clouds in the distance." His soldiers are training to face trouble ahead, and "civilians are rightly preparing themselves for another round of fighting."
A few days later, Galant's predecessor, Maj. Gen. Yom Tov Samia (who still heads the reserves who would invade Gaza), sounded even more ominous: "We are before another round in Gaza," he predicted. "I am very skeptical about the possibility that Hamas will suddenly surrender or change its ways without being hit much more seriously than it was during Cast Lead." Israel must carry out "a more focused strike with long-lasting results."
Always ready to oblige the hawks, the Jerusalem Post reported Samia's words under the fear-mongering headline: "Another war with Hamas is inevitable."
At what "long-lasting results" might Israel aim? Samia would say only that Israel should take control of "certain areas in Gaza" to "create a situation in which Hamas runs out of oxygen." But unnamed "defense officials" told the Post of existing plans for Israel to seize and hold the Philadelphi corridor, the strip of land between Egypt and Gaza that is riddled with underground smuggling tunnels.
That would require Israeli troops to go house to house in the densely populated city of Rafah, to search out and destroy tunnels. When Israel invaded Gaza last year, the same plan was rejected because it was likely to cost too many Israeli casualties and lead to a long-term Israeli occupation of the area. Now, the hawks are pushing their government to consider paying that price.
Why? The official explanation, repeated constantly in the Israeli press, is that rockets are beginning to fly out of Gaza into Israel again, while Hamas brings larger weaponry through the tunnels. So, Israel is "forced" to defend itself.
Yet, Gaza Prime Minister, Ismael Haniyeh of Hamas, has repeated his call for all factions in the Strip to observe and maintain a total cease-fire. The cease-fire is a long-standing Hamas policy, broken in late 2008 only when Israel tightened its economic stranglehold on Gaza beyond endurable limits.
The cease-fire reflects "a moderating trend" within Hamas that has been going on for at least five years, according to Fawaz Gerges' recent detailed analysis of the movement. He lays out "unmistakable signs that the religiously based radical movement" is no longer so radical, that it "has subtly changed its uncompromising posture on Israel." "Hamas has already changed," he quotes top Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal. "We accepted the national accords for a Palestinian state based on the 1967 border."
If the Hamas moves toward accommodation are "nourished and engaged," as Gerges says, they "could transform Palestinian politics and the Arab-Israeli peace process.
Predictably, though, Israel is doing just the opposite.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak added fuel to the fire when he publicly charged that Hamas leaders are unable "to control the dissident groups … who are trying to break the tranquility" by firing about 20 crude rockets into Israel in recent days. Though this has already triggered disproportionate and deadly Israeli retaliation, Barak warned of more to come: "Hamas is well deterred from trying another direct collision with Israel. I hope that they will take over - or else."
It's the same old, tragic story. Missing every opportunity to encourage the peace-oriented forces in Hamas, Israel instead escalates the violence.
Amid his vague, bellicose noises, Israeli General Samia gave a clear hint of what might really be driving Israeli policy. Claiming that support for Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah Party is "very weak or almost non existent in the [Gaza] Strip," Samia offered the Palestinian leader some advice: "The best chance at returning to power is taking a serious, significant and critical step that would drive Hamas out of power."
It may well be the dream of Israeli leaders to give Fatah rule over Gaza as well as the West Bank. After all, Israel (with US help) was instrumental in sparking the2007 civil war in Gaza, when Fatah tried and failed to impose sole control. All observers of the conflict note that Israel assumes it will get an better deal in negotiations from the apparently more moderate Fatah than from the moderating, but still more demanding, Hamas.
Yet, the idea of destroying Hamas is just as much fantasy now as it was three years ago. And even if Fatah were to take nominal control of Gaza, no peace settlement reached by Fatah without Hamas support would gain broad support among Palestinians. Indeed, Israel has long complained that it cannot negotiate peace because there is no one to represent all the Palestinians.
What Israeli leaders won't say is that they have worked single-mindedly to keep it that way. The fundamental principle of Israeli foreign policy has always been "divide and conquer," especially toward the Palestinians. The one thing Israel fears most is a Palestinian nation united behind a single, popular government and set of leaders. If that were to come to pass, the pressure on Israel to negotiate in good faith - to make genuine compromises for peace - would be irresistible. Israeli leaders would rather go on complaining that they have "no partner for peace."
That's why they've studiously ignored Khaled Meshaal's frequently repeated insistence that Hamas, like Fatah, will accept a two-state solution. Israel needs to keep alive the fiction of a radical difference between Hamas and Fatah to justify its continuing militant anti-Hamas drive, which is the sharp edge of the wedge it drives between the two groups.
The hawkish sounds coming from the Israeli defense establishment may be real warning signals of an impending attack. Or they may be just bluff. Either way, they drown out the sounds of moderation and accommodation coming from Hamas. They make it much harder for the Israeli people to see the possibilities for peace and security that are at hand - which must begin with the unification of Hamas and Fatah, an issue that the two Palestinian factions are still constantly discussing.
Israel can promote that unification, leading both sides to accept a two-state solution. Israel can take more steps toward peace by stopping settlement expansion and agreeing to a genuinely independent and viable Palestinian state on all of the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital (as Israel's former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has urged).
For now, though, the signals from Israel sound like they are moving in the other direction, preparing the Israeli public for more conflict, more insecurity and perhaps more useless death in the streets of Gaza.
Though I write about these events from 10,000 miles away, in the safety of Middle America, I'm not at all detached. Nor is any American. Our own government plays a central role in everything that happens in the Middle East. Israeli columnist Bradley Burston, who takes the bellicose talk at face value, recently wrote a piece titled: "Israel's Looming War in Gaza: Can Obama Stop It Before It Starts?" The US government has the power to put the brakes on Israel's military machine, he pointed out, if it wants to badly enough. And only the US government can do it.
Whether the Obama administration wants to stop the next war badly enough depends largely on how it reads the political winds at home. No one of us alone can create a wind shift big enough to shape administration policy. But every one of us can make our voice heard and help determine which way the wind blows.