Bibi Netanyahu returned a few weeks ago from his annual pilgrimage to Washington DC, where he met with the president and thrilled an American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) crowd with his usual baleful predictions of Jewish catastrophe at the hands of a nuclear Iran. Though the hysteria of the prime minister's portrayal of the Iranian threat led anyone listening to believe that he would attack Iran sometime down the road, it wasn't clear to me whether he would wait, as Obama sought to do, for sanctions to debilitate Iran's economy, or go it alone and strike sooner.
Events after Bibi's return to Israel clarified this. Within days, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had assassinated Zuhir al-Qaisi, the leader of the Gaza-based Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), violating a ceasefire that had been in place since the end of Operation Cast Lead in 2010. As in the past, Israel took action knowing what the Palestinian response would be: a rocket barrage on southern Israel. This is precisely what happened. Two hundred rockets fell on Israel in a matter of days. The IDF retaliated, and 26 Gazans were killed, six of them civilians and among those, two children.
Israel justified the assassination, claiming that, just as the PRC had inspired the Eilat terror attack of last summer - in which eight Israeli civilians and three Egyptian police officers were killed - the PRC leader this time was supposedly planning a similar assault. The only problem with this narrative is that Israeli journalist Alex Fishman and Ben Gurion University political blogger Idan Landau proved that the PRC was not involved in the Eilat attack. Rather, Sinai, Egypt-based, al-Qaeda-inspired Islamists perpetrated that assault, completely independent of any Gazan involvement. Egypt even subsequently arrested the ringleader of the Eilat attack, and he was from Sinai - as Fishman and I had predicted he would be.
The Israeli justification for the recent killing of al-Qaisi - the claim that he was planning a new terror operation - quickly fell by the wayside. The Israeli government needed the excuse for just a day or two following the killing. Once events shifted to the Gaza missile fire, Israel no longer needed its justification, and after that, you never heard about it again.
What did Israel gain by attacking Gaza? Israeli anti-Occupation activist Professor Neve Gordon wrote in Al Jazeera English that Israel deliberately provoked the Gaza response because it wished to test its new Iron Dome anti-missile system. In the fighting, reports of the weapon's success varied, but Israelis generally viewed it as quite effective. Given the terror that the rocket barrages previously caused inside Israel, it can't be underestimated how much relief this caused the Israeli public. Knowing it was protected by its own government from these dangers brought feelings of confidence and gratitude from the would-be victims.
Gaza has been a regular testing ground for new Israeli weapons systems, much as the Spanish Civil War was used by the German military prior to World War II. The IDF tests its most advanced weaponry under battlefield conditions using Gazans as guinea pigs. This, in turn, allows Israel both to use the weapons in other theaters of battle and to promote the systems when they are sold to foreign buyers. The strategy serves multiple purposes, including suppressing the resistance and lethality of Gaza militants, promoting Israeli readiness to battle other foes, and supporting the powerful economic engine of the Israeli defense and aerospace industry.
During the last go-round it was Iron Dome. Before that, Israel tested the particularly lethal, cancer-causing dense inert metal explosive (DIME) tungsten bomb. During Cast Lead, it also used drones much more extensively than it had before, deploying them for both surveillance and attack.
One of the Gaza assault's related missions was to prepare the Israeli public for what I believe is Netanyahu's planned war against Iran. Now that Iron Dome has performed reasonably well, the prime minister can argue to the naysayers in his cabinet who will vote to approve such a strike that he has a shield that will protect Israel from the anticipated storm of Hezbollah and Hamas rockets that will follow an attack on Iran. So, instead of 20,000 or 30,000 rockets falling from three directions (Lebanon, Gaza and Iran), Israel would be able to focus its defense on the Iranian front.
A different missile system, the Arrow, defends Israel from medium-range missiles of the type the Iranians would use to respond to an Israeli assault. The Arrow is a joint development effort of the United States and Israel. It has not received battlefield testing as Iron Dome now has. No one knows for sure how effective it would be in stopping Iranian missiles. But then again, Iran has never fired weapons at Israel, so the public doesn't know what to expect and isn't as frightened as it is of the familiar terror of Gaza and Hezbollah rockets.
Netanyahu directly coupled his attack on Gaza with the Iran menace by claiming that Gaza militants firing the rockets at Israel were operators for Iran:
The dominant force behind the events in Gaza is not the Palestinians, but Iran .. The terror groups there stand under an Iranian umbrella. Imagine to yourselves what will happen when that umbrella is armed with nuclear bombs.
Sooner or later Iran's terror base in Gaza will be uprooted. Iran is what is happening inside Gaza. Where does the funding come from? Iran. Who equips the terrorists? Iran. Who builds the [terror] infrastructure? Iran. Gaza is Iran's frontline.
Portraying Iran as the principal agent of terror against Israel also softens Israeli opinion toward an attack on Iran.
By Israeli media accounts (depending on which one you read), the vote in the cabinet is currently either 8-6 favoring war or a 7-7 split. On Tuesday, March 27, The New York Times reported that Netanyahu and his war partner, defense minister Ehud Barak, are meeting privately with crucial individual ministers to lobby for their support for an attack.
My judgment is that the Israeli leader will not attack until he has the votes in his pocket. That means that the Gaza assault was one piece of a puzzle Netanyahu is putting together that will lead to striking Iran.
Which brings us back to the 26 Gazans killed by the IDF. They were the cliché collateral damage, but in this case, the situation is even worse: they were killed not for the reason Israel claimed (that it was pre-empting a terror attack against it), but as part of a grander war strategy that had little or nothing to do, directly, with them.
The same thing happened regarding the 30 Gazans killed in the aftermath of the Eilat terror attack. No Gazans had participated in the Eilat assault. Sinai Egyptians had. Yet, because Israel could not attack Egypt for political reasons, Gazans paid the price. In that sense, Gaza is a punching bag or escape valve that Israeli generals and politicians can use when they need to show their public that they're tough on terror, whether or not an attack serves any real purpose.
To kill people as a matter of state policy and lie about the reasons for doing so is the height of cynicism. It turns Gaza into a sacrificial victim of Israel's regional war strategy. If what Netanyahu has done twice in Gaza over the past year doesn't qualify as a war crime, it should.