You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

At War, Not at War

A Gaza cease-fire might be negotiated but it certainly won't bring anything remotely like peace.

JERUSALEM--As I write, there is news that a cease fire may (or may not) be dawning over Gaza. Apparently, even if it is, it will be between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Hamas announced that it will not submit to a permanent truce. But if Nicholas Sarkozy, the prime broker in the arrangement, and Hosni Mubarak, who has also played a constructive role (and one very hostile to Hamas) since the fighting began, are to be believed, the terms of the truce assure that the jihadists will be kept from both shelling and rearming. These are Angela Merkel's terms, as well.

I arrived in Jerusalem on Tuesday evening more or less with the desolating news that Israeli mortar shells had killed some 30-odd Palestinians, mostly civilians (but also at least two top Hamas officers, among others), seeking refuge near or in what the Herald Tribune headlined a "Gaza Sanctuary," an UNRWA school. Well, sanctuary it was not. The Israel Defense Forces say that heavy fire had been coming from the school, and various military analysts asserted that the school was a storage center for Hamas weapons. Moreover, the I.D.F. charged, the school was booby-trapped with explosives. Two Gaza residents living near the school told the Associated Press, with a guarantee of anonymity, that there was in fact heavy fire from the school. Sanctuary indeed! This is a familiar scenario for me: When I covered the first Lebanon war in 1982, PLO fire came from the roofs of schools and hospitals, and then it cried foul. UNRWA has demanded an independent investigation of the incident. I suggest that Richard Falk, the United Nations Human Rights Council special rapporteur on Israeli war crimes, about whom I have written, be designated for this chore. Everybody knows what his conclusion is already. The fact is that Israel has no incentive whatsoever to trespass against civilized codes of wartime behavior. Its entire case against Hamas is that the Palestinian Taliban, which is what Hamas is, targets nothing and everything indiscriminately.

I don't know what Barack Obama will say when he says the "plenty" he has promised for after the inauguration. That depends, I assume, on what the real situation on the ground is. But no one can ignore the fact that Hamas broke the already-violated cease-fire in two decisive ways. The first was by declaring it a dead letter, pure and simple, no doubts about that. The second was by sending up as many as 70 rockets a day in the immediate aftermath of ending the truce. And this was after six months of what Ari Shavit, in Ha'aretz, termed "incessant and intolerable provocations.” What did Hamas think Israel would do? What did the world think Israel would do? Perhaps the president-elect will survey the alternatives that he thinks Israel had. Frankly, I am not fearful of Obama's remarks. The I.D.F. has presented him with an opportunity to help pacify the area in a way that will advance a modest peace rather than sustain a volatile, if sometimes low-level of continuous military ping-pong: Hamas fires rockets at Sderot, Ashkelon, Beersheva; Israel will bomb to keep the score even.

In any case, whatever anybody thinks, Israel will not allow the circumstances to revert to a situation in which Hamas receives or builds more and more advanced weapons for later use. I proposed earlier this week that a force of real soldiers from real European states (and not U.N. blue helmeteers) be dispatched to impose an arms embargo on Gaza. Then maybe--and just maybe--negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel can be pressed. There are already many issues on which the two parties agree. And the fact is that Hamas will agree to nothing meaningful. That is not its agenda--and, increasingly, European and even some Arab leaders agree, a few of them in public. But poor King Abdullah of Jordan, he speaks with forked tongue. Yesterday he denounced Israel. His throne, alas, depends on Israel's continuous succor, but it is steadily made shaky by his restless Palestinians.

In a fascinating little column, also in this morning's Ha'aretz, Moshe Arens, a former defense minister of Israel, quotes Henry Kissinger (yes, the very savvy Henry Kissinger) as saying that "the conventional army loses if it does not win--the guerrilla wins if he does not lose." A strenuous chore it is to win over a guerrilla force that terrorizes its own people, which Hamas has done to the Gaza Palestinians. And the West Bank Palestinians grasp deep in their guts that Hamas has not advanced their cause but retarded it. The West Bank is relatively quiet not because Israel has put a boot on it, but because the area knows it is fortunate not to be under Hamas rule.

Not since 1967 have we seen the population of Israel more united behind its government. One index is that the response to the call-up of reserves has been overwhelming. Many young people who were not summoned are trying to get in on the fighting. One very dovish reserve officer I know well feels that the I.D.F. has treated him unfairly by allowing him to go on with his usual work. I kid you not about this very strange phenomenon. Such love for country may be strange for Americans in the cultural elite--but it is not alien here. A mother of a solider killed in the ironic trajectory of friendly fire (four of the five dead Israelis--one a Druze--met death this way) was able in her sorrow to speak up for the I.D.F. and about her son's readiness, no, eagerness for battle.

The ethics of this war are actually quite simple. Hamas is sworn to the elimination of Israel. Does anyone truly have a different reading? Israel was almost cajoled into this battle by the relentlessness of Hamas assaults and the undeniable ability of Hamas to acquire more weapons of ever greater sophistication. Did anyone warn Hamas that this was putting the Gaza Palestinians in peril? There is a certain kind of dumb stridency to those who have taken up the Hamas cause in this conflict. Take Turkey: It aspires, as an editorial (that is also a very much needed history lesson) in Monday's Jerusalem Post argues, to be the mediator in settling issues between Israel and Syria. I always thought this was a fatuous ambition, as it has turned out to be. But Turkey has now shown its true colors: It is an Islamist regime supporting another Islamist regime, killers both. Do not forget the hundreds of unnoticed civilian victims of indiscriminate Turkish bombing over Kurdistan. In any case, Europe won't forget. Turkish membership in the European Union is dead. Finished.

There are times when peoples must choose, and this is one of them. If Hamas is not crippled now it will live to torment Israel again--not to mention Egypt and Jordan and even Saudi Arabia, the last three of which are at least circumstantial allies of the United States. The assumption with which some of the putative actors in the diplomatic drama play is that an injured Hamas can be reformed. I believe this to be hokum, no more than that the Taliban can be reformed but also no less. Psychopathic Islam, for which suicide is its most elevated drama, is a hardy and resilient phenomenon.

Yes, probably, some kind of agreement that would aspire to stop the killing of Palestinians by Israel and Israelis by Palestinians could be signed by both the established government in Jerusalem and by an aspiring government also in Jerusalem. I happen to believe that a settlement in the Holy City, no matter how tense and tenuous, would be relatively easy to formulate.

There may be a present cease-fire, or there may not be. If there is, its duration is dubious. This is short-term stuff. What I am not at all certain about, however, is whether a Palestinian polity actually exists that is equipped in its soul to create and sustain a nation-state. The Authority, corrupt, slovenly, also murderous, is a disintegrating vessel that cannot salvage the elixir on which its future depends. This is the real problem of Palestine. And for Israel, as well.

Martin Peretz is the editor-in-chief of The New Republic.

By Martin Peretz