Why did Israel attack?
In one sense, Israel was straightforward about its motive. It kept saying, credibly, that it wanted to restore its “deterrence capacity”—i.e., the Arab/Muslim world’s fear of it.
The real question, however, is the nature of the threat it wanted to deter.
The latest assault on Gaza unfolded in the broader context of successive Israeli foreign policy failures. The natives were getting restless. It was time to take out the big club again and remind the locals who was in charge.
“At the heart of Operation Pillar of Defence,” the respected Crisis Group observed, “lay an effort to demonstrate that Hamas’s newfound confidence was altogether premature and that, the Islamist awakening notwithstanding, changes in the Middle East would not change much at all.”
Still, Israel needed a suitable pretext. So, just as it knew that breaking the ceasefire in November 2008 by killing six Hamas militants would evoke a massive response, so it must have known that killing Jaabari would evoke a comparable response.
The climax of Israel’s assault came when it was unable to break the spirit of the people of Gaza. On the one hand, it had exhausted all preplanned military targets and, on the other, it couldn’t target the civilian population. Hamas had successfully adapted Hezbollah’s strategy of continually firing its projectiles, the psychological upshot of which was that Israel couldn’t declare its deterrence capacity had been restored, and thereby forcing on it a ground invasion.
Israel could not launch such an invasion, however, without suffering significant combatant losses unless the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) blasted everyone and everything in and out of sight as it cleared a path into Gaza. But, because of the novel circumstances—the regional realignment after the Arab Spring, and Turkey under Erdogan; the threat of a “mega-Goldstone,” as a veteran Israeli commentator put it; the presence of a foreign press corps embedded not in the IDF but among the people of Gaza—Israel couldn’t launch an OCL-style ground invasion.
Israel was thus caught between a rock and a hard place. It couldn’t subdue Hamas without a ground invasion, but it couldn’t launch a ground invasion without incurring a politically unacceptable price in IDF casualties and global opprobrium.
It is possible to pinpoint the precise moment when the Israeli assault was over: Hamas leader Khalid Mishal’s taunt to Israel at a 19 November press conference, Go ahead, invade!
Netanyahu panicked. His bluff was called, and Israel stood exposed, naked, before the whole world. What happened next was a repeat of the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Unable to stop the Hezbollah rocket attacks but dreading the prospect of a ground invasion that meant tangling with the Party of God, Israel called in Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to negotiate a ceasefire. This time Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was summoned to bail Israel out. Not even the 21 November bus bombing in Tel Aviv—which, ceasefire or no ceasefire, would normally have elicited massive Israeli retaliation—shook Netanyahu from his determination to end the operation immediately, before Hamas resumed its taunting.
Israel no doubt hoped that the U.S. would use its political leverage to extract better ceasefire terms from Egypt. But the Obama administration, placing American interests first and consequently wanting to bring the new Egypt under its wing, was not willing (assuming it could) to lord it over Egypt on Israel’s behalf.
If any doubt remained about who won and who lost in the latest round, it was quickly dispelled. Israel launched the attack to restore Gaza’s fear of it. But after the ceasefire and its terms were announced, Palestinians flooded the streets of Gaza in a celebratory mood as if at a wedding party. In a CNN interview with Christiane Amanpour, Hamas’s Mishal cut the figure and exuded the confidence of a world leader. Meanwhile, at the Israeli press conference announcing the ceasefire, the ruling triumvirate—Netanyahu, Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman—resembled grade-schoolers called down to the Principal’s Office, counting the seconds until the humiliation was over.