Written by Barry Rubin
Here's How—As With This Israel-Hamas War—Western Elites Are Baffled by the Middle East
Update 2: Perhaps Hamas was hoping for a spectacular provocation. After Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Kandil arrived for a visit to the Gaza Strip, November 15, Hamas launched a barrage of rockets and mortars at Israel, perhaps trying to provoke an Israeli counterattack that might shake up or even injure the Egyptian leader and get Cairo to escalate its involvement in the war.
Update 1: A few sirens went off in Tel Aviv around 6:30 PM, November 15 — not the whole system or the one outside my window but those a few blocks away — and didn’t stay on very long. Then there were two loud but short booms, the sound of anti-rocket missiles being fired. Rumors followed.
This being the age of social media, people insisted that something must have happened because somebody in California said so. Some people said with certainty that a rocket hit in this or that place; one claimed he saw the smoke from a building that had been struck. In the end, it was announced that a rocket from the Gaza Strip had been shot down far to the south. The atmosphere was reminiscent of 1991 when three dozen Iraqi rockets did hit Israel, one of them a few blocks from my home, and anti-missile batteries could be heard nightly firing at incoming missiles from Iraq.
Of course, there’s nothing funny about a war. Less than an hour’s drive to the south people are under fire. There are casualties on both sides, including civilians. This is a serious matter, made no less so by its relative familiarity. Yet there is a difference between the horrors of war and imagining away a conflict, an inescapable situation, because one wants to do so. Only by confronting the reality can there be the best possible response to a crisis. Wishful thinking or ignoring real conflicts makes things worse.
The new war between Hamas and Israel has a lot of important lessons for international diplomacy and U.S. policy today. It once again shows that a country, especially one faced by a hostile adversary who cannot be turned away by words or compromises, has limited choices. And in that case a government must do what it must do.
A key to the problem of Western comprehension of international realities is admirably summarized by a New York Times editorial on the subject:
No country should have to endure the rocket attacks that Israel has endured from militants in Gaza, most recently over the past four days. The question is how to stop them permanently.
The answer to that question is simple to understand, if not easy to implement. The attacks can only be stopped if Hamas is removed from power and replaced, given contemporary circumstances, by the Palestinian Authority (PA). The PA is certainly no prize, but that’s a reasonable goal for what is often referred to as the international community.
Yes, Hamas won an election in 2007, but then it staged a violent coup and threw out the opposition, and has thus governed as an unelected dictatorship. It has no legal basis, since Hamas never accepted the Oslo Accords agreements. Hamas is also a terrorist group. And it daily voices not only its opposition to Israel’s existence but also advocates — and teaches the children of Gaza to carry out some day — the commission of genocide against all Jews.
So the answer to the Times’ question is a no-brainer, right? Of course, this response is not what the Timeshas in mind. Instead, the newspaper and like-minded people present the following list:
– Israel should negotiate with Hamas.
Great idea but an impossible one because of a factor Western leaders, academics, and journalists often do not take seriously nowadays: ideology. Hamas means what it says, intends to continue the violence for years in the belief it can win total victory, and is indifferent to the sacrifice of its own people. So in this case, negotiations are not an option.
– If there is a comprehensive Israel-Palestinian peace there would be no more war.
Actually, even if such an agreement were to be reached — which is impossible because the PA won’t make one — Hamas would step up attacks in an attempt to destroy the agreement.
The PA could not make a deal that would include the 40 percent of the Palestinians who live in Gaza. And Hamas would try to overthrow the PA in the West Bank, and might even succeed. Then Hamas, perhaps with the Fatah people who allied with it, would have a fully sovereign state to use as a platform for an intended war of genocide against Israel.
Part of the problem is that the West is not psychologically prepared to deal with fanatics, people who don’t measure the balance of forces before entering a war and are indifferent to the suffering of their own civilians. Westerners tend to use a materialistic yardstick: holding elections, having to govern themselves, a higher living standard, and more education will make people moderate. The problem is that this has been tried out in the Middle East — as it is being tried now — and it doesn’t work.
– Israel should just shut up and let Hamas attack it whenever that group so chooses or at most respond with only minimal force.
This concept is often implicit in coverage of the issue, as in the one prestigious newspaper whose main article explained that Israel’s killing of the military chief of Hamas, whose main job was to plan terrorist attacks on Israelis, threatened to create a regional crisis.
An acquaintance of mine bragged that nobody in her European country supported Israel. That means, of course, that they all supported Hamas. But what if they say that they actually just supported the people of Gaza? That would be like saying during World War Two bombing raids that one opposed them out of support for the people of Germany. The sympathy for civilians is understandable; the violence and casualties are a tragedy. Yet the root cause is a regime that both oppresses the people and sets off a war.
So given the fact that it does not want to reoccupy and govern Gaza (though one of the accusations thrown against Israel is that it still occupies Gaza!), Israel has limited choices. The best of the lot is to limit any material that gets into Gaza that can be used for war, and to retaliate as necessary to obtain several years of relative peace. That means, in the Times’ euphemism, that Hamas often observes a ceasefire — that is, in the minutes between rocket, mortar, and cross-border attacks by itself or the small groups it uses as an excuse for aggression.
Another part of the problem is the external situation. Egypt is ruled by a Muslim Brotherhood regime. The Gaza Strip is governed by a Muslim Brotherhood regime. See any pattern here? What saves the situation for the present is that the Egyptian government doesn’t want an all-out confrontation right now.
Just hours before the war began, Egypt received a pledge of $6 billion in aid from the European Union. This is, of course, a noble endeavor to help Egypt’s people, though it also puts billions of dollars in the hands of anti-Western, anti-Semitic extremists. Maybe it will moderate them; it is certain that the money will strengthen them.
As for the United States, it supports Egypt but it also supports Israel. So it will encourage a ceasefire, and probably after a few days there will be a ceasefire. Hamas will “partly” observe it until the next time it chooses to attack Israel. Perhaps by that point the Salafists in Egypt will be ready for a fight, and the Brotherhood regime will need to stir up some hysteria to help it fundamentally transform the country and to distract attention from its domestic dictatorship and failures.
So the lesson of this new Gaza war is that terrorist regimes must be removed from power. Otherwise, they will keep provoking war, terrorism, and instability. Having ruled out that option, the only alternative is periodic conflicts like the one going on now in the Gaza Strip.
Can Israel sustain this situation? Of course, that is basically the framework in which it has been living and prospering for 64 years. Is it preferable? Of course not. What is the world going to do to make it better? Nothing.
And what does Hamas’ behavior tell us about that of other Islamists in power? A great deal, once one factors in patience and subtlety on the part of such regimes as those in Sudan, Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Iran, Turkey, and, perhaps soon Syria.
I said above that the lesson of the Gaza Strip is that terrorist, radical regimes should be removed from power. It goes without saying that they should not be helped into power by the West in the first place. Unfortunately, that is a lesson that the Obama administration still doesn’t understand.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and a featured columnist for PajamasMedia. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan)