Commentary: Israel seeks calm but fears the future

Special to McClatchy NewspapersMarch 15, 2013 

The Israel Defense Force (IDF) has long been vaunted as the preeminent military power in the Middle East. But Israel lost the eight-day war last November in the Gaza Strip, both Israelis and the Gaza Palestinians believe.

An Israeli retired major general who once commanded Israeli forces in Gaza told a conference in Washington on March 4 that polls show that a majority of Israelis believe that Israel did not win the conflict, even though it suffered only six deaths while the Palestinians in Gaza lost 20 times as many.

Gazans believe they won the conflict, said Maj. Gen. Gadi Shamni, and they have key attainments to point to, including:

  • Hamas, long isolated as a thuggish Islamist gang, won legitimacy as a partner in peace talks moderated by Egypt.

  • Leaders from Gulf States, Turkey, and other Muslim countries rushed to be photographed with Hamas leaders.

  • Bitter rival for power Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority was forced to embrace the Hamas leader in Cairo.

  • Hundreds of millions of dollars are flowing into Hamas-controlled Gaza from Gulf states and other Muslim countries.

  • Israel relaxed fishing limits, allowed farming in border strips and admitted imports of building supplies.

    But Israel also scored some impressive achievements, which are being studied in Middle Eastern capitals:

  • The IDF took out Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari with a missile.

  • It mobilized 75,000 reservists although it held back on using them.

  • The Iron Dome anti-missile system worked 85 percent of the time.

  • The Israeli public was unified and supported action although it preferred not to invade on the ground.

  • While about 1,400 Gazans died in the Cast Lead ground invasion of Gaza in Jan. 2009, only 133 died in this episode due to highly-targeted strikes aimed to minimize casualties.

  • Since the fighting ended in a cease fire, the border has been quiet.

  • Israel showed it was ready to use its military even though the Islamic Brotherhood, affiliated to Hamas, has taken power in Cairo.

    Shamni, who had served 35 years in uniform including as commander of Israeli forces in Gaza, announced in November he was leaving the service. His most recent posting had been as military attache' at the Israeli embassy in Washington.

    In a frank and somber talk to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), at its annual policy conference in Washington, and in remarks afterwards to a reporter, the general said there was no way to achieve a clear-cut victory as in the battles against armies of rival nation states in 1948, 1967 and 1973.

    Like many observers and participants in Middle East affairs, he seemed to accept that so long as Arab groups on Israel’s borders find they can achieve benefits from conflict – either political benefits within their own community or material benefits from international sympathy – there will always be another round of fighting.

    However he also noted that since the bitter fighting in Lebanon in 2006 by Israel against Hezbollah – killing 1,300 Lebanese and 165 Israelis -- that border had been quiet. Even when Israel was fighting in Gaza, the Lebanon frontier was peaceful. Shamni implied it was because the Shiite group backed by Iran had learned its lesson and was still painfully aware of the price it paid in death and destruction.

    But Shamni also noted that Israel had learned some lessons too from that costly battle and when short-range missiles are fired at Israel en masse, the goal must be to plunge deep inland beyond the missile batteries and then subdue them from behind.

    Nowhere in his talk was there any glimmer of hope that the cycle of Arab-Israeli wars might end any time soon.

    However he did note with some irony that Hamas and Israel might one day become allies. That’s because the Gaza Strip is now infiltrated and controlled not just by Hamas but also by Islamic Jihad and other smaller groups loyal to Iran.

    Hamas remains fundamentally an ally of Egypt’s Islamic Brotherhood and Egypt’s deep and natural enemy is Shiite Iran, including its proxies such as Islamic Jihad.

    The Israeli general said that Hamas appears to be using the current period of calm to consolidate its power and to prepare to try and wrest power from the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. It does not want factions stirred up by Iran making trouble. Islamic Jihad has the ability to launch rockets from Gaza to Israel that would bring down the IDF on everyone. So Israel and Hamas could make common cause in blocking the influence of Iran.

    The way Israelis and Palestinians view the outcome of this latest “round” in the half-century of Arab-Israeli fighting could very well affect the future of the region.

    It is often said in Israel and by its American supporters that every time Israel reaches an agreement and evacuates land it is repaid with hostility. When it handed over the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority, an uprising followed, requiring the recapture of the West Bank. Pulling out of South Lebanon in 2000 led to a takeover of the region by Hezbollah and subsequent war in 2006. Pulling out of Gaza also led to a hostile takeover by Hamas and two rounds of fighting.

    Many supporters of Israel use this history to oppose any pullout from the West Bank, the first step in creation of an independent Palestinian state.

    However others, including senior Israeli military officials, note that the handing over in 1980 of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt, was followed by three decades of peace.

    In the turbulence of the post-Arab Spring period, there is grave concern in Israel that leaders such as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Bashar Al Assad in Syria are being replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood or even al-Qieda-linked groups, more motivated by ideology to destroy Israel than by the pragmatism that led the old guard to maintain quiet in the region.

    The 2012 round of fighting in Gaza marks the first test of the new order and it appears that traditional pragmatism has been adopted by the new team in Cairo.

    For now.


    Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor,, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2013 by He can be reached at

    McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

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