The Ignored Choices in Gaza

The morning after the invasion began, I ran into a friend at a café. It was a quiet day in Jerusalem, cold and sunny. He'd received a text message, from his son, who was serving in an unnamable unit in the south. The message said that the soldiers' cell phones were being collected, so he wouldn't be able to call again for some time. Translated, it meant, "We're going in." My friend smiled, with a bit of effort, and then said about the war, "I don't think we had any choice this time."

His colleague, a long-haired middle-aged man with left-leaning politics, agreed. "We had to do something" about missiles raining on Israeli cities, he said. The only available "something" began with airstrikes and had now moved on to invasion.

In war, I thought after I left them, the mind focuses like a telephoto lens. It sees a small picture, without depth, in sharp detail. Any panoramic view is lost. The pictures are stills, without before and after. This is the way people think when a rocket launched from Gaza hits an empty school in Beersheba, an Israeli city that until recently was out of range, or when an Israeli bomb hits a house in a Jabalya refugee camp, killing at least 15 women and children along with a Hamas leader. An e-mail I received from an Israeli human-rights group, based on phone calls from Gaza, described incidents in which Palestinian medical crews were struck by Israeli fire. Each story was reduced to a single sentence of horror. They left no room for Israeli mistakes (though most Israeli combat deaths, so far, are due to mistaken Israeli fire) or for an Israeli reason for going to war.

The choices on both sides that led to this bloodshed make sense in telephoto mode, within a narrow frame, shorn of context. When the six-month ceasefire between Hamas and Israel ran out in December, the Islamic movement that has ruled Gaza since 2007 decided not to renew it. Instead, it stepped up rocket fire into Israel. Contrary to Hamas' understanding of the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire, the Israeli blockade of Gaza had hardly let up. Power blackouts were getting longer. Hospitals lacked medical equipment. Hamas leaders, it appears, felt that that they had to do something and that rockets were the only tool available to pressure Israel for a ceasefire with better terms.

In fact, Hamas had passed up other options. In November, it rejected an Egyptian proposal for returning to a coalition government with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah movement and reuniting Gaza and the West Bank. Israel has committed itself to peace talks with Abbas and would have found it politically costly to maintain the blockade once Gaza rejoined Abbas' domain. But Hamas was internally divided, with some leaders apparently unwilling to give up exclusive rule of Gaza or soften their positions.

For that matter, Hamas could have taken a more direct, daring step to alter the confrontation with Israel: It could have moved from hints that it might accept a two-state solution to a public declaration of readiness. Airborne terror -- rockets aimed at civilians -- was the only imaginable choice because reconsidering ideology was beyond imagination.

Within the narrow frame of a few days in December, Israeli leaders believed they had no choice in how to respond. To accede to Hamas demands under fire would be to invite greater demands later. And by the next time around, Hamas might have succeeded in smuggling missiles into Gaza that could reach Tel Aviv, just 40 miles away. The casualty toll on the Israeli side was low, but an ever-larger piece of the country was becoming unlivable. Of course, the fact that Israel is a few weeks away from an election further reduced the options. Neither Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, leader of the Kadima Party, nor Defense Minister Ehud Barak, leader of Labor, wanted to go to voters with the appearance of appeasing Hamas.

The frame, though, is much too narrow. The siege of Gaza was meant to spark rebellion against Hamas but has accomplished the opposite. The siege should have been loosened earlier. Since Hamas won the Palestinian election in 2006, Israel has been trying to reverse the results by force. If it had instead announced it would accept any unity government ready to maintain a ceasefire and negotiate peace, it would have put Hamas under pressure to moderate its positions -- or provoked a split in the Islamic movement.

Now, inside war, the options look even more limited. Hamas wants some accomplishment to show for the conflict. It is desperate enough to consider Egypt as a diplomatic intermediary, though Egypt has no interest in the Islamic movement claiming a victory. When they decided to use force to stop the rocket fire, Israel's leaders did not seem to have defined a way to end the war. The exit strategy was outside the narrow frame.

Reconquering the Strip would be a tactical victory and strategic disaster, turning the Israeli army into a daily target for guerrilla warfare. Shattering the Hamas regime would leave Gaza in chaos. According to the annual report of Israel's Shin Bet security service (Hebrew report here), there's been an increase in activity in Gaza by groups that identify with al-Qaeda and other forms of world jihad. Israel could find itself nostalgic for Hamas exercising a monopoly on force.

Reportedly, Israel seeks an international agreement to crack down on arms smuggling to Gaza, with foreign forces deployed on the Egyptian-Gaza border. But will foreign troops really engage in gun battles with Palestinians? The experience with international forces in Lebanon doesn't lead one to think so. Yet to avoid conquering all of Gaza, Israel may have to accept a ceasefire that contains only the façade of a solution.

In fact, the dilemma of Gaza can only be resolved by looking at it in panoramic political view. It requires a solution for the future of the West Bank, as well, and reintegrating Hamas into a single Palestinian political framework. International help and mediation is needed but on a far larger scale than policing the Egypt-Gaza border.

War, to loosely translate the Prussian general Carl Von Clausewitz, is an extension of policy by other means. Perhaps it's time to amend that adage. Sometimes war is a constriction of policy, a failure of imagination.

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