Are we witnessing the stirrings of a new, large-scale Israeli military operation? Haaretz today reports that “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed Wednesday that the Israel Defense Forces would continue to use ‘firm determination and assaults’ on Gaza…[Netanyahu said:] ‘It could take the form of exchanges of fire, it could continue for a particular length of time.’”
Indeed, the stars seem to be aligning for another brutal Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip two years after “Operation Cast Lead” killed some 1,400 Palestinians, the vast majority of them civilians, and completely destroyed 3,000 homes in what Judge Richard Goldstone termed a “deliberately disproportionate attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population.”
Eerie parallels between the period leading up to “Cast Lead” and the situation now exist, and there’s nothing to stop Israel from launching another assault, given that the United States has sent the world the message that Israeli war crimes will go unpunished.
First, the parallels. In the months leading up to the 2008-09 assault on Gaza, a tenuous truce held between Hamas and Israel as Hamas stopped firing rockets at Israeli communities and attempted to reign in other armed groups in Gaza from doing so. An August 2008 WikiLeaks cable that describes a visit by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak to Egypt reports:
Regarding the Tahdiya ["calm" in Arabic], Hacham said Barak stressed that while it was not permanent, for the time being it was holding. There have been a number of violations of the ceasefire on the Gaza side, but Palestinian factions other than Hamas were responsible. Hacham said the Israelis assess that Hamas is making a serious effort to convince the other factions not to launch rockets or mortars. Israel remains concerned by Hamas’ ongoing efforts to use the Tahdiya to increase their strength, and at some point, military action will have to be put back on the table. The Israelis reluctantly admit that the Tahdiya has served to further consolidate Hamas’ grip on Gaza, but it has brought a large measure of peace and quiet to Israeli communities near Gaza.
Despite this “peace,” Israel decisively broke the truce on November 4, 2008 when they raided Gaza and killed six members of Hamas, leading to an increase in Hamas and other armed groups’ rocket attacks on Israel. According to a January 2009 report by investigative journalist Gareth Porter, Israel rejected a Hamas ceasefire offer in December 2008.
After the assault ended in January 2009, a tenuous lull, punctuated by sporadic violence on the Gaza-Israel border, has held. In January 2011, Hamas again attempted to reign in other armed groups from firing at Israeli communities.
But now this lull seems to be breaking down. The Israeli daily Haaretz reports on what has occurred in the last week:
The current tensions began exactly a week ago when Israel launched an air attack on a Hamas base in the ruins of the settlement of Netzarim, killing two Hamas men. That attack came in response to a Qassam fired from Gaza that landed in an open area. Hamas then responded with a barrage of 50 mortars on communities south of the Gaza Strip.
Israeli attacks on Gaza over the last few days have left eight people dead, including five civilians, and another twelve civilians have been wounded. The air strikes came after Hamas offered a truce--events that bear a striking resemblance to what occurred in the run-up to “Operation Cast Lead.”
What makes a renewed assault seem more possible is the fact that strident warnings are coming from Israeli leaders. Tzipi Livni, the head of the opposition party Kadima and who was the foreign minister during the 08-09 Gaza assault, recently said that “the right way to contend with [the recent rocket attacks] is through force, as Israel did during Operation Cast Lead and after it.” Both the Vice Premier and and the culture minister have voiced similar warnings.
The frightening warnings and attacks on Gazan civilians could stop if the international community would pressure Israel. But what’s to stop Israel if they have U.S.-guaranteed impunity? The Goldstone report recommended that proceedings against Israelis and Palestinians who committed war crimes occur if domestic systems do not uphold international law. No high-level officials, on the Palestinian or Israeli side, have been held accountable. The U.S. has ensured that Israeli leaders who committed war crimes will get off free.
A promise of law is that the deterrent effect of punishment may prevent future crimes. That promise goes out the window if there is no punishment–exactly what happened after the publication of the Goldstone report.