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A former commander-in-chief of Israel’s navy said Israel was hesitant to launch a ground war in Gaza after learning a painful lesson four years ago about the diplomatic consequences of killing Palestinian civilians.
Ami Ayalon said the harsh international reaction to Israel’s military conduct in Gaza in Operation Cast Lead in 2008/09 led chastised Israeli leaders to revaluate how to conduct the present offensive.
“I believe that we learnt something from Operation Cast Lead,” Ayalon said in an interview with Independent Newspapers.
“The war of today is not won on the battlefield, but victory is achieved in the eyes of spectators all over the world.”
This is why Israel is being more careful to avoid civilian casualties, and why Ayalon believes ground forces should not be used because civilian deaths would “obviously” increase. He said there was also a political reason.
“If we use our ground forces, we are perceived as invaders, and once we are invaders, Hamas becomes the national liberator… and not a terrorist organisation. This is not in our interests.”
More than 150 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since November 14, the day Operation Pillar of Defence was launched.
A UN report following Cast Lead accused Israel of committing war crimes in Gaza. Israel angrily rejected the report and the lead author, South African jurist Richard Goldstone, later disavowed it. But its three other authors did not.
Israel readied 75 000 soldiers to invade Gaza and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened to send them in. At a press conference in Cairo last Monday, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal dared Israel to do this, vowing there would be heavy casualties among Israeli soldiers.
President Barack Obama and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pressed Netanyahu not to launch a ground war.
More than 1 000 civilians in Gaza were killed in Cast Lead, which included an Israeli ground invasion. Similar numbers could be expected if the Israeli defence force went in again, said Ayalon, who is also a former Labour Party MP and former director of Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security service.
Ayalon says Israel’s air war was justified because of Hamas’s rocket attacks. But he said military action and Israel’s blockade of the territory were ultimately failed strategies because so many new Hamas weapons had replaced those destroyed four years ago.
“The blockade doesn’t work,” Ayalon said. “Hamas, as of at least a week ago, was much more powerful than they were four years ago, so I’m not sure the blockade is the right way to deal with this threat.”
Ayalon believes Israel’s attack on Gaza was a just war that any Israeli government would prosecute to protect its citizens in the south.
“But I think finally we will never win a war only by using our military capabilities,” he said. “Yes, we know how to fight, but this is not the only language we speak. We must speak the language of diplomacy, and there is a huge opportunity here.”
The Palestinian Authority’s bid to become a non-member state of the UN in a vote slated for Thursday was that opportunity, Ayalon said.
The Palestinians have more than the 97 votes required in the General Assembly to win the UN upgrade.
But Israel has threatened to withhold tax revenue from the authority if it goes ahead with the vote.
Ayalon instead has a radical idea: Israel, on two conditions, should support the UN bid.
One condition is that the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas begin on Friday for six months to negotiate borders based on the 1967 lines with land swops.
The other is that during the talks Abbas promises not to bring war crimes charges against Israel in the International Criminal Court, which the Palestinians could join as a UN non-member state.
A separate peace with the Palestinian Authority-ruled West Bank would isolate Hamas, Ayalon said.
“We are fighting Hamas, not Palestinian society,” he said.
Once Palestinians in Gaza see the benefits of a West Bank deal with Israel, their support for Hamas will erode, he believes.
He said that when the Palestinians elected Hamas it was not because they believed in fundamentalism, but because of corruption in Fatah and a belief that Israel understood only force.
“If we show a viable [peace] process, I believe the Palestinians would vote against Hamas.”
Whether Netanyahu was willing to negotiate was a different matter, Ayalon acknowledged. He had, however, compromised in the past.
“If it is clear to Netanyahu that in order to face Iran, Israel will have to pay in Palestinian coin – I am not naive, but I believe Bibi Netanyahu would do it.”
Ayalon conceded that Israel was today paying a price for a misguided policy of supporting Hamas two decades ago at the beginnings of the radical Islamic group as a counterweight to the secular Palestine Liberation Organisation.
“The idea was that religious people couldn’t care less about a nation state and might be the opposition to the national movement of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which we saw then as our major threat,” Ayalon said.
“This is why we saw this element within the Palestinian society as a positive element.
“Of course, we could not predict history and shape history by ourselves.”
Hamas later also turned to national independence as a priority over Islamism.
Ayalon, in step with the official Israeli position, blamed Hamas for starting the present conflict. He said the trigger for Israel’s aerial and naval bombardment came after a steady build-up of rocket fire into southern Israel led to a missile striking an Israeli Jeep on November 10, wounding four soldiers. But the cause of the conflict is in dispute.
Two days before, on November 8, Israeli helicopter gunships made an incursion into the Gazan village of al-Qarara, north-east of Khan Yunis, killing 13-year-old Ahmed Abu Daqqa, who was playing football in front of his house, according to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights.
The rocket that wounded the Israeli soldiers was in apparent retaliation.
“Of course I know all these events, but the idea that we should try to find what was the exact event that created this wave of violence… it’s beyond a specific case,” Ayalon said.
Gershon Baskin, a negotiator who won the release from Hamas of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, says that on the morning of November 14, he had a ceasefire agreement sent to Ahmed Jaabari, commander of Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, Hamas’s military wing. Baskin says Israeli officials were waiting for Hamas’s response.
But later that day Israel killed Jaabari as he rode in a civilian car in Gaza City. Israel’s fierce bombardments then ensued.
“I know nothing but what Gershon Baskin told me,” Ayalon said.
“I think Gershon probably has very good information about a piece of paper as it was submitted to Jaabari.” But Ayalon said he had no idea whether Jaabari was serious about a deal.
The timing of Operation Pillar of Defence has also called into question whether it was ordered by Netanyahu to bolster his chances of re-election on January 22. Cast Lead took place after the November 2008 US presidential election and just before Israeli elections in February 2009.
Similarly, Pillar of Defence has occurred between US and Israeli elections.
“The whole idea of these conspiracy theories is too sophisticated,” Ayalon said. “Usually what we see is stupidity and coincidence.
“The timing probably is a factor, but I’m not in a position to tell if it was because of the US and Israeli elections.” – Independent Foreign Service