Watching Gaza

We may think we have been here before, but we haven’t. The images of escalation are the same: exhaust tracing through Israeli skies; Gazans frantically picking through rubble; Israelis glued to their televisions, reduced to observers of spectacle, some poised to run for shelter but most affecting readiness, protected by rocket science and probability, fascinated by the deadpan proficiency of military officials whose mission may confuse them but to whom they suppose they owe their lives.

And the circular ultimatums are the same, as are the grim tallies that supposedly establish advantage: we stop bombing if you stop launching, we stop launching if you stop laying siege, we stop the siege if you give up your missiles, we can’t give them up as long as you occupy us and have the means to bomb us. As in 2008, the I.D.F. is prepared for a ground invasion. About fifteen hundred Hamas targets have been hit by Israel, more than five hundred largely homemade Qassam missiles have been launched by Hamas, and more than two hundred and twenty Palestinians have been killed. Just since yesterday morning, more than a hundred rockets and mortars have been fired into Israel, the vast majority intercepted by the country’s Iron Dome defense system. One Israeli man was killed at the border. The fresher grievances turn the older ones vague: three hitchhiking Israeli teens were kidnapped, two protesting Palestinian youths were shot dead two weeks before, there was a revenge murder by a rogue group of Israeli fanatics—you can unspool this vendetta back to the Balfour Declaration, in 1917.

Yesterday morning promised a break in the cycle, but this, too, seemed merely familiar. At Secretary of State John Kerry’s urging, the Israeli government announced that it had accepted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s terms for a ceasefire, which looked a great deal like the terms offered by President Mohamed Morsi in 2012, which the Israeli government accepted at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s urging. Both sides, according to the latest Egyptian terms, would stop their attacks; indirect talks, to be held in Cairo, would take up opening Gaza crossings to Egypt, though the agenda for such talks is vague; and Hamas would restrain underground groups like Islamic Jihad. Again, Hamas would seem to have achieved nothing for the Palestinian lives lost, which is why it rejected the deal and why Israeli planes resumed bombing.

Familiar, finally, is the posturing and the doublespeak, Hamas’s Big Lie countered by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s half-truths. A senior Hamas official told Haaretz, “When Israel started operating against our people, some decided it was time to act and show that we are one people and one nation that must defend our people in the West Bank.” As if Hamas defends its people by provoking luridly photogenic attacks on Gazans; as if launching Iranian-made missiles, acquired through its Sinai tunnels, does not appear to justify the Israeli siege that Hamas says it is trying to break; as if Hamas has not consolidated an occupation regime of its own, plunging Gaza into a parochial horror in which almost ninety per cent of adults live in poverty.

“The difference between us is simple,” Netanyahu says. “We develop defensive systems against missiles in order to protect our civilians, and they use their civilians to protect their missiles.” That’s a good line, and even a true one. But it’s also true that the Israeli government knew the kidnapped teens were almost certainly dead when, in an alleged desperate effort to save them, it began a crackdown that resulted in hundreds of Hamas supporters being thrown in prison. More plausibly, it took this opportunity to crush Hamas as a political force. Netanyahu and Israeli military tacticians openly consider all homes of known Hamas officials or fighters to be part of Hamas “infrastructure.” Bombing these homes every few years—“mowing the lawn,” as one commander put it before earlier Gaza operations—demonstrates that Israel will not shrink from inflicting hundreds of random civilian casualties, through which it hopes to discredit Hamas. If you don’t think this is a war crime, talk to your Palestinian friends.

Read on at The New Yorker