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Another round concluded in the Gaza dance of death

The following imagined scenario seems to me to sum up pretty accurately the latest round of hostilities between Hamas and Israel: imagine a man who drives a Mini and another who drives a large lorry – let’s call them Abdul and Avi. Now imagine that Abdul hates Avi – really hates him. One day, Abdul can’t restrain himself any longer and drives his Mini full-tilt into the back of Avi’s lorry: Kerprangg!!! Of course, the Mini is totalled, while some limited damage is sustained by the lorry. Abdul now totters, bleeding from multiple injuries, from the wreck of his vehicle and commences taunting Avi: “Nyaaaa! Look what I’ve done to your lorry! Nyaaaa!!”

Anyone who genuinely cares for Abdul’s welfare would have tried to talk him out of such self-destructive behaviour failing that, they could at least have confiscated his car keys. That no-one did so suggests that they don’t really care about Abdul, and don’t care very much for Avi either.

A few hours ago, a “truce” frantically brokered by the international community to forestall a ground invasion of Gaza came into effect, bringing the eight-day war between Israel and Hamas to an end. How long will it be before the next missile from Gaza is sent on its way to Sederot, Ashkelon or even Jerusalem? A week? A fortnight perhaps? At any rate, one thing both Israelis and Gazans know for sure is that the bombs will soon be falling again sooner or later – probably sooner.

Bragging Hamas communiqués to the strip’s beleaguered residents are claiming that the Zionists have learned a sharp lesson. On the other side of the border, the Israeli Defence Force is patting itself on the back for a job well done and issuing reams of statistics proving how badly Hamas have been mauled. The bald figures certainly appear to bear out its claims. Successfully targeted during the operation were over 1500 sites including 19 senior command centres, 30 senior operatives, hundreds of underground rocket launchers, 140 smuggling tunnels, dozens of Hamas operation rooms and bases, 26 weapon manufacturing and storage facilities and dozens of long-range rocket launchers and launch sites. The Iron Dome defence system knocked most of the on-target Palestinian rockets out of the sky and most of the remaining incoming missiles either missed hitting anything or did limited damage.

In the context of the propaganda war, it was equally important that Israel maintained once more a low civilian to militant casualty ratio, and this it did through, among other things, making thousands of phone calls to Gaza residents warning them of IDF strikes in the area, dropping leaflets warning civilians not avoid the vicinity of Hamas operatives, diverting missiles in mid-flight due to civilians being present at the target site and whenever possible, singling out militants and targets in a way that endangered few or no bystanders. Ultimately, Palestinian fatalities of about 150 were roughly evenly divided between combatants and non-combatants. According to an International Committee of the Red Cross study (2001), the ratio of civilian to soldier deaths in all wars fought since the mid-20th century has been 10:1. The UN estimate is lower, namely that in conflicts worldwide, there has been an average 3:1 ratio of civilian to combatant deaths. Either way, a civilian to soldier casualty ratio of 1:1 testifies to the extraordinary success Israel achieved in minimising Palestinian civilian casualties, despite Hamas having deliberately based its fighters in civilian areas.

Neither side are portraying the outcome accurately. Yes, damage to Israel was limited and that sustained by Hamas extensive. However, Hamas’s operating capacity was only damaged, not destroyed, and moreover it had demonstrated an increased capacity for hitting Israeli cities as far as Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Its stature in the Arab world has been significantly boosted and worldwide anti-Israel sentiment cranked up anew. The enormous number of weaponry it has amassed has also demonstrated how much the Israeli blockade of Gaza has failed.

This time round, the fighting generated relatively moderate hostility against the local Jewish community. Personally, I received only one ugly letter – not anonymously but by email, so I was able to respond. This read in part: “You guys should be ashamed of yourselves. All you can do is rant and rave about people who criticise Israel. Then you kill 100 innocent civilians in Palestine … you are the guys who are the cause of the problem with your illegal expansion into other people’s territory. You are a disgrace to the noble principles of Judaism.”

This was a red rag to a bull, and in my sharply-worded response I, among other things, wrote that by continually bombarding Israeli towns and then hiding the perpetrators among the civilian population, the Palestinian leadership were killing their own civilians. They were engineering the death of innocents of their own sides for propaganda purposes, and by according them that propaganda victory, the writer had made himself complicit in that tactic. Moreover, had Israel adopted the Palestinian tactic of deliberately targeting civilians, the Palestinian death toll would be in the tens of thousands by now. Finally, re “illegal expansion into other people’s territory”, Israel withdrew from Gaza completely as early as 2005, since which well over 12 000 missiles had been fired at it.

My correspondent replied by accusing me of losing all sense of balance. “To be in such denial is bordering on psychotic … try for once to see things in historical context. You guys don’t forget the past – now think about how other people, but more so, the Palestinians see the past. Just try for one moment. I bet you can’t do it. Because if you did you would start crying for forgiveness … get fucked.”

I won’t bore you with a summary of my response. Overall, I am just relieved that communications like these were relatively few, while we also received many heartening messages of support from Christian groups.

To taunt the Israelis and give a kind of twisted morale boost to their own beleaguered population, Hamas broadcast a host of propaganda messages: “From the Al-Qassam Brigades to the Zionist soldiers: The Al-Qassam Brigades love death more than you love life.” One video showed mourning Israelis and scenes of funerals, accompanied by such voiceovers as: “All of Palestine is ours … there is nothing here for you but death … do not send your sons to fight; you will never see them again – they will return as body parts.” In an interview with Al-Quds Radio, a Hamas spokesman was recorded urging Palestinian civilians to ignore IDF warnings that attacks were imminent. A transcript of the programme, picked up by Israeli intelligence, is readily available. Unbelievably, while the world sheds crocodile tears and urges Israel to exercise more restraint, Gaza’s demented Islamist leadership is trying to bring out more civilian deaths so that it can achieve what it has really been aiming for in starting this war: propaganda victories, an enhanced culture of victimhood and martyrdom, Israel’s isolation in the international community.

My Israeli sister, with a mixture of amusement and exasperation, wrote telling me that some people, much to the annoyance of the Israeli military, were setting up picnics next to the Iron Dome, arriving with their cameras and sandwiches as they waited to see the Dome take out the incoming rockets. Such a casual attitude towards an enemy so utterly implacable and so focused on spilling Jewish blood as to sacrifice the lives of their own young children to achieve it is dangerously myopic. For my own part, I am feeling more fear than anger. With a sister in Hod Hasharon, a daughter in Jerusalem and a son in Betar Ilit, this has been a Middle East war that has hit closer to home than anything that has gone before. I await the next eruption of hostilities with mounting dread.


  • David Saks

    David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.