May 22, 2021

Earlier this week, an Israeli soldier was wounded by a Hamas mortar bomb while guarding a convoy of heavy trucks loaded with medical supplies, food and fuel at the Erez crossing between Israel and Gaza. Yes, it was in Israel’s interest to reduce the suffering of Gaza’s inhabitants while it pursued its campaign to protect its own population by finding and destroying Hamas and Islamic Jihad rockets stored in basements and underground tunnels: the less suffering and death, the less diplomatic pressure on Israel (particularly from the US) to call off its campaign unilaterally.

For the same reason, it was in Israel’s interest to accept extraordinary limitations on its bombing. Before attacking any occupied building, whether to destroy command posts or stored rockets or mortar bombs, the residents are warned with phone calls and often also by a “knock on the roof” — a guided weapon with no explosive that delivers a shock at impact but hardly ever hurts anyone. If civilians are spotted in or near the targeted building, attacks are delayed or called off.

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All this sacrifices military gains for Israel; Hamas, naturally, takes full advantage of the bombing warnings to move out its personnel and portable equipment. But lost military gains are better than added political costs, and by now even Israeli corporals know that in warfare only political victories count.

And so it’s worth noting that in spite of all the imagery of death and destruction, in spite of the incessant media talk of genocide, the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry reported a total of 232 killed just after the ceasefire. Yesterday, by comparison, Israel’s estimate was that it had killed at least roughly 215 combatants, including 25 “senior commanders’ — but in the Hamas count they mysteriously become innocent civilians, with some becoming children. (Note Hamas does have some teenage recruits).

There were, of course, actual civilians among the dead and wounded. For one thing, according to a senior military source, of the 4,200 or so rockets launched from the Gaza Strip, approximately 650 fell inside the Gaza Strip. And unlike Israel’s guided weapons, they fell at random, and they definitely caused civilian casualties, including a family of six in one case. (Of the remaining rockets, roughly 1,950 were not intercepted because they were projected to fall in empty ground — and did. Another 1,440 were successfully engaged by Israel’s Iron Dome batteries, while 160 fell inside Israeli residential areas, causing minimal casualties thanks to Israel’s system of bomb shelters).

But putting figures to one side, the most obvious asymmetry in this endless conflict is how Hamas, unlike Israel, is not subject to the imperative of minimising civilian casualties. On the contrary, it gains a propaganda advantage in the Arab world — as well as Iran’s approval — for any civilian or military casualties it inflicts on the Jews, while also garnering support in the West from any casualties suffered by Gaza’s population — so much so that after Israeli attacks, doctored images purporting to show dead Gazan children are often circulated.

Hamas certainly has no political obligation to the people of Gaza; it declaredly serves the much grander cause of global Islam. Its positioning as neither Gazan nor Palestinian, but only Muslim, gains support from agitated Muslims everywhere and endows it with an enviable freedom of action: each day it can decide whether to keep the ceasefire or resume its rocket bombardment, without having to bother about the safety of Gaza’s population, let alone its welfare.

In this round, as in the last in 2014, there was disquiet among the Israeli Arabs, but this time they were confined to certain neighbourhoods in Lod and Acre. The media’s exaggeration of their magnitude and significance was especially extreme: the existence of a large Arab professional class, especially prominent in Israel’s hospitals, was ignored — as was the fact that Israelis continued to eat in Arab restaurants right through the fighting.

Nor was there any mention of the Arab members of Israel’s parliament: the seven Palestinian nationalists and seven Islamists who are the only freely elected parliamentarians among some 420 million Arabs. Even if the rest of the world forgets that, they do not: they vigorously assert their Israeli citizenship, especially now that both Netanyahu and his rivals need at least one of the two Arab parties as coalition partners.

As for the rest of the Arab world, Israel’s few friends did not have to speak up: Fly Dubai and Emirates were just about the only foreign airlines that continued to serve Israel’s Ben Gurion airport, while Egypt worked valiantly to secure the ceasefire.

All these facts may be dismissed as rose-tinted optimism from a safe distance, but the collective judgement of the Israeli stock exchange is unequivocal: on Thursday, as rumours of the imminent ceasefire started to circulate, the country’s TA-35 index increased from 1669 to 1678. The reason it did not leap ahead was that even at the peak of the rocket barrage its lowest dip was 1609, still handsomely ahead on the year’s opening level of 1497.

Similarly, the response overseas has been remarkably encouraging. While much is made of Israel’s loss of unequivocal support on the far-Left of the Democratic Party, the Biden Administration was firm in its support, as were Israel’s new allies in Latin America and Europe.

All this, paradoxically, is the cause of Israel’s political paralysis, which has manifested itself in one inconclusive election after another. After all, with prosperity and security, voters have no urgent need to focus on the essentials and feel free to vote according to their political whims. Long may this continue.