KIBBUTZ EIN HASHLOSHA, Israel – At 6:02 a.m. Saturday, the air raid siren sounded over Tel Aviv. I was rousted by hotel staff and ushered into the windowless service elevator area with two French families, everyone in their pajamas. After 10 minutes, when the Hamas missile threat had passed, we were allowed to go back to our rooms. As I slipped back into bed, the hotel loudspeaker bellowed, “Dear guests, you may return to your routine.”
With Israel and Hamas winding down their latest war, I could only wonder whether the hotel manager was also speaking to them. Is that it? More than 60 Israeli soldiers and some 1,800 Hamas fighters and Gazans — many hundreds of them children and civilians — killed, and everyone just goes back to their routines? I don’t think so. Some new and significant things were revealed here.
Let’s start with the fight. Since the early 2000s, Iran and its proxies Hezbollah and, until recently, Hamas, have pursued a three-pillar strategy toward Israel. The first is asymmetric warfare, primarily using cheap rockets, to paralyze Israeli towns and cities. For now, Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system appears to have nullified this weapon; Hamas rockets did virtually no damage.
The second pillar is to nest Hamas fighters and rocket launchers among the densely packed Gazan population and force Israel into a war where it can only defeat or deter Hamas if it risks war-crimes charges. No one here will explicitly say so, but one need only study this war to understand that Israel considers it central to its deterrence strategy that neither Hamas nor Hezbollah will “outcrazy us.”
I don’t believe Israel was targeting Gaza civilians — I believe it tried to avoid them — but at the end of the day it was not deterred by the prospect of civilian casualties. Hamas used Gaza’s civilians as war-crimes bait. And Israel did whatever was necessary. It was all ugly. This is not Scandinavia.
The third pillar of the Iran/Hezbollah/Hamas strategy is: Israel must forever occupy Palestinians in the West Bank because that colonial occupation is essential for delegitimizing and isolating Israel on the world stage and energizing Muslims against Israel. On this, Hamas scored a huge victory. We saw that clearly in the decision by the Federal Aviation Administration to briefly order a ban on U.S. flights to Tel Aviv, after a single Hamas rocket landed just more than a mile from the airport. That was exactly the message Hamas wanted delivered: “If we can close your airport, your global lifeline, with one rocket from Gaza, imagine what happens if you leave the West Bank, right next door.” That FAA ban will now be used here as a key argument for why Israel must never cede the West Bank. I can hear the applause in Tehran from here.
And then there were the Hamas tunnels. I toured one just across the Gaza border. It was lined for a couple miles with prefab concrete siding and roofing. It had electricity and railroad tracks. What struck me most was the craftsmanship — the way all the prefab concrete pieces were perfectly designed and fit together. This tunnel took years and millions of dollars to build and required diverting massive resources from civilian roads, buildings and schools. It had one purpose, and it was not fruit exports. It was to shuttle fighters into the kibbutz.
I was awed by the dedication it took to dig this tunnel, but sickened by what fueled that dedication: an apocalyptic jihadist agenda. The religious nationalist-forces have the real energy in this region today. More and more, this is becoming a religious conflict. The Times of Israel reported that, at the start of this war, “in an official dispatch sent to battalion and company commanders on July 9, Givati Brigade commander Colonel Ofer Winter” — one of Israel’s top officers on the Gaza front — “told his subordinates that ‘History has chosen us to spearhead the fighting [against] the terrorist ‘Gazan’ enemy which abuses, blasphemes and curses the God of Israel’s [defense] forces.’ ” Frightening.
Jihadists are now sweeping across Iraq and Syria, wiping out Christians and other minorities. As the Lebanese writer Hanin Ghaddar noted this week: “[T]he region seems to be going back to tribalism, as if a century of intellectual awakening and secular ideas are being erased.”
Here is where Israel does have a choice. Its reckless Jewish settlement project in the West Bank led it into a strategy of trying to keep the moderate Palestinian Authority there weak and Hamas in Gaza even weaker. The only way Israel can hope to stabilize Gaza is if it empowers the Palestinian Authority to take over border control in Gaza, but that will eventually require making territorial concessions in the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority, because it will not act as Israel’s policeman for free.
This is crunchtime. Either Arab and Israeli moderates collaborate and fight together, or the zealots really are going to take over this neighborhood. Please do not return to your routines.
Thomas Friedman’s column is distributed by the New York Times News Service.