Did Israel Provoke Increase in Rockets to Justify Operation Cast Lead?

Prior to Operation Cast Lead, the devastating Israeli attack on Gaza in 2008-09, there had been six months of a truce which both sides claimed the other did not maintain in good faith. Still, the truce endured.

When Israel escalated the tensions on November 4, 2008, killing six Hamas men in an operation Israel said was meant to thwart a tunnel Hamas was building to abduct more Israeli soldiers, some people felt that Israel was intentionally raising the stakes because the truce was holding and Hamas was fortifying its position in Gaza.

Destroyed buildings in the the Bau'lusha family's neighborhood. Picture: B'Tselem.

Therefore, the thinking went, Israel struck hard at Hamas with an excuse knowing that Hamas would feel it had no choice but to retaliate.

Well, that line of thinking got quite a boost when Wikileaks released a cable earlier this week containing an American report on a meeting with Israeli Defense Minister, Ehud Barak. Here is the relevant passage:

3. (S) Regarding the Tahdiya, Hacham said Barak stressed that while it was not permanent, for the time being it was holding. There have been a number of violations of the ceasefire on the Gaza side, but Palestinian factions other than Hamas were responsible. Hacham said the Israelis assess that Hamas is making a serious effort to convince the other factions not to launch rockets or mortars. Israel remains concerned by Hamas’ ongoing efforts to use the Tahdiya to increase their strength, and at some point, military action will have to be put back on the table. The Israelis reluctantly admit that the Tahdiya has served to further consolidate Hamas’ grip on Gaza, but it has brought a large measure of peace and quiet to Israeli communities near Gaza.

Certainly, those who put forth the theory that Israel willfully provoked the Hamas escalation that precipitated the massive Israeli attack that started on December 27, 2008 and lasted until just before Barack Obama’s inauguration believe this cable proves they were right.

Well, it doesn’t quite prove it, but it is mightily suggestive. Barak is essentially telling the Americans here that the mere fact of Hamas accumulating rockets (though they could never hope to amass sufficient weaponry to be even the most remote threat to Israel and everyone in the room knows that) would mean that Israel would have to act to knock Hamas back down. Moreover, Barak was quite clear in this meeting that Hamas was holding up their end of the tahdiya. He readily acknowledges that the few rockets that had been fired had not been fired by Hamas, and that Hamas was sincerely trying to stop even the other groups.

This cable combines with the rather flimsy story about the tunnel to really cast a suspicious light here. The concern that Hamas was digging a tunnel to attack Israeli soldiers hardly seems to justify a cross-border raid, especially one that would jeopardize a reasonably healthy cease-fire.

Is it proof? Perhaps not, but it certainly paints a convincing picture.

As a postscript, this was the same cable that reported on Israel’s affection for the man who has now become Egypt’s first vice president:

We defer to Embassy Cairo for analysis of Egyptian succession scenarios, but there is no question that Israel is most comfortable with the prospect of Omar Soliman.

8 thoughts on “Did Israel Provoke Increase in Rockets to Justify Operation Cast Lead?

  1. Mitchell,
    Following your link to the WikiLeaks site, one sees that the date of this report is 8/29/08. The situation could easily change from that time, to months later when the truce broke down in November.

    My feeling is that if the tunnel was being built, it was a real threat, since this was how the Hamas cross-border raid had been carried out to capture Gilad Shalit and kill two other soldiers. And your argument that the stockpiling of rockets by Hamas posed no real threat is hard to fathom. These rockets posed no threat to Israel’s existence, but it definitely did to the lives of thousands of Israelis within range. This potential threat wouldn’t justify breaking the truce, but the tunnel was a more imminent danger.

  2. Hi, Ralph, and thanks for your comemnt. To reply:

    1. Yes, the situation could change in the two months between this meeting and the Israeli incursion on November 4, but nothing really did. There were sporadic, low-level attacks (violations of the cease-fire, if you will) all along by both sides.

    2. The issue of the tunnel itself is questionable. Israel never presented any evidence of a tunnel, which it surely could have if it knew one was being built. That, I grant you, is not conclusive either, but it certainly raises the question of whether the tunnel story was true or not (and when I say “true” I include the possibility that Israel really believed it to be so, but that they were simply wrong).

    3. Sure the tunnel was a “real threat” if it was being built. I don’t question that here. But: A. there are other ways to address that threat, given that Israel clearly knew about it. and B. Knowing of such a threat, it makes no sense to engage in what was by far the biggest violation of the cease-fire to deal with it.

    4. The stockpiling of Hamas rockets was no more of a threat in November than it had been in June. Nothing had changed in that respect. Further, if the concern was the people living in southern Israel (and I can tell you first-hand, no one in Sderot believed that was the real concern) in what way is provoking Hamas to abandon the cease-fire and FIRE those weapons protecting those folks? How can one justify provoking fire out of concern of stockpiling weapons that are not being fired? If Hamas was not holding to the cease-fire, that would be one thing. But Barak confirmed that they were (and there were later statements in Israeli media that continued to support this contention). So, this action has the opposite effect of what is purportedly intended, and that effect was absolutely predictable. It is therefore impossible to believe that the safety of the residents of southern Israel was the cause for concern.

    I was in Sderot during Cast Lead. I heard from many people, not one of them a lefty or a peacenik, and including the mayor the town, that they felt Israel showed no regard for their safety, either when they were restraining from attacking Gaza, nor when they actually did it (they said that Sderot didn’t matter, but as soon as Ashkelon and Be’er Sheva were potential targets, priorities changed).

    In sum, I think it quite clear that Israel placed a very low price tag on sustaining the cease-fire, and that is the best you can say. In the worst case, they intentionally saw to its demise, but in the best case, they showed almost no restraint, where Hamas showed quite a bit. If Israel cannot value peace, or at least a period of sheket (quiet) more than Hamas does, where are we?

  3. I suppose that Israel could have protested and threatened about the tunnel, and they probably should have, but this might have still necessitated military action to destroy it. It’s also possible that the tunnel was made up by Israel, but I’m less inclined to believe this than you, Mitchell.

    Since I thought that Cast Lead was wrong-headed virtually from the beginning, I agree with most everything else that you say here, but emphatically not that Israel wasn’t concerned for the safety of its southern population.

    When you were in Sderot, didn’t you find that most of its inhabitants wanted a broad operation like Cast Lead? I’m sure that they felt neglected by Israel’s government; they’ve probably always felt this way, whether entirely true or not.

  4. There are many options between merely complaining and launching a military operation deep into Gaza for dealing with this potential tunnel. Israel has thwarted many times more kidnap attempts than have succeeded. Again, assuming the tunnel was real (and I am in fact not leaning particularly one way or the other on that question, but Israel’s track record is one that does not permit me to simply take them at their word on this), if Israel really valued the cease-fire, they could have pursued other tactics (redoubling defenses around where the tunnel was, blasting the ground there, etc.). Their decision to immediately take a step that was sure to thwart the cease-fire demonstrates they did not value it highly at all.

    The people of Sderot, by a large majority (though definitely not universally) certainly did support Cast Lead. But they did not for a minute believe that the government was suddenly concerned for them.

    We can disagree on whether the government was particularly concerned about the relatively poor, mostly Mizrahi citizens of the small southern cities and towns. But their abandonment of a cease-fire that had produced the longest and highest quality period of quiet Sderot had experienced in years again seems to me to tell the story.

  5. Mitchell,
    I don’t think that either of us have the military expertise to know what “options between merely complaining and launching a military operation…” Israel had regarding the tunnel. And the people of Sderot have long had economic problems, now compounded by the threat from Gaza.

    I consider it tragic and short-sighted that the Kadima-Labor government thought they could deal with the enmity of Hamas by trying to cripple it militarily in a wholesale attack—inflicting enormous casualties and destruction on the people of Gaza, and some suffering on Israelis near that border, in the process. But this doesn’t mean that they didn’t care for their security.

    After Israel withdraw totally from Gaza and were “repaid” by the Hamas takeover, with intermittent warfare from that quarter, I think that we can understand why most Israelis viewed Gaza only through a military/security lens. Of course, Sharon’s unilateralism contributed to this situation, but it’s not like the solution is either simple or obvious to most people. We progressives have our own ideas, but it’s not reasonable to expect that most people will automatically agree with us.

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