Gaza: The Murderous Melodrama

Gaza: A History

by Jean-Pierre Filiu, translated from the French by John King
Oxford University Press, 422 pp., $29.95

Gaza and Israel: New Obstacles, New Solutions

a report by the International Crisis Group
Middle East Briefing No. 39, 11 pp., July 14, 2014; available at
Magnum Photos
A smuggling tunnel in Rafah, Gaza Strip, 2012; photograph by Paolo Pellegrin

In 332 BC Alexander the Great conquered Gaza. It was not easy going. The siege lasted for one hundred days, and the Gazans, led by Batis, the “king of Gaza,” defended themselves skillfully, notably by extensive use of tunnels. Alexander himself was wounded in the fighting. He revenged himself by killing almost all the city’s young men, including Batis, who was tied to Alexander’s chariot and dragged to death beneath the ramparts (shades of Achilles’ humiliation of the dead Hector). The story seems all too familiar; for us, too, Gaza calls up violent images. It’s relatively easy to dig tunnels in its sandy subsoil, as we know from the brutal war that broke out this summer.

I’m not sure “broke out” is the right phrase. Human agency was very much at work on both sides. Hamas, battered, isolated, and impoverished, had little to lose and, as things turned out, much to gain in popular support by launching missiles and mortars at Israel and inviting another round of severe Israeli punishment. Benjamin Netanyahu, by ordering a large-scale attack on Hamas activists and institutions on the West Bank in response to the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers on June 12, gladly accepted the invitation.

One of the most striking elements in the murderous melodrama that ensued was the utter confusion in the Israeli leadership about what might constitute a credible war aim. Stopping the renewed missile fire from Gaza proved to be impossible, though Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system worked for the most part effectively. Only after Israel’s land operation in the inner periphery of Gaza got underway was the army able to seize upon the extensive tunnels, many crossing under the fence around the Strip and opening into Israeli territory, as a possible raison d’être for the whole campaign.

Without minimizing the real threat posed by these tunnels—which the army apparently had known about for years—one might note the evident relief the government felt at having finally found a military target they could handle. The citizens of Israel, who will usually believe anything the army says, seemed entirely persuaded. Some thirty tunnels were blown up. I assume that by now many new ones are being dug.

Clearly, this was the summer of Israeli discontent. Nothing was able to put an end to the rain of missiles and mortar shells from Gaza. Israeli settlements near the Gaza border were evacuated; and when the army announced that it was safe to return, renewed attacks killed residents and soldiers stationed nearby. (In Gaza and Israel combined, sixty-seven Israeli soldiers and six civilians were killed.) For weeks the most common word on the TV and radio news and talk shows, with their familiar line-up of dusted-off former generals, was “deterrence.”

More specifically, the question was how to restore…

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