The Israeli media marked the one-year anniversary of Operation Cast Lead, the war on Gaza, almost as a celebration. The operation is recognised almost unanimously in Israel as a military triumph, a combat victory over one of Israel’s deadliest enemies: Hamas.
As combat soldiers of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), we have serious doubts about this conclusion, primarily because hardly any combat against Hamas took place during the operation. As soon as the operation started, Hamas went underground.
Most casualties were inflicted on Palestinians by air strikes, artillery fire, and snipers from afar. Combat victory? Shooting fish in a barrel is more like it. Operation Cast Lead consisted essentially of bombing one of the most crowded places on earth, striking civilian targets such as homes, schools and mosques, and ultimately leaving a trail of more than 1,300 casualties, mostly civilians, over 300 of whom were children. As soldiers of the IDF reserves, we bow our heads in shame against this hideous attack on a civilian population.
As for the goals of the operation, these too are questionable. Allegedly, operation Cast Lead was intended to stop the firing of missiles by Hamas. But the Qassam missile problem had been solved before the operation started. The ceasefire agreement between Hamas and Israel in place from 19 June 2008 had resulted in a drastic reduction of missiles fired from Gaza from a few hundreds per month to about a dozen for a period of five months. It was Israel that never lived up to its end of the bargain to end the siege of Gaza, breached the ceasefire in November 2008 by attacking targets in the Strip, essentially ignored Hamas’s proposal to renew the ceasefire, and eventually began operation Cast Lead a few weeks later.
The true goal of this operation was different from the one announced by Israeli officials. The real objective was not to stop the Qassams but to overthrow the Hamas government. As such, the operation failed. Hamas in Gaza is stronger than ever.
A year after this brutal war, a change of strategy is needed. Israel should commence immediate talks with Hamas, negotiating not only a ceasefire but also the “core issues” to be part of an end-of-conflict agreement. An open dialogue with Hamas is clearly in Israel’s interest.
First, because Hamas was democratically elected in Gaza and has won the trust and respect of a significant part of the Palestinian people, anyone hoping to resolve this conflict will eventually need to bargain with the group.
Second, Hamas has proven capable of delivering peace and quiet to the citizens of southern Israel. As demonstrated before, Hamas has a strong hold on all organisations acting in Gaza and can enforce a truce.
Third, a prisoner exchange deal is our only chance to bring back the abducted IDF soldier, Gilad Shalit. In return, Israel will release hundreds of Hamas prisoners, out of the 8,000 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. Such a deal can have a pacifying influence on public opinion both in Israel and in Palestine and can be an important step towards reconciliation between the two peoples.
Hamas is currently Israel’s enemy, but peace is made with enemies, not with friends. Hamas is also a powerful, pragmatic and well organised movement, possibly a future partner with whom Israel can “cut a deal”. A reluctance to recognise Hamas as the party in charge in Gaza is a strategy that failed and needs to be replaced. A nation that is truly looking for peace cannot afford to ignore its partners.
• Arik Diamant and David Zonsheine are the founders of Courage to Refuse, a movement of Israeli reserve soldiers who refuse to serve in the occupied territories. In November 2009 they launched an initiative calling Israel to open a dialogue with Hamas