New rules of engagement

Ramzy Baroud
Thursday 18 May 2023

Palestinians just might have defeated Netanyahu and redefined unity,

 

Tel Aviv has always justified and promoted its wars against Palestinians by reference to “security” and “fighting terrorism”. Israel’s greatest challenge throughout these wars was hardly the Palestinian resistance, however steadfast and resilient. The challenge has always been Tel Aviv’s ability to kill many Palestinians, including civilians, without tarnishing its image internationally as an oasis of democracy and civilisation. 

More recently Israel has been losing the public relations battle and it is now losing a different kind of battle too. Throughout its 75-year-old history, from its violent birth on the ruins of historic Palestine in May 1948, up to its latest war on the besieged Gaza Strip on 9 May Israel’s history has been associated with violence. 

 Pro-Israeli Western propaganda, along with Israel’s own masterful manipulation of facts and rewriting of history, have allowed Israel to blame the violence on others: first, the Arabs who supposedly attacked Israel unprovoked time and again; then the Palestinian “terrorists” of all ideological colours, socialists, secularists and, as of late, “Islamic fundamentalists”. 

 Alas, the Israeli Hasbara worked, not because of its sheer genius, but because of the near-total embargo on the Palestinian voice in all aspects of life. This embargo continues to this day, and has extended to reach dominant social media platforms including, notably, Facebook.

 But the fight for the truth, intellectual integrity and freedom of speech continues, and Palestinian successes are now far greater than all attempts by Israel, its benefactors and supporters to censor, sideline or muffle the Palestinian voice. The days of hiding Israeli crimes or blaming them on someone else seem to be over.

 There are reasons why Israeli propaganda is going through its worst days. Aside from the power and influence commanded by Palestinian intellectuals, social media activists and the numerous platforms made available to them through innumerable solidarity networks around the world, the Israeli Hasbara has itself grown weak and unconvincing. Israel is a fragmented society. While it is true that Israelis often unite during times of war, this time around, their unity is stale and unimpressive.

 The rise of a far-right, even fascist government under the leadership of embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last December generated mass protests that have rocked Israeli cities since then. Trapped, Netanyahu needed an outlet through which to rally angry Israelis behind him, and to keep his far-right ministers satisfied. He opted for attacking Gaza.

 The choice to export Israel’s political crises to Palestine is an old tactic. However, with stiff and increasingly strong Palestinian resistance in recent years, a Gaza war is no longer an easy option. The May 2021 war, dubbed “Guardian of the Walls” by Israel and “Sword of Jerusalem” by the Palestinians, for example, was a painful reminder of how such foolish miscalculations on the part of Tel Aviv can backfire.

 Netanyahu has since resorted to a different model: a mini war that targets one Palestinian group in an isolated area at a time: the Lions’ Den in Nablus, or the Islamic Jihad in Gaza. 

 Netanyahu’s choice to attack Gaza and assasinate top leaders in the Islamic Jihad’s military arm, the Al-Quds Brigades, was not a haphazard one. The group is strong enough for such a decisive and bloody military operation to be marketed by Netanyahu and his supporters as a restoration of “deterrence” without involving Israel in a prolonged and costly war with all Palestinian Resistance groups all at once.

 This tactic worked in the past, at least according to Israel’s own calculations. In November 2019, Israel launched a war on the Islamic Jihad in Gaza. It was dubbed “Black Belt”. Though other Resistance groups declared their support for the Islamic Jihad then, they did not engage in the fight directly. Why?

 For years, the resistance in Gaza wanted to change the rules of engagement with Israel. Instead of allowing Israel to determine the time and place of war, based on Tel Aviv’s own agenda and degree of readiness, resistance factions in Gaza wanted to have a say over the timing of such battles.

 Israel completely failed to understand the Palestinian strategy and assumed that the “Black Belt” operation reflected Palestinian weakness, indecisiveness and, more dangerously, disunity.  

The May 2021 and Unity Intifada should have alerted Israel to the fact that Palestinian resistance groups remained united, and that the resistance Joint Operations Room, which includes Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, the socialist PFLP, among others, continues to operate in unison.

 Netanyahu sought to ignore the clear message communicated by Palestinians not only in Gaza, but also through the unified resistance in the West Bank, perhaps out of his own desperation to divert attention away from his multiple political crises and corruption trials at home. For whatever reason, Netanyahu thought he would be able to successfully replicate “Black Belt”, divide the resistance and restore “deterrence”.

 Soon after the assassination of top Islamic Jihad commanders – Jihad Al-Ghannam, Khalil Al-Bahtini and Tarek Ezzeddin – on 9 May, Netanyahu gave a press conference along with his archenemy, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, to prematurely detail Israel’s supposed victory. The victory lap did not last for long, however. After 35 hours of perplexing silence, while nearly two million Israelis hid in shelters as if awaiting their punishment, the resistance responded.

 Then, the rockets of the resistance came raining in, creating panic, from Sderot, Ashkelon and Netivot all the way to Rehovot or Gush Etzion.

 Suddenly, the “deterrence” war, named “Shield and Arrow” by the Israeli military, became Netanyahu’s nightmare. And, yet, all of this was done by the Islamic Jihad alone, with coordination and support from the rest of the resistance factions.

 Though Hamas, the PFLP and others have fully supported the Islamic Jihad in its ongoing fight, Israeli officials still refrained from resorting to their usual threats of assassinating all Palestinian resistance leaders. The only exception was comments made by Israel’s Minister of Energy and Infrastructure Israel Katz, who threatened, in an interview with Israel’s Kan 11 News, to “eliminate” top Hamas leaders in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar and Mohamed Deif.

 As of the evening of 13 May, a tentative ceasefire has been reached, pro-Netanyahu propagandists will spend many hours speaking of the splendid victory over “terror”, and pro-Israeli spin doctors will labour to twist the facts and blame Palestinians, including children, for their own misery.

 But the uncontested truth is that the Palestinian Resistance has managed to challenge, if not to reverse, the rules of engagements like never before.

 More importantly, Palestinians on the ground have shown us that unity is not expressed through cliched language, empty slogans and press conferences in luxury hotels. It is the unity of those resisting on the ground, from Gaza to Nablus, and from Jenin to Sheikh Jarrah, that matters most.

The writer is a journalist, author, and the editor of The Palestine Chronicle.

* This article was published in Al-Ahram Weekly in May 1998.


This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly’s special pages commemorating 50 years of Al-Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe when Israel was created on 15 May 1948. These pages, published in 1998, were part of a year-long series of articles documenting the history and nature of the Arab-Israeli struggle, as well as that of Palestinian dispossession and exile.

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