On August 18th, coordinated terrorist attacks near the Israeli resort town of Eilat claimed the lives of six Israeli civilians and two soldiers. In a matter of hours, the Israeli government, claiming they had proof the attacks originated from Gaza, directed bombing attacks at the besieged Strip. At least a dozen people were killed, including a local leader of the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu categorically stated was behind the Eilat attacks.
From the beginning, there were serious questions about the credibility of that accusation, most notably the lack of evidence presented by Netanyahu and his Defense Minister, Ehud Barak to support the claim. There was ample reason to question this version, since the Rafah crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt has been very difficult to get through, no Gaza groups claimed responsibility, as they usually do, and attacks from Gaza have not come from Egypt in the past to avoid embroiling Egypt in the situation.
Then the Israel Defense Forces spokesperson had to admit to Israeli reporter Lia Tarachansky that “We (the IDF) did not say that this group (the PRC) was responsible for the terror attacks.” The evidence the spokesperson cited was so flimsy as to be laughable and clearly did not amount to anything like proof the attacks originated in Gaza. Indeed, the evidence offered proved nothing at all.
The story fell apart completely when the Egyptians identified three of the attackers killed by Israeli soldiers. They were all terrorists operating in Sinai, not Gaza. This came as no surprise, as various groups in the Sinai have been clashing with Egyptian security forces for many years, both during and after the Mubarak regime. In recent months, such groups have sabotaged a natural gas pipeline from Egypt to both Israel and Jordan, just as one example.
Not surprisingly, there has been scant mention of this misplacement of blame in the mainstream media. It’s particularly unremarkable, because of Israel’s response to the dastardly attack, regardless of the political circumstances.
In an initial reaction, an Israeli helicopter pursued several people apparently attempting to infiltrate the border and fired wildly, killing three Egyptian security personnel and setting off a diplomatic firestorm. Then came the attacks on Gaza and, quietly, the arrest of over 120 Palestinians in the West Bank over the following weekend.
With all of that, it’s no surprise that there was a deafening hush over the fact that the available evidence indicates the attacks did not emanate from Gaza.
There are more reasons: Israel is not anxious to push toward a confrontation with the new Egypt, at least not yet, while the Egyptians have so much global support. While I very much doubt that the recent social protests were a big part of the calculation, I’m sure Netanyahu was eager to play to his strengths – hitting the Palestinians – rather than his political weaknesses.
Israel was well aware that it could not launch a military operation into Egyptian territory. That is an act of war. Unsurprisingly, the Netanyahu government also did not take this opportunity to launch a broader attack on Gaza, as was urged by the so-called “moderate opposition party,” Kadima. Bibi much prefers to resort to his usual polemics, smaller-scale strikes and tightening the day-to-day occupation to major operations, which have proven to be full of political pitfalls, as Israel learned most recently in Lebanon and Gaza. He talks tougher, but he’s less inclined to fully unleash the Israel Defense Forces as his predecessor, Ehud Olmert.
Thus, to what I confess was my surprise, Bibi accepted an Egypt-brokered cease-fire with Hamas. How well it will hold remains to be seen. In the wake of these events, and considering the massive changes in the Middle East, Moshe Arens, former Israeli defense minister and Netanyahu’s political mentor of old, urged Israel to refrain from any moves toward compromise and peace:
This is not a time to withdraw to the 1949 armistice lines. It is not a time for ‘daring political initiatives.’ It is a time for watching and waiting to see how things are going to turn out. It is a time to think how we are going to assure the security of Israel’s citizens in the southern part of the country from daily rocket attacks, and make sure that those living in the north and the center of the country do not share their fate…It is a time to put away the placards calling for “Peace Now” and “An End to the Occupation.” It may be the time for those demanding “social justice” for the “middle class” to fold their tents.
Arens has it almost perfectly backwards. What we saw happen here was a new Egypt which, while protesters vented their rage by pulling the Israeli flag down from its embassy, kept its cool over the deaths of its security personnel and brokered a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.
On the other side, we saw Israel react to murder by deciding that Palestinians must pay, whether or not they were responsible. The opposition to this ultra-right-wing government criticized it for not causing far more bloodshed. Israel is not just losing a public relations battle with Arens’ attitude, which clearly prevails in Jerusalem. It is risking losing far more.
In all of this, despite the presence of Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman, the United States was a non-factor. Israel’s “rapid response” led to the deaths of Egyptians and, for a short time, the recall of Egypt’s ambassador to Israel. And Israel pounded the wrong targets in Gaza.
This all happened after IDF soldiers, acting in response to the murders near Eilat, killed seven of the perpetrators. Israel’s actions made it much more difficult for Egypt to collaborate in finding out more about the terriorists, sacrificing at least some measure of crucial cooperation. And, when Egypt brokered the cease-fire deal, Hamas got other armed Gazan groups to agree (though there have been a number of rockets fired since.)
Yes, Israel has not faced repercussions for its missteps here. In part that was due to the fact that the episodes were seen as beginning with the killing of Israeli civilians in the southern part of the country. In part, it was due to more facts coming out when all eyes were on Libya.
But despite the horrific nature of the attack near Eilat, Israel did not come out of this appearing the victim, as it usually has done in the past. Instead, Egypt claimed the high road, Israel caused the deaths of allies fighting terrorists (and others who may have not been involved,) and the United States was virtually invisible.
That Arens, and the bulk of the Israeli leadership can look at that outcome and insist Israel should continue with business as usual is unfathomable.
Photo courtesy of OECD. Published under a Creative Commons license, in conjunction with Babylon Times.