Beer-Sheva, Israel – In response to the recent assassination of Zuhair al-Qaisi, the Secretary General of the Popular Resistance Committees in the Gaza Strip, along with another fighter, Palestinians fired rockets at southern Israel and the Israeli military launched air strikes at targets throughout the Strip.
Within hours, the media fanfare began. Israeli news outlets began glorifying the interception missiles by repeatedly showing images of an Iron Dome battery, often with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak standing in front of the defence system. Reporters continuously emphasised the Iron Dome’s high rate of success in intercepting the short-range rockets launched from Gaza towards Israel. One columnist characterised it as a “system that provides the goods, authentic Israeli brilliance, true pride”, while another columnist stated that this “weekend Israel took its hat off [to salute] Iron Dome”.
Initially, the government and security establishment claimed that “al-Qaisi was assassinated in order to prevent an attack that was in the final stages of preparation”. Two days after Israel carried out the extra-judicial execution, however, the claim that al-Qaisi presented an imminent danger dissipated.
On March 11, Ofer Shelah reported that “even from the statements made yesterday by the Minister of Defence one got the sense that the assassination was not about direct prevention: Barak clearly stated that it is not totally clear what was being planned, from where, and whether the attack had been foiled. From this, it can be assumed that the attack was more about deterrence”.
As the days passed, several commentators revealed that the assassination had been planned well in advance and that the military had made the necessary preparations, including deployment of the Iron Dome batteries. “A Planned Escalation,” read the title of one article in Yedioth Ahronoth and in the text, the analyst explained that the “IDF had prepared an ambush” for al-Qaisi. Yoav Limor, an “expert on military affairs”, wrote that in essence “al-Qaisi was alive-dead for over a week, and his assassination was delayed until the prime minister completed his diplomatic campaign in Washington, and until after the Purim Holiday and the weather cleared up”. Most analysts intimated that Israel knew that the assassination would lead to an escalation. And this, it almost seems, is what it wanted.
The question, of course, is why?
Israel launches Gaza air strikes
There are those who totally misunderstood Israel’s goals. Ma’ariv’s top political analyst Ben Kaspit called for an extensive attack against the Strip, portraying the residents of southern Israel as hostages of a “terrorist gang that has infested Gaza… [and] that can spray the whole south with rockets”. In his view Barak had stopped the IDF at the beginning of Operation Cast Lead ostensibly for humanitarian reasons, but fortunately the operation turned out to be successful not least because in its midst “the leaders of Hamas cut their beards and went down to the tunnels”. Kaspit concludes that it is now time to “complete the job”. “We need to understand,” he tells his readers, “that no one will clean Gaza for us… and terror, unfortunately, understands only one language.”
Judy Nir Moses Shalom, the wife of the Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, is not the most sophisticated thinker either. “I hope,” she wrote on her Facebook page, “that during the cabinet meeting a decision will be reached to enter Gaza and to liquidate all those responsible for the nightmare which the south is undergoing. Enough silence. The time has come to make Gaza’s passive residents suffer like [Israel’s southern] residents.” As if this kind of beastly reaction was not enough, she also tweeted to her followers: “Have a good week. I hope that today it will be decided to demolish Gaza if the shooting does not stop. So that they will suffer too.”
Most analysts wittingly or unwittingly intimated, however, that there were other reasons for initiating the current cycle of violence, and justifying a major offensive on Gaza was not one of them.
Message for Iran
The majority of reporters and columnists served as the mouthpiece for the security establishment, calling on the government to allocate more funds to buy additional Iron Domes. Or Heller from Channel Ten is a good example. He asked his audience to “imagine how this cycle would have looked without the success of three Iron Dome batteries… imagine the tanks that would have had to enter Gaza’s mud… a fourth battery is on its way. What about a fifth battery? God is great and the budget is small. It is clear to everyone today that we need more and more Iron Domes.” Ofer Shelah from NRG put it succinctly: “The prime minister must decide unequivocally… that Iron Dome, like other defence mechanisms, is beyond the realm of the budget debate.” Another more reflective reporter pointed out that the Grad rockets “flying from the Strip serve as the best lobbyist for the defence budget”.
The recent attack is, however, not only about allocating more money to the military; it is also about Iran. The media continuously drew a connection between the Islamic jihad, which launched most of the rockets against Israel, and Iran. The IDF spokesperson pointed an accusing finger towards Teheran, claiming that it is transferring weapons and money to the Islamic Jihad. A couple of days later a headline in Yisrael Hayom declared, “Iran is Behind the Jihad’s Rocket Attack”. Hence, another objective was to show the Israeli public that Iran, by means of a proxy, had already begun attacking Israel.
Next, a link was drawn between Iron Dome’s success and the perceived Iranian threat. Ynet cited a military general who stated that the escalation is about Gaza today, “but I am not sure that this is the scenario for which I am preparing the fighters. There are threats from the north and threats from further away”. A columnist noted that Iron Dome’s effectiveness “helped demonstrate to everyone that the Israeli home front enjoys a relatively good defense today… Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran will have to reconsider their strategy of missile terrorism…”
Indeed, many analysts emphasised that only a handful of Israelis had been injured, but none fatally. The fighting, they accordingly claimed, produced relatively little pressure on the home front. Alon Ben David from Channel Ten summed up this perspective when he wrote: “There is no doubt that Iron Dome alongside the population’s exemplary behaviour prevented casualties on the Israeli side and enabled Israel to come out of this cycle – I would say – with a sense of satisfaction. Twenty-two [combatants] were killed on the other side, and another three or four civilians; we have zero losses… under these conditions we can conduct a monitored [fray] that we initiate…”
Zvi Barel from Haaretz was one of the lone critical voices, providing readers some insight into Israel’s real objectives. He exposed the logic behind the Iron Dome’s glorification, claiming that it helps Netanyahu “sell” the planned attack against Iran: “After Iron Dome demonstrated its 95 per cent effectiveness, there is no better proof to Israeli citizens that they will not suffer serious damage following an assault against Iran. Escalation in Gaza is good for Israel, meaning for those who support attacking Iran”.
In a slightly different context and using Netanyahu’s duck allegory, Haaretz’s editor-in-chief Aluf Benn wrote, “what looks like a preparation for war, acts like a preparation for war, and quacks like a preparation for war, is a preparation for war, and not just a ‘bluff’ or a diversion tactic”.
Neve Gordon is the author of Israel’s Occupation. He can be reached through his website.