Palestinians and peace activists marked the third anniversary of one of the most bloodiest incidents in Palestinian history. On the 27th of December 2008, Israel would launch an offensive in the Gaza strip codenamed Operation Cast Lead- a devastating attack, which would have dramatic consequences for both Palestinians and Israelis. Israel declared that it was a war against Hamas ‘terrorists’. However as we shall see, the reasons were more complex. Unilateral ceasefires were announced around the 18th of January 2009, ending the twenty three day heavy siege. Although the event was highly destructive, its aftermath would prove to be positive for the Palestinian people. For Israel, Operation Cast Lead would follow a series of diplomatic setbacks on the international front, possibly commencing a slow self-immolation of the illegal state of Israel. The operation shares the paradox of being one of the most bloodiest events in Muslim and Palestinian history with deaths of up to 1400 Palestinians mostly civilians, and also one of the greatest victory for the Muslims in modern times. How could such a conflict be a great triumph? To understand this one has to observe the resilience of the Palestinians during the conflict, the situation beforehand and its aftermath, and its global impact, rather than observing the impact on the ground alone. Operation Cast Lead reminds me of the Battle of Khandaq (Trench), which shares stark similarities. When the Arab and Jewish tribes formed a united coalition against the city of Madinatun Nabi, and imposed a siege on Madina. The Muslims remained patient and resilient until the enemy gave in. This piece will also explore the purpose of the operation, and discuss whether objectives were achieved.
In 2006, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) carried out an attack against Hezbollah devastating parts of the country. However, they were utterly humiliated and suffered a serious setback. Hezbollah was one step ahead. The IDF were outfought in combat. Their intelligence apparatus were deceived, and Hezbollah proved astute in intelligence acquisition. Above all, it was an enormous political victory for Hezbollah, and a political defeat in Israel. Israel learnt from this defeat, and they began to militarily rectify the IDF. In fact, Israel prepared for the operation six months prior to its execution, during which time Hamas and Israel were supposed to be in a ceasefire. In order to regain honour, the much more improved and rectified IDF would launch Operation Cast Lead, against a much weaker force- Hamas. Hamas on the other hand observed the 2006 war in Lebanon and sought to emulate Hezbollah. But they must have been aware of their limitations compared to Hezbollah and the state resources of Israel. Strategically they faced many constraints. The area of the Gaza strip is concentrated and tiny. It was subject to sanctions since 2007. The blockade has economically affected Gaza and its general population heavily. The Egyptians collaborated with Israel and made sure the Rafah crossing on the Egyptian side was also complying with the blockade. Hamas is said to have support from Iran, but even this would not have been enough, since the blockade makes it extremely difficult to acquire weapons. One of the ways they acquired arms was through underground tunnels which they dug, usually into Egypt. The tunnels are used to bring goods into the Palestinian market and a way to defy sanctions. But Israeli Air Force constantly targets these tunnels. An advantage was that the Gaza strip and its disorganized urban areas would provide Palestinian fighters cover and concealment against Israeli forces. In other words they were concentrating their force in cities and towns and preparing for urban warfare- street fighting, house to house and room to room. Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and booby traps were extensively planted across Gaza. But it is clear, given Israel’s resources and deployment of reserve troops (many from the US), that Hamas was disadvantaged on a massive proportion.
This was a callous method for election campaigning especially for the parties involved, namely the Kadima party and the Labor party, which played key roles during the war. Ehud Olmert (Kadima), the Prime Minister of Israel at the time, went through much criticism after the 2006 Lebanon war, which also occurred under his premiership. He was about to leave office, and wanted to leave a ‘positive’ legacy (in Israeli standards), and to of course strengthen his party. There were other important figures, such as Deputy Prime Minister Tzipi Lvni and Ehud Barak of the Labour party, who was the Defence Minister all competed against each other in trying to prove to the electorates about their actions during the war, in the hope that they would get votes. Netanyahu of the Likud party, known for his notoriety towards the Palestinian people also strongly backed the war and later opposed Israeli ceasefire. Indeed the war, in reality were not to deter Palestinian rocket fire, or attacks, but one of the chief reasons was for political point scoring, which was conducted in a competitive manner.
The time was ripe for war as the political condition at the international level became more favourable for it. The US was at a transitional phase of handing over power to the Obama administration, during which time the US was simply inactive, unable to comment and above all, unable to assert any kind of pressure or influence on Israel, which is it’s key ally in the middle-east. This meant that Israel was almost unfettered from serious diplomatic pressures, and that they were free to do anything they desired, without fear of repercussions. Such arrogance would cost Israel dearly in the future, which shall be explained below.
After a series of tit for tat exchanges of air strikes and retaliatory rocket fire, Israel was ready to begin a ground invasion. Devastating multiple heavy pre-emptive strikes were carried out by the Israeli air force, on both civilian and military targets. Such strikes continued throughout the operation. The latest military technology were used to devastate Gaza, and also illegal weapons such as white phosphorus were used, with the pure intent of demoralising the population and the Gazan militants. This would have long term health and physical impact on the Palestinians. It was collective punishment; punishment for exercising their democratic right in voting Hamas. Weapons, which had precision capability such as drones, were used on civilians. This shows that the IDF had clearly intended to maim and kill civilians. Palestinians would receive warnings via phone to leave their homes by the Israelis. They would be told to go to a safer area. But the Palestinians could hardly find a safe refuge. The Egyptians closed the Rafah crossing, so they couldn’t flee to Egypt. The Israelis wanted to create panic by using the most horrifying form of shock and awe. However, the Palestinians showed enormous resilience during the ordeals. The cries of Hasbunallahu Wa Ni’mal Wakil – Allaah (Alone) is Sufficient for us, and He is the Best Disposer of affairs (for us) – were heard throughout Gaza. Indeed during the Battle of the Trench, the response of the Muslims were the same:
‘Those to whom hypocrites said, “Indeed, the people have gathered against you, so fear them.” But it [merely] increased them in faith, and they said, ” Allaah (Alone) is Sufficient for us, and He is the Best Disposer of affairs (for us).” 1.
The Israeli Merkava tanks entered and caused much wanton destruction including UN convoys and institutions, which are supposed to enjoy immunity under international law.
Hamas was greatly disadvantaged, but harassed Israeli forces as much as they could. The IDF did not enter Gaza City, as they knew it was filled with Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and streets and buildings were manned by militants. Instead they tested the waters, and carried out excursions within the city. They faced enough resistance during the excursions for them to not dare to invade the city.
Hamas, knowing the limits of their capabilities spelled out their objectives of the war: to thwart Israeli objective, which was mainly to stop rocket fire, and militant acquisition of weapons mainly via tunnels. They continued firing rockets and mortars towards Israel and also military targets. Hamas footage of sniping Israeli soldiers and successful small operations against the IDF were being circulated around the media. They clearly took advantage of the urban environment, where it was easier to fight the IDF, occupying other buildings. Thus, the war continued in such a manner.
Thousands died during the war as mentioned above. The most notable amongst them was Sheikh Nizar Rayyan, a Hamas official. He refused to go into hiding and with full knowledge that he was about to be killed went to his home which was under constant surveillance from Israeli intelligence and military apparatus. A strike from the air would kill him and his four wives who were previously widowed, and his children. This act of sacrifice gave the Palestinians a message, that their leaders were truly ready to sacrifice themselves to defend their land, that they would sacrifice everything for the sake of Allaah.
Another notable martyr was, was Said Siyam; Hamas’ Interior Minister; a very capable man, who nearly perfected Palestinian security. This impressed even Fatah, Hamas’ rivals. He was also killed in Israel’s targeted killing operations, by an air strike.
“Among the Believers are men Who have been true to Their Covenant with Allaah, Of them, some have fulfilled Their obligations to Allaah (i.e. they have been Killed in Allaah’s Cause), And some of them are (still) waiting” 2
Palestinian spies working for the Israeli intelligence apparatus was said to be passing information about militant movements to Israel. After Operation Cast Lead Hamas made efforts to catch these spies. Many of these spies, however, were threatened by the Israelis, and coerced into spying. In 2011, Hamas executed people accused of spying.
The Egyptian blockade on the Rafah borders helped Israel make sure that they faced limited resistance. It also starved the Palestinians during the war. The Arab dictators recently overthrown by the revolutions had no sense of honour or shame in colluding with their once sworn enemy.
More recently, Wikileaks revealed that Abbas the Palestinian President and Fatah leader was consulted by Israel before Operation Cast Lead. The fact that Abbas failed to inform Hamas about Israel’s intentions have caused reasonable speculations that Fatah even collaborated with Israel on a high level. This shows that secularists are willing to collude with the enemy as long as it serves their interest in damaging the Islamic movement.
Israel faced widespread condemnation from the international community, from both below and above. From above, the governments around the world accused Israel of using disproportionate violence. The UK later cut much of Israeli arms contracts. Turkish’s reaction was the strongest, as Erdogan in the presence of the Israeli President Shimon Peres in the World Economic Forum in Davos walked out after he was cut off from talking about Gaza. This was the beginning of the faltering Israeli- Turkish ties, one of the only Muslim allies, which Israel had.
From below, anti-war movements and protests took to the street in front of Israeli embassies and held rallies. The UK anti war movements held marches at a weekly basis and were protesting in front of the embassies every day until the war ended. Such pressure from the international community would play a significant role in Israel giving up in halting the attacks.
Intelligence reports suggest that Hamas have grown in strength militarily. On top of this, rocket attacks have largely continued and Hamas was still in control. The objectives of the Operation Cast Lead have failed, although it did succeed in dampening support for Hamas, but it still wasn’t sufficient.
Within the period of the blockade, Operation Cast Lead was the worst part. Such blockade prompted condemnation from around the world. In May 2010 an aid flotilla, in attempt to break the siege, voyaged towards Gaza. It was raided with a number of activists killed. This incident would have tremendous impact for Israel and the world’s relationship with them. The main ship was the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish vessel. Most of those killed were Turkish. This dealt another significant blow to Turkish- Israeli relations. Israel has refused to apologise and Turkey has threatened to escort future flotillas with the Turkish navy. Previous military agreements were halted between Turkey and Israel and Turkey began to aid the Palestinians.
2011 would see massive protests and revolutions across the middle-east. Islamist political forces are dominating the region and Israel’s position is becoming more uncertain. Indeed, the Egyptian embassy was stormed soon after the protests, and anti-Israeli chants were heard throughout the revolution.
The leader of the El Nahda party, Rashid Gannouchi of Tunisia has indicated in a speech, that the liberation of Al Quds is at hand. Israel is now being surrounded by possible hostile powers, no longer friendly. This has put Israel on a much weaker position, and the Palestinians have a much stronger position. Hamas have also chosen to alter their strategy of resistance a little. They will cooperate with their opposition and stage uprisings similar to that of the Arab spring which will be a means of founding the Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. Hamas clarified that this doesn’t rule out armed resistance. The revolution also saw the blockade loosen on Gaza.
In September 2011, Abbas spearheaded the statehood bid without consulting Hamas. Abbas’ popularity went up. It was a repeat of Arafat’s (the founder of the Palestinian Liberation Front-PLO) bid for statehood. Arafat’s speech was historic, and Abbas wanted to repeat that, no doubt for party and personal gains. Hamas stated that they will not support or oppose the statehood bid with the UN, and reiterated that the UN, as historically proven was useless on the issue of the Palestinian question. Abbas enjoyed brief popularity. As expected, there was no result for Palestinian statehood. However, it did further isolate Israel, and the Palestinians gained seats in the UNESCO, a largely insignificant body. Abbas was later back to square one, and the UN bid was virtually useless, and his popularity began to falter.
Abbas’ popularity would falter more, and Hamas’ would go up as a deal would be reached on prisoner swap deal. In the following month of October hundreds of Palestinian political prisoners would be released in exchange for Gilad Shalit, a soldier captured by Hamas and other groups in 2006 and since kept hostage. A captured Israeli soldier would often cause political turmoil in Israel, and Hamas managed to force Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Israel to compromise-a great victory for Palestinian resistance.
Victory, not so far away
It is amazing how Allaah Subhanahu Wa Ta’ala teaches us patience. Operation Cast Lead was one such example. It was a situation of David vs Goliath, and we know that this Biblical/Qur’aanic incident took place around the same area. Likewise we find that Allaah teaches us patience by referring to the events of David and Goliath:
‘And as soon as he and those who had kept faith with him had crossed the river, the others said: “No strength have we today [to stand up] against Goliath and his forces!” [Yet] those who knew with certainty that they were destined to meet Allaah, replied: “How often has a small host overcome a great host by Allaah’s leave! For Allaah is with those who are patient in adversity.”
And when they came face to face with Goliath and his forces, they prayed: “O our Sustainer! Shower us with patience in adversity, and make firm our steps, and succour us against the people who deny the truth!” 3
Allaah further says:
‘Nay, but if you are patient in adversity and conscious of Him, and the enemy should fall upon you of a sudden, your Sustainer will aid you with five thousand angels swooping down!” 4
‘And how many a prophet has had to fight [in God's cause], followed by many God-devoted men: and they did not become faint of heart for all that they had to suffer in God’s cause, and neither did they weaken, nor did they abase themselves [before the enemy], since God loves those who are patient in adversity;’ 5
Hence, those who are patient in times of adversity and calamities will be assisted by Allaah. Allaah further says in the interpretation of the verse:
Ya Ayyuha Alladhina asbiru Wa sabiru 6
The interpretations of this are many. One of which is that to be patient and exceed your enemy in patience. Other interpretations include helping each other in being patient. Indeed during Operation Cast Lead, the Palestinians surpassed the Israelis in patience, and hence the Israel were not able to achieve their aims. Allaah has since aided the Palestinians through the revolutions, which would InshaAllaah change the situation of the Palestinians for the better.
During the Battle of the Trench, it was patience in the face of enormous adversity which gave the Muslims victory. It was similar in the sense that the Muslims were under siege and blockade. This meant starvation and lack of sustenance. The various forces and tribes joined hands to fight the Muslims; similarly the political and military forces of Israel would also be united in advocating the war. Hypocrites and spies would cause immense trouble both during Operation Cast Lead and the Battle of the Trench. Because of this patience, the aid of Allaah came and the enemy withdrew, without achieving anything. Its aftermath would see Israel plunged into intractable diplomatic showdowns and squabbles with the world, isolating them further. Indeed, victory is near.
We as Muslims living in the West should do our part in assisting the Palestinian cause in the capacity that we are in. We should campaign and raise awareness about the issues and problems of Palestine, challenge Israeli narrative of Palestinian and history and events, lobby, petition etc. We should remain steadfast and patient in doing this, because Allaah will reward those immensely who stand by the oppressed, and struggles to liberate His Holy Masjid of Al Aqsa. Be part of the struggle, and attain your station in the hereafter.