Moshé Machover: Israel-Gaza – why did Israel do it?

By Moshé Machover, CPGB website – 13 Dec 2012

The success or failure of Israel’s onslaught on Gaza can only be judged against the operation’s aims

This article is an edited version of a talk given to the 8 December 2012 CPGB aggregate.

Moshé Machover

Moshé Machover

In the last issue of the Weekly Worker there was an article by Tony Greenstein1 about the Israeli onslaught on Gaza called “Operation Pillar of Defence” in the international press.

But this is not the name that has been given to it in Israel itself. There the onslaught on Gaza was referred to as “Operation Pillar of Cloud”. Those of you who know your Old Testament well will realise that this is a reference to the time when the children of Israel were wandering in the desert, eventually to conquer the holy land. Jehovah appeared before them during the day as a pillar of cloud (and during the night as a pillar of fire). So the term was obviously used as a propagandist appeal to the Israeli public. But to appeal to the international public it was better to represent it as the “pillar of defence” – which is the one thing that it was not about.

Tony describes the operation as a failure, but he does not state what the aims of the operation were to be. A failure to do what? I happened to arrive in Israel just the day after the ceasefire was signed – it was a short visit commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first issue of Matzpen, the journal of the Socialist Organisation in Israel that came to be known by the same name. While I was there, and also in many comments afterwards, I heard any number of reasons given why Israel went through with this operation. They may all be right: after all, when a country goes to war it is normally an over-determined act, and there are several considerations.

If you want a detailed exposition of the whole background and details of the events then I recommend the ‘Gaza quiz’, composed by Stephen Shalom.2 It is a very informative document, which tests you on your knowledge of events, so I will not go into the details of the background here, except for a few salient points that throw light on the whole thing.

As I say, there were several considerations for the offensive, but one thing is quite clear: that it was a move planned some time in advance. It was not a reaction to some rockets landing in Israel from Gaza, which in any case had been provoked by Israel in the first place. But to see that it was planned a long time in advance we should note that this operation was preceded by the Israeli bombardment of the Yarmouk arms factory in Sudan about a month before, which was briefly in the news.3 The explanation at the time – quite correctly – was that this was a military exercise: the factory in Sudan is roughly the same distance away as that between Israel and the main nuclear facilities in Iran, so Israel was actually testing its ability to take them out.

Israel itself hinted at the time that it targeted the Yarmouk facility because it was manufacturing missiles for Hamas in Gaza. I think that this is correct and that it was also a reason for the bombing – Israel wanted to prevent Hamas from renewing its arsenal, so it could not effectively counter the forthcoming Israeli attack.

Hamas uses two types of rockets – both unguided, both not very effective; they are more or less pointed in the general direction of Israel and land very randomly. One is the home-made, locally manufactured, short-range Qassam rockets, which are little more than fireworks. They can cause quite a fright if they land near you, but the more serious weapon that Hamas has acquired is the Fajr-5 missile, which is of Iranian origin and probably assembled in Sudan, amongst other places. There are several ways of getting materials into Gaza, but the most important one is through the underground tunnels in the Sinai.

Election boost

So what was the attack on Gaza really all about? I think that the most obvious explanation is that it was an electoral move by the Netanyahu government. This explanation is corroborated by the fact that it happened around the same time before the election as Operation Cast Lead did in the last electoral cycle. That attack on Gaza was launched four years ago, two months before the anticipated Israeli general elections in 2009. And this present operation was launched two months before the January 22 2013 general elections, which Netanyahu called before he was compelled to. It was clearly synchronised.

Both Cast Lead and “Pillar of Defence” were presented to the Israeli public as defensive moves. Of course, Israel carries out many low-level provocations – the assassination of Hamas leaders, killing of civilians, use of drones – but these fall below the radar of the international and Israeli domestic press: perhaps they know about them, but in any event they barely report them. Then, when a certain point is reached, Hamas or some other Islamic group is provoked into retaliating and fires rockets at Israel, which is then loudly trumpeted as a pretext for Israeli military action – it works every time. The international media – even those that are not so uncritically pro-Israel like The Guardian – whilst perhaps condemning the ferocity of the attacks, nevertheless say that they are defensive moves in response to Hamas provocations. They may be dubbed an ‘overreaction’, but that is still a form of reaction, as opposed to the reality: attacks carried out as an Israel initiative.

How much of an initiative it was this time can be judged by the information that came out later. The immediate trigger for the last volley of rockets from Gaza into Israel was the assassination of Ahmed Jabari, a commander of the military wing of Hamas.

Now this in itself is provocative enough: Hamas has to respond simply to cover itself in front of its own supporters. But it is actually worse than this, as explained by Gershon Baskin of the Israel-Palestine Centre for Research and Information – a sort of moderate, centre-ground organisation. Baskin had been instrumental in mediating – unofficially, of his own accord, but with the knowledge of the Israeli government – and he had been busy immediately before the onslaught trying to arrange a long-term ceasefire with Hamas. And who was his interlocutor? It was Jabari. The Hamas commander was shown holding in his hands the text for the proposed agreement, to which he was actually favourable.

It was just at the point that a ceasefire was being agreed that Israel assassinated Jabari – not only as a provocation, but in fact to prevent it being implemented. Its terms were supposedly more favourable to Israel than the agreed ceasefire later mediated by the Egyptian president, Mohamed Mursi. Jabari was assassinated in order to clear the way for an attack.

All this had been pre-planned to take place two months before the election. If you look at what happened before the 2009 election, you can see how it all came to be arranged. The Israeli public and even the international public will accept this ‘defensive response’, which, of course, increases support for the government. It also shifts the centre of Israeli public opinion to the right. Last time, the pre-election attack on Gaza was actually initiated by the Kadima government led by Ehud Olmert, which also involved Ehud Barak, and in the event Kadima did in fact win the largest number of votes.

No party has ever won an outright majority under the strictly proportional representation system (which is one good thing I can say about Israel!). The whole country is one constituency and normally the party that gains the biggest number of seats is entrusted by the president to form a coalition government. However, because Kadima did not cover its right flank, there was increased support for the more rightwing Likud. Despite coming second, Likud ended up forming the government, because the shifts in party votes meant that Kadima could not establish a coalition with the right in the way that Likud could.

So last time Kadima failed to get back into office despite Operation Cast Lead, but this time prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu has secured his right flank. There are parties even further to the right than Likud, not least Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) led by former nightclub bouncer Avigdor Lieberman. He was promoted very quickly to foreign minister as part of the coalition led by Netanyahu, who had arranged the merger of Likud with Yisrael Beiteinu.

All opinion polls now predict that this amalgamated party will win by far the largest number of votes in the forthcoming elections. Whether the attack will have succeeded in these terms we shall only know on January 23 – I suspect it will.


But other important reasons for the attack on Gaza have been pointed out. In the first place, it has been described by Israeli commentators as an exercise in “lawn-mowing”. Lawn-mowing is something that has to be done periodically to keep the grass at an acceptable level. Israel was acting to destroy the Hamas arms caches and rockets in the Gaza strip – useful not only as a lawn-mowing operation, but also in the event of Israel instigating a war against Iran: it wants to avoid the possibility of a missile attack from Gaza if there were a military engagement with Iran, which is what would probably happen if and when Israel did attack the Islamic Republic. That partial destruction of the Yarmouk facility in Sudan also fits in with this explanation.

The ceasefire mediated by Egypt was agreed when it seemed that the caches of weapons had been depleted, although they will no doubt be replenished. One way or another, Hamas will continue to manufacture its home-made Qassam rockets and, somehow, find a way of obtaining more advanced rockets from abroad. Then in a few years time, assuming nothing major happens in the Middle East, you can expect more of the same.

The general consensus in Israel is that the Mursi-mediated ceasefire is a temporary thing. It is not at all seen as a long-term arrangement; nothing fundamental has changed. Israel has mowed the lawn and depleted Hamas’s military caches.

Another reason for this operation taking place is the Arab spring, and especially the changes in Egypt. Israel was actually testing the position of the new Muslim Brotherhood regime. Most people agree that Mursi actually came out of this stronger – his standing was enhanced and his prestige increased, when the ceasefire agreement was signed in Cairo, with Mursi flanked by Hillary Clinton – a sign of American approval. And, as Israel is a junior partner of the United States, it has no reason to regret Mursi’s increased prestige.

However, one complication is that the whole episode has also increased the standing of Hamas – an unintended but necessary consequence, since it proved it could survive the attack. At the same time, it reduced the prestige of the Israeli stooge, Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation regime in the West Bank. That led to a toning down of American opposition to Abbas going to the United Nations and obtaining the status of non-member observer for Palestine.

Israel resisted this move in the UN, but the US toned down its opposition and allowed the UK to abstain – there was vacillation on the part of foreign secretary William Hague. Before the operation he was against Palestine obtaining non-member observer status, as was Germany as well, actually. In the event, the UK and Germany abstained. Particularly in the case of Germany this came as a nasty, unexpected surprise to the Israeli government, because Germany was expected, as usual, to vote with the US. In the end the only EU county to do so was the Czech Republic. The only other states of any consequence to vote with the US and Israel were Canada and Colombia – the rest are countries like Micronesia and the Marshall Islands.

Field testing

But I have not finished enumerating the reasons for Israel conducting this operation. An important one, in my opinion, was to test the new Israeli missile defence system, Iron Dome. Unlike its previous anti-missile system that was mainly American-produced, this new, cheaper Rafael system is produced in Israel, with American assistance. The military wanted to test it in field conditions. It is possible to conduct a controlled test – firing a rocket into the air for the system to shoot down – but that is not so realistic. A proper test requires field combat conditions. The reports leaked to the press say that it was 85% efficient in preventing rockets landing in Israel, and no doubt it will be further improved. This is something else that is important for Israel, should it go to war with Iran.

All these reasons for the operation are connected – it was not carried out just for electoral reasons or just to test Egypt or just for lawn-mowing, but also to test an important element of Israeli arms in case Tel Aviv gets the green light from America to attack Iran. Israel by itself, I think it is agreed, is not able to go it alone in attacking Iran – this is why it did not attack prior to the US presidential elections. The Israeli military establishment is mostly against an attack on Iran if it has to go it alone; the Israeli intelligence establishment is also against it, as too is the Israeli public. And the US has made it clear that if Israel acts independently it will not have US support.

As I wrote in an article published in the Weekly Worker earlier this year,4 Netanyahu also has political plans in case a war breaks out, quite apart from the actual conflict with Iran. He may want to use such a war as a smokescreen for major ethnic-cleansing in the West Bank. So winning or losing against Iran is not the only consideration.

But finally, and also very importantly, Israel is one of the major arms manufacturers and exporters of the world. Not as important as the US or Britain, but not far behind. And Israel is very interested in selling Iron Dome, but in order to sell something one needs to demonstrate it. Again, demonstrating it in the field is much more impressive than simply inviting foreign military officers to watch the system shoot down a missile that has been fired overhead for that purpose. So this is also a consideration, as pointed out by the Israeli left economist, Shir Hever.5 Arms are one of the most important export sectors for Israel, along with diamonds and high technology.

So whether this entire operation has been a success or not depends on many criteria. What exactly do you think Israel wanted to achieve? As I have explained, there are many reasons, some of which can only be judged as to their success or failure in the future. In one respect, Israel lost a little bit, in that it was compelled to accept the recognition of Palestine as a non-member observer state. Whether Abbas will use this new status, as Israel fears he will, by going to the International Criminal Court and accusing Israel of violations and war crimes, remains to be seen – I doubt this, as there will be strong pressure against it.

Moshé Machover is an Israeli socialist anti-Zionist activist and co-founder of the Socialist Organization in Israel (Matzpen). He is currently living in London, England. He is emeritus professor of philosophy, King’s College, London University. His most recent book is Israelis and Palestinians: Conflict and Resolution.

All IOA commentaries by Moshé Machover


  1. ‘Israel annexes more land’, December 6.
  2. Gaza Quiz‘.
  3. The Guardian October 25.
  4. ‘Netanyahu’s war wish’, February 9.
  5. ‘The privatisation of Israeli war’.
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