Foreign Policy Blogs

Candid Discussions: Marc Schulman of the Times of Israel on Israel and Gaza

 

Photo Credit: Israeli Defense Forces

Photo Credit: Israeli Defense Forces

 

Marc Schulman

Marc Schulman

Marc Schulman is an app developer and contributing writer for the Times of Israel. His articles have most recently appeared in Newsweek. He is the editor of Historycentral.com and author a series of Multimedia History Apps and a biography of John F. Kennedy Jr. 

He currently lives in Tel Aviv.

Mr. Schulman spoke with Allison Kushner of Foreign Policy Association on Sunday, July 20, to discuss the current conflict between Israel and Gaza.

_________________________________________

The current conflict has been underway for weeks. Can you talk a little bit about the atmosphere in Israel?

In a way, it is more complicated than any time I’ve ever seen it, because on one hand there is no question that we, have been very good at maintaining a regular life. That was until a couple days ago. We go about day-to-day events and try to act as though nothing is happening. Go get your coffee. Do all the normal things you do on a regular basis. But, that really hasn’t been the case. There is the overlying issue of always wondering when the sirens are going to go off. It sort of defines your day-to-day life.

It’s hard to describe how when you go somewhere, you’re always looking and scanning where you’re going to go if a siren goes off. Am I close enough to a place to go in case the siren goes off? At this point it’s two weeks and exactly zero rockets have made it through to Tel Aviv, but the realization is that you want to be somewhere covered when a rocket attack occurs. Even the leftovers from a rocket can be quite damaging, to say the least, if you’re out in the open.

For instance, my normal Saturday routine has been that I bicycle to a beach to the North of Tel Aviv and walk along the beach for an hour. I haven’t done that in the last two weeks because that’s the one place you can go where there is absolutely no place to hide if a rocket comes.

So, you’re day-to-day routine changes, and you’re suddenly interrupted by a siren that can go off at any given moment. There’s a huge psychological impact. There’s no question about that. Until two days ago when the ground operation began there was an ability to keep a sort of levity, or feeling that we’re not going to let this get us down. We are just going to keep on going, and we’re not going to let them change our lives. I think that once the ground operation began, and all of us know kids who are in the army, or are in Gaza at the moment, the chances of someone getting seriously hurt, or killed, became very real. So, it is pretty hard to have that levity anymore.

The current conflict is often described in two ways, a conflict between Israel and Palestinians and a conflict between Israel and Hamas. Can you talk about the distinction? 

It is clearly a fight between Israel and Hamas.

I think the Palestinians have long ago decided that if they have any chance at all of getting a state it is not going to be through violence. The only way to get a state is going to be through negotiations, maybe active resistance or passive resistance, but not military resistance because every time they have used military resistance it’s made the situation worse.

On the other hand, Hamas is dedicated towards active and physical resistance. During the current crisis, or war at this point, Israel made a considerable mistake leading up to it, because it did not believe that Hamas really wanted a war. Israel assumed at each point along the way that if we just hold back, that if we don’t take action that they don’t want a war, and they will be willing to back down. I think that Israel was taken by complete surprise in this case, because Hamas wanted this war. Their political position and economic position in Gaza had become so untenable that they decided that it didn’t make a difference whatever happened if they could reshuffle the cards they’d end up in a better position. They thought they had nothing to lose.

Therefore, it’s clearly a war with Hamas, because it’s a war for Hamas’ interests. It’s not a war with the Palestinians in terms of the West Bank. It’s not a war with the other Palestinians in Gaza. This war would make some sense, not that I would agree with it, if the Palestinians in the West Bank were rebelling in some form or another. But, in Gaza, we moved out nine years ago. To the average Israeli, this makes no sense at all.

It’s a fight against Hamas’ ideology. Hamas thinks that they can win a long-term struggle and can control all of Palestine. To say it is against the Palestinians, Israel would be doing things against the Palestinians in the West Bank right now. It’s not a fight against the Palestinians. Whether or not the Palestinians support, in their hearts, Hamas, that’s a whole other story all together.

We’ve seen Hamas go down this road before, and they achieved devastating results in the process. What do you think is different thistime?

I think they are in a worse situation today than they have ever been. Remember that Hamas, for the first time ever, has no patrons. They’ve played the last two years in the Arab World completely wrong. They went against Assad, because Assad was against the Sunnis. So then they lost the patronage of Assad, who they had. And to a large extent, they lost the patronage of the Iranians. Then in terms of Egypt, they became closely aligned, which became obvious, because they became closely identified with the Muslim Brotherhood, only to find Morsi being ousted and Sisi and a government that is very anti-Muslim Brotherhood now in power in Egypt. So they [Hamas] have no friends at the moment in the world other than maybe Qatar, and Qatar has money, but they are pretty far away and can’t really do anything for the Gazans. So they have no friends. This is the first time this has every happened to them.

So they found themselves without friends in the Arab World. They have become economically strangled, slowly but surely, and of course they have been spending all the money they received. Instead of spending the money on any sort of economic development, they spent the money during the last two years on building all of these rockets and building all of these tunnels.

So yes, I think it is more of the same. I think they went into this literally with the hope that they could do something to change so much that it would reshuffle the deck. Now, so far, everything they’ve tried has failed. I mean, they’ve fired all these rockets at Israel. The Iron Dome system has been so ridiculously effective.

They had three attempts at using tunnels to infiltrate Israel and try to create a terrorist attack. All three of those failed. So they have not succeeded in any of the things they’ve tried to do. Their new thing is that they do not want a ceasefire because now they are hoping to kill Israelis by drawing Israelis into Gaza. And, they are hoping to get as many pictures as they can of dead Gaza civilians.

Yes. It will end the same way. I don’t see how it is going to end any better. It’s a terrible situation. It’s asymmetric warfare. You have a group of people with barely World War II weapons, who are poorly trained, fighting a 21st century army that’s incredibly powerful and well trained. The result is obviously going to be very clear. There will be death along the way for both sides, and unfortunately too many civilians.

The IDF launched the ground offensive into Gaza with the stated goal of destroying the underground tunnel system that Hamas has created. Do you think that this is the main goal, or are there other strategic goals?

There is no question that is the main goal. That was the immediate reason for going in on the ground. There was a bit of reluctance on the part of the Israeli government to being drawn into a ground fight because as you know you can start a ground fight, and you don’t know how it is going to end. You know for sure that there are going to be civilian casualties, particularly because Hamas wouldn’t allow most of the civilians to leave the areas that Israel asked them to leave. So, Israel was reluctant to do it.

Clearly the tunnels are the first goal. The problem Israel is facing right now is how do you convince Hamas to want a ceasefire. All the way through this that’s really been the problem. You look all the way back to the beginning of this conflict, and Israel gave Hamas 48 hours to stop firing rockets. Not only did they not stop firing rockets, but they started a barrage of rockets on cities like Rehovot and Ashdod. Israel was not expecting that. They expected Hamas to stop firing rockets, because Israel did not think that Hamas wanted to go to war. Israel thought that they would want a ceasefire.

Then there was the Egyptian plan that Israel accepted and thought that Hamas was going to accept. Netanyahu used up some political capital to get his cabinet to agree to a ceasefire. They agreed, and then Hamas rejected it. The problem Israel faces right now is how do you get Hamas to agree to a ceasefire. I think that one of the problems Israel has right now is trying to figure out what its strategic goal is. At least going into all this, the assumption in Israel, and of the Israeli government, was that it did not want to overthrow the government of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Better the devil you know than the one you don’t know. You don’t know what is going to come next. If you overthrow the Hamas government, maybe you’re going to be left with the Islamic Jihad or ISIS.

But, at some point, if Hamas is not willing to enter into any sort of ceasefire, then maybe you’re better off with no government. I think that’s really the question that the Israeli government is facing at the moment.

Israel didn’t want this war. Not that it has really wanted any war per se, but of all the wars, in my opinion, if you look all the way back, this is the first war since the 1973 Yom Kippur War that Israel didn’t in some which way decide that it wanted.  Every other fight, it may have been justified, there may have been good reasons, but ultimately there was a conscious decision that Israel was going to go to war. This is the first war since 1973 that Israel didn’t decide it wanted to go to war. The other side started the war, and the other side did not want to stop.

One of the biggest challenges that Israel currently faces, and the Jewish people are currently facing, is the changing perception among the millennial generation in how Israel is perceived. Can you talk a little bit about this in the context of the current conflict and other recent conflicts? Is Israel the David or the Goliath?

It’s an overall problem that has existed for many years. I don’t totally buy into the change in the millennial perception only in the sense that I was very active on my campus 1974 and 1975, fighting on behalf of Israel and worrying about Arab propaganda changing the younger generation’s perception of Israel. So, I’m not totally convinced that it’s different. It might be, but I’m not totally convinced.

I’m not sure it’s totally new. I think we’ve had it in every generation since the 1967 war. In other words, up until the 1967 war, Israel was the David. There was no question. It was an easy sell: Poor little Israel could be wiped out at any moment. I think that up until that point the sell was easy. After 1967, it began to change. It was the change in the left, where after 1967 the new left turned against Israel. Suddenly Israel was the occupier. Israel was holding down the Palestinians.

Personally, I’m on the left of Israel politics. I’m in favor of withdrawal, unilaterally if necessary, from most of the West Bank. But, I understand some of the dangers involved, because I was also in favor of withdrawal from Gaza. And I said back then that if we pull out unilaterally from Gaza the day they fire the first shell at us, we can level all of Gaza. That’s the way it is. You move out of a country. It’s a sovereign country. They want to fight you. Well when you’re occupying you can’t respond. Once you are no longer occupying, then if they fire at you, you can fire back at them. Obviously that is not the reality. So, we couldn’t do that, and I was quite wrong about that honestly.

This all fits into a larger picture. Israel has been an occupier for a long, long time, and that’s a problem. The problem with being an occupier for a long time is that you have to be able to end that occupation. There are those in Israel who hold on that the land is more important than bringing about peace. Obviously I don’t agree with them. Even from my perspective, which is coming from the left side, I’m not sure that as much I desire peace, and as much that I am more than happy to give up the West Bank, and we’ve obviously given up Gaza already and the Sinai, despite all those things, I’m not sure if we could still reach peace.

How do you solve a problem and convince a millennial generation, or any new generation, who doesn’t have that historic perspective, how do you make them understand the fact that just because we all desire peace doesn’t mean can get it? And if you can’t bring about peace you have to act in your national self-interest to be able to maintain your existence. It’s a real challenge. It’s been a challenge now for forty something years, and I’m not sure how we really change that.

It doesn’t help that we have some really crazy right wingers, and we’ve had a more or less right of center government in power now for thirty years, but it also doesn’t change the fact that I don’t care whether I was made prime minister and king tomorrow morning, even with my left of center views, I don’t know if I could bring about peace.

Hamas’s PR campaign is making waves. From pictures and memes to videos, Hamas is using social media to vilify Israel. Can you talk about how the campaign is perceived in Israel and whether or not is achieving its goals?

It is clearly easy to show the propaganda -to show a kid who has been killed b y a bomb. At the beginning of this campaign they didn’t have any pictures so they were using photos from Syria. It is really very easy to show those pictures. That’s clearly going to gain sympathy. My sense right now is that they are more interested in gaining sympathy in the Arab World than they are in the United States or Europe. Hamas’ biggest problem is their concern that the Arab World doesn’t care about them, which considering what has gone on in the Arab World in the past two years is pretty much true.

If you try to put this proportionally to what has been going on Syria, this is a mild little event. 200-300 Palestinians have died in 12 days, that’s about a day and a half worth of the Syrian civil war. I’m not justifying it, or saying it’s good, I’m saying in terms of trying to reach a certain level of awareness in the Arab media and in the Arab World they have that challenge. They have a challenge in the rest of the world as well.

I said before that we have a 21st century army, probably one of the best armed in the world, and we’re fighting against a group of people with barely World War II weapons. So it certainly looks like Israel is the Goliath.

There is no question that from a PR standpoint there is no way for us [Israel] to come out on top.

There’s been a very strong campaign to publicize the many ways the IDF warns civilians before an attack (knowing, leaflets, etc.). Where does the IDF, and the Israeli government, expect these people to go?

There are two parts to that. First of all, on the most basic question of where they are bombing, the answer is that they expect the people to go out of the house. Yes, the houses are going to be destroyed, but remember that the houses that were attacked previously were the houses of top Hamas military officials. So, the feeling was that they were using these homes as command centers part of the time, and that made them a reasonable military target. If they want to do that and endanger their family, then that’s what is going to happen. They should leave the house. The United Nations has refugee centers in Gaza.

I’ve heard many reports from Gaza and follow the Twitter of a number of correspondents in Gaza who report that people say they have no where to go and they can’t lose their house. I agree that’s a real problem, but on the other hand, their house is literally being used as a point to have people with anti-tank missiles and everything else to fire on the Israeli troops.

War is a terrible thing.

_________________________________________

A week after this interview was conducted, the conflict between Gaza and Israel continues. Temporary ceasefires have been unsuccessful. As United States Secretary of State John Kerry and other international political figures work to negotiate a ceasefire, the international community continues to hold its breath for an end to violence.

 

Author

Allison Kushner
Allison Kushner

Allison Kushner received three undergraduate degrees from Boston University and a Master's degree in Middle Eastern Security and Diplomacy Studies from Tel Aviv University. She has spent time living and traveling throughout Europe, the Middle East, and China. A former political speechwriter, Allison has taught college level Political Science and International Relations in the U.S. and China. She continues to be engaged in public speaking activities at home and abroad.

Great Decisions Discussion group