Schools in Cairo like to take children on field trips to a gilded military monument just outside of town. There, the students gaze up at Egyptian warplanes and tanks poised on pedestals as if they had been caught while fighting a furious battle.
This shrine celebrates what Egypt likes to call its glorious victory in its war with Israel in 1973.
Of course, the Arab world lost that war. Israel battled the Egyptian army to a standstill near the banks of the Suez Canal. In the north, Syria lost the Golan Heights. But Egypt and Syria both survived, and that has become the Arab world’s definition of victory in its longstanding conflict with Israel.
This may seem little more than a cultural curiosity, a necessary psychological adjustment for a people who have suffered humiliating defeat after defeat over the last six decades. In fact, however, this bit of social paramnesia guarantees that Israel’s instinctive response to Arab aggression can never achieve its desired aim.
In Gaza last week, Mushi al-Masri, a Hamas legislator, stood, smiling, amid the wreckage of the Palestinian legislative council chamber. Around him lay crushed chairs, smashed windows and shattered picture frames.
“We are the winner,” Masri declared. “We are in control.”
A colleague, Khalil al-Hayeh, went so far as to say: “We thank God when we see our houses bombed and our institutions destroyed.
“We say proudly” that “Hamas has won the war.”
Israel, of course, has confronted myriad Arab enemies since its founding in 1948. In almost every case, the military response is something akin to what the United States military calls “shock and awe” — a massive, disproportionate assault from air, land and sea whose purpose is to show the enemy what Israel will do to protect itself.
That certainly was Israel’s primary goal in Gaza last month — and in Southern Lebanon in 2006. That war killed more than 1,000 Lebanese civilians, damaged or destroyed infrastructure and forced one million Lebanese to flee their homes. But Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, proclaimed a ''strategic and historic victory,'' and for several weeks he was the toast of the Arab world. Now, by most accounts, Hezbollah has built up a store of missiles and other arms far greater than it held in 2006.
Israel’s stated goal in Gaza last month was to destroy Hamas’s ability to fire rockets into Israel — as many as 60 a day, more than 10,000 since 2001. Unfortunately, Hamas was still firing rockets even when Israeli troops occupied large portions of the territory. After declaring a cease-fire just over two weeks ago, Hamas has continued firing into Israel, including volleys of rockets and mortar shells over the last few days. One struck Ashkelon on Tuesday.
Israel repeatedly bombed the tunnels to Egypt through which Hamas imports missiles and other weaponry. But almost as soon as the warfare ended, Palestinians and Egyptians began re-digging — taking newspaper photographers along to document their work.
Once again, shock and awe did not accomplish what Israel hoped and intended. Quite the opposite, in fact. Hamas achieved its own key aims. It was on the front page of every newspaper in the world, usually portrayed as the victim. Within the Arab world, no one can doubt that Hamas is an important agent of resistance against Israel. And the group is now taking in numerous new recruits.
After declaring the cease-fire, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expressed confidence in the security agreement reached with Egypt and United States to close down the weapons smuggling through the tunnels. Washington promised to deploy unspecified “technical means” — spy satellites. And officials in Washington and Jerusalem said Egypt was finally going to get serious about stopping the smuggling.
Don’t hold your breath. Most everyone who lives in the Egyptian town of Rafah makes his living in the smuggling business. When the stray Egyptian policemen stop by, the smugglers pay them off. What’s more, asked to do more over the years, Mubarak has fallen back on the clause in the Israel-Egypt peace treaty of 1979 that prohibits militarization of the Sinai. Egypt promised to do more in 2005, when Israel left Gaza, but then obviously did little if anything.
So what could Israel have done that would have been more effective? Israel cannot “defeat” Hamas, without reoccupying the Gaza Strip and holding territory it has brought under control — just as United States forces finally did in Baghdad last year. But no one wants that.
To stop the missile fire, Israel has simply to stop the smuggling. Egypt won’t do it. The United States can’t. That means reoccupying the Philadelphia corridor, that strip of land along the Gaza/Egypt border, and destroying the tunnels. Dig a trench. Plant underground charges. Do whatever it takes to shut down the smugglers.
In the end, a massive show of force works to Israel’s disadvantage. Why not think tactically for a change?