As the latest cease-fire settles in at press time on Aug. 26, the question remains: What do we call a round of fighting that is 50 days long and counting?
It is a serious question.
One thing to consider is that the definition has legal implications. MK Nachman Shai of the Labor Party has been running a campaign to call the Gaza thing a “war” for quite some time — arguing that this definition will force the government to properly compensate civilians for the economic burdens of recent weeks. Of course, calling the “thing” a “war” might have other implications when it comes to the morale and the psychology of Israel’s citizens. If an “operation” is what they bargained for and enthusiastically supported, a “war” is more troubling. In an operation, Israel operates while the other side suffers; in a war, both sides operate and both sides suffer. In a “war of attrition,” as some Israelis have proposed calling the Gaza thing, both sides operate and suffer with no end in sight. In the latest Peace Index poll, the Jewish public was divided “between those who think the government had clear or moderately clear goals before launching the operation (51 percent) and those who think it did not have clear goals (47 percent).” Yet, the longer the “operation” lasts, the less the public will give its government credit for having “clear goals” in mind (or, even worse from a governmental point of view, the public might think that the goals were not achieved).
There are other suggestions for names for the operation (no one still seriously calls it Protective Edge). Fifty days of war leave pundits and analysts with plenty of time to think and with the need to provide new material, so coming up with new names is just one other way of passing the time when they have nothing new to contribute. Still, some suggestions are more intriguing than others. Haaretz’s Amos Harel suggested that this war is actually the “third Intifada” that we all dreaded. If a war is longer than an operation, and a war of attrition is longer than a war, an intifada — judging by past experiences — can be even longer than a war of attrition. And it only ends when the Israel Defense Forces reinvade Palestinian-controlled areas, a move that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems determined to avoid unless no other options present themselves.
In an operation, firepower and ingenuity prevail; in a war, stamina plays a larger role. But now Israel faces something in which patience is the most important form of ammunition. Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said a couple of days ago that “this war is long, as we can see. We need patience, determination and steadfastness.” Israelis are known for many good qualities, but patience was never one of them. And, indeed, the Israeli public becomes less patient as days of fighting turn into weeks, and weeks turn into months. It becomes more critical of the government and more prone to support brutal measures.
For Hamas, ending the conflict in a draw would be an achievement, so patience is its great asset — to sit tight and wait for your much more powerful enemy to become exasperated. Thus, the danger of losing patience is Israel’s greatest vulnerability at this time. But the Palestinians (and other enemies of Israel) often make the mistake of only seeing Israel’s general tendency toward impatience while ignoring its impressive ability to withstand abuse for a long time and prevail. Hezbollah made that mistake in 2006, and the Palestinians made the same mistake when they launched the Second Intifada. Israel easily and quickly turns to edginess, but it doesn’t easily break, and it doesn’t easily give up. Look at that Peace Index poll: “The majority of the Jewish public (58 percent) thinks that Israel should not respond to any of Hamas’ demands and instead should continue the campaign until it surrenders, but a substantial minority (41 percent) says Israel should consider these demands on their merits and respond positively to those that are reasonable from the standpoint of its national security. Another possibility that was presented to the interviewees — that Israel should accept all of Hamas’ demands so that the rocket fire will cease — did not receive any support.”
I don’t know why Israel’s enemies make this mistake time and again and don’t understand that Israel’s lively, at times hysterical, public debate is not a sign of weakness and of readiness to surrender. But, interestingly, in the poll you see that it’s not just Israel’s enemies — Israel’s Arab citizens tend to make the same mistake as they look at Israel’s Jewish public. Addressing the level of national fortitude, “[T]he Jewish interviewees gave a very high assessment of the resilience and unity of the Jewish public (an average grade of 9.0 on a scale of 1 to 10).” The results were quite different when Israeli-Arab interviewees were asked the same question. Arab Israelis “gave a low grade (4.3) to the resilience and unity of the Jewish public.”
It is easy for Hamas to show patience as it hides behind Gazan civilians, and it is easy for Hamas to show resilience when it is forced on Gazans at gunpoint. Israelis — free to speak, complain, criticize and grumble — seem weaker. Gazans, under much more dire circumstances, have to keep quiet, or else. Truth must be told, though: Being patient is relatively easy for Israelis in this war because most of them are well protected, by the Iron Dome and by their bomb shelters, from the rockets that keep raining from Gaza. Iron Dome is also Israel’s patience dome.