One can only imagine the nods of self-satisfaction when an Israel Defense Forces planner came up with “Pillar of Cloud” to name Israel’s subsequent eight-day aerial assault on Gaza. By lifting this metaphor from several well-known passages in the Torah, the IDF sought to portray the operation as a divinely sanctioned mission to clear the skies of Palestinian rockets through an immovable force from above, while also branding its heavily marketed Iron Dome missile defense system. It was a three for one.
Although the Western media quickly renamed the operation “Pillar of Defense” in deference to the IDF’s English-language branding (the proper translation from Hebrew is Pillar of Cloud), the IDF’s shameless invocation of the Torah did not escape the ire of some Jewish critics, including the resourceful anti-occupation blogger Richard Silverstein who commented:
Not satisfied with pursuing war as a political objective to dominate the Palestinians, the IDF has invoked the Torah in calling this operation Pillar of Cloud (as in “By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way”). No, I’m sorry. God doesn’t walk with killers. My God doesn’t want blood, either Jewish or Palestinian.
But as the smoke clears from this latest Israeli assault on Gaza, it has also become clear that Israel’s military operation in Gaza was less about clearing the skies above than it was about using violent force to restore the balance of power on the ground in Gaza, suggesting a much more grounded and prosaic metaphor to illuminate its underlying strategic form and logic.
In fact, during Pillar of Cloud it was widely observed that many Israeli commentators and officials preferred the gardening metaphor of “mowing the lawn” or “cutting the grass,” which the New York Times asserted was the “operative metaphor” most widely used in Israel to describe the Gaza operation. Moreover, the ex-CIA analyst Elizabeth Murray reminded us that this metaphor had been frequently used in Israel to describe its Operation Cast Lead assault on Gaza in 2008-2009 that killed over 1,400 Palestinians, which one hardline Israel supporter at a think tank seminar brushed off at the time by saying: “It’s unfortunate, but every once in a while you have to mow the lawn.”
That Pillar of Cloud should have been named “Mow the Lawn” is made clear by the fact that this was a war of choice for Israel; there was no need for a Pillar of Cloud in the first place, whether real or metaphorical. As is now widely known, Israel’s opening salvo in the assault, a drone strike on the senior Hamas military commander Ahmad al-Ja‘bari, extinguished the prospect of a permanent truce between Hamas and Israel that had been in the works and was well-known to Israel’s leadership. The Israeli mediator Gershon Baskin immediately criticized the assassination the next day in the New York Times, claiming that in the hours before he was killed, al-Ja‘bari had obtained Hamas approval for imposing a cessation of Palestinian rocket fire into Israel in exchange for Israel’s easing of its five-year siege of Gaza: “I believe we had a very good chance of working out a long-term ceasefire arrangement without having this war and I think the outcome might have been better.” The respected Israeli reporter Aluf Benn also expressed concern that Israel had “killed its subcontractor” in Gaza, noting that al-Ja‘bari had played a major role in limiting Hamas strikes and policing other groups, and was the only one who could enforce a ceasefire agreement were one agreed upon.
In other words, the Israeli government of Netanyahu, Barak and Lieberman could have brought to an end the over 800 rocket strikes on Israel this year and the ongoing trauma of its citizens who live near Gaza — which Israel’s ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, later claimed was sole motivation for Pillar of Cloud — if it had only waited a few more days. As the Israeli analyst Reuven Pedatzur commented in Haaretz, “the decision to kill Jabari shows that our decision makers decided a ceasefire would be undesirable for Israel at this time, and that attacking Hamas would be preferable.”
One of the main reasons Israel’s leadership decided it was preferable to attack Gaza than accept a ceasefire stems from its desire to “trim” the unwelcome growth in Hamas’ military capabilities and its increasingly successful efforts to break out of Israel’s imposed political and economic isolation. Palestinian militants, including Hamas, had rebuilt their stockpiles of weapons since 2008, including extending the operational infrastructure and range of their largely home-made rocket projectiles, as well as the suspected acquisition of Fajr-5 rockets that have an estimated 45-mile range. Moreover, with the recent high-level visit by the Qatari emir Sheikh Khalifa bearing gifts of financial support and a more sympathetic partner in Egypt, Hamas was ending its political isolation and had become emboldened in negotiations over ceasefire terms with Israel, demanding a political solution to the ongoing siege.
Yet more worrisome to the right-wing Netanyahu government was that, as the New York Times noted, it was increasingly the case that “many analysts and diplomats outside Israel say the country today needs a different approach to Hamas and the Palestinians based more on acknowledging historic grievances and shifting alliances,” particularly “a peaceful and just negotiation that satisfies the legitimate rights of both sides.” As the respected analyst Rami Khouri commented, “Only stupid or ideologically maniacal Zionists fail to come to terms with this fact.”
Thus, as with its previous 22-day assault on Gaza in 2008-2009 when Israel scuppered a successful Hamas ceasefire in favor of a violent assault, it is clear that Israeli leaders prefer periodically “mowing the lawn” to making a serious effort to reach a political accommodation that might require serious modifications to the status quo: Israel’s regime of domination over Palestinian lives and land, its virtual occupation and siege of Gaza, and its ongoing colonization of the West Bank.
Over the course of Operation Pillar of Cloud, the IDF claims that it targeted and struck over 1,500 “terror sites” including 19 senior command centers, operational control centers and Hamas’ senior-rank headquarters, 30 senior operatives, hundreds of underground rocket launchers, 140 smuggling tunnels, 66 terror tunnels, dozens of Hamas operation rooms and bases, 26 weapon manufacturing and storage facilities and dozens of long-range rocket launchers and launch sites. Israel also inflicted major damage on Palestinian society, setting back the rebuilding from Cast Lead. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights documented that during the eight-day offensive 156 Palestinians, including 103 civilians, were killed by Israeli forces, in addition to the 1,000 Palestinians, including 971 civilians, who were wounded. Scores of mosques, buildings and at least 55 houses were completely destroyed, while hundreds of other houses sustained significant damages.
Gaza’s lawn had been mown.
The strategic form of Israel’s operations in Gaza is, therefore, best understood as a lethal exercise in population management that aims to restore equilibrium to Israel’s ongoing aerial occupation and siege on Gaza. Israel’s periodic wars on Gaza are not between sovereign states battling across a frontier, but rather a form of governance over the Palestinian population that seeks to regulate, discipline and pacify potential challenges to its rule through punishing and eliminating resistant elements, in many ways similar to America’s increasing use of drone warfare and special operations to pacify potentially threatening populations in the far corners of the globe.
Instead of a serious effort to reach a political solution acceptable to both sides, Israel seems to prefer a state of endless conflict with the Palestinians. Like the US shadow wars in Pakistan, Yemen and the Horn of Africa, Israel’s wars are thus becoming a normal and continuous function of state governance, like collecting taxes, enacting laws or even “mowing the lawn,” that is sold to the public as a way of providing “security.” Winning such “wars” does not mean ceasing hostilities but rather managing risk through continuous population management — which replaces ending violence or solving the social and political problems that produce the challenges to social order in the first place. In sum, Israel’s current wars are the deterrence of politics by other means.
The critical question at this point is whether or not the Israeli government will seek to continue this form of governance over Palestinians via the periodic use of violent sovereign force to cut back the eternally sprouting resistant weeds replenished by injustice, or whether it will eventually adopt a new approach to Hamas and the Palestinians based on “a peaceful and just negotiation that satisfies the legitimate rights of both sides” referred to earlier. If not, as the Israeli columnist Amos Harel noted in Haaretz, it will only be a matter of time “until Israel and Hamas meet again,” as Israel will once again reach for its military machine to mow down the threat of reexamining its 46-year occupation regime over Palestinian lands and lives.