What does Israel hope to achieve by striking Gaza?

Israel says the goal is not to remove Hamas but to reassert Israel’s “deterrence” capability.

What just happened in Gaza? It depends which version you want. The Israeli one, rapidly disseminated through media, was that it had “elminated” Hamas’s military chief, Ahmed Jabari and attacked Hamas weapons infrastructure to stop the rain of rockets firing into southern Israel. The Islamist group Hamas has ruled the Gaza strip since 2006, the same number of years that the area has been under a crippling siege. The rapid Israeli dissemination, by the way, included army tweets of a video clip showing the moment a rocket dropped on Jabari’s car and this message: “We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low-level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead.”

This “targeted assassination”, which killed at least eight others, including two children, and the subsequent Israeli bombardment broke a shaky truce that Egypt had just mediated. In the past weeks, Israel has killed civilians in Gaza, including three children, and wounded dozens more, while Israeli soldiers and civilians have been wounded in attacks from Gaza. Israel holds Hamas responsible for the attacks, even though most of it comes from other fighter groups which Hamas is struggling to control. Now, the Islamist movement has said that Israel has “opened the gates of hell” and is retaliating with a blitz of rockets – three Israeli civilians are reported dead, while residents in the south have been urged to stay indoors. This could get bigger and more deadly.

The parallels with Israel’s deadly assault on Gaza in late 2008 are clear. Then, around 1,400 Gazans, mostly civilians, were killed in a bloody, 22-day offensive that Israel launched just after Obama was sworn-in as president and just before an Israeli election. Yesterday, Zehava Galon, who chairs Israel’s left-wing Meretz party, described the Israeli government as: “A team of pyromaniacs that want to cause war on the eve of elections.” The assessment is that prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his defence minister Ehud Barak are showing some of the forceful leadership that Israelis seem to love at the ballot box. War, or course, removes other issues – such as rising social discontent – from the campaign agenda for elections taking place in late January 2013. Now Israeli politicians of all the main parties are backing Netanyahu’s strikes on Gaza – to do otherwise, when the war drums are beating, would be tantamount to treason and an electoral turn-off. When Israeli army radio reported the Meretz quote about pyromaniacs, the presenters added that it was hard to believe Israeli Jews were saying such things.

So once again Gazans are trapped in a sealed strip and terrorised by heavy bombardment – from airstrikes and gunships, while Israel has said that ground troops are on stand-by, too. Thirteen Palestinians are reported dead.

But the assault carries more risk for Israel this time, given the dramatic changes in the Middle East. Israel no longer has the tacit support of a compliant president Mubarak in Egypt, nor does it have Turkey as ally. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is like a mothership for Hamas; it has said that Egypt: “will not allow the Palestinians to be subjected to Israeli aggression, as in the past”. Egypt has recalled its ambassador to Israel, while the Israeli envoy in Cairo was also told to pack his bags.

Israel says the goal this time is not to remove Hamas (as was the objective in 2008) but to reassert Israel’s “deterrence” capability – or in other, more stomach-turning words, to strike until it is deemed that the lesson has been learned.

You can find Rachel on Twitter as @RachShabi

A plume of smoke rises over Gaza during an Israeli air strike, as seen from Sderot. Photograph: Getty Images
Ellie Foreman-Peck
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Martin Schulz: could this man bring an end to the reign of Angela Merkel?

The German Eurocrat is the biggest threat to the possibility of a fourth term for Merkel. 

At first sight, Martin Schulz looks like an unlikely political saviour. Thin of hair and thick of waist, the 61-year-old was a member of the European Parliament for 23 years and its president for five. In an anti-establishment age, it was predicted that Schulz would struggle when he became the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) candidate to replace Angela Merkel as the German chancellor in January. Instead, he is spearheading a remarkable revival in his tribe’s fortunes. On 19 February, for the first time in a decade, the SPD polled above Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), attracting 33 per cent to their 32 per cent. The SPD vote share has increased by 12 points in a month. The cause is clear: “Martin mania”.

For months, it was assumed that Merkel would secure a fourth term as chancellor in September’s federal election. The SPD, the grandfather of European social democracy and Germany’s oldest party (it was founded in 1863), had polled as low as 19 per cent. After forming a grand coalition with the CDU in 2013, Schulz’s party was marginalised as Merkel claimed credit for policies such as the country’s first minimum wage. Voters defected to the far-left Die Linke and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The SPD’s future looked to be one of managed decline.

Sigmar Gabriel, the party’s leader since 2009, stood little chance of supplanting Merkel as chancellor. As a result, like François Hollande, he reached for the pearl-handled revolver: he announced his intention to step aside on 24 January after internal SPD polling showed that Schulz would perform significantly better against Merkel. “It was not an easy decision but I’m convinced it was the right decision,” Gabriel told reporters. His judgement was vindicated as public polls gave Schulz an 11-point lead over Merkel (49-38).

The German chancellor’s apparent unassailability owed less to her strength than to her opponents’ weakness. Eleven years after she entered office, voters had grown weary of Merkel’s leadership but saw no viable alternative. In Schulz, they have found one. Having been engaged at EU level and held no domestic office since standing down after 11 years as mayor of the north-western market town Würselen in 1998, Schulz has been embraced by voters as a relative outsider.

Unlike his SPD colleagues, Schulz can criticise the CDU’s record without appearing hypocritical or feeble. He has attracted voters with a centre-left emphasis on redistribution and social justice. “When people see that their taxes are used to give their children a future, they buy into it,” Schulz has said in interviews.

The European Parliament has been a useful platform for his pugnacious style. He is best known for being compared to a concentration camp guard by Silvio Berlusconi in 2003 and for his interjection in 2010 after Nigel Farage branded the then EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, a “damp rag”. Schulz retorted: “It’s not right that this man should be able to trample over the dignity of this house!”

Voters have warmed to Schulz’s personal story as well as his political history. He was born on 20 December 1955 in the village of Hehlrath, North-Rhine Westphalia, to a policeman father and a homemaker mother (he is the youngest of five). Rather than going to university, he trained as a bookseller and was a promising footballer. Two severe knee injuries ended his playing career at the age of 18 and he sought refuge in alcohol after falling into depression. Having contemplated suicide, he recovered to open a bookshop in his home town (which he ran until he became an MEP in 1994) and has been teetotal since 1980.

Schulz educated himself by devouring historical fiction (his favourite writers are John Steinbeck and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) and retains the restlessness of an autodidact (he often works 18-hour days). His bonhomie and blunt manner appeal to voters who regard Merkel as aloof.

That Schulz has come to the SPD’s rescue is unsurprising. He joined the party at the age of 19 and became the youngest mayor in North-Rhine Westphalia when he was elected in Würselen at 31. After more than two decades serving the EU, the attractions of a return to domestic politics were obvious. “People must look into your eyes and see that you are a bloody streetfighter,” he remarked in 2013, as he presciently dismissed Ed Miliband’s electoral chances.

Schulz has disoriented the Christian Democrats, who failed to anticipate a centre-left renaissance. In a mark of how much he has unsettled them, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has denounced him as a Trump-like populist for his slogan “Make Europe great again”. Were Schulz to replace Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to be elected French president, the pair would unite in seeking to impose punitive Brexit terms on the UK.

For Germany’s Social Democrats, the fear is that Schulz’s surge has come too soon – voters could swing back to Merkel and the CDU before polling day. But after years as an emblem of centre-left malaise, the SPD has momentum. Schulz is determined to prove that there are second acts in political lives. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit