Israel's Friends in Gaza

By Alex Joffe
Thursday, November 29, 2012

Hamas was quick to declare victory in the latest conflict with Israel.   A closer look at the price it paid in terms of personnel and equipment shows that its bravado was false.  But the fact that Israel was able to destroy so many installations, weapons teams, smuggling tunnels, and high-ranking personnel, including Hamas’s military chief, Ahmed Jabari, reveals another, less evident fact: substantial numbers of people in Gaza have “betrayed the Palestinian cause,” in Hamas’s terms, and collaborated with Israel by providing it with intelligence.  These people do not “love death more than Israelis love life,” as Hamas would have it.  Instead they represent, within Gaza, a slender, complicating affirmation of life.

Israeli intelligence capabilities are estimable, but collecting precise information about an enemy territory like Gaza poses particular problems.  Israel’s intelligence collection starts in space, where Israeli satellites (like their far more numerous U.S. counterparts) track Iranian weapons moving by ship to Sudan, Egypt, the Sinai, and the Gaza coast.  But these satellites make their rounds only a few times a day.  Compensating for this limitation, Israeli unmanned aerial vehicles can stay aloft for hours or even days.  During the recent conflict, the skies over Gaza buzzed constantly with these drones; more than one reporter likened their sound to that of lawnmowers.  Night and day, electro-optical, infrared, and radar sensors allow the aircraft to see what goes on above ground and, to a limited extent, even below it, by detecting minute variations in heat or soil composition.  The drones detect and jam electronic communications.  They are the eyes of attack aircraft and artillery and can even attack targets themselves.

But what Israel accomplished in its bombing campaign required more information than drones can provide.  There were strikes on 1,500 sites, including 19 command centers, 140 tunnels, and 26 weapons manufacturing and storage facilities, as well as what an IDF spokesman laconically called “hundreds of underground rocket launchers” and “dozens of rocket launchers and launch sites.”  This feat could have been accomplished only with the much richer information that Israel had: a vast, three-dimensional map of Gaza’s every street, block, building, and floor, including names of families, their relationships, and their telephone numbers.  And movements in and out of this maze were not only mapped but to some extent tracked in real time. 

In part, this picture was created by satellite and drone imagery together with signal intercepts, the meticulous monitoring of telephone, cell phone, and internet traffic that conveys, to teams of listeners with powerful computers, who is talking to whom about what.  In this way, civilians can be partially distinguished from “militants”—but only partially.  Israel’s vast targeting lists, which involved hitting one floor of a building rather than another with precision munitions, or knowing just when an individual was traveling down a particular street in a single vehicle, required much more.  These lists could have been compiled only through use of human informants.

That is Gaza’s secret, the one that allowed the place to survive this latest round of fighting: It is full of Palestinians working ever so quietly with Israel against Hamas.

Since the beginning of the Zionist enterprise, substantial numbers of Palestinians have been willing to work with it, selling land and providing information.  Many of them, as Hillel Cohen makes clear in his book Army of Shadows, have done so for their own reasons, such as personal gain, family grudges, social divisions, and a kind of “local nationalism” that aimed to preserve their particular lands and possessions.  Such motivations are still at work.  Gaza is also directly and indirectly accessible to Israeli handlers who collect information from hundreds, if not thousands, of Palestinians.  Some of them, Cohen notes, actually view collaboration with Israel as patriotic, because it pursues a vision of the Palestinian national project—not Judeophilic, certainly, but resigned to Israel—that is marginally realistic. 

Mainstream Palestinian movements are understandably bitter about this phenomenon: few epithets are more contemptuous than “collaborator,” and the shocking recent spectacle of bodies of murdered collaborators being dragged behind Hamas-driven motorcycles sent a clear message (though, it turned out, at least one of those murdered was not a collaborator but an Islamist rival).     

Under this circumstance, the fact that Gazans inform at all is notable; and in fact the extent of collaboration, though unquantifiable, is clearly large.  It speaks to the failure of Palestinian nationalism, as opposed to local and family identification, to attract the loyalty of Palestinians.  Villages and clans remain more dependable and predictable repositories of allegiance than the reliably authoritarian and kleptocratic Fatah movement. 

The fact of collaboration also shows the shortcomings of Hamas’s Islamized version of Palestinian nationalism, confounding easy notions about Hamas’s iron control and the radicalization of the populace, as opposed to the leadership.  Hamas leaders indeed love death, but for other people.  They are happy to consign eager young men to suicide and to contemplate the blood of the children who are sacrificed as human shields when Hamas hides near schools and hospitals to avoid Israeli airstrikes.

The attraction of dying for Islam has limits.  The average Gazan, when he makes a phone call to a particular number to say that a specific individual is walking down this or that street, is embracing life in a roundabout way.  Gazans, like other Palestinians, have no love for Jews and Israel and readily celebrate their murder; but they are not anxious to die themselves.  There remains, then, this spark of humanity, if only the impulse to self-preservation.

Does this realization change the military calculus?  It certainly made possible the most detailed sort of pinpoint bombing campaign.  It also shifts perceptions of the conflict, at least slightly.  But it yields few specific prescriptions.  Palestinian collaboration, however widespread, is hardly a sign of a people who wish to be free, or even free of Hamas.  As America discovered in Iraq and Afghanistan, militarily defeating fascism, religious or otherwise, means little unless populations challenge its patriarchal, theocratic, or authoritarian culture.  Supplying human intelligence is not the same thing.  So, the war continues.

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