A Braveheart Christmas in the Holy Land
In the big battle scene in the movie Braveheart, terrified whispers ran up and down the ragged ranks of sword-waving Scots that the English were ranged before them with “500 heavy horse” – armoured cavalry of devastating power in those days.
But the wild-haired hero-general William Wallace (actor-director Mel Gibson) rode his pony up and down the front ranks shouting: “We don’t have to beat them. We just have to fight them!”
That was in the 14th century. But 700 years later it seems to be the same cry from the Gaza Strip, where Palestinian fighters allied to the Islamic fundamentalist cause led by Hamas pursue a lopsided battle against Israel, pitching erratic, homemade rockets into nearby Israeli lands, until they trigger a major offensive and start taking the heaviest casualties in 60 years of conflict, from Israel F-16s and Apache helicopters.
The warplane is today’s ‘heavy horse’, of course, but it can represent a far, far superior advantage. The Israelis fly with virtual impunity over the crowded Gaza enclave, picking out designated targets in their own good time, capable of selecting individual apartments in a block if they need to. Should it come to ground fighting, Israel has equally advanced tanks with state-of-the-art optics and sensors, plus plenty of modern armoured personnel carriers and artillery that the Islamists do not possess.
The score in Gaza, to state the facts in the crudest terms, was 300 to 1 dead in the first 48 hours.
Monday was day three of the air campaign. In 1999 NATO found itself in its first war, against Serbia over the conflict in Kosovo. The air campaign was conducted at the safety altitude of 22,000 feet because the Serbs, unlike Hamas, did indeed possess anti-aircraft missiles and cannon. A committee of 19 states, the 45-year-old alliance was a nervous newcomer to actual fighting. It gambled that air power would inflict just enough pain to persuade the Serbs to capitulate. But when that did not happen in the first five days, NATO was in a panic, and facing the unthinkable – an invasion.
Some generals had warned the allies that, if you start a war, you must be ready to go all the way and ‘put boots on the ground’. But they had preferred wishful thinking.
Israel, of course, is no newcomer to war, does not need lessons in the limits of air power, and knows that a ground offensive in Gaza cannot be ruled out. Even if Gaza’s Islamist militants number 35,000 as estimates say, there is little doubt who would be likely to come out on top. But it would probably be on top of a land of rubble, with a storm of Arab and Muslim defiance gathering above the entire region.
As the smoke rises from Gaza, anger and defiance seems to be spreading across the Arab world, fuelling protests and violence in the occupied West Bank, stoking anti-Israel sentiment in the wider Arab world, where the young, especially, despise seemingly weak, or complacent regimes unwilling or unable to do something. Islam is their “rock n roll” now, as one writer recently put it, and the militants of Islam have no moral problem with “asymmetric warfare” — the return of the suicide bomber to Israeli cities, the weapon no Apache or F-16 can stop.
If this is what the defiance of Gaza’s puny rockets begets, then Braveheart’s romantic injunction that “you just have to fight them” could prove to be correct.
(Smoke rises after an Israeli air strike in the northern Gaza Strip December 28, 2008. Israel launched air strikes on Gaza for a second day on Sunday, piling pressure on Hamas after killing more than 270 people in one of the bloodiest days in 60 years of conflict between the Palestinians and the Jewish state. REUTERS/Baz Ratner)