Failure in Gaza

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has long ago become a shouting match over moral superiority. With seventy Israelis and more than two thousand Palestinians, most of them civilians, dead, the latest round of violence in Gaza, too, is being analyzed and discussed mostly on ethical grounds. But as fighting goes on, moral condemnation will likely do little to prevent the next round. Understanding how we got to this point—and, more importantly, how we can move beyond it—calls for an examination of the political events that led up to the operation and the political context in which it took place.

1.

In Israel, endless controversy over Gaza has overlooked one question: How did we get here in the first place? Why, after a considerable period of relative calm, did Hamas resume rocket fire into Israel?

Benjamin Netanyahu
Benjamin Netanyahu; drawing by John Springs

Before the current operation began, Hamas was at one of the lowest points in its history. Its alliance with Syria and Iran, its two main sources of support, had grown weak. Hamas’s ideological and political affinity with the Muslim Brotherhood turned from an asset into a burden, with the downfall of the Brotherhood in Egypt and the rise of its fierce opponent, General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi. Egypt’s closure of the Rafah crossing and the tunnels on its border with Gaza undermined Hamas’s economic infrastructure. In these circumstances, Hamas agreed last April to reconciliation with its political rival Fatah, based on Fatah’s terms. For example, the agreement called for a government of technocrats largely under the control of the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas.

But Benjamin Netanyahu viewed the reconciliation as a threat rather than an opportunity. While the separation of Gaza from the West Bank may not serve Israel’s interest (namely, effective government in the Palestinian Territories), it benefits Netanyahu’s policy of rejecting solutions that would lead to a separate Palestinian state. The reconciliation agreement robbed him of the claim that in the absence of effective rule over Gaza, there is no point in striking a deal with Abbas.

Ironically, it was Netanyahu’s own choices that drove Abbas to reconciliation with Hamas. The impending failure of the Mideast peace negotiations led by US Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013 and early 2014 left Abbas with few political options. Talks faltered as Netanyahu allowed increased settlement activity on the West Bank and they finally collapsed when he reneged on his commitment to release Palestinian prisoners. Realizing that talks were doomed, Abbas signed fifteen international agreements as a head of a Palestinian state and struck his reconciliation deal with Hamas, as he said he would.

Netanyahu, who never had any intention of making the necessary concessions, as his own statements would later reveal,1 was mainly playing the blame game. He saw the reconciliation with Hamas as an opportunity to criticize the Palestinian president and, according to one of the American diplomats involved in the peace talks, his aides said that “Abbas’s strategy showed that there was no difference between him and the terrorists.” As soon as the reconciliation was announced, Netanyahu launched a public offensive against Palestinian unity and demanded that the international community oppose it. His efforts did not succeed. Israel’s friends in Europe applauded the agreement between Hamas and Fatah. Even the United States announced its intention to cooperate with the unity government, much to Netanyahu’s chagrin.

Netanyahu could have chosen a different path.2 He could have used the reconciliation to reinforce Abbas’s position and further destabilize Hamas. He could, in recognition of the agreement, have encouraged Egypt to open its border with Gaza in order to demonstrate to Gazans that the Palestinian Authority offered a better life than Hamas. Instead, Israel prevented the transfer of salaries to 43,000 Hamas officials in Gaza, sending a clear message that Israel would not treat Gaza any differently under the rule of moderate technocrats from the Palestinian Authority.

The abduction of three Israeli youths in the West Bank on June 12 gave Netanyahu another opportunity to undermine the reconciliation. Or so he thought. Despite the statement by Khaled Mashal, the Hamas political bureau chief, that the Hamas political leadership did not know of the plans to carry out the abduction, Netanyahu was quick to lay the blame on Hamas, declaring that Israel had “unequivocal proof” that the organization was involved in the abduction. As yet, Israeli authorities have produced no such proof and the involvement of the Hamas leadership in the kidnapping remains unclear. While the individuals suspected of having carried out the kidnapping are associated with Hamas, some of the evidence suggests that they may have been acting on their own initiative and not under the direction of Hamas’s central leadership. Regardless of this, Netanyahu’s response, apparently driven by the ill-advised aim of undermining Palestinian reconciliation, was reckless.3

Determined to achieve by force what he failed to accomplish through diplomacy, Netanyahu not only blamed Hamas, but linked the abduction to Palestinian reconciliation, as if the two events were somehow causally related. “Sadly, this incident illustrates what we have been saying for months,” he stated, “that the alliance with Hamas has extremely grave consequences.” Israeli security forces were in possession of evidence strongly indicating the teens were dead, but withheld this information from the public until July 1, possibly in order to allow time to pursue the campaign against Hamas.

On the prime minister’s orders, IDF forces raided Hamas’s civil and welfare offices throughout the West Bank and arrested hundreds of Hamas leaders and operatives. These arrests did not help to locate the abductors or their captives. Among the arrested were fifty-eight Palestinians previously released as part of the deal to return the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who had been a captive of Hamas since 2006.

As part of this ill-conceived operation against Hamas, Israel also mounted air strikes on Hamas facilities in Gaza. Apparently, Hamas did not take an active part in firing rockets for more than two weeks, although it did not prevent other factions in Gaza from firing.4 Only on June 29 or 30 did Hamas restart the rocket bombardment of Israeli territory, which it had not engaged in since November 2012.5 Israel retaliated against Hamas in Gaza and a vicious cycle began. Netanyahu lost control over an escalation he had instigated. In his badly misjudged eagerness to blame Abbas and punish him for reconciling with Hamas, Netanyahu turned a vicious but local terrorist attack into a runaway crisis.

2.

In the first week of July, rockets and mortar shells continued to be fired from Gaza into Israel. Hamas still denied any involvement in the abduction of the three Israeli youths and declared its commitment to the understandings reached in November 2012, following an eight-day Israeli operation in Gaza, according to which Hamas agreed to stop rocket fire into Israel in exchange for Israel reopening border crossings and allowing goods to be imported to Gaza.

This time, after the initial operation against Hamas, Israel was clearly seeking a cease-fire, but refused the terms set by Hamas: releasing the rearrested Palestinians from the Shalit deal and easing the restrictions imposed on Gaza since 2007. Instead, Israel believed it could force Hamas to accept the Egyptian-brokered agreement for an immediate cease-fire on July 4. However, that assumption was based on an inaccurate evaluation of Hamas’s position, interests, and capacities, and the mutual fire continued.

On July 8, Israel officially launched “Operation Protective Edge” with air strikes on Gaza. According to Israeli media, one participant in the security cabinet meeting at which the decision was made warned that “Hamas is trying to drag Israel into broader military action. It serves them. Hamas scores ‘points’ when it is hit.” This observation makes the question of the operation’s goals all the more pertinent: What is the purpose of striking an organization that benefits from being attacked?

In 2009, as head of the opposition, Netanyahu attacked then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for his weakness and declared that as prime minister, he would bring down Hamas. Similar statements were frequently made by members of the coalition he later formed. The boasting, however, was not backed by Netanyahu’s policy during his five years in office: not only did he not bring down Hamas, he actually strengthened the organization considerably by releasing more than a thousand prisoners into its hands to free Shalit. At the same time, Netanyahu’s government did all it could to weaken Hamas’s political opponent—Fatah, led by Abbas.

Even as the current operation began, bringing down Hamas was conspicuously not among its stated aims; instead, Netanyahu offered a vague promise to “restore calm” to southern Israel, while Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon stated that “the aim is zero rockets.” Later, Netanyahu talked of dealing “a tough blow to Hamas” to restore deterrence, while some of his ministers spoke of demilitarizing Gaza—a goal finally adopted by the prime minister three weeks into the operation. The Cabinet member Naftali Bennett, who opposes a Palestinian state, said that the goal should be to “forcefully root out Hamas’ faith in its ability to win.” His colleague in the Cabinet, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, said that the operation must “end…with the IDF controlling the Gaza strip.” No one mentioned the destruction of tunnels as a goal.

On July 15 the Cabinet agreed to the cease-fire proposal formulated by Egypt, which was similar to what had been agreed to in the 2012 cease-fire. Hamas rejected the proposal, on the grounds that it did not meet its terms: mainly, “lifting the siege and opening the crossings.” Two days later, thirteen Hamas militants infiltrated Israel through a tunnel near Kibbutz Sufa. In a sudden about-face, the stated goal of the operation became the destruction of tunnels from Gaza into Israel. Since Israel’s statements about its goals were both vague and shifting, it is not surprising that three weeks into the operation, Israeli media reported that “officers on the ground feel that Netanyahu and Ya’alon don’t really know what their objective is.”

Lacking clearly defined aims, Israel was repeatedly dragged into situations created by the other side. Having misread the situation, Israel failed to adequately prepare for Hamas’s response to the arrests and assaults on the organization’s institutions. Instead, the government dallied until it felt it was forced to respond with a broad aerial assault. Even then, it was clear that the government did not desire a ground invasion. That is why it agreed to a cease-fire without resolving the tunnel issue. It was only after Hamas rejected the proposal that Israel launched a ground invasion into the eastern parts of Gaza. Yet again, Netanyahu’s expectations would be frustrated. What was supposed to be a short, focused attack failed to achieve its goals: on July 20, Defense Minister Ya’alon said that it would take “two or three days” to destroy the tunnels. The job was said to be completed only two weeks later.

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False assumptions, miscalculations, and obsolete conceptions robbed Israel of initiative. Lacking clear aims, Israel was dragged, by its own actions, into a confrontation it did not seek and did not control. Israel was merely stumbling along, with no strategy, chasing events instead of dictating them. What emerged as the operative aim was simply “to hit Hamas,” which for the troops translates as a license for extensive and unchecked use of force.

Such aimless display of military power resulted in much unnecessary violence, though it was also true that Hamas rockets were often fired from civilian centers. Under pressure from politicians, the military was encouraged to carry out actions whose primary purpose was to satisfy a need for vengeance—a vengeance the very same Israeli politicians tried to arouse in the Israeli public. One example is the bombing of the residences of Hamas’s high-ranking officials—acts that security experts describe as completely ineffectual. Another example is the careless and possibly criminal bombing of UN schools on three separate occasions—schools in which there was apparently no evidence found of Hamas weapons. This strategic confusion led Yuval Diskin, the previous head of the Israel Security Agency, to say, three weeks into the operation, that “Israel is now an instrument in the hands of Hamas.”

3.

On August 26 an Egyptian proposal for a “cease-fire…unlimited in time” was accepted by both sides. While the details are not yet public, it seems that any stable agreement will involve significant easing of the siege, as Hamas demanded from the beginning. Even President Obama, who supported Israel’s offensive throughout, now says the blockade must be lifted. The deal ultimately reached will probably not be very different from the one that could have been achieved from the start. What the government presents as its main accomplishment is the destruction of the offensive tunnels into Israel. These pose a genuine security threat, and eliminating them would certainly be a notable achievement. Yet it is clear that this was not the objective at the beginning of the operation, and the degree to which this goal has been achieved is doubtful.

As the operation’s objective shifted to the tunnels following the infiltration of Palestinians through one of them on July 17, it seemed as if the threat of tunnels caught everyone by surprise. Only two days earlier, Israel had been willing to accept a cease-fire deal despite having done nothing about the tunnels. In fact, the security establishment was well aware of the tunnels and the threat they pose. Prior to Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, soldiers were killed in a number of attacks using tunnels in Gaza. In June 2006, Gilad Shalit was abducted by militants who entered Israel through just such a tunnel. In October 2013, a tunnel was found near Kibbut Ein Hashlosha, and in March of this year, another tunnel was discovered in Israeli territory, close to the border with Gaza. Defense officials cautioned many times in recent years that the danger of infiltration by tunnels was real, and one high-ranking officer explicitly stated that “the IDF knew of the existence of forty tunnels before the [current] operation began.”

Yet the existence of tunnels was not seen as a reason for major operations. Ironically, the most serious threat to Israel’s security from Gaza (after the successful deployment of the electronic shield “Iron Dome”) was all but ignored until the July 17 infiltration. When ground forces entered Gaza, what they found was a Palestinian version of the tunnels used in Vietnam by the Viet Cong. Since Hamas was out-numbered and outgunned, its strategy, like that of other guerrilla forces before it, was to lure its enemy into subterranean warfare where its relative weakness was somewhat mitigated. This is why some military experts argue that the tunnels should have been addressed not by a large-scale ground invasion, which exposes troops to attack, but by surgical commando operations.

Others argue that the tunnels could have been destroyed on the Israeli end, without needing to enter Gaza at all. A few even say that it was all an excuse—under pressure from the right, Netanyahu and Ya’alon seized on the tunnels as a justification for a limited ground operation that would allow them to save political face without too many complications.

The battle over the tunnels was complicated, costly, and its results remain dubious. Though many tunnels have been destroyed, it now appears that some tunnels remain, and it is close to certain that new ones will soon be dug.6 A former commander of an elite IDF combat engineering company made this clear: “Hamas will resume tunneling as soon as we leave,” “they’ll go back to digging, no matter what.”

Israel’s failure to stop the rockets and to prevent the construction of tunnels underlines the futility of the strict closure of all exits imposed on Gaza since June 2007. The closure had a devastating effect on Gaza’s civilian population, with unemployment now at 40 percent and 80 percent of the population dependent on international aid. Now it has become clear that the security benefits of the closure are strategically negligible. Although it is possible that Hamas would have amassed still more military power had the closure not been in place, its capacities would still be nowhere near those of the IDF. And yet the arms it managed to accumulate, the rockets it fired, and the tunnels it built under the tight restrictions of the closure were sufficient to create a crisis.

Thus, while it is important to prevent the arming of Hamas, the closure is of limited strategic value. Empowering the Palestinian Authority to gradually take control over Gaza and involving international forces in that project is clearly a better strategy. Rebuilding Gaza’s economy could not only ease the humanitarian crisis there, but also benefit Israeli security—as defense officials have stated. Both have become more difficult following the violence of the last few weeks.

4.

Operation Protective Edge has been a strategic failure. It gave Hamas a way out of isolation, providing the organization with an opportunity to show that it could inflict harm on Israeli cities, kill IDF soldiers, and briefly shut down Ben Gurion Airport. Reinstating Abbas in Gaza, as was possible and desirable last April, may now have become more difficult as a consequence of the operation. Despite the heavy toll in human life, the war accomplished no strategic goal.

Yet this is not an accidental mistake. Israel’s conduct throughout the crisis has been based directly on Netanyahu’s philosophy of “conflict management,” whose underlying premise is that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians cannot be solved, but can be effectively “managed” for a very long period of time. This feeble, not to mention defeatist, assumption is not only wrong but also dangerous, trapping Israel in an illusion that is shattered time and again. Yet “control” and “stability” only exist between each inevitable round of violence. In fact, recurring rounds of violence are inherent to this approach.

“Conflict management” means continued Israeli control over the Palestinians in Gaza and in the West Bank, with the inevitable reality of organizations and factions struggling to overthrow that control. Under the illusion that the conflict is being managed, opportunities for change provided by calm periods are squandered. Thus, Israel under Netanyahu did not use the five years of relative calm following Operation Cast Lead—the Gaza war in December 2008 and January 2009—to take any useful action to improve its position with respect to Gaza. The government failed to take advantage of Hamas’s weakness in light of political developments in the region and willingness to make a deal with Abbas. In these circumstances, especially given the desperate conditions in Gaza, the inevitable consequence is periodic violence.

Two alternative approaches exist. One, promoted by the Israeli extreme right, assumes that the conflict can be concluded by defeating the other side. Palestinian national aspirations can be controlled by force on one hand and benefits on the other. Proponents of this approach, spearheaded by ministers Bennett and Lieberman, have been calling for the occupation of Gaza.

Undoubtedly, the IDF, if it undertakes a large-scale mobilization, has the military capacity to conquer Gaza and bring down Hamas rule there. However, this strategy will fail even if it seems to succeed temporarily. Conquering Hamas will not change the reality of Gaza and displays of military might will not crush legitimate Palestinian aspirations. Given the desperate conditions in Gaza, another Palestinian power would undoubtedly rise to take Hamas’s place—one that may very well be more extreme and dangerous than its predecessor.

Moreover, effective control over the entire Gaza Strip, as Israel maintained until 1994, requires a heavy IDF presence deep within Gaza, regularly exposing Israeli soldiers to harm. Israeli control over Gaza will likely be similar to the conditions that prevailed in southern Lebanon before the IDF withdrawal: daily attacks and a steady stream of casualties. This is not a strategy for alleviating violence, but rather for exacerbating it. Ironically, right-wing demands for war ultimately mean making it easier for Hamas to harm Israeli soldiers. History has proven the futility of this strategy, whether in Vietnam, Lebanon, Afghanistan, or Iraq. That is why so few Israelis want the IDF to return to Lebanon or to Gaza. When the military presented the costs of a strategy of conquest, even Netanyahu’s hawkish government rejected it completely.

The idea of “managing” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is illusory, and concluding it by force is a dangerous fantasy. The only reasonable strategy is resolution of the conflict.

5.

So long as Hamas is willing to use terror against innocent Israeli civilians and so long as it refuses to recognize the State of Israel, it will not be a “partner” for peace. But it could be partner to interest-based agreements requiring it to modify its behavior, as many academic and security experts claim. In fact, despite Netanyahu’s being the most vocal opponent of dialogue with Gazan terror organizations, it was he who reached two agreements with Hamas: the 2011 Shalit deal and the 2012 agreement that ended Operation Pillar of Defense. The only question is whether the latest agreement between the two sides, reached on August 26, will be limited, fragile, and short-lived, or a stable arrangement that will improve Israel’s strategic standing for a considerable period of time.

A long-term resolution with respect to Gaza requires changing its political predicament. The only sensible way of doing this is to establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, a state whose existence would be negotiated with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) under Abbas’s leadership. As part of a comprehensive political agreement, Hamas is very likely to agree to a long-term truce, as its representatives have repeatedly said. In 1997, its founder and spiritual leader Ahmad Yassin suggested a thirty-year hudna (truce) with Israel. In 2006, one of its leaders, Mahmoud al-Zahar, proposed a “long-term hudna.” Earlier this year, Sheikh Hassan Yousef, a senior Hamas functionary in the West Bank, reiterated the organization’s willingness for a hudna and said the organization was willing to accept a peace agreement with Israel if a majority of Palestinians supported it. In 2010, in an interview with a Muslim Brotherhood daily circulated in Jordan, Hamas’s political leader Khaled Mashal expressed pragmatic views and willingness to reach an agreement with Israel. In late July, he told Charlie Rose, “We want peace without occupation, without settlements, without Judaization, without the siege.”

All these proposals were contingent on ending the Israeli occupation and establishing a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. They received no response from Israel. Although a Palestinian state contradicts Netanyahu’s ideological commitments and conflicts with his own political interests, a state is clearly in Israel’s interest. In fact, conditioning the establishment of a Palestinian state on attaining comprehensive peace may have been the greatest mistake by advocates of peace.

The historic conflict with the Palestinians will not be settled by a single agreement. Reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians—overcoming decades of bloodshed and hatred—will require a long process of acceptance and forgiveness spanning years and probably decades. The armed conflict, however, can certainly be ended. Israel has already ended armed conflicts with several neighboring countries: with some, like Egypt and Jordan, it achieved comprehensive peace agreements; with others, it agreed to other kinds of accords.

An agreement can be reached with the Palestinians, too: the terms are known and the price is fixed. Whether it is reached or not is a matter of political will on the part of Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Unfortunately, Israel’s current leadership will do anything to avoid this choice, to the detriment of both peoples.

The war in Gaza is, fundamentally, not about tunnels and not against rockets. It is a war over the status quo. Netanyahu’s “conflict management” is a euphemism for maintaining a status quo of settlement and occupation, allowing no progress. The Israeli opposition must distance itself from this hopeless conception and other countries need to reject it. Both must be done forcefully and before violence erupts once more, and force becomes the only option—yet again.

—August 28, 2014

  1. 1

    See “Netanyahu: Gaza Conflict Proves Israel Can’t Relinquish Control of West Bank,” The Times of Israel, July 11, 2014. His press adviser told Yediot Ahronot that Netanyahu intentionally “led the talks nowhere.”  

  2. 2

    Lately, even some of Netanyahu’s closest associates have begun to realize that condemning the Palestinian unity government was a mistake. For example, on July 24, Minister of Communications Gilad Erdan said: “We thought the unity government was a very bad thing. Maybe today we should see it as the lesser of two evils—it is preferable that Abbas oversee the Rafah crossing under Egyptian protection.”  

  3. 3

    BBC journalist Jon Donnison quoted an Israeli police spokesperson as saying that the abduction was the act of a lone cell, operating independently of Hamas’s central directions. He added that “Israeli police spokes[person] Mickey Rosenfeld also said if kidnapping had been ordered by Hamas leadership, they’d have known about it in advance.” A similar report on Buzzfeed quoted an anonymous Israeli intelligence official as confirming that Hamas did not carry out the abduction, adding that “he felt the kidnapping had been used by politicians trying to promote their own agenda.” Rosenfeld later denied the statements attributed to him, but BBC’s Donnison held firm to his version. The former head of Israel’s internal security service (Shabak or Shin Bet), Yuval Diskin, added his own estimation that Hamas was not behind the abduction: see Julia Amalia Heyer, “Ex-Israeli Security Chief Diskin: ‘All the Conditions Are There for an Explosion,’” Der Spiegel International, July 24, 2014.

    Israeli journalist and Hamas expert Shlomi Eldar had earlier surmised that the abduction was the work of the Hebron-based Qawasmeh family, which is affiliated with Hamas but operates independently: see “Accused Kidnappers Are Rogue Hamas Branch,” Al-Monitor, June 29, 2014. Recently even Israel Hayom (the daily newspaper closely associated with Netanyahu) reported that Hamas did not know about the abduction: see Yoav Limor, “Interim Report,” August 1, 2014.

    On August 20 a video was released allegedly showing a Hamas official, Saleh al-Arouri, attributing the kidnapping to the organization’s military wing. Whether it was ordered by Hamas leadership or not remains unclear. 

  4. 4

    According to some sources, until June 24, Hamas arrested terrorists from other factions responsible for rocket fire on Israel: see Avi Issacharoff, “Hamas Arrests Terror Cell Responsible for Rocket Fire on Israel,” The Times of Israel, June 25, 2014.  

  5. 5

    On June 29, the IAF attacked a rocket-launching cell associated, according to some sources, with Hamas: see Jeffrey Heller, “Netanyahu Accuses Hamas of Involvement in Gaza Rocket Fire,” Reuters, June 30, 2014. According to other sources, Hamas began shooting only on June 30, after one of its men was killed the day before: see Avi Issacharoff, “Hamas Fires Rockets for First Time Since 2012, Israel Officials Say,” The Times of Israel, June 30, 2014.  

  6. 6

    According to expert estimates, tunnels can be dug at six to twelve meters a day, an average tunnel taking three months to complete. A former commander of an elite IDF combat engineering company estimated that a five-hundred-meter-long tunnel would take a month and a half to dig, and a longer tunnel would take several months at most.