The Trap That Is the Gaza Strip

Gaza Strip
Hamas supporters attend a rally marking the Hamas’s 30th anniversary, in Shechem last month. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

By A. Pe’er, Hamodia Military Correspondent

Not one serious political or military party in the Gaza Strip is interested in war between Hamas and Israel at present. Who, then, is firing intermittent rockets at Israel? Some scattered pro-Iranian groups that are happy to heat things up. Everyone knows that the situation is simply a swamp of quicksand — and especially for a humane army like the IDF.

The late Nobel Prize winner Albert Einstein is often quoted as saying that the definition of insanity is “doing something over and over again” — for instance, banging one’s head against the same concrete wall — “and expecting different results each time.”

Not one serious political or military party in the Gaza Strip is interested in war between Hamas and Israel at present. This is because after having gone through several battle rounds in the past, with basically similar results each time, no one wants to come out looking “insane.”

This past week was very cold in Israel, culminating with the heaviest storm we’ve seen all year. The only “hot” place was on Israel’s southwestern border, the one with Gaza, where the warning sirens sounded over and over, rushing the residents to the shelters again and again. Within the past few weeks, terrorists in Gaza have fired nearly 50 shells and rockets at Israel. The fact that no one was hurt allowed the IDF to respond relatively moderately at first, though it soon began to upgrade its retaliation, including destroying an enemy tunnel with several terrorists inside. Still, Israel was acting very clearly like a country that does not want to ignite a war.

Neither does Hamas want war at this stage. Yes, there are some small pro-Iranian groups, the ones firing the rockets at Israel, that would be happy to heat things up. But both Israel and Hamas are aware that allowing the situation to get out of hand can only lead to a quicksand from which it is very hard to be extricated. This is especially true for Israel, which refuses to employ the indiscriminate “scorched earth” policy amid a dense civilian population. As Yitzchak Rabin once said, “There is no solution for Gaza, other than that it sink into the sea.”

There is no question that Gaza is one big trap. Its area is small, yet with one of the largest population densities in the world. It is impossible to wage a war of armor there, and the only way to win a battle is to go house to house through narrow alleyways. A distinguished Russian general summed up the situation as follows: “Not one army in the world could overcome this obstacle without adopting our ‘scorched earth’ approach.” Since this is clearly not Israel’s way, throughout all its blood-soaked conflicts, the only remaining option is that of the quicksand trap: easy to fall into, hard to get out of.

Ever since Operation Protective Edge (Tzuk Eitan), in the summer of 2014, Israel has counted on three factors to prevent another round of military conflict in the Gaza Strip. First of all, “deterrence:” Israel’s military achievements were such that the Gazans remained strongly discouraged from again provoking Israel. In time, however, the effectiveness of this factor dissipated. The second deterrent built up by Israel was Egypt. For their own reasons, the Egyptians wished to maintain good ties with Israel, and therefore established themselves as mediators between Israel and Hamas. But this element, too, is no longer what it once was.

The third factor, the most important in preventing all-out war in Gaza, is Hamas itself. Hamas saw that it was losing prestige in the eyes of the Gaza residents, for failing to provide them with their basic economic needs and for falling short of solving their problems in general. The Hamas solution was to enter again into negotiations with Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) for reconciliation with Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, with the goal of establishing one united government over Gaza and what they call the “West Bank.” In fact, the negotiations were successful, and a new government was formed — lasting for exactly 15 days. Fatah insisted on control over the military in Gaza, Hamas refused to allow this, and the agreements collapsed.

Gaza Strip
Palestinians during a rally marking the 53rd anniversary of the Fatah movement, in Gaza City last month. (AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)

At this point, Hamas decided on a dramatic change in its conduct. It simply resolved that it would stop dealing with military matters, beyond the “caretaking” activities of preserving its strength and preparing for an Israeli attack. “Let the PA take over all the rest,” Hamas said — such as preventing the firing of rockets at Israel. With this, Hamas has evaded what some consider its most fundamental mission.

Stepping in to take advantage of the situation are the pro-Iranian organizations, firing rockets at Israel with abandon and no one to stop them. Practically speaking, Israel should long ago have intensified its responses to these attacks, but it did not. It has sent hints and messages to Hamas that it would soon start responding, but as of now, that is not happening.

The Hamas regime in Gaza is tough and dictatorial, but it has its share of difficulties. This is manifest in the Hamas willingness to even talk with the PA about conciliation. For Hamas does not really want a full settlement with Fatah. It is just that their problems ever since Protective Edge have led them to make concessions that they would never have otherwise dreamt of, in the hope of easing their predicament. Israel, for its part, does not like the Hamas regime in Gaza, and would rather have a moderate government in its place — but when it looks around, the only option is the PA, with all its faults.

In the meantime, Israel continues to build the large underground anti-tunnel barrier around Gaza, hoping to complete it within months and thus neutralize the tunnel threat. At the same time, Israeli security figures are taking into account that Hamas might use these remaining months to start a quick war so that the tunnels won’t “go to waste.” Israel is of the opinion that Hamas knows it will be taking a very large risk by attempting to attack Israel in this manner and at this time, and the chances of it happening are not high. Still, it is a possibility, and Israel’s preparations for this danger are clearly felt on the ground.

Paradoxically, it may well be that the decision will be made in Ramallah by Abu Mazen and his PA, which has recently seen many of the restraints holding it back fall by the wayside. Abbas no longer believes that the Trump Administration, which recognized Yerushalayim as Israel’s capital, can be a fair mediator, and he also fears that the U.S. will cut its aid to the PA of $500 million every year. Abu Mazen is not interested in a violent clash in Judea and Samaria, and he is therefore turning up the pressure on Gaza, hoping that both of his enemies, Hamas and Israel, will bleed heavily.

On the other hand, Hamas is now at a crossroads. It looks around and finds that it has been left with no father and no mother: Qatar is undergoing a crisis with Egypt and Saudi Arabia; the aid from Turkey has shrunk in any event; and it has no interest in being “bear-hugged by Iran” when the latter is killing its Sunni brethren in Syria and masses are protesting in the streets against the transfer of monies to Gaza.

Hamas apparently has no interest in hostilities with Israel, for its own reasons — though if war does break out in Gaza, for whatever reason, Hamas will certainly fight. But Hamas knows, as does Israel, that when the fighting ends, no solution leading to peace or to an end of the conflict will be reached. It will have been just another unnecessary round of warfare, with pointless losses on both sides, leading to no benefit. Merely another round of banging heads on the same wall.

And meanwhile, Israel, without publicizing the fact, has been blowing up attack tunnels of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, and destroying, at the same time, their strategic conceptions of how to defeat Israel, at least in one battle. Their plan had been to develop the ability to massacre Israelis, free imprisoned terrorists, or both — simply by jumping out of tunnels into Israel, capturing communities or soldiers, and then possibly holding them captives until their unprecedented demands were met.

Israel’s series of attacks on the tunnels left strong proof in Gaza of the Israeli ability to strike out at both their personal and operational security. This is a “deep hit” at the hiding places where senior Hamas and Islamic Jihad members hid themselves while using their own residents as human shields. Israel’s electronic success in exposing the tunnel locations and finding the engineering solutions to neutralize them, has brought Hamas and Jihad to the brink of the catastrophe that currently faces them — even as the sophisticated underground anti-tunnel barrier takes shape before their eyes. This is a mortal blow to the “underground” concept that has motivated Hamas to try to bring about, at tremendous expense, a repeat of the Shalit deal. The most recent explosion of a Hamas tunnel left five bodies of leading terrorists in Israel’s hands, to be used as a bargaining chip for the return of the Hamas-held IDF bodies. Thus came to an end the illusion that Israel would somehow agree to release terrorists along the lines of the Shalit model.

Hamas is already having a hard time explaining to the impoverished public in Gaza how its grandiose tunnels project failed so miserably. Following its proud promises of victory and the return of terrorists in exchange for the suffering, deaths and lack of resources it had gone through, it must now somehow explain why the suffering continues with nothing to show for it.

“It is certainly possible,” an important security source in Israel said this week, “that there will be those in Hamas who will try to convince others that whatever time remains until the barrier is completed, must be used for action against Israel while the remaining tunnels can still be utilized before they are neutralized.”

Hamas knows for sure that such action will lead to a new round of warfare, and yet there are still those who support it. They are not many, but they might be able to convince their friends that it is actually Israel that is planning an attack and that Hamas would be well-advised to take the initiative. “And as a result of this miscalculation, we may find ourselves in a war that no one wants,” the security source concluded.

Israel does not want another round of warfare in the Gaza Strip, for it knows that it could easily and quickly spill over into the north and become a multi-front war. In any event, the general assumption is that the next war will be particularly violent. It is liable to lead to more civilian than military casualties, because the real front will be, Heaven forbid, inside Israeli cities. “This will be the first war in which more people will be hit on the home front than on the military front,” official Israeli analysts say, “and our towns are liable to be hit most dramatically.”

IDF Spokesman Brig.-Gen. Ronen Manelis recently made the following, first-of-its-kind announcement: “The next war to break out in the Middle East involving Israel will be more violent than any of its predecessors. The enemy will suffer losses like it never suffered before.” But it’s not only the enemy, he said: “The general level of violence that will be seen in the next war — and its most significant part is likely to be on the home front — will be high.”

Manelis continued that the IDF “is making, and will make in the future, every possible effort to distance the next war as far in time as possible and to prevent it altogether. However, if it does break out, Israel will act very differently than before.”

As far as Israel is concerned, there is no doubt how the next war will end, as the IDF will have no choice but to remove many of its gloves. Despite this, no one wants it.