A Bad Stalemate on the Gaza Border

Hamodia’s military correspondent answers 15 questions wherein he analyzes what’s really going on at the Gaza border. Is the situation headed for war — or for an agreement to calm things down?

 

It’s been a difficult week for the citizens of Israel, especially those living in the southern part of the country. Sirens, explosions, rockets falling, dead and wounded in a rapid-fire flare up that Hamas started and which included nearly 500 missiles launched at Israel, and a response from Israel of 160 aerial bombardments, and tank and cannon fire. In Gaza, 880 structures were destroyed, 20 terrorists were killed and 100 more were wounded.

The clash ended with a ceasefire and major celebrations in Gaza, where they declared that “we won the Israelis.”

In Israel, tens of thousands demonstrated against what they called the weak hand of the government that did not respond as harshly as it should have.

In order to understand what happened, and is happening, on the southern front, here are 15 questions relating to the events.

They say that Hamas doesn’t want war. If that is true, why are the terrorists pushing the envelope as far as they can? Do they not realize that at one point it’s all going to snap and a military conflict that they don’t want will break out?

It is true that Hamas does not want war. It remembers the blows it sustained in Operation Protective Edge when 18,000 structures were destroyed, most of which have not been rebuilt to this day.

More than 2,000 people were killed and nearly 10,000 were wounded. If the Gaza Strip is in bad shape now, it has been so since then. A new war, as far as Hamas is concerned, might lead to the end of its rulership, and it doesn’t want that. But it continues to operate in a way that is bringing the conflict to the brink, because it is reading the winds in Israel — namely, the Israeli government—which will do everything to prevent a war.

Had they thought that Israel wanted war, they would be much more cautious. And the one who understands that better than any Israeli leader is the new head of Hamas, Yichye Sinawar, who sat in Israeli prisons for 22 years.

He speaks Hebrew and understands that the Jewish mindset is not to want war. And knowing that the Israeli side will do everything to prevent war, he allows himself to raise more and more demands for concessions, to bring in fuel, electricity, food and money to the Strip and, from time to time, he also fires off rockets in various directions.

What does he gain from that?

The Hamas leadership gains from the fact that Gaza residents live in an atmosphere of conflict with Israel. Their leadership has whom to blame for their problems and their difficult financial situation, and the public does not ask them the real questions that in a state of calm would be directed at the Hamas leadership, who does not take care of them like they are supposed to, and who is to blame for the dire situation.

And that is the reason for the demonstrations on the border? The burning tires? The dispatch of incendiary kites that burn Israel’s fields?

That’s part of the reason. It is of course connected to what we said earlier regarding Hamas’s desire to rule, and that stems from the fact that the demonstrations and fire balloons are being done at the direction of the Iranians, who pay them for it via cash transfers. All the Iranians want is for Hamas to pressure the Israelis on their southern border so that they should pay less attention to the northern border, where Iran has real interests.

And Israel cannot handle both fronts at once, north and south?

That is the feeling that Iran and Israel’s enemies are trying to disseminate for many years, based on the thesis that Israel doesn’t have the power to conduct two wars at once—with Hezbollah and Iran on the northern border and with Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the south.

And is that correct?

In reality, aside from the Yom Kippur War, Israel has been virtually untested on two fronts. The assumption is that it would be impossible to manage a double war. It will be harder and more complicated for a small state that needs to put up two fronts at once. But Israel is preparing for this option and is readying forces for the northern border and forces for the southern border, if and when it will be necessary to fight on two fronts at once.

Back to the conflict with Hamas: The terror organization began to harass Israel with demonstrations and burning fields more than seven months ago. Wouldn’t it have been worthwhile to stop this harassment already and spare the suffering of these months for thousands of Israeli citizens living in close proximity to the border? Perhaps if we would have taken action then, it would have prevented the current situation?

That’s a hindsight question. It is certainly possible that if they would have worked then, the situation would have been different today. At the time, they thought that it would stop, but reality has shown that it didn’t happen.

And is it possible to explain why the Israeli leadership spoke so openly these months about its lack of interest in going to war with Hamas?

The answer is simple. First of all, when you go out to a significant round of fighting, it is very important to choose a realistic and defined goal that is obtainable. Second, they need to take into account several other facts on the ground. Israel is not interested in going back to controlling Gaza and managing the lives of two million Gazans. It is clear that even after a hard round of battle, there still will remain in Gaza two million Palestinian civilians. They will not disappear. They are not going anywhere, and no Arab nation is volunteering to take them and worry about them. Israel already today is accused by three-quarters of the world for not taking care of the Palestinians in Gaza, even though it doesn’t owe them anything. Now, let us imagine that Israel captures the Gaza Strip, and gets strapped with two million Gazans who need food, electricity, water, homes, education, health care, everything. Israel doesn’t want to capture Gaza, nor does it want to have to deal with this huge problem.

So maybe Israel should go to war in the Strip and then restore control to the Palestinian Authority, under Abu Mazen?

It looks good on paper, but in reality the Gaza population is largely hostile to Abu Mazen and his people, and will not agree that the Israeli army should liquidate an elected leadership like Hamas and install the PA instead. The PA will also not be ready to take over in this case, because it will be viewed as an illegitimate rulership that is only there “because of the occupation.” Even if it would be possible for the PA to be installed in Gaza after a military operation, it will not be able to control the area the way Hamas does today. Gaza has many radical groups and armed gangs. Lacking a strong ruling force, such as Hamas, chaos will reign. In such a case, Israel will pay a much higher price for its actions. It will pay a bloody price during the actual takeover, in battles where many soldiers will fall and a war that will cost a fortune. Ultimately, it will be in the exact same situation it is in today, if not worse.

Already at this point, before a single bullet is fired, Israel is in a trap. On the one hand, it wants a strong leadership in Gaza to be a single address for everything, and on the other hand, it does not want this leadership to have military capabilities that can threaten Israel. Such a creature does not exist in the Gaza Strip. Hamas’ military power is a significant part of its power base and one of the reasons it has grassroots support.

Is toppling the Hamas regime something that is even possible for Israel to do, militarily?

It is definitely a goal that the IDF can achieve. But then the question is what happens the day after. And that is what Binyamin Netanyahu and most of Israel’s cabinet members ask themselves —aloud. Does Israel want a situation where there is gang rule in Gaza, or to manage the lives of two million Gazans? The answer is an unequivocal no. Israel doesn’t want that, and therefore it is ready to go to one ceasefire after another, and Yerushalayim is grasping onto the rulership of Hamas, which for Israel, is the lesser of two evils.

And aren’t there members of Israel’s cabinet, army commanders and citizens who are pushing for a “Protective Edge 2”?

There certainly are, in all the groups that you mentioned: in the government, the army and in the civilian sector. But on the other side are PM Netanyahu and most of the ministers and generals in the army who immediately present the question of what will be achieved. Hamas recovered relatively fast from Protective Edge, and today it has a larger and better arsenal than it had then. The price of a Protective Edge 2 will be higher than the first round, for Israel as well. Again we will have to deal with dead and wounded, and, potentially, captives. Life in Israel might be paralyzed for weeks, if not months, and in the end, Israel and Hamas will go back to the framework of understandings and agreements that were reached after the operation four years ago.

So what is the solution?

The solution is an interim solution in any case, until a broader agreement can be reached at some point in the distant future. And until then, these are talks that are mediated by Egypt, together with U.N. representatives and others, who are offering an agreement in three stages. The first stage is the declaration of calm at the borders. Then, the Israeli captives and MIAs will be returned, and in the third stage, a five- or ten-year agreement will be reached that will enable Israel to end parts of the siege on Gaza that it currently has.

The first stage that is now being negotiated is based on those understandings achieved at the end of Protective Edge. That is without another round of fighting. No one is guaranteeing how long this deterrent will hold for. What needs to be considered is the price that Israel will pay for this deterrence, and how long it will last, both with a military conflict and with an arrangement that, as of now, will cost much less than a new war. That is the compilation of reasons that brings Israel to try and reach an agreement at almost any price, without forgetting that the central problem Israel is dealing with now is the Iranian and Hezbollah threat on the northern border, which is what the Israeli leadership and military are focused on.

So what happened this week that made things flare up more than at previous times and led to this clash, specifically now?

The tension between the two sides is not new. It has continued for many months. During the last week, a secret military force entered Gaza for a covert operation, whose goals cannot be discussed. The raid got botched when the Israeli soldiers, disguised as Gazan civilians, were discovered by Hamas operatives. This happened three kilometers into Gaza. A mighty gunfight broke out between the two sides. The Israelis killed seven Hamas terrorists, including a senior operative. An Israeli officer with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel was killed and another soldier was wounded. The force alerted the Air Force, which provided heavy bombardment around them so that more terrorists would not arrive at the scene.

Meanwhile, the soldiers went back into their vehicle and began to drive, but they encountered a Hamas roadblock, and again there was a gunfight. At the end, with a lot of levelheaded action and chasdei Shamayim, the force reached an open field. The planes above kept bombarding around them to prevent Hamas terrorists from getting close, and an Israeli helicopter landed in the field and quickly airlifted the soldiers, who were carrying a dead officer and a wounded soldier, back to Israel.

Hamas felt like it had sustained a blow from the fact that Israeli soldiers entered their territory and killed seven of their people. In response, they began firing missiles at Israel. Israel responded with aerial bombardments, and, like ping pong, each side kept hitting the other.

The clash concluded with 466 Hamas missiles being fired into Israel, and with Israel conducting 150 aerial bombardments on Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror targets. The lives of half a million Israelis were frozen. The atmosphere felt like the brink of war. Hamas fired a missile at an Israeli bus; miraculously only one person was injured. In Ashkelon, nearly 100 homes were damaged. Two people were killed and nearly 60 people were injured.

The Israeli response was harsh. The Air Force bombarded many multistory buildings that Hamas occupied in Gaza. Many of their bases and military installations were destroyed.

Did Hamas succeed in surprising Israel during this round of fighting?

Yes indeed, even though it was very brief — less than 48 hours but very intense, with massive rocket fire. Where were the surprises? In many places. First of all, Hamas, who on an average day in Protective Edge reached a peak of 240 rockets a day, proved this time that it can send in one day double that number — 466 missiles. And that means that the terror organization has today 20,000 missiles, compared to just 5,000 missiles which it had then, and that was just four years ago.

The other thing that Hamas surprised Israel with was that it was able to challenge the IDF Iron Dome batteries. How did it do that? By firing dozens of missiles within a few minutes towards one target, thus making it hard for Israel’s defense system to be effective, upon which so many hopes were pinned. It seems that the active protection by systems that use anti-missile missiles such as Iron Dome, David’s Sling, the Arrow and the like, seem to have maximized their abilities.

The third surprise of Hamas was the new “card” that it pulled out, and that is the new kind of rocket-propelled grenade that was not known about, which are equipped with huge warheads of 150 to 200 kilograms of explosives. They are able to destroy entire streets in towns near the border, and they can also chalilah harm outposts and kill many soldiers in the staging areas.

Another surprise that Hamas pulled out was the Cornet missile that Israel knew existed among the terrorists. Israel did not properly estimate that they are able to prepare it in secret and fire it at a bus of Israeli soldiers traveling near the border, or to dispatch it with such precision. But this is where the miracle happened: The bus brought fifty soldiers from the Nachal Hachareidi unit to the border to shore up the forces there. They got off the bus, and a moment after the last one got off, the missile hit the bus and exploded it. One soldier who remained outside was badly injured. The rest were miraculously spared.

Then Hamas came and appealed to four international entities and asked for a ceasefire. The Israeli security cabinet convened, discussed it for seven hours and decided. It was not officially stated that it had decided on a ceasefire, but practically, that was the decision. But who got what it wanted to in this round? Is it not a Hamas victory?

Good question.

We need to admit that the ceasefire this time was actually dictated by Hamas. It determined the timing and announced it first, and directed things as they wanted to. The security cabinet discussed for seven hours the proposals that the four different mediators brought to Israel regarding a ceasefire. Those included Egypt, Norway, the U.N. and Qatar. At the cabinet meeting almost all the ministers spoke and expressed different opinions. They all said that war is a bad thing, but there were ministers who said that in this situation there is no choice but to give the army the leeway to act further against the aggressors.

But the feeling was that the ministers all wanted this conflict not to expand to an all-out war. At the end of the meeting, Prime Minister Netanyahu suggested that a vote should not be held, and that he would summarize what he felt was the upshot of the meeting. The ministers were quiet and Netanyahu summarized by saying that “I understand that no one wants an escalation into war, and therefore, I declare that if the enemy stops the fire, and returns to carrying out the understandings reached at the end of Protective Edge, we will not continue firing.”

Are there any objections to what I just said? Netanyahu asked.

There were none. Each one of the ministers realized that it is better to remain with what he said at the discussion. Netanyahu’s conclusion was largely that of the defense establishment, which suggested to Netanyahu even before the meeting to lead towards calming the situation, if Israel would receive a promise from Hamas and Islamic Jihad that they would stop firing and return to the old understandings. According to those security sources, the feeling among the defense establishment is that the blow administered to the terror groups was big enough, and that Hamas got down on all fours in order to obtain a ceasefire.
Many of Israel’s civilians went out to demonstrate against the ceasefire agreement. “This was not revenge,” the signs said.

“I can understand the desire for revenge and the need to ‘give it back to them’ and ‘they only understand force,’” one senior security source said. “But we need to act from our minds, not our guts. As long as there is no real and good alternative for Israel to the current Hamas rule, the option of a war in Gaza really needs to be the last possible option. I think that we are not yet there and there is a good chance that the agreement to calm things down will be more effective and cost less as far as Israel is concerned,” this official said.

And for those who are worried what will be if the calm fails and doesn’t hold, the senior source said that a decision can always be made to launch a full fledged conflict. Perhaps the timing will be better and the decision to do so will be more justified and have more support all around. It is possible to understand Israel’s civilians who are demonstrating with the claim that this was a missed opportunity and that we could have gotten more out of the enemy. But we can also understand those who don’t want war because we all know the price.

So what are you conclusions about what happened?

It ended with a stalemate. And a tie is bad for Israel, especially when it is achieved with a terrorist group that is annoying and marginal. But let us not delude ourselves. Nothing is over, and, sooner or later, we will turn our eyes to the southern front once again, as we have not heard the last word yet from there. And if I may predict, it will be earlier than everyone thinks. And then, apparently, Israel will not have too many choices. With all its desire to avoid conflict, it will have to enter a real military operation.