The war that no one wanted

Israel may find itself stuck in Gaza with no exit strategy.

IDF soldiers move in towards the southern Gaza Strip, July 19 (photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
IDF soldiers move in towards the southern Gaza Strip, July 19
(photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
As the ground war in Gaza continues, the IDF advances deeper and casualties on both sides mount, there is a lack of clarity regarding the tactics and strategy of the two sides; above all, do they have an exit plan should events spin out of control? While the tactical and strategic aspects can still be understood, the exit strategy is more difficult to grasp. This situation is similar to previous Israeli military campaigns of this nature – the 2006 Second Lebanon War between Israel and Hezbollah and the 2008-2009 and 2012 battles with Hamas.
On the surface, in all these crises, we witnessed asymmetrical warfare between a regular army and a guerilla force. In reality, however, Hezbollah and Hamas are much more than just that. They don’t qualify for the usual terms used to describe them – “terror groups,” “militias” or “irregular structures” – they are political, social, economic and military entities that control sizeable geography and also can be defined as state-like actors in the regional arena.
Unfortunately, Israel’s military, and especially, its political leaders time and again either are surprised or confused when they confront the two entities.
But Israel is not alone. This round of violent hostilities, one could say war, between Israel and Hamas is a perfect example of how the two sides miscalculated their moves and reacted to gut feelings, thus slipping into a crisis they did not want.
Most Israelis – even some on the radical Left – share the view that Israel had no choice. It all began seven weeks ago when Hamas activists from Hebron in the West Bank (either instructed by headquarters or on their own initiative) kidnapped and murdered three yeshiva students.
The Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) and the IDF implemented a massive manhunt for the suspects and a simultaneous clampdown on Hamas networks and political leaders in the West Bank. Subsequently, more than 500 Hamas activists were arrested, including 56 terrorists who were released in 2011 as part of the prisoner swap for IDF soldier Gilad Shalit who had been held by Hamas in Gaza for five years.
Shalit was freed in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners.
In response to and in retaliation for the Israeli punitive measures in the West Bank, Hamas in Gaza, as well as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the 17-or-so renegade Islamist groups in Gaza, retaliated by launching rockets and mortar shells at southern Israel five weeks ago. In retrospect, it can be said that Israeli military and intelligence chiefs did not understand and underestimated the anger and frustration their steps would create among Hamas leaders. They recommended and adopted these harsh measures to satisfy the political echelon and the public cry for revenge and punishment.
Once Gaza started launching rockets in violation of the 2012 cease-fire undertakings (already in a fragile state), Israeli leaders could not sit idly by.
Israel initially responded with small-scale and measured air strikes still hoping to contain the hostilities.
It did not work and it was Hamas’s turn to miscalculate. It escalated its rocket attacks and Israel responded with more air strikes. Thus, the slide to war began.
Yet, to their credit, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon demonstrated great restraint despite right-wing pressure calling for a ground invasion and/or the reoccupation of the Gaza Strip (Israel withdrew from there in 2005). For 10 days, four million Israelis experienced a daily routine of running to shelters as 1,400 rockets were fired hitting many cities including Beersheba, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and even Haifa in the north.
On July 14, Egypt brokered a cease-fire agreement to be implemented the following morning. Israel accepted the arrangement and held its fire, but Gaza answered with a barrage of rockets. Hamas blew it again with its leaders rejecting the initiative, calling it an “ultimatum.”
There were multiple reasons for the flat rejection, including that Hamas leaders felt they were humiliated by Cairo, which did not consult with them in advance.
Secondly, Hamas set preconditions and unrealistic demands, such as lifting the restrictions on movement in and out of Gaza; opening border crossings; building sea and air ports; extending Gaza’s territorial waters to 10 kilometers for fishermen and permitting Gazans to cross into the West Bank for Friday prayers at the mosques in Jerusalem. Another reason for Hamas’s intransigency was that it interpreted Israel’s reluctance to use ground forces as weakness.
On July 15, a high-ranking Israeli delegation, led by Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen, returned from talks with their Egyptian counterparts and informed the cabinet that Hamas was not interested in an immediate cease-fire. That evening, the cabinet authorized the prime minister to order an invasion of Gaza, when deemed appropriate.
Two days later, on July 17, the invasion began.
Gaza, with 1.7 million inhabitants, is a small Palestinian enclave on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, about 50 kilometers long and 11 kilometers wide, sandwiched between Israel and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
At about 10 p.m., a massive Israeli force consisting of armored brigades, mechanized infantry brigades, artillery, engineering corps, special forces, navy, air force and intelligence attacked Gaza from the north, east and south.
As is common in military operations, a heavy artillery and sea bombardment preceded the invasion. The war that no one wanted or planned was taking place.
After the invasion began, the Prime Minister’s Office announced that the aim of the incursion was to remove the terror tunnels leading from Gaza to Israel. The tactical-military goals are indeed to expose and demolish the tunnels that Hamas has dug in recent years to hide rockets, launchers and other weapons; provide safe haven for top commanders; and to enable infiltration into Israel to carry out terror attacks and kidnappings.
In the first days of the war, Israeli forces thwarted several attempts by Hamas gunmen to infiltrate Israel via the tunnels. Undoubtedly, Hamas will keep trying. Israel also aims to destroy as much as possible of the rocket arsenal and hit the organization’s military commanders. Israel already has established and controls a buffer zone of one to three kilometers from the border – mainly farmland with a relatively small population – and is searching for and demolishing the tunnels.
In the harshest single battle of any IDF unit since the 2006 Second Lebanon War, the Golani Brigade suffered a heavy blow July 20 when it lost 13 soldiers in four separate incidents, and incurred dozens of injuries, in the northeastern Gaza suburb of Shejaia, including an ambush in which seven soldiers were killed when their armored personnel carrier (APC) drove over an explosive device. The deaths came in addition to those of five soldiers killed in the opening day of the ground campaign.
At least 65 Palestinians, many of them civilians, were reported dead as Israel returned fire from the air and from the ground.
The bloody battle in Shejaia may have been a turning point in the direction of the war. Hamas compared the events to the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon at the hands of the murderous Christian militiamen during the 1982 Israeli invasion.
They hope that international pressure with a tailwind of the terrible images and destruction showed by the media would force Israel to halt its military campaign. However, the Israeli public rallied to support the government and its decision to press on despite the events in Shejaia.
At this stage, Israel does not intend to enter Gaza City, one of the most densely populated places on Earth as it would be too dangerous in terms of Israeli casualties and collateral Palestinian damage.
On the political strategic front, the goal is to press Hamas to accept a cease-fire.
But Hamas plays to a different tune. It already is isolated diplomatically and financially bankrupt. Since the civil war in Syria, it has lost its traditional supporters and sponsors – Iran and Syria. Egypt, led by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has declared Hamas a “terrorist organization” and perceives it as a Palestinian branch of the hated Muslim Brotherhood. Feeling besieged and with its back to the wall, Hamas’s political and more radical military leaders think they have nothing to lose.
They know very well that Israel has no intention of fully occupying Gaza and toppling their regime because Jerusalem knows that if it leaves a power vacuum more radical elements in the mold of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or al-Qaida will move in.
Thus, Hamas hopes Israeli troops will keep advancing, providing opportunities to implement hit-and-run guerilla tactics by using the labyrinth of tunnels built exactly for this purpose. In the meantime, they continue to target southern and central Israel with the 4,000 rockets still in their possession.
All Hamas needs to do is hold on as long as it can – launching rockets to prolong the war, provoking and luring the IDF to move deeper into Gaza, causing Israeli casualties and leading the Jewish state to bleed and bog down in the Gazan sand dunes.
And therein lies the problem. If Hamas doesn’t succumb to military pressure and refuses to accept a cease-fire, Israel may find itself stuck in Gaza with no exit strategy to end the war.