Elusive deterrence

After the Gaza battles, it is time to reignite the peace process with the Palestinians.

An IDF soldier traverses a tunnel used by Hamas gunmen for cross-border attacks (photo credit: REUTERS)
An IDF soldier traverses a tunnel used by Hamas gunmen for cross-border attacks
(photo credit: REUTERS)
AFTER ALMOST one month of battles, with 64 Israel Defense Force soldiers killed and three civilian fatalities, and almost 2,000 dead Palestinians (about half of them combatants), the third Gaza war (codenamed by IDF computers Operation Protective Edge) is essentially over. At least as far as Israel is concerned.
Israel, declared on August 2, a unilateral and gradual withdrawal from Gaza. It was a political decision enhanced by military considerations. At the same time, the IDF has created a one- to three-kilometer buffer zone along the border inside Gaza where it has set up a line of defense. Granted, should Hamas keep firing rockets, the IDF will continue to bomb Gaza from the air, with a repeat of the ground incursion very much on the table. War and peace are still in limbo.
All these moves are coordinated with Egypt. Israel’s security coordination with Egypt during the operation has been unprecedentedly close. From Israel’s viewpoint, the special relation with the North African ally is its most important strategic asset in the region and the main achievement emerging from this war.
The Israeli decision to leave unilaterally was an act of frustration. Israel, on July 31, agreed to the cease-fire brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, as did Hamas. But the following morning, just 90 minutes into the cease-fire, three IDF soldiers were ambushed by Hamas gunmen – two soldiers were killed in the attack and a third was presumed taken prisoner before being declared dead less than 2 days later.
Until then, Israel had preferred to have a mutually agreed on agreement or understanding with Hamas how to end the war and implement a long-term settlement.
What went wrong? Israeli troops continued to be involved in searching for tunnels, which was allowed according to the ceasefire terms. One possibility, which is not ruled out by experts, is that Hamas leaders or the military-wing commanders played a double-cynical game, seemingly accepting the cease-fire but deciding covertly to sabotage it. A more plausible explanation is that it was an act of a local low-level commander, or even of a unit that was hiding in a bunker and did not know that a cease-fire had been declared. Nevertheless, it put an end to the mutually agreed on cease-fire.
Hamas’s leadership learned to its cost it would pay a high price for the mistake.
Israel’s security cabinet decided late on August 1 that it would no longer negotiate directly or indirectly with Hamas about a cease-fire and any future long-term settlement.
Israel lost any belief that Hamas could be a partner to a deal. It was the sixth time Hamas violated its own acceptance of a cease-fire or truce in the conflict.
Thus, instead, Israel embarked on unilateral action regarding the continuation of its military operation in Gaza. Israel most probably will soon end its operations after most of its stated goals – destruction of the attack tunnel network and most rocket arsenals – are accomplished.
Israel, from now on, will rely on deterrence, believing that Hamas was hit so badly that it will have no appetite to renew hostilities for at least a couple of years. Practically, Israel returns to its simple strategy: Quiet will be met by quiet and fire will be matched by more fire.
By August 4, the IDF had demolished almost all of the 31 attack tunnels it had discovered leading into Israel. Huge amounts of military equipment were found inside, including motorcycles, bulletproof vests, munitions, and rocket launchers, as well as provisions that could last Hamas’s fighters some time.
THE TUNNELS were Hamas’s “strategic weapon” with which it had hoped to surprise Israel and compensate for its military inferiority. Hamas put five years of work and tens of millions of dollars into planning and constructing the tunnels, and it took the IDF two weeks to destroy them.
Additionally, the terror group’s rocket stockpiles dwindled from some 10,000 to about 3,000 as more than 4,000 were destroyed and some 3,000 were launched.
According to IDF estimates, between 800 and 900 Hamas terrorists and operatives were killed. Yet civilian casualties were very high despite the IDF’s best efforts to prevent non-combatant fatalities through the use of precision weapons. The UN said the war had created a “humanitarian disaster” in Gaza and Israel has been widely condemned.
Destruction of the tunnels was the stated goal of the IDF at the start of the ground incursion 10 days after the war began. It started with Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad launching rockets at Israel and the Israel Air Force responding with massive air strikes. Prior to the ground assault, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s motto had been “quiet shall be reciprocated with quiet.”
A senior IDF officer told me “all the goals assigned by the cabinet were achieved.” The reduction in the weaponry also can be interpreted as the start of the disarmament of Hamas – which is another Israeli goal for the “day after.”
The bottom line is that Hamas was severely battered and humiliated, and the heavy toll to the civilian population of Gaza could hurt the organization’s image further. No wonder Hamas pleaded for a cease-fire, which it then violated. The IDF is hoping this will serve as a deterrent to Hamas and bring several years of quiet to the south of Israel.
One should note that the 2006 Second Lebanon War and its aftermath, which at first was deemed a tactical failure and a Hezbollah victory, was in fact a huge strategic achievement by Israel that brought eight years of quiet to the North.
But Israel cannot rely on the elusive notion of deterrence. It needs, now that the war appears to be ending, to reach out to the population of Gaza. Together with Egypt, it must open the border crossings allowing monitored and controlled movement of goods and people, lifting the blockade imposed in 2006 after the Hamas takeover of Gaza.
No less important, Israel needs to initiate a diplomatic solution to the Palestinian problem.
During 2013 and 2014, Israel dragged its feet, refusing to make concessions in the long and irksome peace process with the Palestinian Authority. Eventually, the negotiations collapsed.
Netanyahu (together with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon) conducted the war wisely, cautiously and with self-restraint.
Despite pressure from right-wing ministers, such as Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, Netanyahu and Ya’alon refused to order an all-out onslaught and reoccupation of Gaza.
One can hope that Netanyahu now will shift to a new creative and productive mode vis-à- vis the Palestinians.
Now is the time to benefit from the new alliance emerging from the war. These are the anti-Hamas forces that oppose radical Islamist movements, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, and include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the PA and the UAE (excluding Qatar, which remains the main financial backer of Hamas).
Together with the other actors in the region, Israel must reignite the peace negotiations with the PA. Otherwise, the Gaza violence that hopefully was crushed by the mighty IDF could spread to the West Bank.