Editor's Notes: A war or an operation?

It will be interesting to see what the courts decide on this issue, mostly because Israel itself had trouble deciding what to call the fighting through the summer of 2014.

IDF FORCES operate inside the Gaza Strip during Operation Protective Edge (photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN’S UNIT)
IDF FORCES operate inside the Gaza Strip during Operation Protective Edge
(photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN’S UNIT)
In 2015, a new TV show aired on prime time on USA Network. It was called Dig, and its storyline revolved around an FBI agent who, while investigating the murder of an American student in Jerusalem, discovers an ancient plot by a group of Israeli and American zealots to rebuild the Temple.
Backed by NBC and Comcast, the show – featuring Hollywood stars Jason Isaacs and Anne Heche – was one of the first times the Israeli government had agreed to substantially subsidize such a production. To do so, it had to match the competition – places like Canada, Morocco and states across the US – which offer around 25% in tax subsidies for film and TV productions.
The decision was made out of recognition that the show had immense potential for Israel. It was to be filmed in Jerusalem and would bring the Israeli capital into the living rooms of millions of Americans. If successful, Dig could also be the gateway for additional movies and shows to want to come film in Israel. Dig was supposed to be just the beginning of a new industry.
After almost a year of negotiations with the government, an agreement was reached on the subsidies and filming finally started in the summer of 2014. But on July 8, Israel launched Operation Protective Edge against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. At first, the film crew wasn’t sure what to do, so they just postponed production for a week. But when the fighting escalated, the crew decided to withdraw from Israel, eventually finishing the filming in Croatia and New Mexico.
Jerusalem Post reporter Amy Spiro revealed this week that the decision to leave Israel cost the Dig crew close to $7 million in unexpected expenses. The network filed an insurance claim, but the company has refused to pay, arguing that the policy only covers acts of terrorism, not war.
Dig pushed back and filed a lawsuit, arguing that the events of the summer of 2014 were not a war and therefore the insurance policy should reimburse the network for the unexpected costs. It relied on the State of Israel which has not categorize the events of that summer as a war as well as the Merriam-Webster Dictionary which defines war as being “between states or nations.” Hamas, it noted, is neither.
It will be interesting to see what the courts decide on this issue, mostly because Israel itself had trouble deciding what to call the fighting through the summer of 2014.
When the Israeli military operation began on July 8, it appeared to be like any of the other operations the IDF has waged against Hamas in the Gaza Strip in recent years. But then, it escalated and continued, lasting 50 days – one of Israel’s longest conflicts ever. Over 3,360 rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel. And the IDF struck 4,762 targets in Gaza, where according to Palestinian officials some 2,130 people were killed. Another 70 Israelis were killed, 67 of them soldiers, as well as one Thai worker.
Despite all of this and the rockets that struck near Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, for the government, the 50 days of fighting were nothing more than an “operation.” It might’ve been longer than the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War put together, longer than the Second Lebanon War and enough of a conflict to get the US Federal Aviation Administration to suspend flights to Israel, but, for the government, it was still just an operation.
Why? The answer is hard to believe but mostly concerns financial considerations. If, for example, the government had declared Operation Protective Edge a war, it would have major economic repercussions for the state, reaching billions of additional dollars in compensation. During the operation, for example, the government declared the 40-kilometer radius around Gaza as an area in conflict, meaning that only businesses within that area received compensation if they had to close down due to the fighting.
The problem was that rockets hit all over the country – including in Jerusalem, Rehovot and Tel Aviv. Business were disrupted. People were afraid to go to work. Nevertheless, since it was not a war, those business did not receive compensation.
A few weeks into the operation, Labor Party MK Nahman Shai petitioned the High Court of Justice and asked that it order the government to define the fighting as a “war” and not just as an operation.
Shai knows a thing or two about wars. During the First Gulf War in 1991, he was a brigadier-general, serving as the IDF’s chief spokesman. It was Shai who went on TV every night to tell Israelis when to enter their sealed rooms and don their gas masks.
When I spoke to him this week, Shai said that his petition was motivated primarily by economic considerations. “The fighting affected the entire country,” he said. “Rehovot, for example, was out of the area and did not get compensation even though rockets were landing there. We wanted to change that.”
While the High Court ultimately rejected the petition, Shai said that in addition to the financial consideration, it was also politically convenient for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to have the operation classified as a war.
“This way he can say there was never a war during his tenure as prime minister,” the Labor parliamentarian explained. “Netanyahu wants to be remembered as someone who never took anyone to war, just to limited operations.”
The problem is that this was not some limited operation. It lasted 50 days, during which time the IDF fired more artillery shells than it did during the entire Yom Kippur War.
I think there are two additional reasons the government refrained from defining Protective Edge as a war.
Declaring the operation a war would make the country feel like it was at war and would have an impact on the national sentiment. Looking at the last defined war – the Second Lebanon War in 2006 – and how it brought down the IDF chief of staff, the defense minister and the prime minister, Netanyahu made a smart political calculation. Wars, he understood, end in state commissions of inquiry that then have the ability to end prime ministers’ careers. Operations get, at the most, a state comptroller’s report.
He also likely knew that people would expect a clear-cut and decisive victory from a war but not from an operation. A decisive victory against a terrorist organization that embeds itself within the civilian population was anyhow not realistic, unless Israel was willing to conquer all of the Gaza Strip.
But why is this important today? First, because Israel doesn’t need an American court to decide how to define its various conflicts. This is something for the government and the people to decide on their own.
But this is also important because another conflict with Hamas is looming on the horizon. The economic situation in Gaza is not improving and as Hamas’s new policy document shows, it is far from abandoning its objective of destroying the Jewish state.
In the summer of 2014, Israel didn’t want a war or an operation. It was dragged from one event to the next. The government’s repeated acceptance of cease-fire proposals and Hamas’s rejection of them all, showed just how badly Israel wanted it all to end.
Being cautious is important, but so is thinking and planning ahead. Israel went into Protective Edge without a clear exit strategy. The cease-fires it accepted made it seem like it was desperate to end the fighting no matter how. Israel didn’t lead; it was led.
This is part of a larger problem in Israel where too often, it seems that government planning doesn’t extend beyond the next day’s headlines. Everything is tactical. Rarely is the planning done on a strategic level.
How we define our fighting is just one symptom.