An Evaluation of Strategy in the 2014 Gaza War: Part I The June Build-Up
[NOTE: PARTS I, II AND III WERE PUBLISHED IN REVERSE ORDER.]
I now want to write in an empirical and interpretive rather than normative vein. This does not mean that I am bracketing norms, just moral and legal norms. And even these are not eliminated. Rather they are pushed to the sidelines but not entirely ignored. In doing so, I will draw on the extensive diary I made during the conduct of the war while I was writing my blog. There will inevitably be some repetition but it is likely the number will be very small given the emphasis of this blog – or series of blogs since I will never be able to distil my reflections in one blog from the 600 pages of notes and material I accumulated during the War.
There are a number of strategic themes besides the military one in the conduct of the war. There is the propaganda or media war or the war for the hearts and minds of the international as well as Palestinian and Jewish Israeli publics. There is the diplomatic war internationally and the domestic wars both within Israel and Palestine. I will differentiate the latter by referring to them as the political as distinct from the diplomatic strategies. Economic war continued throughout the conflict as Gaza with a population of 1.8 million with a very high birth rate and an estimated 22.5 to 40% unemployment with 38% of the population living below the poverty line. In discussing the military, media, political, diplomatic and economic wars, I begin with two facts to frame the discussion, one military and the second political.
In May, though there were five ground incursions into Israel, there were only 4 rockets and 3 mortar shells fired into Israel from Gaza, a very significant decrease from the previous four months. Second, on 2 June, a Palestinian Unity Government (PUG) had been created. More significantly, the PUG cabinet of 18 sworn in by President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority were technocrats, most with PhDs. Though they had political views and alliances, few could be said to be politicos and none had previously been identified with Hamas. Though Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Culture, Ziad Abu Amr, was born in Gaza, he held a doctorate in comparative politics from Georgetown University, had previously served the PA and was Foreign Minister in 2007. He had opposed Arafat but never made common cause with Hamas.
It appeared to outside parties that Hamas had totally capitulated to Fatah given the loss of its ally, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt under the Morsi government, the effectiveness of the Egyptian blockade and Egyptian President Sisi’s destruction of the Hamas smuggling tunnels, the alienation of its Iranian patrons because Hamas sided with the rebels against Assad, the inability to pay its civil servants their salaries and the general economic continuing decline in the Gazan economy given the Israeli blockade and the ineffectiveness in getting sufficient international pressure mobilized against Israel to lift or ease the blockade significantly enough, though Gazans were far from starving. The new national unity government appeared to have complied with all three conditions imposed by the international community: recognition of Israel; abidance by previous diplomatic agreements; renunciation of violence.
So why was Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu of Israel so adamantly opposed to Abbas forming a unity government with Hamas, especially since the cabinet was such a technocratic one free of any Hamas stain? His own government was a coalition of 32 rather than Abbas’ streamlined cabinet of 18. I think there are at least several plausible reasons. The Israeli cabinet members are overwhelmingly steeped in military backgrounds and strongly believe in the necessity and importance of military force in protecting Israel and distrust the effectiveness of a cabinet of PhDs in the PA to reign in raw power. After all, Hamas maintained its 20,000 armed and trained militias and its 10,000 rockets targeting Israel let alone a number of tunnels providing underground entry into Israel about which Israel seemed to have so little intelligence. The capitulation was a short term political defeat but Hamas was the more powerful of the two entities as a military threat to Israel. Further, the PA had been tamed and was serving very well as a security partner of Israel in keeping the West Bank relatively pacified – or so it appeared – and this reinforced Netanyahu’s and the majority of his cabinet’s propensity to look where the military power resides. The Bibi government gave the PA a choice – either peace with us or peace with Hamas.
This view was reinforced by the backgrounds of the cabinet ministers who, relative to the Palestinian cabinet, are steeped in engineering, business and commercial law rather than education and theory. They are practical men with strong army backgrounds and many deeply steeped in the values of the Irgun and Lehi parties of independence which very much favoured a reliance on the use of force to achieve national goals. Netanyahu had an engineering undergraduate degree from MIT and, as readers will recall, left the Sharon government in 2005 over Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan. Avigdor Lieberman, an open admirer of Putin, was rejected by Kiev University because he was Jewish; he distrusted expertise – as Foreign Minister he had cut off all ties between the Foreign Ministry and Israel’s own Mossad.
Yair Shamir completed an undergraduate degree in engineering while serving as a pilot in the IAF and his family history was steeped in the right wing militant underground. Gilad Erdan, Minister of Communications, has a Bachelor of Law degree from Bar Ilan. Tzipi Livni, Minister of Justice, also has a law degree from Bar Ilan and, although steeped in nationalist politics as she grew up, is the strongest supporter of the two-state solution in the cabinet. Limor Livnat, Minister of Culture and Sport, holds a BA in Literature from Tel Aviv University. Moshe Yaalon, Minster of Defence, unlike many of the cabinet members, grew up in the ideology of the left labour movement and had a kibbutz background. While serving as an officer in the IDF, he earned a BA from the U of Haifa. Yair Lapid, Minister of Finance, was a high school dropout – a product of a leaning disability that was not dealt with. Admitted to a Bar Ilan PhD program in hermeneutics, the scandal over his admission resulted in the cancellation of the program. Naftali Bennett served in special forces, co-founded an encryption hi-tech firm which he sold for US$145 million and then, as CEO of another cloud hi tech company, sold that for over $100 million. He has a law degree from Hebrew U.
Given these backgrounds and views, it was no surprise that Netanyahu’s cabinet pushed the PA into resuming full political and military control over the Gaza Strip. The Israeli cabinet did not believe in using military means as a last resort because Jews and Israelis had evidently absorbed the lesson that if you wait to take up arms only as a last resort, you would not last. For those within Hamas critical of the Hamas capitulation, they now had clear proof that accommodation with either the PLO or Israel was self-defeating. The Hamas way of “resistance” increasingly seemed preferable to many if not most Gazans than the political and diplomatic route.
Then three Yeshiva student teenagers were abducted and killed by Hamas operatives in the West Bank on 12 June, though it was at first unclear whether they were abducted by a rogue unit from a notorious Hebron clan. Subsequently, Israel claimed that they had definitive evidence that the abduction and murder had Hamas economic backing and formal authorization. Netanyahu used the occasion of an ostensible search for the teenagers – and keeping secret the almost certain knowledge that the three teenagers had been killed, to round up Hamas operatives in the West Bank in “Operations Brother’s Keeper” launched on 12 June. It is not clear whether there was a secret deal with Abbas to do this, but the PA security forces in the West Bank initially cooperated in the purge of Hamas operatives in the West Bank. Abbas had strongly denounced the murder of the teenagers, but also subsequently made known his displeasure at the IDF operations in the West Bank, especially when several Palestinian teenagers, one with a grenade and the other two ostensibly resisting the IDF round up, were killed. On 17 June, 50 Palestinian prisoners set free in the Gilad Shatit prisoner exchange (1000:1) were re-arrested. Over 500 alleged Hamas operatives were rounded up. Instead of a limited action to capture the suspected perpetrators and retrieve the teens’ bodies, the response was greeted widely as disproportionate to its instigation.
On 25 June, Sari Nusseibeh, a well-regarded Palestinian peacenik and President of Al Quds University, wrote his own sense of despair at the direction events were taking. Sari, in spite of the conquest of the West Bank in the 1967 war, had an open admiration for the achievements of Israel and was part of that Palestinian and Jewish wave that wallowed in the interchanges that developed between the two communities in the face of continuing hostilities in the aftermath of the Six Day War. In particular, he himself flirted with setting up a Palestinian kibbutz. But in the last decades, pessimism had displaced hope. Though he continued to “see and admire beautiful individuals. Israel boasts so many of them – poets, writers, journalists, scholars, artists – and just ordinary people in ordinary jobs, trying to live their harmless lives,” that “special luster of an idealistic nation to be admired has vanished” replaced by a state made up of “a scientifically skilled colonialist group of self-serving thugs”. As he depicted his despair: “I cannot easily imagine a reasonable two-state solution happening anymore, a solution that will spare Israel that sad future [the deconstruction of its colonial adventure]. Not because such a solution is mathematically impossible, but because it is has become politically unrealistic.” There was still the possibility, he opined, that Israel might yet create “the conditions for Palestinian well-being that can eventually make a settlement politically more feasible,” but he made it clear that he was not holding his breath awaiting the new political order of porous borders, an absence of forced migrations, and a situation in which a Palestinian state emerges that resembles the natural home for Palestinian citizenship.
As if to prove his despair was correctly rooted, the Israeli government on 29 June moved to tighten its control over East Jerusalem. The realists, whether Hamas terrorists or the more cultivated Israeli cabinet, were once again relying on force as the mainstay for solving the tensions. Lieberman was advocating full occupation of Gaza again and the Israeli Air Force responded to rockets from Gaza, this time some by Hamas directly and not from Islamic jihadists, when rocket fire from Gaza hit and destroyed a plastics factory in Sderot. In any case, the argument that the previous 60 rockets in June had not been fired by Hamas held no weight since Hamas had not only pledged to control the jihadis but had demonstrated it had been effective in doing so. The IDF targeted weapons manufacturing centres, underground rocket launchers and “centers of terrorist activities”. Meanwhile Israeli cabinet ministers, intent on sealing the fate of Oslo and the two-state solution, were proposing annexing 60% of the West Bank while granting autonomy in the 40% balance. It was not enough that US Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative had failed but it had to be buried with militant expansionist rhetoric.
In response to continuing and increased rocket attacks by Hamas against Israeli civilian targets, following the discovery of the bodies of the three abducted and murdered Yeshiva students, on Monday night of 30 June, Israel began a full scale air war against the Gaza Strip hitting 34 allegedly terror-related targets. The IDF killed another Palestinian protester in Jenin in the West Bank. If the military defensive offensive was not enough, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon seconded Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposal to renew construction of settlements in the West Bank with one settlement between Alon Shvut and Beitar Ilit to be built on state lands and dedicated to the memory of Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel.
The personal theme of revenge and death had become the core of the resort to violent means to settle local and very personal murders. Hamas and its militant allies had launched 62 rockets and 3 mortar shells into Israel during June and it was not until the end of June that Israel began to use its overwhelming air superiority to attack numerous targets in Gaza and replacing its tit for tat pinpoint attacks. This seemed to be a cautious path given the make-up of the Israeli cabinet, but Netanyahu to the surprise of many came across as a Prime Minister very reluctant to take his country into all-out-war in Gaza. Whether this was because of public relations or genuine fear of getting bogged down in an intense ground war in a densely populated urban area was not clear.
Tomorrow: The build up to all-out war and the enunciation of war aims.