Strategy in the 2014 Gaza War: Part II July 1-8
[NOTE: PARTS I, II AND III WERE PUBLISHED IN REVERSE ORDER.]
What were the Netanyahu’s government’s war aims? Why did it respond to the rocket and mortar attacks with massive firepower instead of just knocking the missives down or letting them fall helplessly into empty spaces or, at a second level, returning tit for tat rocket fire aimed at military rather than civilian targets used for military purposes? Such a more modest military goal, after all, would have retained the large and unusual international public support, at least in the West, for exercising restraint in the face of severe provocation. Israel, however, said it wanted to destroy Hamas’ ability to send rockets at Israel because sometimes they did hit targets and at all times were devastating to the lives of Israeli civilians.
But these rockets were no longer just imported; they were being manufactured within Gaza. That would require destroying the manufacturing centres of weapons usually hidden and located in densely populated areas. Their elimination would require a significantly greater military operation. . Given the Hamas doctrine of “resistance” and its long term goal of destroying Israel rather than living alongside Israel in peace, the only way the cessation of rocket attacks could be guaranteed required the overthrow of Hamas.
However, Israel signaled that this was not its war aim – either as a deliberate misrepresentation lest Israel not achieve such an ambitious goal and thus appear to be the loser no matter how much havoc it delivered to Gaza, or as a sincere exercise in restraint. So although Israel’s initial strictly military war aims were clear, though not the extent of military means it would use to achieve them, there was a definite lack of clarity about its political aims, a confusion enhanced by Israel’s sweeping round up of Hamas operatives in response to the murder of three West Bank Jewish teenagers. But the more modest goal seemed to be at the forefront. “We will weaken Hamas in the West Bank (my italics) and stop Gaza rockets. We will expand our operation as necessary,” Netanyahu had announced. The more modest goal with the prospect of escalation seemed to be the trajectory.
Hamas’ goals were much clearer. It could not destroy Israel in the near run. Given its economic circumstances and political isolation, Hamas would be lucky if it remained in power for another year. Its support always increased when it resorted to armed struggle, at least in the short run, in spite of the domestic devastation that resulted each time. Given all the competition that had recently arisen in the international sphere with military crises almost everywhere, only war would bring the Gaza issue back to number one in international attention and that seemed the only possible route for Gaza to escape the slow strangulation of the blockade if Hamas retained power now that its allies in Egypt had been overthrown.
So a clash seemed inevitable as did escalation. The question was the extent of the clash and whether and to what degree it could be headed off. Since the Israeli hawks were calling for a much stronger response and since the Minister of Defense, Moshe Ya’alon seemed much more belligerent than Netanyahu – “We will hunt them (Hamas) until we lay our hands on them” the prospect of military restraint seemed to grow more remote. On Tuesday 1 July, the three Jewish teenagers were buried and Ya’alon seemed to have included revenge in his war aims, promising to settle the score with Hamas. It was not a wise or prudent choice of words from a political leader.
One result of the burial of the teens was a sharp increase in reprisal attacks against Arabs, especially in Jerusalem. Tuesday night, a young Arab was abducted in the Shuafut neighbourhood of East Jerusalem. Muhammad Abu Khdeir, when he was returning from prayers. He was set on fire while he was alive and allowed to burn to death in a grisly murder that seemed to have been carried out by Jewish thugs and extremists, though there was some speculation by the Israeli border police (already suffering from a serious black eye because it failed to respond in a timely fashion to the distress cell phone call from one of the Jewish teenagers, Gilad Shaar) that the crime had been committed by Arabs themselves for other reasons. That speculation seemed preposterous, especially to Arabs, since hundreds of Israeli young thugs had been allowed to rampage through Arab neighbourhoods and attack Palestinians at random on that Tuesday evening after the three Jewish teenagers had been interned. The Israeli Border Police misdirected speculations only detracted further from its negative reputation.
Though the local Jewish thugs had not been stopped, their actions were denounced by the leaders of Israeli society and especially by leading rabbis who condemned the murder of the Arab teenager. The Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, David Lau, on behalf of the Chief Rabbinate Council, said that this “was not the way of the Torah”, but the statement was tardy in coming and announced 7 days after the Arab teen had been murdered. The Sephardic Chief Rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, announced plans to visit the Khdeir family and deliver his condolences personally after he had fiercely denounced “the outrageous murder that was perpetrated against the innocent young man.” But the planned visit was cancelled for fear for the safety of the rabbi from Arab reprisal attacks. Lest the streets be overrun by extremists from either side. Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, a leading settler rabbi in the West Bank, called for the use of the death penalty against the killer when capital punishment had previously been reserved for Adolph Eichmann, a Hitler henchman.
As it happens, I had an indirect connection with the Khdeir family. Faida Abu-Ghazaleh, a PhD student in the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University that I had founded and whom I know, had met the American branch of the Khdeir family in Baltimore and interviewed them as part of her PhD work; their story was included in her book, Ethnic Identity of Palestinian Immigrants in the United States. Muhammad’s 15 year old cousin, who had been visiting from America, had been with him when Muhammad was abducted; Tariq Abu Khdeir ended up in a hospital with a black eye and a swollen face from his beating. As early as the previous Saturday, a video clip had been circulating showing Israeli border police holding down and pummelling a masked Arab youth. The connection was made between Tariq Abu Khdeir’s beating and the violence of the Israeli Border Police. Official and vigilante violence had been equated.
On 8 July, President Abbas himself called on Netanyahu to denounce his own border police and denounce the deaths of three other Palestinian youth who had been killed that week. Though a clear distinction can be made between the three Jewish Yeshiva students returning from their school, Muhammad and his cousin returning from prayers, and Arab youth protesting Muhammad’s murder in the streets with rocks, Molotov cocktails and even grenades, the violence of the Border Police and the violence of the Jewish vigilantes were linked, especially in the minds of Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
At the end of that week some Gaza rockets had actually hit houses in Israel and the IDF announced its determination to restore quiet. On 6 July in Rafah, Israel killed six members of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigade, the military wing of Hamas. On 7 July, the Brigade responded with a barrage of dozens of rockets, including Grad missiles, as well as mortars aimed at Israeli cities. Dozens of rockets were fired by Hamas at Israel over the first weekend in July. At the same time, by 8 July, the death toll of Palestinian youth in the West Bank had risen to five, with the last youth shot by Border Police in Ranmallah. (On 12 July, an autopsy confirmed that one of those young men, Nadim Nuwara, had been killed by a real bullet and had not been struck by a rubber bullet,) The Border Police were using live ammunition to control the rampaging youth in East Jerusalem and the West Bank protesting the IDF attacks on Gaza. John Kerry’s prophecy of the possibility of a third intifada following the failure of the peace talks seemed to be emerging as a real possibility as a complement to the escalation of violence from both sides in the Gaza conflict.
However, the failure of the peace talks had left the strong impression that America was not only withdrawing its ground troops from Iraq but had become a paper tiger on the diplomatic front as well just when it wanted to show off its stripes as a mediator rather than a combatant. Hamas was now represented as having officially backed and financed the murder of the three Jewish Yeshiva students though it was not clear whether the instructions came from Saleh al-Aruri in Turkey, a Hamas official in charge of the West Bank portfolio, or directly from the leadership in Gaza. Vigilante politics and macro-politics were beginning to overlap more and more on both sides. Further, that linkage seemed also to reunite the competing factions and forces both in Israel and among the Palestinians. The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in Gaza, a Fatah supported military unit, now joined in on the rocket attacks against Israel and aimed their rockets against the “settlements” in Ashkelon and Sderot. Another Fatah militia upped the ante and fired 35 rockets into Israel. (On 9 July, for example, 160 rockets hit Hadera.) The Israeli government was being pushed by both Fatah and Hamas into further escalation of the conflict.
Given its relative restraint, Israel seemed to be winning the media war by restricting its reprisals to pinpoint military targets, a public relations victory that seemed easy in North America but was much more difficult in Europe. However, unlike Operation Pillar of Defense, the Hamas leadership had become safely ensconced in their deep bunkers and tunnels and Israel had not been able to decapitate its leadership as it had in November 2012 when Ahmed Jabari, the leader of Hamas’ military wing, had been targeted and killed.
However, Hamas had another surprise in store for Israel which would increase the pressures to escalate the war. A Hamas attack was launched through a tunnel into Israel but had been stopped. Five Hamas frogmen had landed on the beach at Kibbutz Zikim and had been intercepted and killed by the Givati Brigade. A ground war had been launched by Hamas against Israel. At the same time, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade took credit for launching the rocket that was intercepted above Rishon Etzion. The war was coming even closer to the Israelis, indicated by increased rocket attacks against Tel Aviv and one even against Jerusalem.
Just then an e-book compiled by Haaretz advocating against escalation appeared with articles by Barack Obama. Tzipi Livni, Mahmoud Abbas, David Grossman, Prince Turki Al Faisal, Saeb Erekat, Ari Shavit, Yuval Diskin, Peter Beinart and even Canada’s own Margaret Atwood with a chapter entitled “Shadow”. Serious talk was now abundant about the immanence of a much larger assault against Gaza. Margaret Atwood and Yann Martel, author of The Life of Pi, had headed a petition against the forced re-location of Palestinian villagers and Bedouin in 2013. Now Margaret was proposing that Israel be led by prophets instead of yes-men and the conflict could be understood better if viewed from Mars. The peaceniks were stirring and the official Palestinian leadership now shifted from tacit support for Israel into outspoken criticism and denunciation. As the now seemingly impotent US administration declared, the inability to resolve the Israeli-Palestinians conflict “inevitably means more tension, more resentment, more injustice, more insecurity, more tragedy and more grief.”
The media war was turning even before Israel launched its ground assault on Gaza. A David Brown cartoon appeared in The Independent, a British newspaper. Though not as raw and anti-Semitic as an earlier cartoon of Sharon devouring Palestinian babies, the new cartoon depicted Netanyahu as guilty of blood libel. If the extremists on both sides seemed oblivious to the existing and immanent carnage, the peaceniks seemed equally insensitive to the legitimate security concerns on both sides that fostered the use of arms. The message that if only the two sides would talk to one another, peace could be achieved, seemed to fall on deaf ears. Further, Israel was being painted as the greater evil, engaged in disproportionate retribution and guilty of a war of extermination against the Palestinian people. The extreme media deformation fed into the agenda of hardliners towards escalating the war if Hamas and Fatah actions had not been enough. Israelis began armouring themselves by anaesthetizing their sensitivities just as Gaza hospitals reported their inability to handle an increase in casualties inevitable from a ground war. Gaza hospitals focused increasingly only on emergencies, and postponed generally required surgery for cancer patients, for example, as well as all elective surgery.
The drums of a larger war began to roll as Hamas warned Israel that they would not be a pushover – and they were not – as tunnels and booby traps were being prepared for the immanent invasion of the IDF ground forces that no one seemed to be in a position to stop. Their rocket launching facilities and storage had been placed in underground bunkers. They now had the capacity to launch decoys and even heat-seeking missiles against Israeli aircraft, though their claim to have targeted and hit an Israeli Apache helicopter with a Sam-7 missile over Khan Yunis on 7 July seemed to be a bit of premature and erroneous boasting. But their promise that they had readied their armed militants with careful planning and preparation to use their hiding places and the element of surprise to deliver heavy losses to the IDF ground troops proved valid.
The first phase of all out real war began at dawn on 8 July with the launch of Operation Protective Edge. 40,000 Israeli troops had been mustered on the Gaza border.
Tomorrow: The First Phase of Operation Protective Edge