Part III: From Operation Protective Edge to the Ground War
[NOTE: PARTS I, II AND III WERE PUBLISHED IN REVERSE ORDER.]
On 4 July, Gershon Baskin, an old friend, singularly responsible for negotiating the exchange of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for the release of Lieutenant Gilad Shavit, relayed to Israeli authorities an offer by Hamas to restore the 2012 cease-fire agreement provided Israel agreed to implement its 2012 agreement to ease access to Gaza for goods, services and people. Israeli authorities ignored the offer.
On 6 July in Rafah, Israel killed six members of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing. This was the beginning of full-blown warfare. On 7 July, the Qassam Brigades fired dozens of mortar rounds, Qassam and Grad rockets at southern Israel. As well, five heavily armed Hamas commandos emerged from the sea on to Israeli territory. At the same time, by 9 July Israel was beginning to become aware of the extent and sophistication of the Hamas network of tunnels after the tunnel under the closed Gaza airport exploded killing six Qassam Brigade fighters on 6 July. This recognition was confirmed when the tunnel that opened into the Kerem Shalom area was blown up after Gaza militants emerged onto Israeli soil. Even though they were killed by the IDF, all Israelis became acutely aware of the danger that faced them, not only from all sides of the country, including the sea, but now from the subterranean depths. As a result, Israel intensified and expanded its attacks on targets in Gaza launching Operation Protective Edge at dawn on 8 July. Up until then, only 68 Palestinians had died in the escalating violence.
Another stimulant to the increased firepower used by Israel was the surprising, to Israel, involvement of Fatah units in rocket attacks. Presumably for domestic political reasons as well as an emotional response to Israeli reprisal attacks, Fatah armed groups started firing rockets at Ashkelon and Sderot. A third group claimed to have fired 35 rockets at Israel. On 9 July, 160 rockets had been fired at Hadera alone. Yet Israel still had not developed a clear war aim or, alternatively, an exit strategy from the violent conflict.
One result of the increased scale and escalation, compounded by the frustration where the enemy was setting the pace of the war, was that discrimination between military and civilian targets became much more difficult. The lead time for warning civilians seemed to shrink. As a consequence, the collateral damage increased with larger numbers of children and civilian non-combatants killed and wounded. Eight civilians, including six children, were killed when the Karawa family home was struck by an Israeli shell.
Hope for a quick and relatively painless end to the violence seemed to evaporate on both sides as despair and resignation became the dominant motif. The conflict had significantly escalated with the abduction and murder of the three Israeli Yeshiva students, but had now developed an independent energy of its own. Contrary to widespread initial disbelief at Israeli claims that Hamas was actually behind the murder of the three school boys as Israel border police rounded up Hamas operatives in the West Bank, evidence had accumulated that this had not been a rogue operation and that Hamas was actually behind the abductions. That information further escalated a war already on its own independent trajectory.
Abbas ended his silent acquiescence in Israel’s military reprisals against Hamas by overtly condemning Israel for its attacks on Gaza and calling for UN intervention. The situation was not helped by the American role either. In a keynote address at a Conference on Peace in Tel Aviv organized by the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, while blaming both sides for not making the key decisions that would make peace possible, and while repeating the mantra that America would always stand behind Israel’s security, Philip Gordon, a special assistant to US President Barack Obama and the White House coordinator for the Middle East, seemed to single out Israel for special blame and excoriated the government for failing to seize an opportunity when it had presented itself and for continuing its occupation, an occupation that was cited as a main source of instability in the region in spite of what was happening in Iraq, Syria and Libya. If the Obama administration could not fully back Israel’s right to defend itself against a group that the American government itself had labeled a terrorist organization, why worry about international opinion at all? That appeared to be the Israeli official reaction.
In the media war, a narrative was emerging of each side unintentionally stumbling into a war that neither side wanted and not that Hamas had provoked a war to escape the terrible impasse and terrible situation in which it had found itself. Before the IDF had launched Operation Protective Edge, the Gaza leadership – former Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas senior official Mahmoud al-Zahar and Abu Obeid, its military spokesperson – promised Israel that if it responded with escalating firepower to its rocket attacks, Hamas would demonstrate its military mettle with many surprises and with a steadfastness against any punishment Israel delivered. The perspective of the war as a product of unintended consequences rather than of a desperate action by Hamas was enhanced when journalists in Gaza could witness the tremendous damage caused by Israeli firepower. The empathy for Hamas and Gaza was further exacerbated when a favourite of journalists, Hamid Shehab, a driver for them was killed by an Israeli airstrike that destroyed his vehicle.
A month earlier, Hamas had been written off as headed for its demise. Suddenly, while absorbing increasing punishment, Lazarus had been reborn. The predictions that Hamas would not be foolish enough to provoke a war that it could not win and, therefore, would not risk another violent all-out encounter with Israel, was proven wrong so the only explanation was that the war was unintentional and, like World War I, the centenary of which had been documented all over, the sides had bumbled and stumbled into a war neither party wanted. But Hamas needed this war in order to be reborn as the leaders of the Palestinian movement. Neither Abbas nor the international world would blame Hamas and its cult of martyrdom. Rather, the bravery of little David standing up to the Goliath, Israel, and the compassion for the disproportionate number of victims on the Palestinian side, together would earn for them greater sympathy, enhance their status and, hopefully make some progress in breaking out of their self-created prison. Their calculus was prescient.
Thus, when Hamas was offered a route for avoiding war, when it was offered one cease-fire after another, it chose to fight and die, or, alternatively survive in full control of Gaza. Hence the increased rocket fire on Israel. Hence, the implementation of the tunnels that had been thus far held mainly in military reserve. Hence, the effort to trap Israeli into launching a ground offensive.
Hamas did not have to win. It just had to endure. Further, the greater the suffering, the greater the victory. As patients filled the Gaza hospitals, the severe shortage of medicines of all types and of fuel to operate its generators when the electrical supply was cut, would broadcast to the world the effects of the blockade, quite aside from the fact that medical and humanitarian supplies continued to flow into Gaza through Israeli crossing points throughout the whole war. Ashraf al-Qadra, director of information for the Gaza Ministry of Health, would ensure that the correct message went out to the world.
In the meanwhile, the militants would avoid a direct military confrontation with Israel and use its tunnels and traps to enhance the casualty count of Israeli soldiers. The message was clear: Hamas militants killed soldiers not civilians, even though its rockets directly targeted Israeli towns and cities. Small numbers of Israeli civilian deaths – a product of Israeli policies to protect its civilians – were set against the claims that the majority of Palestinian dead, they repeatedly announced, were civilians. Even if only half were, the discrepancy between the Gaza and the Israeli civilian death toll served Hamas’ war aims. Hamas was fighting a media war and using its cult of martyrdom and resistance to promote its rebirth. Israel could not win this war unless it destroyed Hamas, but if it tried to do that, then the whole international community, including America, though perhaps not Canada, would come down upon Israel with a heavy anvil. Israel was in a Catch-22 from which it could not escape. Gaza was stymied by a real blockade and Hamas was trapped by its isolation, but it had a route out simply by surviving, suffering and demonstrating its will to resist. It was Israel that was really trapped.
The American role receded as the key diplomatic player between the sides. Egypt stepped in to fill the vacuum in the diplomatic game. Both Hamas and Israel initially appeared to agree to what would be the first of a number of humanitarian cease-fires on 15 July, and a longer term agreement was in the works on more or less the same terms as that agreed to over a month later after the Palestinian death toll had risen to over 2,000. Netanyahu publicly agreed to follow the truce, but when Hamas’ perceived initial agreement was followed by silence and then a barrage of rockets, Netanyahu ordered new strikes on Gaza even as it gathered troops on the border but remained very wary of a ground operation into Gaza. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz all seemed to prefer avoiding a ground war.
However, both the public and the military commanders in the field seemed eager to have the IDF shit or, alternatively, get off the pot and sign a cease-fire agreement. It did not help that Israeli leaders still by and large shared the dominant world opinion that Hamas had stumbled into this war. The combined and very proficient attacks from air, sea and under the ground were too well executed to be ad hoc exercises, even though each ultimately failed as a tactic. Overall, they succeeded in establishing in the Israeli mind that Hamas posed a formidable challenge.
The IDF targeting of top Hamas military officials would be the turning point in bringing about a cease fire a month later but it was ineffective in mid-July when Israel warned 100,000 Gazan civilians to vacate their homes with the intensification of the air campaign. On Thursday, 17 July at 10:00 a.m., a temporary UN-brokered humanitarian cease-fire agreement came into effect. Israelis in general, and the government in particular, both hoped and expected this to lead to a longer term cease-fire. However, three mortar shells were lobbed into Israel during the cease-fire. Further, immediately prior to the cease-fire going into effect, 13 heavily-armed militants using a tunnel from Gaza showed up on Israeli soil. By the time of the humanitarian cease-fire, 224 Palestinians, again reported almost universally without corroboration as consisting mostly of civilians, had been killed. These figures were cited as coming from UN officials without noting that the UN took its figures almost directly from the Palestinian Health Authority in Gaza that was part of the Hamas governmental structure. The deaths of four young Palestinian school boys on the Gaza beach seemed to offer proof that Israel was acting indiscriminately in its air fire.
Next, an Israeli official announced that a comprehensive cease-fire agreement had been reached and would go into effect at 6:00 a.m. on Friday, 18 July. However, Gaza officials were silent and Egypt said it was unaware that any deal had been reached, though there were rumours, presumed to be authoritative that, for a ten year cease-fire, Egypt had promised Gaza that the siege would be lifted. The combination of Hamas’ actual eventual rejection of the cease-fire and the exposure of the well-developed and protected tunnel network pushed Israel into a decision to launch a ground invasion in spite of the Israeli government’s leadership reluctance to do so. Iron Dome had been a tremendous success in containing the threat from the air, but this only made the tunnels appear to be a more serious threat from under the ground. And they could only be dealt with by a ground war. Israel had now been backed into a corner as tight as the Palestinians in Gaza had been.
So, while the diminishing peace camp in Israel continued to advocate a minimalist response to Hamas provocations to be accompanied by halting settlement activity, reinforcing Abbas’ stature and easing the economic straightjacket of Gaza, Netanyahu chose to launch a ground invasion with thousands of troops. 20 rockets were fired into Israel the next day, Friday. At the same time, Netanyahu informed the public that the goal was not simply the destruction of the tunnels but the demilitarization of Gaza. Gaza had set its goal as the lifting of the siege.
Neither goal would be achieved.