Part IV: The Beginning of the Israeli Ground War
With the start of the ground war, casualties multiplied quickly and exponentially in Gaza. The death toll rapidly doubled and rose to 508. But Hamas had its own surprises. The IDF had to intercept rockets over Tel Aviv from tunnels which opened only briefly to launch the rockets and then closed to inhibit detection of the source of those rockets. At the same time, more Gaza militants had infiltrated south onto Israeli turf from tunnels in spite of the launch of the ground offensive. On the morning of Monday 21 July, 13 IDF soldiers had been slain. After the end of the second week of Operation Protective Edge and the beginning of the 5th day of the ground operation, nine IDF soldiers were killed during the day of Monday alone. By Tuesday morning 22 July, the Israeli military fatalities had risen to 27. By late Tuesday, that number had increased to 29 as two Israeli soldiers from the armored corps were killed by sniper fire, Capt. Dmitry Levitas, 26, of Jerusalem and Geshur and 1st Lt. Natan Cohen, 23, of Modiin. Three others were seriously wounded. On 3 March 2014, the Hamas Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh, in a speech had emphasized the strategic importance of the Hamas attack tunnels and the defensive tactics Hamas had developed as game changers. He was right.
The problem was not simply the numbers killed but the way they were killed. For example, three were killed on 21 July protecting residents of Nir Am, a kibbutz on the Gaza border when ten or so militants emerged from a terror tunnel and attacked the greatly superior military force protecting the kibbutz. The tactics developed by Hamas to deal with the Israeli offensive using aggressive counter-attacks onto Israeli territory combined with tactical retreats that allowed Hamas militants to kill IDF soldiers by sniper fire and traps for tanks and armoured personnel carriers inflicted an unprecedented toll on the IDF. Some of the tunnels penetrated 1.5 kilometres into Israeli territory. Kibbutz Sufa and Kibbutz Nirim had also been attacked via tunnels.
During the same time, the Gaza death toll had risen to 604; 3,700 had been wounded. The pattern of far more deaths from ground warfare than from the air war the previous nine days was in direct contrast to, as an example, the experience in Afghanistan where, as Astri Suhrke noted, “civilian casualties produced by US airstrikes produced the vast majority of casualties attributed to allied operations in Afghanistan.” Further, in that field of combat, many more civilians were killed when the allied forces were targeting enemies and were relatively relaxed in their tolerance of collateral damage, in contrast to the periods when the Western forces were fighting for the hearts and minds of the population and the US military and ISAF were much more prudent in their air operations. In the Gaza operation, it was the launch of the ground war that increased the Palestinian casualty figures tenfold.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry both returned to the region and now backed the Egyptian proposal for a long term cease-fire to be bridged by another humanitarian cease-fire. Their efforts were fruitless as Hamas rejected the Egyptian terms out of hand. But the most surprising turn of events was a ban on most international flights to Ben Gurion airport initiated by the Americans on Tuesday 22 July after a rocket from Gaza landed near the airport. The ban only lasted 48 hours, at least on the part of the Americans, but Hamas had already won a significant public relations victory. As Hamas turned down cease-fire offers, it repeated its demands that Israeli occupation and aggression had to cease and the blockade in all its forms had to be lifted.
On 22 July, Qatar’s emir, Sheik Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, met in Jiddah with King Abdullah, Saudi Crown Prince Salman and Deputy Crown Prince Muqrin to discuss and initiate a new joint Qatar-Turkish diplomatic initiative that would bypass the Egyptians. Saudi Arabia was co-opted to bring the Americans on board since the US Administration was already in a dither that Egypt had proceeded without consulting them. The Americans agreed to jump aboard the Qatar initiative, for Qatar had been a strong backer of Hamas. Hamas had scored another victory. The US administrations had created and managed almost all previous Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire resolutions in the past. This was no longer the case, initially mainly due to the tough negotiating strategy that the current Egyptian administration adopted in dealing with Hamas (and which it maintained throughout) to secure a diplomatic victory. Hamas tried to sidestep the Egyptians by getting America behind its international backers to try to broker a cease fire instead of Egypt, which had been partnering with Israel and ignoring Hamas’ tough demands.
The Hamas victory, as we shall see, was only temporary. Mahmoud Salem in an article, “How Sisi won the Israeli-Gaza Conflict” wrote that, “The Palestinian conflict has always been a trump card in the hands of whomever assumes the role of president of Egypt, but that has always been within a framework that the US administrations have created and managed. This is no longer the case, mainly due to the strategy that the current Egyptian administration employed in handling the Gaza crisis, which has unquestionably led to the prolonging of the conflict and increase in the number of casualties on both the Israeli and the Palestinian sides.” So true.
While the Qatar-Turkish strategy gave lip service to the Obama administration, Sisi gave none and ignored the Americans. The Israelis had entered the ground war reluctantly and now experienced a number of setbacks. The tunnel network was far more extensive, far more sophisticated and far more complex than the Israelis realized or expected. Hamas continued to be able to launch suicide missions into Israeli territory, creating a psychological impact totally disproportionate to the military threat, as well as launch missiles from underground bunkers. The border police in Israel had their hands full in making sure that the protests in the West Bank, many militant, did not erupt into a full-scale third intifada. However, soon Qatar and Turkey, which seemed suddenly to be in the driver’s seat with Hamas in a trailer right behind, were sidelined alongside the Americans.
However the event with the greatest impact was one rocket that landed close to Ben Gurion airport on 22 July. Though the U.S. Federal Administration temporary ban on flights to Israel, followed by Canadian and European bans, with the exception of British Airways, which continued to fly to Tel Aviv, was only short lived – only 48 hours, the psychological impact and the long shadow the ban left on an Israel with its main lifeline significantly cut was inestimable. The fact that this blow was delivered by Israel’s strongest ally, the United States, was all the more disconcerting. Further, this attack and the response of the temporary ban strengthened the hands of Israeli hawks who argued that Israeli needed, at the very least, security control over the West Bank and Gaza. This result was perhaps even more disturbing than the breach between America and Israel. For right-wing Israelis, the destructive effect of a missile that killed no one and damaged little of significance meant the final burial of the two-state solution, for the world could clearly see that, in their eyes, that Israel could not afford to give up security control over either Gaza or the West Bank, especially when power was held by an implacable foe.
Mubarak had sponsored Gaza-Israeli cease-fires. So had Morsi in 2012. Sisi followed suit, but this time without any American imprimatur and without the restrictions and compromises that inevitably came with American involvement, especially from an administration that believed that the only route to mediate was seeking a “balanced” position between two sides.
Hamas kept rejecting each and every cease-fire offer, even when it accepted a few humanitarian short-term ones, and Egypt kept repeatedly offering the same tough terms. Egypt, in the months before the Israeli-Gaza War broke out, had managed to destroy many if not most the tunnels between Egypt and Gaza cutting off Hamas’ only real economic lifeline. Many considered that this in itself was the real trigger for the Gaza-Israeli War, for Hamas was now truly isolated from any connection to the rest of the world. Now Sisi was equally ruthless in the terms it offered Hamas. For four weeks Hamas held out until the decapitation of its leadership by Israeli targeted attacks and the destruction of middle class apartment towers after warning the inhabitants to vacate. By then Hamas understood that its doctrine of martyrdom of the civilian population and resistance in countering the Israeli military threat was yielding diminishing returns. Israelis had quickly learned how to fight a tunnel war. Far fewer Israeli soldiers were being killed for each day of fighting. Most important of all, Egypt, and Sisi in particular, resumed the driver’s seat and would brook little compromise. The quiet but unyielding position of Sisi finally led Hamas to capitulate.
But we are getting ahead of our story.
Initially, Sisi refused to re-assume responsibility for Gaza as Israel hoped. He had enough troubles without the economic burden of Gaza. Further, he had to proceed in a manner and with an achievement that enhanced rather than diminished his stature within Egypt. Sisi refused to negotiate directly with Hamas since Hamas was the kissing cousin of the Muslim Brotherhood. Sisi insisted that Abbas serve as the bridge, not only between Israel and Hamas, but between Egypt and Hamas. Thus, Sisi’s goal was to deny Hamas even a psychological — let alone an economic or military victory — and to boost the status of Mahmoud Abbas. In the process, the Americans, Qatar and Turkey all had to be marginalized.
The latter was effected rather easily, especially given the hitherto importance of America in the Middle East in general and in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict more particularly, as well as the general odds against sidestepping the Americans. With foreknowledge from Egyptian intelligence sources of the American position, the process began as soon as John Kerry arrived in Cairo on 21 July. A staged process of humiliation for a Secretary of State of the United States of America began when Kerry was forced to go through a security check. When Kerry brought with him neither the financial nor military aid Egypt had asked for, but only recognition and, through that, supposed international legitimacy, Sisi resisted. Americans must be given credit for sincere dedication, but when Kerry opted for the Qater/Turkish route, he doomed his diplomatic effort to an even greater and much quicker failure than the year-long effort at peace negotiations between Abbas and the Israelis.
As I wrote above, on 22 July, seven Israeli soldiers from the Golani Brigade were killed in a guided missile attack on an IDF armoured personnel carrier. The same day, 20,000 in Haifa attended the funeral of Staff Sgt. Nissim Sean Carmeli, an IDF volunteer from Texas whose parents were Israelis. On 24 July, Israel joined Hamas in rejecting proposals for a cease-fire and Netanyahu, who as an equivocator had initially enjoyed an 82% approval rating, began his long and continuous descent in public support when demands mounted for a clear statement of military goals and the strategy to achieve them. Netanyahu was beginning his downward spiral in the domestic media war and long ago had lost the international media war, though Israel had experienced a sudden surge of support at the beginning of the war as many countries insisted Israel had the right to defend itself against Hamas aggression.
However, Israel had failed to thwart the effects of the media war that had allowed international as well as Israeli human rights organizations to pressure Israel into allowing entry of cement and steel into Gaza, purportedly for purposes of civilian reconstruction when most was being used to build the extensive network of attack tunnels. An estimated two million tons of cement were used to build the network of 42 tunnels; the same amount could have built thirty-two CN Towers, at 1,815 feet tall – the length of six football fields – and once the tallest man-made structure, now superseded by Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower. The tunnels targeting Israel could have built twenty such towers or, alternatively, bomb shelters for every man, woman and child in Gaza. Now when the proof of this failure was so evident, the human rights establishment joined in a chorus with others denouncing Israel’s war of aggression and occupation using the huge discrepancy between Gazan casualties and those of Israel. On 23 July, the UN Human Rights Council announced the formation of the Schabas Commission to investigate alleged Israeli Gaza War Crimes. The mandate and the Appointees signaled very clearly that this commission would follow the path of the Goldstone Commission and would fail every test of impartiality.
As preparations for the Cairo talks in quest of a cease-fire were developing, Egypt kept humiliating Hamas, now by including Islamic Jihad in the delegation with equal status to Hamas. The PA was the formal head of the delegation and Hamas was not even the sole representative of the militants. Further, as Abbas just recently made clear, Hamas alone would be held solely responsible for the destruction meted out by Israel on Gaza and its civilian population, a responsibility enormously enhanced because Hamas alone was responsible for rejecting the terms of the cease-fire that it could have had four weeks earlier, especially since not one of Hamas’ major announced political and economic gains was achieved. Hamas had shown that it was a formidable military foe, that martyrdom and resistance had won it recognition when it appeared that Hamas would soon follow the path of the Muslim Brotherhood into obscurity. But this gain may have been short-lived as the enormity of the destruction and the loss of life for nothing really tangible sunk in.
Egypt was even tougher than Israel as a negotiating partner. Egypt rejected out of hand Hamas’ request to put the Rafah crossing on the negotiating table until Hamas settled its resort to force with Israel. As it turned out, Egypt was already planning a large buffer zone, but, in contrast to Israel, on the Egyptian side of the border to separate Gaza from the Sinai. A new barrier equipped with surveillance cameras and underground seismic recorders was to be constructed. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2009 had attempted to build a steel separation barrier or a moat, but these plans had failed to materialize. Sisi was determined to succeed where his predecessor had failed.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would soon develop his own surprises to advance his peaceful path to an independent Palestinian state, in contrast to Hamas’ perpetual war to eliminate Israel, an initiative Abbas planned to present to Secretary of State John Kerry tomorrow, 3 September, and to the Arab League in a meeting of Arab foreign ministers on 7 September. In the interim, the war would go on for another month at great cost to Gazans and, to some extent, Israel. Ironically, the Hamas doctrine of martyrdom and resistance may have resurrected Hamas from an early and immanent grave, but inadvertently may have also resurrected the peace talks and the two-state solution which just months earlier seemed to be dead. However, it is first necessary to document the remaining destructive course of the war to comprehend this surprising turn. The number of IDF dead would increase more than twofold and the number of deaths among Palestinians would increase almost fourfold.
Tomorrow: Four Weeks of Unnecessary Destruction