Part VI: The End of the Ground War: 1-3 August
Just when reports started to appear that the Gaza War of 2014 was winding down, Egypt closed the Rafah crossing totally on 1 August. Egypt had by then destroyed the vast majority of the tunnels connecting Rafah Gaza to Rafah Egypt denying Hamas its resupply access through smuggling. Yet that winding down of the war would take almost four weeks more. Part of the reason for Egypt’s timing was the faulty 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire instigated by Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Ki-moon and Kerry both conveyed the assurances they had received from Qatar that all Palestinian factions would honour the agreement. The cease-fire was set for 8:00 a.m. on 1 August.
At the time the cease-fire was to become effective, a Givati Brigade patrol had been following a purported intelligence lead since daybreak about a secret entrance to another tunnel, this time not in a dense urban area but in an area of greenhouses and fields. They did not know they were being led into a trap. The patrol consisted of Second Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, an officer in the commando unit of the Givati Brigade (and a relative of Minister of Defense Moshe Ya’alon), Benaya Sarel, commander of that Givati Special Forces unit, and Liel Gidoni, a radio operator. The three were ambushed and then attacked by a suicide bomber. Sarel and Gidoni were killed instantly. Goldin was believed to have been abducted.
Netanyahu said the attack took place at 9:30 a.m., one and one-half hours after the cease-fire was to take effect. Hamas initially took responsibility for the attack but said that it took place before the cease-fire was to start. Subsequently they said that the Turkish Ahadolu News Agency that had reported their reaction misspoke and then finally released a statement that said that Hamas had nothing to do with Goldin’s capture after all.
So-called “lessons” had been learned by Israel, and, more specifically, by the IDF from the Gilat Shalit kidnapping years earlier; he had been held for five years to the great embarrassment of Israel and the subsequent concession of releasing over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in return for Shalit’s release. At virtually all costs, and the vast majority of the costs were born by Palestinians, particularly civilians, large collateral damage was to be tolerated in the goal to recover first Oron Shaul and then Hadar Goldin when, in each case, the Hannibal Procedure or Protocol, developed as a consequence of the Lebanon War, was put into effect. As Netanyahu put it without qualifications, “The State of Israel will continue to do its utmost to bring home its MIAs.”
As Goldin’s older sister, Ayelet, had stated before she learned that her brother had died, “if a captive soldier is left in Gaza, it’s a defeat…It’s important to say this. Hadar was sent by the country and was abducted by a terror organization and he’s alive. He’s alive now and I will not allow for any other terminology to enter the lexicon.”
In fact, he was dead and that conclusion had been reached but not relayed yet to the family at the time of Ayelet’s statement. Although Goldin was initially believed to have been captured, two days later his death had been confirmed and communicated to his family. The IDF had collected DNA samples from the tunnel and had tentatively concluded on the afternoon of 1 August that Goldin was probably dead and was not being held captive. But they wanted to locate the body and have a definitive statement before contacting the family.
Did the breakdown in the 72-hour cease-fire occur because the patrol was ambushed or because of the massive Israeli response to recover Goldin’s body? The capture of an IDF soldier meant closing off the area in which he was captured, preventing the abductors from escaping, using massive firepower to free the soldier even at the risk of his death, and certainly at a much greater risk of collateral damage to civilians in that area because of the use of massive fire power.
Purportedly, approximately 100 Palestinian civilians were killed in the attempt to free Goldin. If this had been a dense urban area, undoubtedly the death toll would have been much higher. The Israeli Supreme Court in previous rulings, given the latter operational effect of the Hannibal Procedure, has suggested that this indiscriminate use of firepower is probably illegal under international humanitarian law and the laws of just war. I will return to discuss this issue in greater detail and with more precision when I write on the reconciliation of the ethical and legal aspects of the war with the strategic analysis.
Basically, the assessment depends on whether the war aim is considered the freeing of one soldier from captivity and the collateral damage seen as reasonable to achieve that goal, or whether the military goal was to prevent a high prisoner exchange where militants with blood on their hands and likely to kill Israelis again would have to be exchanged for a single soldier. It also depends on who conducts the inquiry, how it is conducted and under what auspices. There is very little hope of an objective and impartial inquiry from the Schabas Commission.
On Saturday evening 2 August on Day 26 of Operation Protective Shield, a tired Prime Minister Netanyahu applauded the victory of the IDF at a news conference at the Ministry of Defence in Tel Aviv, especially with respect to the destruction of the tunnels.
“Operation Protective Edge is continuing. The IDF is continuing to operate with full strength in order to complete the goals of the operation: The restoration of quiet and the restoration of security for a lengthy period for the citizens of Israel while inflicting significant damage on the terrorist infrastructures. At the same time, our forces are now completing the work of striking at and neutralizing the terrorist tunnels in the Gaza Strip. Dozens of tunnels have been neutralized so far. We are striking at the strategic network that Hamas has invested such great effort in over the years. These tunnels would have enabled Hamas to kidnap and murder civilians and IDF soldiers by launching simultaneous attacks from the many tunnels that penetrate our territory. So far the IDF has very significant achievements in the fighting. At the onset of the operation, our forces attacked and destroyed thousands of terrorist targets: Command centers, rocket arsenals and production facilities, launching areas, many hundreds of terrorists, etc.
However, there seemed to have been some rewriting of history or else a disjunction between what Military Intelligence knew and what senior officials in the government knew. According to the initial reports and Netanyahu’s initial review of the ground war, the extent and sophistication of the tunnels was a surprise. However, Military Intelligence subsequently claimed that it knew about the tunnel network. So why were plans not made and soldiers trained to fight a tunnel war? In any case, Netanyahu prematurely announced that the war had come to an end while Naftali Bennett, the Economy and Trade Minister, and Avigdor Liberman, the Foreign Minister, and both members of his security cabinet, joined by Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, sniped at Bibi for his pusillanimity. Zeev Elkin, Chair of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, as well as Likud Knesset members Danny Danon and Miri Regev, a former Brigadier General in the IDF, joined the chorus of critics from the hawkish right.
If politics and the death or capture of soldiers preoccupied Israelis, it was the death of civilians that preoccupied Palestinians primarily because that was the preoccupation of the international community. And, whether one-half or two-thirds of Palestinian deaths were civilian, a civilian death toll of 900-1200 seemed enormous in a population of less than two million. But the toll, especially in the aftermath of implementing the Hannibal Protocol, was also experienced on a personal level.
Asmaa al-Ghoul, a strident secular Palestinian journalist in Gaza who had come into conflict with Hamas a number of times, wrote a first hand account in Al-Monitor of the death of nine members of her family living in the Yibna neighbourhood of the Rafah refugee camp. They died from an Israeli air strike by two F-16 missiles that Al-Ghoul claimed had targeted her family at 6:20 a.m. on Sunday 3 August. “My father’s brother, Ismail al-Ghoul, 60, was not a member of Hamas. His wife, Khadra, 62, was not a militant of Hamas. Their sons, Wael, 35, and Mohammed, 32, were not combatants for Hamas. Their daughters, Hanadi, 28, and Asmaa, 22, were not operatives for Hamas, nor were my cousin Wael’s children, Ismail, 11, Malak, 5, and baby Mustafa, only 24 days old, members of Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine or Fatah.” Mustafa was one of two twins born since the war started; his brother, Ibrahim, survived and was fighting for his life when her piece was published.
As al-Ghoul continued, “the people you are killing have nothing to do with Hamas. They are women, children, men and senior citizens whose only concern was for the war to end, so they can return to their lives and daily routines. But let me assure you that you have now created thousands — no, millions — of Hamas loyalists, for we all become Hamas if Hamas, to you, is women, children and innocent families. If Hamas, in your eyes, is ordinary civilians and families, then I am Hamas, they are Hamas and we are all Hamas.” So as the civilian death toll rose, even if it only totalled half the lives lost in Gaza, Hamas gained both supporters and was resurrected as a political force in the eyes of Palestinians, in response to what al-Ghoul labelled as “wanton war crimes”. The article in al-Monitor ended: “Never ask me about peace again.”
A 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire that hopefully would lead to a longer term cessation of hostilities broke down as soon as it had started and left both sides more embittered than ever. It would be another three-and-a-half weeks before a true cessation of hostilities took place, this time under Egyptian auspices.
No one could say that nothing was achieved through war from the Israeli side. The billions of dollars the tunnels cost to build had been lost to Hamas, although their destruction was not an original publicly-stated war aim. Two-thirds of the Hamas rocket supply had been either used or destroyed. Of the original estimate of 10,000 rockets, given that 3,300 rocket had been fired to that date, given that Israeli claimed to have destroyed another approximately 3,000+, Hamas rocket reserves had been reduced to one-third. Was not that an achievement?
On 3 August, the IDF withdrew from Gaza. The question was: why did the IDF withdraw when, in spite of the relatively high loss of life of Israeli soldiers, evidently a majority of the public and the commanders on the ground supported a war that would finish off Hamas once and for all? An observer might reason that Hamas wanted the cease-fire because 1,865 Palestinians had been recorded as dead by 3 August, “most of them civilians”, and/or the arsenal of munitions had grown relatively low. Such an observation proved to be wrong. The cult of martyrdom and resistance would keep the war going for three more weeks and account for a further approximately 300 dead on the Gaza side.
The reasons for the Israelis wanting a cease-fire are not hard to find, or, at least, The Reason: Lebanon! It was even more difficult to fight a war in tunnels and a dense urban area. Occupation would involve so much more sacrifice and open Israel to a combination of surprise attacks on the ground and heightened criticism from the world community. Further, two of the goals given to the army – different than the publicly stated goals of the war – had been accomplished:
- Destroying the tunnel threat
- Reducing significantly the rocket capacity and threat of Hamas and Islamic Jihad
Diplomacy and international negotiations were required to achieve a third goal – preventing Hamas from rearming in return for opening the blockade partially or fully. Israel wanted to link the rehabilitation and development of Gaza to its demilitarization. Hamas wanted to retain its military capability while having the blockade lifted. Would Hamas’ resurrection be sufficient for it to sign onto a cease-fire deal? Otherwise, the goals of the two belligerents were totally incompatible. It appeared to be a wonder any cease-fire agreement could be reached at all.