Part VIII – Monday Morning Quarterbacking – The Blame Game
For a more thorough review of the Gaza operation one must await the Israeli Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee Commission of Inquiry set up by Ze’ev Elikin, chair of that committee. Given his strong credentials on the right and his criticisms of Netanyahu for not taking more forceful action against Hamas, one might worry about a built-in bias. But that committee includes a cross-section of the Knesset. Further, its conduct is covered by protocols to offset propensities to political bias. In any case, to understand the work and results of that committee, it is helpful if one first tries to make one’s own assessment of the strategy of the war.
In the military post-mortems after the end of the war, fundamental questions will be, and already have been, raised about Israeli policy. With the exception of humanitarian supplies that had always been permitted entry, had the Israeli blockade that Ehud Olmert placed on Gaza on 15 June 2007 when Hamas came to power been more counter-productive than useful in ensuring Israeli security? Certainly, lifting the blockade was the main military objective of Hamas. On 27 July, Mohammed Deif, the Hamas military commander who disappeared from public view after his wife and children (and perhaps himself as well) had been killed by an Israeli rocket, insisted that lifting the blockade was a bottom line before Hamas signed any cease-fire. The cease-fire agreement was signed without any firm commitment to lift the blockade.
In addition to the moralists, strategic critics of the blockade argued that the economic blockade had not protected Israel from barrages of rockets, had not lead to the overthrow of Hamas by disgruntled Gazans, and had not bankrupted Hamas. In fact, the latter had been accomplished, but only once the blockade had become complete when Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, eventually effectively closed the Rafah crossing and destroyed the tunnels. Egypt cut off both imports of domestic and military hardware as well as eliminating a main source of revenue for Hamas. The problem, perhaps, was not the blockade but its incompleteness. The Egyptian military coup and its tacit alliance with Israel made the blockade’s strategic objective work, though Israel bore the brunt of both international condemnation and rocket reprisals from Hamas. However, it worked by bringing the Gaza economy and Hamas to its knees, but without destroying Hamas’ commitment to martyrdom and resistance. The latter brought Hamas increased support, especially in the form of a backlash against Israeli military reprisals, the very opposite outcome that Israel supposedly wanted.
What became evident is that when Hamas was unable to target its number one enemy, Egypt, it took its rage out on the next party down the line, Israel in this case. When Hamas was unable to weaken Israel in any significant way, alleged collaborators were rounded up in Gaza and summarily executed. But perhaps violence by substitution and deflection would have been unnecessary if Israel had responded positively to the messages Hamas sent to Israel indirectly — that if Israel lifted the blockade, Hamas would stop any terrorist actions aimed at Israel. Shlomi Eldar, who had interviewed Ghazi Hamad, the spokesperson for Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh’s Hamas Gaza government, reported that Hamas favoured open contacts and agreements with Israel provided the crossings were opened.
The fact was that Israel did not trust Hamas and believed, with good evidence, that Hamas would use such an opportunity to arm itself to a greater extent than it had through the use of the tunnels into Egypt. Hamas’ ultimate goal, the elimination of Israel, was an integral part of its charter. Hamas showed that it was willing to sacrifice the economy of Gaza and the lives of its citizens to foster its ideology and maintain power, though Hamas was clearly, on pragmatic grounds, willing to make some accommodation with Israel.
In retrospect, and in spite of the rhetoric of Netanyahu, Israel did not contemplate the military overthrow of Hamas. It was unwilling to accept the greater sacrifice of its soldiers’ lives that such an objective would require. Instead, the Israeli government thought, with good reason once Sisi came to power, that it could win a war of attrition against Hamas. Whether or not this was the best strategy, in its implementation, Israel made numerous errors.
Before the war started, Israelis believed that it would be irrational for Hamas leaders to go to war with Israel. However, Hamas deliberately went to war for their own views of survival. Further, Israel, like most of the world, believed that Hamas stumbled into war when the accumulating evidence suggests that it was a rational desperate option in the face of what Hamas leaders believed to be, for them, even more untenable choices. Israel misjudged Hamas’ intent.
Israel was also inadequately prepared for tunnel warfare even if Military Intelligence had some knowledge of the tunnels and even if the logistics, training and discipline of the IDF had improved. Israel had been prepared with its bomb shelters, warning apparatus and Iron Dome against the rocket attacks. Its army was prepared to handle terrorists who entered Israeli territory. The IDF was not prepared for tunnel warfare and, consequently for Israel, lost a significant number of soldiers. Why did the IDF not prepare better for tunnel warfare? What were the IDF priorities that pushed such a focus down the line?
One possible answer is the mega-strategic picture. For Israel, the battle began as an operation; for Hamas it began as an all-out war. The situation – not Israel — posed an existential threat to Hamas. Hamas was not an existential threat to Israel, which is one major reason why Bibi had his main focus on Iran.
Unlike Operation Cast Lead in 2009, which was well planned and began with the destruction of 12 Hamas bases, and Operation Pillar of Defence which began in November 2012 with the assassination of Ahmed Jabari, Deil’s predecessor as head of Hamas’ military wing, Operation Protective Edge seemed clearly an unintended enterprise from the Israeli perspective. Otherwise, why not take out Deil at the beginning rather than targeting the military command group in the final act of the war?
Further, how did Israel, which had a blockade around three-quarters of Gaza, allow Hamas to import 40 CN Towers worth of cement as well as thousands of long range rockets? Why did world leaders contribute so much to the rehabilitation of Gaza when Gaza was spending such an inordinate part of those donations on its military build-up? How could such an economically dependent territory, which was virtually an economic basket case, afford the sophisticated underground and air military system it had developed? Will the economic rehabilitation of Gaza be bled this time to fund the military resurrection of Hamas?
Further, UNRWA is funded through international sources, including Canadian funds. Yet UNRWA schools were used to hide Hamas rockets, which, when discovered, were turned over to Hamas with a slap on the wrist. UNRWA schools were used as booby traps as when three IDF soldiers at the end of July were killed when the UNRWA building exploded on top of them. At the same time, UNRWA was very vocal in accusing Israel of war crimes and of deliberately attacking UNRWA facilities. Thus, when an Israeli rocket aimed at three fleeing Gazan rocketeers on their motorbike evidently hit an UNRWA facility housing 3,000 Gazan refugees, killing 10 and wounding 35 others, Ban Ki-moon called the airstrike “a moral outrage and a criminal act”. The US State Department decried it as “appalling”. One or even two strikes against UNRWA facilities might possibly be collateral damage. But six? Unless some of those missile explosions were the result of misfired Hamas rockets or else were deliberately staged as one claimed even about the incident described above. The challenge that the incident was staged was based on comparative photography but from a source totally opposed to Hamas. That is why each case must be thoroughly investigated by a truly independent party and judgements not made on the basis of second-hand evidence.
A short humanitarian cease-fire immediately followed the strike on the UNRWA facility described above. It was to begin at 10:00 a.m. on Monday 4 August just after the disastrous breakdown of the 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire that was supposed to begin on the previous Friday. The new one held. Why?
There is another critical question to ask concerning the media war, which, for Hamas, was the main event. Israel at the beginning of the war had widespread world support. It lost a considerable part of that support when it resorted to the ground war as the physical destruction and casualties rose considerably – for both sides. European countries were particularly scathing in their criticisms of Israel. The mainstream media in America also jumped on the bandwagon. After a week or two of delay, the Israeli media itself caught up to that shift and also began covering the widespread destruction and the pictures of the wounded and dead civilians. This shift became very evident in the coverage at the time of the Cairo negotiations. Further, the look back at the conduct of the war prefigured two different strands, first, the retrospective replay of the Goldstone Inquiry via the Schabas Inquiry, and, second, the surprising prospective re-birth of the peace talks and even the Arab initiative.
However, the most explicit and unspoken consequence of the war was the new de facto alliance of Egypt and Israel. How did Egypt succeed in a far more severe blockade on Gaza without receiving the brickbats thrown at Israel? And how did it do so without directing significant military assets towards Gaza? Further, though Israel first opposed the unity government in Palestine, its own efforts — with the aid of Egypt — seemed to help consolidate that government.
With regard to Egypt’s re-emergence as a regional power, Egypt was the clear and unequivocal victor in the war even though it was not a belligerent. It won in terms of status, security and even economically, as Egypt refused to carry any of the burden of Gaza. The Muslim Brotherhood was further weakened with the political diminution of Hamas. Israel continued to get the blame for the blockade. And it was all done at no cost to Egypt in terms of significant money or lives lost. Israel, in contrast, lost in terms of status and money, but it did emerge a victor in terms of security. Hamas is much weaker than it was after either Operation Cast Lead or Operation Protective Shield. But the war probably cost the Israeli economy five billion dollars and once again Israel will be subject to a UN Commission of Inquiry.
Commentators like Ben Caspit, who opined that Israel paid a stiff price without accomplishing anything politically or strategically, are just dead wrong. The strategic balance of power has shifted radically in the Middle East to a much stronger Egypt, a stronger Israel and a much weaker Hamas. As the Middle East in its wider scope has shifted power from extremists to even greater extremists to Israel’s east, Israel is now more secure when looking west. Further, the war between the different extremes takes some of the pressure and focus off the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel’s military strategy has also indirectly been altered by the war, in my estimation generally for the better. Instead of expecting a decisive outcome, as it did in the old wars with Egypt, Jordan and Syria, the outcome after the 2014 51 Day Gaza War remains vague, but, in contrast to Lebanon, the war did not leave behind the equivalent of a still powerful Hezbollah. On the other hand, given the threat to Israel’s air communications revealed by the war, Hezbollah has watched the war unfold. If a war is resumed on Israel’s northern front, Hezbollah will undoubtedly rain down hordes of missiles on Ben Gurion airport. Israel should learn that Iron Dome has to be strengthened to prevent a massive attack.
Secondly, Israel is learning how to fight a war of insurrection rather than one of frontal battles and that is to its benefit since this is the type of war it is most likely to face in the future rather than the swift and decisive battles of the 1956, 1967 and 1973 wars. Israel has learned that decisive victory followed by occupation has greater long term costs than an ambiguous victory and no occupation. Third, hopefully Israel has learned that it cannot rely on deterrence in the face of a trapped enemy that bases its strategy on martyrdom and resistance.
Another result was the further alienation of Europe in spite of general initial support. I am not sure how a war can be fought to defeat an enemy, with all the consequences of collateral damage to civilians, when the collateral damage to its relations with its major trading and democratic partners are severely challenged. Would a war that is far more considerate of its effect on the civilian population, one that had clearer and more targeted objectives without employing massive firepower, been more effective both in “winning” the war in Gaza as well as the international media war? Israel’s strategic planners will have to zone in closely on the apparent paradox of the greater military force used, the smaller the victory. This attention is critical, especially with respect to the growing chasm between Israel and the American White House, a chasm that manifested itself most clearly on the Iran issue.
There has also been an unintended indirect effect. Bibi in the spring of 2014 was almost obsessed by Iran. The talks on disabling Iran’s capacity to make nuclear weapons, while still facing some significant hurdles, has progressed significantly. Though Iran has not surrendered its desire to remain ambiguous about the future military use of its nuclear capacity, in spite of its clear rhetoric disclaiming any intention to use its nuclear capacities for strategic or military purposes, and though there have been some delays in the implementation of the interim agreement, the Natanz Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant has not been made operational. Iran has not produced any more hexafluoride enriched uranium above 5% and has diminished all its stocks of 20% enriched stocks to 5%. These are momentous achievements. Most importantly, other than its strictly military facilities, Iran has opened all its nuclear enrichment facilities to international inspection. The Gaza War distracted Bibi and, more importantly, the world from Bibi’s stubborn recalcitrance on this mater. The war allowed Bibi a face-saving way to skirt the topic. Will he take advantage of this opportunity for saving face and mending his relations with the Obama administration?
As the United States administration seems – with the stress on “seems” — to have been proven right in placing its bet on negotiations, at least, thus far, the schism between the USA and Israel has widened given America’s half-hearted backing and occasional tongue lashing of Israel during the war. Most important of all, the USA has almost been completely sidelined in the cease-fire talks. I do not know how this deepening and growing chasm between the US and Israel will turn out, but it is the most worrisome outcome.
There is a great deal to ponder in the aftermath of the war and I have only touched on some major issues. How does one weigh the losses against the gains? I am in no position to do so and am not even sure it is a worthwhile exercise. The importance will be whether one learns from the failures and takes advantages of the successes.