Part IV: The Beginning of the Israeli Ground War

Part IV: The Beginning of the Israeli Ground War

by

Howard Adelman

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

Part I: An Evaluation of Strategy in the 2014 Gaza War: The June Build-Up

An Evaluation of Strategy in the 2014 Gaza War: Part I The June Build-Up

[NOTE: PARTS I, II AND III WERE PUBLISHED IN REVERSE ORDER.]

by

Howard Adelman

I now want to write in an empirical and interpretive rather than normative vein. This does not mean that I am bracketing norms, just moral and legal norms. And even these are not eliminated. Rather they are pushed to the sidelines but not entirely ignored. In doing so, I will draw on the extensive diary I made during the conduct of the war while I was writing my blog. There will inevitably be some repetition but it is likely the number will be very small given the emphasis of this blog – or series of blogs since I will never be able to distil my reflections in one blog from the 600 pages of notes and material I accumulated during the War.

There are a number of strategic themes besides the military one in the conduct of the war. There is the propaganda or media war or the war for the hearts and minds of the international as well as Palestinian and Jewish Israeli publics. There is the diplomatic war internationally and the domestic wars both within Israel and Palestine. I will differentiate the latter by referring to them as the political as distinct from the diplomatic strategies. Economic war continued throughout the conflict as Gaza with a population of 1.8 million with a very high birth rate and an estimated 22.5 to 40% unemployment with 38% of the population living below the poverty line. In discussing the military, media, political, diplomatic and economic wars, I begin with two facts to frame the discussion, one military and the second political.

In May, though there were five ground incursions into Israel, there were only 4 rockets and 3 mortar shells fired into Israel from Gaza, a very significant decrease from the previous four months. Second, on 2 June, a Palestinian Unity Government (PUG) had been created. More significantly, the PUG cabinet of 18 sworn in by President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority were technocrats, most with PhDs. Though they had political views and alliances, few could be said to be politicos and none had previously been identified with Hamas. Though Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Culture, Ziad Abu Amr, was born in Gaza, he held a doctorate in comparative politics from Georgetown University, had previously served the PA and was Foreign Minister in 2007. He had opposed Arafat but never made common cause with Hamas.

It appeared to outside parties that Hamas had totally capitulated to Fatah given the loss of its ally, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt under the Morsi government, the effectiveness of the Egyptian blockade and Egyptian President Sisi’s destruction of the Hamas smuggling tunnels, the alienation of its Iranian patrons because Hamas sided with the rebels against Assad, the inability to pay its civil servants their salaries and the general economic continuing decline in the Gazan economy given the Israeli blockade and the ineffectiveness in getting sufficient international pressure mobilized against Israel to lift or ease the blockade significantly enough, though Gazans were far from starving. The new national unity government appeared to have complied with all three conditions imposed by the international community: recognition of Israel; abidance by previous diplomatic agreements; renunciation of violence.

So why was Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu of Israel so adamantly opposed to Abbas forming a unity government with Hamas, especially since the cabinet was such a technocratic one free of any Hamas stain? His own government was a coalition of 32 rather than Abbas’ streamlined cabinet of 18. I think there are at least several plausible reasons. The Israeli cabinet members are overwhelmingly steeped in military backgrounds and strongly believe in the necessity and importance of military force in protecting Israel and distrust the effectiveness of a cabinet of PhDs in the PA to reign in raw power. After all, Hamas maintained its 20,000 armed and trained militias and its 10,000 rockets targeting Israel let alone a number of tunnels providing underground entry into Israel about which Israel seemed to have so little intelligence. The capitulation was a short term political defeat but Hamas was the more powerful of the two entities as a military threat to Israel. Further, the PA had been tamed and was serving very well as a security partner of Israel in keeping the West Bank relatively pacified – or so it appeared – and this reinforced Netanyahu’s and the majority of his cabinet’s propensity to look where the military power resides. The Bibi government gave the PA a choice – either peace with us or peace with Hamas.

This view was reinforced by the backgrounds of the cabinet ministers who, relative to the Palestinian cabinet, are steeped in engineering, business and commercial law rather than education and theory. They are practical men with strong army backgrounds and many deeply steeped in the values of the Irgun and Lehi parties of independence which very much favoured a reliance on the use of force to achieve national goals. Netanyahu had an engineering undergraduate degree from MIT and, as readers will recall, left the Sharon government in 2005 over Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan. Avigdor Lieberman, an open admirer of Putin, was rejected by Kiev University because he was Jewish; he distrusted expertise – as Foreign Minister he had cut off all ties between the Foreign Ministry and Israel’s own Mossad.

Yair Shamir completed an undergraduate degree in engineering while serving as a pilot in the IAF and his family history was steeped in the right wing militant underground. Gilad Erdan, Minister of Communications, has a Bachelor of Law degree from Bar Ilan. Tzipi Livni, Minister of Justice, also has a law degree from Bar Ilan and, although steeped in nationalist politics as she grew up, is the strongest supporter of the two-state solution in the cabinet. Limor Livnat, Minister of Culture and Sport, holds a BA in Literature from Tel Aviv University. Moshe Yaalon, Minster of Defence, unlike many of the cabinet members, grew up in the ideology of the left labour movement and had a kibbutz background. While serving as an officer in the IDF, he earned a BA from the U of Haifa. Yair Lapid, Minister of Finance, was a high school dropout – a product of a leaning disability that was not dealt with. Admitted to a Bar Ilan PhD program in hermeneutics, the scandal over his admission resulted in the cancellation of the program. Naftali Bennett served in special forces, co-founded an encryption hi-tech firm which he sold for US$145 million and then, as CEO of another cloud hi tech company, sold that for over $100 million. He has a law degree from Hebrew U.

Given these backgrounds and views, it was no surprise that Netanyahu’s cabinet pushed the PA into resuming full political and military control over the Gaza Strip. The Israeli cabinet did not believe in using military means as a last resort because Jews and Israelis had evidently absorbed the lesson that if you wait to take up arms only as a last resort, you would not last. For those within Hamas critical of the Hamas capitulation, they now had clear proof that accommodation with either the PLO or Israel was self-defeating. The Hamas way of “resistance” increasingly seemed preferable to many if not most Gazans than the political and diplomatic route.

Then three Yeshiva student teenagers were abducted and killed by Hamas operatives in the West Bank on 12 June, though it was at first unclear whether they were abducted by a rogue unit from a notorious Hebron clan. Subsequently, Israel claimed that they had definitive evidence that the abduction and murder had Hamas economic backing and formal authorization. Netanyahu used the occasion of an ostensible search for the teenagers – and keeping secret the almost certain knowledge that the three teenagers had been killed, to round up Hamas operatives in the West Bank in “Operations Brother’s Keeper” launched on 12 June. It is not clear whether there was a secret deal with Abbas to do this, but the PA security forces in the West Bank initially cooperated in the purge of Hamas operatives in the West Bank. Abbas had strongly denounced the murder of the teenagers, but also subsequently made known his displeasure at the IDF operations in the West Bank, especially when several Palestinian teenagers, one with a grenade and the other two ostensibly resisting the IDF round up, were killed. On 17 June, 50 Palestinian prisoners set free in the Gilad Shatit prisoner exchange (1000:1) were re-arrested. Over 500 alleged Hamas operatives were rounded up. Instead of a limited action to capture the suspected perpetrators and retrieve the teens’ bodies, the response was greeted widely as disproportionate to its instigation.

On 25 June, Sari Nusseibeh, a well-regarded Palestinian peacenik and President of Al Quds University, wrote his own sense of despair at the direction events were taking. Sari, in spite of the conquest of the West Bank in the 1967 war, had an open admiration for the achievements of Israel and was part of that Palestinian and Jewish wave that wallowed in the interchanges that developed between the two communities in the face of continuing hostilities in the aftermath of the Six Day War. In particular, he himself flirted with setting up a Palestinian kibbutz. But in the last decades, pessimism had displaced hope. Though he continued to “see and admire beautiful individuals. Israel boasts so many of them – poets, writers, journalists, scholars, artists – and just ordinary people in ordinary jobs, trying to live their harmless lives,” that “special luster of an idealistic nation to be admired has vanished” replaced by a state made up of “a scientifically skilled colonialist group of self-serving thugs”. As he depicted his despair: “I cannot easily imagine a reasonable two-state solution happening anymore, a solution that will spare Israel that sad future [the deconstruction of its colonial adventure]. Not because such a solution is mathematically impossible, but because it is has become politically unrealistic.” There was still the possibility, he opined, that Israel might yet create “the conditions for Palestinian well-being that can eventually make a settlement politically more feasible,” but he made it clear that he was not holding his breath awaiting the new political order of porous borders, an absence of forced migrations, and a situation in which a Palestinian state emerges that resembles the natural home for Palestinian citizenship.

As if to prove his despair was correctly rooted, the Israeli government on 29 June moved to tighten its control over East Jerusalem. The realists, whether Hamas terrorists or the more cultivated Israeli cabinet, were once again relying on force as the mainstay for solving the tensions. Lieberman was advocating full occupation of Gaza again and the Israeli Air Force responded to rockets from Gaza, this time some by Hamas directly and not from Islamic jihadists, when rocket fire from Gaza hit and destroyed a plastics factory in Sderot. In any case, the argument that the previous 60 rockets in June had not been fired by Hamas held no weight since Hamas had not only pledged to control the jihadis but had demonstrated it had been effective in doing so. The IDF targeted weapons manufacturing centres, underground rocket launchers and “centers of terrorist activities”. Meanwhile Israeli cabinet ministers, intent on sealing the fate of Oslo and the two-state solution, were proposing annexing 60% of the West Bank while granting autonomy in the 40% balance. It was not enough that US Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative had failed but it had to be buried with militant expansionist rhetoric.

In response to continuing and increased rocket attacks by Hamas against Israeli civilian targets, following the discovery of the bodies of the three abducted and murdered Yeshiva students, on Monday night of 30 June, Israel began a full scale air war against the Gaza Strip hitting 34 allegedly terror-related targets. The IDF killed another Palestinian protester in Jenin in the West Bank. If the military defensive offensive was not enough, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon seconded Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposal to renew construction of settlements in the West Bank with one settlement between Alon Shvut and Beitar Ilit to be built on state lands and dedicated to the memory of Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel.

The personal theme of revenge and death had become the core of the resort to violent means to settle local and very personal murders. Hamas and its militant allies had launched 62 rockets and 3 mortar shells into Israel during June and it was not until the end of June that Israel began to use its overwhelming air superiority to attack numerous targets in Gaza and replacing its tit for tat pinpoint attacks. This seemed to be a cautious path given the make-up of the Israeli cabinet, but Netanyahu to the surprise of many came across as a Prime Minister very reluctant to take his country into all-out-war in Gaza. Whether this was because of public relations or genuine fear of getting bogged down in an intense ground war in a densely populated urban area was not clear.

Tomorrow: The build up to all-out war and the enunciation of war aims.

Part II: Strategy in the 2014 Gaza War: July 1-8

Strategy in the 2014 Gaza War: Part II July 1-8

[NOTE: PARTS I, II AND III WERE PUBLISHED IN REVERSE ORDER.]

by

Howard Adelman

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

Part III: Operation Protective Edge to the Ground War

Part III: From Operation Protective Edge to the Ground War

[NOTE: PARTS I, II AND III WERE PUBLISHED IN REVERSE ORDER.]

by

Howard Adelman

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.