And then there was quiet again here, for a moment. Quiet again in Tel Aviv and Ashdod, quiet in Yehud and Beersheba. There were no sirens wailing in the center, in the south, or in the north. Even in Gaza there were no explosions, shelling, or Israeli attacks. For three days. “Just” burying the dead and pulling corpses out of buildings.
But then, at 8 a.m. on Friday morning, it was over.
The goals announced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government at the outset of Operation Protective Edge a month ago were the weakening of Hamas, and restoring sustained calm for the people of Israel. Or as the prime minister himself put it, “quiet will be met with quiet.” As of Friday, Hamas was much weakened, but certainly had not been quieted.
It may be that the next few days see Hamas contenting itself with “symbolic” strikes, largely on the south, to show the Gaza public that it has not been broken. At the same time, it has declared its desire to continue the ceasefire talks in Gaza. It’s first goal for now: To defy Egypt’s framework, which conditions talks on a cessation of hostilities. Israel’s formal response: It won’t talk while the rockets are flying.
We knew about the tunnels, the procurement of medium- and long-range rockets, and the plans for a variety of attacks. But the strategy of ‘quiet above all’ led to tactics that involved ignoring all this in order to avoid escalation
Hamas’s second goal is to get a seaport opened in Gaza. The spokesmen of its military wing are insisting there’ll be no long-standing ceasefire without it. Why the insistence on a seaport? As a symbol that the blockade has been broken. Even if such a port were overseen by international officials or the Palestinian Authority, Hamas would portray it as a breakthrough, a real achievement that justified the past month’s death and devastation. And also as a link to the outside world that does not pass through Egypt. Even if Hamas were to negotiate a ceasefire deal that saw the reopening of the Rafah border crossing, it would still be dependent on the Egyptians there; not so with a port (although Israel, of course, could always control access from the sea).
If, when, whenever, a more lasting ceasefire agreement can be forged, however, it seems unlikely that much of real substance will change. Both Netanyahu and Hamas may want a period of real quiet, but nothing more than that. Neither wants a serious peace agreement that would require substantive concessions. Neither, least of all Netanyahu, wants a deterioration into full-scale war.
From the moment he returned to office in 2009, Netanyahu has led Israel based on one clear strategy: quiet. Not peace, heaven forbid. And not war. Just general, unassuming calm, that would allow his government to survive and wouldn’t require him to take difficult political or diplomatic decisions.
The policies that Netanyahu and his associates have followed assume that while there is no solution to the Palestinian issue, it can be managed. The commander’s intent, as signaled by the Prime Minister’s Office, also influenced the defense establishment, which sought to maintain quiet with the Palestinians in the West Bank by almost every possible means: occasional concessions, maintenance of security cooperation with the PA, and the minimizing of friction with the local Palestinian population.
As regards Gaza, on the other hand, although there was a dangerous enemy in charge there openly calling for Israel’s destruction, a strange, secretive romance developed. Apparently it was comfortable for Jerusalem to deal with this enemy, Hamas, which didn’t hide its desire to wipe Israel off the map, and thus saved Netanyahu from the need to make difficult decisions about territorial compromises. Hamas had made clear since 2012 that it wasn’t interested in an escalation against Israel. Indeed Hamas, after the end of Operation Pillar of Defense in November that year, worked seriously to maintain the quiet. It stopped activists from other organizations who tried to fire rockets at Israel, and prevented an escalation in any way possible.
Israel under Netanyahu rather liked this arrangement. Here was an organization with which it didn’t need to negotiate, but with which it could cut deals. And thus was born the strange reality that prevailed from November 2012 until July 2014—no peace, and no war against Gaza. Just quiet.
But then came the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank on June 12.
The mistress who cheated
Until that dramatic incident, Israel had refused to internalize what its Gaza “mistress” was doing behind its back. True, we knew about the tunnels, the procurement of medium- and long-range rockets, and the plans for a variety of attacks. But the strategy of “quiet above all” led to tactics that involved ignoring all this in order to avoid escalation. Even in the IDF there was a tendency to regard Hamas as a relatively moderate party that prevented Gaza from falling into the hands of more radical Jihadists.
A backdoor channel via Egyptian intelligence even emerged from this arrangement: When Israel learned about rogue terrorist groups ignoring Hamas’s instructions and planning rocket attacks at Israel, the relevant information would be passed to Egypt, which would in turn tell Hamas in order for its men to thwart the launches. Sometimes it would cooperate, sometimes it would ignore the information.
When Hamas ignored the warnings, Israel would carry out an extremely limited punitive operation. Aircraft would fly into position for an attack on a Hamas training camp or command post, and would spend a long time in the air. Once Israel had verified that there were no Hamas operatives in the area, or any people at all for that matter, the aircraft would fire a missile or two at the target. The damage was sometimes significant, but no Hamas members were killed.
As bizarre as it sounds, this was the Israeli policy, including the army’s, toward Hamas and its people, even after intermittent rocket attacks on Israel.
But after Hamas signed its unity pact with Fatah, and formally gave up on governing Gaza, it felt more free to take more risks and sought to place itself back at the center of the Arab stage. That is the process that began on June 12, with the kidnapping of the three Israeli teens in Gush Etzion.
Hussam Kawasme, the commander of the cell responsible for killing Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-ad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach, received funding and assistance from Hamas in Gaza. Hussam’s brother, as I reported earlier this week, was a Hamas prisoner released from an Israeli jail as part of the Gilad Shalit deal, then deported to Gaza.
While Israel sought the killers and arrested dozens of Hamas operatives in the West Bank, a slow and steady deterioration against Israel occurred in Gaza. At first it was a drizzle of rockets fired by the rogue groups, then more fire from groups that serve as Hamas proxies. After the IDF accidentally killed a Hamas member on the border, the organization itself began firing rockets at Israel.
It is hard to say if Hamas had a master plan with a clear beginning and end. It could be that the organization wanted a limited escalation, but it’s not likely that it understood it would plunge itself into a month of heavy fighting against Israel, which would leave it battered and bruised, with basically no accomplishments on the ground, and much of Gaza in ruins.
Hamas still standing
Where does this now leave Israel? The conflict may not, at this point, have left the kind of deep scars on the country that the Second Lebanon War did in 2006. The IDF’s performance has been reasonable, sometimes even good. The army met the goals it set for itself. The home front didn’t show signs of breaking either.
Still, it seems like we are back where we were before the start of Operation Protective Edge, albeit with 30-plus Hamas tunnels smashed, at the terrible price of 64 IDF soldiers. Hamas is still standing in Gaza, without a desire for an escalation in the near future, but with military capabilities that will only improve with time, able to choose when next to attack.
It seems that the only way to change something in this equation (apart from conquering the Strip) would be for Israel to initiate a political process with the Palestinian Authority. There is not much that Israel can do with Hamas, except undermining it in the diplomatic sphere, by offering it everything — a seaport, an airport, a lifting of the blockade, a weekly pass to the amusement park in Tel Aviv… in exchange for the disarmament of Gaza and the destruction of the rest of the tunnels. In other words, to let Hamas’s leaders choose between the Gaza Underground they’ve built and the Gaza on the surface. Hamas would say no, and Israel would gain a few points.
But if it really wants to harm Hamas, to weaken it internally and in public opinion, the government of Israel would have to renew the peace talks, even at the expense of a settlement freeze. PA President Mahmoud Abbas proved a partner in fighting terror and stabilizing the region in recent months. Even the technocrat government he established, based on Hamas support, suddenly looks to Israel’s decision-makers like an entity it can work with (as opposed to being branded a terror government right after it was established).
But to be more realistic for a moment, the Netanyahu strategy of seeking quiet isn’t likely to change soon. Netanyahu doesn’t really want to drastically weaken Hamas, and he certainly doesn’t want to return to negotiations that would require him to make territorial concessions.