Over a year has passed since summer’s 2014’s campaign against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and though Operation Protective Edge has drawn little harsh criticism in Israel, even the IDF chief of staff who orchestrated it has little to say to its credit.
At a conference titled “From Protective Edge to the Third Intifada,” past members of the defense establishment, researchers and politicians gathered Monday at Sderot’s Sapir College to discuss the 2014 war and its relevance a year later. The consensus: Operation Protective Edge was well executed, but accomplished little.
Former IDF Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, who served as chief of staff during the operation, delivered the keynote address at the event, which the Tel Aviv University-affiliate Institute for National Security Studies organized. But even he, as the campaign’s executor, if not architect, offered a relatively bland defense of the operation.
“It was the right thing to do at in the right time,” Gantz said dispassionately.
The former IDF chief, who served from 2011 to 2015, praised the Israeli communities surrounding the Gaza Strip for having remained steadfast and strong during the operation.
He also lauded the efforts of the prime minister, the defense minister, the IDF and the Shin Bet security service, but admitted, “Protective Edge is not something that I’m in love with.”
Gantz even cast doubts on the efficacy of the operation, warning that Hamas was “rearming and trying to recreate its abilities.”
Gantz was not alone in expressing ambivalence towards the operation, in which 72 Israelis and approximately 2,000 Palestinians died. Enough time had passed since the 50-day military campaign to allow the presenters to utter once taboo ideas.
Dr. Yom-Tov Samia, who led the IDF’s Southern Command in the early 2000s before becoming a counter-terrorism researcher at the Inter-Disciplinary Center in Herzliya, was perhaps the most provocative. Samia criticized the 72 medals of honor awarded to soldiers for their service during the operation, calling it “absurd.”
“When you have an operation, in which its impact is not yet clear and its achievements are still a question mark, as a military man, I have a problem with giving out 72 medals of honor,” Samia said.
None of the IDF’s actions in Gaza before Operation Protective Edge, including Operation Hot Winter in 2008, Cast Lead in 2009 and Pillar of Defense in 2012, prevented the operation that succeeded it, he said. So too the 2014 war won’t prevent a future military incursion into the Strip, Samia presumed. Should the tendency of a one-to-three year cooling off period between actions hold true, he said, Israel can expect the next Gaza operation to occur in 2016 or 2017.
But while Samia sees this never-ending cycle of violence as a futile and Sisyphean exercise, deputy director of INSS Udi Dekel described Israel’s need to periodically strike terror groups in the Gaza Strip as the best possible solution for handling the territory.
The alternative, Dekel explained, would involve either completely taking over the Gaza Strip, toppling Hamas and accepting full responsibility for the population, or completely disengaging from Gaza, sealing the border entirely, cutting off electricity, water and sewage lines, but allowing the population to build a port or whatever other infrastructure they desire so long as it is not used to smuggle in weapons that can be used against Israel.
Neither of these extremes would be particularly beneficial to Israel, Dekel told the dozens of students, researchers and journalists who attended the conference. The former would be far too demanding and near impossible to carry out well. The latter, meanwhile, would leave Israel vulnerable to an unchecked enemy.
‘The better things are in the Gaza Strip, the better our chances that the quiet will remain for longer’
Instead, the government and military must continue with their policy of not intervening in Gaza, until they have no other choice. In the meantime, Dekel said, that means encouraging the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip, despite knowing that some of the building materials will wind up going to Hamas bunkers and tunnels.
“The better things are in the Gaza Strip, the better our chances that the quiet will remain for longer,” he said.
Dekel also shattered the taboo against speaking frankly and openly about the benefits Israel enjoys from keeping Hamas in power in the Gaza Strip. “Though Hamas is an enemy, and a dangerous enemy at that, it’s better to have one enemy with one address, than having a whole bunch of addresses,” Dekel explained.
Amos Yadlin, executive director of INSS and the man who would have been defense minister had Labor won the March elections, reinforced this pointed during his address. “I have a surprise for you about Hamas: They’re our weakest enemy, our weakest enemy. They’re not Hezbollah or Iran or Syria,” he said.
If Israel got rid of Hamas, Dekel argued, it would leave a vacuum that would be filled by multiple extremist groups, which would present a logistical nightmare for the IDF.
Now, for instance, regardless of which group actually fires a rocket into southern Israel, the air force strikes Hamas positions. Hamas, realizing this, is forced to act as sheriff in the Gaza Strip, stopping other terrorist groups from carrying out attacks. Without Hamas, that onus of responsibility would instead fall on Israel.
So when politicians say that we need to destroy Hamas, Dekel added, “it’s more about appearances than what is actually happening.”
Attorney Gilead Sher, who helped lead negotiations with the Palestinians at the Camp David summit in 2000, spoke after Dekel and attempted to provide a sense of optimism.
“Conflicts more difficult than ours with the Palestinians have been solved,” Sher said.
What’s important is that Israel renew negotiations, he said. “Even interim agreements are OK. We don’t need to solve everything in one shot,” he added.