Ten thoughts at the (possible) end of the Israel-Hamas war.
1. Hamas lost. Whether or not Israel “won” — by which I mean attaining the “sustained calm” for its people that was the limited goal of the war — will be determined by the negotiations now taking place in Cairo, or the failure of those negotiations. But Hamas certainly lost. Three weeks ago, with its rocket capacity largely intact, its fighting forces completely intact, the tunnel network it had spent seven years building intact, and most of the Gaza it claims to represent intact, it rejected an unconditional ceasefire which Israel accepted and instead issued a long list of arrogant preconditions.
On Tuesday, with most of its rockets used to relatively little effect, hundreds of its gunmen dead, 32 of its major tunnels smashed, and Gaza devastated, its “military wing” in Gaza overruled its fat-cat political chief Khaled Mashaal in his Qatar hotel, waved a metaphorical white flag, and pleaded for the very same unconditional ceasefire. That does not constitute evisceration. Hamas aims to live to fight another day. But it does constitute defeat.
2. Egypt is crucial. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke ambiguously on Saturday night of Israel’s new potential allies in the region. The one that really matters is Egypt. The unlamented ex-president Mohammed Morsi shared fundamental(ist) common interests with Hamas, an offshoot of his own Muslim Brotherhood. The man who ousted Morsi, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, shares Israel’s concern in grinding Gaza’s terrorist government into the dirt. Throughout the past month, Cairo insisted on an unconditional ceasefire, until Hamas broke. The challenge now is for Egypt and Israel to prove similarly unyielding on the longer-term arrangements, including working together to prevent a Hamas return to the weapons smuggling of the Morsi era.
3. The US, less so. The US is Israel’s most important ally; the alliance is vital to our well-being. It helps enable us to defend ourselves; it stands by us diplomatically when the international community turns upon us. But the less said about US diplomatic efforts toward a ceasefire over recent weeks, the better. As for the grudging, oft-repeated banality that Israel “has the right to defend itself,” might I suggest that a more accurate and appropriate formulation would be that Israel has the obligation to defend itself against a neighboring terrorist government demonstrably using every foul ruse it can muster in order to kill Israelis, including the sacrificing of its own people while its leadership cowers underground. We have scraped the bottom of the barrel of Western morality when it takes an Iranian official to observe, while obviously praising the “resistance,” that Hamas really ought to have let Gaza’s civilians share some space in its tunnels to shelter from the Israeli military strikes it was provoking with its rocket fire and tunnel attacks.
4. Hamas started it. It was because Hamas was desperate to break the Israel-Egypt stranglehold on its finances and military imports that it provoked this conflict. It had tried to regain a footing in the West Bank via its “unity government” deal with Mahmoud Abbas’s loathed Fatah, but when three Israeli teenagers were abducted and killed by a Gaza-financed Hamas cell in June, Israel clamped down again on Hamas in the West Bank, arresting 400 Hamas operatives. Out of options, increasingly unpopular in Gaza, and desperate for money, it stepped up its rocket attacks, and here we all are now four weeks later. Israel, the UN, US, EU, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Arab League — pretty much everyone bar Qatar, Turkey, Iran and Hamas — want a lasting cessation of hostilities, humanitarian aid for Gaza, an enlarged role for Abbas, and the lifting of access restrictions only if tied to the disarming of Hamas and other terror groups. The only question is how to impose this. Memo to Washington, DC: It’s a safe bet that involving Qatar and Turkey won’t help.
5. Abbas’s role. Apropos of which: Given the choice between Hamas and Abbas in Gaza, Netanyahu prefers Abbas. Given the choice between the IDF and Abbas in the West Bank, not so much.
6. About those tunnels. Perhaps folks abroad really just don’t care, or perhaps we haven’t explained it well enough, but Hamas directed much of its energy, money, manpower, time and strategic thinking since seizing the Strip in 2007 to digging a vast network of tunnels — including numerous tunnels under the border with Israel, wide enough to drive through on motorbikes, with the incontrovertible goal of sending large numbers of terrorists into southern Israel to carry out mass murder. I say incontrovertible because, as the IDF worked to smash the tunnels, Hamas sought desperately to use them, and carried out six attacks during the war, its gunmen emerging from the tunnels to kill 11 IDF soldiers. On the Gaza-Egypt border, meanwhile, Sissi’s forces have spent the past year closing down an estimated 1,000-plus more rudimentary smuggling tunnels, through which Hamas imported some of the weaponry it used in this war.
Apparently there are still political leaders and opinion-shapers in relatively enlightened countries who don’t realize any of this, who persist in arguing that Gaza’s tunnels were built solely to smuggle in the basic goods that Gazans are cruelly denied by the Israeli-Egyptian alliance, and who demand the dismantling of the blockade without conditioning it upon a parallel dismantling of Hamas as an all too well-armed terrorist movement. To sum up: The tunnels that Hamas dug under the border near, say, Kibbutz Nahal Oz, were not built in order to smuggle essential fuel and food into Gaza. They were, rather, designed for smuggling large numbers of killers into Israel.
Israelis are not insensitive to the terrible death toll and devastation in Gaza; they just know that Israel didn’t provoke it, and believe Israel’s leaders and armed forces tried to minimize it, in a war Israel didn’t want but couldn’t avoid
7. Israelis are not conflicted. The world is very angry with Israel. It holds Israel primarily accountable for the devastation in Gaza. It thinks Israel used disproportionate force in Gaza. Some previously friendly-ish countries want to stop selling arms to Israel, and thus to deny Israel the capacity to protect itself. There will be attempts at war crimes prosecutions, nasty UN resolutions, UN investigations, violent demonstrations, boycotts, embargoes, anti-Semitism — you name it. Now, maybe all the critics are right. (DH adds, August 7: Since that sentence appears to have prompted some confusion: They’re not.) But for what its worth, Israelis most of the way across the spectrum, though concerned about the international consequences, honestly aren’t too conflicted. They are not insensitive to the terrible death toll and devastation in Gaza; they just know that Israel didn’t provoke it, and believe Israel’s leaders and armed forces tried to minimize it, in a war Israel didn’t want but couldn’t avoid.
Many Israelis are frustrated at how lousily this conflict has been reported and understood overseas; really, with the exception of the occasional gutsy Finn and honest Indian, none of those hordes of super-professional journalists in Gaza could document the 3,000-plus rocket launches — including 600 near schools and other civilian facilities? None of them saw Hamas gunmen firing from homes and hospitals, dressed in civilian clothes? So be it. Most Israelis recall that Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005 and that Hamas took over and built a war machine among Gaza’s civilians. From the Jewish Home party on the right, through to the leading opposition Labor party on the left, this is regarded as a war “for the home” — a war not over disputed territory but targeting all of sovereign, ostensibly undisputed Israel. A war in which all of Israel was attacked with rockets, and southern Israel learned that its very nasty neighbors had been digging terror tunnels under their kitchens and kindergartens. They had to be stopped. No other country would behave differently. And few Israelis believe that any other country would have tackled the particularly pernicious Hamas strategy of using Gazans as human shields more carefully than the IDF did.
(As Adele Raemer of Kibbutz Nirim on the Gaza border told The Times of Israel’s Melanie Lidman on Tuesday, “Wait a minute, I don’t want this to be happening to the Palestinians, but how can I live with the fear of tunnels, with the fear of mortars that don’t give warning when they fall, and the fear of rockets?… When I came to live in this area in 1975, we’d all get in a car and go to Gaza and go to the beach and go to the shuk. A Gazan built this house in 1996… I didn’t go live in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] and I didn’t go live on the Golan Heights because those are areas that could be given back some day. This is Israel proper. I chose to live in a place that’s not contested. So this is where we stick in our heels and say, No, I’m not going anyplace.” As Lidman went on to write, Raemer took her on a tour of the kibbutz, and showed her a parking lot that’s been hit twice by rockets, now the butt of a neighborhood joke: “That’s where you park the car you want to get rid of.” Raemer also pointed out a number of holes in the ground made by rockets, the metal still embedded into the asphalt. Just 20 meters from the kibbutz playground, caution tape warned residents to stay away from parts of an unexploded missile.)
8. Challenges faced by the ground forces. Israelis are deeply impressed with how the IDF ground forces tackled Hamas. The troops faced gunmen in civvies, gunmen in IDF uniforms, snipers, IEDs, booby-trapped homes, suicide bombers, sophisticated weaponry, gunmen popping out of tunnels, holes in walls, cupboards. They learned to their cost that even areas that had been theoretically rendered safe were not — that gunmen could appear out of nowhere and shoot them dead. When soldiers fell in battle, thousands upon thousands of Israelis came to some of their funerals. Few Israelis doubt that the IDF could and would have “smashed” Hamas and retaken Gaza if ordered to do so. Had the IDF been told to go get the bunkered Hamas leaders, “we would have gone to Shifa [hospital] and pulled them out by their ears,” Lt.-Col. (res.) Ori Shechter, the deputy commander of the Nahal Brigade, said on Army Radio on Wednesday. But there’s been no vocal criticism from the IDF about the political direction, and nor is there likely to be.
9. When big-talking ministers fell quiet. Political infighting, by contrast, is bound to surge in Israel if the ceasefire holds. The relative political unity of the past month is just so thoroughly un-Israeli. In which context, the reports that emerged on Tuesday night about a cabinet discussion last week made particularly interesting reading. According to Israel’s Channel 2, the IDF presented an assessment of what a full reconquest of Gaza — rather than the limited ground offensive the IDF was ordered to undertake — would entail. Reestablishing Israeli control over the entire territory and clearing it of military threats would involve the deaths of hundreds of soldiers and thousands of Palestinians, risk the kidnapping of soldiers, endanger Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, batter the economy, prompt riots and worse among Israeli Arabs and in the West Bank, and take about five years, ministers were told. In public, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett have been loudly demanding that Israel go “all the way” and bring down Hamas. Last week, according to the TV report, after the IDF briefing on reconquering Gaza, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked his ministerial colleagues if any of them wanted to pursue the idea, not one of them raised a hand. Away from the public eye, Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, in that order, steered this war. None of the other big talkers had much to do with it.
10. The enemy is desperate. It would be foolish to declare that the Israel-Hamas war, 2014 round, is over. Hamas failed to achieve a “high-quality” terrorism success. It is now desperate for a high-quality diplomatic achievement. If it can’t get the blockade lifted, it won’t have much to sell to the bereft Gazans it hid behind and beneath. Though low on rockets, and with most tunnels smashed, Hamas had thousands of gunmen ready to die in this deliberately orchestrated war against Israel, and most of them didn’t. Facing a desperate and ruthless enemy, complacency is not an option.
As The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, I spend my days in the Knesset trenches, speaking with politicians and advisers to understand their plans, goals and motivations.
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