The beginning of the end of Operation Protective Edge

Netanyahu is hoping that the tunnel threat is all but over, and that Hamas will be deterred from further rocket attacks. But ‘all options’ remain open

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R), Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon (C), and IDF Chief of Staff, Benny Gantz seen during a meeting at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv on July 26, 2014. (Photo credit: Ariel Hermoni/Ministry of Defense/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R), Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon (C), and IDF Chief of Staff, Benny Gantz seen during a meeting at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv on July 26, 2014. (Photo credit: Ariel Hermoni/Ministry of Defense/Flash90)

Although the IDF’s Chief Rabbi Rafi Peretz had not yet formally confirmed the death of Hadar Goldin, it seemed clear from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s press conference on Saturday night that he did not anticipate anything but bad news about the fate of the Givati Brigade officer.

Netanyahu said he empathized with the Goldin family, would speak with them later, and that “The State of Israel will continue to do its utmost to bring home its MIAs.” It was apparent that he did not want to dwell on the issue.

Not long before he spoke, the Goldin family — parents, siblings and Hadar’s fiancee Edna — had gathered outside the family home in Kfar Saba to plead with the Israeli leadership not to leave the 23-year-old officer behind in Gaza.

Throughout Friday and Saturday, a major IDF operation had searched for Goldin, kidnapped in a Hamas attack near Rafah on Friday morning. But late Saturday night, two hours after Netanyahu had spoken, a committee headed by Peretz established, on the basis of “findings in the field,” that Goldin was dead, and designated him a fallen soldier whose place of burial is unknown.

While the Rafah operation might continue, Netanyahu, who used the press conference to detail how Operation Protective Edge will henceforth be steered, now knows that he is not leaving Goldin behind.

Firmly slapping down rumors that he might announce the end of the offensive against Hamas, Netanyahu began the Tel Aviv press conference by declaring, “The IDF is continuing to operate with full force in order to complete the goals of the operation: the restoration of quiet and the restoration of security for a lengthy period for the citizens of Israel, while inflicting significant damage on the terrorist infrastructures.”

And yet, his appearance did mark the start of the intended concluding phase of the operation. The Israel Defense Forces is in the process of withdrawing most of its soldiers from the friction points in the Gaza Strip’s urban areas, leaving behind troops only in the Rafah area.

Israel has destroyed or is in the process of destroying all of the 30-plus major Hamas terror tunnels it knows of. It had intelligence information on most of them before Operation Protective Edge began, but did find several more, and cannot be sure it has found them all.

Beyond the efforts to locate Goldin, there is no need to remain engaged in Gaza and further endanger soldiers’ lives, Netanyahu and his key colleagues evidently concluded.

“So far the IDF has very significant achievements in the fighting,” the prime minister said, though he was wary enough of how things might develop to avoid making anything that sounded like a victory speech. “Since the onset of the operation, our forces attacked and destroyed thousands of terrorist targets: Command centers, rocket arsenals and production facilities, launching areas, many hundreds of terrorists, and so on. Our soldiers are showing extraordinary heroism. Their bravery has been shown in the IDF’s very impressive and daring operations.”

By beginning to withdraw troops from Gaza, without entering negotiations over a ceasefire, the prime minister is aiming to deny Hamas an immediate concrete achievement. In 2012, the ceasefire that ended Operation Pillar of Defense called for “opening the crossings [into Gaza] and facilitating the movement of people and transfer of goods, and refraining from restricting residents’ free movement.” This time, Netanyahu is not sending a team to Cairo to discuss a ceasefire with Hamas at all. Hamas deliberately breached Friday’s UN- and US-brokered 72-hour truce, he said, with the “pre-planned” attack in which Goldin and two others were killed. Why bother trying to negotiate another deal with a terrorist group that cannot be trusted?

Israel was ready to negotiate with Hamas, via American and Egyptian mediators. But after the terrorist group time and again proved that it was not interested in holding its fire, Jerusalem lost patience. The Israeli leadership is now hoping to have created enough deterrence to keep Hamas from launching rockets… or raids through tunnels not located. It is hoping that 1.7 million Gazans will not take kindly to having Hamas bring down another round of devastation upon them.

But what if the rockets continue even as Israel seeks to wind down this operation? Hamas reacted derisively to Netanyahu’s press conference, saying he had no significant gains to celebrate.

The prime minister has repeatedly vowed not to halt the operation before quiet is restored, and he said the same thing again Saturday night. After completing its work on the tunnels, “the IDF will prepare for continued action, according to security needs and only according to security needs, until we achieve the goal of restoring quiet to you, citizens of Israel,” he said. Asked about certain ministers’ calls to destroy Hamas and retake Gaza, he said simply that “all options” remained open.

Netanyahu could hardly leave ongoing rocket fire from Gaza unanswered. But rather than a continued ground operation, in the course of which 64 soldiers have already lost their lives, the IDF would likely resort to the relatively safe strategy of air strikes. Whenever a rocket is fired at Israel, the air force will retaliate, until the rocket fire stops.

Hamas’s capacity to launch long-range missiles in large numbers appears to have been greatly reduced, but rockets could well continue to fall on Israel’s south for the coming hours, perhaps days. If the rocket fire trails off, Netanyahu might announce that Operation Protective Edge’s objectives were accomplished.

But as he himself acknowledged, there is more to be done. The prime minister thanked the US for recognizing the need to disarm Hamas. And he urged the international community to link the rehabilitation of Gaza to its demilitarization.

That process really could ensure sustained quiet for Israel, at least as regards the threat from Gaza. Netanyahu spoke of new opportunities that might arise after this conflict with others in the region. Israel will need to maximize all and any such opportunities for true long-term calm to prevail.

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