The next round will be worse, unless Israel reasserts control of its destiny

The Hamas terror-state is causing violence on many fronts, fueling internal Israeli hatreds, harming us globally. The IDF response, however effective, is no substitute for strategy

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

An Israeli in her home after a rocket hit from the Gaza Strip, in the southern city of Ashdod, on May 18, 2021. (Avi Roccah/Flash90)
An Israeli in her home after a rocket hit from the Gaza Strip, in the southern city of Ashdod, on May 18, 2021. (Avi Roccah/Flash90)

Ten days into the battle, Israel’s subterranean barrier against Hamas’s cross-border “terror tunnels” has proved effective. The IDF has thwarted Hamas attempts to attack from the sea. It has intercepted unmanned explosive-carrying drones. It has repeatedly bombarded Hamas’s network of tunnels within Gaza — the so-called “Metro” — through which Hamas moves its forces and weaponry, and from where it intended to emerge and kill and kidnap Israeli soldiers in any IDF ground offensive.

Several key Hamas commanders have been killed; others are on the run; innumerable rocket launchers and weapons stores have been destroyed. In short, Hamas has “received blows it didn’t expect” and been set back “years,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asserted on Tuesday, even as the rocket fire and Israeli counterstrikes raged on.

Which may well be true. But the IDF’s tactical successes are no substitute for a strategy. And as this latest, terrible conflict underlines, Israel has no strategy for dealing with the Hamas terror-state. By contrast Hamas, which will clearly be living to fight another day, knows exactly where it is heading strategically, and has made deeply worrying progress over the past 10 days.

It opened this round of conflict on Monday, May 10, by launching a barrage of rockets at Jerusalem — at a stroke staking a claim among the Palestinians as the ostensible defender of the contested city, where tension and violence had been building at and around the Al-Aqsa mosque atop the Temple Mount. At a stroke, too, by extension, it marginalized the West Bank Palestinian leadership under Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Palestinians check the damage after an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City, on May 18, 2021. (Atia Mohammed/Flash90)

Its rocket fire forced the evacuation of the Knesset plenum. It played havoc with Israel’s Jerusalem Day celebrations. It delayed a court decision on evictions in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah district, and forced the extension of a ban on Jews visiting the Temple Mount. Its incessant rocket fire subsequently necessitated the intermittent closure of Israel’s main international airport, and the cancellation of most foreign airline flights to and from Israel. It closed our schools, stopped some of our trains. It has rained rockets and mortar shells upon a widening swath of southern Israel, and sent longer-range, more potent rockets deeper into the center of the country than ever before.

It has prompted minor rocket and mortar fire toward Israel from two other neighboring countries — Syria and Lebanon — and stirred up fresh hostility to Israel in a third, Jordan.

A picture taken from the northern Israeli kibbutz of Misgav Am on May 18, 2021, shows Israeli security forces firing tear gas to disperse Lebanese protesting in support of Palestinians along the border with Israel. (Jalaa MAREY / AFP)

Perhaps most significantly, and worryingly, it has helped escalate tensions within Israel — between Israel’s own Arab and Jewish citizens — to murderous heights, with mob violence raging for days in several Arab-Jewish cities and beyond.

As the very wise Arab affairs analyst Shimrit Meir noted in a television interview on Tuesday, when Israel’s Arab sector held a general strike and thousands rallied and rioted across the West Bank in a so-called “day of rage,” Hamas sees itself as having “unified ‘Palestine from the river to the sea’ in a collective protest” against  Israel… It sees itself as the trigger that has unified the ‘Palestinians of 1948’ — Palestinian citizens of Israel — together with Gaza, the West Bank, and Jerusalem, into a single entity, protesting as one, acting as one.”

Beyond our immediate neighborhood, the complexities of attempting to thwart a terror-state’s rocket fire, cynically launched from the midst of a civilian population, have undermined Israel’s international standing, with numerous world leaders and opinion-shapers maliciously or lazily comparing death tolls and concluding that because Israel’s is lower, it must be the aggressor.

The likes of US talk show host John Oliver, whose views influence millions, seem to be blaming Israel for devoting resources to the protection of its citizens, while Hamas subverts Gaza’s resources for war and, with heartbreaking consequences, uses Gazans as the human shields for its indiscriminate rocket fire. How dare Israel have an Iron Dome rocket defense system, these critics object, implying that if only Israel were suffering more fatalities, this might be a fairer fight and Israel might merit less castigation.

Demonstrators march in support of Palestine in midtown Manhattan, New York City, on May 18, 2021. (Angela Weiss / AFP)

Doubtless to Hamas’s further delight, Israel’s public diplomacy efforts remain as lamentable as they have been for decades, if not more so. Today, we lack so much as a polished English-speaker as our ambassador to the United States; the prime minister has no coherent frontline English-language spokesman; and the IDF — which notoriously failed for hours with the Mavi Marmara incident a decade ago to produce the footage showing violent activists beating Israel naval commandos on the deck of a vessel running the Gaza blockade — has all too evidently learned little about the need for rapid explanation and response. If there is a military imperative to demolish a Gaza tower where several leading foreign media outlets have their offices, it is not sufficient to warn and give them time to leave before detonating the explosives. It is also necessary to immediately provide credible evidence that the building is indeed a Hamas military asset.

Also to Hamas’s delight, the tide of hostility to Israel, which even the best public diplomacy could only partially alleviate, is playing out in displays of antisemitism, deeply troubling and discomfiting Diaspora Jewry.

A convoy of cars filmed on London’s Finchley Road, with passengers yelling antisemitic obscenities, May 16, 2021. (Screenshot)

While much of the world has clamored for Israel to accept a ceasefire, the United States, under the Biden administration, has clearly given Israel at least a few more days to continue to weaken Hamas militarily — the better to try to deter it from the next round of hostilities. But Biden is fighting a rising tide of Israel-criticism within the Democratic Party. Five, 10 or 15 years from now, it is far from fanciful to worry that a Democratic US presidency would be less dependable.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi has spoken in the past of the unique challenges the Israeli army faces with so many active and potentially active fronts. And that reality goes to the heart of the dangers facing an Israel that lacks a strategy for Hamas and Gaza.

This round of conflict may now be moving toward its conclusion. If so, deeply problematic though it has proved for Israel, it could have been considerably worse. The internal Israeli protests, one hopes and it would appear, may be subsiding, though the scars will take a long, long time to heal, and the root causes extend far deeper than this conflict. West Bank violence and terrorism have not reached First or Second Intifada dimensions, but that threat remains. Massed ranks of Palestinian refugees did not march on the Lebanese or Syrian borders. Crucially, Iran chose not to unleash Hezbollah, whose missile capabilities dwarf even Hamas’s upgraded arsenal.

Palestinians confront Israeli troops at the Hawara checkpoint south of Nablus in the West Bank on May 18, 2021. (JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP)

Forced to mobilize its security forces on three principal fronts — against Hamas in Gaza, in the West Bank, and to defuse violence within — Israel could be stretched further in the subsequent round of hostilities, for which Hamas will begin to prepare the moment this round is declared to be over.

Does Israel need to reconquer Gaza, oust Hamas, at a likely terrible cost, and remain there? Should it initiate a negotiating process with the Palestinian Authority, boosting the deeply problematic Mahmoud Abbas and seeking to vindicate Palestinian diplomacy over Palestinian terrorism? Would it be wise to encourage the internationally funded development of Gaza, with significant infrastructure projects to rehabilitate the Strip, giving Gazans more to lose and thus potentially complicating further Hamas assaults on Israel?

None of these strategic options is good. But the current absence of a strategy is worse. From round to round of conflict, Hamas has grown from a dangerous terrorist organization to the ruler of a terrorist state with what amounts to an army — funded in part by the money that Israel has allowed Hamas’s Qatari patrons to deliver. It is increasingly dominating the Palestinian cause, harming Israel’s international standing, and demonstrating the capacity to stoke violence against Israel on multiple fronts.

Israeli relatives mourn during the funeral of Yigal Yehoshua in the city of Modiin on May 18, 2021. The 56-year-old Israeli Jewish man who was beaten by Arab suspects in the city of Lod last week died in the hospital on the previous day, police said. (Ahmad Gharabli / AFP)

It is indeed possible that the IDF, as Netanyahu said, has set back Hamas militarily for years. But intermittent hostilities, launched at the enemy’s convenience, battering the Israeli home front, with pauses in which the enemy develops a capacity to wreak still greater havoc, add up to an untenable reality. And when that enemy, determined to destroy this country, proves capable of galvanizing a widening array of hostile forces, it becomes a strategic, not just a military, threat.

In Ashkelon’s Yad Michael synagogue on Sunday afternoon, parts of a Hamas rocket smashed a hole in the wall, spreading debris through the building hours before the start of Shavuot prayers. Within two hours, locals had completed an instant cleanup, washing and dusting and sweeping. “Nobody is going to destroy our festival,” the synagogue cantor, Shalom Biton, declared as the brooms worked behind him and the ad hoc cleanup crew cheered. “The people of Israel are strong and courageous. Our enemies need to know… they won’t beat us. Even if there are 100 more rounds of conflict, they’re wasting their time.”

People clean up inside a damaged synagogue in Ashkelon, following a rocket attack from the Gaza Strip, on May 16, 2021. (Avi Roccah/Flash90)

The people of Israel are indeed strong and courageous, and disciplined and resilient under relentless fire.

But our enemies in Gaza have not yet concluded that they’re wasting their time. To use the metaphoric fable, they think of Israel as a frog in slowly boiling water. They must be disabused. What’s required is a sea change in which, rather than allowing Hamas to cast us into rounds of chaos at moments of its choosing, with ever-widening repercussions, Israel determines its long-term goals, sets about achieving them, and reasserts control of its own reality and destiny.

** This Editor’s Note was sent out earlier Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

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