ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 141

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Op-ed: Day 61 of the war

Why Israel, which wanted to think it was done with Gaza, sees this as a war of no choice

Israel left Gaza in 2005. Central to the catastrophic failure to preempt or prepare to tackle the terrorist-army that invaded on Oct. 7 was our leaders’ desire not to have to go back

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).

  • Family and friends of IDF soldier Staff Sergeant Tuval Yaakov Tsanani mourn during his funeral, in Kiryat Gat, on December 5, 2023. He was killed during the IDF ground operation in the Gaza Strip. (Flash90)
    Family and friends of IDF soldier Staff Sergeant Tuval Yaakov Tsanani mourn during his funeral, in Kiryat Gat, on December 5, 2023. He was killed during the IDF ground operation in the Gaza Strip. (Flash90)
  • Israeli soldiers seen on a road near the Israeli-Gaza border, southern Israel, December 4, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
    Israeli soldiers seen on a road near the Israeli-Gaza border, southern Israel, December 4, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
  • Palestinians are seen at a temporary camp set up for those who were evacuated from their homes near the Egyptian border in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip on December 5, 2023. (Atia Mohammed/Flash90)
    Palestinians are seen at a temporary camp set up for those who were evacuated from their homes near the Egyptian border in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip on December 5, 2023. (Atia Mohammed/Flash90)
  • Israeli security and rescue forces at the scene where a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip by Palestinian terrorists hit  the southern city of Ashkelon, December 5, 2023. (Edi Israel/Flash90)
    Israeli security and rescue forces at the scene where a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip by Palestinian terrorists hit the southern city of Ashkelon, December 5, 2023. (Edi Israel/Flash90)
  • Israelis put up posters of hostage held by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, at 'Hostages Square' in Tel Aviv. December 6, 2023. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
    Israelis put up posters of hostage held by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, at 'Hostages Square' in Tel Aviv. December 6, 2023. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

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.

In the summer of 2005, Israel ended its rule over Gaza. Amid intense national discord, the IDF dismantled the 21 settlements Israel had established there, evacuating their 8,000 residents, some of whom sought to resist eviction, and then withdrew all of its own forces to the pre-1967 lines.

As far as Israel was concerned, it no longer had any claims on the enclave it had captured from Egypt in the 1967 war. It can never be definitely known, but it is not unreasonable to suggest, that had post-2005 Gaza proved unthreatening to Israel, and especially if it had proved amenable to coexistence with Israel, subsequent Israeli governments would have seriously considered unilateral withdrawal from some, even much, of the West Bank as well.

Almost 20 years later, as Hamas prepared in plain sight for months to invade Israel, the political and military leadership chose to tell itself that nothing of the kind was about to happen.

Israel had suffered horrifically from Hamas’s suicide-bombing onslaught in the Second Intifada; bloodied and battered, Israel had learned to its terrible cost that Hamas sought to kill Jews wherever it could and was determined to destroy Israel. Israel had seen Hamas brush aside the secular Fatah faction of the Palestinian Authority to seize control of Gaza in a matter of days in 2007. It had fought numerous rounds of conflict with Hamas-run Gaza, and endured innumerable spates of indiscriminate rocket attacks. And now it had seen Hamas establish a full-fledged army, 24 battalions strong, publish operational plans to invade Israel — to seize IDF bases and communities, and carry out massacres and abductions — and train commando forces for the task. Yet its top political and military echelons refused to believe the evidence before their eyes.

Israel, after all, had left Gaza in 2005. And underpinning the catastrophic, unconscionable failure to preempt, prevent or prepare effectively to tackle the 3,000 Hamas-led terrorists who burst through the border early on October 7, was the Israeli leadership’s conscious and subconscious desire not to have to go back.

Whatever Israelis, the Arab world and the international community make of the tactics the Israeli army has employed since October 7; whether the IDF has found the correct balance in the near-impossible mission to destroy Hamas’s military capabilities and kill as many as possible of the 25,000 government-terrorist gunmen, many of them fighting in civilian clothes, while minimizing harm to both its own troops and to Gaza civilians — whatever the case with all of that, the entire yearslong context of this war, culminating in the unbearable horrors Israel suffered on October 7, underlines why IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi repeatedly stresses that this is a “justified war.” Why Defense Minister Yoav Gallant repeatedly calls it “a war of no choice.”

The almost 20 years of Israel-Gaza context underline why those definitions of this war resonate so deeply with all or almost all Israelis. This is a war against a terrorist-government that wreaked unprecedented slaughter here and fully intends to wipe us out. It is also a war against the terrorist-government of an enclave Israel wanted nothing more to do with — to the point that Israel’s political and military leaders simply did not allow themselves to recognize that the idea that Israel could truly separate itself from Gaza was wishful thinking, until it was too late.

Israeli troops operating in the Gaza Strip in an undated photo released for publication on December 6, 2023 (Israel Defense Forces)

**

The leadership of the IDF and the other security bodies who closed their eyes to the looming catastrophe quickly took direct responsibility for their failures, made clear that they will step down once the war is over, and are doing everything they know to try to destroy Hamas and restore Israelis’ sense of security.

The contrast between that behavior and the actions of Israel’s political leadership grows starker by the day.

Tuesday night’s press conference by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Gallant and fellow war cabinet minister Benny Gantz was only the latest exercise in projected disunity.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left), Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (center) and Minister Benny Gantz deliver remarks on December 5, 2023. (Screen capture: PMO)

Gallant and Gantz can barely even bring themselves to look at Netanyahu. That may not be particularly surprising. The prime minister did temporarily fire Gallant in March for daring to publicly warn that the coalition’s judicial overhaul bid was causing rifts that extended into the military and emboldening Israel’s enemies. And he reneged on an agreement in 2021 that would have made Gantz prime minister.

But the body language reflects not only their histories of acrimony, but the current disagreements between them. Among the sources of friction, Gallant wanted to tackle Hezbollah at the start of this war, rather than rely on tit-for-tat responses at the northern border and the weight of US military deterrence. Gantz openly challenged Netanyahu on Tuesday night to, for once, put aside the funding demands of his far-right coalition allies and devote all available budgetary resources to the war effort.

As for Netanyahu, he is ever more shamelessly advancing his own personal political cause with assertions and emphasis quite at odds with the national mood and sentiment. He keeps hailing his own ostensibly unique skills in managing the diplomatic and military arenas, when the very nature of his anti-Arab coalition globally undermines the absolute legitimacy of Israel’s resort to force. He keeps picking public fights with the US over the vision for post-war Gaza, insisting repeatedly that the PA can have no role there in its current iteration, when not even the Americans are suggesting that it can, and without proposing viable long-term alternatives. He even seemed to suggest, in answer to a question Tuesday night about whether he would resign, that for him to leave would be doing what Hamas wants, so crucial is he to the helming of the war. Wanting Netanyahu gone, in this narrative, thus becomes unpatriotic and tantamount to siding with our enemies.

Released hostages and families of hostages held in Gaza meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other members of the war cabinet on December 5, 2023. (Hostages and Missing Persons Families Forum)

Danny Elgarat, whose brother Itzik is one of the 138 people still held hostage by Hamas in Gaza, emerged from the meeting the war cabinet belatedly consented to hold on Tuesday afternoon with released hostages and the families of hostages to report bitterly, “With the ministers, you get the feeling that it’s all politics — the important number for them is 61, not 137” — 61 being a majority in the Knesset. As he did at the press conference, Netanyahu “started speaking about Hanukkah and light and miracles,” said Elgarat, “when we wanted answers. Families are on the brink of collapse.”

“I left the meeting feeling that I don’t feel secure,” Elgarat said, contrasting that with his sense after watching Halevi giving a statement on Tuesday afternoon. The IDF chief of staff, he felt, spoke from the heart, honestly, “explaining straightforwardly what is happening.” Halevi and the military chiefs, in Elgarat’s summation, “feel guilty, and they’re trying to fix it.”

**

Netanyahu said Tuesday night that the IDF has eliminated “about half” of Hamas’s battalion commanders. The IDF has indicated much the same, and Halevi and other commanders are adamant that the ground operation is extremely effective.

Hamas commanders pictured in a Gaza tunnel several months ago, several of whom the IDF said on December 5, 2023, have since been killed. (IDF Spokesman)

Currently, IDF Spokesman Daniel Hagari said Tuesday night, “We are proving that our forces are surrounding the center of Khan Younis while respecting international law… We are showing the world that we can do this, simultaneous with humanitarian efforts. This will allow us to manage the fighting over time.” Because, he stressed, to dismantle “a terrorist group that uses civilians as human shields, and hides underground, we need time.”

Amid the vagueness regarding both timescale and the definition of “destroying Hamas,” indications are that the IDF sees the current intensive ground operation continuing for another one to two months.

After that, the army will not drastically reduce its troop deployment inside Gaza — to do so would be to enable Hamas to regroup and seek to fight all over again in areas where the military believes it has broad control. But the IDF will aim to change the nature of the fighting, hoping to reach the stage where it is dealing with “pockets of resistance” rather than full-scale confrontation, and therefore also potentially reducing the dangers faced by Gaza civilians.

A new truce arrangement with Hamas is not seen as likely in the next few weeks. Israel has partial information on the whereabouts of the hostages, but while repeatedly and credibly saying it is making every effort to bring home every hostage, nobody in the IDF is making grandiose promises about rescue operations. At Tuesday’s stormy meeting, Gallant seemed to indicate that even an “all for all” deal — the exchange of all hostages for all the Palestinian security prisoners held by Israel — would not satisfy the demands of Hamas’s Gaza chief Yahya Sinwar.

**

In an interview with the ultra-Orthodox website Kikar Hashabat published Tuesday, Shas party leader Aryeh Deri, who sits in the war cabinet as an observer, indicated that Hamas had still more ambitious plans for October 7 than those it monstrously carried out.

File: Shas leader Aryeh Deri, in an interview with the Haredi news site Kikar Hashabat, September 13, 2023. (Screenshot; used in accordance with clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

“We know now what we didn’t know then,” he said, elaborating that since the start of the ground operation, “the IDF has gone into Hamas [command] posts and seized vast amounts of material. We now see, in black and white, what their plans were for Simhat Torah — for many Simhat Torahs, heaven help us. The grand plan was completely different.”

Deri added that Iran and Hezbollah are furious with Sinwar, because he didn’t tell them about the timing of the onslaught. “Try to imagine what would have happened if in the north, in Judea and Samaria, if in those cities…,” Deri trailed off at this point, perhaps realizing that he was about to say too much, and then resumed after a pause, “… that was their original plan.” He didn’t specify further.

**

There has been much talk in recent years about turning the IDF into a “professional army” rather than the conscription-based “people’s army.”

As things stand, much of Israel is intimately engaged in the country’s ongoing military defense. It’s hundreds of thousands of our relatives and colleagues and friends and neighbors on the front lines — — inside Gaza, at the northern border and elsewhere. Soldiers doing their mandatory service, and reservists whose normal lives have been put on hold for two months and counting.

We’re a nation with our hearts in our mouths.

Fighting this war with a “professional army” would probably have made it unwinnable.

Fighting any war not widely regarded as legitimate with our “people’s army” would be impossible.

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