With Gaza war ostensibly over, Israelis ask what’s next?

Some observers are sure that operation’s best possible outcome is a time-out, while others wonder how the Strip will be demilitarized

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

Israeli soldiers next to a Merkava tank stationed at an army deployment area near Israel's border with the Gaza Strip, on July 24, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Jack Guez)
Israeli soldiers next to a Merkava tank stationed at an army deployment area near Israel's border with the Gaza Strip, on July 24, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Jack Guez)

On the ninth of the month of Av, Jews traditionally mourn the destruction of two Temples, among a laundry list of other calamities that befell the Jewish people on this day throughout the ages.

On this Tuesday, the ninth of Av in the Hebrew calendar, many Israeli Jews, especially those leaning to the right, added Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to agree to a 72-hour ceasefire with Hamas to that long tally.

Once more, many wailed, Israel is caving to international pressure, holding its fire and withdrawing its forces from Gaza without having “finished the job.” The government again wasted an opportunity to root out terrorism, once and for all, from the Hamas-ruled Strip, they lament.

“It’s a real disgrace that we’re withdrawing; we gained nothing but dead soldiers,” an IDF reservist told Ynet Monday as his battalion was withdrawing from Gaza.

“If they let us go and pull out, this will all be for nothing,” said another soldier. “We’ll go back for another war under a different name; it’s only the names that change.”

A Channel 2 poll published Tuesday showed that 42 percent thought Israel had won the war, versus 44% who said it had lost.

Those sentiments are likely to be shared not only by right-wing politicians, who advocated for a full-scale ground invasion and the reoccupation of Gaza, but also by the residents of the South. Thirty-two cross-border terror tunnels have been destroyed, but the prevailing feeling is that Hamas will use the next days, weeks and months of quiet to rearm and prepare for the next round of violence if it can.

“Best case scenario: Time-out!” tweeted Channel 2’s chief foreign editor Arad Nir on Tuesday morning, as the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire went into effect.

The architects of Operation Protective Edge can cite several significant accomplishments, beyond the mere cessation of rocket attacks: Hamas’s arsenal of rockets was depleted; and the 32 tunnels — which Hamas planned to use for deadly terror attacks against Israeli civilians — were destroyed. Eleven soldiers were killed by Hamas gunmen rushing to use the tunnels before the IDF found and demolished them.

And yet, Netanyahu will have to work hard to explain why this month-long war, during which 64 IDF soldiers and three Israeli civilians were killed, was a success. The operation’s official objectives may turn out to be met — restoring quiet to the South, and dealing a harsh blow to Hamas’s terror infrastructure. But the prime minister knows that he needs to deliver more than that.

Thus far, he has not publicly said anything about the campaign’s ostensible conclusion.

In 2009, a few days after Ehud Olmert ended Operation Cast Lead by declaring a unilateral ceasefire, then-opposition leader Netanyahu announced that if he were in charge, the army would have gone all the way. “I want to say here and now: We won’t stop the IDF. We will complete the work. We will topple the terror rule of Hamas.”

Instead of having the army remove Hamas from power, Netanyahu now hopes that the international community — including the moderate Arab world — will help achieve a different goal, through diplomatic means: the demilitarization of Gaza.

“US and European support of the need to demilitarize the terrorist organizations is an important achievement for the State of Israel,” the prime minister said Saturday. “It will strengthen our demand to link the rehabilitation and development of the Gaza Strip with its demilitarization of rockets, tunnels, etc.”

More important than Western support for the desired disarmament of Hamas, however, is that of key Arab players in the region — support that Israel does have, according to Netanyahu.

A “unique link” has been forged with Arab states since the war started, he said. “This, as well, is a very important asset for the State of Israel. With the cessation of the fighting and the conclusion of the campaign, this will open new possibilities for us.”

This is seen as a reference not only to Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, but also to states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that see radical Islamism as an existential threat.

“It’s very clear that he’s talking about some kind of clandestine arrangement involving coordination with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE,” said Joshua Teitelbaum, a senior research associate at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. Netanyahu probably seeks to install a mechanism to rehabilitate the utterly devastated Gaza Strip with Saudi funds and have the Egyptians monitor the process to make sure Hamas doesn’t abuse the aid to rearm, added Teitelbaum, whose research focuses on Persian Gulf countries and political and social development in the Arab world.

Hamas will certainly not volunteer to give up its machine guns and their rockets. “To ask Hamas to demilitarize Gaza is like asking a priest to convert to Judaism,” Amos Yadlin, a former head of Military Intelligence and currently the director of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, quipped wryly last week.

Netanyahu has yet to explain how, exactly, the disarmament of Gaza terrorists is supposed to work. Until he does, and until progress is made on seeing the Strip weapon-free, many Israelis, and many worldwide, will be left wondering.

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