Op-ed: Day 180 of the war

Yet another ‘How could this have happened?’ tragedy prompts deep strategic concerns

IDF probe into mistaken targeting of aid workers from an NGO it respected won’t satisfy anyone; incident complicates a war Israel must win, raises inescapable questions about PM’s strategy, or lack thereof

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).

People gather around the shell of a car used by US-based aid group World Central Kitchen, which was hit by an Israeli strike the previous day in Deir al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip, April 2, 2024. (AFP)
People gather around the shell of a car used by US-based aid group World Central Kitchen, which was hit by an Israeli strike the previous day in Deir al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip, April 2, 2024. (AFP)

A version of 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.

The IDF’s mistaken killing of seven staffers from the World Central Kitchen aid organization on Monday night is yet another of the “How could this have happened?” disasters that have unfolded since October 7, the biggest of all “How could this have happened?” catastrophes.

Yes, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi have said in their heartfelt apologias, things go wrong in wars, and especially in complex urban wars, at night, fought against terrorist armies embedded like nowhere before amid the civilian populace.

But Israel had a core, declared interest in the work that WCK was doing in Gaza. This is an avowedly nonpolitical, highly efficient humanitarian aid organization, and one that responded swiftly to Israeli civilian organizations’ appeals for experienced assistance in feeding tens of thousands of displaced Israelis in the immediate aftermath of October 7. It had become one of the key organizations that Israel was working with in Gaza, an increasingly central alternative to the reviled, Hamas-riddled UNRWA. And the specific logistics of its operations across the Strip were supposed to be tightly coordinated with the IDF.

Castigated by WCK, bitterly denounced by the leaders of countries whose nationals were killed in the strike, battered globally for deadly incompetence and, in some quarters, falsely alleged malice, the IDF is indeed, as promised, investigating what went wrong.

But as with every “How could this have happened?” disaster since October 7, including other deaths in Gaza relating to aid delivery, and relevantly including the IDF’s tragic killing of three Israeli hostages who had escaped their captors in December, the findings of this probe will by definition satisfy nobody.

Self-evidently, the WCK convoy should not have been targeted; the personnel were not enemy gunmen; they did not pose a murderous threat. Why, then, were they hit? (The fact that the WCK logos on the vehicles would not have been visible at night does not begin to constitute an adequate explanation.) Where did the coordination fail? Who gave the approval for the strike? The answers to these and other questions will not undo what happened and will not alleviate the criticism.

File: World Central Kitchen founder Jose Andres speaks onstage at The New York Times Climate Forward Summit 2023 at The Times Center on September 21, 2023 in New York City. (Bennett Raglin / Getty Images via AFP)

The best that can be hoped for is that lessons will be learned to reduce the likelihood of the next disaster. And that — and this is anything but certain — the IDF, and the Israeli government, will be able to rebuild the relationship with WCK and the other aid organizations on which Israel has come to rely in Gaza.

Without them, since Israel is determined not to allow UNRWA to resume a dominant role, it will fall to Israel and the IDF to oversee and try to secure every stage of the humanitarian aid process — with a colossal allocation of financial and logistical resources and Israeli troops. This, in turn, would take Israel further down the path to the ongoing governance of Gaza that some on the expansionist far-right of the coalition have sought from the start, that the ex-generals Yoav Gallant and Benny Gantz have cautioned against, and that Netanyahu has ostensibly opposed while steadfastly delaying decision-making on any other strategy.

Rafah isn’t imminent

The bigger strategic issue now is whether the “How could this have happened?” question needs, devastatingly, to be applied to the prosecution of the overall, vital, ongoing war against Hamas.

The IDF made extremely effective headway in the first weeks and months of the necessary war to dismantle Hamas and bring home the hostages. Three-quarters of Hamas’s battalions in Gaza were tackled; some half of the hostages were released in a weeklong truce at the end of November.

But as the IDF, in its hurriedly drawn-up post-October 7 war plan, chose to move inexorably south through Gaza, encouraging the evacuation of noncombatants as it progressed, rather than initiating operations everywhere in the Hamas-run territory, it created an ever greater challenge in Rafah. There, on the Egyptian border at the foot of the Strip, most Gazans are now sheltering, Hamas’s leaders and many of the hostages may well be situated, and four Hamas battalions have been swollen by the arrival of gunmen fleeing south.

Netanyahu has been saying for weeks that the IDF’s operational plans for Rafah have been approved, and insisting for weeks that the tackling of Hamas’s organized fighting forces in the terror group’s southernmost stronghold must and will go ahead.

But the fact is that the IDF has relatively minimal forces deployed in Gaza at the moment: its operations have tailed off almost to the level of routine raids in the West Bank, and there is little evidence of any imminent significant operation in Rafah.

File: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, listens as US President Joe Biden addresses the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel, from the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on October 7, 2023. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP)

The US administration, from President Joe Biden on down, has made its profound concerns about a major IDF operation in Rafah repeatedly clear. On Monday, in their video call with the Netanyahu aides who the prime minister prevented from traveling to Washington DC last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan reportedly characterized the IDF’s proposals for the safe evacuation of Gazan combatants from Rafah as unrealistic and unimplementable. And that was before the inadvertent airstrike on the WCK convoy.

Not only is there no green light from the US for a major Rafah incursion, but the prime minister is also doubtless wary of ordering such an operation given the potential consequences for the protracted negotiations on a hostage deal. Relatives of the 130 Israelis held captive in Gaza since October 7 are understandably clamoring with ever-greater desperation for a deal, some of them have now joined forces with the anti-Netanyahu “elections now” campaigners, police are using increasing force against the growing ranks of protesters, and the national imperative to see the hostages brought home has developed into an ever-more partisan issue.

Ayala Metzger, whose father-in-law is held hostage in Gaza, is dragged away from a playground by police during an anti-government protest outside the Prime Minister’s home in Jerusalem on April 2, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Israel was plunged into existential crisis by the Hamas invasion of October 7. The resort to war has not failed — the IDF has fought with unity, courage and success against the amoral Hamas war machine above and below ground; Hamas is much weakened; many displaced Israelis have returned to the south. But neither of the war’s twin key aims has yet been achieved — the Hamas army has not been fully dismantled and is potentially able to rise again; and 130 hostages, six months later, are unthinkably still in captivity.

Inevitably, this all comes back to Netanyahu — since he is Israel’s duly elected and utterly insistent leader. Now in less than full health, with a pacemaker installed last year, newly post-hernia surgery, he still refuses to so much as formally designate a deputy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a recorded statement ahead of his release from Hadassah Medical Center where he underwent surgery for a hernia, April 2, 2024. (Screenshot, GPO)

Netanyahu directed Israeli policy in the years that Hamas built its army before October 7. It was on his watch that the terrorists massacred 1,200 people in southern Israel. It was under his leadership that Hezbollah was able to deploy immediately across the northern border, where it has yet to be strategically tackled.

He has adamantly retained the premiership amid calls to resign, presenting himself — despite the disastrously false pre-October 7 assessment that Hamas could be bought off and didn’t seek war — as the best person for the job. And he has declared that those who are demanding elections — calls further exacerbated by his reluctance, even now, to require Israel’s Haredi community to share the responsibility of national service — are playing into the hands of Hamas, in what is tantamount to an accusation of treason.

He has asserted that he is peerlessly capable of negotiating the international diplomatic breathing space and the practical American military support needed by Israel to see through the war to its successful conclusion. But as the divisive head of a far-right coalition that is contentious at home and loathed abroad, and having initially sought to allow the minimum of humanitarian aid into Gaza, that assertion has been increasingly discredited and Israel’s diplomatic and practical room for maneuver constrained. Global criticism and ceasefire pressure has mounted; American concerns about the absence of strategic planning and decision-making have become more overt.

Netanyahu continues to claim, as he did as recently as Sunday night, that “victory” is a mere “moment” away. But the truth is that the IDF’s current relatively minimal Gaza deployment simply does not allow for an imminent push to victory, notably including in Rafah. And the prime minister — concerned for the hostages, aware of the toll six months of war have taken on Israel’s reserve forces, and lacking support from the Biden administration — is not currently ordering anything remotely akin to the military deployment he authorized earlier in the war.

I write this concerned only with Israel’s well-being in general and fiercely supportive of the twin declared goals of the war in particular. If Netanyahu were manifestly leading Israel effectively to the realization of those ambitious and all-important goals, Israel would owe him its appreciation.

But telling the nation in intermittent press conferences that Israel is on the cusp of victory, without making the unenviable decisions about the strategy for achieving it, is bravado, not leadership. And it risks turning the handling of Israel’s essential post-October 7 resort to war to destroy Hamas into the worst “How could this have happened?” disaster of all.

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