Heading into the third week of its campaign against Hamas in Gaza, Israel finds itself tripping over an unexpected impediment: its overwhelming military superiority.
The problem is that Israeli forces can do pretty much whatever they want in the densely populated district except figure out how to get out. And the longer they stay, the more damage they cause: human damage to Gaza’s residents, consequent political damage to Israel and, not incidentally, damage to Israeli soldiers.
Operation Protective Edge was launched on July 8 with the intention of neutralizing Hamas rockets that had been bombarding Israel since the 2012 cease-fire collapsed a week earlier. The government planned a series of air strikes against the sources of rocket fire, hoping a punishing show of force would intimidate Hamas leadership into accepting a new, better cease-fire. Egypt offered a proposal on July 14. Israel accepted it that night. Hamas rejected it.
Egypt’s plan would have the two sides stop shooting and then negotiate longer-term arrangements. Hamas spokesmen initially said they rejected it because they weren’t consulted; Egypt negotiated with the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority as the legal Palestinian leadership. Soon, though, came a substantive reply: Hamas wanted its demands met before it stopped firing, not after. The demands: freeing prisoners, lifting the siege of Gaza and positioning an international force to police border crossings — effectively giving the terrorist organization its first international recognition. Egypt refused to modify its plan.
With the two sides’ positions seemingly unbridgeable, the little emirate of Qatar, the one Arab state friendly with Hamas, offered to mediate. Washington, intrigued by the idea, encouraged Qatar. The Qatari proposal incorporated Hamas’ demands intact, to no one’s surprise except Washington’s. Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority were furious. Washington backed off and swore loyalty to Egypt’s plan.
Meanwhile, the two sides continued their lopsided exchange of fire — from Gaza, rockets that mostly either landed in open fields or were intercepted by Israel’s missile defense system; and from Israel, deadly aerial attacks that took a growing toll of human life in Gaza.
On July 17, responding to an infiltration into Israel by a squad of Hamas fighters through a tunnel under the border fence, Israel sent in ground forces. The goal was to destroy tunnel entrances on the Gaza side.
Following the network of tunnels, the troops found themselves nearing Gaza City’s urban core. By July 20, Israeli troops and artillery were pounding the city’s easternmost neighborhood, Sheja’iyeh, which Israeli spokesmen said was riddled with underground Hamas military installations. The Washington Post, quoting Israeli officers, reported fierce street combat with Hamas fighters “firing from windows, employing land mines and setting booby traps.”
The Post’s description of street battles was unusual; most news outlets just reported casualties, estimated at some 87 Palestinian dead in Gaza City and another dozen or so further south, plus 13 Israeli soldiers. The body-count style of coverage, influenced by local TV news, created an impression of Israel killing defenseless Palestinians unprovoked. Social media turned sharply against Israel. Clausewitz’s truth — that war is politics by other means — was superseded by America’s new truth: war is TV entertainment.