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.
Diplomatic efforts for a cease-fire now kicked into high gear. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon both flew to Cairo to move negotiations forward. It was hard to see what they could add, since neither one would talk to Hamas.
The significant diplomatic initiative was the July 20 trip of P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas’s to Qatar to meet Hamas political chief Khaled Meshaal. Abbas aimed to convince Meshaal to accept the Egyptian cease-fire and end the killing. After a reportedly tense day of talks, Meshaal said no. Ending the killing wasn’t the point.
Publicly, Hamas says it’s entitled to “defend” the Palestinians by firing on Israel. How tactics causing mass killing of Palestinians can be called “defending” is a tad obscure. But Hamas had good reasons to keep fighting. Before the crisis it was broke, isolated, friendless and increasingly irrelevant. After three weeks of battle it’s still broke, isolated and friendless, but no longer irrelevant. It’s calling the shots in an international crisis that dominates world headlines. It appears to be regaining popularity on the Palestinian street, at Abbas’s expense. It’s proved it can make Israelis’ lives miserable.
The clearest sign of Hamas’s ascendance is Abbas’s sudden reversal after returning from Qatar. Top Fatah aide Yasser Abed Rabbo now claims Hamas’ demands are “the Palestinian people’s” demands.
Now Israel is stuck. The longer it fights on in Gaza, the higher the death toll will rise. In reality, the U.N. estimates 75% to 80% of casualties are civilian. Studies by Unicef and others show that the average civilian toll in modern warfare is consistently 80% to 90%. But go tell that to television audiences.
As of July 23 Israel still had the diplomatic support of America and Europe. The bad news was that the U.N. Human Rights Council was preparing an updated Goldstone-style war crimes inquiry. More alarming was the decision by several international airlines, including all three American carriers serving Israel, to shut their Israel routes because of rockets threatening Ben-Gurion Airport. Israel scrambled to dust off an old field at Ovda, three hours south of Tel Aviv. But the implications — economic, diplomatic and psychological — are potentially devastating.
No less troubling is the longer-range prognosis. Israel was saying it would keep fighting until it eliminated Hamas’ rockets and tunnels. Afterwards it will leave Gaza. It’s only a matter of time before Hamas — or some more radical group — will rearm and start again. The prospect leaves Israelis from left to right asking anxiously if periodic warfare with Gaza terrorists is Israel’s fate forever. Is there no solution?
Actually, there is, though it seems implausible right now. When the crisis first erupted, a de facto anti-Hamas alliance emerged uniting Israel with Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and the Arab League. Egypt is insisting that Gaza’s borders be controlled by Abbas, not Hamas’ “international force.” If the world community stands firm and forces Hamas to accept Abbas, it might be the beginning of a new Gaza.
There’s a price, though. To bring Abbas and the Arab League on board, Israel would have to indicate it’s ready to head toward Palestinian statehood along the Arab League’s lines. That’s a tall order right now. Prime Minister Netanyahu says he’s learned that Israel can’t give up security control of the West Bank. But there’s another lesson: territorial depth isn’t what it used to be. You can’t protect yourself from rockets by pushing them farther away — only by removing the other side’s incentive for firing. That starts with reducing Hamas’s support by giving Palestinians hope.
As Henry Kissinger once wrote: “The guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win.” It’s important that Hamas loses.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).