After Israel's Unilateral Withdrawal From Gaza, What’s Next?

With the IDF exiting Gaza without a cease-fire, the next stage of the war will depend on Hamas.

Reuters

As of Saturday night, the IDF ground operation in Gaza appeared to be nearing an end. The army continued to reduce its forces inside the Strip and is now focused on finishing the destruction of three attack tunnels.

When this is completed, within the coming days most of the troops will withdraw from Gaza. A relatively small number of units will remain in key areas close to the border fence.

In essence, Israel is preparing for a unilateral withdrawal without an accord. From this point on, the next stage – as was the case at certain points earlier in the war – will essentially depend on Hamas. If it chooses to continue the rocket fire, Israel will respond with air strikes and the fighting will continue, even if combat on the ground is less intense.

The troops’ exit, which began on a low-profile basis Thursday evening, is going ahead despite the grave incident in which two officers and a soldier were killed Friday morning near Rafah.

For a few hours, it seemed like the widespread public outrage would lead to an expansion of the IDF ground operation. But the cabinet, in a crucial meeting Friday night, decided otherwise.

In keeping with the original plans, the IDF is on its way out, although there is still no clear date for the end of the fighting, and the results are controversial.

On Saturday night, the picture grew even more complicated when the family of the missing officer demanded that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu halt the withdrawal from Gaza, saying that their son was still alive. In his subsequent press conference, Netanyahu stated that “decisions will be made solely in accordance with security needs.” [The IDF determined later on Saturday that 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin was killed in battle in Gaza on Friday.]

The incident in Rafah occurred at 9:16 Friday morning, an hour and a quarter after the humanitarian truce that was declared after U.S. and UN mediation went into effect.

A few hours before that, the Givati reconnaissance unit arrived to scan an attack tunnel that had been identified on the northeastern outskirts of Rafah.

The tunnel, extending about 2,500 meters from Gaza to the Israeli border, had a number of shafts, one of which was located between a group of hothouses and the edge of the built-up area.

The force’s forward cell, comprised of the commander, Maj. Benaya Sarel, his radioman Staff Sgt. Liel Gidoni and squad commander 2nd Lt Goldin, advanced toward the hothouses when they came under fire and a suicide bomber detonated the large amount of explosives he was carrying.

Sarel and Gidoni were killed on the spot. When the rest of the force reached them, they found the bodies of their two comrades and the remains of the suicide bomber. Goldin was nowhere to be seen, and a “Hannibal” directive – meaning that a soldier had been kidnapped – was quickly declared.

The rescue efforts included a heroic chase by the deputy commander and other fighters from the unit in the tunnel, contrary to IDF directives (which are meant to avoid ambushes and booby traps); a charge by a tank battalion into Rafah to the farthest point reached by the IDF in the fighting; the siege of a mosque to which the tunnel led, which turned out to be empty; the demolition of houses with bulldozers and very aggressive artillery, aerial and tank fire, in an attempt to isolate the area of the kidnapping.

Palestinian sources reported that close to 120 people were killed two days ago, including many civilians. They claim that after the kidnapping, the IDF attacked every vehicle that came to the hospital in Rafah, including several ambulances.

To judge by the descriptions, it appears that the army applied the Hannibal procedure to disrupt a kidnapping in a most forceful way. The commanders took aggressive action, risking their own lives and the lives of their fighters, and used a very unusual amount of fire.

It is quite possible that the effort to stop the kidnapping also posed a very real threat to the life of 2nd Lt Goldin as well. On Saturday afternoon, senior officers said that the army believed Goldin was hurt in the explosion that killed his two comrades, but that his exact condition was unknown. Later that day his death was announced, a conclusion accepted by Goldin's family.

Hamas claimed at first that members of its military wing were holding the kidnapped officer and that they had acted in response to a violation of the truce by the IDF.

Later, apparently when the organization realized it had been caught violating the understandings – after the White House spokesman called it “a barbaric violation” of the truce and President Barack Obama called on Hamas to release Goldin immediately – it changed its tune.

Spokesmen for the political wing at first claimed to have no knowledge of Goldin’s condition, and later said that he and his abductors were killed during the pursuit by IDF forces.

Kidnapping or capture?

The cabinet convened as Shabbat began, under growing public pressure. Even before that, Israeli opinion polls showed more than 80 percent public support for expanding the operation. Nonetheless, the prime minister, defense minister and senior IDF officials all made a similar case: The operation to take care of the tunnels was nearly complete. And in the present circumstances, and given the understanding that a ground maneuver deep into Gaza would significantly raise the number of IDF losses, the best course of action was to withdraw from Gaza and redeploy the forces near the border.

In the background there was another argument, based on a distinction between Goldin’s apparent fall into captivity and the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit. Shalit was kidnapped by Hamas during a time of military tension, but not in the midst of a war. His capture aroused tremendous public sympathy and brought pressure on the government to make an extreme prisoner exchange deal (1,027 terrorists), which many people felt amounted to an excessive concession by Israel.

The circumstances this time were different. For one thing, changes in the makeup of the governing coalition and the escalation of the conflict with Hamas since Shalit’s return would probably not have allowed for another deal involving such a significant concession,

Second, an abduction during war is a very different thing. Even though we are are fighting a terrorist organization and not a state, it would have been better to view 2nd Lt. Goldin – as IDF officers recommended – as a prisoner of war rather than an abductee.

In war, people sometimes fall prisoner, just as people are killed (on the Israeli side, 64 officers and soldiers and three Israeli civilians to date). Despite the sorrow involved, an officer falling captive to Hamas should not shape the face of the campaign – whether in the form of concessions without negotiations; in any sober assessment of the achievements and failings of the campaign; or regarding the question of whether the IDF should withdraw from Gaza or go further inside. These are decisions that must be made in accordance with a clear-eyed assessment of the war situation.

If the direction of things seemed clear over Shabbat, this changed with a dramatic development shortly after Shabbat ended, when the Goldin family appeared before the cameras in front of their home in Kfar Sava.

Shalit’s family waged a broad, unprecedented five-year campaign that eventually led to his release in a prisoner exchange deal. The Goldin family launched its campaign right away, with an insistent demand to keep up the operation in Gaza until their son is returned. Goldin’s parents, twin brother (also an officer in an elite unit), sister and fiancée all voiced the same firm demand.

The parents said they couldn’t believe the reports about the withdrawal of IDF forces. “I demand that the state not leave Gaza until it brings back my son,” said his mother, Leah. “It’s inconceivable that the IDF would abandon one of its fighters,” said his father, Simcha. His brother Tzur said: “The entire Jewish people is behind us.”

These statements had immediate political implications. Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel (Habayit Hayehudi) called for the continuation of the ground operation, and for decisions about it to be shifted from the security cabinet, where Netanyahu has a majority, to the full cabinet.

Netanyahu’s statements at the press conference that was broadcast not long afterward were another attempt to make plain the limits of Israel’s military force in dealing with the complexity of Gaza.

“The Goldin family’s words touched my heart,” said Netanyahu, but he also hinted that the ground operation was nearing its end and emphasized that decisions will be made “solely in accordance with security needs.” A few hours later, the IDF informed the Goldin family of the decision to declare Hadar killed in battle.

According to the military plan, the reduction of forces in the field will continue until key positions not far west of the border fence, within Palestinian territory, have been taken up, in order to retain an asset that will exert pressure on Hamas to agree to a proper cease-fire.  The decision to maintain forces inside Gaza also risks turning into a slippery slope, of establishing a temporary security zone that ends up becoming permanent.

As always, the test will be the logistical set-up. As soon as the first company sergeant major sets up field showers for the troops in Gaza, we’ll know we’re in trouble again.

Netnayahu is still under heavy pressure from ministers and commentators to extend the operation and dispatch larger forces deeper into Gaza. The IDF is up to the challenge, but the question is, at what cost?

A few days ago, an air force plane filmed Gaza from the east, from the direction of Nahal Oz. The first row of destroyed houses in Shujaiyeh is clearly visible, but behind it lie many more kilometers of very densely built-up areas. One can imagine that when Netanyahu said at the press conference Saturday night, “I care about the life of each and every soldier,” the danger of fighting in such areas is exactly what he was thinking about.