Israel's Dilemma: War on Gaza or Minor Moves in West Bank?

Apparently, Netanyahu has no stomach for an extensive operation in Gaza, but must take some action to appease Likud activists and settlers.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Israel is still considering its response after the discovery of the bodies of the three abducted teenagers. The cabinet met on Monday night but could not reach a decision. Another meeting was scheduled for on Tuesday. Leaks from the earlier meeting indicated that the session was charged, with Economy Minister Naftali Bennett calling for severe reprisals. Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and Chief-of-Staff Benny Ganz urged restraint. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaned towards accepting the advice of the defense establishment but was concerned about the political ramifications of showing restraint.

Basically, the Israeli dilemma is whether to launch an aggressive operation in the Gaza Strip, which could spark a conflagration with Hamas, or to make do with minor moves in the West Bank. Apparently, Netanyahu has no stomach for an extensive operation in Gaza, but must take some action to appease Likud activists and settlers (increasingly overlapping groups). In a statement he made after the bodies were found, Netanyahu promised that Hamas would pay, because that is what Israel’s gut instincts dictate.

The prime minister quoted a Bialik poem that refers to there being no possible revenge for spilling the blood of a small child (written after the 1903 Kishinev pogroms). This, like other proclamations made following the finding of the murdered teens, showed a sense of disproportion. There is no doubt that the three teenagers were innocent victims, but Netanyahu seems to have forgotten that they were not victims of a pogrom in Ukraine a century ago but citizens of a powerful state, reportedly a nuclear one.

In conversations with furious settlers, some cabinet ministers promised on Tuesday that the state would “prepare several new parking lots in Hebron,” hinting at a renewal of the policy of demolishing the houses of terrorists. This policy was upheld on Tuesday by the High Court of Justice, which rejected an appeal against the intended demolition of a house belonging to the suspected murderer of a police officer. It is likely that the houses of the suspected murderers and their helpers in this case will also be demolished. Other steps directed at Hamas and expulsions of its activists from the West Bank were also considered.

This is legally complicated, since international law forbids removal of citizens of occupied territories to foreign territory. Israel renounced its responsibility for the Gaza Strip following its unilateral disengagement. Such steps are intended to serve as deterrent measures, also precluding extreme right-wing ‘price tag’ operations against Palestinians. The police and Shin Bet are now concerned about reprisals by Jewish extremists. This concern motivates even more moderate coalition partners to consider a policy of extensive punishment.

Another issue is the settlements. The settlers are hoping for the approval of a particularly large new building drive with 10,000 new units. Yaalon, a moderate in military affairs, supports the hawks on this issue, proposing the resettlement of an abandoned location in the Etzion Bloc. Netanyahu reportedly met with settler leader Zeev Chever on Monday night. Chever has no interest in Gaza — he only wants more housing units. Moderate cabinet ministers such as Lapid, Livni and, surprisingly, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch are waging a holding battle. Some building will take place, but they hope it is limited to the Etzion Bloc, not to isolated settlements. They will also try to limit the numbers that are approved. Additional construction in the settlements will draw international criticism, but less than a large military operation in Gaza would.

Maj. Gen. (ret.) Giora Eiland, former head of the National Security Council, has recommended that the government consider an extensive operation. He believes there is now an opportunity due to Hamas’ weakness and its rift with Egypt, as well as an operative need to damage its capability of producing mid-range missiles that can reach Tel Aviv. While serving in senior posts during the Sharon government’s term, Eilan often derided the gaps between belligerent declarations made after suicide bomb attacks and the steps actually taken. This pattern may repeat itself with Netanyahu at the helm.

So far, Israel’s response has been restrained. Although the IDF boasted of 36 aerial strikes, most of the targets were offices and warehouses within one Hamas military facility, with four people slightly injured. The late hour and minimal casualties indicate that the planners waited until all Hamas personnel had left the premises to go watch Algeria’s World Cup soccer match before approving the strike.

Some television analysts are calling for targeted assassinations of senior Hamas leaders. This is unlikely to happen, since most of these leaders went underground after the bodies were found, and they are likely to continue taking precautionary measures.

The courts allowed the release of the recording made on the night of the abduction. The words “I’ve been kidnapped” can be heard clearly, followed by shouts and the sound of gunfire. These only underscore the extent of the bungled response. The fact that the operators tried calling back eight times indicates they suspected foul play and should have alerted security forces. This may not have saved the teens but would have facilitated capturing their abductors.

These details raised conspiracy theories, such as one suggesting that the facts were hidden to allow a widespread operation that would unravel the reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority or to deflect attention away from economic issues. These theories are ungrounded, since withholding publication stemmed from a complete lack of information. Investigators had the recording and bullet marks in the burned vehicle, as well as experience from previous cases, which indicated a preference not to deal with live hostages. The absence of bloodstains in the car left some hope.

The ethos of not leaving anyone behind also urged commanders and soldiers to persist in their efforts to find the missing boys, despite the intense heat. Only last week, were expectations of finding them alive lowered by the chief of staff.

Palestinian militants of Iz al-Din al-Qassam, Hamas' armed wing, Gaza Strip, in 2014.Credit: AFP
Palestinian militants of Iz al-Din al-Qassam, Hamas' armed wing, Gaza Strip, in 2014.
An Israeli airstrike in Rafah, Gaza. July 1, 2014.
Netanyahu (R) stands next to Avi Frenkel (L) and Ofir Shaer (2ndL), in Modi'in. June 2, 2014.
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Palestinian militants of Iz al-Din al-Qassam, Hamas' armed wing, Gaza Strip, in 2014.Credit: AFP
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An Israeli airstrike in Rafah, Gaza. July 1, 2014.Credit: AFP
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Netanyahu (R) stands next to Avi Frenkel (L) and Ofir Shaer (2ndL), in Modi'in. June 2, 2014.Credit: AFP

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