Top Brass Sees Gaza Diplomacy as an Opportunity, Not a Threat

Israel will demand careful inspection of the goods entering the Strip, not to mention the right to attack any new tunnels.

Amos Harel
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Israeli soldiers near the border as they return from Gaza, August 4, 2012.Credit: AFP
Amos Harel

Starting Tuesday afternoon, an endless line of army trucks and tank carriers stretched along Route 232, which connects the communities surrounding Gaza. The brief drizzle that morning, a rarity in early August, was already long forgotten.

The tanks and armored personnel carriers traveling a bit to the west, on dirt paths between the road and the border fence, raised an enormous cloud of dust. Suddenly, after 28 days of rockets and mortar shells, the only danger was the threat of ramming into the vehicle in front of you. Visibility was near zero.

The army didn’t wait too long after the cease-fire, which was declared at 8 A.M. and seemed more credible than its predecessors. Most of the temporary headquarters that had been set up around the Gaza Strip were dismantled Tuesday, and reservists being discharged were handing in their equipment.

Reinforcements stationed along the border fence will focus on two tasks. The first is guarding the kibbutzim, whose inhabitants are gradually returning despite their fears that Hamas still has undiscovered tunnels. The second is preparedness for another escalation on the border, though it seems at this stage Israel would respond to rocket fire with air strikes rather than another ground operation.

On Tuesday night, an Israeli delegation arrived in Cairo to complete indirect talks with Hamas for a new arrangement in the Gaza Strip. The cease-fire was announced for 72 hours only, but this time Israeli officials believe there’s a good chance it will last.

After three weeks of delays, Hamas has accepted the Egyptian plan; the Qatari channel is out of the picture. Israel reiterates that Hamas’ intransigence has cost it dearly. It achieved after 1,800 dead in Gaza what it could have achieved after 200 dead.

Defense officials say Israel’s insistence on the Egyptian channel has proved itself. The United States has stopped flirting with the Qatari plan, and the clash between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has prevented Washington from imposing an American diktat. Jerusalem has avoided an agreement that wouldn’t have let the army destroy all the tunnels.

Army officials see a chance to seal a deal for Gaza that may have advantages for Israel. The Egyptians announced Tuesday they had no intention of discussing Hamas’ demands regarding the opening of a port in Gaza. Instead, there would be significant changes in the operation of the Rafah crossing.

Cairo looks about to insist on bringing members of the Palestinian Authority’s security services to the crossing, with Hamas likely to agree to that. Israel, which two months ago harshly criticized the reconciliation agreement between the PA and Hamas, supports these closer ties.

Officially, Netanyahu is talking about the demilitarization of Gaza. In practice, even Israeli officials realize that no international force is going to be stationed in the Strip to collect the rockets from Hamas’ storehouses, as was done with Syria’s chemical weapons less than a year ago.

But they do plan for security coordination with Egypt to prevent the resumption of weapons smuggling through the tunnels, and to take more care inspecting incoming materials that could be used to make weapons. They will demand close inspection of incoming cement to prevent new tunnels from being dug. Israel views all this as attainable.

Ready for the legal attacks

In PR for internal consumption, Israeli officials portray the army’s devastation of Gaza as the main deterrent if the Palestinians there consider further military conflict. Israeli officials play down this claim in the international arena; they’re aware the destruction will have serious political ramifications.

According to the Palestinians, some 10,000 buildings were destroyed in the fighting and another 30,000 damaged. About 400,000 people became refugees; it appears only half of them will be able to go back to living in their homes anytime soon. Others will have to keep living in the UNRWA schools, and in tent camps to be established with the help of donations from abroad.

The army has already mobilized legal advisers, commanding officers and intelligence people to meet demands for international investigations and legal measures against Israeli commanders. The events of the battle in Rafah on Friday will be one focus, along with incidents in which dozens of civilians were killed when a school was hit. While the army has good explanations for some of these events, it views others as a potential source of trouble.

The talks in Cairo could take a long time. Until an arrangement is reached, the cease-fire might have to be extended several times and the calm may still be broken. Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman, the head of Southern Command, said Tuesday that, in any agreement, Israel has to demand the right to deal with new tunnels, even if that means a raid inside Gaza.

In the meantime, Turgeman and Gaza Division chief Mickey Edelstein have a big job ahead: calming the kibbutzniks worried about the existence of more tunnels.

While Israeli public opinion is divided on the war’s outcome, the division and brigade commanders who took part in the fighting have a positive view. One big difference in comparing this war to the Second Lebanon War is that, this time, the troops came back with a tangible achievement: the destruction of the tunnels.

“Let there be no doubt: We have a great deal to investigate. There will be harsh statements. I know that I myself made mistakes,” one officer said. “But I know that the operation had a worthy goal and a worthy accomplishment, with young people and commanders who proved themselves in battle.”

The restaurants at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, which were filled during the war with journalists and officers, were being overrun by the army. Officers from the war room of an infantry brigade sat down for a farewell meal, looking wearily at the television screens showing dust-covered soldiers leaving Gaza just a few kilometers away. The battalion commander of another brigade sat with some of his officers for a brief break, a moment before he visited the parents of his four soldiers who had been killed in the war.

At the intersection outside, members of Kibbutz Karmia put up a sign, mentioning a character in the Israeli cult comedy film “Halfon Hill Doesn’t Answer.” As the sign puts in, “Sergio Constanza says ‘Well done, IDF!'"

But a few kilometers to the north, at Moshav Beit Shikma’s gas station, which had been taken over by reservists buying the last cellphone chargers for cars, there was also a reminder of the real face of the war: a mourning notice for a member of the moshav, Sgt. 1st Class (res.) Adi Briga. He was killed by a mortar shell on the Gaza border last week.

After the cease-fire: The Gaza operation by numbers

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