As Fighting Continues, Israel Looks to Be in It for the Long Haul

Hamas attacks eradicate any chance for period of calm; IDF appears to be planning to expand its ground operation.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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An Israeli army officer gives journalists a tour, Friday, July 25, 2014, of a tunnel allegedly used by Palestinian militants for cross-border attacks, at the Israel-Gaza Border.
An Israeli army officer gives journalists a tour, Friday, July 25, 2014, of a tunnel allegedly used by Palestinian militants for cross-border attacks, at the Israel-Gaza Border. Credit: AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The tunnel the Israel Defense Forces had been seeking for the past two weeks in the Gaza City neighborhood of Shujaiyeh was finally uncovered Monday — but on the wrong side of the perimeter fence, near Kibbutz Nahal Oz.

The Hamas terrorists who infiltrated Israel were ultimately stopped, after a tough firefight with IDF forces. In a rather embarrassing coincidence, the terrorists emerged from the tunnel less than an hour after a senior officer told reporters, albeit cautiously, that “Nahal Oz has been removed from threatened area.”

This terrorist infiltration signaled a new level in the Gaza operation, which is looking more and more like a war. It came after a particularly difficult day that was rife with clashes on both sides of the fence. The tunnel attack, the fifth since the fighting began three weeks ago, exposed a tactical defense gap. It was preceded by a series of Hamas attacks, in which an Israeli soldier was killed by an anti-tank missile and a mortar barrage that killed four soldiers and wounded six in the northwestern Negev.

Monday naturally put an end to the illusion of a lull in the fighting. But the root of all these attacks was the humanitarian truce over the two previous days. Israel had hoped that the lull, agreed upon to mark the Muslim holiday of Id al-Fitr, would allow the IDF to continue destroying the terror tunnels without much interference, even as it halted its air strikes.

Instead, it seems that Hamas exploited the opportunity to move terror cells closer to the IDF defense line within the Strip. The Hamas attacks eradicated any chance for a period of calm. By evening the IDF was warning residents of the northern Gaza strip to leave their homes. Since the areas in question are deeper into Palestinian territory than the areas evacuated previously, the intention seemed clear: Israel is planning to expand its ground operation.

The IDF’s array of forces in the Strip is comparable to the amount of troops deployed there during Operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2008-2009, although until now the campaign has been waged only a few kilometers from the border fence and the attacks were more like pinpoint raids. But Monday’s events may prove to be a turning point in the Gaza fighting, which has already cost the IDF five times the number of soldiers it lost during Cast Lead.

Hamas has sustained some heavy blows: Its rocket arsenal is being depleted, most of its attack tunnels have been located and destroyed and many of its operatives have been killed in Beit Hanun and Shujaiyeh. But in contrast to some of the optimistic assessments by military and political leaders in Israel, the terror organization looks very far from collapsing. Hamas is not begging for its life or raising a white flag; it is using the time it has to extract an increasingly steep price from the IDF.

Hamas’ refusal to accept the path sketched out for it by our intelligence gurus, along with Monday’s losses, is sending the political arena spinning. It’s starting to look as if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political ship is starting to spring some leaks. Ministers from the hawkish wing of his government are starting to smell weakness, or are looking to shore up their future after the war, and are attacking accordingly. Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar is demanding a cabinet debate on continuing the operation, Energy and Water Resources Minister Silvan Shalom hinted that U.S. President Barack Obama’s demands for a cease-fire Sunday were essentially solicited by Netanyahu, and Agriculture Minister Yair Shamir complained that Israel had wasted three weeks of international credit without accomplishing almost anything against Hamas.

After Monday’s developments, it may be that ministers will feel they have no choice but to press forward. Even after the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead, the encounter between the senior political and military leaders continues to be influenced by tactical developments that determine the strategic picture.

What emerged between the lines of Monday’s press conference by Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz is the real possibility that the operation will be expanded.

Gantz asked the public for a few more days of patience. We can hope that’s all it will take, but recent events make a long campaign seem much more probable than before.

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