The capture of IDF officer Hadar Goldin resets Western support for Israeli operations in Gaza to their peak levels at the very start of Operation Protective Edge. This will give the Israeli army several days in which to conduct search and destroy operations and to pursue other military objections, should it be ordered to do so, before the civilian toll in Gaza once again reverses the tide.
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President Barack Obama’s condemnation of Hamas at his press conference on Friday as well as signal that no new cease fire is possible until Goldin’s unconditional release were part of one his strongest statements of support for Israel to date. Earlier, his spokesperson Josh Earnest had earlier described Goldin’s capture as “barbaric”.
These statement stood in sharp contrast to the rising rising international tide of international condemnation 24 hours earlier, especially from Washington, following the bloody attacks on UNRWA schools and the Shujaiyeh market last week. These contributed to Israel’s decision on Thursday night to accept the new cease-fire deal worked out by Secretary of State John Kerry. When the same Josh Earnest pinned responsibility for the latest attack on an UNRWA shelter on Israel and described it as “indefensible” and “unacceptable,” decision-makers in Jerusalem understood that while operations in Gaza were yielding diminishing military returns they were exacting a rapidly rising diplomatic price.
But the suspected capture of Goldin near Rafah, more than the simple fact that Hamas had violated the cease-fire, changes that game completely. While ministers and army generals may agree in theory with Amos Harel’s incisive analysis that Goldin’s capture should not change Israel’s overall strategy, the political and psychological elements that come into play could override otherwise cool and calculated considerations.
Israel’s sensitivity and vulnerability to captured IDF soldiers and the price extorted for their release have been its Achilles Heel for decades, but the trauma left by Gilad Shalit’s five years in captivity and his October 2011 release in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners marked a turning point and yielded a latter-day Israeli oath of “Never Again.” The IDF’s massive onslaught on Rafah and adjacent areas is part of an all-out effort aimed at trying to prevent Goldin’s captors from finding a safe haven from which they can start the process of making demands, providing proof of Goldin’s well-being and plunging Israeli decision makers and public opinion back into the gut-wrenching moral quagmire which they so desperately seek to avoid.
The capture of Goldin, if confirmed, touches one of the most sensitive spots in Israel’s collective psyche and enrages it more than many other incidents and costlier attacks that Hamas may have carried out. It is a uniquely Israeli idiosyncrasy that foreigners often find hart to fathom. It could thus tip the balance in favor of the all-out onslaught on Hamas leadership that some cabinet members have been advocating and Prime Minister Netanyahu has been so careful to avoid.
The forceful and unequivocal American condemnation of Hamas is thus not only a reflection of genuine outrage but is also meant to assure Israel of international sympathy and understanding and to prevent it from adopting a surly, go-it-alone approach to solving the problem. Hamas’ hasty retreat from assuming responsibility for the kidnapping may signal that the group is beginning to realize that it has bitten off more than they can chew. And one reason for such a retreat might very well be that an angry Qatar, which was instrumental in achieving the cease-fire, now finds itself in the embarrassing situation of explaining why it can’t control its client and deliver the goods.
The U.S. will now lean hard on Qatar to try to resolve the situation before Gaza descends once again into chaos. It is now a race now between Israel’s instinctive urge to lash out at Hamas and U.S. efforts to stop the escalation before it gets out of hand. For that it will need to clamp down on Hamas and compel it do the unthinkable: return Goldin, dead or alive.