As Gaza War Winds Down, Battle Over Narrative Begins

In the coming days, Israeli politicians will claim that Netanyahu's hesitancy saved Hamas from being crushed. The decision makers, meanwhile, will declare victory.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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An Israeli Merkava tank rolls back from the Gaza Strip to an army deployment near the Gaza border, August 3, 2014.
An Israeli Merkava tank rolls back from the Gaza Strip to an army deployment near the Gaza border, August 3, 2014.Credit: AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The ground operation in the Gaza Strip seemed set to end on Sunday night, following the destruction of the 31st and last tunnel found there – the one through which Hamas tried to kidnap 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin on Friday. The Israel Defense Forces continued withdrawing troops from Gaza on Sunday, stationing the remaining soldiers on hills on the Palestinian side of the border with Israel. They will remain there to guard the battered border fence.

Whether or not this will end the war depends on Hamas. Military Intelligence believes the organization still has some 3,000 short-range rockets and a few medium-range ones. If it continues launching them, Israel will respond with air strikes.

For now, Israel has opted for a unilateral withdrawal, but the road to a cease-fire agreement is still open. It passes through Cairo, where indirect negotiations among the parties are being held.

Throughout the ground operation, polls showed broad public support for expanding it. Ministers, pundits and former generals joined in this pressure. But the prime minister, defense minister and chief of staff believed that occupying Gaza’s dense urban areas wouldn’t serve Israel’s security interests. A senior General Staff officer said on Sunday that reoccupying all of Gaza would take just “10 days to two weeks,” but another year would be required to destroy Hamas’ infrastructure.

The missions given the army instead were to deal a severe blow to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, neutralize the tunnel threat and reduce the rocket fire on Israel. The senior officer believes all these missions were accomplished. A fourth mission – preventing Hamas from rearming – depends on what, if any, diplomatic arrangements are reached.

In the coming days, politicians will be freed of even the limited restraints they imposed on themselves while soldiers were being killed in Gaza. They will claim that had it not been for the hesitancy of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the generals, Hamas would have been defeated once and for all.

But anyone who believes this seems not to understand the security reality in Gaza. Hamas built a massive underground network that would enable it to exact a heavy price from the IDF should it try to reoccupy the Strip. Gaza City and Khan Yunis today aren’t like Nablus and Ramallah during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. It’s no accident that after the IDF, at Netanyahu’s request, explained the full implications of reoccupying Gaza to the diplomatic-security cabinet, even the most hawkish ministers fell silent.

Meanwhile, the war over the narrative has begun. Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and senior officers will claim a great victory was achieved. The Iron Dome antimissile system kept Hamas’ rockets from doing much damage; the tunnels were liquidated (at the cost of 64 soldiers), and Hamas will be deterred for a long time to come. But many ordinary Israelis remain skeptical about the war’s results. This may yet turn out to be another case of Israel winning every battle against a terrorist organization but still not winning the war.

The way the IDF functioned in this war will demand more media attention in the coming days, but for now, it suffices to mention one point: Military Intelligence claims it knew in advance about the existence of most of Hamas’ attack tunnels, while Southern Command says it prepared for a “July war” with Hamas based on MI’s warning that the organization planned to attack. But if so, why wasn’t an operational plan to deal with the tunnels prepared well in advance, rather than just a few days before the ground operation began?

The face of the war

Col. Ofer Winter, commander of the Givati Brigade, emerged from the war with shining colors. His brigade fought well, completed its missions and suffered very few casualties.

After two Givati soldiers were killed and Goldin was captured near Rafah on Friday, Winter ordered all possible measures taken to recover him. His army colleagues praised his quick, aggressive action. Winter, they said, understood the strategic damage an abduction would cause Israel, especially with the operation nearing its end, and did exactly what he should have.

After Israel freed 1,027 terrorists in 2011 to win the freedom of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, the IDF grasped the dangers of such an abduction with redoubled force. After Goldin was captured, and also when soldier Oron Shaul went missing in Gaza two weeks earlier, the IDF immediately took two steps to deny Hamas a tool with which to pressure Israel. The first was executed in the field: an extremely aggressive effort to isolate the area and prevent the kidnappers from escaping. The second was the rapid decision — far quicker than in similar cases in the past — to publicly declare both soldiers dead as soon as sufficient evidence had been gathered.

In Goldin’s case, the IDF used great force to try to thwart his abduction: Houses were shelled by artillery or destroyed by bulldozers; the air force bombed vehicles (according to the Palestinians, these included ambulances ferrying patients to the hospital); and a tank battalion penetrated built-up areas. Some 150 Palestinians were killed, many of them civilians.

This operation deprived Hamas of an achievement, but couldn’t save Goldin’s life. Hamas claims the heavy IDF fire killed its operatives, and Goldin along with them. But the IDF says Goldin was killed in the initial Hamas attack on his patrol. It’s Israel good fortune that U.S. President Barack Obama, like his predecessor George Bush a decade ago, is more upset over the fact that the Palestinians lied to him (Hamas violated the cease-fire with its abduction and then tried to lie about it) than about the civilian casualties.

Before the ground operation began, when the IDF was only conducting air strikes, it was very careful to warn Palestinian civilians before bombing their houses, give them time to evacuate and otherwise try to minimize civilian casualties. This predictably led to hundreds of civilian casualties, and the IDF realizes that this paved the way for another international inquiry like the Goldstone Commission, which investigated Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in early 2009.

Unfortunately, the IDF doesn’t always protect its officers on the media front from the indirect damage they are liable to cause themselves. Before the ground forces entered Gaza, for instance, Winter disseminated a message to his soldiers that included many religious references and sparked harsh criticism from the left, which accused him of waging a religious war. In two media interviews during the fighting, he said, “When we fight, the terrorists run.” Then, in a rather surprising interview with an ultra-Orthodox weekly, he urged Torah scholars to pray for his soldiers and charged that people angry over his pre-battle message “don’t know what war is.”

After Cast Lead, Israeli and foreign left-wing activists drew up blacklists of IDF officers whom they accused of war crimes, and in some cases even tried to instigate criminal cases against them overseas. The Goldstone Commission later misconstrued senior officers’ statements as evidence that Israel had deliberately wreaked destruction in Gaza.

The UN Human Rights Council, which established that commission, is a strange organization; last week, it even demanded that Israel and America supply Gazans with Iron Dome systems to defend themselves against Israeli airstrikes. It seems likely that it and other organizations like it will similarly preoccupy themselves with the events of the current Gaza war for a long time to come.

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