Analysis

Israel Moves to Shirk Responsibility for the Next Gaza War

Amid proof that Hamas is tunneling under schools and Israel is trying to contain the Gaza electricity crisis, the PR battle is on

A boy and Hamas fighters, Gaza, June 2017.
Said Khatib / AFP

The cabinet’s decision at the start of the week not to thwart the Palestinian Authority’s pressure on the Hamas government in Gaza isn’t yet affecting the Strip. Living conditions in Gaza are already hard enough, with a shattered economy subject to blockade and only four hours of electricity per day. But even though Israel announced it would comply with the PA’s request not to use more of its tax money to pay for Gaza’s electricity – and thus reduce the power supply to just three hours a day – the decision has yet to be implemented.

There are enough ways, accounting-wise and technology-wise, to delay the move for a while longer. It wouldn’t be the first time. Until the issue was resolved a few months ago, Israel had for years ignored a debt of nearly two 2 billion shekels ($568 million) owed by the East Jerusalem electric company.

In the meantime, Israel is searching for indirect ways to ease the tensions between the PA and Hamas in the hope that the crisis, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described earlier this week as an internal Palestinian problem, won’t develop into another military confrontation with Hamas. To this end, contacts are ongoing with Egypt, which has said that it will supply Gaza with electricity if Hamas accedes to its demands to cut ties with the Islamic State branch in Sinai.

Israeli defense officials have also been discussing the matter with European and American officials. Washington’s UN ambassador Nikki Haley received an extensive briefing on the humanitarian situation in Gaza during her visit to Israel last week, given the possibility that the crisis could soon worsen. Still, it’s unclear how much of all this was reported back to Washington. The Trump administration’s weak grasp of events was seen in U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s announcement Tuesday that the PA would cease its financial support to the families of terrorists, which was swiftly met with complete denial from Ramallah.

Israel seems to be laying the diplomatic groundwork in case events deteriorate so as not to be blamed by the international community for the coming eruption. Last week Israel had two successes in the PR battle with Hamas. In a highly unusual albeit belated statement, the director of the United Arab Emirates branch of the Red Crescent accused Hamas of firing rockets from its Gaza hospital during the 2014 war with the aim of provoking the Israel Defense Forces to hit back. And the UN refugee agency announced that Hamas had dug a tunnel under one of the agency's schools in the center of Gaza.

Palestinians in Gaza, June 2017.
Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters

At the end of April, the military advocate general hosted 80 legal experts from abroad for a three-day conference on international military law focusing on the implications of combat versus terrorist and guerrilla organizations operating from civilian populations.

The attendees, who included former military advocates general from the United States and Britain, were flown with 50 Israeli jurists for a tour of the Syrian and Lebanese borders, and also heard talks by IDF intelligence officials who explained how Hezbollah is deliberately placing forces and arms in the heart of villages in southern Lebanon. The Israeli officers said that with the expected intensity of a future military clash in Lebanon or Gaza and the extent of rocket fire at the Israeli home front, the IDF would have to employ vastly greater force than in the past.

In a May 2 piece on the Lawfare legal blog (which lately has focused on U.S. President Donald Trump’s legal woes), American law professor Geoffrey Corn wrote: “During the visit, we learned that the capabilities of non-state armed groups are steadily improving, increasing the risk that the IDF will have no choice but to engage in close-quarters ground combat operations .... But scope and intensity of such operations will almost certainly produce a shock effect on the wider public . The IDF MAG seems cognizant of this, and also how difficult it will be to preserve a perception of legitimacy if the legal assessment of their operations is distorted by a false expectation of COIN-type operations” — counterinsurgency-type operations.

This message is equally relevant to Lebanon and Gaza. If the IDF has to maneuver deep into enemy territory versus Hezbollah or Hamas, this means a major clash on the ground with many civilian casualties, even more than in the past. Israel will be accused of war crimes no matter what, but it’s already trying to explain the highly complex conditions its forces will have to operate in should it come to that.

A Palestinian household amid the power shortage in Gaza, June 2017.
Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Disquiet among the reservists

There was a bit of an uproar this week in the reserves over the dismissal of an infantry company commander who refused an order during a battalion-wide drill. The company commander, Maj. (res.) Meni Eytan, refused to send his soldiers out for the last part of the exercise, on the grounds that they had not been allowed enough sleep. He was concerned that they could be hurt in a road accident on their way home after the drill. The brigade commander, Col. Elyashiv Baharav, thought the soldiers would be able to catch up on sleep later on.

Eytan, who said he considered the order patently illegal, was suspended, summoned before Northern Command chief Yoel Strick and subsequently dismissed. Afterward, Eytan accused Baharav of lying about the sequence of events. Not surprisingly, the ousted company commander has been receiving favorable coverage on television and radio, and some of the company’s soldiers are asking to switch to another unit, saying they’ve lost faith in their commanders.

Eytan, whose concern for his soldiers was surely genuine, stretched the definition of a “patently illegal order” (which an officer or soldier is obligated to refuse) far beyond its familiar limits in the IDF. His blatant refusal of an order did not leave Strick much choice but to sack him.

Still, long before things got to that point, a different approach should have been taken. Instead of neutralizing the problem earlier by reassuring the company commander and his soldiers and finding a solution to avert a blow-up, his commanders chose to escalate. This kind of rigid, hardheaded approach isn’t uncommon among infantry brigade commanders, particularly career army people assigned to command reservist soldiers for the first time. The rules for dealing with reservists in their 30s who often have families back home should be different than those for giving orders to 18-year-old conscripts in the Golani Brigade, for example.

The public protest by some of the company soldiers makes for a great story, and the media is rightly all over it. But one result is that the already fragile relationship between reservists and the IDF has been strained further. If this is how a reservist brigade behaves during a routine training drill, it’s hard to believe it would perform properly in a real test of war.

Just as concerning was an incident in the Jordan Valley Brigade that came to light this week. The investigation into the death of reservist Capt. Elhanan Bresner, who died from sudden heart failure after taking part in an army race, found a raft of failures. The most serious weren’t directly linked to the officer’s death but required an expansion of the military investigation and may well culminate in a criminal case.

Two staff lieutenants apparently didn’t properly stock a safety kit for the race and then subsequently falsified the file in an attempt to cover their tracks. A number of more senior officers in the brigade were rebuked for bearing general responsibility for what occurred.

Military Ombudsman Yitzhak Brick’s latest report was published at the end of May. The media reported on it very laconically – such-and-such number of soldiers filed complaints against their commanders, and such-and-such number of complaints were found justified.

But many of the things that Brick has been warning about in his reports over the past eight years, and especially over the last couple of years, were apparently also factors in the two recent incidents just described, one of which ended tragically. There was faulty dialogue between commanders and their subordinates, a lack of a culture of transparency and openness, and a tendency to cut corners and even make false reports in some units. (It’s no surprise that the alleged forgery occurred in a brigade whose area is not one of the IDF’s top priorities.)

IDF commanders often talk about the importance of the reserves. Current Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot has also put a renewed emphasis on testing the reserves’ fitness and responsiveness, as can be seen in the number of surprise drills held in recent weeks. Still, the two recent events point to serious faults that could indicate a wider problem.