Israel's Military Wants to Fight On, but Diplomacy Is of the Essence Now

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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Israel soldiers work at a damaged building following a rocket attack from Gaza, in Ashdod, Israel, yesterday.
Israel soldiers work at a damaged building following a rocket attack from Gaza, in Ashdod, Israel, yesterday.Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

Operation Guardian of the Walls has exhausted itself after nine days and must be stopped immediately. This is the fourth war between Gaza and Israel in the last 12 years. Its prolonging only leads to more destruction and casualties in Gaza and Israel, with an increasing number of women and children affected, about a third of the dead and wounded on both sides.

We have learned from past wars that the longer they continue, the danger of entanglement increases: A wayward shot or unnecessary attempt to secure a triumph image can lead to the expansion of the bloody cycle.

Moreover, with each passing day, Israel’s sophisticated “target bank” dwindles. In contrast, Hamas and Islamic Jihad’s “account” is simple: It suffices for them to launch short-range rockets to the Gaza-area rural communities and towns and inaccurate long-range rockets (80 to 100 kilometers) to the center of the country. The statistical probability is that a few will harm people or property. Despite this, Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, Air Force Cmdr. Amikam Nurkin, Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman and other senior officers want to fight on.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday.Credit: Yuval Chen,AP

The current round of fighting in Gaza should never have begun. As before, it is the result of miscalculations on both sides. Neither side wanted it but were dragged into an escalation that spiraled out of control. It started with a series of provocations by Jewish and Arab extremists following a police decision, contrary to the Shin Bet recommendation, to place checkpoints outside Nablus Gate in East Jerusalem. The ensuing riots eventually reached the Temple Mount because of the disproportionate police response orchestrated by the inexperienced police commissioner, Kobi Shabtai. All of these led Benjamin Netanyahu’s transitional government, at the most opportune time for deposing it, into a “march of folly.”

Hamas, frustrated by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’ decision – which was coordinated with Israel and backed by the Shin Bet – to postpone the Palestinian elections, developed a new equation for this round. It no longer settles for a clash between Gaza and Israel, but also drags East Jerusalem, Al-Aqsa mosque and Arab Israelis into the conflict. The sequence of events during the already sensitive, holy month of Ramadan, eventually formed a critical mass that culminated in Hamas’ ultimatum last Monday to attack Jerusalem in two hours if Israeli police didn’t leave the Al-Aqsa compound. The decision was taken by Mohammed Deif, the man with nine lives who has survived repeated failed Israeli attempts on his life.

Despite his many injuries, and contrary to Israeli intelligence assessments, it turned out that Deif is a very dominant figure in the Hamas leadership. His elevation came partly due to the diminishing influence of Yahya Sinwar, who had to go through two rounds of Hamas elections to be elected “prime minister of Gaza.” If Deif is Hamas’ “chief of staff,” Marwan Issa is the “minister of defense” who acts as liaison between Deif and Sinwar. Ismail Haniyeh, head of Hamas’ Foreign Bureau in Gaza, may be prominent in the media, but his influence is minimal in times of crisis.

Mourners carry the body of Amira Soboh, and her 19-year-old disabled son Abdelrahman, who were killed in Israeli airstrikes at their apartment building.Credit: Adel Hana/AP

Deif’s ultimatum surprised the Israeli intelligence community and Hamas launched seven rockets at the Jerusalem hills. The IDF responded with great force, but Hamas surprised it again with a large barrage aimed at Tel Aviv and the vicinity. Turns out Hamas has upgraded its capacity to launch multiple barrages simultaneously and to “confuse” Iron Dome’s ability to detect and intercept, thereby penetrating Israel’s air defenses. Indeed, among the many interceptions, rockets did occasionally explode in city centers, causing fatalities and damaging property.

In recent years, the IDF has made significant strides in the fight against Hamas. Hamas’ naval capabilities and its “air force,” consisting of unmanned “suicide drones,” gliders and explosive laden parachutes, has been weakened. The Mossad also participated in some of the Israeli operations. Mossad operatives assassinated Palestinian engineers who worked hard to develop these weapons in Tunisia and Malaysia. An even more significant blow was the construction of the deep subterranean and surface barriers, which also extend hundreds of meters under the sea. Both have neutralized past attempts of Hamas fighters secretly emerging from offensive tunnels in Israeli territory for the purpose of killing and abducting Israelis.

And yet, Hamas’ main threat – rockets – has increased since the end of Operation Protective Edge in 2014. Some were smuggled from Libya, through Egypt to Sinai. Some arrived by sea via Sudan; but the majority are locally produced – the “fruits of labor” of Hamas and Islamic Jihad engineers in Gaza, some of whom studied in institutions abroad – upgraded with aid and advice from Iran and Hezbollah. Along with damaging and diminishing the rocket arsenal, an additional objective is to eliminate as many senior Hamas commanders as possible and damage the “Gaza Metro,” Hamas’ underground tunnel and bunkers network, which the organization uses for defense, hiding, covert movement and combat in the event of an Israeli invasion.

People inspect the rubble of a damaged building which was hit by an Israeli airstrike, in Gaza City, Wednesday.Credit: Adel Hana/AP

In recent years, the IDF and Shin Bet have cooperated in preparations for tackling the tunnel network. The Research Division of the Directorate for Military Intelligence gathered information and enlisted the help of agents recruited by the Shin Bet. From time to time, Hamas defectors provided maps and drawings of the tunnels. At the same time, the Military Intelligence Technological Unit and the Air Force’s Operations Research Unit have developed special bombs adapted to Gaza’s sandy terrain. All this came to the fore in the surprising operation to destroy the tunnels, which was accompanied by a charade that regrettably deceived the foreign press corps on the eve of the Sabbath. During this attack, the air force launched hundreds of planes, which dropped hundreds of tons of munitions.

As of Tuesday, a total of about 3,500 rockets had been destroyed, intercepted, taken out of service but many also hit Israel, according to IDF estimates. From those, about 2,000 were intercepted, a thousand were destroyed in attacks on storage facilities and the rest fell in undeveloped areas of Israel and Gaza. The cautious estimate guiding Israel’s entry into the war was that Islamic Jihad had 15,000 rockets and mortars. Despite the severe damage inflicted, both organizations still maintain large stockpiles, including several hundred rockets capable of hitting the center of the Israel.

In the targeted assassinations department, Israel succeeded in killing Gaza City commander Bassem Issa, Marwan Issa’s brother. No less significant are the assassinations of three engineers working for Hamas’ cyberwarfare and rocket-precision development unit, Dr. Jamal Zabade; and U.S.-trained mechanical engineers Hazem Khatib, and Sami Radwan. The demolition of high-rises in the Gaza Strip took a psychological and moral toll, and that is its main purpose.

People in Ashdod, Israel take during a siren warning of rockets fired from Gaza, this morning.Credit: Heidi Levine/AP

Kochavi, Argaman and the IDF General Staff believe the fighting must go on. But despite the military achievements so far, or precisely because of them, it is time to end the fighting on the southern front and hopefully an ensuing cease-fire, mediated by Egyptian intelligence services, will be long lasting. It must provide for everything that Israel did not achieve after Protective Edge: assisting the rehabilitation of Gaza, including construction of a seaport, as proposed at the time by Transport Minister Yisrael Katz and many in the defense establishment; and at least the partial demilitarization of the Strip.

Netanyahu thwarted any such idea because he wanted to separate the West Bank and Gaza and prevent a political settlement with the Palestinians. Instead, he sought to weaken the Palestinian Authority and ensure the fight against Hamas simmered over a low flame. Days before the war, Netanyahu agreed to transfer the Qatari monthly “ransom” of $35 million to Hamas. In effect, the Netanyahu government has “bribed” Hamas to the tune of $1 billion in the past three years. Most of the money was used to build military capability.

It is possible to reach an agreement with Hamas and there are indications that this time, under international pressure, it may happen. If the current round of fighting continues or ends without a political horizon, then there is an even greater risk that the military confrontation in the south could spread to the Syrian and Lebanese fronts and the West Bank. At the same time, the madness of violence between Jews and Arabs within Israel must be stopped. It should be kept in mind that for decades, leaders in the Arab world have argued that Israel will crumble because of its internal controversies and contradictions.

A Palestinian walks by a building hit by an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City, today.Credit: Hatem Moussa/AP
People run towards a bomb shelter in Ashkelon, southern Israel, today.Credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS