In retrospect, Israeli army sources acknowledge that the operation in which a bulldozer retrieved the body of an Islamic Jihad member killed in an incident on the Gaza border could have been handled differently. Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, who has boasted about reinstating the policy of collecting bodies, angrily rejected the criticism that followed the incident, saying that he was sick of the left wing’s hypocrisy.
But the army’s reaction to the operation, which took place on Sunday, sounds somewhat different. They say that had they known it would run into such complications, maybe they could have passed up the effort: “It really looked bad. Sometimes things go awry.”
The shift in policy was mainly the result of Bennett’s political constraints. When he took office in November, he expressed support for an army recommendation in favor of wide-ranging steps to ease the economic situation in Gaza. The stance prompted allegations from the right wing that the bodies of Israeli soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, which are being held by Hamas, were being abandoned. In addition to announcing other aggressive steps, Bennett directed the Israel Defense Forces to resume the policy of collecting the bodies of Palestinians killed in incidents involving live fire near the border fence.
The efficacy of the policy is a matter of debate, to put it mildly. Until now, Hamas had not expressed particular concern over the bodies of its own members that are held in Israel, some since the war in the summer of 2014. And the prospect that Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar would actually be more concerned over the sorry fate of an unknown member of Islamic Jihad is even slimmer.
But a directive is a directive, so on Sunday morning, after the army struck a cell that had come to lay explosive charges near the border fence and left the body of one of its members behind, an army bulldozer was dispatched to collect it, perhaps in the faint hope that it would help in bargaining with Hamas in the future.
But then things began to get complicated. The bulldozer had problems digging in the hard ground to pick up the body; in the meantime, some locals gathered to try to scuttle the operation. Under the pressure of the unfolding situation, the bulldozer operator pulled up the body with the machine’s arm, creating a macabre scene: The body of the Islamic Jihad member was tossed around like a rag doll – which isn’t really consistent with the value of according respect to enemy bodies, which the IDF teaches its combat soldiers to uphold (even if it’s not always applied in practice).
The debriefing on the incident is still ongoing at Southern Command. Army sources have emphasized that the risk that was taken was a reasonable one: The armored bulldozer only went about 90 meters (300 feet) into Palestinian territory and no one would have thought to send soldiers with stretchers in to accomplish the task. In any event, the footage of the incident shot from Gaza went viral on social media.
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In Israel it immediately started the usual argument between the right and left wing, in which, it seems, the entire consensus over what is and what isn’t permissible in combat has been eroded over the years. The most prominent example is the controversy over Elor Azaria, the soldier convicted of manslaughter for killing a Palestinian terrorist who had already been subdued.
In Gaza, the consequences were greater. Army sources said that in retrospect, they think the footage is what prompted Islamic Jihad’s relatively harsh response – firing nearly 100 rockets at southern Israel within a two-day period. The Israeli decision to extend its response to Syria, where an Islamic Jihad military installation was bombed on Sunday night, intensified and prolonged the Palestinian rocket fire until Monday evening.
From there, things followed a familiar course. A cease-fire was reached through Egyptian mediation, and as usual, only the Palestinians announced it. Residents of Israeli border communities only got word that the latest round was over when the Home Front Command announced a return to routine on Tuesday.
Army sources believe that Islamic Jihad took advantage of the approaching Knesset election on March 2, which created an opportunity to draw Israel in without the IDF going wild in response. It appears that Islamic Jihad’s calculations have paid off: In the two days of violence, only one of its members was killed – the man whose body was retrieved by the bulldozer.
Bennett boasted about the killing of eight terrorists, but he was apparently referring to the bombing of the military installation in Syria. Throughout the fighting, Hamas was careful not to intervene, just as it was in the previous round in November. It didn’t act to restrain Islamic Jihad, but it also didn’t engage in the firing itself.
So where does this leave us? Closer to a wide-scale escalation than a long-term agreement. The messages that Israel conveyed to Hamas via various intermediaries demanded that Hamas take decisive steps to rein in Islamic Jihad. By Thursday, Israel had already fully restored the measures it had taken to ease the situation in Gaza.
The army has already seen initial results from the more lenient policy. There was a small improvement in Gaza’s economic situation in the first quarter of 2019. An increase in supplied electricity led to increased production and a small decline in joblessness. Import and export merchandise trade also increased. However, the most significant step involves granting permits for Gazans to work in Israel, and that has not yet been fully implemented. On the army’s recommendation, and despite opposition from the Shin Bet security service, the political leadership has increased the number of work permits to 7,000. In the IDF, the hope is to even double that.
The average wage of a Gazan laborer working in Israel is six times the pay for a comparable day’s work in the Strip itself. The wages earned in Israel contribute substantially to the enclave’s economy and can also contribute to efforts to achieve relative stability there.
Prisoners to a conception
But is the political leadership and the senior military command being held hostage by the conception that Hamas is a partner to a long-term agreement while it continues to carry out attacks via smaller Palestinian groups?
“I ask my people about this once a day,” a senior army officer told Haaretz. “We say with certainty that Hamas wants calm. It’s not a conjecture. Ten years ago, they were planting explosives next to the border fence. Now they have an entire military structure whose job it is to prevent other organizations to reach the fence. They aren’t winking to Islamic Jihad to act. Hamas hasn’t given up on the idea of resistance to Israel, but it now has other considerations.”
After the hostilities between Israel and Gaza in November, which began with the assassination of a senior Islamic Jihad figure, Baha Abu al-Atta, the thinking in the IDF was that his death would make it easier to come to an indirect arrangement that would ensure long-term calm. That didn’t happen.
In retrospect, they attribute the continued violence to two main events: the crisis between Hamas and Egypt (which erupted when Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh violated a commitment to Cairo and visited Iran to attend Gen. Qassem Soleimani’s funeral), and the release of the Trump administration’s peace plan, which prompted Hamas to take a harder line. Attempts to reach a long-term agreement resumed this week, but for the moment, the prospects don’t look bright.
“We have to regard a military campaign as likely to take place, but not rush into it as a first solution,” the senior officer said. “Such a campaign will not be pretty at all. There is no other way. No war looks good, but this would look worse. I am very familiar with the operational plans. There are almost no targets in Gaza in open spaces. The military targets are in the heart of multistory buildings or underground. The ratio of losses among armed [combatants] and uninvolved civilians will be very unpleasant. And we will also pay a price.
“And what’s more, right after this war, we will have to start dealing with the economic reconstruction of the Strip. This time, we won’t be able to wait four years, and it’s not certain that the world would mobilize assistance for it. Anyone who is selling you quick fixes in Gaza doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”
Former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot said something similar last week at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya at the launch of the Hebrew-language book “Hamatria” (“Warning Lights”), based on conversations between Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilead and journalist Shimon Shiffer.
“I am expressing my professional opinion that there is no magic pill,” Eisenkot said. “Anyone who thinks that terrorism can be fought with slogans or with force alone is making a major mistake. It needs to be a combined fight deploying sophisticated and concerted military and intelligence power together with civilian economic motives and components that will separate terrorism from the population and also create hope. The idea that the worse it is from them, the better it is for us, is baseless and will perpetuate the chaotic reality for many years to come.”
Eisenkot’s interviewer, Yaron Dekel of Kan public broadcasting, asked what he thought about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement that Israel was preparing a surprise for Hamas.
“I understand the need from a political and leadership standpoint to provide the citizens answers, saying that there are things being done,” Eisenkot acknowledged, “but I think as a rule, it would be better to maintain a policy of ambiguity. Even when the image of one or another commander or leader is hurt, you need to see the benefit from the matter and believe that you are doing the right thing for Israel rather than getting too excited over one headline or another.”