Analysis

Israel Takes Tactical Risk in Gaza to Serve a Strategic Goal

Israel seeks quiet on the Gaza front so it can focus on the Iranian threat ■ Outgoing Israeli army spokesman gets a special farewell gift

A Palestinian protester uses a slingshot to hurl stones during clashes with Israeli forces across the fence following a demonstration along the border with Israel east of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza strip, September 13, 2019.
AFP

On Election Day, Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi went south for a long visit with the Gaza Division, where he also fulfilled his civic duty in a military polling station. In his conversation with the commanders Kochavi outlined a policy that is baked by Netanyahu and in keeping with his predecessor Gadi Eizenkot’s approach. The fight against Iran, especially regarding the Hezbollah precision-missile project and Iranian efforts to consolidate their hold in Syria, take priority over the confrontation with Hamas in Gaza. The goal is to keep the strip as quiet as possible, in order to enable the military to focus on the campaign against the Iranians.

This is also why Israel’s military approach to Gaza is built on containment and caution. If more Palestinians are killed in the violent demonstrations along the fence, more rockets would be fired at the south of Israel, leading to more air force strikes on the strip, which would in turn increase the risk of war, such as the one prevented only last week.

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The rules of engagement on the Gaza border were modified a few months ago. Compared to the many casualties in the Friday demonstrations last year (on two occasions, dozens of Palestinians were killed), the current IDF activity is more restrained. Commanders have been ordered to deploy forces in bullet proof vehicles a few dozen meters away from the fence, to deter the demonstrators from crossing it.

This order poses a certain risk, because vehicles are targeted by improvised bombs, hand grenades and fire bombs. But the IDF is taking this risk and placing soldiers equipped with riot control means close to the fence, instead of relying only on snipers, who are 300 meters away. This has resulted in a considerably smaller number of fatalities, as snipers have to shoot less frequently.

The tactical risk is intended to serve a strategic goal: restraint in the Strip in hopes that the low number of fatalities will prevent another escalation. This goal hasn’t changed, even after the night of consultations that almost led to a broad military move last week. Since this policy is complicated and requires constant detailed explanations to commanders, Kochavi comes to the Strip frequently to make sure the policy is understood and maintained. But this is only half the picture. The other half depends on Hamas, Islamic Jihad and rogue Palestinian youngsters, who inflame the situation occasionally.

The liberal-feminist spokesman

The ceremony for replacing the IDF Spokesperson was held in Tel Aviv this week, two weeks behind schedule. The exchange was put off once due to tensions in the north, and this week it almost didn't take place because of tensions in Gaza. No wonder outgoing IDF spokesman, Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, opened his speech with the Shehecheyanu blessing. His tenure ended without a war.

On the morning of the ceremony, Manelis received a toxic farewell message from one of the nationalist ultra-Orthodox organizations who had treated him with open hostility throughout his term. Several Tel Aviv billboards carried posters of the organization “Ahim Laneshek,” showing caricatures of an (imaginary) meeting between the outgoing spokesman and representatives of the New Israel Fund and the Israel Women’s Network. “Brig. Gen. Manelis, how we’ll miss you,” the caption said, addressing Manelis in the feminine. It implies that if someone is opposed to excluding women, like Manelis is, his manliness is in question.

Manelis was attacked several times by various organizations, all representing the same ideology. They spread reports of false scandals, all pertaining to women, members of the LGBTQ community and other minority groups in the IDF. These organizations claim that the IDF's occasional malfunctions in the battlefield stem directly from this obscene liberal-feminist approach.

Media outlets belonging to social groups sharing that ideology gleefully cooperated with the campaign. A day after his departure, one right-wing sites claimed that “Eizenkot and Manelis’ lies were exposed,” following an Army Radio report about the Manpower Directorate’s changing the method of counting religious female soldiers.

Manelis, one of the more talented spokespeople in recent decades (in comparison to political and diplomatic spokespeople as well), hinted at the attacks against him in his farewell speech. Spokesmen for state institutions, he said, “cannot always respond to offensive statements … all the more so when it comes from people in official positions.”

But Ahim Laneshek’s parting gift is not directed at the outgoing spokesman but to the one replacing him.

The goal is to intimidate the new spokesman, Brig. Gen. Hidai Zilberman, and make him understand he would do well to keep his head down and not deal with social issues. Similar methods have been used in recent years against chiefs of staff, central command chiefs and other officers. These repulsive practices are not expected to stop, regardless of the results of the election.