Many of the volatile elements that led Israel into war in the Gaza Strip in summer 2014, enumerated in the state comptroller’s report on Operation Protective Edge, are back in place in the spring of 2017.
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The report quotes warnings that the cabinet ministers heard from the coordinator of government activity in the territories, Maj. Gen. Eitan Dangot, and his successor, Maj. Gen. Yoav (Poli) Mordechai, in the year and a half before the war.
Both warned of the implications of the worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza and said the serious infrastructure problems there – problems with the water and electricity supply – very high unemployment levels and sense of being choked off could lead to a violent eruption.
The daily hardships in Gaza are like a ticking bomb that could eventually push the Hamas government into a new clash with Israel. If that happens, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ministers won’t be able to say they didn’t know.
In the comptroller’s report on a future war, there will be no shortage of references to the number of times the humanitarian situation in Gaza was brought up for discussion in the cabinet. Israel is well aware of the UN report that says Gaza could become uninhabitable by 2020.
In his report, Joseph Shapira criticized the government for failing to consider any diplomatic alternative just before the military operation. Shapira isn’t talking about a peace agreement with Hamas, but proposals that were suggested – and declined – about how to ease living conditions in the Strip.
Very similar proposals have been discussed in Israel in the past months, without any progress. In these discussions, Netanyahu has stuck to the formula of “reconstruction in return for disarmament,” though no one in the defense establishment believes this is possible. Hamas probably won’t agree to part with its heavy weaponry, no matter what it is offered in return.
Minister Yisrael Katz’s proposal to build a seaport on an artificial island off the coast of Gaza has been thoroughly sunk, even though Katz was talking it up again following the publication of the comptroller’s report.
Other ideas, like deploying Palestinian Authority police officers at the Gazan border crossings – as a measure aimed at helping the PA gain a foothold in Gaza – were also ruled out. Netanyahu is wary of that happening, and neither the PA nor Hamas was too keen on the idea, either. So in the present circumstances, there’s a fair likelihood that Gaza is headed for another eruption.
Those on the Israeli side who are eager to avoid another war take encouragement from two things: Gaza’s fear of further losses after the devastation wrought by the 2014 war; and a certain change in Egypt’s position since then.
Two and a half years ago, the generals in Egypt were Hamas’ worst enemy. Egypt, even more than Israel, kept Gaza under siege. And when the war broke out, Egypt did not make any haste to try to bring it to an end. In the past months, there has been something of a rapprochement, described as tactical, between Cairo and Gaza.
Egypt is opening the Rafah crossing more often, allowing more Gazan people and goods to pass through. It surely doesn’t hurt that the Egyptian army, through a vast network of companies it owns, stands to profit from the transport of goods.
But at the same time, several things have occurred that increase the chances of war. Most significant is the election of Yahya Sinwar, head of its military wing, to lead Hamas in Gaza.
Sinwar, who was freed in the 2011 Gilad Shalit deal after 22 years in prison, is described by Israeli intelligence officials as a rigid extremist. In a crisis, he is liable to try to lead the organization into another military confrontation.
The objective would not only be to secure the release of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for more Israeli hostages, as Sinwar promised to do on the day he was released. A more pressing objective, for him, could be breaking the blockade on Gaza – by bringing international pressure to bear on Israel to do what it didn't do after earlier clashes: lift the blockade on Gaza so Hamas would control the border crossings.
Another significant change on the ground relates to the engineering and technological effort Israel is expending near the Gaza border to deal with Hamas' attack tunnels.
The cost of this project could reach 3 billion shekels ($813 million), and still the defense establishment cannot guarantee that it will fully eradicate the tunnel threat.
But this work could lead Hamas to think about launching an attack to make use of its major asset before they are uncovered and destroyed. Such an assault, which would aim for mass killing and abductions in the Jewish communities near Gaza, could also involve the use of drones, such as the one shot down by the air force last week off the Gaza coast, as well as bombardments with short-range rockets and mortars, which Hamas is producing wholesale.
The actions of the extremist Salafi groups could also affect the outbreak of the next round of violence.
In the past month, these groups launched four rockets from Gaza into Israel. More rockets were fired at Eilat and the southern Negev from ISIS' affiliate in Sinai, Wilayat Sinai.
Israel responds to these provocations by striking Hamas positions, including the line of outposts near the border, whose main purpose is actually to prevent unauthorized attacks on Israel.
Sinwar could decide that he isn’t ready to absorb further blows for the sake of his organization’s overall responsibility for Gaza. And a random “success” by one of these Salafi rocket attacks that kills Israelis could trigger a harsh reprisal from the Israel Defense Forces.
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A moment before Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman entered office last May, the media cited his brazen threats on the life of Gazan Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Since his appointment, however, Lieberman has changed and assumed a moderate demeanor.
Every time Netanyahu gets carried away and Education Minister Naftali Bennett lets fly with empty threats, Lieberman makes calming statements. As defense minister, he seldom interferes with the army’s work. Apart from the dispute over the Sgt. Elor Azaria case, his relations with Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot are good and he gives the military leadership a wide berth.
But this does not mean Lieberman has given up his ideas on what should be done in the Gaza Strip. Even after becoming defense minister, he said that if Israel is forced into a war with Gaza, he would see to it that it’s the last war there and that, when it ends, Hamas will no longer rule the Strip.
Presumably there are also political calculations behind Lieberman’s conduct. He hardly bothers to conceal his intent to take Netanyahu’s place, when the latter leaves as the right-wing’s leader.
Meanwhile, Lieberman is establishing his image as a security-oriented figure. But does the path to the Prime Minister’s Office go through Gaza? Some of the officers who worked with him think he’s toying with the notion that a successful military conflict in Gaza, which he would initiate and lead, would raise his public profile while Netanyahu’s status deteriorates.
Lieberman knows that the IDF’s preparations for the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict, especially for dealing with the tunnels, were deficient. One of the issues he’s showing more interest in is the IDF’s plans in Gaza and the Lebanon front.
In case of a war in Gaza, the IDF’s options range from striking harder at Hamas’ military branch to occupying the entire Strip. The General Staff continues to object to toppling Hamas’ leadership – but there will certainly be a contingency plan for it.
The temptation to replace Hamas’ government is also linked to the turbulent state of the world: six years of upheaval and civil war in the Arab world; the horrors in Syria and Yemen; Trump’s astonishing victory in the U.S. presidential election; and several upcoming elections in Europe, which may yield victories for right-wing extremists. All these create a climate that could reduce the international community’s attention (and vocal opposition) to Israeli moves in Gaza.
As the Israeli political leadership’s appreciation of Russia’s display of power in Syria grows, so does the chance Israel will try to import Putin’s strategy to Gaza or Lebanon.
But any deep, prolonged ground invasion of the Gaza Strip will entail greater risk to soldiers’ lives. Tunnels, suicide bombers, bombs and snipers will be waiting for them in the densely populated territory, similar to what was described this week by journalist Itai Anghel in a broadcast from Mosul, Iraq, on Channel 2’s “Uvda” (“Fact”) program.
The Israeli public’s ability to accept heavy military losses has diminished in recent decades. According to some of the people who know him, Lieberman won’t hesitate to use extremely heavy firepower in Gaza to protect the combatants’ lives. His secret fantasy, they suspect, is that Israel will act like the two pro-Russian Chechen presidents, Akhmad Kadyrov and son Ramzan, who in the 1999 Chechen war mercilessly pulverized the state’s cities to subdue the rebels, at Moscow’s behest.
Occupying the Gaza Strip is a bad idea. Netanyahu’s instincts have steered him away from such a move for good reason. Former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said this week that had he listened to the calls to topple Hamas in 2014, Israel would have bled there for many more months.
If someone on the Israeli side still thinks Mohammed Dahlan – or some other, more Israel-friendly Palestinian – will take the reins in Gaza after Hamas is driven out, he is probably delusional. And if anyone tries to accomplish such an end with an unrestrained, raging war on an enemy hiding among the civilian population (and to hell with another Goldstone commission), then Israel will be a completely different country at the end of that campaign.