Analysis |

Gaza Flare-up: How One Israeli Tank Shell Almost Started an All-out War

Even Netanyahu knows there's no magic solution for Gaza tensions

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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An Israeli army tank patrols along the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip on May 29, 2018
An Israeli army tank patrols along the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip on May 29, 2018Credit: JACK GUEZ/AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Following a day of harsh exchanges of fire between Israel and the Gaza Strip that came to an end with a cease-fire brokered by Egypt, a somewhat sour tone permeated public discourse on Wednesday morning. Security cabinet ministers who had not been updated on the latest status of the Egyptian initiative – and had just moments before vied among themselves over the boldness of the threats they could issue at Hamas – unexpectedly found themselves irrelevant when they discovered that the prime minister was already focusing his attention on other areas. And at the same time, other politicians, journalists and the usual gang of internet pundits were assailing Benjamin Netanyahu from both the right and the left for his incompetence in dealing with the Palestinians.

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More than 100 mortar shells and rockets were fired from the Strip between Tuesday and Wednesday morning, the critics asserted, while not a single Palestinian suffered even a scratch during the Israel Air Force’s counterattacks. All those who on any given day are happy to accuse Netanyahu of cooking up war scenarios as a means of saving himself from the threat of police investigations, were now letting it be known that the man was exhibiting weakness vis-a-vis Hamas.

>>Renewed Gaza rocket fire could serve Hamas and test Israel's policy | Analysis

Netanyahu evidently owes an apology to Tzipi Livni, whom he accused during the 2009 election campaign of rescuing Hamas from a potential rout in Operation Cast Lead by agreeing to an early cease-fire. As also occurred in the two ensuing Israel Defense Forces operations, Pillar of Defense and Protective Edge, as well as during several other brief periods of escalation over the years, the prime minister acted in the same exact way as did the Olmert-Barak government (with Livni as the foreign minister) that preceded him. He understood long ago that there are no instant solutions in Gaza, and certainly no painless way to defeat Hamas and install in its place a regime that would be more kindly disposed toward Israel.

Palestinian national Waleed el-Hattab (L) cooks a soup prior to distribute it to the needy during the holy month of Ramadan, in Gaza City on May 27, 2018.Credit: MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

As soon as Hamas agreed Tuesday night to the Egyptian proposal, Netanyahu and his defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, rushed to approve it, taking pains to assert that it was not an official cease-fire but merely a commitment to maintain quiet in exchange for quiet. When Hamas began the following morning to enforce the agreement’s guidelines upon the other factions in the Strip, Israel held its fire, as well.

Still, focusing the debate about Israeli deterrence on the issue of how many Palestinians we killed in response to how many rockets were fired, absolutely misses the mark. First, it does not seem as if Hamas or any of Israel’s other neighbors suffer from reading comprehension problems. In the past two months, the IDF has killed over 100 Palestinians – the majority of whom belonged to Hamas and the military wings of other Islamist organizations – either during demonstrations or in other incidents along the Gaza-Israel border fence. Throughout this period, Israel also carried out a series of aerial attacks in Syria, the high point being the thwarting of an Iranian attempt to launch an extensive counterattack targeting IDF positions in the Golan Heights.

At the present, then, Israel’s staunch resoluteness is quite clear. There is no need to raise the body count in Gaza in order to make a statement to the Palestinians that Israel is stronger. It would be a mistake to view deterrence solely as the result of carrying a big stick, whose power is proved only through its frequent use.

Second, the main failure of the various Netanyahu governments in Gaza is to be found somewhere else. In the state comptroller’s report on Operation Protective Edge, which was published in March, sharp criticism was leveled at the failure of the government and cabinet to develop strategic options to the Gaza situation in the years leading up to the 2014 operation. In retrospect, Israel’s security agencies now agree in their assessment that more generous steps toward easing the economic plight in the Strip on the eve of that conflagration (most of which were adopted immediately afterward) might have staved off the outbreak of hostilities. Several high-ranking defense establishment figures also admit today that the insistence on a confrontation with Hamas in the West Bank – through the re-arrest of dozens of Palestinians who had been released in the Shalit deal of 2011, after the kidnapping of the three teens in Gush Etzion in June 2014 – contributed to the deterioration in the Strip just weeks later.

Israel is now reverting to exactly the same stasis, but now the circumstances are more difficult. Infrastructures in the Gaza Strip are in much worse shape than during the period leading up to Protective Edge. Moreover, the desperate position in which Hamas finds itself, due to its relationship with the Palestinian Authority, on the one hand, and the Egyptians, on the other, is more severe than it was four years ago. In the last few months, all of the heads of Israel’s security forces have been recommending significant economic moves to ease the situation in Gaza. Realization of such measures is stuck, in part because of Egyptian foot-dragging and intra-Palestinian issues. But one additional major reason also stands in the way: the Netanyahu government’s fear of being seen as weak toward Hamas, primarily against the backdrop of suspended negotiations over the return to Israel of the bodies of two IDF soldiers and of two Israeli civilians being held in Gaza.

In the absence of such a solution, and almost without any connection to the deterrence index (whose method of calculation is about as reliable as sticking a wet finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing) – the next escalation in the Strip is just a matter of time. Without easing its fundamental problems, the situation there will continue to dog Israel. Nor should we ignore what those 24 hours in the middle of the week did for the sense of security felt in the Israeli settlements abutting the Strip, which have not experienced such barrages since the end of Protective Edge.

Criticism notwithstanding, Israel’s conduct in Gaza over the past few days was deemed to be entirely reasonable, both in political echelons and among the IDF’s General Staff. The Iron Dome system has even further extended the bounds of its capabilities, far beyond what was imagined in the past; it shot down an impressive number of mortar shells. The IAF and Military Intelligence very precisely calculated the targets of Tuesday’s bombings. The facilities that were attacked included several Hamas and Islamic Jihad military targets, without Palestinian civilians being hurt and without the risk of unnecessary escalation of the situation.

In addition, Israel quickly recruited the international community to assist it in achieving a cease-fire. Given the complicated circumstances in the Strip, it may be that this is the maximum that could be attained. Thus, the complaints about a defeat are every bit as ridiculous as the claim of one cabinet minister (voiced at Wednesday night’s session, at which the route to the cease-fire was explained, after the fact), according to which “we bombed Hamas to bits.”

Nonetheless, a disturbing operational gap has been exposed in how the IDF deals with the forces firing the rockets. Unlike in the past, the army didn’t manage to hit even one such cell this week. Israel will likely have to improve such capabilities ahead of a possible future escalation.

Unexploded shell

Looking back at the week’s events, one discerns an additional weak spot. It is related to the unintended effects of unusual behavior at the tactical level on a larger arena of warfare. This week’s escalation began with an incident that occurred along the southern part of Israel’s border with Gaza, on Sunday morning. An IDF patrol along the fence discovered booby-trapped wire cutters. In response, Israel fired tank shells at a nearby Islamic Jihad position, from which, according to army reports, the site of the incident was being observed. The shells killed three activists. Islamic Jihad, as in the past, opted for revenge – which is what gave rise to the barrage of mortar shells on Tuesday morning that then devolved into an entire day of battle along the border. Nor is it inconceivable that Iran, which underwrites most Islamic Jihad activity in the Strip, was consulted about the decision to respond.

For the Iranians, Gaza is now a much more convenient arena for a conflict with Israel than Syria, since they don’t have a direct presence on the ground there and therefore aren’t risking any assets. They can exact a price from Israel without sacrificing anything.

However, it turns out that the IDF’s decision to have the tank respond to the discovery of a small explosive charge with shelling strayed from protocol: It was made at a local, tactical operational level, and apparently without the explicit approval of all the responsible echelons.

The decision was made within the limits of discretion of the sector command, and there is no need to question the judgment of either the soldiers or their commanders regarding what took place within their arena of warfare. But still, in the counter-attack launched by Islamic Jihad two days later, it should be noted that a mortar shell landed in the yard of a kindergarten in one of the settlements bordering the Strip. In other words, if the kindergarten had not been empty at that early morning hour, the localized decision to fire a few tank shells could ultimately have brought Israel and the Palestinians into a genuine war. At a time when the diplomatic arena is completely paralyzed, these sorts of dangers will continue to hover in the air.

Egypt’s success in bringing the clashes to an end within 24 hours is related, of course, to the desire of both Israel and Hamas to avoid a conflagration right now. But Egypt deserves credit for its determination. During Pillar of Defense in 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood government led by Mohamed Morsi backed Hamas, and the understandings it formulated were in fact to Israel’s detriment. Two years later, with the Sissi regime in power, it seemed as if the Egyptians were unmoved by seeing the IDF shed Hamas blood (without an actual defeat of the organization) for 51 days.

This time around, Cairo’s intervention was faster and more effective, and seems to have been undertaken in coordination with Israel. It is now easier for Hamas to make a deal, as well. At present, most of the organization’s power is concentrated in the Strip, in the hands of Yahya Sinwar and Ismail Haniyeh, as opposed to the situation during Protective Edge, when Khaled Meshal, in Qatar, was pressuring commanders of the Hamas military wing in Gaza to keep up the fight against Israel, no matter how high the price.

The reluctance of the government and the IDF command to go to war now has to do with an understanding of the limitations that would attend a major operation in the Gaza Strip. It is doubtful whether Netanyahu could afford a fourth Israeli operation in 10 years without a decisive win over Hamas. But even if the regime in Gaza were toppled, Israel lacks any immediate and attainable alternative to it. Similarly, Netanyahu is well aware of the level of casualties expected to accrue to the IDF during such an operation.

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