A Country Enveloped by Gaza

Israel's military escalation with Hamas wasn’t inevitable. It stemmed from an algorithm that triggers automatic responses by right-wing cabinet members

Palestinians look at the rubble of a building in Gaza City after an Israeli air strike, November 13, 2018.

The contorted lexicon of wartime is again searching for words. What should we call the clash between Israel and Gaza this week? Exchanges of fire? A violent confrontation? Maybe even a war?

No, not a war; we definitely shouldn’t refer to the “situation” as a war. War means failure. It’s a failure of deterrence, a failure of the blockade policy, a giving up on finding an “arrangement” and, mainly, it’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu conceding to the demands of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Education Minister Naftali Bennett.

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After all, war demands a victory that, in turn, requires the setting of objectives. The best thing would be to call this affair — in which an Israeli covert operation went wrong and required airstrikes to get the soldiers out — an escalation. An escalation doesn’t require victory. It’s only a reaction to a reaction; the only goal is to raise the decibel level. An escalation can’t be defined as an attempt to topple Hamas, retake the Gaza Strip, destroy infrastructure or kill thousands of people. It’s only a demonstration of strength.

Afterward, as usual, there will be attempts to find a diplomatic solution. The problem is, not that many people are left to be impressed by this show of force. Israelis who’ve huddled in their shelters and reinforced rooms for four days are no longer impressed by the airstrikes in Gaza. “Code Red” alerts scare them much more than Israeli planes overhead calm them. Hamas doesn’t need proof of Israel’s might, but it’s keen to prove to Gazans that someone is fighting for their dignity.

It seems that the people most impressed by these airstrikes are the cabinet members, who are divided into those supporting a war “once and for all” and those who’ve already witnessed too many “decisive victories.” Both sides know there can be no perfect victory because this means a retaking of Gaza in which Israel could expect total defeat in the alleys filled with armed men, explosive devices, snipers and dead civilians mobilizing international pressure, let alone soldiers killed or wounded and the ensuing public protests.

As long as communities in the “Gaza envelope” — what Israelis call the Gaza area — are the ones being hit and suffering, the rest of the country will function normally. But when soldiers are killed the entire country becomes the “Gaza envelope.”

So let's suffice with the term “significant escalation.” This will let Lieberman declare that Hamas has suffered a serious blow, and for a while it will satisfy Bennett, allowing Netanyahu to happily return to an “arrangement” with the person truly responsible for Gaza.

Significant escalation” also lets the army out of the political trap it has been drawn into. The confrontation between Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and Bennett that took place at a security cabinet meeting in July still reverberates. Bennett asked why the army wasn’t shooting at people launching airborne firebombs, and Eisenkot asked whether he meant dropping a bomb on them. Bennett said yes, and Eisenkot said it contradicted his operational and moral stance.

With a chief of staff like that you can’t launch a war of choice. But now Eisenkot has a free operational and moral hand because a furious escalation after rocket barrages is legitimate even without an operational mishap. There are only two small problems with an escalation. It’s unstable and tends to slide into war because it attests to a loss of deterrence, and it's not controlled by just one side, even if that side has state-of-the-art warplanes.

This escalation wasn’t inevitable. It stemmed from an algorithm that triggers automatic responses by cabinet members. There is an alternative — the “arrangement” that was on the brink of being reached before the rampage began. The army, which was a prime mover in getting this together, can tell the cabinet when enough is enough. This wouldn’t be weakness, it would be the responsible thing to do.