The Tunnel Threat Gives Israel’s Gaza Offensive Its Legitimacy

Benjamin Netanyahu must distinguish between concrete military objectives and the desire to settle scores with Hamas.

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An Israeli army officer gives journalists a tour, Friday, July 25, 2014, of a tunnel allegedly used by Palestinian militants for cross-border attacks, at the Israel-Gaza Border. Credit: AP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon have made the destruction of the tunnels emerging from Gaza a main objective of Operation Protective Edge. This is an appropriate and crucial goal given the unexpected threat these tunnels pose.

It isn’t clear how long this mission will take. The defense minister, who at the start of the ground offensive said destroying the tunnels would require “two or three days,” couldn’t have known how many there were or exactly where they were located. And it seems more surprises may be in store in this regard.

The tunnel threat gives this operation its legitimacy. The international community apparently recognizes Israel’s need to remove this threat and is willing to grant Jerusalem the time it needs to do so.

But some cabinet members and legislators are more ambitious and aren’t willing to make do with the destruction of the tunnels. They’re pressuring the prime minister to “remove the Hamas threat,” “go all the way,” “smash the Hamas leadership” or reoccupy the Gaza Strip.

So far Netanyahu has demonstrated an admirable ability to resist these war cries. He knows that after the fighting Israel will still be living next to Gaza, not in it, and that at present there is no alternative to Hamas’ leadership in the Strip.

The army and the defense minister agree with this assessment and recognize that Israel can act from Israeli territory against any other threat that might emerge from Gaza. They realize that there’s no need to seize control of the Strip to combat such threats.

We must hope that the prime minister will withstand the heavy pressure and heed the preset objectives. He must not let himself be dragged into a long, bloody campaign that could end with Israel in an unmanageable situation.

On Tuesday there were feverish attempts to achieve a long-term cease-fire, whose implementation Egypt, the United States and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would guarantee. These efforts would let both Gazans and Israelis return to normal life and begin recovering from the damage caused by the war. Israel, which has declared that it does not intend to control Gaza, must nurture these efforts, support Abbas and cooperate with Egypt, whose positions in this conflict have not yet contradicted Israel’s.

Despite the criticism from the right, Netanyahu must distinguish between concrete military objectives and the desire to settle scores with Hamas. In doing so, he can avoid punishing 1.8 million Palestinians.