Q&A With Haaretz's Anshel Pfeffer

Award-winning reporter and columnist Anshel Pfeffer answered readers' questions.

A photo of Anshel Pfeffer.
Ofer Vaknin

Haaretz's Anshel Pfeffer has been answering readers' questions.

Pfeffer, who was born in the United Kingdom and has worked in journalism since 1997, has reported on a wide range of issues for Haaretz including security, religious affairs, education and major international events.

He has covered all of Israel's wars and conflicts since the beginning of the Second Intifada in 1999. Among his assignments have been has reporting for Haaretz on the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, the Syrian civil war, unrest in Turkey and the Georgia-Russia was of 2008. His most recent assignment was to Ukraine, where he covered the ongoing conflict with Russia. His award-winning weekly column, Jerusalem & Babylon, deals with Israel and Jewish identity.

Since the outbreak of the current Gaza conflict, Pfeffer has written about the ultra-Orthodox community which indirectly produced the suspects who have confessed to the brutal murder of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir; the lack of a mediator to end the conflict, the price Hamas and Israel are willing to pay for a 'victory photo' in the current conflict; and, most recently, has analyzed the five reasons why Israel will not invade Gaza and the five reasons it will.

To submit your question, send an email to QandA@haaretz.co.il, use the #AMA_Anshel hashtag on Twitter or add it in the comments section below.


AP: Good evening and thank you for all the questions.

It's been a rollercoaster of a day, from the prospect of a ceasefire this morning to the renewed airstrikes in the afternoon, and a first fatal Israeli casualty this evening. To finish things off we had Netanyahu's firing of Deputy Defense Minister Danon tonight. So everything is in flux and it will be difficult to give any definite answers. But let's try.


Q: Do you predict a total cease-fire? And do you see BB entering in to indirect negotiations thereafter with Khaled Meshal for Israel’s complete disengagement from Gaza leading to a self declared Palestine in the Gaza with the West Bank to follow later? Michael Elton

A: I have to admit that like many others, this morning I expected Hamas to eventually respond positively to the Egyptian ceasefire proposal. Hamas saying no to the Egyptians seemed almost inconceivable. In retrospect, we should have foreseen Hamas' (and Islamic Jihad's) refusal to accept a deal that was barely, if at all, presented to them before it was published and which from their perspective, offers very few incentives. In a few days, through a combination of Egyptian pressure and perhaps some tweaking of the original proposal, Hamas will probably sign on. But it won't be a total ceasefire. Just a very temporary one.

The conditions in Gaza, Hamas' ambitions and the challenges it faces from even more radical Palestinian groups, and Israel's inability/unwillingness to fundamentally address the Gaza issue, practically ensure that a year or two from now, we will be meeting up again during yet another round of extreme violence between Gaza and Israel. Which leads us to your next question regarding indirect negotiations between Netanyahu and Meshal or any other Hamas leadership.

Indirect negotiations, which have gone on for years over various issues, can solve short-term problems or yield a deal such as the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange. They can't lead to a total disengagement of Israel from Gaza (if that is at all possible, which I doubt) and any form of statehood, alongside the West Bank. Only serious, direct negotiations, between Israel and a Palestinian leadership representing a wide swath (including Fatah and Gaza) can achieve that. I don't see that happening with the current leaderships of either side.


Q: Although there are great risks associated with a ground invasion. Is it not the perfect to opportunity to destroy Hamas once and for all (well at least get rid of their military capability)? Arguably the organization is weak and more importantly Egypt is now implacably opposed to it and will have little opportunity to replenish weaponry post-conflict. John Kennedy (London, UK)

A: There can't be a "perfect opportunity" for something that can't be done. Hamas is not only a military organization; it's a political party with social and educational branches throughout Gaza and the West Bank. Even if it's relatively weak now, Israel can't destroy it. The debate over whether Israel should, or should not launch a ground offensive, has nothing to do with "destroying" Hamas. The question is whether a ground operation can do a better job of degrading the rocket-launching and manufacturing infrastructure and if it is worth taking what you say are "great risks" to achieve that. 


Q: Do the risks of a Gaza ground invasion outweigh the potential benefits? @PeriArnold

A: A ground invasion of any scale beyond a small special-forces raid will almost certainly lead to much greater numbers of casualties on the Palestinian side than those we've seen over the last week. It will offer Hamas and the other armed groups in Gaza multiple Israeli targets not defended by Iron Dome. Perhaps even the opportunity to capture another Israeli soldier.

On the other hand, the current air-strike campaign can only achieve limited results against the rocket arsenal and manufacturing infrastructure. A ground operation would probably achieve more. But anything short of reoccupying the entire Gaza Strip (and Benjamin Netanyahu seems resolutely opposed to such an operation) would still leave at least some rocket capabilities.

Here's a piece I wrote yesterday on the five main reasons why a ground offensive may be launched and five reasons it probably won't


Q: Can you please say whether this war is waged on Gaza is about the three teenagers abducted and killed – or about the Hamas/Fatah unity government?

A: Going back to Operation Summer Rain in 2006, this is the fourth major round of warfare around Gaza in eight years. You can point at events which sparked them off and in this case, the sequence of events begins not with the Hamas-Fatah unity deal (which began to fall apart shortly after it was signed) but the murder of the three Israeli teenagers, most likely by Hamas members, but probably without the involvement of Hamas leadership, and the subsequent Israeli operation in the West Bank, which from the start was quite clearly aimed not only at finding the three bodies and the murderers, but also at drastically degrading Hamas' organization in the West Bank (and at least IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz made no attempt to hide those intentions).

Events in the West Bank fed into tension already existing in Gaza, between Israel and the Palestinian organizations, but also between Hamas and smaller groups challenging their hegemony there. And it fed into growing frustration within Hamas at its lack of progress in opening up crossings, particularly the Rafah crossing to Egypt, and its inability to receive funds, blocked by the Palestinian Authority to pay its police officers and civil servants. The Hamas military wing at some point decided to up the pressure and instead of preventing the other organizations from firing rockets on Israeli territory, joined in.

An Israeli air-strike on one of these Hamas rocket teams lead to further escalation which intensified when seven Palestinian fighters were killed in a tunnel which was dug beneath the border to launch an attack. More rockets were launched, more air-strikes and Operation Protective Edge was announced.

That's the basic sequence. But obviously, both sides have been preparing for this, basically since Operation Pillar of Defense ended twenty months ago. Hamas has its operational plans, thousands of missiles accumulated and positioned in underground bunkers. Along with tunnels, drones, frogmen and other "surprises." Israel has its "targets bank" and gradual levels of escalation – each level brings another category of targets into play.

You can connect the sequence leading up to hundreds of rocket launches and air-strikes daily to the murder of the teenagers or to any of the other recent events, but it was waiting to kick off anyway for a whole range of reasons that existed before three young Israelis hitched a ride.


Q: Last time around, the IAF was able to wipe out Hamas long range missiles early on. Is the IDF's intelligence and knowledge of where the current stocks are – and indeed where the leadership is hiding and Hamas Command & Control networks are any less detailed this time? Raphi Bloom

A: I'm not sure where you got your information from. The IAF succeeded in its initial strikes during Operation Pillar of Defense to destroy a large proportion of Hamas long-range missiles but not "wipe them out." Hamas and PIJ continued to launch for a week, including towards Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

This time around it was more difficult because Hamas studied its failings last time and improved the fortification of its missile launchers and hid them better. I can't answer whether the IDF has less intelligence this time, the fact that they have hit hundreds of targets and destroyed at least 2,000 rockets indicates that the intelligence exists, but the best intelligence service cannot know it all and many of the launchers and storages are beneath civilian structures and cannot be attacked.


Q: Why is Israel unable to destroy the rockets in Gaza by going in and destroying just the rockets? Why does Israel keep shelling and killing innocent people? Hasn't anyone noticed the military strategies up until now haven't stopped the rockets from being launched?

A: "Going in" and "just" destroying the rockets would almost certainly lead to many more civilian casualties. Ground forces need covering fire and have to fight their way to the rockets' location through heavily-built urban areas where Hamas and PIJ know every alleyway and have detailed defense plans. This sort of warfare nearly always causes many more dead and wounded.

You're right – military strategies haven't stopped the rockets from being launched. If there were, Israel would have tried them out already (I'm assuming you're not advocating "scorched earth"). Until there's a political solution to Gaza, or until Hamas and the other organizations decide they have a better way of presenting their demands, we will see more rounds of warfare of this kind and civilians will pay the price.


A: Since Hamas presumably would like nothing more than a “masterstroke” such as a direct hit on a high-value target (such as the IDF "Kirya" headquarters) or a highly populated urban facility (i.e. a skyscraper) what is stopping it from “flooding” such a target with multiple launches at the same time?

Q: A number of reasons. Hamas doesn't have an endless supply of experienced rocket teams to carry out such an attack. IAF activity over the Gaza Strip limits there opportunities to launch. They are trying to conserve their valuable long-range rockets. They are aware the accuracy of the rockets is limited and the chance of actually hitting a specific building or compound is relatively small.

Besides, I'm not sure Hamas is really interested in such a "masterstroke" that would bring upon them massive and unprecedented retribution. They prefer to keep up a steady rate of fire and to present their public with the image of "unbroken resistance."


Q: It is useless to fight a war against Gaza again and again. Why can't Gaza be put under international control? NATO? @ReneBoekman

A: It is useless. You're right. It would be wonderful if the sides were brave enough to reach a political solution that would remove the motivation for these wars. I don't believe the Israeli government wants to fight these wars, but they lack the foresightedness for a serious initiative regarding Gaza's long-term future and the prospective partners aren't especially helpful.

Do the Gazans want to be under international control? Does NATO want to get involved? That could be part of a solution but there doesn't seem to be willingness on any of the sides for such a solution.


Q: Netanyahu appears to have concluded that there can never be a full withdrawal of Israeli troops from Judea and Samaria because it would result in another Gaza.  This may be so, but let's look forward and assume not.  How much longer does Netanyahu intend to serve as PM?  If and when he goes, is it more likely that a hard right politician such as Naftali Bennett becomes PM, or is there a possibility of someone like Isaac Herzog forming a coalition that is not dependent upon the right wing parties (chiefly, Yisrael Beiteinu and Habayit Hayehudi)?

A: Netanyahu's positions are not set in stone. Back in the 1980s he lambasted the government for agreeing to lopsided prisoner exchanges. Three years ago he signed off on the Gilad Shalit deal. He met with Yasser Arafat and carried out the Hebron agreement. He committed himself to the two-state solution. I doubt he wants to every implement it, but circumstances in the past have forced him to swallow deals he would never have countenanced previously. It could happen again.

One thing is certain – Netanyahu has no plans to vacate the Prime Minister's Office – as long as he can continue winning elections. He is convinced only he can deliver salvation for Israel and is incapable of seeing anyone else replacing him. For now, no-one seems to be capable of building an alternative coalition to Netanyahu's. Bennett is too far to the right; Herzog lacks the public image, charisma and political ruthlessness. But the next politician who comes along with that peculiar combination of characteristics that makes a prime minister will probably come from the center-left, as Netanyahu will not allow a candidate to challenge him in Likud.


Q: Strategy, logistics & military tactics should be decided by military experts not journalists.  Do you agree? @abekay2

A: If you mean the IDF's commanders, then they should be the ones deciding on military tactics and logistics, that's what they're paid and trained to. And politicians should appoint them (and fire them when they are doing a bad job) and make the strategic decisions. That's why we vote for them.

And journalists should be constantly asking tough questions on all the decisions of the politicians and generals and holding them to account. That's what the public trusts us to do (I hope).


Q: What do you think about Hama's rejection of the cease fire proposed by Egypt? Isn't it suicidal?

A: As I have already said, many people – including me – were surprised Hamas said no to Egypt. We shouldn't have been.

It's true that President Field Marshal al-Sissi will almost certainly find a way to "punish" Hamas for publicly defying him and as we have seen in Egypt over the last year, he is no shrinking violet when it comes to violent retribution. But Hamas is playing a long-term political game and at this point feel they have to assert some degree of independence from an Egyptian president who is so obviously hostile to them, their ideology and most likely, to Palestinians in general. They owe it to their public. Also, don't forget that Hamas barely had any time to formulate a considered response and are split by internal rivalries, geographical distance and a certain difficulty to communicate right now.


Q: Many Palestinians say that occupation brings violence, being no occupation in Gaza, do you believe the conflict is actually religious (Dar al-Harb) and not territorial? Do you see this extremist interpration of the Quran and Islam itself as meaningful amongst the Palestinian people or it is just part of their leaders speech?

A: Israel may not be physically present since Summer 2005 in Gaza but it still controls many aspects of the lives of the 1.7 million people living there. And most crucially, along with Egypt it controls access to and from Gaza, by every mode of transport (except sometimes underground). So if you don't want to call it occupation, fine, but the element of violent confrontation are still there and will remain until Gaza's long-term status and first of all its residents' freedom of movement are solved.

Palestinian society contains both religious and secular elements, and many who are religious but not in any particularly fundamental way. Even within Hamas there are varying levels of religiosity. Religion plays a part of course but I would be wary of any simplistic interpretation of the conflict simply on religious lines.


AP: I've been asked a number of questions on Iron Dome. Here are three of them and I will try to answer them in one go.

Q: Do we know what the Iron Dome “success rate” is for incoming missiles in the current conflicts, and is there a breakdown segmented by: (a) total # of missiles launched against Israel; (b) total # of missiles launched against Israel for which Iron Dome launched a counter-missile?

Q: Why does the Iron Dome have such a low success rate? Or is that what it is expected to do? What happens to the shrapnel after it hits a Gaza missile? Michael Horowicz

Q: Did Congress double funding for Iron Dome because it is working, or because it's not working? @dforscey

A: There are figures from the Defense Ministry on Iron Dome's interception success rate – as with any figures from official sources, we should regard the with a pinch of salt. For Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012 it was 84 percent and for the first three days of this operation it was "over" 90 percent.

This figure relates to the success of actual attempted interceptions, because Iron Dome as a system which is integrated with information coming from other sensors and networks, is designed to do two things: detect launches and identify the type of incoming short- and medium-range rockets; and, within seconds, to calculate trajectory and point of impact. If the point of impact is predicted to be within a built up area, then the system is designed to launch interceptor missiles.

Whether or not the success rates are accurate, anyone can see in the sky the interceptions and the fact is that only a very small proportion of the rockets launched have hit built-up areas. It is a successful system. Period. Not perfect – but probably better than anyone could have expected.

The shrapnel remains a problem, though I'm not aware of anyone yet being injured by falling shrapnel. It certainly is less dangerous than a direct hit.

Congress authorized the Obama Administration's request to double the funding so new additional batteries and interceptor rockets could be manufactured (in part by American companies). Additional batteries are necessary because Iron Dome is naturally much more effective and shields a greater area the more batteries you have.

Given the level of support for Israel in Congress, this is probably one of the easiest allocations for the administration to have approved.


Q: Can you explain what's going on with Danny Danon? Why was he fired? Zev Palatnik

A: It's almost midnight so I will allow myself to answer explicitly. Deputy Defense Minister Danon screwed the pooch. He tried to challenge his party leader and his boss – within Likud, in the government and in the press. This may have made him a popular figure among sections of the party rank and file, but it made him a prime target for Netanyahu, who, facing a restive and ultra-right, near-rebellion within the ranks, was just waiting for the opportunity to make an example of Danon.

Even in the irreverent world of Israeli politics, there are limits about what you can say against a prime minister who is also your party leader. When Danon said yesterday that a ceasefire would be "a slap in the face of the people in the South," in the full knowledge that Netanyahu was in favor of a ceasefire, it sealed his fate. The fact that there hasn't been an outcry so far, not even from those who support Danon's views, proves that everyone believes he blew it.

Some have asked this evening why Netanyahu doesn't fire Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has also openly criticized the Prime Minister's over the ceasefire. They are obviously ignorant of political realities. Lieberman leads a party that is a crucial partner in the coalition, he has his own independent power-base and can allow himself to remain in cabinet while openly disagreeing with the PM. Danon is a Likudnik and the only way he can open up such a broad front with his leader is from the backbenches. 

And with the departure of Danon from office, I will also depart now. Thank you for all your questions, apologies to those we had no time to answer and good night, hopefully as peaceful as possible in Israel and Gaza.