There was no need to wait for last week’s publication of the State Comptroller’s report to know that Operation Protective Edge was neither a military nor a political victory for Israel. At the end of the 2014 clash with Hamas I disseminated a position paper “’Protective Edge’ – A Strategic (temporary?) Balance” arguing that Hamas had not been militarily defeated, was not especially deterred and remained unwilling to give up control of the Gaza Strip.
This unsatisfactory outcome was the result of the constant public declarations by Israeli leaders that they did not intend to topple the Hamas government or occupy Gaza; setting limited goals and deciding on “rolling” operations while being duped by Hamas’s strategy of accepting ceasefires that they then consistently violated.
After 50 days of war, Hamas was therefore able to achieve a number of major strategic successes:
- A terrorist organization, physically and politically isolated, numbering no more than 20,000-30,000 militants, managed to stand up to the powerful IDF without a breakdown of morale
- Hamas’s military strategy in the subterranean field proved itself as the IDF did not dare enter deeper into the Gaza Strip for fear of numerous casualties
- Launching long-range missiles that sent the majority of Israel’s population to take cover in shelters even if it did not cause many casualties
- Restricting the freedom of movement of Israel’s main international airport
- Many Israeli residents near the Gaza border abandoned their homes, practically transforming them into internal refugees
- Damage to Israel’s economy estimated at about 20 billion shekels
- The process of rebuilding the civilian infrastructure of Gaza continued to be controlled by Hamas
I concluded then that Hamas’s achievements would have major resonance in the Palestinian street and negative strategic implications for Israel. And indeed, Palestinians took to the streets in the cities and towns of the West Bank and Gaza to celebrate what they saw as a Hamas victory. The movement’s leaders came out of their bunkers to boast of their achievements.
Moreover, Hamas had (and still has) a major role in inspiring the wave of “lone wolf” terror attacks after September 2015, which actually began with an increased number of attacks as soon as October 2014 (in Jerusalem 49 attacks compared to 25 in September, and in Judea and Samaria 89 compared to 103; November 2014 also saw a further significant increase, up to 214 attacks, including an increase in fatalities, nine).
Just half a year after the operation, senior Israeli defense officials warned that Hamas was preparing the ground for further conflict, rebuilding its attack tunnels inside Israeli territory and rearming itself with homemade missiles.
Parallel with the publication of the State Comptroller’s report on Protective Edge, it was leaked that there are already at least 15 tunnels penetrating Israeli territory, and that Hamas has fully restored its rocket and missile capabilities, developed drone capabilities, and recruited and trained many young Gazans.
Since Israel’s 2005 unilateral withdrawal from Gaza under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Israel has faced five operations/wars with Hamas in the Strip:
Operation Summer Rains (28 June – 26 November 2006) in response to the killing of two soldiers and the kidnapping of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit;
Air and ground Operation Hot Winter (28 February – 3 March 2008) in response to Qassam rockets fired from the Strip by Hamas into Israeli civilians;
Operation Cast Lead (27 December 2008 – 18 January 2009) with the stated aim of stopping Hamas rocket attacks on southern Israel and arms smuggling into Gaza. (At the time, Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu promised to bring down the Hamas government and mocked then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who led the government during the three above mentioned operations, for not completing the mission during Operation Cast Lead.
Three years later, as Prime Minister, Netanyahu ordered Operation Pillar of Defense (14–21 November 2012) in response to incessant rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip with the goal of crippling terror organizations in the Gaza Strip and defending Israelis living under fire. The Operation was launched while Hamas was riding a wave of popular support throughout the Arab world following the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt while Turkey and Qatar competed with one another in their support for Hamas. The Israeli ground force was never used due to the relatively quick achievement of a ceasefire, stemming from Cairo’s influence on Hamas. The understandings that facilitated the ceasefire at the conclusion of Operation Pillar of Defense provided Israel with less than two years of calm.
By contrast, on the eve of Operation Protective Edge (8 July – 26 August 2014), Hamas found itself isolated in the Arab world as the Muslim Brotherhood was forced out of power in Egypt by a military coup and General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was elected president. Hamas’s economic system, reliant on the tunnels in the Rafah region, was almost completely paralyzed by the countermeasures implemented by the new Egyptian regime.
The major criticism of the State Comptroller’s report regards the lack of an Israeli strategy to deal with the continuous Hamas threat from the Gaza Strip. According to the report, by the outset of Operation Protective Edge, the Security Cabinet had 33 meetings dealing with Gaza. The comptroller reprimanded PM Netanyahu and former national security advisor Yossi Cohen for focusing Security Cabinet discussions on operative plans without having set strategic goals for the engagement in Gaza.
This gap is indeed the legacy of all the previous governments, including Ariel Sharon’s decision to withdraw from Gaza without coordinating with the Palestinian Authority, and without a clear strategy in case the unilateral abandonment of the Strip were to lead to increased military threats on the border in the heart of Israel.
But I dare argue that Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition allies do have a strategic plan. Gen. (ret.). Gershon Hacohen articulated it well when asked on Channel 10’s TV talk show, London and Kirshenbaum, to define what a victory in Gaza would be:
I’ll say something that the prime minister did not say [publicly] and did not say to the cabinet either. He realized that it was not worthwhile to give the Gaza Strip to Abu Mazen on a silver platter soaked with the blood of our soldiers. What would happen if, after occupying Gaza, we decided not to stay there? Would we want to link Gaza to Judea and Samaria again? The separation of the two regions is perhaps the greatest achievement of the Disengagement, and we may have an interest in keeping this separation. This is a strategic question among other things. The prime minister does not want to put this on the table as I put it.” (Free translation from Hebrew by the author.)
“Other things” could be the government’s interest in expanding the settlements in the West Bank and annexing more Palestinian land, which could lead to an end to the two-state solution.
Now the real question that the Comptroller, or rather the Cabinet and the Knesset should discuss is what the strategic goal or the uppermost Israeli national interest is after five “operations” — or rather small wars — in which our army, our youth and our people have invested so much blood, and psychological, political and economic hardship, as politicians and defense experts quarrel about when, and not if, the next round of violence will begin.
The Hamas “attack” tunnels are only a tactical problem not a strategic one. How many Hamas fighters can use them in the first attack? A platoon, a company, two companies? These are not the Vietcong tunnels. We have turned them into our nightmare because of the potential for kidnapped citizens or children, a potential we deeply fear.
The strategic threat is the huge underground network of defense tunnels Hamas has built during the years, where its leaders, most fighters and heavy weapons are bunkered down, which will exact a high price from the IDF the moment there is no other option than to crush the organization’s military might and permit a change in the political landscape in the Strip.
In February 2014, some of my colleagues and I visited the impressive urban warfare facility in the Ze’elim training base where IDF units train in new combat tactics. At the end of the drill I asked the accompanying officer where the soldiers train for underground combat. It is a secret place, was his answer! It is essential for the IDF to invest massively in this field rather than only in the defensive fences and obstacles.
It is clear to any sentient politician or expert that a two-state solution is possible only if the West Bank and Gaza are reunited under the rule of a Palestinian government willing and able to compromise for this goal. This is surely not possible under Hamas rule.
Protective Edge was possibly the best opportunity to lay the ground for such a move, especially considering the huge change in Egypt’s national strategic interests, which strongly supported the Palestinian Authority’s legitimacy in controlling Gaza, and the favorable regional circumstances. Clearly, Netanyahu and his allies in the government were not interested in such a resolution.
Has Israel’s strategy vis-à-vis Hamas changed in any way in the wake of the Comptroller’s Report?
After several rocket attacks during the past month and a third attack in four days, Prime Minister Netanyahu said, “we are not prepared to accept any drizzle of rockets. We will respond to every [rocket] fired into our territory. That is what we did today and that is what we will also do in the future.”
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman stated that while Israel has no intention of initiating military action in Gaza, “we have no intention of continuing to absorb sporadic fire [from the Gaza Strip]. Hamas must take responsibility and relax.”
After the last incident, the Hamas military wing issued a statement in which it indicated that if Israel again responds to a rocket attack in the way that the IDF did on February 27, by targeting several Hamas positions across Gaza, it will escalate its response.
It will be interesting to see whether the Israeli government, and in particular Defense Minister Liberman, is deterred by the Hamas message or proves willing to risk a new escalation in the conflict.
Who will blink first?