If not for Protective Edge

A fictitious scenario of a successful Hamas infiltration using the tunnels that are now being destroyed, but without the conclusion, which I want readers to ponder.

In the early hours of Erev Rosh Hashanah, one day before Israeli intelligence expected it, Hamas soldiers – in battle uniform and gear – crawled out of 80 tunnel openings and made their way to staging areas well inside Israeli territory. The 120 or so squad-sized units held radio silence and discipline until 3 am, and then went into action.

The action consisted of multiple simultaneous and highly disciplined attacks on diverse Israeli targets. The squads attacked kibbutzim from several sides at once, guided by precise maps. In some kibbutzim, fierce firefights broke out that seemed to stall the operations, but these often turned out to be diversionary tactics. Within 3:45, when IDF troops were fully deployed, there was nobody left to fight. Hamas soldiers had either withdrawn, been shot, or captured.

In all the kibbutzim, there was carnage. The terrorists had shot every adult male they found, leaving most of them dead on the ground where they had run to stop the onslaught, on the steps of their doors, in their kitchens, hallways, and bedrooms. The men had not gone easily, and there were dozens of Hamas fighters also dead and wounded, their guns lying next to them. The survivors were men who had taken sharpshooting positions on roofs, windows, around corners; and those whom the sharpshooters had managed to cover.

In each place, the fight had lasted 10-15 minutes, never more. The terrorists’ had been constrained by time: all who could started withdrawing at 3:35 am and were out by 3:40 am.

They kidnapped 593 Israelis, most of them women and teenagers, but also some middle-aged and elderly men. It took a long while to arrive at the exact number. Many of the leaders of the kibbutzim were dead, wounded, or in shock. Nobody had kept exact track of those were away from each kibbutz for one reason or another, or how many were visiting. It became one of those painful news mornings, where the numbers kept being adjusted upwards. Religious Israelis went to Mincha services that evening believing that 1304 Israelis and 312 Hamas operatives were killed.

The numbers caused elation in some quarters of the West Bank and throughout Gaza, but foreign correspondents with trusted connections related great apprehension underneath the celebratory surface. News analysts immediately proclaimed a great morale boost for Hamas, having demonstrated surprising tactical ability. Pundits spoke of a new power balance in the Middle East.

Funerals were held on Sunday afternoon several days later, because both the intervening holidays of Rosh Hashana and Shabbat. Most were buried in cemeteries near their kibbutzim; others were transported Saturday after sundown. Makeshift morgues and improvised burial societies were set up all around Gaza, as also military positions were put into place.

Israeli authorities were warned that hostages were placed near the tunnel exits in Israel, booby-trapped with bombs should Israeli forces try to enter or detonate the openings. Dogs, trackers, intelligence specialists worked feverishly to identify the openings and place firing positions near them, but all were advised to avoid opening them. On Sunday morning, the perimeter around Gaza was teeming with Israeli ground troops, nervous, angry, wondering what would happen next.

Hamas maintained discipline also over the information flow. Via Arab journalists in Qatar they first shared with the world their tactical goals: to infiltrate the enemy, strike a terrifying blow, and take prisoners of war to ensure negotiations. They said that all Israeli prisoners out of uniform would be treated as unlawful combatants, subject to summary execution.

The Israeli government was in constant crisis meetings throughout the entire three-day holiday, emerging only to express outrage, promise reactions, browbeat foreign governments to express condemnation.

On Saturday evening, the first rockets were fired from Gaza toward Israel. All fell into open areas, and Israel refrained from firing at the missile sites. IAF drones held positions high above Gaza, surveillance planes circled in the airspace just outside Gaza. Things were silent. Reports from inside Gaza told that only Hamas officials travelled outside of their homes, civilians stayed put, stayed off the streets, kept their children inside.

The first execution came after Iron Dome shot down a rocket mid-day Sunday. Within a half hour, a live broadcast, later found to be relayed via Qatar, was published on the internet, showing the hanging of a middle-aged man later found out to be Ron R…, a retired physician who had volunteered as a medic and emergency doctor in and around Sderot. The clip was edited, as it became apparent that Dr. R had relentlessly resisted. Every time the masked Hamas terrorists tried to hold him still for the film, he had tried to wrestle himself free. The close-up of his dead face showed that his nose had been broken, cheek shattered, eyes battered.

In the video, a uniformed and Hamas official said that every Iron Dome missile that shot down a rocket aimed at Israel would be met with an execution of an “Israeli war criminal.” This was followed by another barrage of 20 rockets into Israel, one of which was shot down by Iron Dome. A picture was released a half hour later of an Israeli woman, apparently shot in the forehead. Within two hours, the bodies of the two Israelis were driven out in a Red Crescent ambulance via Egypt.

Their identities were confirmed, relative notified, the names released to the public.

Sunday evening, the debate in Israel reached a critical mass where every every website, street corner, editorial room was overwhelmed with disagreement. Yet, there was a marked contrast between the Israeli talkshows and those in the global networks.

The Israelis were obsessed about figuring out what to do: how to rescue the hostages, secure the border, stabilize the situation without escalation, destruction, and international condemnation. Outside of Israel, the issues were less practical: how this strengthened Hamas, what Israel was likely to do and at what political cost, how major powers could contribute to or reduce the tension. Leftist op-eds wrote of the tragedy of war and the need for Israel to recast its policy to be more dovish; but all these fell short of outright condemning Hamas. Their fear was primarily that an Israeli response would constitute an escalation. Others headlined their condemnation, hoping for a peaceful resolution.

Foreign governments’ reactions ranged from unequivocal condemnation of Hamas to condescending calls for restraint to avoid escalation.

The demands came Monday morning, the hostages having been held over five days. The document, transmitted via the media, also included the name of each hostage. The demands called for the release of all Hamas prisoners to Gaza who were in Israeli prisons, regardless of the basis for their convictions; release of a named group of several thousand other Palestinian prisoners to the West Bank. The Gaza seaport was to open immediately to all seafaring traffic, and Israel would not under any circumstances inspect the holds of these ships. The Gaza airport would be reopened, and Israel would allow all air traffic in and out of Gaza. Gaza would have territorial waters as far out as Israel’s. In return, Gaza would return all Israeli prisoners to Israel via a third party.

To many in the foreign press, these seemed like eminently reasonable demands, and some self-identified Israeli and Jewish columnists argued for accepting them as long overdue, notwithstanding Hamas’s methods.

An Italian reporter managed to reach a Hamas leader for an interview and asked what he thought was a superfluous question: What, precisely, was Hamas offering in return for these Israeli concessions? “We will release Israeli prisoners,” he said.

“As part of a cease fire agreement,” the reporter asked, as if to finish the leader’s answer.

“No, no cease fire”, the Hamas leader said. “We will not enter a cease-fire with the occupant. Ours is an enternal strugge that must lead to victory.” The reporter leaned forward.

“So when you say that the Gaza port and airport be allowed to operate without any restrictions…”

“We mean that we should be allowed to import and export whatever we want,” he answered.

“Including weapons?” the reporter asked

“Whatever we want to import and export”, the Hamas leader repeated.

This interview got relatively little attention in Israel, as most reporters thought it was well understood that Hamas was only offering a deal to release hostages. But an interview by Fox News of the US Secretary of State brought the issue to the forefront in the US press, when the secretary conceded that this was not a cease-fire deal, only a deal that would allow Hamas to escalate what they had started. “Still,” he said, “we must continue to seek a political solution, one that is negotiated by both parties in good faith.”

Pundits and talk show hosts reacted to the crisis by talking about West Bank settlements, the role of the PA, checkpoints, and what they variously called the blockade or siege of Gaza. A few brought in insurgency experts who explained that the scale of the Hamas operation required a network of tunnels, highly disciplined combatants, and a robust prison system. In all likelihood, they explained, the hostages were scattered all over Gaza, and there may even have been attempts to smuggle them elsewhere. An Israel rescue operation along the lines of Entebbe was inconceivable for this reason, which put Israel in an untenable position.

Indeed, the Israeli government seemed paralyzed, and for once the press did not castigate the inaction. Some bloggers pointed out that Israel was facing a count down of living hostages no matter what the government did. Hamas was looking for a short-term win that would give them a long-term advantage, and that efforts had to be put toward denying them that. They left the implication hanging: if the hostages should already be considered dead, what then?

Leaders in the Middle East, sensing the foreboding nature of Israel’s inaction, offered both publicly and privately to mediate an agreement. In a hastily convened press conference, the Israeli prime minister said that his government wished for a resolution that avoided any further bloodshed but would not accept any deal that increased Hamas’s ability to conduct terrorist attacks.

On Tuesday it became clear that 12 of the hostages were not Israeli citizens. Hamas released these 12 immediately through ICRC.

But it also became known that 152 of the hostages were dual citizens: Americans, Canadians, Brits, French, altogether 22 different nationalities in addition to being Israeli. Two were Norwegian, but these were stripped of their Norwegian citizenship within 24 hours because they had acquired their Israeli citizenships without relinquishing their original citizenship. When a Norwegian official pointed out they were “likely” Jewish in an explanation to the foreign press, a controversy erupted, in which several Norwegian columnists said the two hostages were asking for trouble by moving to “occupied Palestine.”

Other countries tried to negotiate separate deals for their citizens. Hamas offered to release any hostage with a non-Israeli citizenship that would renounce Israel on video, but none accepted the offer.

The Israel cabinet worked feverishly to work out its options, realizing there were only bad ones.

Any ideas?

About the Author
Leif Knutsen has observed, reflected, and written on Israeli and Jewish issues since the late 70s and has personal experience from Jewish life in the US and Norway. He is currently one of the oldest PhD students in Norway, conducting research on digitalization of complex organizations.