Why was it decided not to topple Hamas' regime in the Gaza Strip? What is Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal's biggest challenge? My conversations with decision makers.
29 August '14..
The following points are the product of conversations I have had over the past week with authorized officials of various ranks and with relevant experts. I amalgamated the disjointed conversations into one article in an effort to provide an all-inclusive view of the way the latest campaign was handled by the different branches of the Israeli leadership, from the points of view of those leaders. It is important to take these things into account in any serious discussion of this military operation and of its implications.
A. The objective of the confrontation
When we entered into this war, it was clear that we were going to finish it with Hamas' terrorist capabilities weakened and with it militarily deterred, but still in charge, so that it would still be able to enforce a non-fire policy on other Gaza organizations. As complicated as that sounds, this was the conclusion of every Israeli analysis, including cabinet meetings.
Some may say "topple Hamas," but who would arise in its stead? Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas? Can anyone guarantee that? Is he even capable? He can't even control the West Bank without our help. It is only thanks to Israel that he has survived in power as long as he has. He enters Gaza on Israel's sword and that's it, problem solved? And if not him then who? Egypt? They managed to give us Gaza under the 1979 Camp David accords, based on the international border demarcated in 1906. So why would they want this headache now?
In a dry analysis, before the conflict erupted, it was concluded that this should be the objective of any confrontation, big or small: to hit Hamas' military capability, exacting a heavy toll, but keep Hamas in power, deterred but effective.
B. The Egyptian initiative
We could have brought Hamas to this point much earlier than we did, had it not been for the complexity inherent in the fact that Hamas is not the only player. Egypt, which has its own interests, sees Hamas as an enemy and is unwilling to negotiate with it. Egypt uses the Palestinian Authority as the representative of the Palestinians. The word Hamas is not mentioned in any official Egyptian document. As far as Egypt is concerned, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas' parent organization, needs to be eliminated.
That is why we said from the very beginning that there is no viable cease-fire initiative save the Egyptian one. Israel and the Egyptians share a common interest in regard to Hamas. This has been proved over the last year. Unlike the Mubarak era, Egypt is currently preventing weapons and rocket-building materials from being smuggled into Gaza.
It is true that this comes at a price. They are throwing the problem into our laps. Egypt has strangled the Gaza Strip by closing the Rafah border crossing (Gaza's only portal into the world) and blocking the tunnels, imposing a diplomatic and economic stranglehold. At one point the Gazans were able to make money from the smuggling trade.
But now, the only money coming into Gaza is from Israel in the form of tax revenues collected for the Palestinian Authority, which transfers funds to Gaza. The entire independent tunnel industry has been shut down. In addition, the Egyptians are blocking the entry of cement, construction materials, free fuel from Qatar, etc. This has economically devastated Gaza. The devastation of the blockade is not Israel's fault -- Israel has not changed its border crossing policy. It is because of Egypt. The Egyptian initiative was adopted by Israel because, among other reasons, we need Egypt to open the Rafah crossing.
So an entire mechanism was constructed with the Egyptians to bring Hamas to the cease-fire negotiations, with the Palestinian Authority at the forefront, and the condition that the Palestinian Authority oversee the Rafah crossing -- that the money and the reconstruction materials enter Gaza through the Palestinian Authority. In this way, Hamas will be under the supervision of both Israel and Egypt, who share a common interest: to prevent Hamas from gaining power and might, but still keeping Hamas responsible and effectively in control of Gaza.
C. Hamas and Fatah
Does the presence of the Palestinian Authority at the border crossings mean that it is responsible for Hamas? By law, yes. In practice, no chance. Hamas and the authority are a mismatched hybrid. By law, it is expected of Abbas, but there is no way he will succeed. In the complex Middle East reality, the candle has more than two ends, and burning them all takes skill. Israel opposed the establishment of a Fatah-Hamas unity government. Does Israel have any say in the type of government the Palestinians establish? No. Israel's opposition was directed at the world, which could have pressured us to enter into peace talks with the unity government even though Hamas does not meet the Quartet requirements.
But if the unity government brings Abbas to the border crossings, we welcome it. It serves our interests well. After that, once Abbas is at the crossing, is the Palestinian Authority in charge of Gaza? Of course not. So don't come to us talking about peace talks in Judea and Samaria when Abbas can't gain control over Gaza. When American officers come to Israel to provide security solutions for the situation in Judea and Samaria, they are told first and foremost to study the situation in Gaza. There is no room to discuss a Palestinian state in light of what is happening in Gaza.
D. The Americans and the Qatar-Turkey axis
The Qatar-Turkey-Hamas axis is a Muslim Brotherhood axis. The Americans thought that this axis could end the conflict. That is the background behind U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's support. Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal was under the impression that there was a viable alternative to the Egyptian initiative, and that it had the American's support. That is why he turned down a cease-fire proposal after 10 days of fighting. So instead of dealing with the military confrontation, Israel was busy dealing with the American secretary of state who had offered a proposal basically drafted by Hamas, provided by the Qatari foreign minister. Israel turned the Americans down. It wasn't easy, and it contributed to prolonging the war.
E. A microcosmos of the Arab world clash
In addition to the previous players, there are some who are actually on our side. What has developed in Gaza is a microcosmos of the confrontation between the Muslim Brotherhood axis (Qatar-Turkey-Hamas) and the Sunni Arab world (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, etc.). Abbas is also a member of the latter, but to a lesser degree. We share a common interest with them, or more precisely, common enemies: the Islamic State group, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran and more. On this we are on the same side. They won't come out and say it explicitly, but when we work in tandem with them (even the ones who don't have a peace agreement with us), we are able to get things done. Including now, with Gaza.
Behind the scenes, a strategy has been taking shape, forcing Mashaal to accept the Egyptian initiative against his will. He tried to evade it, playing games with temporary cease-fires, but ultimately he arrived at the Egyptian initiative. He understands that even if it is not expressly written, he will not be able to amass as much power as he did before. He can no longer smuggle weapons into Gaza from Iran through Sudan and Egypt. Not only because Israel intercepts weapons transfers, but also because Egypt is effectively operating to foil the Hamas efforts, preventing the group from obtaining standard weapons. He can no longer get his hands on Grad rockets, Kornet anti-tank missiles, anti-aircraft missiles, or even Fajr-5 rockets. Perhaps Hamas can manufacture rockets domestically, but on a much smaller scale, preventing the kind of resupply Hamas enjoyed after Operation Cast Lead in 2008 to 2009 and Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012. Israel and Egypt will not allow pipes, chemicals or certain machines to enter the Strip, so Hamas will be under a stranglehold in that department as well, entirely dependent on us. If they use the cement allowed in to build tunnels, we will do what we did a year ago: cut off the supply of cement. So actually, Hamas is now trying to fight the inevitable. It understands that, and that is why it has been flailing for days, trying to improve its conditions.
F. The international arena
So we should say "no strategy"? That is the strategy. Not wham, bam, thank you, ma'am. It may very well be that had it not been for the interruptions, the fighting would not have gone on as long as it did. The American intervention prevented a cease-fire. The efforts to destroy Hamas' terror tunnels also prevented a cease-fire, because it had to be completed.
Someone quoted Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon as saying that the cease-fire agreement was aimed at "recharging the legitimacy battery." Sure. Israel has said all along that since we didn't start the confrontation, we were ready to end it at any point, but only under our terms. This carries immense significance. Why is there no international pressure? Why isn't the Arab world pressing us -- beyond the Hamas issue? In any other situation the Arab street would be raging, and here, we are granted legitimacy. It is because we are saying that we didn't open fire, we are ready to stop at any given time, but under our terms.
G. Why not topple Hamas?
Now we touch on the main point of contention in Israel regarding the defeat and elimination of Hamas. The approach that Israel adopted defines defeat as bringing the other side to halt fire under your terms. As for toppling Hamas, we are first bringing it to its knees. Anyone who doesn't understand what is happening in Gaza should look at aerial photos of the Strip. The president of the Red Cross defined what happened in Gaza as an "earthquake." Thousands of houses have been completely destroyed, and tens of thousands partially destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of Gazans have no homes to go back to. Hamas infrastructure, weapons stores, weapons manufacturing workshops, offices and banks were destroyed. Apartments belonging to Hamas commanders, from the lowest to the highest ranks, were destroyed. Buildings with six, eight, and 14 stories were reduced to rubble. Now, let them do the math. Was it worth it?
The deterrence is not only directed at Hamas. Hezbollah is also watching. In the Dahiya neighborhood in Beirut, during the second Lebanon war in 2006, Israel destroyed dozens of buildings. In Gaza we are talking about thousands. People don't seem to understand what happened. Hamas will have to invest everything it has in rehabilitating the Strip. According to Hamas members, they have been taken back a decade. On the tunnels they have been set back five years. On weapons, who knows. Let's see how many they can manufacture. The supply of bombs from outside the Strip has ended.
Hamas must think we are crazy. They thought that they could play with us, but they got a catastrophe. They thought that we are afraid of attrition, but Israel was perfectly ready to withstand their efforts. From the very beginning of the confrontation we spoke about stamina, patience, ability to withstand attacks and determination. We knew it wouldn't be over right away. Their attrition was met with a pounding. We hit more than 6,000 targets. How many tons of explosives is that? We were not begging for a cease-fire. They did the math and figured out that time was not on their side.
It is true that to the average citizens it may appear that we are pounding them and they keep firing at us. But they are firing less into the mid-range areas because they are running low on rockets. They are firing mainly into the communities in the vicinity of the border. This is a unique area, and the solution should be tailored specifically for it. In the meantime we need to grit our teeth and keep going.
H. Reconquering the Gaza Strip
The question that kept coming up throughout the war is: Why not re-conquer the Gaza Strip? If it weren't for the Iron Dome defense system and the precise weapons used by the IDF, we would have no choice but to do just that. It is a good thing we have the Iron Dome and the precise weapons, because the thing about re-conquering is that we could seize control in 10 days, but then we would have to purge, and that could take more than five years. During 2002's Operation Defensive Shield in Judea and Samaria, the toughest spot was the Jenin refugee camp -- nine days of fighting. But Jenin is like one street when compared with Jabaliya in Gaza, and then you have Shati, Nusirat, al-Bureij, Maghazi, and neighborhoods that are not refugee camps, like Shujaiyya, Zeitoun and Rimal with its high-rise apartment buildings, not to mention the entire underground world they have built under Gaza. We experienced it during the clashes in Shujaiyya -- IDF troops only went in two or three kilometers, and paid with 64 casualties.
Are they taking advantage of the knowledge that Israel is not too eager to reconquer the Strip? Come on. Does anyone really think that they enjoy our attacks? But let's say that we are able to put the issue of casualties aside, and that it is important enough to us to re-conquer Gaza -- what now? I didn't say five years for nothing. After Defensive Shield it took three years to clear the area, to the point that there were no longer suicide terror attacks. In Jenin there were 180 wanted terrorists. In Gaza we are talking about tens of thousands, armed with Kornet missiles and RPGs, which they didn't have in Judea and Samaria. Progress could only be made by tanks or advanced APCs. And that is before we have even discussed the cost of maintaining their civilian life: 10 billion shekels ($2.8 billion) annually.
Is that really what Israel needs right now -- to invest its military and economic resources in Gaza? To knowingly enter a place when, in five years' time, we will be asking ourselves how we got there? We are not acting with our guts. We can easily destroy them, but what then? Despite the mantras we keep hearing from some politicians about toppling Hamas and destroying Gaza, these things were presented to the cabinet and the decisions were agreed upon by all its members.
I. The tunnels
As for the tunnels, there has been a lot of disinformation. Israel has been dealing with the tunnel issue for a long time. There have been cabinet meetings about the issue. How did they know to send the troops directly to the tunnel shafts? Israel knew that there were tunnels there. Before the operation, the debate was whether there were nine or 13 cross-border tunnels, and in the end we found 14. Some of them were dug just recently. We thought it would take less time to destroy them, but this was hard to do during wartime because they branched out extensively, and when we reached shafts that we knew were situated close to the border fence it turned out that there were shafts even further in, so we decided to increase the scope of the mission. So it took more time, but it was in no way a strategic surprise.
J. A cease-fire on our terms
Now we want to bring them to agree to a cease-fire on our terms. It will take as long as it takes. We control the border crossings, just as in the agreement that ended the last Gaza operation. We will allow them to fish in an area of six to eight nautical miles from the Gaza shore, for security reasons. And of course, we will demand that they halt all rocket fire. The Egyptians will open the Rafah crossing, which to Hamas means the lifting of the blockade. This way they have an achievement to showcase. Money will also be transferred into Gaza by way of the Palestinian Authority, which they didn't have before, even to pay wages. And the rehabilitation of the Strip.
Even before the operation it was obvious that somehow a solution had to be found, otherwise they would simply choke and it would all blow up. But we are not actually giving up anything, only returning to the understandings that followed Operation Pillar of Defense, after dealing a heavy blow to Hamas. Mashaal's big challenge now will be explaining to his people why it took thousands of Palestinian casualties and immense devastation to achieve what could have taken a week, had he agreed to the Egyptian initiative a week into the fighting. Hamas will ask itself: Was it worth it?