Week One: Who's Winning the Latest Gaza War
by Jonathan Rosenblum
July 18, 2014
After more than a week of sustained Israeli military action against targets in Gaza, in the awkwardly named Operation Preventive Edge, the principal question is: Will anything change as a result of the Israeli operation? Will this just be a repeat of the last two Gaza campaigns – Operation Cast Lead and Operation Pillar of Defense -- both of which ended with a ceasefire, while leaving intact Hamas's capability to once again rain rockets on Israel at a time of its choosing? Has Israel achieved anything so far more than "mowing the lawn" in Gaza and does it plan to do anything more in the course of this campaign?
After each of the two previous Gaza operations, Hamas was able to subsequently increase the quality and quantity of its missiles and to dramatically improve the labyrinth of underground tunnels, much of it under schools, hospitals, and mosques, in which it stores and often produces its missiles.
The long and short answer to these questions is that nobody really knows, or at least this author does not know and has projected his ignorance on his fellow journalists. Monday Yuval Steinitz, Minister of Strategic Planning, said on Israel Radio that Israel is landing heavy blows on Hamas in the Gaza Strip. But no one outside the senior governmental and military echelons is capable of evaluating that claim.
What is clear, however, according to Avi Isacharoff of the Times of Israel, is that not a single member of Hamas's political or military leadership has been so much as scratched thus far. Meanwhile, Hamas still has a plentiful supply of missiles of longer range than anything fired at Israel in earlier confrontations, and its popularity is rising rapidly both in the Gaza Strip and in the broader Arab world. (During a ten-minute stretch of listening to Israel Radio on Monday, sirens were announced in at least ten different locations.) At this point, Hamas is still putting forwards its "demands" for any consideration of a ceasefire, as if it is the winning party, and shows no particular urgency about ending the conflict.
As of Tuesday morning, when the Israeli security cabinet accepted an Egyptian ceasefire, the IDF claimed to have destroyed one-third of Hamas's rocket arsenal, half of its rocket production facilities, a large percentage of the homes used as command centers, and hundreds of underground storage facilities employing excellent intelligence to locate its targets. Yet somehow Hamas does not seem to have gotten the message, and rejected the Egyptian ceasefire proposal out of hand.
NOR WOULD IT SEEM that Israel is particularly eager to launch a large-scale ground campaign. Prime Minister Netanyahu knows that the window of opportunity before international pressure for a ceasefire begins to mount is always of elimited duration when it comes to Israeli action to suppress rocket fire from its neighbors. Therefore one suspects that if Israel had intended to go in on the ground that such a campaign would have already begun.
In many respects, Israel had a uniquely favorable environment for a ground action at the beginning of Operation Precision Edge. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, German Prime Minister Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Holland, and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper (of course) all expressed clear support for Israel's right to defend its citizens from missiles aimed at its civilian population. (President Obama was notable among major Western leaders in not speaking to Prime Minister Netanyahu, though the State Department also affirmed Israel's right to defend its citizens.) Even the Palestinian Authority representative to the U.N. Human Rights Council labeled missiles fired at Israeli civilian centers as "crimes against humanity."
Unheard, by and large, were the usual calls for both sides to show restraint or claims that the Israeli response is somehow "disproportional" because not enough Israelis have been killed to justify Palestinian casualties. In an almost unheard of break with the past, the solidly anti-Israel BBC, even ran an expose of the footage from Gaza claiming to show Israel's indiscriminate bombing, which demonstrated that much of the footage was from previous conflicts or not from Gaza at all.
In part, the toned down outcry against Israel has to do with the general slaughter going on throughout the Muslim world. When more than 150,000 Arabs have been killed by other Arabs in Syria and intra-Muslim casualties are mounting in Iraq, the number of Palestinian civilians killed in Israel air attacks on military targets pale in comparison. (Not that the evident double-standards prevented angry mobs in Paris and Berlin from attacking Jewish synagogues this past weekend.)
During the last Gaza campaign, Hamas was closely allied with the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. At present, the Egyptian government is waging a fierce internal war against the Muslim Brotherhood and against jihadists in the Sinai desert. Egyptian strongman Abdel al-Sisi views Hamas as a branch of the hated Muslim Brotherhood and would love to see Hamas's capacities severely degraded by Israel. The official Egyptian media has been filled with condemnations of Hamas since the outset of the current flare-up. Egypt has acted to close the tunnels from Egypt into Gaza, the revenues of which provide much of the Hamas government's revenue, in order to cut off terrorists in Gaza and in the Sinai, where they are engaged in an ongoing war with Egyptian forces.
THAT ISRAEL HAS NOT YET EXPLOITED its improved situation to launch a ground campaign does not mean, however, that such a campaign is not in the works or that Israel could not be provoked if, chas ve'shalom, one of Hamas's missiles hit a major target. Nor does it even mean that the government has been wrong not to embark on a ground campaign thus far.
A ground action in Gaza is not a simple matter, writes Professor Mordechai Kedar, an Arabist at Bar Ilan University. Gaza is the most densely populated area in the world. Tanks are of little use in an urban center, and Israeli soldiers would find themselves ready targets for Hamas snipers. Even one supporter of a ground offensive admits that Israeli casualties could well reach 200-300, even in a successful campaign.
The Iron Dome system has provided Prime Minister Netanyahu with the ability not to be rushed precipitously into a ground campaign. Hamas has fired over a thousand missiles without killing a single Israeli. The success of the system to date in shielding civilian centers means that the government has not been under pressure from the home front to wrap things up quickly. The more patiently the government waits the better able it will be to deflect domestic criticism for being too eager to re-enter Gaza. The longer Hamas continues to shower Israel with missiles the more eager the population is likely to be to pay the price of eliminating key elements of Hamas's military infrastructure.
Amos Yadlin, former chief of Military Intelligence, points out that without a ground campaign the network of underground tunnels that form the basis of Hamas's offensive and defensive capabilities is virtually impossible. Even assuming the best intelligence in the world, Israel cannot eliminate this infrastructure from the air, or at the very least is unwilling to do so. Much of the network has been deliberately built under the types of civilian targets best designed to arouse the world's wrath.
In one sense, the time is perhaps uniquely propitious for eliminating the underground tunnels and all that they contain, as well as Gaza's missile factories. There is no constituency in Israel for reoccupying the Gaza Strip. That has meant in the past that no matter how serious a blow was dealt to Hamas by the IDF, it would eventually rebuild with materials and armaments brought in to Gaza from tunnels along the Philadelphi Corridor. But today, Egypt has largely succeeded in shutting down those tunnels. As a result, the consequences of destroying Hamas's military infrastructure would be for more long-lasting today than in the past.
ONE FINAL ISSUE NEEDS to be addressed. Israel continues to eschew use of perhaps its most potent weapon against Hamas, and the one that would minimize both Israeli and Palestinian casualties – shutting off electricity and gas to the Gaza Strip. Prime Minister Netanyahu has repeatedly said that his legal advisors tell him that doing so would be a violation of Israeli law. Given the power of lawyers to hamstring the Israeli government (see my "The Kingdom of Lawyers," June 27), that claim is perfectly credible.
If Netanyahu is telling the truth, he should get himself some new lawyers. Even in peace time, Israel is under no obligation to provide utilities free of charge, and neither the Palestinian Authority or the Hamas government in Gaza have ever paid for their gas, and electricity. Russia recently cut off gas supplies to the Ukraine for non-payment, without provoking a legal hue and cry, and Ukraine has cut off water to secessionist Crimea.
Secondly, it is a good rule of thumb that when a position defies common sense it is not part of what is sometimes referred to by the misnomer "customary international humanitarian law." No nation in history has ever continued to supply its enemies with vital supplies in war time, in order to allow that enemy to continue to wage attacks and prolong the war. Imposing such a requirement upon Israel cannot be justified by the "custom" of nations.
Finally, Hamas is the de facto sovereign in the Gaza Strip, and as such has responsibility for attacks on Israel launched from its territory. Attacks on an enemy states infrastructure are legitimate acts of war. Kal v'chomer would shutting off the power be legitimate.
It would be an outrage if a single Jewish life were to be lost because Israel has been prevented from legitimate actions against Hamas by its own legal establishment. But, sadly, it would be no surprise.
Related Topics: Islamofacism & Terrorism, Israeli Society, Peace Process
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