Hard Questions, Tough Answers: The Recent Gaza War: Lessons Still Urgently Relevant (June 7, 2021)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

The Recent Gaza War: Lessons Still Urgently Relevant

Q: Urgently? Isn’t that war behind us?

A: The Israeli ultra-nationalist right is planning another ‘flag march’ in Jerusalem later this week. This is a blatant and provocative attempt to foment Jewish-Arab friction and violence that embarrasses and possibly sabotages the emerging Lapid-Bennet coalition, which is destined within about a week to replace the Netanyahu government. Gaza Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar has already reacted by threatening a violent response. 

 This is how Operation Guardian of the Walls began just under a month ago. By going to war with Israel over Jerusalem and recruiting Palestinians everywhere to the cause, Hamas rendered Jerusalem central to Israeli security. Israel can no longer afford to make mistakes there in its management of holy places, Arab neighborhoods and greedy settlers. It cannot allow ultra-nationalist politicians seeking attention and power to light matches in Jerusalem.

It’s as if the ultra-nationalist right has learned nothing. Unless, of course, its intention now, like a few weeks ago, is to make it politically more difficult to replace PM Netanyahu.

Meanwhile, additional urgent lessons from Guardian of the Walls are emerging.

Q: Indeed. For example, how is vital humanitarian and reconstruction aid supposed to flow to the Gaza Strip at all, given that Hamas is categorized as a terrorist organization? And how do we keep aid for Gaza from fueling another round of Hamas aggression?

A: This is not a new challenge: it was addressed after earlier wars, too, and the ‘solutions’ devised, such as bribing Hamas monthly with Qatari millions and infrastructure packages, quite simply failed to prevent the next conflict. The United States, the principal engine for aid-giving, argues that it will create a mechanism for funneling the aid through the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, which is internationally recognized. But how will the PA deliver the aid? In particular, how will it supervise aid distribution to ensure that dual-use items are not diverted by Hamas for its underground rocket factories?

 In the Gaza Strip, after all, it is Hamas and not the PA that rules. And Hamas has a record of diverting whatever it needs for its military preparations with little consideration for the needs of the Gazan public. US Gaza-aid coordination with PA President Mahmoud Abbas could possibly strengthen Abbas’s tenuous grip on power in Ramallah. But it is unlikely to be felt in Gaza.

 This and additional issues are scheduled to be discussed this week in talks in Cairo involving delegations from Israel, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. A daylong visit to Washington last week by Defense Minister Benny Gantz may have dealt with them too, alongside Israeli military preparations for a possible renewed round of fighting.

Q: This brings us to the ‘unconditional’ ceasefire negotiated between Israel and Hamas by Egypt. Doesn’t it have to be fleshed out with details?

A: Israel wants to impose conditions such as the return by Hamas of the remains of two IDF soldiers killed inside the Strip in 2014, and the repatriation of two Israelis who crossed into Gaza of their own free will. Hamas wants lots of money and goods, and more open border crossings with Israel for purposes of both commerce and links with the West Bank that are intended to increase Hamas influence there.

Behind Israel’s approach is a growing sense, now that data from the war are being analyzed, that the war ended less ‘victoriously’ than Israel’s political leaders have boasted. Hamas still has plenty of lethal rockets and plenty of armed fighters. It has seized a leadership role in the eyes of Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Its underdog status has endeared it to Instagram, Twitter and Tiktok users worldwide, while Israel is taken to task in the United States by Black Lives Matter campaigners.

Under these circumstances, the IDF and the GSS (Shin Bet) are pessimistically talking about the need not to haggle with Hamas over ceasefire conditions but to gear up for another round of war with Hamas. By the same token, Hamas may prefer to avoid any new ‘arrangement’ (hasdara) that makes it difficult to violate a ceasefire and start a new war.

Apropos the issue of the two soldiers’ remains, its centrality in the public discussion of conditions for moving from war toward a stable ceasefire reflects a growing Israeli preoccupation with death in combat and death rituals as components of religiously saturated patriotism. Hamas knows this and exploits it mercilessly and ghoulishly in formulating its own ceasefire demands (e.g., release of many hundreds of prisoners from Israeli jails in return for the two soldiers’ remains). At least the IDF senior echelon managed to ignore public and political pressures to prolong the war because of this issue. But this remains a hot-button topic in the politics of increasingly religious and ultra-nationalist Israel.

Q: What about the glaring lacunae in Israel’s civil defense provisions revealed by this war?

 A: This is another heavy issue, one with no easy short-term solution. This war demonstrated that Hamas has improved the range and payload of its rockets and is capable of firing simultaneous multiple salvoes that threaten to overwhelm Israel’s Iron Dome anti-rocket defense system, which normally intercepts 90 percent of incoming rockets. More than 4,000 rockets fired by Hamas in 11 days constituted a dubious record. It emerged that a fully standard safe room in Sderot could be penetrated (and a child killed) by shrapnel, and that in Ashkelon, which was battered by rockets, 25 percent of the population has no real-time access to a safe-room or shelter.

 Further, residents of the greater Tel Aviv area, where older homes have little to no protection and 400,000 dwellings have no safe room, discovered with alarm that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are capable of firing large numbers of rockets in their direction. Manufacturers of protective structures that can be delivered to private homes quickly sold out, at costs beginning at $25,000 for the smallest two-person steel shelter pod--hardly a viable solution for the masses.


Q: And in the Israeli security establishment? More lacunae?

A: The Israel Police need a bigger budget and more manpower. By global standards, Israel’s police force is small--even if we ignore the unique policing needs generated by West Bank settlements, Jewish-Arab coexistence inside the country, and terrorist threats. This is an old problem: it’s as if the founding fathers developed a police force for Israel based on the assumption that, somehow, Jews aren’t criminals and don’t need policing, whereas Arabs don’t deserve policing. In particular, the failure of the Israel Police in the Arab sector cries out for a different approach, rather than (last week) arresting hundreds of suspects on flimsy evidence of rioting and fire-bombing as an intimidation tactic.

True, few Arab citizens of Israel agree to serve in the ‘Zionist’ police, even as many Arabs complain about a lack of police presence in Arab towns where criminal gangs proliferate. But the lack of solid police early-warning intelligence regarding the rioting in mixed cities during the recent war cannot, in the digital age, be blamed on a dearth of Arab recruits.

IDF and Shin Bet intelligence before and during the recent war was also inadequate. No one gave solid early warning of Hamas’s aggressive intentions. Since the fighting ended, there has emerged no convincing assessment of the real damage inflicted on the Hamas military infrastructure by the Israel Air Force. We are informed that the IDF and the Shin Bet can’t agree on this issue.

IAF commanders (like combat pilots anywhere) are always inclined to claim, without foundation, that they can win any war from the air. During and after the war the politicians followed suit, if only to persuade the public that their strategy against Hamas was working. Hamas, of course, behaves as if damage is minimal. This is a critical issue because the real degree of military infrastructure damage inflicted in Gaza could well determine whether the next round takes place in a few months or a few years.

And Hezbollah in Lebanon is watching closely. With a capability of firing at least ten times as many rockets and missiles as Hamas, with heavier payloads, greater accuracy and far greater range, Hezbollah (like Israel) wants to know how successful Iron Dome was against multiple rocket salvoes and how damaging Israel’s bombing campaign was. To no small extent, Operation Guardian of the Walls was fought by Israel with only one eye on Gaza; the other eye was looking north.

True, other than allowing a Hamas contingent in Lebanon to fire a few solidarity rockets at Israel from there, Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite Islamist movement that is an out-and-out Iranian proxy, held its fire during this war. That means Hezbollah was deterred. The name of the game now is to continue to deter the enemy from the north while renewing deterrence against the enemy, Hamas, in Gaza.

It is not at all clear that the recent war achieved this. As a non-state actor whose calculations do not include the welfare of its citizens and whose ideology does not comprise the notion of compromise with its enemy, Hamas is difficult to defeat decisively without a costly land war and reoccupation that nobody in Israel wants.

Q: Bottom line?

 A: The prospect of renewed Jewish-extremist provocations in Jerusalem aimed at sabotaging the incoming Lapid-Bennet government, the renewed threats from Gaza, and the apparently urgent trip to Washington by Defense Minister Gantz all point to a strong necessity that the Biden administration award the Israeli-Palestinian conflict high priority. Just last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Israeli officials during a visit to Jerusalem that evictions of Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood could spark another conflict with Palestinian militants. The prospect of a renewed JCPOA Iran nuclear deal, vehemently opposed by Netanyahu, merely reinforces the need to manage the current tensions and usher in a non-Netanyahu government in Israel.

 From the standpoint of a host of strategic issues and war lessons on Israel’s agenda, a Lapid-Bennet advent to power in the days ahead is urgent for Washington as well as Jerusalem.