Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: July 21, 2014


This week Alpher discusses War in Gaza: as of Monday afternoon July 21 Israel time:

Was it necessary for the IDF's Golani brigade to go into Gaza's eastern district of Shejaiya and fight a battle that caused such heavy losses on both sides and if there is a broader meaning to all this death and destruction in and around Gaza; accusations that the IDF is perpetrating war crimes in Gaza; why Hamas' ceasefire conditions are outlandish; how will this end and some early strategic lessons learned.

Q. Was it necessary for the IDF's Golani brigade to go into Gaza's eastern district of Shejaiya with its population of 150,000 and fight a battle that caused such heavy losses on both sides? Is there a broader meaning to all this death and destruction in and around Gaza?

A. Yes, it was necessary. And yes, there is a broader meaning--and not a happy one, unfortunately. Israel today faces militant Islamists on four fronts: Gaza, Sinai, Lebanon and the Golan, where they are locked in combat with the Syrian army. In Gaza and (as we saw in the 2006 Second Lebanese War) Lebanon, the militants embed themselves among the civilian population, fire rockets from there and challenge the IDF from there. In Gaza, they also tunnel into Israel from there.

The fighting in Shejaiya embodies all these elements. For Israel, it is in some ways a microcosmic testing ground to determine how well the lessons of 2006 have been internalized and to prepare for future battles against militant Islamists. As matters stand today both in Gaza and the broader Middle East, there will be more battles, even if the fighting in Gaza stops tomorrow. Merely in the course of the current war in Gaza, (as of Sunday) 1,715 people were killed in Syria, 675 in Iraq, 100 in Libya, 29 in Egypt, and around 500 in Gaza--all in wars waged by militant Islam. That is the reality Israel faces.

Q. How do you respond to the accusations that the IDF is perpetrating war crimes in Gaza?

A. They are leveled either by well-meaning people who have no understanding what a just war like this entails, or by those who support virtually any Arabs who attack Israel. The latter group is prepared to excuse all of Hamas' ugly tactics--using civilians as human shields, directing their rockets and attack tunnels at Israeli civilians, embedding rocket launchers in hospitals, schools and cemeteries--and focus exclusively on Israel's response, which, however asymmetric, is by any international standard measured and cautious.

Here it behooves us to recall: Hamas started this war. Israel has agreed repeatedly to ceasefires. Hamas' conditions for agreeing to a ceasefire are by any standard outlandish and designed simply to justify continued fighting at the cost of hundreds of lives and tens of thousands of internally displaced persons among the population it purports to serve.

To be clear, Shejaiya is not Sabra and Shatila, where in 1982 a massacre of Palestinians took place on Israel's watch. For two straight days, the IDF told the inhabitants to leave. Apparently, Hamas forced some to stay, while others refused to leave despite knowing the consequences. Sunday's battle there at times entailed hand-to-hand fighting, and the IDF paid a heavy price in losses, while many of the Gazan dead were combatants.

Q. Why are Hamas' ceasefire conditions outlandish?

A. Demands like a port and airport for Gaza, open borders and open movement between Gaza and the West Bank were agreed to long ago by Israel within the framework of the Oslo accords with the PLO. At several points in the course of the past 20 years, these demands were being implemented. But Hamas rejects the Oslo accords and won't recognize Israel. It uses border entry points consistently to smuggle in weaponry. Moreover, these provisions did not constitute the reality prior to this war, meaning they are not the status quo ante that warring parties often agree to return to.

Beyond these "civilian" demands, Hamas has presented military demands of Israel: no over-flights, expanding the Mediterranean fishing zone, and farming right up to the Israeli border fence. These demands correspond with peoples at peace, not war. Here it's significant to note that Hamas was able to dig so many attack tunnels under the fence into Israel over the past three years, precisely because of an Israeli humanitarian concession made after the last war: allowing farming within a few hundred meters of the fence.

Then too, one Hamas demand--to open the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egyptian Sinai--is directed at Egypt, not Israel. In other words, Hamas will ostensibly only cease fighting against one party, Israel, if a second party, Egypt, accedes to its demands.

All these demands and more are part of the ceasefire package put together by Qatar and Turkey, the two countries in the Middle East that support the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is the Palestinian branch. In contrast, Egypt is sticking to its proposal that both sides' conditions and demands be discussed in Cairo after a ceasefire. Israel has accepted the Egyptian proposal, though it also wants at least mention of the "demilitarization" of Gaza to be included somehow; Hamas, which correctly identifies the al-Sissi government in Egypt as anti-Islamist and even pro-Israeli in this war, rejects them. In some ways, Israel is caught in between: while it accepts the strategic necessity and benefit of working with Egypt, it would rather leave a weakened Hamas in power in Gaza and not risk a takeover there by more extreme Islamists, whereas Cairo would apparently prefer that we destroy Hamas.

Q. So, with Ban Ki-moon in the region, John Kerry en route and the international community appalled by the bloodshed, how will this end?

A. The United States, after first toying with the Qatari-Turkish mediation initiative (yet another in a series of mistaken American policy moves in the region in recent months), has now apparently lined up behind Egypt. PLO/PA leader Mahmoud Abbas is also trying to mediate, in part in the hope of salvaging his unity government with Hamas but also because he hopes an agreement arranged by Egypt will, with Hamas' acquiescence, place PA forces loyal to him at the Rafah crossing, i.e., back inside the Strip for the first time in seven years. All the while, Hamas is still initiating rocket and tunnel attacks against Israel and does not appear to be swayed by the plight of the Gazan population.

These circumstances posit a number of possible scenarios. Moving from the "light" to the "heavy", the most immediate prospect would be for Israel to complete its destruction of the attack tunnels within a few days, declare mission accomplished, withdraw from Gaza, offer Hamas some face-saving humanitarian gestures such as prisoner release and enhanced import of goods via Israel, and implement a unilateral ceasefire in the hope that Hamas follows suit. Here Israel would also be hoping that the damage done by the IDF in Gaza would deter Hamas from further military activity for at least a few years, along the lines of the deterrent effect on Hezbollah of the 2006 war. All this could be done by Israel unilaterally, but if Hamas did not follow suit and kept attacking, the war would be renewed.

Next is an agreed ceasefire brokered by virtually all the regional and international actors currently involved and already mentioned (did I forget Tony Blair?). It would presumably leave a lot of loose ends to be discussed once quiet is restored, but the fact of mutual agreement would probably preclude a full-fledged renewal of warfare for some time, though by no means forever. One variation apparently being considered by Qatar and Hamas is an open-ended humanitarian ceasefire, without conditions, that would simply be understood to be valid for months while an attempt is made to work out more permanent arrangements.

A more extreme alternative is for the fighting to go on and Israel to continue methodically but aggressively moving into the populated areas of Gaza to root out rocket-launching depots and sites and eliminate as many Hamas fighters as possible. If Hamas still doesn't yield, we confront the most extreme alternative: a bloody battle to reoccupy the entire Strip and effectively rid the Middle East of Hamas.

It's interesting to note that, not for the first time, besides hawks like Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennet, there are Israeli doves encouraging this extreme course of action on the assumption that it would restore Abbas to power in Gaza and thereby enable a renewed peace process. That, by the way, is a doubtful assumption: it's far more likely that when the smoke cleared after reoccupation of Gaza, Israel would find itself in long-term occupation of the Strip, responsible for the welfare of 1.7 million Palestinians, fighting an Islamist underground more militant than Hamas, and begging for a reluctant Abbas or an angry international community to take Gaza off its hands.

In all of these scenarios save the first, the unilateral ceasefire, a great deal depends on Egypt. As matters stand, Egypt appears to want Israel to destroy Hamas much as it is trying inside Egypt to destroy the Muslim Brotherhood and in Sinai and elsewhere, including on the Egypt-Libya border, subdue militant Islamists. Indeed, on the broad Middle East stage between the Gulf and Libya a major Muslim Arab split is playing itself out against the backdrop of Gaza. Note that even salafists in the Levant are openly blaming the Hamas leadership for hiding in bunkers and are calling them (Heaven forbid) "Shiites", while the Lebanese Shiite leader Hassan Nasrallah offered to "stand by the Palestinian people’s uprising and resistance in our heart, willpower, hope and destiny”--but not militarily.

Israelis may be thrilled to hear Cairo commentators close to al-Sissi curse Hamas and commend Israel--something that a few weeks ago would have been dubbed an end-of-days scenario--but, still, it's our lives they are talking about.

Q. Is it too early to point to strategic lessons learned?

A. Know your enemy. There is grudging admiration among Israeli military experts for Hamas' strategy and accomplishments. Hamas--advised militarily until a couple of years ago by Iranians--appears to be using a "vertical deployment" that begins at the top with rocket fire in the air and concludes at the bottom with its leadership sheltered deep underground in Gaza. The in-between layers are the civilian population Hamas uses as a base, logistics tunnels for fighters and ammunition, and attack tunnels.

The attack tunnels--some 13 tunnels and 42 entry shafts had been uncovered and destroyed by the time of writing, but several were used as recently as Monday morning to infiltrate fighters into Israel--are something of a strategic surprise. Everyone knew Hamas was digging tunnels, and the IDF had created special units to try to track them and devise methods for uncovering them. But no one seems to have been prepared for the sheer strategic impact of so many sophisticated tunnels capable of simultaneously and secretly moving two hundred attackers directly to the gates of the kibbutzim located along the border.

That Hamas did not carry out such an attack at a time when the border was quiet and Israel off-guard, massacring dozens of Israeli civilians and taking many hostages, apparently indicates that its leadership also did not quite understand what sort of asset it had in hand. From Israel's standpoint, the existence of this web of attack tunnels fully justifies in the public eye the sacrifices made thus far in the war, including in Shejaiyeh where two more attack tunnels were uncovered on Monday. Indeed, if the public blames the leadership at all, it is for not attacking the tunnels sooner.

At the regional level, this war has dramatically and openly placed Egypt and Israel in the same anti-Islamist camp. And it has demonstrated the way Washington has willingly marginalized itself vis-a-vis the Sunni Arab Middle East mainstream. Yet it is vital for Israel to persuade Washington to overcome its reservations and restore a strong US-Israel-Egypt strategic triangle.

Yet another strategic lesson involves international public opinion. The more deaths in Gaza, the more global opposition Israel will encounter. Much of it is knee-jerk died-in-the wool anti-Israel sentiment simply waiting for an opportunity. But not all of it: the huge humanitarian gap between Tel Aviv relatively safe under Iron Dome and Gaza bleeding under retaliatory attack is increasingly hard to justify, even if in terms of international law Israel's case is thoroughly defendable. The tunnels help rationalize Israel's cause. International distraction over the Malaysian 777 shot down over Ukraine is a mitigating circumstance. But not for long.

Finally, and perhaps at the root of much criticism of Israel, this war demonstrates once again that Israel still does not have a viable strategy for dealing with Gaza or, for that matter, with the West Bank. Netanyahu, who declaredly wants a two-state solution and wants Israel to remain a Jewish state, has so toughened his security conditions for an agreement that the emergence of a viable Palestinian state even in the West Bank is precluded. Whatever happens in Gaza, Israel is maintaining its course toward a disastrous single-state reality, with the "two-state solution" one day soon to be understood as comprising Greater Israel and the Gaza Strip.