Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher: July 28, 2014


The Gaza war, as of late Monday afternoon Israel time:

This week, Alpher discusses whether the latest ceasefire will last; whether Israel's war aims changed in the course of the fighting; if ignoring the strategic potential of the Hamas attack tunnels an Israeli intelligence failure; why is there such extraordinary solidarity among the normally divisive Israeli public during this war; regarding a ceasefire, what happened with the Egyptian agenda and a Turkish-Qatari agenda, and in between what appears to be a failed US mediation attempt; if all this means that Hamas has not, or not yet, registered a sufficiently significant accomplishment in this war to "declare victory;" whether Hamas is part of the regional and global militant Islamist movement currently led by ISIS/Islamic State and the likes of Boko Haram as Netanyahu argues, or if is it a faction of the Palestinian national liberation movement and in the long term, what this seeming Hamas membership in two such distinct Middle East groupings means for Israel.


Q. Will the latest ceasefire last?

A. For a number of reasons, it is likely to prevail, fitfully and informally, for at least a few days. One reason is President Barack Obama's direct appeal to PM Binyamin Netanyahu on Sunday night, backed up by the United Nations Security Council. Another is the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr that began on Monday: neither Israel nor Hamas wants to be seen as having violated the holiday, however little there is for Gazans to celebrate after three weeks of warfare. Then too, the IDF expects to complete locating and destroying Hamas' attack tunnels within days--a process that can be accelerated when there is no fighting. Last but hardly least, the highly critical international response to the extent of death and destruction inflicted on the Strip is not lost on Israel's leadership. Certainly, Israel is almost inevitably losing the public diplomacy war in the social media, which are well attuned to visual images of civilian suffering and to the under-40 global demographic.

But the IDF remains in Gaza with orders to respond to the occasional Hamas mortar or rocket. There are still voices in the Security Cabinet, the army, mayors of towns near the Strip and the public-at-large that want to augment the military pressure on Hamas in the hope of registering what can be called a "decisive victory"--an elusive achievement in asymmetric combat against a guerilla/terrorist enemy. And the agenda for discussing any sort of new order or arrangements between Israel and Gaza remains very uncertain.

Thus the current semi-ceasefire, such as it is, is not binding and does not place conditions on either side.

Q. Have Israel's war aims changed in the course of the fighting?

A. Yes, they have escalated. What began as "quiet in return for quiet"--Israel's immediate response to Hamas rockets--was amended after the first Hamas tunnel attack to comprise destruction of the tunnels. This was the catalyst for the IDF ground operation. Dealing with the combination of Hamas rockets and tunnels then led to an additional, more long-term and vaguely defined aim of demilitarizing the Strip, meaning eliminating Hamas' offensive rocket and tunnel capabilities under some sort of regional or international monitoring arrangement. This demand was balanced with a readiness to discuss ideas, some put forward now by Hamas but echoing longstanding proposals, for economic development of the Strip: an airport, a sea port, open commerce, etc. And this in turn led to Israeli readiness to reconsider the Palestinian unity government project that contributed to the original deterioration and to welcome Egyptian ideas for a renewed Palestinian Authority presence in Gaza.

Thus, as military objectives escalated, Israel's readiness to consider greater civilian and political openness came full circle. For the moment, neither the military nor the civilian objectives are being realized, with the exception of destroying the tunnels.

By the by, Israel has ceased offering reassurances that it wants to weaken but not depose Hamas. This appears to reflect recognition that this position stiffens Hamas' resolve insofar as it seemingly signals the Hamas leadership that it is not in danger. Yet with a few exceptions, the more hawkish war designs discussed in Israel over the past three weeks have focused on continuing a measured, cautious, combined-arms push deeper (at times just a few meters a day) into the most heavily populated parts of the Strip, thereby leaving the underground enclave of the Hamas leadership in Gaza City relatively untouched.

Still, Israel's war-fighting has generated urban destruction on a huge scale, affecting some 200,000 Gazans and including the family homes of virtually all Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders. The aim here appears to have been to generate a "Dahia effect": to generate a long-term deterrent against attacking Israel by demonstrating how destructive this could be for the enemy leadership, along the lines of the IDF's destruction of the neighborhood populated by the Hezbollah elite in southern Beirut in 2006 that is credited with deterring that extremist Lebanese Shiite movement from attacking Israel ever since.

Q. Was ignoring the strategic potential of the Hamas attack tunnels an Israeli intelligence failure?

A. Yes. The failure reminds me of something similar that happened in the countdown to the October 1973 Yom Kippur War. Israeli military intelligence knew that Egypt was deploying a new generation of Soviet anti-tank missiles with a much enhanced capacity to penetrate Israeli armor. Yet this knowledge was not integrated into a strategic reappraisal of Israel's armor-fighting doctrine. Consequently, in the early days of the war IDF tank casualties were devastating.

In the same way, the attack tunnels were known about and serious efforts were commenced a few years ago to develop means of locating and destroying them. But no one seemed able to fully conceive of the entire network of tunnels and of its capacity to launch a massive surprise attack against Israeli border kibbutzim--a move that would have given Hamas a grisly strategic achievement. Luckily for Israel, when one such attack did take place and was thwarted by Israeli forces, the penny dropped, thereby escalating Israel's war aims and bringing IDF ground forces into the Strip.

Q. How do you explain the extraordinary solidarity of the normally divisive Israeli public during this war?

A. Regular volleys of Hamas rockets aimed at all major Israeli cities brought home to the population-at-large just how serious is Hamas' goal of killing Israeli civilians. The prospect of Hamas attack tunnels launching a major massacre and hostage-taking of large numbers of civilians multiplied the sense of threat several-fold. The broad Israeli war goal of simply stopping Hamas from attacking was designed to appeal to all currents of the Israeli population. One striking expression of solidarity was the turnout of tens of thousands of anonymous Israelis at the funerals of three "lone soldiers", two immigrants from the US and one from France with no family in the country who were killed in the combat in Gaza.

This is the first conflict in some time where the Israeli public is overwhelmingly prepared to pay a heavy price in rocket-fire and dead soldiers in order to achieve a just outcome. In other words, this is not seen as a "war by choice" as in, say, Lebanon in 1982. Tellingly, the media has reprinted portions of Moshe Dayan's famous eulogy for Roi Rotenberg, a young man from Kibbutz Nachal Oz who was killed on the Gaza border in 1956 in which Dayan stated that it was his generation's fate to fight the hatred from Gaza--the implication being that two generations later this is still our fate.

But the solidarity was not complete. The war witnessed both peaceful protests from the Israeli far left and from some prominent entertainers regarding the heavy losses inflicted on the Gazan civilian population. Of greater concern, it has witnessed violent attacks on these protesters by right-wing thugs. The thugs also attacked demonstrations by Israeli Arabs who in some cases took Hamas' side.

The thugs, some sporting neo-Nazi get-up, almost certainly drew their inspiration from the incitement and intolerance that characterized the most senior levels of the government prior to this conflict and that led to the brutal kidnap murder by Jewish terrorists of a 16-year old Arab boy in East Jerusalem around a month ago. Thankfully, since the conflict began that tone has been replaced at least at the level of the prime minister by far more cautious, responsible and thoughtful rhetoric. But the damage to Israel's open society is not easily repaired, if indeed anyone on the dominant Israeli right wants to repair it.

Q. This brings us back to ideas for a ceasefire. There's an Egyptian agenda and a Turkish-Qatari agenda, and in between what appears to be a failed US mediation attempt? What happened here?

A. Egypt, backed by Saudi Arabia and the PLO/PA, proposed an unconditional week-long ceasefire to be followed by discussions in Cairo of each side's demands. Israel agreed but Hamas balked, insisting that its long list of demands be resolved within the framework of the ceasefire agreement itself. Hamas' position is backed by its only two state supporters in the region, Turkey and Qatar, both of which have, at best, frosty relations with Israel, while the latter continued to believe its military pressure would eventually lead Hamas to accept the Egyptian proposal. Meanwhile a number of temporary or humanitarian ceasefire proposals by the United Nations were accepted by Israel and in some cases violated by Hamas, whose leadership (military, civilian, external) appears not always to be fully synchronized. In contrast, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's call to "just stop shooting and start talking" in which he seemingly placed Israel and Hamas on the same moral plane, fell completely flat with Israelis.

Enter US Secretary of State John Kerry. When several days of discussions with Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian Authority did not yield progress toward a ceasefire acceptable to Hamas (Israel agreed), Kerry set off to meet in Paris with the foreign ministers of Qatar and Turkey (he could not meet with a Hamas representative because in US eyes Hamas is a terrorist organization that rejects Israel's existence). But first he produced a draft "Framework for Humanitarian Ceasefire in Gaza" that was submitted to the parties late Friday afternoon. It generated anger and resentment not only in Israel, but in Egypt and the Palestinian Authority as well. Many commentators in Israel argued that it reflected a distinct lack of understanding of the nuances and inner workings of the region.

The draft described the two sides as "the Palestinian factions and the State of Israel", thereby seemingly awarding American legitimization to Hamas. While it invited the parties to convene in Cairo within 48 hours to discuss all outstanding issues, it proceeded to spell out many of Hamas' demands, such as the opening of crossings, while grouping Israel's demands under "address all security issues", thereby ignoring Israel's call to demilitarize Gaza. Nor was the draft specific regarding Israel's demand to continue dismantling terror tunnels during the ceasefire, thereby inviting misunderstandings leading to renewed violence. And it did not mention the role intended for the West Bank-based PA of policing the Gaza-Egypt crossing.

Finally, the draft notes Turkey and Qatar's support for a ceasefire but does not mention Egypt's role, thereby seemingly usurping Egypt's traditional role of supervising implementation and transferring it to Hamas' two state supporters.

Israel's angry reaction to Kerry's draft does indeed reflect the sense that the US secretary of state, whose failed nine-month two-state solution negotiations helped set in motion the escalation that produced this war, has not fully grasped the dynamic of this conflict: a weakened and impoverished Hamas attacked Israel in an apparent last-ditch effort to boost its standing in Gaza and the Islamic world; for the first time in history parts of the Arab world rallied to Israel's side; Israel needs to deliver a blow to militant Islam that reverberates among Islamists throughout the region and particularly elsewhere on Israel's borders. Even before Friday, Kerry was the object of a degree of media ridicule in Egypt and Israel, where it was noted that his intervention had not been solicited by them.

Yet Jerusalem, Cairo and Ramallah would be well advised to bear in mind that only the US appears to be capable of a meaningful intervention and that Washington's good will is absolutely vital for their strategic needs. Obama's phone call to Netanyahu on Sunday was a reminder of this reality. It helped that Obama corrected the mistakes in Kerry's draft and called for disarming Hamas and specifically condemned that organization.

Meanwhile, the ceasefire limps along from hour to hour.

Q. Does all this mean that Hamas has not, or not yet, registered a sufficiently significant accomplishment in this war to "declare victory"?

A. If indeed the fighting is drawing to an end, Hamas will declare victory no matter what. From its standpoint as a beacon of Arab and Islamist "resistance", merely surviving against a stronger enemy constitutes grounds for declaring victory. But Hamas does not, indeed, have the "victory picture" it sought of a prostrate Israel or a large number of dead Israelis. Partially closing Ben Gurion Airport for barely a day did not suffice. On the contrary, the pictures that symbolize this war are of hundreds of destroyed houses in the Gaza Strip. That leaves the Hamas leadership with serious food for thought about its future course, particularly if, as is likely, no new and revolutionary formula is agreed for regulating Israel-Gaza coexistence and the parties are left hanging in a tentative ceasefire limbo.

Q. Is Hamas part of the regional and global militant Islamist movement currently led by ISIS/Islamic State and the likes of Boko Haram as Netanyahu argues, or is it a faction of the Palestinian national liberation movement?

A. I would say it is both. As an Islamist movement, it refuses to recognize Israel and repeatedly calls for its destruction. But it does not crucify people or dictate female genital mutilation like ISIS. Nor does it wage its war against Israel outside of Mandatory Palestine, like, say, Hezbollah with its global terrorism. And while it will not talk directly with Israel, it is prepared to enter into mediated agreements (though its record at maintaining them is spotty). It may be thought of as existing on the "moderate" end of the militant Islamist spectrum.

But it is also an authentic Palestinian nationalist movement and, lately, a member once again of a Palestinian Authority unity government. That unity government is now recognized even by many right-wing Israeli coalition members as a potentially useful vehicle for disarming Hamas, opening up Gaza and channeling development aid to the Strip.

Q. In the long term, what does this seeming Hamas membership in two such distinct Middle East groupings mean for Israel?

A. This duality explains why it is so difficult for Israel--not just the Netanyahu government but its predecessor under Ehud Olmert--to formulate a coherent strategy for dealing with Hamas in Gaza. It also explains in part the angry Israeli-Egyptian-PLO reaction to Kerry's draft ceasefire agreement, which seemingly deals with Hamas only as a "Palestinian faction" rather than as a militant Islamist terrorist entity.

The absence of such a strategy has been at the heart of Israel's difficulty in enunciating and then sticking to a set of viable war aims this time around--or, for that matter, in previous rounds. If only the Netanyahu government had a realistic strategy for dealing with the West Bank, the PLO and the PA that would maintain Israel as a Jewish and democratic state adjacent to a Palestinian state, its dilemma regarding Gaza would be far easier to rationalize to itself and to explain to the world.