Is another war between Israel and Hamas inevitable? – Amos Harel/Haaretz
Neither Israel nor Hamas seemingly wants another war this summer. But then, we said the same thing this time last year before Operation Protective Edge.
Last summer’s war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza was quickly forgotten – perhaps even quicker than usual in Israel, given the country’s frenetic agenda in recent times. In the course of 50 days last July and August, thousands of rockets struck Israel; 10 Israel Defense Forces brigades entered the outskirts of the built-up area in the Gaza Strip, in order to destroy cross-border attack tunnels that gave Hamas access to Israeli border communities; the IDF sustained its worst casualties since the Second Lebanon War in 2006; and, in seven weeks, Israel killed 2,251 Palestinians, according to a recent report by the UN Human Rights Council – about half the number that were killed in the five years of the second intifada (2000-2005).
Some will say this is the face of modern warfare. The days of achieving victory by planting a flag, Iwo Jima-style, are over.
On the Israeli home front, the war sparked ferocious displays of hatred and intolerance between the rival political camps. And yet, Gaza was a nonissue in March’s Knesset election, with the serious dispute over the war’s management mentioned only on the campaign’s margins.
In retrospect, last summer’s war did not end in the strategic disaster that some of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rivals maintained. However, despite the IDF soldiers’ heroism, which was deserving of the citations and medals bestowed upon them by the government, the war certainly was not the heroic success that Netanyahu and the army tried to peddle to the Israeli public.
Some will say this is the face of modern warfare. The days of achieving victory by planting a flag, Iwo Jima-style, are over. In these circumstances, Netanyahu probably did the right thing by deciding not to entangle Israel in a purposeless war deep inside the Gaza Strip. Nor did he try to topple the Hamas regime, knowing that any successor to the Islamist organization would doubtless be even worse.
Nearly a year on, the Gaza situation remains almost unchanged. Hamas sustained more serious losses than the IDF, and the destruction in the Strip is the worst since the period of Samson, as one senior army officer put it. Hamas’ political leadership does not seem eager for another round of fighting, and the military wing has lost its main source of arms, Iran, as a result of Egypt’s intensive efforts, especially since last fall, to halt smuggling via the tunnels between Sinai and Rafah.
The IDF still appears to have difficulty waging war against terrorist organizations whose members take cover amid a civilian population and aim most of their fire at Israeli population centers.
The close security coordination between Israel and Egypt is helping to keep a lid on Hamas, but it is no guarantee against a new war.
The problem is that Egyptian pressure on Hamas has produced negative aspects as well. The destruction of the tunnels has deprived Hamas of the taxes it collected on smuggled goods; Gaza is still besieged (ironically, most of the movement of goods and people that is sanctioned takes place via Israel, rather than Egypt); unemployment is sky-high (more than 43 percent of Gaza’s residents are jobless, with joblessness soaring to about 60 percent among young people); and the water is barely potable.
The harsh conditions in Gaza, combined with the self-confidence of Hamas’ military wing – whose members believe they are the only ones capable of fomenting change (even more so in the wake of the astonishing survival of the military wing’s chief, Mohammed Deif, who has survived six assassination attempts in the last 15 years, including an Israeli airstrike toward the end of Operation Protective Edge that killed his wife and children – could generate a new flare-up, even if it does not appear to serve the parties’ interests.
The close security coordination between Israel and Egypt is helping to keep a lid on Hamas, but it is no guarantee against a new war. The Palestinian Authority may be part of the anti-Hamas camp, but it isn’t acceding to requests from Egypt and other countries to take charge of security at the Gaza Strip crossings.
In these circumstances, there are many who believe things will move on in Gaza only after a new confrontation. In an extreme scenario, hostilities could erupt between Egypt and Hamas. The generals in Cairo loathe the Palestinian organization, which they see as an arm of the despised Muslim Brotherhood that briefly ran Egypt in 2012-2013, and accused Hamas of aiding Islamic State terrorism against them in Sinai. The possible development of a new intra-Arab front cannot be completely ruled out: Cairo is sorely tempted to thrust Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, or even his rival, Mohammed Dahlan – currently exiled from the West Bank – into power in the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli public is convinced that next time, too, things will somehow work out. But what’s just-about true with regard to Hamas – Israel’s weakest adversary – will not be true against Hezbollah.
From Israel’s perspective, the war in Gaza revealed concerning lacunae. The IDF was mistaken in some of its intelligence appraisals, wasted ammunition and was perceived as being unprepared to cope with the attack tunnels. Before and during the war, Israel uncovered 32 such tunnels that Hamas had dug along the border, more than ten of which reached Israeli territory. These tunnels allowed Hamas to move commando forces under the border and into Israel without warning, to carry out attacks on soldiers. The great threat these tunnels posed only became clear to Israelis living along the Gaza border more than a week into the war. Their immense fear translated into pressure on Netanyahu to act, leading him to order ground forces to invade Gaza and destroy the tunnels.
Moreover, as Haaretz revealed last October, the Israeli troops embarked on this mission without proper equipment or training. Since then, there has been a major improvement in these realms. However, the IDF still appears to have difficulty waging war against terrorist and guerrilla organizations whose members take cover amid a civilian population and aim most of their fire at Israeli population centers.
In a reality of shifting sands, with Middle East countries (Syria, Iraq and even Lebanon) falling to pieces around it, the shock waves could reach Israel, too.
The Israeli public, perhaps brainwashed by media tales of soldiers’ heroism, is convinced that next time, too, things will somehow work out. But what’s just-about true with regard to Hamas – Israel’s weakest adversary – will not be true against Hezbollah. During the Gaza war, Hamas succeeded in firing a rocket in close proximity to Israel’s Ben-Gurion International Airport, prompting the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to ban flights to and from Tel Aviv for some 36 hours. Hamas called the flight ban, which isolated Israel from the international community, a great victory, while Israelis were left feeling alienated from the rest of the world. Of course, the situation was temporary, but the consequences will surely be more severe in the event of a flare-up with Hezbollah. The Iron Dome anti-missile system will not be able to intercept the Shi’ite organization’s vast arsenal of rockets, and the IDF will have a hard time vanquishing it in a ground operation inside Lebanon. The expectation gap among the Israeli public is liable to collapse painfully in any war in the north.
For the time being, in contrast to previous summers, there appears to be no immediate danger of a war in coming months. While Salafist groups in the Gaza Strip fired rockets at Israel several times in June, that had to do more with in-fighting between those organizations, inspired ideologically by the Islamic State, and Hamas. Israel responded with restraint out of a belief that Hamas is equally interested in reining in these groups. The real threat lies in the overall strategic situation. In a reality of shifting sands, with Middle East countries (Syria, Iraq and even Lebanon) falling to pieces, the shock waves could reach Israel, too. The idea of a “stable instability” is groundless. At some point, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the regional upheavals will once again come knocking at Israel’s door.