Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Israel-Gaza-Hamas Analysis: What Happened And What To Expect

A few very interesting articles summarizing the recent events between Israel and Hamas are now being published:

At the conclusion of Operation Protective Edge, it is fair to say that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unequivocally won the war he set out to fight – but not, perhaps, the war the Israeli public expected him to fight.

Signs of political danger for the prime minister are multiplying.

The prime minister’s public backing hasdropped precipitously, from a high of 82% on July 23, shortly after the start of Israel’s ground operation in Gaza, to 38% on Monday, after 49 long days of rocket fire.

Meanwhile, his critics span the political spectrum. His most vocal critics are not in the opposition, but sit in his inner security cabinet – with Economy Minister Naftali Bennett slamming the prime minister’s ceasefire talks in Egypt as “negotiating with terrorists,” even as Bennett’s Jewish Home party saw its popularity rise by 50%, from 12 seats in the current Knesset to the equivalent of 18 seats in wartime opinion polls.

“Quiet is always preferable to fire, but for God’s sake, we went through all this just to get back to the understandings from [2012’s Operation] Pillar of Defense?” lamented Labor whip Eitan Cabel.

The war that was won

American military historian Victor Davis Hanson argues that for 2,500 years, democracies have held to a particular view of wars as brief, decisive, winner-takes-all confrontations between like-minded opponents. This notion of war is embedded deep in Western culture. Wars should be as decisive as elections, and since they are ultimately a distraction from life’s true purpose, as brief. This view has given Westerners “a distaste for what we call the terrorist, guerrilla, or irregular who chooses to wage war differently.”
Hanson warns, however, that this expectation of war, rooted in the peculiar Western experience that has its origins in ancient Greece, has become a “burdensome legacy,” since “Western war has not resembled it for a very long time.”
Israelis share this view of war, and the frustration Hanson describes with fighting any other sort of conflict. The IDF’s infantry brigades, where much of the Israeli elite still spends formative years as conscripts, teach the importance of “speed, flexibility and striving for contact.” The IDF trains its young men and women to fight wars quickly, to adapt to changing realities – and to always seek to engage the enemy head-on until a decisive conclusion is reached.

It is a strange cultural artifact in an army that hasn’t fought a war of “speed” and “striving for contact” since the 1970s. Defeated on those decisive battlefields, Arab opponents of Israel have turned to new arenas, to the very terror, guerrilla and irregular tactics that Israelis consider immoral and cowardly. In Lebanon, in the West Bank, in Gaza, in the long-distance chess game with Iran, decisive battles are often simply unavailable. Victory in these confrontations requires patience, deception, intelligence infiltration and resilience.

Netanyahu did not set out on July 8 to uproot Hamas – for two reasons. First, he believes time is on Israel’s side. Hamas is mismanaging Gaza into economic and political oblivion (even those who blame Gaza’s dire condition squarely on Israel have trouble defending Hamas’s decision to drag Gaza’s economy and last open border into the Egyptian civil war, leading to the huge blow caused by the shuttering of that border over the past year). Hamas’s permanent belligerency also forms Exhibit A in Netanyahu’s explanations to the West as to why his security demands in the West Bank are so high.

Second, according to sources familiar with his thinking, Netanyahu believes, as do the IDF chief of staff, the defense minister and others in the Israeli security establishment, that the cost of the sort of military reconquest of Gaza required to root out Hamas is too high to be worthwhile. The IDF believes it could take years to “pacify” such a crowded, politically hostile territory, at the cost of hundreds of IDF dead and untold thousands of Palestinian dead, massive international opprobrium, and vast drains on the IDF’s manpower and financial resources that could limit its operational flexibility on other dangerous fronts, especially Syria-Lebanon and Iran.
Instead of the classic, decisive Western approach, Netanyahu opted for one more suited to the irregular, psychological nature of Hamas’s style of war. Hamas seeks to change Israeli behavior by terrorizing Israelis; Israel, then, has sought to demonstrate to Hamas that none of its planned “force multipliers” – international pressure on Israel due to civilian deaths, domestic political pressure to end the conflict from rocket-battered Israeli civilians – could protect the organization. Israel could operate in Gaza, Netanyahu sought to demonstrate, with no meaningful political or international constraints, dealing pain to Hamas at its leisure and escalating at will.

For 50 long days, Israel struck at thousands of targets across the Gaza Strip. It escalated at will, surprising Hamas with a sustained ground incursion, and deescalated at will. It accepted all ceasefires, but then upped the tempo of attack when Hamas rejected or broke them. It bombed rocket launch sites even when they were buried in dense urban areas – legal under the laws of war, but profoundly unpalatable to global opinion. It brought down apartment buildings containing Hamas command centers without even bothering to explain itself.

Israel showed it was better at Hamas’s own forms of fighting than Hamas’s own fighters. In tunnels and compounds built by Hamas expressly for the purpose of doing as much damage as possible to IDF forces, Hamas probably lost about 10 fighters to every Israeli soldier it managed to kill. (Israel and Hamas obviously disagree on the numbers of Hamas dead, but third-party death toll reports suggest that scale of disparity in the ground fighting.)

In the final days of the war, as apartment buildings started to fall and its most senior commanders began to die in airstrikes, Hamas faced the start of real resistance from Gazans that led it to carry out dozens of panicked executions of “collaborators.”

And in the ceasefire, Netanyahu cemented this strategy. All reports of the ceasefire’s stipulations indicate that Hamas received none of its “preconditions” for stopping the shooting. No Palestinian prisoners were released. The border crossings will only open under PA auspices – an idea actually put forth by Israel early in the conflict. No seaport, no free flow of dual-use construction materials.

The terms of the truce are nearly identical to the Egyptian offer accepted by Israel a month ago. This was before Hamas lost its top military leadership and many hundreds of fighters, before the worst damage of the ground incursion had been done, before most of the civilian dead had died or apartment buildings had fallen, and before Hamas began to feel the need to execute “collaborators” – indeed, before any opponents could plausibly suggest that the group had killed more Palestinians in the conflict than Israelis.
Even worse for Hamas, the talks set to begin in a month in Cairo – assuming the truce holds – will include Israel’s demand for Gaza’s demilitarization, something Hamas has said it would never accept as part of the agenda of any ceasefire talks.
The Israeli victory, as defined by Netanyahu’s strategy, is complete.
To be sure, no one in Israel expects Hamas to accept Israel’s demand for demilitarization, and thus no agreed-upon ceasefire is likely to emerge from Cairo. But even if the sides remain in a formal state of belligerency, that only sustains the dire pressure on Hamas. Both ideologically and financially, the group is ill-equipped for the work of rehabilitating the devastated civilian life of Gaza. And as long as an armed (and presumably rearming) Hamas remains in control, the Israeli-Egyptian siege will remain in place as well.

In the end, Netanyahu believes, patience and sustained pressure will destroy Hamas by demonstrating, first and foremost to Gaza’s own beleaguered population, the link between Gaza’s suffering and Hamas’s belligerency.

Netanyahu’s strategy has much to commend it. It recognizes and addresses the challenges posed by terrorism and irregular conflict – the civilian toll, the political traps, the importance of the psychological battlefield.
But it may suffer from one overwhelming flaw: in the minds of Israelis, it doesn’t look like war. It is hard to explain to millions of Israeli voters under rocket fire, to the families of dead children and dead soldiers, to a nation that expects decisive action from its leaders in wartime, why an enemy as derided and detested in the Israeli mind as Hamas can sustain rocket fire on a country as powerful as Israel for 50 days.
This gap is starting to have political consequences for Netanyahu. The growing chorus of critics, and the plummeting of Netanyahu’s approval rating, show the extent of the disparity between the government’s Gaza strategy and the nation’s expectations.

Don’t be fooled. Hamas has capitulated to a ceasefire without any of its promised achievements. But Israel, too, will be a loser unless it changes its position on Mahmoud Abbas

As expected, minutes after the Palestinian-Egyptian announcement of a ceasefire in the conflict with Israel, Hamas leaders took to the streets of Gaza to celebrate “victory.” The same cruel and cynical Hamas leaders, who had led Gazans to one of the worst catastrophes the Strip has known, hailed their achievements and successes.

Like a choir that had been practicing for weeks, down there in the tunnels and the bunkers, they held forth about the resilience of the Palestinian people and about their own wonderful organization that had succeeded in hitting the Zionists.

A few hours later the Hamas military wing published a statement “allowing the settlers who live around Gaza to return to their homes.” That announcement did not refer to the tens of thousands of Palestinians who, thanks to Hamas, have no homes to return to in Gaza.

Hamas has been humiliatingly defeated. There is no other way of describing the ceasefire terms. There is no need to be dismayed by the manufactured scenes of celebration on the Palestinian side. There is also no need to be too bothered by critics from left and right of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who are already claiming that Israel strengthened Hamas and that it has the upper hand.

Hamas’s defeat lies in the area it counts as most important. With all due respect to the international community, or to al-Jazeera which emerged as the Hamas propaganda arm, what interests Hamas is public opinion in Gaza and in the West Bank. Time and again its leaders — including military wing chief Muhammad Deif, of whom it is not clear what remains after the IDF airstrike that targeted his home — bragged and made promises to the Gaza public that this conflict would continue until the siege was lifted. And until the re-arrested prisoners from the Shalit deal were released. And until an airport was opened. In their enthusiasm for these causes, they cost hundreds of thousands of Palestinians their homes. Two thousand, one hundred and forty-four men, women and children who were killed in a war that they were assured by Hamas simply had to continue until those goals were achieved. The Hamas leadership swore that without a seaport (getting the Rafah border crossing reopened was not deemed a sufficient achievement because it is controlled by the Egyptians) the rockets would continue to fall on Sderot and Tel Aviv, Ashkelon and Netivot.

Hamas further promised that there would be no return to the understandings that ended Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 or to the realities of recent years. Time after time, for almost 50 days, they rejected the Egyptian initiative, which included, almost clause for clause, the elements of the 2012 agreement.
And then, on Tuesday afternoon, when first word of the ceasefire began to emerge, it became clear that Hamas had capitulated, retreated with its tail between its legs, abandoned everything it had insisted upon. No seaport and no airport. No release of the Shalit prisoners who were re-arrested in June after the murders of the three Israeli teens. No lifting of the blockade.

The residents of Gaza — their lives, their economy, their health — will still depend on the attitude and policies of the Israeli government on one side, and the Egyptian government on the other.
In a month’s time there will be negotiations on all of Hamas’s demands. In the realities of the Middle East or more accurately the realities of today’s Egypt, that means one thing: Forget about it.

In a frontal attack on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman voiced his opposition Wednesday to Israel’s ceasefire with Hamas, arguing that Israel should have rooted out the Gaza-based terror organization rather than sign an agreement with “contemptible murderers.”

In a statement posted to his Facebook page, Liberman urged the Israeli government to “free the Middle East and the Palestinians from the threat of Hamas,” emphasizing that Israel must fight the terror organization “without compromises.”

“So long as Hamas controls Gaza, we cannot guarantee safety for the citizens of Israel and we cannot reach a political arrangement,” he said.

“Hamas is not a partner for any sort of deal, neither a diplomatic [agreement] nor a security [agreement]. We cannot trust contemptible murderers. Therefore, we oppose the ceasefire, under which Hamas will be able to continue to become stronger and wage another campaign against Israel at its convenience.”

He declared that Israel must ensure Hamas doesn’t benefit from the truce, and asserted that the attack tunnels and rocket fire from the Gaza Strip will remain a threat to Israel “as long as the Hamas regime is not overthrown.”

In the final days of Operation Protective Edge, Liberman, along with Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, publicly pressed Netanyahu to take a tougher stance against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Indeed, Bennett reportedly expressed displeasure with Netanyahu for not allowing the security cabinet to vote on the Egyptian truce proposal before it was officially endorsed by the government. A number of cabinet ministers were thought to have been likely to vote against the move.

Last week, before the ceasefire took effect, Liberman said Israel’s main objective in its offensive against Hamas must be to defeat the Islamist terror organization and render the group incapable of orchestrating any further attacks against the Jewish state

“Our strategic goal as a state must be either to defeat or force the surrender of Hamas,” he said during an interview with Channel 2. “Surrender means that Hamas raises the white flag and begs for a ceasefire without any preconditions and requirements.”

“Defeat means that Hamas has no ability to fire missiles, produce rockets or restore tunnels,” he said, arguing that such a goal was entirely realistic.

But even as politicians scuffled over the ceasefire announcement, officials in the defense establishment praised the handling of the war, asserting that the ceasefire had severely weakened Hamas.
“They are extremely weak and they know it,” senior defense official Amos Gilad, one of the Israeli negotiators in Cairo, told Army Radio Wednesday. “There is no need to be impressed by the celebratory gunfire [in Gaza] and the statements by people who are even more extreme than the extremists. In all, everyone there understands what happened. The rehabilitation efforts are massive. They have brought disaster upon themselves.”
IDF Spokesman Moti Almoz chimed in that if Hamas were as successful as it boasted of being, it would not have “begged” for a truce on Israel’s terms.

“If Hamas agreed to or begged for a truce, even after three-four days of … such effective mortar attacks, we have to ask, why agree to beg for a truce? I mean, is the truce really what Hamas was planning?” Almoz asked sarcastically, suggesting that the terrorist organization was driven to agree to the terms of the truce due to its weak position.

The third Gaza War in six years appears to have ended in another sort of tie, with both Israel and Hamas claiming the upper hand. Their questionable achievements have come at a big price, especially for Palestinians in Gaza.

In a sense, Israel got what it wanted: Hamas stopped firing rockets in exchange for mostly vague promises and future talks. But the cost to Israel was huge: Beyond the 70 people killed — all but six of them soldiers — the economy has been set back, the tourism season destroyed, its people rattled for 50 days and its global standing pummeled by images of devastation in Gaza.

For the moment, Israel has promised to open border crossings with Gaza to a degree, something it does intermittently anyway, and to increase access for Gaza fishermen. Hamas’ other demands are to be later discussed: an airport and seaport, prisoner releases, salaries for its thousands of civil servants and the opening of the Rafah crossing to Egypt. Israel will ask for demilitarizing Gaza. Little is likely to be resolved anytime soon.

For 50 days, Hamas stuck to its rockets. Israel started with carefully targeted destruction of sites, but steadily escalated its strikes. It razed neighborhoods and killed top militants. This week, Israel destroyed whole apartment towers. Hamas’ fight was at first genuinely supported by Gazans desperate for an end to the embargo of the strip by Israel and Egypt — a policy largely meant to squeeze out Hamas. But in the end, probably sensing the population couldn’t take more, Hamas accepted a deal that does not differ much from the first Egyptian ceasefire proposal offered in mid-July and accepted then by Israel. The outcome suggests Israel’s use of devastating force achieved its aims.

Prospects for real peace remain bleak

Whatever lies ahead, the bigger Israeli-Palestinian story remains the same: A majority on both sides wants peace and accepts partition of the Holy Land into two states — but when the other sides’ terms are considered, they cannot do a deal. Israel has always feared a total West Bank pullout that would leave it about 10 miles (15 kilometers) wide at its narrowest point. Jihadi advances in the face of Arab governments’ haplessness now compound that fear. On the Palestinian side, there is talk of asking the world to force Israel to accept its terms — a follow-up to the UN General Assembly’s recognition in 2012 of a “state of Palestine” in all of Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The Palestinians tend to describe such efforts, as well as the recent US-led negotiating effort that fizzled, as “last chances” to save the “two-state solution.” When that’s off the table, their vision does not lean toward accepting a future as an occupied people. More likely is another uprising, or a push by the Palestinians for a single state over all the territory of the Holy Land, in which Arabs and Jews would be equal citizens. Israel fears the first and ferociously opposes the second, because it would bury the Zionist dream of a national home for the Jews.

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