IDF troops face Palestinian protesters over the border fence between Israel and the Gaza Strip on March 30, a year after they began the ‘Great March of Return’ demonstrations. (photo credit:” AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
THE GAZA QUANDARY: WAR LOOMS ON THE HORIZON
By YOSSI MELMAN
This war is looming on the horizon and may break out very soon – in a matter of weeks or in the summer.
Regardless of the elections results this month and the subsequent slow and complicated political negotiation to form Israel’s 35th government in its 71 years since independence, the most important task that government will face will be to prevent a new war in Gaza. This war is looming on the horizon and may break out very soon – in a matter of weeks or in the summer.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) under the new Chief of Staff (COS) Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi is preparing itself for such an eventuality. Actually, all the war plans are ready. If a new round of violence erupts, it would the fourth war between Israel and Gaza in the last 10 years.
On the Israeli side, it will be an all-out ground offensive, using tanks, armored carriers, secret operations by special forces, with massive air bombardment and fire by gunboats from the sea. The Israeli forces will probably use targeted killing tactics.
Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) will respond by launching a few thousand rockets, which they have amassed since the last war in the summer of 2014. Since Gaza is under joint siege by both Israel and Egypt, preventing the smuggling of weapons from Sinai, most of the rockets are self-produced by Hamas and PIJ engineers and manufactured locally.
In the last few weeks, a few rockets were launched from Gaza, reaching Tel Aviv and 30 kilometers north of it. Hamas explained that they were launched “by mistake” or activated by lightning, which ignited and launched the rockets. Whether this is a genuine explanation or just a lie, it has demonstrated that Hamas’s rockets, even though they are not very accurate, have a range of up to 150 kilometers. They can reach and hit Israel’s major cities, including Beersheba in the south, Jerusalem in the east, Tel Aviv and its surroundings, as well as Ben-Gurion International Airport, and further north. Undoubtedly, they can inflict heavy damage on the Israeli home front.
The IDF’s goal will be to carve up the Gaza Strip, which is a relatively small enclave squeezed between Israel and Egypt. Its total size is 365 sq km (140 sq mi) – 10 km in width from the Israeli border to the Mediterranean – and 66 km in length.
Israel has completed construction of only half of its underground barrier with Gaza and an above-ground fence with electronic sensors and intelligence equipment. The other half will be finished in early 2020. But it is already assumed that most of the underground tunnels, which Hamas dug as its strategic weapon to infiltrate and shock Israel, have been exposed and destroyed by the IDF.
Nevertheless, even without the tunnels, Hamas, PIJ and the other small renegade Salafist Islamic groups present in Gaza can provide strong opposition to the superior military machine of Israel and inflict blows on its advancing troops.
According to the war plans, once Gaza is carved up – a maneuver which shouldn’t take more than 4-5 hours – the IDF will seal and encircle entire neighborhoods and villages, and engage in urban warfare moving from house to house to kill as many enemy combatants as possible, confiscating their weapons and destroying military bases and arms workshops. Such a battle in one of the most densely populated areas in the world (Gaza’s population is estimated to be almost 2 million) would be highly risky and costly to the civilian population and to combatants on both sides.
In the last war in 2014, Israel’s casualties were 68 soldiers and six civilians. On the Palestinian side, the figures are less precise. Some 2,500 Palestinians were killed – roughly half of them civilians and half combatants – some 11,000 homes were destroyed and about 400,000 people escaped from their homes. War game simulations conducted by the IDF and independent think tanks estimate that in the next war casualties on both sides will be much higher.
The main question, however, is what will be the exact instructions of the new government to the armed forces. Will the cabinet instruct the IDF to topple the Hamas regime? If it succeeds, and that is a big if, Hamas’s ideology is not going to disappear; so who will replace Hamas and form a new regime in Gaza?
The Palestinian Authority(PA)? It’s very unlikely that it will agree to be persuaded by Israeli army bayonets to go back and rule Gaza. An Arab international regime? The probability is low. Egypt, which ruled Gaza from 1948 to 1967, refused to take Gaza under its wings after signing its peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Nowadays, it is even more stubborn about not wanting to govern this almost ungovernable place.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged that in his meetings with Arab leaders – not only from Egypt and Jordan, with whom Israel has peace treaties, but also from the rest of the Sunni world (I assume he was referring to the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia) – he raised this possibility, but his counterparts rejected it on the spot.
Under such circumstances, if Israel conquers Gaza and topples Hamas, it will have only two real options. One is to withdraw and leave behind scorched earth, which will turn the area into a local version of al Qaeda or ISIS in the style of Somalia – with warlords, terror groups and chaos.
The other option looks no more promising. Israel will have to reinstate its military rule and administration to feed the people, and take care of their education, health services and daily needs. Not to mention that Israeli right-wing extremists will demand that the government rebuild Jewish settlements and colonize Gaza. This was the situation from 1967 for almost 40 years when, in 2005, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to launch his “disengagement plan,” in which Israel withdrew its troops, dismantled all settlements and handed over Gaza to the PA. A year and half later, Hamas took over Gaza in a bloody military coup against the PA.
Yet the war scenario is not inevitable. It’s not God’s will. It can be avoided. It depends on the new Israeli government that is formed.
The main reason that Israel and Hamas have found themselves in a new war of attrition since March 2018 is that both sides are not ready to compromise. There are a few serious problems separating the two sides from reaching a sensible agreement.
Israel demands that Gaza be demilitarized. Hamas refuses.
Israel requires as a precondition for a deal that the remains of two IDF soldiers and two citizens, who are most probably alive, will be returned. Hamas agrees but demands in return that Israel release from its prisons hundreds of its prisoners whom Israel calls terrorists and refuses to free.
Hamas also demands that the Israeli-Egyptian siege be lifted and that all available Arab and international money be transferred to them to increase the supply of electricity (today Gaza has electricity for 8-10 hours a day), make water drinkable, build new roads and sewers, open workshops and reduce unemployment, which is currently at a level of 50%.
No serious efforts have been made to break the deadlock. Both sides are entrenched in their positions. From the summer of 2014 to March 2018, the status quo prevailed and both sides of the border were relatively tranquil.
Hamas felt that Israel led by Netanyahu sanctioned the status quo and refused to negotiate. To break it, Hamas launched a war of attrition using incendiary kites sent to burn fields in Israel, mass marches and violent demonstrations, with occasional sniper fire and the launching of rockets. Israel retaliated by firing live ammunition at the protesters as well as heavy air force strikes, killing some 250 Palestinians. An IDF soldier and one foreign worker were also killed.
As a result, there have been vicious cycles of violence and counter violence, with sporadic ceasefires brokered by Egyptian intelligence. Until recently, this writer believed that the deadlock and lack of progress was mainly a result of Netanyahu’s lack of a policy. But new information points to the contrary. Netanyahu does have a very coherent policy based on a clear vision. Critics within his own Likud party described his consent to transfer $15 million (soon to be increased to $40 million) monthly from Qatar to Hamas as “protection” money and “a surrender to terrorism.”
Netanyahu replied that everyone who opposes a Palestinian state should support his policy of appeasing Hamas by showering it with Qatari money. So far, the Israeli prime minister hasn’t officially backed down from his 2009 commitment to a two-state solution.
But in his ideology, worldview and strategy, it’s clear that Netanyahu has done everything possible to prevent a unified Palestinian state in the occupied West Bank and in Gaza. In his election campaign, he vowed to annex settlements in the West Bank if he wins. His actions bear witness to it. He refuses to negotiate with the PA and is trying to weaken it. While giving money to Hamas, he deprives the PA of half a billion shekels ($140 million) of its own money held by Israel tax authorities.
Netanyahu’s policy has been to divide and rule. He wishes to separate the Palestinians into two geographic entities and regimes and to create a wedge between them. By doing so he hopes to “kill” the notion of a Palestinian state, regardless of the heavy price the citizens of southern Israel pay for living in the shadow of instability and frequent outbursts of violence. More worrisome is that Netanyahu is ready to enslave the future of Israel to fulfill his dream and vision.
If the next government does not reverse course, the fourth Gaza war will break out soon.