The hostilities between Israel and Hamas stopped at 2 AM on Friday morning, and the quiet in this regard seems to be holding at the moment. But from Israel’s perspective, was this a good move?
No! It was done too soon.
When last I posted, on Thursday, May 20, Israel was on the cusp of agreeing to a ceasefire. A day prior, Prime Minister Netanyahu had been on the phone with Joe Biden, for the fourth time in 10 days. Biden told him he expected “a significant de-escalation today on the path to a ceasefire.” Netanyahu reportedly responded that he was “determined to continue this operation” against Hamas until “peace and security” were restored.
I was delighted. For it looked as if our government was going to go the full nine yards this time, doing what needed to be done to remove the risk of Hamas.
But some 24 hours later, the Security Cabinet voted to agree to a ceasefire. Now you’d have to be a fool (which I am not) to believe that on Wednesday Netanyahu thought there was more to be done to bring security to Israel, and barely a day later, when there had been no spectacular action that would have significantly changed the calculation, suddenly it was decided that no more had to be done.
It might be argued that the Security Cabinet looked at the situation and decided it was better to give Biden what he wanted, and thus reversed the message put forth by Netanyahu. But I would have trouble buying this because it has been my impression that the Security Cabinet does not readily cross the prime minister (if ever). Apparently the head of the Mossad, and the Shin Bet signed off on the ceasefire along with the IDF.
My betting is that our prime minister knew full well when he spoke with Biden that he would call a halt very shortly, but preferred to lend the impression that he was thinking independently before he actually did so. Putting a positive spin on this, I suppose we might say that he was asserting Israel’s right to act with independence – which, of course, is not the same as acting with independence.
Whatever the case, I do not care for this picture, because we haven’t acted to the maximum to reduce security risks to Israel. Across much of the country there was a deflated feeling after the ceasefire was announced, because of the sense that this didn’t finish matters. What hangs over Israel is a sense of déjà vu: been there, done that.
Briefly, I would like to share an overview of this situation:
- There had been talk about defeating Hamas and taking over Gaza. At some point this might yet prove necessary (or the wiser choice). It would require a major and extended ground operation, with considerable loss of life, as well as a drain on our fiscal and other resources. While this would not be impossible, it was not considered a desirable option at present.
- It must be understood that Hamas would not admit defeat without total annihilation. They don’t surrender, they always claim victory. That is why, if definitively defeating Hamas becomes the goal (and some say it should be), that extended ground operation would be necessary.
- It must also be understood that negotiations (“peace”) with Hamas are not possible, even if there is talk of “diplomatic solutions.” This Jihadi organization believes it has a religious obligation to obliterate Israel, which is on Muslim land.
Shortly after the ceasefire, Mahmoud al-Zahar, a founding member of Hamas, gave Sky News an interview, in the course of which he said the State of Israel does not have the right to exist. “We are the owners…This is an Arabic area. This is well-known as an Islamic area, well-known.” So they are upfront about their intentions. Would that the world paid attention.
- Short of a complete takeover of Gaza, I have been advised that it is possible to control Hamas via sufficient military power so that they are seriously deterred for an extended period of time. By extended, I mean maybe 15 or 20 years. I heard one general say we should be good now for at least five years; I was shocked, as that seemed to be sorely insufficient.
This is the bottom line, which must be clearly understood: Hamas leaders need to be afraid of us, and of what we will do to them if they launch an attack of any sort. Power is what they understand.
- The ceasefire was without conditions. Both sides agreed to stop at a given time. But now Egypt is involved in ceasefire “negotiations,” which means terms for the ceasefire. It is a given that Hamas is going to make demands, as will we. There remains concern that Hamas will demand, in return for continued quiet, that the illegal Arab residents in Jewish homes in Sheikh Jarrah be permitted to remain, and that Israeli police be barred from entering the Al Aksa Mosque. These are the two issues on which they have incited and victory here would be major for them. With these demands Israeli strength would be tested immediately. There must be absolutely no backing down on these issues, no matter the consequences.
- Complicating the situation is the stark contrast between the amoral, indeed evil, position of Hamas and the highly moral position of Israel. Hamas, which gladly sacrifices civilians, puts its munitions in civilian areas and hopes that civilians will die. Israel – the only nation in the world that warns enemy civilians before hitting a site – struggles to avoid causing civilian deaths.
Hamas excels at PR: putting out distorted reports and videos of “evil” attacks by Israel that are intended to engender negative responses to Israel worldwide.
I cannot help but suspect that this remains a backdrop – perhaps even unconsciously — against which Israeli decisions to keep going are made. It takes a special kind of resolve to continue, even with the certain knowledge that we are in the right, when the world, fueled by antisemitism, is eager to condemn us.
Israel accomplished a great deal. I do not wish to imply otherwise. In many ways our fighting was extremely impressive.
Perhaps the biggest victory was destruction of some nine miles of their underground tunnels – called the “Meto,” including under the upscale Rimal neighborhood of Gaza City.
The tunnels were used for moving troops and weapons around, storage of weapons and safe hiding for fighting troops. In the event of a ground operation, they would have been used for surprise attacks on our soldiers.
We also took out a large number of important sites, utilizing cutting edge precision bombing.
Never has a war been fought with such precision. That precision (coupled with superb intelligence) is what made it possible to take out the tunnels, as well as specific buildings and specific commanders. In one complex, never-before-done operation, the IDF managed to simultaneously eliminate several top Hamas commanders in Gaza City and Khan Younis.
Repeatedly, the IDF was able to spot terrorists in the process of launching rockets and take them out before they could act. And a great deal of Hamas infrastructure was hit – banks supplying funds to Hamas, intelligence headquarters, communications centers, etc. etc.
All this said, there have been some serious critiques of the Operation Guardian of the Walls and the way it has terminated.
We undoubtedly did damage to the Hamas weapons arsenal, and to the Hamas capacity to build further weapons. Because of the stringency of the blockade, Hamas no longer smuggles in weapons from Iran as was once the case, and instead builds its own. Iranian know-how has gone into the development of this domestic rocket industry, which has been producing increasingly sophisticated rockets that have a growing range inside of Israel.
But the fact of the matter is that we did not sufficiently degrade Hamas’s arsenal of rockets, and in particular the high level precision weapons.
We know this to be the case because until the ceasefire Hamas had continued to hit us with a steady barrage of rockets – all told, over 4,000 rockets were launched towards us (although most either missed their targets or, if headed towards a built-up area, were repelled by the Iron Dome). Should they wish to, they still retain a sufficient number of rockets (about 3,000) to start again, although manufacture of new ones would be slower because we destroyed some of the production equipment.
While we took out some 200 terrorist operatives, including high level commanders – which weakens Hamas ability to function and affects morale – we did not take out the leaders, either Mohammed Dief, whom we were specifically aiming for, or Yahya Sinwar. This would have been a game-changer. But both were hunkered down too well.
Even after the ceasefire there was talk (I believe by Gantz) about continuing to aim for these Hamas leaders (in past years Israel assassinated Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and then co-founder Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi). But Sinwar defiantly emerged from hiding (on right ) and claimed victory.
Another matter that has raised concern is the fact that we stopped attacking Hamas without securing return of the two bodies of our soldiers killed in the Gaza war in 2014 – Oron Shaul (left below) and Hadar Goldin – as well as two civilians – Hisham al-Sayed and Avera Mengistu, both emotionally disturbed, who subsequently wandered into Gaza – all being held by Hamas as bargaining chips (presumably to secure the release of large numbers of terrorists).
There is a feeling in right-wing circles that we should have hit Hamas without letup until they released these bodies and hostages. I concur.
A number of right-wing politicians voiced concern about the speed with which we were ready to accept a ceasefire. Gideon Sa’ar, for example, spoke about “the cessation of Israeli military activity without imposing any restrictions preventing the arming and strengthening of Hamas”:
The position of Yoram Cohen, former head of Shabak, is similar: He can support the ceasefire, he says, only on condition that we establish new ground rules.
Transferring funds to Hamas was a “grave mistake,” he declares. It must not happen again.
“We need to set a rule: Firing towards Israel will be accompanied by fire and damage. We need to hurt anyone who fires at us, without blinking. A sovereign country cannot live with doublespeak such as ‘drizzles’ towards Gaza-area communities. ‘Drizzles’ is rain. Not mortars and not rockets.”
(Note: when a few rockets were fired, not a barrage, the IDF referred to it as a “drizzle,” thereby implying that not much action needed to be taken.)
We have signals that the government is now prepared to act in this direction – a direction that should have been taken years ago. Yesterday, Minister Tzachi Hanegbi (Likud), a close ally of Netanyahu, declared that “We cannot wait for rocket fire” before responding: Rearmament and preparations to fire rockets, rather than the actual firing, “is cause for Israeli strikes” on military targets.
“The State of Israel has tolerated, over the years…the strengthening of Hamas, and this was, without a doubt, a mistake.” (Emphasis added)
Similarly, Gantz in a briefing yesterday said that the government is “examining how to transfer the Qatari money. We want to offer a better method of transferring the money and for project monitoring… We will not go back to what happened before.”
Additionally, Gantz has proposed that full reconstruction of Gaza be predicated on Hamas’s release of the bodies and the two civilians. (Hamas has already rejected this.)
I see several problems going forward, even as I welcome the anticipated changes in Israeli policies. Here I can only touch upon them; we will have to track the situation as it unfolds:
- I worry about the Israeli government holding fast with regard to these new tougher policies. Too many of our leaders, I say with enormous sadness, have had pliable spines for so many years that they will have difficulty adjusting to new spines of steel. Already Gantz, in speaking about a tougher response to Hamas, said:
“I’m not promising now that for every rocket or balloon at 3 a.m. I will necessarily attack; I may attack at times that are comfortable for me. I am preserving freedom of action and timing. What is clear is that the force will be much greater.”
Well, that was a peachy keen thing to say now. Does he imagine that Hamas wasn’t listening?
- A far bigger problem lies with the fact that we are hardly the only players here. Only if we fully took over Gaza would this be so. Thus, even if our leaders do end up demonstrating strength, we are not the only ones involved in what happens.
That Qatari money will continue to go in is a given. And Qatar is pro-Hamas. Gantz has already admitted that some reconstruction money may end up in the hands of Hamas.
Biden, for his part, announced almost immediately after the ceasefire that the PA would be brought in to oversee the reconstruction. His motivation here is evident: he’s seeking to build up the Palestinian Authority. There will be no peace, declared Biden, until the region acknowledges Israel’s right to exist. Standing alone, this statement sounded great, but it was followed by reference to “the two-state solution,” which he says is “the only answer.”
It is no answer at all, and we are in for a hard time on this. Secretary of State Blinken, the comedian who insists that Israelis and Palestinians both have a right to live in dignity, freedom and democracy, is coming here soon.
- Then there is the issue of how Hamas will respond to being sidelined. Already they are making threats about additional attacks if matters are not to their liking.
Here is one scenario which forcefully demonstrates that Hamas was not hit sufficiently before the ceasefire. They are still too full of a sense of their own power.
On Monday, a spokesperson for the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military arm of Hamas, said, “….our missiles are in their silos ready and awaiting the decision…
“We say to the occupation with consistency and clarity: Our fingers are on the trigger, and our battle has chapters still unwritten.”
- Lastly, there is the matter of what’s still going on inside of Jerusalem: riots on the Temple Mount, and more, instigated by Hamas. As Israel moves to assert sovereignty, the risk of “a renewed conflagration” remains very high, says Maj. Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen.
I want to close with a very powerful piece, “Catastrophe of a ‘Ceasefire’” by Professor of Philosophy Jason D. Hill.
“A terrorist organization that starts a war, one that is not bombed into oblivion but is altruistically allowed to remain in existence and lectures to Israel the terms of a ceasefire which it intends to use to simply recoup losses and re-strengthen its moral stranglehold over Israel, is so obscene a phenomenon in human history, that Israel, one of the most moral nations on earth, should be ashamed of itself.”