Tuesday, July 29, 2014
Caught between head and heart
On Monday night, Israel was caught between its head and its heart. Its heart demanded a harsh response to the three deadly incidents which were the direct result of Hamas' impudent decision to violate the very cease-fire that it, itself, had sought. Israel's head, on the other hand, knew that the Israel Defense Forces should remain focused on the goal of Operation Protective Edge -- the destruction of the tunnels -- and that expanding the operation would get Israel sucked into a dangerous vortex in the international diplomatic arena.
The high level of IDF casualties on Monday did not in fact reflect the intensity of the fighting in Gaza. Only one Israeli soldier was killed inside Gaza. He was killed in an anti-tank missile strike on an engineering vehicle in southern Gaza (eight terrorists were killed in this incident when an bulldozer knocked down the house in which they were located).
The other two incidents in which Israeli soldiers were killed took place inside Israel. In one of these incidents, four Armored Corps soldiers were killed in a mortar strike on a staging area near the border -- a well-known vulnerability point for the IDF. During the Second Lebanon War, twelve reservists were killed by a Katyusha rocket that struck a staging area near Kfar Giladi. Due to this, IDF staging areas were moved further from the border during Operation Cast Lead and Operation Pillar of Defense. However, the nature of Operation Protective Edge has required troops to be assembled closer to the border, despite the risks. The border area has been closed to civilians in an effort to prevent casualties from rockets and mortars.
The other incident took place Monday night, when terrorists infiltrated into Israel via a tunnel near the southern part of the Karni Crossing, not far from Nahal Oz. The IDF had previously identified the tunnel, but it had yet to be destroyed. The shaft from which the terrorists emerged had not been previously identified. Unlike earlier tunnel attacks, Monday's attack occurred without a prior intelligence warning. One of the terrorists was killed, while the rest apparently fled back to Gaza. Five Israeli soldiers were killed in the incident.
This sequence of events and their results increased the pressure on Israel to intensify its military operation in Gaza. Several government ministers joined the growing public call for tougher action against Hamas. On Monday, these ministers called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to convene the Cabinet, not just the Diplomatic-Security Cabinet (where there is a 5-3 majority supporting Netanyahu's more restrained approach) in an effort to compel Netanyahu to expand the ground operation in Gaza. It is unlikely this effort will succeed, as the trio managing the military operation (Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz) are continuing to stick to the goal that was set for the operation -- the destruction of the tunnels.
On Monday night, the Israeli Air Force intensified its activities in Gaza, and the residents of some Gaza neighborhoods (Shujaiyya, Jabaliya and Zeitoun) were told to leave their homes to avoid potential harm. But it appeared this was primarily an attempt by Israel to get Gazans to put pressure on Hamas to halt the fighting. However, if Hamas continues to act against Israel with the same intensity as it did on Monday, this could shuffle the deck and demand the broadening of the IDF ground operation.
Israel believes that the window for the military operation is limited; not only because of the discordant noises coming from the Americans and the open criticism coming from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (who compared the destruction in Gaza to a "man-made hurricane"), but also because of growing concerns over international investigations and anti-Israel U.N. Security Council resolutions. All of this points to the likelihood that Israel will be satisfied with destroying the tunnels and then unilaterally pulling its troops out of Gaza, with no formal cease-fire arrangement or understandings.
Before Monday's events, it appeared that the IDF might be able to complete the tunnel destruction process by the end of the coming week. But, given the reality on the ground, mainly the discovery of additional tunnels that must be destroyed, that time frame might have to be extended a few days -- a known recipe for entanglement. In the current situation, as I have written before, Israel must take the initiative and not act passively. This is vital for victory on the battlefield, as well as in the fight for hearts and minds.