Gaza between Jihad and Restoration


Dr Shaul Shay describes the chain of events leading to Operation Protective Edge and escalation of conflict between Israel and Hamas

After four weeks of fighting, a ceasefire in the war in Gaza still seems like a distant prospect despite the deaths of around 1670 Palestinians and 63 Israelis (60 soldiers and 3 civilians). Hamas and the Israeli government cannot stop fighting until they have reached their respective goals. Israel wants to keep fighting until the destructions of the tunnels and Hamas stops firing rockets. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it was untenable for Israel to be threatened by ‘death from above and death from below.’ Hamas has set out demands, including withdrawal of Israeli troops and the opening of border crossings to Gaza. Furthermore, Hamas wants to have a port and airport under UN supervision. Palestinians are also calling for the air space over Gaza to be closed to Israeli aircraft and for the permission to travel to Jerusalem and release of prisoners. Hamas wants to keep fighting until its goals are reached - aims that are wholly unacceptable to Israel.

The Background

Hamas controls the Gaza Strip since 2007 and bears responsibility for the terror attacks (mainly rocket attacks) against Israel. Since the beginning of 2014, until the launch of Operation Protective Edge, Gaza terrorists fired more than 450 rockets towards Israeli citizens. Since Operation Pillar of Defence in November 2012, Hamas has continued to arm itself with vast amounts of weaponry and had 10,000 rockets in possession before Operation Protective Edge.

Operation Protective Edge follows a chain of events and escalation of conflict between Israel and Hamas. It all began with the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank in June 2014, for which Israel blamed Hamas. The IDF stated that the two men Israel suspects of having kidnapped the teenagers were known members of Hamas. During the search for the three missing Israeli teenagers, Operation ‘Brother’s Keeper’, Israeli forces killed 10 Palestinians in clashes and arrested many former Hamas prisoners, who had been released during the prisoner exchange that resulted in the release of captive soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011.

Hours after the funeral of the three murdered Israelis, a 16-year-old Palestinian teenager named Mohammed Abu Khdeir of Beit Hanina was kidnapped and killed in a retaliatory attack by Jewish extremists. Six Jewish suspects in the murder have been arrested by the Israeli police. The discovery of Khdeir’s body led to protests and rioting in East Jerusalem, which spread to Arab villages across the country.

At the same time, exchanges of Gaza-based rocket fire into Israel and Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip flared. June 30 saw a sharp escalation in rocket fire, with the intensification in attacks beginning in the morning, prior to the discovery of the boys’ bodies. These rockets injured Israelis, damaged cars, homes and properties. In addition to rocket attacks, Palestinians have carried out cross-border attacks from Gaza. A terrorist armed with a grenade infiltrated an Israeli village on June 22 and Israeli forces were attacked near the Gaza strip on June 28 and 29. 

As a result, Hamas violated the ceasefire agreement that had held since November 2012 and initiated massive rocket attacks that began on July 7. Israel responded with Air Force targeting, and striking, rocket launchers and industries making rockets.

Operation Protective Edge

Since the start of Operation Protective Edge (till July 30), at least 2500 rockets have been launched at Israel. Many of those rockets hit Israel, but approximately 90 percent that could hit built-up areas or strategic targets were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defence system. The Iron Dome, designed to intercept and destroy short and medium-range rockets, has saved many lives and prevented widespread damage.

The IDF has targeted thousands of terror targets from the air and the sea. Among the sites targeted include long-range rocket launchers, Hamas leadership facilities, terror and smuggling tunnels, compounds and training sites, communications facilities, and additional sites used for terror activities targeting Israel, including command and control centres. Israel also thwarted an infiltration from the sea, five infiltrations from tunnels and intercepted Hamas UAVs twice.

The Ground Operation

On July 17, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon instructed the IDF to commence ground action to strike at the terrorist tunnels from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory. The cabinet approved the ground operation after Israel agreed to the Egyptian cease-fire proposal, but Hamas rejected it and continued to fire rockets on Israel’s cities. Hamas also violated the UN-requested humanitarian ceasefire by continuing to fire on Israel. The IDF continues to broaden its ground operation in the Gaza Strip. Its current primary objective is to seek and destroy tunnels used by Hamas terrorists. Ground forces, armour, artillery and Special Forces are participating in the action.

Hamas invests years in digging terror tunnels, and, therefore, are doing all they can to thwart IDF’s efforts to seek and destroy them. The operation is executed slowly and with surgical precision as Hamas has booby-trapped the tunnels, forcing troops to work slowly and at times in open areas in Gaza, leaving them exposed to sniper and anti-tank fire. Over 40 tunnel shafts have been discovered and are being blown up; many of the tunnels run their course all the way into Israel.

The Political Front

On the political front, international diplomats, foreign ministers and UN representatives are frantically trying to achieve a ceasefire in the Gaza war. US Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon travelled to the Middle East to look for ways to end the violence.

Two channels of mediation are making it difficult for each other – Egypt on the one hand and Qatar and Turkey on the other. Israel prefers the Egyptian proposal, while Hamas wants the Qatari and Turkish proposal. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas went to Egypt and the Gulf to advance the Egyptian option and its economic aspects. Several truces between Israel and Hamas have failed to take hold or have quickly collapsed, most recently on August 1, after the US and UN announced a 72-hour truce from that morning to be followed by negotiations.

Regional Implications

Operation Protective Edge is not over yet and diplomatic initiatives to bring a ceasefire agreement are still in process. The strategic goal of the operation is to protect the citizens of Israel and enable them to pursue a normal way of life. Israel has to restore deterrence to achieve another long period of calm. The current operation should also deal with the capabilities of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic jihad (PIJ) and how to prevent Hamas and PIJ from undertaking a military build-up in the period after the operation. Operation Protective Edge will continue until its goals are reached: a harsh blow against Hamas to achieve deterrence and deny it the ability to grow stronger in the future. In the background of the high death toll of Palestinians (more than 1670 till August 1), Israel is doing everything it can to avoid Palestinian civilian casualties. By contrast, Hamas uses Palestinian civilians as human shields and is responsible for any harm that comes to them. Prime Minister Netanyahu has said, “We’re doing everything we can not to harm the people of Gaza, but Hamas is doing everything they can to make sure the people of Gaza suffer”.

The international community has recognised that Israel has made significant efforts to restore peace and quiet and that it has the right to defend itself. PM Netanyahu called on the international community to ‘undertake a program to demilitarise Gaza’ in the future.

Israel has tried to contain the conflict to the Gaza strip and prevent regional escalation. One of the threats is that riots could break out in the Palestinian Authority, in East Jerusalem, and among Israeli Arabs, leading to a third intifada. Another serious risk is that the northern front with Hezbollah or even Syria (pro-Assad forces or the Jihadists) could gain momentum, though there is very little chance that this will indeed occur. PM Netanyahu speaking on television on August 2 maintained that Israel was prepared to continue fighting Hamas after the army completed its primary mission of destroying cross-border tunnels. After completing the anti-tunnel operation, the IDF will redeploy and continue to act, in accordance with Israel’s defence and security needs, until Israel achieves the objective of restoring security to its citizens.

We can only hope that the 72-hour truce between Israel and Palestinian groups in Gaza, brokered by Egyptian mediators, which came into force on August 5, will be respected by both sides.

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Roberto Cordón

Dr Shaul Shay is former deputy head of Israel National Security Council, and former head of the IDF military history department. He is a senior research fellow of the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies and the International Policy Institute for counter Terrorism (ICT) at the Interdisciplinary Centre Herzeliya (IDC), Israel.

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