One Year After a Gaza War, Israel Braces for Another — Lessons Learned?

[This article is adapted from an article by Yossi Melman — co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars — in The Jerusalem Post newspaper on Friday, July 3.]

A year ago this week, Israel launched its invasion of Gaza — the third war with the Hamas-ruled Palestinian strip in less than seven years.

Israeli security officials speak of another round of warfare as almost inevitable — insisting there is solid intelligence showing weapons being smuggled into Gaza, Hamas and other factions building more rockets to be aimed at Israel, and tunnels being dug (and even Hamas claiming that it has again progressed underground beneath Israeli territory).

After investigating last year’s war — which killed 2,251 Palestinians (including 551 children, according to the United Nations) and 73 Israelis — a U.N. team documented what it judged to be possible war crimes by both Israel’s army (the IDF) and the Palestinians of Hamas.

UN Human Rights Council

UN Human Rights Council

On Friday, the U.N.’s Human Rights Council voted to condemn only Israel.

It was noteworthy that the United States — despite a recent spotlight on tensions between President Barack Obama and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — was the only nation voting “no” on the anti-Israel resolution.  

The vote was 41 to 1.  (Israeli diplomats took some comfort from the fact that India — a huge and important nation Netanyahu has been cultivating with friendship — abstained on the resolution.)

The first Gaza war — following Hamas’s violent ouster of the al-Fatah faction — was in December 2008, and the second was in November 2012. Simple calculation shows that the time elapsed between the first and second campaigns was nearly four years.

While the cease-fire between the second and third wars lasted just 19 months, on average it can be calculated that every 22 months Israel has found itself facing the same problem in Gaza.

So, with the same calculation, Israel can expect another round in Gaza in the spring of 2016.

But Middle Eastern realities are not mere products of statistics.

They don’t necessarily adhere to the scripts written by the planners. Sometimes the military battles generate surprising twists in the drama.

The last war, codenamed by IDF computers “Protective Edge,” could be one of these unexpected events. It has the potential for a long-term tacit or formal arrangement between Israel and Hamas, one that could put an end to the rocket launching, sporadic or systematic, from Gaza and could bring quiet and tranquility for the residents of southern Israel.

In that sense, the last Gaza war could turn out to be a mirror image of the Second Lebanon War in 2006. That war exposed many tactical weaknesses of the Israel Defense Forces but, on the strategic level, empowered Israeli deterrence. The inhabitants of northern Israel have for nine years since enjoyed and benefited from a peaceful border as Hezbollah is deterred from attacking Israel.

Something similar can emerge in the South. The situation Israel has witnessed in the last 12 months on the Gaza front is complex; alongside hopes, it contains risks and danger that another war is on the horizon.

What were the war’s flaws and weakness? It lasted 50 days and was not only the longest of all three Gazan campaigns, but also the second- longest war in the history of the State of Israel after the 1948 War of Independence.

During Protective Edge, Israel was bombarded with nearly 5,000 rockets, more than in any other of its military clashes, including the two previous Gaza wars and the Second Lebanon War.

For its critics, the war was also too long. But there was a reason for it. The political echelon led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, as well as the IDF leadership, were concerned about reducing Israeli casualties, which due to the urban and densely populated terrain could have been higher than the 67 soldiers who died in battle.

It was also said that Israeli intelligence failed to have accurate information about the number, size and spread of the tunnels Hamas had dug to be used as a surprise weapon.

But this claim is not true.

Based on military sources, this writer wrote in October 2013 – nine months before the war – that Hamas had built 20-30 tunnels.

Surely, IDF Military Intelligence and the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) did know that Hamas had dug 30 tunnels leading in the direction of Israel. And, indeed, during the war the IDF found and destroyed all of them.

The problem, however, was that, even though the information was conveyed to the government, neither the IDF’s top generals nor the cabinet ministers fully grasped the full strategic meaning before the war.

Still, the war results, as we analyze them today, are satisfactory.

It was a limited war because the declared goals were limited. Israel didn’t wish to topple Hamas because that would have meant once again conquering Gaza, which is a small territorial enclave with a big but very poor population of 1.8 million inhabitants.

Conquering Gaza – which from a military point of view could have been achieved within days – would have resulted in many casualties to both IDF troops and Palestinians.

And it would have forced Israel to once again be the occupier and daily provider of Gaza. Israel did not want to be in this position.

Bearing in mind that Israel had no serious alternatives other than to end the war the way it did, its achievements were numerous.

A growing wedge was created between Hamas and Egypt, which perceives the Islamist organization as a threat to its own national security and accuses it of supporting and collaborating with the terrorists of Islamic State in Sinai.

The security cooperation between Jerusalem and Cairo has reached unprecedented levels. Both countries are partners in the war against terrorism, which this week in Sinai caused the Egyptian Army heavy casualties by the hands of Islamic State and showed how painful and formidable a task it is.

There is no military solution to Gaza.

The third Gaza war will be judged successful only if the southern border is truly peaceful. This is only possible if a long-term agreement is reached among Israel, Hamas, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt – with financial support from Qatar to rebuild and help Gaza normalize the life of its inhabitants.

Without a deal that will politically and economically regulate and administrate life there, Gaza will never be rehabilitated. Even worse: The situation will deteriorate and Israel will be confronted with Islamic State, a worse and more brutal enemy.

July 4, 2015

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