Gaza Tunnels and Israel’s Exit Route

I had originally suggested that Israel’s ground assault was brought on by the lack of options after over a week of rocket fire and aerial assaults: Israel couldn’t bring about an end to the rocket fire coming from Gaza, nor could Hamas hope to do anything other than keep firing rockets and hope that it could drag Israel into committing troops on the ground and inflicting more casualties.

By continuing to fire rockets, Hamas provided Israel with the context it needed to enter Gaza and step the conflict up a notch.  But given Hamas’ role as the greatest ‘resistance’ group acting against the Israelis, calling off their rocket fire and just playing victim has hardly ever an option.

In reality, Hamas had two shitty options: stop firing and maybe gain international support, or continue firing and maybe gain international support – and maybe draw Israel into a conflict long and bloody enough to wrestle concessions in the advent of a ceasefire.

But by the time the ground assault began, Hamas was desperate for a victory and had opted to make several attempts into Israel via their tunnel network.  So while Iron Dome was the star of the early part of the conflict, providing a protective blanket to amaze and reassure Israelis, the focus of the second part of the conflict was (and remains) the tunnels, their extent and how Israel must neutralize their threat.

Prior to the infiltration attempts in the second and third week of the month (I’ll take the time to nail down the dates if someone ever pays me for my analysis), there was hardly any mention of tunnels at all.  Netanyahu stated in the early part of the month that the reason for the escalation was in fact to stop rocket fire coming in to Israel – a Quixotic goal if it was to be taken seriously (I don’t).

But with the increased attempts – initially thwarted but eventually successful – to use the tunnels to inflict IDF casualties, the focus of the conflict shifted towards the significant threat they pose. Suddenly, and rightfully so, the tunnels were the focus of the media and the IDF’s PR push. But unlike the innumerable rockets, the tunnels could be counted by the dozens, and more easily tracked down and neutralized. All of a sudden, the IDF had an achievable goal and a potential route towards an exit strategy – the only route that would leave Hamas with less than what it started.  Let me explain:

Being utterly unable to stop rocket fire without heavy Israeli casualties and a complete re-occupation of Gaza, the IDF instead focused on the achievable goal of making selective incursions into Gaza to locate and destroy the tunnel network.  Once this objective is declared achieved – supposedly within the week at current IDF estimates – Israel can withdraw from the Strip while claiming the clean victory of having neutralized the security threat to the Gaza periphery (and the country), setback Hamas, and restored deterrence.

Given this framework, its easy to see why Israel has no reason to accept a ceasefire or negotiate for an end to the conflict.  Hamas entered this war with very little and could only gain from a negotiated truce that would see at least some of its demands met (principally an end to the closed borders and fishing limits).  For Israel’s part, in the advent of a ceasefire they would need to demand a demilitarization and the dearming of the strip – something that Hamas would never agree to.

With the tunnels more-or-less destroyed, Israel has a secure exit route: they can unilaterally withdraw and claim their victory, while offering Hamas no concessions and little as possible to show for what will have been a month of conflict, aside from death and destruction.  Israel will have set the stage for returning to ‘quiet for quiet’ and Hamas will be left without an end to the siege, without the tunnel network into Israel, and depleted arms stocks to boot.  It’s only option would be to miserably maintain rocket fire, or crawl back to Abu Mazen and the PA with cap in hand, seeking to carry on the unity agreement as a means to end Gazan suffering – which Hamas certainly cares for, if only because they depend on Gazan sympathy to remain relevant.

So you see the irony – the tunnels provide an exit plan from Gaza for Israel.

tl;dr: Odds are for a unilateral disengagement from Israel at this point.

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Mr. Netanyahu’s Accidental War

In consideration of Mr. Netanyahu, I’ve judged him to be both a masterful politician and a very intelligent human being. I’m among the people that suspect him of being much more pragmatic than ideological with regards to Israel’s ongoing expansionist enterprise and his own political future.  While he has the ability to rise to the level of true statesman, he seems more comfortable maintaining his long career by walking a tightrope between Israel’s various political interests.   It’s because of this that Operation Protective Edge sits so uncomfortably with me – because I can’t shake the thought that Mr. Netanyahu’s stumbled while trying to negotiate the highwire between the moderate and right-wing factions of his own coalition.

The best place to begin unpacking this all is June 13.  Presumably, in the early hours of that day, the morning after the three Jewish boys were kidnapped, Mr. Netanyahu would have been faced with a choice: Whether to blame Hamas for the kidnappings outright, or not.

There would have been several factors influencing this difficult decision.  Chief among them was the recently signed reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah that was conveniently used as a wedge to free the Israeli government from the peace negotiations that were ongoing (if on life support) at the time.

Coming down hard on Hamas would go the furthest in mollifying the right-wing elements in his government, from which Netanyahu had been under increasing pressure since last year’s election.  For the right-wing faction, Hamas and Fatah unity was a threat as it increased the bargaining position of the Palestinians, who could now claim to speak for the entire population. The right-wing’s most vocal leader had emerged as Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett, who’s never hid his opposition to a Palestinian state.  For the right-wing, the weaker the Palestinians are, the better.

The right-wing would have been on Netanyahu to quickly condemn Hamas for the kidnappings, using the event to reinforce the stated themes used for backing out of peace talks: Hamas was a violent terrorist actor, unsuitable for peace talks.

So there was that for Mr. Netanyahu to consider.  But on the other hand, Hamas was already vulnerable and isolated:  Iran was disappointed with it for not supporting Syria’s President Assad in his civil war while Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood had been declared illegal and its members jailed.  40,000 Gazan employees of state infrastructure (paid by Hamas, but by no means all card carrying members) had gone unemployed for months.  There would have been a desire among government to weaken Hamas and if possible render the reconciliation agreement null and void. But clamping down on an organization that was already, by most accounts, backed into a corner meant there was an increased potential for a dangerous escalation.  And surely the government would not have wanted to topple Hamas altogether, given the potential for a more radical actor to move into the resulting power vacuum that would arise in Gaza.

There were other important factors that needed to be considered as well – primarily the likelihood (first reported by Shlomi Eldar in Al-Monitor) that Hamas wasn’t responsible for the kidnappings at all and were initially unaware of their occurrence.  Responsible instead, was the Qawasmeh Clan, the epicenter of Hamas activity in the Hebron area, and a group not generally known for towing the party line. Far from falling into step with the Hamas leadership in the days following the establishment of the Palestinian unity government, the Qawasmeh Clan might have been acting specifically against Hamas wishes for quiet.  Forced, as it had been, to cozy up to the PA under less-than-favorable terms, Hamas certainly had no desire to upset the apple cart so soon after being offered a lifeline.

Also part of the Netanyahu’s calculus must have been Gilad Shalit.  Since the return of that young soldier in 2011, there doubtlessly would have been a formulated policy response in cases of future Jewish kidnappings.  Israel’s enemies had clearly learned – as the government had warned – that kidnappings were good for businesses.  In the case of Gilad Shalit, one Israeli soldier had bought 1000 Palestinian prisoners.  There would have been a clearly-stated outline of what to do in the case of the next kidnapping, to pull the rug out from under the kidnappers and show them that the cost of kidnapping is greater than the potential rewards.  In the wake of the kidnappings, given the speed at which the Israeli government re-arrested the Hamas members freed in the Shalit Deal, there’s very little doubt that the move was the pointy end of ‘anti-kidnapping’ policy stick.

Furthermore, acting quickly against Hamas would give the appearance of decisiveness, deliver a blow to Israel’s enemies and clearly associate the punishment with the crime.  The only problem, of course, is that any policy response to kidnappings would have been formulated to be effective against state actors – like Hamas – and not non-state family clans.  Further muddying the waters, the poor boys weren’t being held for ransom – they were dead, as Mr. Netanyahu would have already known.

But perhaps eventually weighing that a complicated problem would better require a simple solution, Mr. Netanyahu moved to mobilize the IDF to crack down on Hamas in the West Bank, publicly declaring Hamas to be the culprit, and repeatedly stating that the assumption was that the boys were still alive.

From there it is a hop, skip and a jump well explained by various writers, such as J.J. Goldberg, in The Forward.  Expecting war in the strip, Hamas went underground.  Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committee went undeterred from missile fire, and the next thing we know both sides are taking the only options available to them: Israel is sending troops across the border and Hamas is duly playing the role, however hollowly, of set-upon resistance force.

From that initial point where it was decided that Hamas would be held accountable in an attempt to shore up Netanyahu’s coalition, weaken the Islamist group, or both, both sides have had fewer and fewer options and escape routes, and have been drawn into a wholly unnecessary conflict that shows no sign of abating soon. Israel cannot stop rockets from violating its territory any more than Hamas can stop firing them, meaning that neither side has a clear means of extricating themselves

And now, with the ground assault and so many Israeli soldiers dead, Israel has already lost both its clean victory over Hamas and the moral high-ground that it enjoyed in the early part of the conflict.  A forced ceasefire in the next few of days will mean that this accidental conflict will have done nothing to change the political situation on the ground and merely reset the clock until the next round of fighting.

Netanyahu at least realized this when he explained the ground assault as necessary to destroy the secret tunnels that had so prominently been featured in IDF videos since fighting broke out.  Put this is a messy pivot – at the start of the campaign there was talk only of stopping rocket fire – intended to create options and manage expectations in a conflict that has so far had neither.

Worse still, given that Hamas cares so little for the well-being of it’s ostensible citizens, has nothing left to loose and no reason to negotiate for a bad deal, it’s possible that any mediated outcome will award concessions to the group that would improve its position compared to a month ago, while Israel may end up being forced to concede to some sort of empty promise of demilitarization and international monitoring (as with Lebanon in 2006).

Either way, when Hamas signed the reconciliation agreement they were in a desperate situation. In choosing to continue to punish the group and leading the country into a bloody and accidental war, Mr. Netanyahu and the government has made a strategic blunder, likely doing far more for Hamas than any kidnapping ever could.