Israelis living in a string of villages and towns bordering on the Gaza Strip protested in vain against Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s decision to withdraw the military presence keeping them safe, especially since the summer war on Gaza.
Four significant security events in the last 48 hours on both sides of the border added to their concerns:
Their government, at its weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem Sunday, Jan. 4, set up a committee to expedite the transfer of the bulk of IDF facilities from the center of the country to the south.
At the same time, Israelis living in the south within range of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip saw the soldiers heading out and were advised to put their trust in local paramilitary “preparedness squads” taking over from the army. The local population believes that they are not up to the job of safeguarding them from more terrorist aggression – by missile, tunnel or intrusion.
Also Sunday, Egypt began expanding the security buffer zone along the 14km of the Gaza-Sinai-Israel border, doubling its breadth from one half to a whole kilometer. The mostly Palestinian inhabitants of this zone were evacuated.
Saturday, Jan. 3, Egyptian troops raided three towns in northern Sinai: Rafah (which is part located in the Gaza Strip), El Arish and Sheikh Zuweid, killing 7 militants of Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which last month pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and jihad against Egypt and Israel.
A few hours later, an Egyptian army explosives expert was killed and several soldiers injured when a large bomb planted on a road in Sheikh Zuweid blew up when they tried to dismantle it.
Saturday night, the IDF commander of the Gaza Division, Brig. Gen. Itay Virov tried to calm dwellers across from the Gaza Strip, who were up in arms about the withdrawal of their military safety net. He addressed members of Kibbutz Nahal Oz with a rare burst of frankness. He spoke of military policy, but his words no doubt reflected the strategic thinking of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ya’alon, the outgoing Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, and his successor next month Maj. Gen. Gadi Eisenkott.
The general may be commended for laying the truth about official policy on the table. However, instead of calming his audience, he bared evaluations that may give the rest of the country sleepless nights as well.
Here are the high points of his Nahal Oz lecture:
- Israel can’t deter Gazan Palestinians from making war, because they have no other options. So deterrence in this case is an empty value.
- Israel deliberately avoided going all the way to remove Hamas from power in Gaza in the summer war because salafist jihadists and al Qaeda would have moved in to replace them. It was deemed better to rely on Egypt to grapple with the terrorist threat, including al Qaeda, rather than the IDF.
- Brig. Virov termed the last Gaza operation a campaign based on the doctrine of prevention rather than a war of aggression.
- The political wing of Hamas looks after the population and wants peace and quiet, whereas the military wing lost no time in restoring the tunnels Israel blew up, conducting scores of test launches of rockets, and training hard for the next round of combat with Israel.
Israel therefore has no option but to prepare for a replay of Defense Edge with operations 2, 3 or even 4. Hamas must be degraded militarily each time – but not so far as to be rendered incapable of buttressing the Hamas regime.
The conclusion drawn from Gen. Virov’s lecture was that the Netanyahu government has provided Hamas-Gaza with a political and military guarantee of safety.
Like all policies, even those well thought out, this one too carries a price tag.
The general spoke of Hamas in terms of an independent entity whose operations and impact are confined to the Gaza Strip. He refrained from mentioning that, as recently as December, both of Hamas’ branches, the military and the political, jumped aboard the Iran-led Iraqi-Syrian-Hizballah alliance. This Palestinian group is now subject to Tehran’s policy decisions and directives. This omission from Israel’s policy calculations could be dangerous. Clearly, an undefeated Hamas remains a lasting menace.
Tehran’s decisions regarding Hamas may have an overarching effect, possibly touching on the moves directed by President Barack Obama. (See our Jan. 1 article on Obama’s New Year gift to Israel and the Middle East.).
Israel’s policy of relying on the Egyptian army to contain Al Qaeda’s Sinai network also comes at a price.
For now, Israel has quietly consented to large-scale Egyptian military strength entering Sinai: One and a half divisions, including fighter squadrons and tank battalions, have taken up positions, nullifying the key demilitarization clause of their 1979 peace treaty.
And that’s just for starters.