As the Israeli delegation arrived in Cairo for indirect talks with Hamas, at the end of the first 24 hours of a three-day ceasefire in the Gaza War, Israeli government spokesmen went to great lengths Tuesday night, Aug. 6, to convince the public that the Gaza war was over and the enemy seriously degraded.
Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz went to so far as to declare: “We now move into a period of rehabilitation.” This was not exactly the message the soldiers wanted to hear from their commander as they headed out of the battlefields of Gaza after 28 days of hard fighting and heavy losses.
But government PR artists were already churning out a horror what-if scenario that depicted a theoretical operation for conquering the entire Gaza Strip.
This scenario, said to have been put before the security cabinet last week in the debate on tactics for the next phase of the operation, would have cost hundreds of lives of Israel soldiers and led to a five-year Israeli occupation for purging the territory of 20,000 terrorists and disabling their military machine.
This scenario was dreamed up to silence the malcontents, including citizens living within close range of the Gaza Strip, who were refusing to return home because the danger had not passed.
The alternatives which the cabinet considered never included full occupation of the Gaza Strip. The most serious option, which the ministers examined and rejected in the first week of the war, was to send troops in for a lightening strike to destroy Hamas’ command centers and core military structure and get out fast. Had that option been pursued at an early stage in the conflict, instead of ten days of air strikes, it might have saved heavy Palestinian losses and property devastation, the extent of which troubles most Israelis too.
And this week again, the politicians running the war decided to cut it short, regardless of advice on feasible operations for bringing the counter-terror operation to a successful end and closure for the population living under Hamas terror for more than a decade.
The decision to go instead for a ceasefire and indirect talks with Hamas was a costly one for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at home and much criticized. On the first day of the ceasefire Tuesday, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s rating in the polls dropped sharply to just over 60 percent, its pre-war rating, after soaring into the eighties at the peak of the operation.
The way Israel’s leaders handled and concluded the Gaza War has four consequences that transcend its immediate sphere:
1. The fact that, after taking a severe beating, Hamas is still standing and left with most of its military infrastructure unscathed, provides it with the core of a regular Palestinian army, which the Islamists did not have before the launch of Operation Defensive Edge on July 7.
This core is already an active fighting force with good combat training and national popularity – not just in the Gaza Strip but also in the Palestinian Authority’s West Bank domain.
So Hamas comes to the Cairo negotiating table with a freshly-minted military card.
2. The prospects of a post-war accommodation that will change the Gaza Strip’s terrorist landscape are dim. Israeli government tacticians have hinted that Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas might be a suitable figure for leading such an accommodation. This is a pipe dream. Hamas’ military wing would never contemplate giving this rival free rein in their territory. And, anyway, Abbas shows no inclination to fit into any Israeli schemes for Gaza.
3. When Ban Ki-moon visited Jerusalem on July 22 to push for a ceasefire in Gaza and talks on the root causes of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Netanyahu burst out: You can’t talk to Hamas. They are Islamist extremists like Al Qaeda, IS, Taliban or Boko Haram!
Unnoticed by him, his words were picked up in that same Islamist world. Eyes there carefully tracked each stage of the Gaza conflict, after he was understood to have raised it to a level comparable to the war on Al Qaeda. So,after curtailing the operation against Hamas, Israel may find its hand has landed in a new wasps’ nest. At this moment, the Islamic State and Syrian Nusra Front are fighting to extend their Syrian and Iraqi footholds by a push into Lebanon. They may not stop there.
If the jihadists on the march were permitted to judge the IDF incapable of vanquishing Hamas, they might turn to Israel and pose it with an extremely dangerous new threat.
4. Iran too will have taken note of the fact that, twice in two years, Israel’s leaders abstained from bringing to a victorious conclusion a war started by military forces which Tehran had fortified, trained and funded – first Hizballah in the 2006 Lebanon war, which ended in a draw, and now the contest with the Palestinian Islamists which ended in similar fashion.