Netanyahu Prepares to Pull Troops out of Gaza – but Keep a Buffer Zone
After 22 days of fierce fighting in Gaza, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu finally lost patience with waiting for a unified Palestinian delegation to arrive in Cairo to discuss Egypt’s proposal for ending the conflict. On Wednesday July 30, he went ahead with his own plans for the future of the territory.
A day later, on Thursday night, July 30, the PLO-led Palestinian faction heads were still bickering and their delegation had still not taken off.
Netanyahu typically left the troops in the field and the Israeli public in the dark about his decision, although he did deign to mention it to senior IDF officers.
He dropped the plan for sending an Israeli team to Cairo for Egyptian intermediaries to lead separate and parallel talks with the Palestinians and Israelis on a solution of the Gaza crisis. Instead, he sent Amos Gilad, the Defense Ministry’s policy director, and two intelligence officials, to the Egyptian capital to get straight exactly how both would handle access to Gaza through their respective crossings after the Gaza conflict ended.
Both sides were of one mind on the imperative for keeping in place the blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip – the lifting of which has been Hamas’ sine qua non for a ceasefire. It was agreed that both Egypt and Cairo would reject outright the Palestinian demand to reopen Gaza port. Egypt would permit certain goods to reach Gaza through El Arish port in northern Sinai and Port Said on the Suez, but also be responsible for ensuring that no weapons were smuggled in through these seaports.
Netanyahu talks expansion, means withdrawal
After dispatching the emissaries to Cairo, Netanyahu convened his security cabinet and pushed through a snap decision to expand the operation in Gaza: “The IDF has been instructed to continue forcefully attacking Hamas and the other terror organizations in Gaza and to finish neutralizing the terror tunnels, an operation that is having significant results in the field and damaging the strategic system that Hamas spent years building," reads the cabinet’s public statement.
But the public decision and the private orders that Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon handed down to the IDF were rather different. They told the army’s top brass to finish the job of destroying Hamas’ terror tunnels and then pull the troops out of Gaza within 36 hours, even though fully demolishing the labyrinth of tunnels could take up to a week of ground warfare.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report that, while all eyes were deliberately turned to the vast tunnel enterprise and its systematic annihilation, the IDF had been focusing much of its energy on another major strategic undertaking, namely, the carving out of a buffer strip parallel to the Gaza border. It is being designed for outside control and equipped with a battery of firing posts, sensors, drones, special forces and armored units on round-the-clock alert, to bar hostile infiltrations. The troops will be able to cross back into Gaza if necessary.
IDF is carving out a “buffer zone” inside Gaza strip
The buffer zone will run 65-km from Beit Hanoun in the north to Khan Younis in the south, roughly following one of Gaza’s only motorways, Highway 6 (see map). All the territory east of this line up to the Israeli border has been cleared of the Palestinian civilian population, buildings and vegetation.
This sterile strip is around 1 km wide in the north and center of Gaza, 2-3 km deep in such areas as Khan Younes.
These dimensions were calculated precisely to reduce Palestinian rocket fire against Israel’s southern communities, although there is no guarantee that the blight can be eliminated, and put a damper on any Hamas plans to rebuild new tunnels.
With the counter-terror offensive in its third week, Netanyahu had to choose between accepting a ceasefire and pulling Israel’s forces out of Gaza after claiming falsely that the tunnels were eradicated and Hamas beaten; or he could order an all-out offensive to pulverize Hamas.
He appears to have opted for the first choice.
IDF may go, but many of the deepest tunnels will stay
1. Curtailing hostilities: Former President Shimon Peres made the case for ending hostilities on Wednesday, July 30, when during a hospital visit to wounded soldiers he declared, “The war has run its course.”
But halting the fighting is not a simple matter. Netanyahu’s war goals have not been met and convincing the public otherwise would be no small feat.
Hamas still holds more than a third of the 9,000 rockets with which it launched its blitz – more than enough to keep Israeli civilians within a wide radius running for cover. This week, the pace of rocket fire slowed from around 160 to 60 per day, but only because Hamas was keeping enough rockets in reserve for a spectacular performance in a final showdown.
The IDF has seriously trashed rocket production plants, but at least one-fifth of the facilities remain functional and can continue to replenish depleted stocks.
Not all the “terror tunnels” have been found and demolished, despite the Herculean efforts of the troops backed by intelligence from the Shin Bet. The Egyptian military has done its best, but Hamas has managed to build new smuggling passages from Sinai at the rate of an estimated 15 per week. And so, new rockets, drawn from concealed weapons caches in Sinai or smuggled from Libya and Sudan, arrive apace.
Despite the weeks of fighting, the IDF has driven no deeper than 1-3 kilometers into Gaza, leaving the western areas untouched. Therefore, the soldiers can only deal with the tunnels that come out in the eastern sector or reach further into Israel.
To truly finish off the warren of passageways, the IDF needs to burrow much farther west up to their starting points. But Hamas, with the help of Iranian and Hizballah engineers, constructed the labyrinthine system so that each tunnel forks off into another passage every few dozen or hundred meters. Some of these interconnected passageways lead under the border to places in Israel; others go further underground in Gaza.
All-out Gaza offensive ruled out from the start
The system is totally baffling. IDF spokesmen keep on saying that the troops have more or less dealt with the tunnels, while the politicians promise this will be done. They are anxious to allay people’s visceral dread of ferocious enemies jumping out on kibbutz lawns from the bowels of the earth, a terror that has driven more people north than even the rockets.
The truth is that only the sections reaching the Israeli border have been neutralized, whereas the honeycomb buried deep inside territory which the IDF has not reached, has defied Israeli intelligence’s best efforts.
The plan now is to polish off as many tunnels as can be reached in the days remaining up to the IDF’s pullout.
2. No all-out war to the finish on Hamas. The order for a general offensive on Hamas forces would, to succeed, depend on two new tactics: One: the Gaza Strip would be bisected and opened up for Israeli tanks to cut through up to the Mediterranean coast; and two, the IDF would have to seize the hilltops commanding Gaza City center from the east.
By making the tunnels Israel’s overriding mission, Netanyahu ruled this option out fairly early.
Iranian general vows to restore Hamas
His plan for now, according to DEBKA Weekly’s military sources, hinges on the assessment that it will take Hamas several years to regroup and recover its military capabilities – if it ever does – after the thrashing it received at the hands of the Israeli army.
This may turn out to be a losing gamble if Iran and Hizballah decide to step in and rehabilitate their Palestinian ally from scratch.
Echoes of Hamas’ dismal conditions were heard in a rare comment Wednesday by the Iranian al-Qods Brigades Commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani. He vowed to do everything in his power to restore Hamas’ full military might.
This oath is not to be taken lightly. Gen. Soleimani has for four years commanded the Iranian forces fighting to keep Syrian President Bashar Assad from losing the civil war and staying in power.
He has always kept a low profile, but for the sake of Hamas, he has come out in the open.
If Iran makes good on this vow, Israel’s pullback and its creation of a long Gaza buffer zone may well lead to a long war of attrition between Israel and the undefeated Hamas.