online 04.03.17

talking politics

Comptroller's report on the last Gaza war: More is hidden than revealed

by Yacov Ben Efrat

With the words "There is no clear policy toward Gaza," the Israeli State Comptroller summed up his criticisms against the Netanyahu government in a recent report on Operation Protective Edge. This claim is baseless. The humanitarian disaster in Gaza testifies to a very well-calculated policy, which is played out daily. The strategy guiding the Netanyahu government is to prevent at all costs the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank. The way to reach this sacred goal is to preserve the split between Fatah and Hamas. Operation Protective Edge, which began in July 2014, was the result of a clear policy to thwart the unity government that Fatah and Hamas had recently established.

Operation Protective Edge was one of the most politically motivated wars Israel has known so far. Israel profits from a situation where Gaza is controlled by Hamas, while the West Bank is under the coordinated control of Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). This situation perpetuates the "no partner" cliché: a weak Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen), is in conflict with Hamas. This situation gives the Israeli Right much room to maneuver. It smashes opposition on the Left and leaves the Palestinians fighting amongst themselves, weakening their bargaining power.

The Comptroller's Report does not deal with the military action prior to Operation Protective Edge. Netanyahu initiated Operation Brother's Keeper in June 2014, following the abduction and murder of three yeshiva students near the West Bank settlement of Gush Etzion. The then Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon had reservations about the operation, in which 400 active Hamas members were arrested, 50 of whom had recently been released in the exchange for kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. The arrests triggered a Hamas rocket attack that dragged Israel into Operation Protective Edge. In the earlier Operation Brother's Keeper, Israel had tried to subdue Hamas and weaken the Haniyeh government, after Egyptian President al-Sissi destroyed hundreds of smuggling tunnels connecting Sinai to Gaza. Haniyeh's appeal for a unity government with Abbas, after many years of rivalry, derived from the hope that cash would flow into Gaza to pay the salaries of officials, thus easing Israel's blockade. This was what Israel wanted to thwart.

Israel's goal in all three Gaza wars was to force Hamas to abandon armed struggle. The military coup in Egypt in the summer of 2013, which toppled the elected government of the Muslim Brotherhood and brought al-Sissi to power, was a strategic blow to Hamas and gave Israel a rare opportunity. On July 14, six days after the outbreak of Operation Protective Edge, Egypt pushed for a reciprocal ceasefire—and nothing more. The Egyptian position corresponded to Israel's, indicating a close coordination between the two governments. The war lasted another six weeks because Hamas refused to accept the Egyptian-Israeli diktat. Instead, Hamas preferred a Qatari-Turkish proposal, which called for the building of a seaport that would free Gaza from dependence on Israel and Egypt.

In fact, the war was lengthened because of Israel's strategic commitment to the Egyptian-Saudi axis. This axis was behind the coup against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and it backed the war on Hamas. Israel's strategic priority, which has been supported all along by the Labor Party, resulted in the destruction of the Al Shejaeiya neighborhood in Gaza, the killing of more than 2000 Palestinians, and the deaths of 68 Israeli soldiers as well as five Israeli civilians.

The Comptroller criticized Aviv Kochavi, the head of Military Intelligence during the operation, for failing to inform the cabinet that the tunnels constitute a strategic threat. This is most interesting. It actually shows that the tunnels were not considered a strategic threat, but rather were used as a pretext for penetrating into Gaza and forcing Hamas to accept the Egyptian ceasefire.

In this respect, the operation succeeded. It caused massive destruction, making 100,000 Gazans homeless. Eventually, the bombing of residential towers in central Gaza left Hamas with no choice but to accept the Egyptian ceasefire. Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation only got worse: bombed-out homes and buildings have yet to be rebuilt, and the economic situation continues to deteriorate. Operation Protective Edge brought an end to the phony unity between the PA government in Ramallah and the Hamas government in Gaza, leaving Gaza dependent on Israel. Today Israel walks a tightrope. It knows that the worsening humanitarian situation will lead to another unnecessary war, causing further destruction and ultimately endangering Hamas's rule. Israel does not want to topple Hamas because its existence assures a continuing internal Palestinian schism on the one hand, and prevents anarchy in Gaza on the other. Israel has absolutely no interest in improving the Hamas position, and therefore it permits the intravenous flow of just enough fluid to keep the patient alive.

The Comptroller’s statement that Israel lacks a strategy for the future of Gaza is not accurate. Netanyahu’s strategy is, first and foremost, to thwart and prevent the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state. To this end, he is committed to the status quo, which prolongs the separation of Gaza from the West Bank. Proof of this is the golden opportunity that then US Secretary of State John Kerry recently handed Netanyahu in the form of a regional peace plan with Israel’s “allies," namely, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. It has now been revealed that the regional allies, as well as opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union), were ready to move forward, but Netanyahu made a U-turn. He fired Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, put Avigdor Lieberman in his place, and sent Herzog and Israel’s newfound regional friends into limbo.

Since Operation Protective Edge, the political picture has changed to Hamas’s detriment. Turkey, previously a Hamas supporter, realigned its allegiances after a failed military coup against Turkish President Recep Erdogan, who tightened ties with Putin and renewed relations with Netanyahu while demoting Hamas. Trump's election as US president also strengthened Netanyahu’s position, leaving the "axis of Sunni states" to wallow in internal struggles. In addition, the rift between Hamas and the PA in Ramallah exacerbates the humanitarian disaster in Gaza, where there is no fuel for power plants, undrinkable water, barely functioning hospital care, and a population living amidst rubble, sealed off from the world.

Since Operation Protective Edge, we have seen the outbreak of the “stabbing intifada" in the West Bank, which Israel was able to halt, and now the suffering in Gaza has returned to center stage. It is interesting that today both the army and the hawkish Transportation Minister Israel Katz favor the establishment of the Turkish-sponsored seaport. However, Netanyahu, coordinating with Al-Sissi, objects to the port, leaving Gaza in a precarious and dependent situation.

Israel's strategic problem is not the tunnel threat, and not even the Iranian nuclear program, but the lack of a comprehensive plan to resolve the problem that has weighed heavily on it for 50 years: the fate of the Palestinian people. On this issue, there is no significant difference between Netanyahu and Herzog or between Lapid and Livni. All want to annex the settlement blocs, postpone a permanent solution with the Palestinians indefinitely, and deny them the most basic rights that would allow them to live as free citizens in their own country. This policy underlies the defects of Operation Protective Edge and will undoubtedly breed future shortcomings as well.