Learning the lessons of Gaza

The relative quiet since 2014 made some Israelis think that their security dilemma was solved. The recent violence undermines that assumption and should impact any discussion about the West Bank.

Smoke rises in Gaza after an Israeli airstrike on the second day of “Operation Protective Edge,” July 9, 2014. Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Smoke rises in Gaza after an Israeli airstrike on the second day of “Operation Protective Edge,” July 9, 2014. Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

In the view of many Israeli security experts, the results of the 2014 Gaza war were decisive. “Operation Protective Edge”—the counterattack against Hamas terror by the Israel Defense Forces—left the Islamist group in control of Gaza and with its military capabilities still intact. Still, the impact of the devastating Israeli strikes seemed to have taught Hamas a lesson.

But the recent marches of “return” that have created mayhem and casualties, as well as fires being set by kites and incendiary devices flown over the border, seem to have changed all that. With Hamas firing its first extended missile barrages at Israel since 2014, the question is whether the lesson that was thought to have been taught then still applies. Just as important is whether that uncertainty will impact Israel’s willingness to take more risks with regard to the West Bank.

“Protective Edge” was thought to be a game-changer. Whereas previous Israeli efforts in 2008 (“Operation Cast Lead”) and 2012 (“Operation Pillar of Defense”) had only created temporary quiet before Hamas resumed bombarding Israeli villages, towns and cities with rockets, the 2014 war had, in the view of the IDF high command, established deterrence. The terror group seemed to have come to the conclusion that the cost of provoking another all-out Israeli attack was too high. Rather than risk the sort of suffering that another war would bring to Gaza, as well as lose its military arsenal again, Hamas stopped firing missiles into Israel. It also did its best to stop other terror groups, such as Islamic Jihad, from breaking the de facto truce.

Smoke rises in Gaza after an Israeli airstrike on the second day of “Operation Protective Edge,” July 9, 2014. Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

That by no means correlated into Hamas starting to beat its spears into plowshares. The billions that poured into Gaza after 2014 were used to rebuild Hamas’s military infrastructure, not the homes of its people. Aid money was also diverted to expanding the network of tunnels that would-be terrorists built under the border that separated Gaza and Israel, with which they had achieved some initial tactical surprise that summer. Before long, Hamas was armed and ready for another round of fire.

But as Israel continued to pour enormous resources of its own into measures to stop rocket attacks, in addition to detecting and destroying tunnels, deterrence seemed to have been established. Another war seemed unlikely.

More to the point, the aftermath of “Protective Edge” gave southern Israel its first real extended period of quiet since Ariel Sharon withdrew every single soldier, settler and settlement from Gaza in 2005.

That respite convinced many in the Israeli military and security services that a repeat of Sharon’s Gaza experiment in the larger and more strategic West Bank might not be as disastrous as many in the country believed. Though most Israelis would accept a two-state solution if they thought it would bring peace, they also view any further territorial withdrawals as an invitation to disaster in the absence of a sea change in the political culture of the Palestinians.

But at the same time, there is another consensus among the ranks of Israel’s retired generals and spymasters that reflects a belief that peace is possible. These security experts believe that separation from the Palestinians is necessary to preserve Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. They also believe that the IDF can defend any border, including the perilous one that existed before June 1967. And they think the aftermath of 2014 demonstrates that even the worst-case scenario of a land for peace deal—in which Hamas seized control of the West Bank—wouldn’t impact Israel’s security.

The notion that a West Bank Palestinian state would be as harmless as the one that currently exists in Gaza was always a stretch. Even occasional mortar or missile fire—or a flaming kite—launched from the West Bank could make Jerusalem and much of Israel’s heavily populated coastal plain as uncomfortable as Sderot.

The United States is preparing to put forward its own peace plan that will likely be based on the same two-state solution formula that has been tried in the past. Though the terms that the Trump administration will reportedly offer the Palestinian Authority are not as generous as those that were already rejected by Yasser Arafat and then Mahmoud Abbas in 2000, 2001 and 2008, they still involve a high degree of risk for Israel.

That’s why the recent violence along the border and the willingness of Hamas to open fire to protect those attempting to burn down southern Israel is so significant.

Few think that Hamas wants another war, any more than Israel does. But the idea that the stalemate with Hamas in Gaza is as durable and stable, as some military experts thought, just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Hamas is essentially holding a population of nearly 2 million Palestinians hostage in Gaza, since neither Israel nor Egypt has any intention of lifting the blockade of the strip as long as a terror group is in charge. While Hamas continues to float offers of a permanent truce in exchange for permission to build a seaport and an airport, the chances that either Jerusalem or Cairo will make such a deal are negligible. Neither wants to risk letting Iranian arms, material and money flow freely into Gaza.

As Hamas showed by throwing people at the border to be sacrificed, it needs to distract those living under its misrule with a conflict against Israel, even if it means feeding delusions about the descendants of 1948 refugees returning to their old homes. The marches and the fires show that Hamas will never stop fighting by any means it can find. The ongoing nightmare along the border with Gaza is just a taste of what would happen if Israel withdrew from the West Bank.

Those hoping to revive land-for-peace scenarios need to take this into account as they blithely advise Israelis to ignore the lessons of the withdrawal from Gaza. If “Protective Edge” didn’t end the threat from Hamas as some Israeli generals thought, then it’s difficult to have faith in their theories about what would happen after a similar retreat from the West Bank.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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