Invaders carrying one of their wounded on stretcher

Israel cannot win, must make a fateful choice

Israel couldn’t beat Hezbollah, what it considered a rag-tag militia. It lost to Hezbollah twice. Israel cannot beat Palestinian resistance in Gaza, what it also considered a collection of rag-tag militias. It is finding out that just as it did with Hezbollah, underestimating one’s adversary is fatal. It’s losses, in terms of “soldiers” and equipment are mounting, the damage from resistance rockets inside 1948 Israel are being hidden from the world, but they are mounting as well. it’s inherent weakness is becoming more obvious by the day, despite destroying entire neighbourhoods in Gaza. International isolation is growing, calls to boycott by members of governments are becoming more common. It has lost billions in revenue from tourism and manufacturing. It is losing on all fronts, and it must make a fateful choice. Considering its history, it will chose wrong, again.

29 July, 2014 Middle East Eye
A full-scale re-occupation of Gaza will likely re-unite historic Palestine – exactly the outcome Israel planned to avoid through this military operation

Israel witnessed on Monday its toughest day in its current war against Gaza. After more than three weeks of fighting between one of the strongest and sophisticated armies in the world and Hamas – a military organization with modest capabilities – Israel suffered concerted and painful attacks.

One soldier was killed fighting inside Gaza, while four more were killed in mortar attack on assembly ground outside Gaza, and five others killed fighting with Hamas fighters who managed to sneak into Israel through a tunnel which the army thought was destroyed. This was in addition to rockets launched at Tel Aviv in the middle of the night, which wakened thousands of Israelis from their sleep.

For the first time since the beginning of the fighting, Israelis woke up with feeling that they are not winning the war with Hamas.

Ben Caspit, one of the most pro-war journalists in Israel, wrote today in Maariv that military operation is “rolling down to a status of national farce”.

Remarks by Benni Ganz, Israeli Chief of General Staff, describing the army’s achievements so far as “excellent”, seem a little hollow this morning .

In a poll conducted before Monday’s events and published today in Maariv, 25 percent of the Israelis said that Operation Protective Edge brought “good results” or “big success” to Israel, while 24 percent who gave the same grades to Hamas. A poll conducted today will probably give different results.

Yet contrary to what happened during the war in Lebanon in 2006, when news about army casualties changed the public mood from euphoria to depression, Monday’s casualties appear to have only strengthened the resolve to go on deeper into Gaza, to hit Hamas even harder

At least three of the eight cabinet ministers support a widening of the operation until “Hamas’ rule will collapse”, a goal that will not be achieved without occupying large parts of Gaza or even the whole of it.

Other ministers did not hesitate to describe the possibility of cease fire as a mistake, and one of them even hinted that the phone call in which President Obama urged Prime Minister Netanyahu to stop the fighting immediately was staged. According to the same poll published today, 86 of Israelis do not want a cease fire until “Hamas surrenders”, whatever that means.

The commanders of the brigades on the ground also want to go on, some of them blending religious flavor to their resolve. “I hope I will not be stopped now,” were the words of Colonel Ofer Winter, commander of Givati Brigade, “there is almost no house here [in Gaza] without evil in it”.

The same Colonel Winter distributed a letter to soldiers to them before going into Gaza, asking them to fight the “Gazan enemy which abuses, blasphemes and curses the God of Israel”, a clear reference to the holy wars against the Philistines in the Bible.

Netanyahu finds himself in a rare situation: if he chooses to, he has a mandate to reoccupy Gaza. The Israeli army is certainly capable of occupying such a tiny piece of land, seven kilometers wide in the crucial area of Gaza City and its refugee camps.

Casualties among Israeli soldiers might be high, but the Israeli society seems ready to pay a price to ending once and for all the threat from Gaza, which turned almost demonic due to the tunnels dug under the barrier between Israel and Gaza.

An Israeli report according to which Hamas planned to send ten teams of fighters through the tunnels into kibbutzim on the Gazan border during the coming Jewish New Year’s eve is seen as a proof that those tunnels represent a threat to the very existence of Israel.

The price to be paid by the Palestinian civilians might be catastrophic, but it will not be met by serious political or moral opposition inside Israel. The international arena is also relatively favourable for such an operation.

President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s Egypt is almost begging Israel to crush Hamas. The United States and Europe will certainly oppose such a move, but at least up till now did not put real obstacles on Israel’s way in Gaza. On this background, Israel might assume that it can take Gaza, as Russia took the Crimean peninsula.

Yet Netanyahu, so it seems, is firm in his reluctance to go deeper into Gaza, let alone to occupy it. In his remarks yesterday, accompanied by Defense Minister Yaalon and Major General Gantz he was still talking about terms for a cease fire. Netanyahu probably understand that if this war ends – the term ‘operation’ is less and less used – without clear victory over Hamas, he might lose his post.

He would surely be depicted as hesitant, easy to be pressured upon or even a coward, a title with which it is extremely difficult to win elections in Israel. But Netanyahu prefers to keep on with the limited ground operation. Why is that?

For many years, Israel took many efforts in dividing the West Bank from Gaza Strip. The unilateral withdrawal in 2005 was part of these efforts. The establishment of the Hamas government in Gaza after the coup in 2007 and political split between Fatah and Hamas only served Israel in convincing itself and some of the international community that Gaza with its 1.8 million residents, half of them refugees, is currently out of the equation of a political settlement with the Palestinians. And without Gaza, there is no deal.

In a distorted way, Israel preferred Hamas ruling over Gaza, as it prevents President Abbas and the PLO from claiming that they represent the whole of the Palestinian people. This was the main reason why Netanyahu was so opposed to the Palestinian reconciliation government two months ago.

This could also explain why Israel was in such a hurry to accept an Egyptian proposal for a cease fire base on the “quiet will be met by quiet” formula. If adopted, this proposal would have allowed Hamas to continue ruling over Gaza, albeit somehow weakened after Israeli bombing and Egyptian closing of the Rafah crossing.

Yet Hamas rejected this deal and almost invited Israel to invade Gaza. Still, Netanyahu and the Israeli army hoped that Hamas will accept this deal under heavy bombing and shelling and later by the threat of ground operation. Paradoxically enough, the aim of the Israeli military operation was to hit Hamas, but at the same time to convince it to continue its separate governance over Gaza. As if Israeli soldiers were fighting to keep Hamas in government.

A full re-occupation of Gaza, even if it turns out to be successful, will put an end to this separation between Gaza and the West Bank. Israel will find itself in control over the whole of the Palestinian people. Netanyahu understand that this is not only a risky military operation, it is a decision with historic consequences, equal maybe to the Six-day War in 1967. It would be a military operation after which nothing would be the same.

This will force Israel to choose between negotiating a deal for full independence for the Palestinian people in Gaza and the West Bank or heading towards some sort of one-state solution over all historic Palestine. Netanyahu, of course, rejects both ideas.

Netanyahu’s problem is that it almost impossible now to go back to the initial Egyptian formula. The terms of the ceasefire now discussed will almost certainly include a presence of the Palestinian Authority of President Abbas in the Gaza Strip: in the crossing to Egypt in Rafah, in the various crossings to Israel and maybe in other sectors in Gaza.

The Palestinian reconciliation government, so bluntly rejected by Israel only two months ago, is bound play a major part in Gaza from the day after any ceasefire. The division between Gaza and the West Bank will not be erased, but it surely be mitigated. The prospect of the renewal of peace talks on the final status between Israel and the Palestinian will reemerge on the table.

Netanyahu finds it hard to swallow the prospect of a renaissance of President Abbas in Gaza. This is why he is so hesitant in accepting the ceasefire terms discussed now between the United States, Egypt, a joint Palestinian delegation and Israel.

He will try to sneak into the ceasefire some terms relating to demilitarization of Hamas, maybe in areas now held by Israeli forces. But as the current military stalemate may bring other difficult days like yesterday, it seems that Netanyahu does not have much choice. The option of reoccupation of Gaza seems a much worse option.

Meron Rapoportis an Israeli journalist and writer, winner of the Napoli International Prize for Journalism for a inquiry about the stealing of olive trees from their Palestinian owners. He is ex-head of the News Department in Haaertz, and now an independent journalist.

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