Operation Update and Strategic Assessment
Operation Protective Edge Brief #5
In the first 48 hours of the ground operation, IDF held its ground and revealed more than 30 tunnels including both defensive and storage tunnels and offensive terror tunnels leading into Israel. The soldiers uncovered a labyrinth of tunnels dug 20 meters deep and running 2kms towards Israeli territory with multiple exits. IDF Corps of Engineers have started blowing up and demolishing the discovered tunnels.
2014-07-21 by Friends of Israel Initiative
In the late evening of July 17, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) commenced a new phase in Operation Protective Edge – the ground incursion into the Gaza Strip. The stated mission of the ground incursion was to abolish the makeshift concealed terror tunnels dug by Hamas and connecting Gaza into Israeli territory. Hamas used these tunnels to infiltrate the Israeli border and stage terrorist attacks on Israeli territory.
Following an artillery assault, IDF entered Gaza Strip along the entire stretch of the Strip’s northern and eastern border with Israel – in the north, center, and south – taking control of a narrow perimeter adjacent to the border (at some points stretching 2kms into Gaza Strip). To deter and counter possible insurgency attacks, IDF deployed an overwhelming ground force consisting of armored, infantry, and artillery units in battalion formations and closely supported by the Air Force and the Navy.
The immediate trigger for the ground invasion was another failed attempt of Hamas to launch a ground terrorist attack on Israeli territory using one of concealed terror tunnels (early morning of July 17). The failure of the second round of talks to reach a ceasefire agreement in Cairo (July 16-17) due to the intransigence of Hamas (following the Qatari-Turkish interference – see further below) reinforced the Israeli decision to launch the ground invasion. In other words, the ground offensive was intended to both destroy Hamas’ terrorist infrastructure and to attempt to compel the Hamas to accept Egypt’s ceasefire proposal. In his official statement announcing the ground incursion, Prime Minister Netanyahu noted that if necessary the operation will be expanded. Egyptian foreign minister, Sameh Shukri (July 17) blamed Hamas for the failure to reach an agreement and the consequent Israeli ground incursion. This is the first time that a senior Arab decision-maker publicly blames an Arab party for an Israeli military operation.
In the first 48 hours of the ground operation (through Saturday evening July 19), IDF held its ground and revealed more than 30 tunnels – including both defensive and storage tunnels and offensive terror tunnels leading into Israel. The soldiers uncovered a labyrinth of tunnels dug 20 meters deep and running 2kms towards Israeli territory with multiple exits. IDF Corps of Engineers have started blowing up and demolishing the discovered tunnels.
Within the first 48 hours of the ground offensive, and as IDF deployed in a narrow perimeter outside of heavily populated urban centers, the armed resistance to IDF was limited. During this time, Hamas staged two attacks through tunnels into the Israeli territory; one was foiled; the other on the morning of July 18 attacked Israeli military vehicles inside Israeli territory resulting in two Israeli soldiers killed. Among the remains of Hamas terrorists, IDF soldiers discovered handcuffs and tranquilizers intended to facilitate the kidnapping of Israelis. Another Israeli soldier was killed earlier due to “friendly fire”. Later on Saturday, July 19, two additional Israeli soldiers were killed in fire exchanges with Hamas terrorists inside Gaza Strip.
Since the onset of the ground operation, Hamas and the other terrorist factions continue to fire rockets at Israeli towns and cities. Contrary to earlier IDF estimations that anticipated an acceleration of rocket firing, Hamas failed to accelerate its fire and kept it at a slightly lower level, just below 100 rockets per day on average. On July 19, Israel encountered the second civilian fatality as a result of the rocket fire, a Bedouin residing in a remote location in the south of Israel.
The operational turning point occurred late on Saturday night (July 19) and early Sunday morning (July 20) as IDF deployed additional ground forces into Shejaiya, an eastern neighborhood of Gaza City. A dense and heavily populated neighborhood of more than 100,000 residents, Shejaiya is a stone-throw from the border with Israel. The eastern outskirts of Shejaiya are just 1km away from the border with Israel and were suspected to harbor several offensive terror and storage tunnels. In addition, Israeli military intelligence estimated that there are rocket manufacturing facilities in the neighborhood.
Despite repeated warnings of IDF to the civilian population to evacuate the neighborhood, most of the residents chose not to leave their homes. Hamas instructed the residents to stay put so that the terrorists could continue operating among the dense civilian population.
In entering the neighborhood in the very early hours of July 20, IDF encountered intense armed resistance from Hamas terrorists who launched sophisticated RPG and Kornett anti-tank missiles, fired automatic weapons, hurled hand grenades, and placed large explosive devices. In a series of fierce combat incidents overnight and throughout the morning, 13 Israeli IDF officers and soldiers were killed and some 50 others were injured. In one incident, terrorists fired a RPG rocket at an armored personnel carrier killing all seven Israeli soldiers on board it. In another incident, a Hamas terrorist strapped with explosives attempted to commit a suicide attack on IDF soldiers, but blew up before encountering the soldiers.
In the gruesome 12-hour fire exchange, which included heavy Israeli artillery and airpower also intended to prevent the kidnapping of the remains of IDF soldiers, many civilians were killed, including women and children. At the time of editing this update, the estimate is that more than 70 Palestinians were killed in the series of incidents in Shejaiya, including Hamas terrorists.
Israeli leaders have since repeatedly expressed their regrets on the loss and harm of Palestinian civilians, pointing out that they will continue doing all within their capacity to prevent the loss of non-combatant civilians. Israeli leaders stressed that IDF forces go to lengths to avoid civilian casualties, but their efforts are deliberately hampered by Hamas terrorists whom use the Palestinian population as human shields and believe to benefit from civilian casualties. Despite allegations of a so-called blockade on Gaza, Israel (unlike Egypt) permits the transfer of food, medicine, and fuel into Gaza Strip through the operating border crossings. Since the beginning of Operation Protective Edge more than 670 truckloads of supplies entered the Gaza Strip through the crossing points with Israel.
As this update is finalized, Israeli military operations continue in Shejaiya and other Palestinian territories seized by Israel since the onset of the ground operation. IDF operations now focus on searching and destroying tunnel networks, munitions’ storage sites, and rocket manufacturing facilities. In the early morning of July 21, two groups of terrorists attempted to infiltrate Israel through a concealed terror tunnel that reached into Israeli territory, just 700 meters from a Kibbutz Nir-Am. IDF forces killed 10 terrorists during the foiled attack.
Assessment: The Prospects for Ceasefire and Conflict Management in face of the Inter-Sunni Struggle for Influence and Power
As noted in the previous update, Hamas actively sought an Israeli ground incursion believing that it could benefit from it. By inflicting casualties to IDF soldiers and to its very own civilian population, Hamas leaders assessed that they could bolster their position within the Gaza population and around the Arab world. A telling illustration of this belief occurred as unconfirmed (and currently dubious) reports that Hamas has captured an Israeli soldier led to late night open crowd celebrations in Gaza City on July 20. Furthermore, Hamas is attempting to exploit the live and unedited broadcast of the human tragedies (including morbid images) in Shejaiya and elsewhere in Gaza. Courtesy of the Qatari Aljazeera satellite news channel that has become a Hamas mouthpiece, Hamas seeks to build sympathy across the Arab world and lay pressure on the Arab regimes that have sought to contain Hamas, including the Palestinian Authority. This is also an attempt to counter Egyptian television networks that have repeatedly condemned and ridiculed Hamas’ actions and its leadership in hide.
Earlier Israeli and regional assessments concerning the weak and delicate position of Hamas were not unwarranted. However, the consequent conclusion that Hamas would not demonstrate resilience in face of confrontation with Israel was disproved in the fierce on-the-ground resistance and in continued (yet unsuccessful) efforts to terrorize the Israeli homefront. The prevailing assessment at this point is that a combination of factors has reinforced the resilience of Hamas, including:
1. Hamas continues to benefit from the firm political and media support that Qatar continues to provide (along with Turkey – but Turkey’s support is not as effective);
2. Israeli leaders and most media commentators have indicated that Israel is not seeking to overthrow the Hamas regime in Gaza;
3. The strategic restraint that Israel adopted led Hamas to believe that Israel is “afraid” to confront Hamas forces in direct combat;
4. The political standing of Hamas among the Gaza civilian population was in dire straits prior to the rocket campaign and the beginning of Operation Protective Edge – in a sense, nothing could worsen it, only improve on it;
5. Hamas calculated that the huge buildup of its terrorist infrastructure in the Gaza Strip since the turmoil in Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood regime would enhance its military ability to confront an IDF ground operation.
Adding to these factors, Hamas’ perceived benefits of an IDF ground incursion, led its leadership to defy international efforts led by Egypt to consent to a ceasefire proposal that would most likely weaken its position. At this point, it appears that the most decisive factors bolstering the resilience of Hamas are the Qatari steadfast support and the Israeli pre-inclination not to pursue the destruction of the Hamas regime in Gaza. Said otherwise, as long as Qatar’s support leads Hamas’ leaders to believe that they can achieve far-reaching political accomplishments and as long that they do not perceive a clear and imminent threat to the survivability of their regime, Hamas will pursue it terrorist violent course and not agree to the internationally-accepted ceasefire proposal.
Against this backdrop, one can understand Hamas’ intransigence vis-à-vis the Egyptian ceasefire proposal that amounts to no more than an unconditional cessation of violence to be followed by talks mediated by Egypt. Not only does Hamas object to find itself at the mercy of Egypt once the hostilities end, and insofar has rejected Egyptian mediation, Hamas’ leadership has come up with a list of requirements it demands to secure prior to the cessation of fire. The demands of Hamas, steadfastly mouth-pieced and endorsed by Qatar and Turkey, would not only enhance the position of Hamas but would effectively create a viable and independent Hamas/Muslim Brotherhood political entity (if not internationally recognized state) in the Gaza Strip, dubbed as Hamas-stan. These demands include: the 24/7 opening of the Rafah Crossing to Egypt; lifting all the Israeli restrictions on the passage of goods to-and-from Israel; secured funding of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Government “civil servants” (including the 17,000 strong Hamas militia); Extending the fishing zone for Gaza fishermen in the Mediterranean and the building of a new seaport. In addition, Hamas demands the release of the incarcerated Hamas operatives let free during the Gild Shalit deal and that were arrested following the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teenagers in June. Simply put, Hamas’ demands are a non-starter for Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority.
Over the past week, the stakes involved in the crisis in Gaza have risen and the crisis has become entangled in the ongoing struggle among the Sunni Arab/Muslim countries. Qatar, and to a lesser extent Turkey, have served as the patrons and standard-bearers of the Muslim Brotherhood movements across the Middle East, much to the dislike of Saudi Arabia. Both Qatari and Turkish international and regional assertiveness over the past few years (ranging from Qatar’s campaign to host the 2022 Football World Cup (Mondial), on to their respective roles in Syria, and Qatar’s military contribution to the NATO-led operation in Libya) have been met with considerable disdain in the region. Most notably, Qatar has drawn the ire of most Arab leaders due to the manipulative broadcasting of the government-run, but popular, Aljazeera satellite TV station. The tensions between Saudi Arabia and Egypt on one hand, and Qatar on the other were surfaced following the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt and the continued Qatari support to the Muslim Brotherhood movements. It is not surprising therefore that Hamas leader Khaleed Mashaal has been hosted in Qatar following his expulsion from Syria. Saudi Arabia has sought in the past few months to rein in Qatar, and along with most of the other GCC members it has recalled its ambassador from Doha.
Therefore, from a Qatari perspective, the crisis in Gaza offered it an opportunity to re-establish its regional role and enhance its position by seeking to create a political entity in the Gaza Strip under its tutelage. To that end, Qatar has exploited the awkward position of Egypt vis-à-vis the conflict in Gaza and Egypt’s public animosity to Hamas (reported extensively in previous updates) to play a major diplomatic role and to secure its regional ambitions.
At first, the US disappointed by the inability of Cairo to deliver a ceasefire, welcomed the Qatari initiative. Qatar may have also exploited the huge arms deal with the US which they signed on July 14. So far the largest US arms sale in 2014, the $11 Billion deal includes Patriot missile batteries, Apache attack helicopters and anti-tank missiles. The American support only served to bolster the confidence of Qatar and Hamas. Under Israeli and Egyptian pressure (and possibly Saudi), the US swiftly removed its support from the Qatari initiative. Qatar’s intervention drew unprecedented harsh responses from Egypt demanding that Qatar stops meddling and obstructing its national security.
As noted above, and under Qatari directions, Hamas has since refused to engage in effective negotiations with Egypt. Reportedly, Hamas leader Mashaal rejected an invitation from Egypt to hold negotiations in Cairo. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan took one step further and referred to President al-Sisi as a “despot” conspiring with Israel to exclude Hamas and harm the Palestinians and therefore “could not be relied upon to negotiate a truce with Israel” (July 18).
Curiously, the Iranian direct proxy in Gaza, the smaller and usually more radical, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) has demonstrated what might be construed as a more flexible approach in the informal negotiations. PIJ has accepted Egypt’s central role in managing the ceasefire, along with the Egyptian ceasefire formula. It is unimaginable that the PIJ would have adopted this stance without specific instructions to that end from Teheran. Taking into consideration the strategic relations Iran has with the two Muslim Brotherhood state sponsors – Qatar and Turkey – it seems that Iran sought to limit the reverberations of a potentially destabilizing regional conflict at the very same time it is negotiating the extension of its interim nuclear agreement with the major global powers. Following the recurring use of Iranian rockets by Hamas and PIJ, Iran was careful not to upset Western powers and stirred away from playing any role in the ceasefire machinations.
At the time of concluding this report, and following the escalation on the ground, international pressure is building to reach a cessation of hostilities along the lines of the original Egyptian initiative. To solicit Qatari consent, PA President Mahmoud Abbas and UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon arrived in Doha on July 20. Abbas, who was scheduled to meet with Mashaal in Doha, discovered upon arrival that Mashaal had “previous engagements” in Kuwait. The two subsequently met the following day, on July 21.
It remains unclear at this point whether Qatar has agreed to “guide” Hamas to reach a ceasefire arrangement along the Egyptian terms. US Secretary of State Kerry is scheduled to arrive in Cairo on July 21 to contribute to the efforts to reach a ceasefire. Ban and Abbas are also scheduled to arrive in Cairo from Doha on July 21.
Presumably, at this point, the most effective way to reach a ceasefire would be to apply considerable international and regional pressure on Qatar. Insofar, Saudi Arabia who could wield considerable influence on Qatar, has yet to publicly intervene.
It further appears that to obtain the consent of Qatar and Hamas, the US, PA, and UN will seek a revised formula of the Egyptian ceasefire proposal that will include a role for Qatar that could allow it to “protect” the interests of Hamas in the post-ceasefire talks. Furthermore, the parties might rename the ceasefire to a “humanitarian ceasefire” to save face and perhaps limit the duration of ceasefire (and the post-ceasefire talks). If both Egypt and Israel agree to a Qatari (a rather big “IF”), the post-ceasefire talks will face considerable difficulties, as the gaps between the parties will remain wide. While Egypt and Israel (with the quiet backing of the PA) will seek to leverage the talks to weaken Hamas, install PA security forces in Gaza, and heavily limit the capacity of Hamas to rebuild its terrorist infrastructure, Hamas will seek the opposite. Thus, if a ceasefire is reached without lending both a considerable military blow to Hamas and a substantial political blow to Qatar, the parties might not reach an agreement and the hostilities might resume.
In the meantime and in the run-up towards another attempt to reach a ceasefire, it is likely that both Israel and Hamas will intensify their efforts to “score points” on the ground before the ceasefire comes into force. Despite its well-demonstrated strategic restraint, Israel might launch effective ground and/or air offensives that will aim to demonstrate to Hamas leadership in hiding that their continued rule in Gaza should not be taken for granted.