Israel’s Narrative – An Overview
A Catastrophe Averted
The 2014 Gaza war was a seminal event for Israel, a moment when a potential catastrophe was averted as an indirect result of a war Israel did not want and tried to contain and limit after hostilities broke out. During the ensuing 50 days of warfare that began on July 8, Hamas rejected or violated 11 international attempts to broker a ceasefire agreement, its leadership safe in underground bunkers in Gaza and headquarters in Qatar, impervious to the suffering of their own people.
Finally, seven weeks later, on August 26, with nothing achieved, Hamas agreed to let the guns fall silent. Four of its top commanders had been killed and Mohamed Deif, the legendary commander of Hamas’ military wing, was thought to have been killed as well, though this has still not been confirmed.
By protracting the conflict and trying to manipulate the Gaza-based international media and world public opinion into portraying Israel’s military responses as war crimes, Hamas had hoped world condemnation of Israel would force Israel into accepting its demands for open borders, a seaport and an airport to end the war – or the “victim doctrine,” as it has been called.1
It did not work. Israel had factored in the negation of international condemnation as an intrinsic part of its own war doctrine – based on its experience in past conflicts with Hamas in Gaza in 2008-9 and 2012 – and was prepared to conduct precisely the war of attrition that Hamas had assumed it would want to avoid.
In pinpoint aerial strikes stunning for the minimal collateral damage they caused to apartment blocks in the heart of Gaza City, known to have housed Hamas command centers, weapons stockpiles and other military infrastructure, the IDF made clear that it could fight the war and maintain the support of key allies, and even the tacit support of the leadership of the moderate Arab world. To assume otherwise had been a gross Hamas miscalculation.
During the 2014 Gaza war, Hamas rejected or violated 11 attempts to broker a ceasefire, its leadership safe in underground bunkers in Gaza, impervious to the suffering of their own people.
Protracting the conflict was another such miscalculation. In doing so, Hamas, in essence, defeated itself. By drawing Israeli ground forces into Gaza, albeit to a depth of only three kilometers so as to avoid entering Gaza’s main population centers, Hamas inadvertently exposed its more sinister plan: the silent preparations it had made for surprise attacks that could have resulted in the massacre of countless Israeli civilians and targeted civilian infrastructure, like power stations and other sensitive facilities.
At the heart of the plan was a sophisticated network of attack tunnels designed to run under the Israeli border, on which tens of millions of dollars had been spent. They were built with enough cement to build two multi-story hospitals, 20 schools, three apartment towers, and several other public structures, at a conservative estimate.
Hamas’ use of tunnels for smuggling weapons and goods into Gaza, as well as for defensive purposes, was well known. But what was discovered during this war was something on a completely different scale: a network of 32 underground attack tunnels with multiple branches and exits in various stages of construction, many destined to go deep under the border into Israel, with the capacity to facilitate the passage of hundreds, if not thousands, of armed terrorists on a mission of mass slaughter against Israel’s heartland.
With funding from Qatar, among others, Hamas had built the infrastructure for a surprise attack using the tunnels in tandem with raining thousands of rockets on Israeli civilian centers, some with three times the population density of Gaza.2 This planned assault likely would have been reinforced with attacks by frogmen from the sea and terrorists trained on paragliders to reach strategic targets deep inside Israel from the air,3 based on what is now known of Hamas’ force build-up.
This was potentially Hamas’ terrorist version of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Egypt and Syria launched a joint surprise attack on Israeli forces in Sinai and the Golan Heights. In this case, however, Israel’s cities were to be the battlefields and civilians the victims of war. It would not have been an attack to regain territory lost in war, but an indelible reminder that Hamas would never accept Israel’s existence.
Israel underestimated the tunnel threat and did not fully understand the significance of the two sophisticated tunnels discovered in 2013, with exits hundreds of meters inside Israeli territory. It was assumed that these were intended to be used by Hamas for localized terror attacks, albeit more major than those seen in the past. These tunnels were thought to be for taking Israeli hostages back to Gaza to serve as negotiating tools to relieve the blockade Israel and Egypt imposed on importing materials into Gaza that could be used for military purposes.
Central to the objective would also have been the release of Hamas prisoners still held by Israel. In 2006 Hamas used a tunnel to kidnap an Israeli soldier, 19-year-old Gilad Shalit, who was repatriated five years later in exchange for 1,207 convicted terrorists imprisoned in Israel.4 Israel’s understanding of the tunnels it had exposed in 2013, despite their advanced development, remained in the context of future abductions planned by Hamas.
Hamas’ public statements, perhaps ingenuously and unintentionally, reinforced Israel’s understanding of the purpose of the tunnels. In October 2013, top Hamas official Moussa Abu Marzouk wrote on his Facebook page: “The tunnel which was revealed was extremely costly in terms of money, effort and blood. All this is meaningless when it comes to freeing our heroic prisoners….It would not have been possible to free hundreds of our prisoners without the Shalit tunnel.”5
It was also Israel’s concept that Hamas’ goal in constructing the cross-border tunnels was to have them serve as a means of remaining relevant at a time when it seemed its hold over Gaza was at risk. By 2013, the geo-strategic environment in the Middle East had changed dramatically to Hamas’ disadvantage, and Israel saw Hamas’ intended use of the trans-border tunnels, which were assumed to number fewer than a dozen, as tactical, not the main element of a multi-pronged, strategic, surprise attack designed to leave Israel mauled as never before.
The 2014 Gaza war was a decisive moment for Israel, not only for the way it was fought by Hamas or reported from Gaza by the international media, but primarily for the potential massacre it inadvertently prevented.
A War Israel Did Not Want
The 2014 Gaza war was a war Israel would have preferred to avoid, did everything it could to limit, and supported all international ceasefire efforts to end, even at the expense of leaving Hamas’ entire military infrastructure in Gaza intact.
It was a war that erupted at a delicate time for Israel: An American-brokered peace initiative between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), the “Kerry Initiative,” effectively ended on May 14, 2014, when, in a move that caught both Israel and the U.S. by surprise, Israel’s negotiating partner, the PA, announced the formation of a national reconciliation government with Hamas, its former antagonist that had usurped power in Gaza by way of a violent military coup in 2007, a demonstrative antithesis to any process related to peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
For the PA, the alliance with Hamas was seen as a way to reestablish itself in Gaza after being ousted by Hamas in a violent takeover in June 2007. Hamas agreed to the reconciliation government in the hope that it would help alleviate the financial crisis it faced in Gaza. As important, the new government legitimized Hamas in the West Bank, where it had long been suppressed.
Very soon Hamas was holding rallies in the West Bank, typified by green flags and anti-Israel rhetoric. At the same time, under the radar, according to authoritative Arab affairs commentator Ehud Yaari, Hamas “embarked on a significant effort to stage terrorist operations against Israel from the West Bank in the hope of destabilizing the PA and disrupting its security cooperation with Israel.”6
The emergence of Hamas militancy brought with it a rise in violence in the West Bank, including sporadic firing attacks against Israelis and, in Jerusalem, on the seam between east and west, daily assaults on the light rail train service that serves both Arab and Jewish neighborhoods.
Protests and clashes between Arabs and police on the Temple Mount were increasing in volume and violence and were considered potentially explosive. In the north, on the Golan Heights, the appearance of militant jihadist groups in close proximity to Israel’s border with Syria added to the sense of general instability and potential for conflagration.
Though since early June, a steady and persistent rain of rockets fired from Gaza had fallen inside Israeli territory, Israel’s policy remained based on restraint, rather than launching retaliatory air strikes against suspected rocket launchers and other marginal Hamas military infrastructure in Gaza. Israel did not want to inflame the situation in the West Bank and in Jerusalem, or act in a way that potentially could direct jihadist attention away from its goals in Syria to fanning Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians from yet another front.
Moreover, Israel was acutely aware of the complexities of going to battle in Gaza: high population densities, Hamas’ known abuse of civilians and civilian infrastructure for military purposes, and complicated legal and human rights issues inherently bound up with any large-scale war in Gaza. No matter how carefully the conflict was managed, all served as a deterrent in the minds of Israel’s policymakers. The heads of the security community, in particular, were of the unanimous opinion that the rocket threat from Gaza should be contained and “managed” rather than dealt with offensively and on a large scale.
The assessment in Israel was that after the peace talks failed, the rockets were Hamas’ way of trying to attain parity with the PA in the new reconciliation government declared by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Hamas linked its attacks to its demand that Israel lift the limitations on goods allowed into Gaza imposed after Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, and made all the more painful with the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood’s supportive regime in Egypt in the summer of 2013.
Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, closed hundreds of the tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border, which had for years allowed for the free flow of goods and weapons into Gaza, and which were a source of revenue for Hamas through the taxes it imposed on tunnel operators.7
The loss of income from tunnel taxes compounded Hamas’ precarious financial situation and left it unable to pay the 42,000 civil servants it had appointed to replace those loyal to the PA who, ironically, continued to receive their salaries from the West Bank.8 Unemployment in Gaza was 46 percent (58 percent for those of working age under 30), and per capita GDP less than half of that in the West Bank, with the average around $4 per day.9
These economic realities, combined with Hamas’ brutality toward those who did not abide by its strict Islamic code and bitterness over the visibly opulent lifestyles of the Hamas elite, led to major internal resentment mounting against the regime. It became critical for Hamas to change the dynamic it found itself in, leading to its sporadic rocket fire against Israel and the attempts to use the tunnels to kidnap hostages back into Gaza in late 2013 and again toward the summer of 2014.
The dynamic took on a new dimension when on the night of June 12, 2014, Hamas operatives in the West Bank kidnapped three Israeli teenagers after enticing them into a car at a bus stop outside the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut in the Gush Etzion bloc. The plan was orchestrated and designed by a senior Hamas official residing in Turkey who had been deported by Israel in 2010.
In an effort to locate the kidnapped teens and apprehend the perpetrators, the IDF launched Operation Brothers’ Keeper, the largest military deployment in the West Bank since the height of the Second Intifada in 2002. Simultaneously, there was a massive crackdown on Hamas institutions that had begun to spawn in the West Bank, many rekindled by the dozens of convicted terrorists released by Israel and allowed to return to the West Bank as part of the Shalit deal, 51 of whom were re-arrested during the operation.10
The kidnapping and uncertainty over the fate of the three students galvanized Israel in an almost unprecedented way. The televised agony of their families, and the familiar and normative manner in which they came across, struck a chord with the entire nation.
Then, on June 15, when 30,000 Israelis from all walks of life gathered at the Western Wall to pray for the safety of the kidnapped teens, four rockets were fired from Gaza at Ashkelon, an Israeli city north of the Gaza Strip. Two of the missiles that posed threats to populated areas were intercepted by Israel’s recently installed and highly successful Iron Dome anti-rocket system. The other two rockets fell in open areas, causing no damage.
Four days later, on June 19, five members of a Hamas special force unit died when a tunnel they entered in southern Gaza collapsed and smothered them to death.11 It was assumed that the dead were members of a special Hamas unit trained to kidnap Israelis.
Israeli intelligence had warned of an impending attack through a tunnel Hamas had built in the direction of Kibbutz Sufa, at the southern end of the Gaza Strip, planned for late June or July. Israel had bombed the tunnel in the hope of destroying it, and generally believed that the tunnel’s subsequent collapse had thwarted the kidnapping attempt.
The steady chain of events – the formation of the PA-Hamas national reconciliation government, the appearance of al-Qaeda-type units on the northern border, and the continual rocket barrage from Hamas – all crystallized into one contiguous threat in the minds of the Israeli public. This reached a breaking point on June 30, when the bodies of the three teens were found hastily buried in a shallow grave on a piece of land specially purchased for that purpose north of Hebron. It transpired that the kidnappings had been perpetrated by members of the Qawasmeh clan, known for its close affiliation with Hamas, with 15 family members killed in the Second Intifada, nine of whom died as suicide bombers.
Intensity mounted when, on July 2 in Jerusalem, a 16-year-old Palestinian boy, Mohamed Abu Khdeir, was kidnapped and burned alive, his body later found in a Jerusalem forest. On July 6, Israeli police arrested six Jewish suspects, three of whom subsequently admitted to the abduction and murder, motivated, they said, by revenge for the three murdered Israeli teenagers.
The atmosphere in the West Bank became explosive and violent riots erupted in Jerusalem, including on the Temple Mount. But the government again decided to keep its responses to the growing rocket threat as low-key as possible, so as not to create a volatile trans-border situation that could reel out of control.
Between the successes of the Iron Dome system and the relative lack of damage caused by the increasingly regular rocket attacks, given the complexities of mounting a major military operation in Gaza, and despite growing internal criticism for seeming inaction, the Israeli security cabinet, on the strong advice of the military-security establishment, opted to continue a policy of restraint vis-a-vis Gaza. The hope was that ultimately diplomacy would resolve the Gaza issue. “Experience has shown that during moments like these, one must act in a level-headed and responsible manner and not hastily,” Prime Minister Netanyahu said on July 6.12 It was judged that Hamas did not want a full-scale war, but rather tactical gain in terms of its ability to retain support and control in Gaza.
The situation continued to escalate, however. On July 7, an anti-tank RPG was fired at IDF troops along the border fence.13 Later, six Hamas fighters were killed in an explosion in a tunnel under construction in southern Gaza. Hamas and other groups fired a total of 68 rockets on July 7, including an attack on the major southern city of Beersheba.14
Overnight on July 8, Palestinian rockets reached Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Hadera, over 100 kilometers north of Gaza, and Hamas frogmen were intercepted at Zikim, a beach on the Mediterranean coast just north of the Gaza Strip, while trying to infiltrate Israel from the sea.
War with Hamas had become unavoidable and on July 8, in response to the mounting attacks from Gaza, Operation Protective Edge was declared.
The War’s Other Victim: The Truth
Operation Protective Edge escalated into 50 days of conflict during which Hamas and other groups fired 4,258 rockets and countless mortar rounds into Israel. Israel responded with 5,226 air strikes and a limited ground campaign.15 The actual death count in Gaza is still an open question, but has been put at over 2,100 combatants and civilians. Israel suffered 74 dead. Had the Iron Dome system not intercepted 735 rockets fired from Gaza and calculated to be on trajectories toward densely populated areas, the Israeli casualty count would have been incalculably higher.16
The dead and wounded, however, were not the only casualties of this war. Truth was another.
The evidence of Hamas’ war crimes and violations of all accepted humanitarian norms is plentiful and irrefutable, ranging from the placement of headquarters under hospitals,17 tunnel entrances under houses, and rocket launchers in schools, to the storage of weapons in mosques. The list is nearly endless. To cite just one example: in an interview with CBC News on July 30, John Ging, the UN OCHA director, said: “Yes, the armed groups [in Gaza] are firing their rockets into Israel from the vicinity of UN facilities and residential areas, absolutely.”18
Attuned to the international criticism that followed Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9 and the conflict of 2012, and to the complications of fighting an enemy deeply embedded in civilian infrastructure, the Israel Defense Forces had taken unprecedented precautions to limit collateral damage. Israel has strict target-vetting procedures involving legal and other experts, uses high-precision munitions to limit collateral damage, and abides by rules of engagement designed to minimize harm to civilians and civilian property, including special authorizations required for the destruction of buildings and advance warnings to civilians in areas to be targeted.
America’s highest-ranking military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, testified before a forum of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York on November 6, 2014, that Israel had gone to “extraordinary lengths to limit collateral damage and prevent civilian casualties in the Gaza conflict.” He cited the multiple steps Israel had taken to warn civilians to leave areas about to be attacked, even at the expense of forfeiting operational surprise, and said he had dispatched a Pentagon team to study Israel’s actions to “try and limit civilian casualties, to include making it known they were going to destroy a particular structure.”19
Israel had gone to “extraordinary lengths to limit collateral damage and prevent civilian casualties in the Gaza conflict.” – Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, November 6, 2014
U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, praised Israel for its efforts to avoid civilian casualties in Gaza.
This is not the image many have of the war, partly because for 50 days public opinion was fed by Hamas-controlled reportage and footage, skillfully framed to conform to the “victim doctrine.” Casualty figures from dubious sources, with nothing to back them up, were reported as gospel. Few in the international media based in Gaza during the war (or their editors back home) dared challenge the restrictions imposed on them, fearful of reprisal.
A telling indication of just how serious these controls were, however, can be found in a Foreign Press Association statement issued in Jerusalem on August 11, in which the FPA “protests in the strongest terms the blatant, incessant, forceful and unorthodox methods employed by the Hamas authorities and their representatives against visiting international journalists in Gaza over the past month.”20 The statement continued that the international media “cannot be prevented from reporting by means of threats or pressure, thereby denying their readers and viewers an objective picture from the ground.”
In a clear indictment of Hamas’ attempts to control the media, it concluded: “We are also aware that Hamas is trying to put into place a ‘vetting’ procedure that would, in effect, allow for the blacklisting of specific journalists. Such a procedure is vehemently opposed by the FPA.”
The IDF will be the first to admit that, despite all precautions, accidents happen and civilians are inadvertently killed. There are also individual transgressions by lone soldiers, beyond the immediate control of the authorities.
Selective blindness is not a double standard; it is an absence of standards.
To this end, on September 10, in a press conference with the international media, the IDF Military Advocate General’s Corps (MAG) reported on a preliminary military investigation underway into 55 alleged cases of military misconduct, as well as five instances of possible criminal misconduct, including an incident in which at least 16 civilians sheltering in a UN school in Beit Hanoun were killed, and the death of four boys killed while playing on a Gaza beach.21
And on December 6, the IDF Spokesman announced that on the basis of recommendations by the Fact Finding Assessment Mechanism, an independent legal review committee, eight additional criminal investigations had been initiated, with another 85 cases under review.22
Some human rights groups with a history of anti-Israel bias responded by saying that the IDF could not be trusted to investigate itself. Their reaction, however, ignored the IDF’s strict conformity to international law, the independence and transparency of the military justice system, its cooperative relations with the International Red Cross and multiple agencies of the UN, including UNIFIL, UNTSO, UNDOF and UNRWA among others, as well as the fact that the IDF, like all arms of government, is subject to the judicial supervision of the High Court of Justice, with all issues justiciable, including the conduct of military operations.
Selective blindness is not a double standard; it is an absence of standards. Take the issue of proportionality. Israel is “accused” of suffering “only” 74 fatalities, including 67 soldiers killed in combat. The death toll in Gaza, on the other hand, has been put at over 2,100, including around 500 children, though it is yet to be determined how many of the dead were Hamas operatives, how many died as human shields or of natural causes during the 50 days of war, and the number of casualties that were a result of 875 rockets known to have misfired and landed inside Gaza.23
Anthony Reuben, the head of statistics at BBC News, warned in a report published on August 8 and updated on August 15 that caution was needed with Gaza casualty figures, noting that in the past, the number of its operatives that Hamas initially said were killed ultimately proved to be higher.24
Reuben cited a New York Times analysis, also published in August, which looked at the names of 1,431 casualties and found that “the population most likely to be militants, men ages 20 to 29, is also the most overrepresented in the death toll. They are nine percent of Gaza’s 1.7 million residents, but 34 percent of those killed whose ages were provided.”25 Reuben also noted that three men had been killed to every woman, further indicating that many more of the dead were fighters than indicated by either Hamas or the UN figures published at the time.
The real truth behind these disproportionate numbers, however, is to be found in the totally different attitudes Israel and Hamas hold on the value of human life. Respect for the living and life is a cornerstone of Israel’s national ethos. Hamas worships the cult of death, with suicide bombers and the slaughter of innocent civilians the currency of its thinking.
While Hamas invested its resources in terror tunnels and other instruments of death, Israel, together with the U.S., developed the Iron Dome anti-rocket system. With an accuracy rate of over 90 percent, it successfully intercepted 735 rockets calculated to have been heading for Israeli population centers, out of the 4,258 fired by Hamas during the war. Had all these rockets reached their targets, the Israeli casualty toll would have been incalculably higher than the six rocket-related civilian deaths recorded,26 while there is no telling what the ultimate damage to Israel’s civilian infrastructure would have been.
The lack of symmetry in casualties is also not to be found in the alleged excessive use of force by Israel during the war, but in the fact that while Hamas uses civilians as human shields, Israel developed a comprehensive civil defense and emergency response apparatus at massive cost, which includes a nationwide early-warning system, designated safe areas in all public places, fortified protected rooms built by law in all homes, and evacuation of areas in close proximity to the Gaza border. In addition, all summer camps, weddings, soccer games, and other public events were banned from taking place anywhere within range of Hamas’ rockets.
Asymmetry has many textures, way beyond simple numbers, as was succinctly summed up by Ami Ayalon, former head of the Israel Security Agency, in a July 23 article in the New York Times: “We do not measure ethics and morality by counting dead bodies. The fact that many more Palestinians than Israelis have died does not mean that our cause, or this war, is not just. Many more Germans than Americans died in World War II. Does that mean that Hitler was right and America was wrong?”27
Israel, from past experience, is acutely aware of the complexities of war in Gaza, an area of 360 sq. km., roughly twice the size of Washington, D.C., populated by nearly two million people and 75 percent urbanized. Without diminishing from the nightmarish reality warfare imposed on the Gazan people, consider the 5,226 airstrikes against Hamas targets embedded in civilian infrastructure during the 50-day campaign, and then consider what the casualty rate might have been had Israel been inured to the consequences of war for the civilian population.
The Council of Duplicity
International governmental support for Israel, including throughout the moderate Arab world, was overwhelmingly in Israel’s favor during the war, notwithstanding the anti-Israel demonstrations organized by advocacy groups in Europe and the United States. To the world’s leaders, it was clear which party started the war and which side then protracted the conflict by refusing all international attempts to end it.
There was no ambiguity about which side was deliberately putting innocent civilians at risk, and which side was doing all it could to protect them, which side abided by international conventions in fighting the war, and which side flaunted them.
On July 8, White House Spokesman Josh Earnest strongly condemned “the continuing rocket fire inside Israel and the deliberate targeting of civilians by terrorist organizations in Gaza,” adding that “no country can accept rocket fire aimed at civilians and we support Israel’s right to defend itself against these vicious attacks.”28
On July 8, White House Spokesman Josh Earnest strongly condemned “the continuing rocket fire inside Israel and the deliberate targeting of civilians by terrorist organizations in Gaza….We support Israel’s right to defend itself against these vicious attacks.”
John Baird, the Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister, said that “Israel has every right to defend itself, by itself, from such belligerent acts of terrorism,”29 while UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon “condemn[ed] the recent multiple rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza” and said the “indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas must stop.”30
The EU ambassador to Israel, Lars Faaborg Andersen, expressed “unreserved solidarity” with Israelis;31 British Prime Minister David Cameron “condemned the appalling attacks being carried out by Hamas;”32 German Chancellor Angela Merkel phoned her support to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on July 9 and is quoted as “condemning Hamas’ rocket attacks in the strongest terms;”33 and Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, in a statement, demanded that “Hamas’ murderous rocket attacks on Israeli towns must be stopped immediately.”34
In stark contrast, however, and not unpredictably, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), in a document remarkable for its one-sidedness and pre-judgment, issued the following statement:
On 23 July 2014, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution in which it decided to establish an independent, international commission of inquiry to investigate all violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, particularly in the occupied Gaza Strip, in the context of the military operations conducted since 13 June 2014, and to report to the Council at its twenty-eighth session in March 2015.35
It goes on to “deplore” Israel’s “massive…military operations” and “condemn” Israel “in the strongest terms for the…gross violations of international human rights and fundamental freedoms arising from the Israeli military operations…which has involved disproportionate and indiscriminate attacks…including the targeting of medical and humanitarian personnel, that may amount to international crimes” – and this, but a small taste of the actual document itself, before the investigation into the circumstances surrounding the war had even opened its doors.
The one-sidedness is blatant also in terms of what the resolution does not say: no mention of the thousands of indiscriminate rocket and mortar attacks on Israel, no mention of the psychological terror experienced by Israeli civilians in the wake of the incessant rocket barrages they had been subjected to, no mention of the thousands of Israeli families evacuated from their homes or of the heavy economic damage sustained by Israel as a result of the war, including the forced temporary closure of its international airport and ports as a result of rocket fire.
By specifying that the HRC commission investigate only “those violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, particularly in the occupied Gaza Strip,” the HRC has made it impossible for Israel to cooperate with the commission’s work and thereby grant the predisposed process de-facto legitimacy.
Conversely, Israel agreed to cooperate with the UN Headquarters Board of Inquiry, established by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to investigate the damage to UNRWA and UN facilities during the war and investigate cases in which weapons were found in UN facilities.36 Israel supports the Board’s quest for truth in determining what actually happened at the UN’s facilities during the war, what they were used for prior to the war, and whether there was any collusion by UN employees and Hamas prior to and during the war.
There is no denying the damage the war caused the people of Gaza and their property, but as explicitly shown by satellite photography publicized by the UN itself, almost all of the IDF’s activity was concentrated in those areas of Gaza near the Israeli border, where the entrances to dozens of secret tunnels had been discovered and where Hamas had hidden hundreds of rocket and mortar launchers in civilian infrastructure.
At no stage of the war did Israeli ground forces go deeper than three kilometers into Gaza, and then only to destroy the tunnels and rocket launchers that were discovered. IDF ground forces remained clear of Gaza’s main population centers, even though they, too, contained much of Hamas’ military infrastructure and the underground bunkers from which Hamas’ leadership conducted the war.
While the world was led astray by pictures of destruction from specific sites in Gaza, an analysis of UN satellite photos taken during the war shows that 72 percent of all damaged areas in Gaza were “within two miles of the Israeli border,” many in the Shuja’iya district where Hamas had concentrated and concealed much of its offensive infrastructure.37
The same analysis shows clearly how Israel avoided hitting essential infrastructure in Gaza, while Hamas fired thousands of rockets into Israel indiscriminately aimed at cities with three times the population density of Gaza.
If Israel had so wanted, it could have literally starved Gaza into submission by controlling the access points through which all supplies enter the Gaza Strip from Israel. Despite repeated attacks on the crossing by Hamas and its surrogates, and at great personal risk, Israeli officials facilitated the entry of 5,779 trucks with supplies and 20 million liters of fuel into Gaza during the war.
Over 250 ambulances and 4,000 Palestinians and foreign nationals crossed from Gaza into Israel during Operation Protective Edge, a few for treatment in a hospital Israel had set up adjacent to the Gaza border for this purpose and others for transfer to other hospitals in Israel or abroad. And for the entire duration of the conflict, Israel continued to supply Gaza with electricity, except when power lines were hit and could not be repaired without great risk to repair crews. Israel saw its war as directed against Hamas, not the people of Gaza.
By blinkering itself to the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Hamas leadership against its own people, the UN Human Rights Council is condoning barbarism and encouraging terror. Doing so under the aegis of an international organization supposedly dedicated to protecting human rights makes a mockery of that very concept.
To any objective eye, it is Hamas, not Israel, which should be in the dock of world opinion; it is Hamas, not Israel, which should be the subject of outrage by the plethora of human-rights groups that claim Israel’s conduct of the war was disproportional, while remaining indifferent to the horrendous abuses perpetrated by Hamas against its own people.
To condemn Israel for its conduct of this war while ignoring Hamas’ war crimes and crimes against humanity is tantamount to the encouragement of terror. Wars are never perfect and always ugly. The perversion of the truth that surrounds them, however, is dangerous as well.
It would be easy and cheap to catalogue here the collateral damage caused by Western coalitions in their battles in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and other distant places where thousands of innocent civilians have been the victims of collateral damage, where hospitals and schools were inadvertently destroyed.
Israel, however, is looking for neither comparisons nor excuses for its conduct during Operation Protective Edge. On the contrary, it has welcomed the media and representatives from foreign armies so they can learn from the IDF’s experience about how to limit civilian casualties under impossible circumstances.
The world would be well-served if the UNHRC would do likewise.
It is Hamas, not Israel, which should be in the dock of world opinion; it is Hamas, not Israel, which should be the subject of outrage by human-rights groups. To ignore Hamas’ war crimes and crimes against humanity is to encourage terror.
The End Game
In the first week of August Israel withdrew its ground forces from Gaza. Thirty-two offensive tunnels with multiple entrances and exits had been discovered and destroyed, and the IDF said it had accomplished its mission.38 There had been strong political pressure on the prime minister, including from key ministers within his cabinet, to order the IDF to penetrate deeper into Gaza and even to re-take the entire Gaza Strip, which Israel had unilaterally evacuated a decade before, in 2005, when it forcibly removed 8,000 people from their homes and demolished 21 Jewish communities.
But the thought of taking control of Gaza again was nowhere in the minds of the decision-making echelons in early August, who were focused instead on a strategy of how to end the month-long conflict, not protract it. In the background, as the fighting raged on, there were indications that Hamas was inching toward agreeing to a ceasefire at the Cairo talks, though none of its conditions had been met.
Indeed, it was agreed that a 72-hour temporary ceasefire would begin at midnight on August 10; it was then extended for five days, till midnight of August 18 and, at the request of the Egyptians, it was extended again by 24 hours, to end at midnight on August 19.
Eight hours before the expiration of the August 19 extension, a salvo of rockets was fired at Beersheba and Netivot, a town of 30,000 in southern Israel, and later at Ashkelon, Ashdod, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, some 50 rockets in all.
Initially, the Israeli air force responded against localized targets in the same manner in which the war had been conducted until that point. But Hamas’ August 19 violation of the ceasefire, one of many along a long road of ceasefires it had already broken, led to Israel’s realization that a change of approach was necessary if the conflict was to end.
Clearly, Hamas was using the diplomatic process in Cairo to prolong the war. By making and breaking ceasefires until at least some of its conditions were met, Hamas hoped it would have something tangible to show the people of Gaza for the ruin it had brought on their heads. To do otherwise was tantamount to defeat, which in fact it was.
Shortly before midnight on August 19, the Israeli delegation to the Cairo talks was ordered home.39 That same night, Israeli jets launched two attacks on a three-story building in the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood of Gaza City, the home of the Al-Dalou family, where the IDF had hard intelligence that Mohammed Deif, the commander of Hamas’ military arm and at the top of Israel’s most-wanted list of terrorists for decades, was covertly visiting his family.
The first two missiles, high-precision ordnance with deep penetrative capabilities, failed to detonate. A second attack with three missiles, minutes later, demolished the house and killed Deif’s wife and child; there remains no clear evidence that Deif himself had been killed.40
What Israel signaled by the attack, regardless of whether Deif was dead or alive, was that it had brought the war to the doorstep of Hamas’ leaders; that the strategy of using the people of Gaza as human shields, commandeering their houses, schools, mosques and hospitals and building Hamas command centers beneath them, would no longer keep them safe. The war was now personal and Hamas’ leadership, not its infrastructure, was the target.
Thus, two days later, before dawn on August 21, three of Hamas’ top commanders were killed simultaneously in an airstrike on Rafah in the south of Gaza: Raed Attar, in charge of Hamas’ overall tunnel network, one of the few people who had all the pieces of the puzzle in his head and a close associate of Mohammed Deif; Mohammed Abu Shamalah, commander of the southern Gaza Strip, close associate of Deif and senior member of Hamas’ military command; and Mohammed Barhoum, a Hamas operative of lower rank.41
It was a blow from which Hamas was not to recover, a “tie-breaker,” as Amos Harel, the military editor of Ha’aretz, called it. A part of Hamas’ top military command had now been wiped out; the integrity of its internal security apparatus exposed as irreparably breached; its arsenals depleted, supply routes cut off, and its leadership in disarray, divided, and in fear for their lives.
For Hamas the war was effectively over. It would take another week of violence, however, with Hamas firing 100 rockets a day at Israel and Israel responding with emboldened air force attacks, for the guns to fall silent.
An August 26 statement issued by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry announced that Israeli and Palestinian leaders had reached an open-ended ceasefire agreement, effective at 7 p.m. that evening,42 but not before the war claimed its last Israeli victims, Ze’ev Etzion, 55, and Shahar Melamed, a 43-year-old father of three, when a mortar shell from Gaza fell on Kibbutz Nirim just an hour before the ceasefire was due to take effect.
In reporting on the ceasefire from Jerusalem that day, the New York Times wrote that Hamas had declared victory “even though it had abandoned most of its demands, ultimately accepting an Egyptian-brokered deal that differs little from one proffered on the battle’s seventh day.”43
Had Hamas agreed to the deal on the seventh day of the war, a lot of lives would have been saved and much destruction prevented. Conversely, given the extent of the military infrastructure exposed and destroyed during the days of battle that ensued, who knows how many lives this war may have ultimately saved.
Lessons for the Future
With the appearance of Iron Dome as an effective countermeasure to the Hamas rocket threat in the March 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense, achieving an 86 percent rate then and much improved since, Hamas had to rethink its strategy. Tunnels were embryonic at that stage, used sporadically for localized under-the-border attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians in proximity to the Gaza border.
With the help of expertise, weapons, training, funds, support and encouragement from Iran, Turkey, Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and others, Hamas developed a new strategy with which to hit Israel, the formation of a fighting force with all the elements of a regular army: a hierarchical structure of command divided into six regional brigades with sophisticated command and control capabilities, dedicated specialized units, like frogmen and paragliders, thermal detection equipment, anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, and, above all, 32 attack tunnels, some as deep as 18 meters underground, to hit deep and hard at the enemy – Israel.
Together with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, on the eve of Operation Protective Edge, Hamas’ integrated fighting force in Gaza numbered some 32,000 highly-trained, well-equipped, totally dedicated troops, unlike the fleeing Egyptians or Syrians found chained to their positions in the Yom Kippur War.
In the context of the mission these men were trained for, Hamas’ army in Gaza essentially constituted the largest single concentration of suicide bombers in the world, pieced together over six years at the cost of millions of dollars, for a single act of terror that, like 9/11, the world would never forget.
Things went wrong for Hamas because it underestimated the enemy. It thought Israel would be so deterred by international public opinion that, eventually, it would have to give in to Hamas’ demands. Neither side expected the war to continue for 50 days, Israel initially underestimated the tunnel threat, and Hamas, for all its planning and investment, failed to understand that the shield of victimhood was no longer effective.
The real way to defeat Hamas is not by military strength, because no matter the care taken, there will always be collateral damage in conflict. It is by turning Hamas’ weapon on itself, by making it accountable for its war crimes and its crimes against humanity, and by eventual democratic processes that will allow the people of Gaza to elect a better future for themselves than the reality now imposed on them by Hamas.
To allow Hamas to escape with its crimes is to light the fuse of the next conflict. That is the main message of the 2014 Gaza war and it must be understood if the next round of bloodshed is to be averted.