By: Dr. Johnny Mansour* (Exclusively for al-Zaytouna Centre).
First: Assessment of the Harmony Between the Two Establishments and Their Handling of Gaza Strip:
As many know, the political and military establishments in Israel are in harmony over most military operations and battles waged by Israel from time to time.
Firstly, Harmony here means developing war plans in accordance with the goals set by the government, that is, the political level, plans that are discussed on the basis of military considerations with army commanders.
Secondly, these plans are sold to the Israeli public in cooperation with all media outlets in Israel.
Thirdly, the military operation is then continuously propagandized, before, during, then after the military operation, by using military and political analysts who sit around the same table.
The above confirms to us the extent of convergence between the political and military levels, especially as regards the war on Gaza Strip (GS) in July 2014. But the harmony between the two levels is not quite sustainable, especially since the military establishment operates on the ground rather than in comfortable offices like the ones politicians and decision-makers sit in. In other words, the army fights the Palestinian resistance on the battlefield based on intelligence assessments and naturally by using military tools.
But the element of surprise was much stronger than all the plans developed by the two levels. To be sure, the Palestinian resistance in GS is not what it was two years ago. There has been a radical improvement in its performance, and its strategic orientations as well as its abilities and tactical skills on the field. This has surprised the Israelis, both at the political and military levels. The military level had a rich list of targets and intelligence that it discussed with the political level, but on the field, things progressed in a completely different manner.
What the Netanyahu government wanted out of its GS war, as evident from its “stated” goals,” is to restore calm to the Israeli communities living in the Western and Central Negev and the areas surrounding GS. The Israeli army had to do everything it could to achieve this goal. However, the central objective was to destroy the Palestinian resistance at any cost, to impose the Israeli political agenda on Palestinian leaders and push them into making more concessions related to territory and other issues in favor of Israel and its expansionist schemes.
The government of Israel considers GS an area that harbors “terrorists,” as it calls the resistance. Therefore, GS poses a threat to its settlements in the areas nearby. The Israeli government sees GS as a curse that must be disposed of. But what Israel needed was the pretext to do so – bearing in mind that it is very good at fabricating justifications for its attacks.
Thus, Israel used the tunnels as a pretext, alleging that they were an existential threat. Israel insisted on destroying the tunnels at any cost, and even during talks for de-escalation and a truce, Israel has insisted on making the issue of destroying the tunnels outside any deal. But Israel has known of the tunnels’ existence for a long time, and this is no secret. In effect, the tunnel network covers the entire GS, and destroying it means destroying all of GS, figuratively.
However, this is exactly what Israel has proceeded to do, at least in the eastern parts of GS that are adjacent to the border with Israel. Israel wanted to create a no man’s land after destroying thousands of homes and bulldozing the ground as part of an attempt to prevent any Palestinian activities in this area. However, this area, even after it has been emptied of all Palestinians, will still not guarantee security and stability for the people of the settlements surrounding GS.
Second: Impact of War on Decision-Making in Israel:
The ability of Palestinian resistance to hold its ground in GS for a long time had not been expected by the political and military levels in Israel. As a result, all cards in political forums in Israel have been reshuffled, especially among decision makers.
The Israeli inner security cabinet, which comprises the prime minister, the defense minister, the foreign minister, and other ministers in the government coalition, has split among into two camps: one led by Netanyahu and the defense minister, and the second led by Lieberman the Israeli foreign minister, and the Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor Bennett from the Jewish Home Party. This means an internal struggle in the cabinet between the right (Netanyahu and Likud) and the far right (Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu party, and the Jewish Home party). Also, the Netanyahu government is divided in essence but has so far been trying not to display this publicly, albeit the day will come when everything will come out in the open. Netanyahu does not want to expand the military operation beyond what was planned in advance, but he is the hostage of two extremist rightwing parties that want the Israeli army to reoccupy GS and eliminate the resistance.
During the course of the GS war and afterwards, due to “Gaza’s curse,” cracks began to appear and more will appear in coalition government. These cracks will widen and swords will be drawn among the members of the political parties that make up the coalition. This could lead to the collapse of the government and a call for an early general election, or to the extremist right wing opposition impeding the work of the Israeli government.
Third: To What Extent Does This War Serve External Agendas, such as the Bid of the Palestinian Authority (Abu Mazen) to Retake GS, and the Regional Bid to Defeat Political Islam?
There is no doubt that the GS war is part of the bid to liquidate Islamist movements in the region, including those in Palestine. Egypt is playing a central role in this regard. Under Sisi, Egypt is seeking to eliminate “political Islam” represented by the Muslim Brothers (MB) movement, and crack down on Hamas as a branch of it. Indeed, liquidating or undermining “political Islam” would help guarantee the survival of the new regime in Egypt, and subsequently, the survival of political relations and joint interests between Israel and the Egyptian regime. It would also guarantee keeping “political Islam” away from the government in Egypt and neighboring countries. This means that Egypt wants a surrounding free of “political Islam” like the MB movement, which is in line with the Israeli vision opposed to “political Islam,” something that Israel considers a fierce adversary and a future threat.
Regarding the return of the Palestinian Authority (PA) to GS, this is a given on account of the national unity agreed by the Palestinian factions with Egyptian sponsorship. This led to al-Shati’ Agreement between Fatah and Hamas on 23/4/2014, where Hamas agreed to enter into a national reconciliation government led by Rami Hamdallah, who is affiliated to the PA in Ramallah.
The Israeli side prefers that the PA runs GS, under the supervision of Mahmud ‘Abbas, and so do regional and international actors. For one thing, ‘Abbas is committed to the peace process, and has renounced armed resistance. However, he realizes that resistance forces will not hand over GS to him except under guarantees that he would not seek to disarm the resistance, and that he would build a national partnership when it comes to running the national Palestinian project at home and abroad, and not just in GS. Abu Mazen also realizes that he could be drawn into a bitter internal dispute if he embraces the policy to attack “political Islam” or disarm the resistance.
Fourth: Forecasts for the Possible Future Course of Events:
1) One of the expected tracks following the end of the Israeli aggression is the partial lifting of the blockade, with the crossings opened for longer period of times, and allowing limited numbers of Palestinians to cross into Israel to work, trade, or seek treatment. But this does not mean that the blockade will be lifted completely, because if this were to be done, then it would discredit Israel’s claim to its people that the blockade was meant to defend the home front, and ensure their safety and security.
2) There will be an opportunity to reactivate the GS seaport under tight conditions, which means expanding the area open to fishing without reaching the full extent of the territorial waters. However, it is unlikely that Israel would allow in the near term the reopening and reactivation of the Yasir ‘Arafat airport in GS.
3) Resistance movements, especially Hamas, will not be disarmed in the foreseeable future. Israel wants GS to become a demilitarized zone. The resistance will be able to preserve one of its most important achievements by retaining its arms as part of the process of providing security for the Strip. Israel and some regional and international powers may try to feed the fears of Abu Mazen and the PA leadership regarding the weapons of the resistance, and push the PA to take control of these weapons, even if gradually. This would be under the pretext of the PA’s legitimacy, right to monopolize power, and right not to be implicated… as had been done previously in the WB.
4) Weeks of aggression will cast a heavy shadow and have serious implications on Netanyahu’s government. By Israel’s admission, three Israeli soldiers are being killed on average each day. In addition, the Israeli public is not able to cope with the state of emergency for sustained periods, contrary to the claims made by the media regarding their fortitude. This is something that Netanyahu and his party would pay the price for essentially. Daggers will be brandished by his opponents within Likud and the government coalition, especially by far-right parties like Yisrael Beiteinu and the Jewish Home. Netanyahu’s exit from the war will not be the same as his entry, at the level of his status and popularity. Israel, both as a state and as an army, is fighting Gaza the city and other adjacent cities. In other words, the Israeli army is not fighting another regular army, and yet, this army could not settle the war in its favor in the first few days as required by the theory of air war meant to subjugate the resistance and force it to surrender. This is a failure.
5) Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the areas it raided in GS without reaching an official agreement with Hamas carries strong indications that Netanyahu insists on not directly negotiating with Hamas so that this would not be seen as recognition of the group. However, Hamas itself rejects direct negotiations with Israel, and refuses in principle to recognize Israel.
In addition, some see the Israeli withdrawal as backtracking from Netanyahu’s repeated statements about restoring Israel’s deterrence, when in reality, this will not improve Israel’s deterrence at all. This confirms Israel’s realization, at both the political and military levels, that the Israeli deterrence has been undermined. If this goal is not achieved through this war on GS, it will mean the victory of resistance over Israel. Israel’s deterrence is considered a benchmark of the Israeli public confidence in the government and the army, and if lost, it would mean the defeat and failure of the Israeli government.
6) There are voices in Israel calling for an internal commission of inquiry to study failures and draw conclusions and lessons, including one to investigate the performance of the Israeli political and military establishments. Such commissions of inquiry are not new to Israel and therefore it is not unlikely that they would be established.
7) At the international level, Israel has acted like a state above the law, not subject to punishment and accountability. Thus, Israel went too far in its aggression on civilians and civilian infrastructure. The reason is that the cover provided by the United States and Western powers reassures Israel, and its history has always shown it to evade any international sanctions.
8) On the other hand, this war will not leave a profound impact on the public status of the Israeli army. The army leadership and political leadership are at pains to stress that the army is the “family” for Israelis. This social concept renders the military system an integral part of everyday life that dominates the activities and even thinking of the Israeli people. This falls under the theory of “everyone is a soldier” promoted by the political and military leaders of Israel. This means that the Israeli society, and since the establishment of Israel, nay since the beginning of the project of a Jewish state, is a community based on purely militaristic grounds. Military life thus accompanies the Israelis in every activity and move they make. In practice, this kind of identification with the army, promoted further by the Netanyahu government, has made Israelis believe that without their army, they are moving to perdition. Identification here does not mean just solidarity, but being fully behind every step made by the army.
Netanyahu might take advantage of the status of the army as a cover to ensure the continuity of his political life, by underscoring the importance of the military’s role in preserving the state of Israel, and underscoring the fact that the military is above all other consideration, and that he has worked in coordination with the army. But in Israel, politics take its course differently in peacetime. That is, the opponents of Netanyahu who supported him in the war may not continue to do so afterwards.
9) Notwithstanding the foregoing, Netanyahu will face many obstacles in his political career. It will not be easy for him to overcome these hurdles. Many voices began to rise in the last days before the unilateral announcement of a cessation of hostilities, criticizing the failure of the Israeli side to deal with the tunnels, rockets, and weapons of the resistance, and especially the failure of the intelligence services at all levels to unveil exactly what is going on in GS in detail. This was surprising for Israel and an aspect that war planners did not anticipate. The question remains: how will Netanyahu pay the price?
It seems that giving the Israeli army more time to carry out more strikes and destruction in GS at will, will mean that the resistance does not have to abide by any truce, and would continue launching rockets and mortar shells at Israeli settlements. This situation will create intense and continuous tension, and would lead to more killing and destruction in GS, harming its civilian population essentially. At the same time, settlers and Israelis around GS will not have any calm, and Netanyahu will be asked to pay a political price for his decision, and for failing to settle the battle and enforce GS’s surrender.
10) The assault on GS and the strong performance of the resistance has created an outstanding opportunity to put the Palestinian political house in order, and deal with the resistance as being a political leverage for Palestinian action. It can also be a tool in the hands of the Palestinian decision-makers to achieve political and popular gains in the face of the Israeli occupation.
⃰ Dr. Johnny Mansour is a historian and a lecturer at the History Department of Beit Berl Academic College, deputy director of Mar Elias College in the Galilee.
Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, 11/8/2014