Operation Update and Strategic Assessment

Operation Protective Edge Brief #6

 Securing a final ceasefire arrangement that will preclude Hamas’s ability to restore its terrorist infrastructure will not be the only major challenge facing Israel the day after OPE. Israel will most likely face mounting international criticism and allegations concerning its military operations in Gaza. This will most likely include a new round of de-legitimizations efforts that might even exceed the post-Cast Lead round.

2014-07-29 by Friends of Israel Initiative

 Operational Update

The 21st day of Operation Protective Edge (OPE) – July 28 – coincided with the Muslim high-holiday of Eid al-Fitr. The past week of OPE has been shaped by: (a) IDF securing its hold on a narrow (1-to-3km) security perimeter into the Gaza Strip and stretching along Israel’s border – a perimeter in which it continues to search-and-destroy the Hamas’s tunnel network and terrorist infrastructure; (b) a series of failed international efforts to establish a ceasefire.

In the past week, Israel’s military forces have remained focused on the principal mission of the OPE, namely to detect all the terror tunnels leading from Gaza Strip into Israel’s territory and to destroy them along with any terrorist infrastructure the troops will discover. In conducting this operation, one of the key operational principles is to safeguard the forces.

Hamas has attempted to obstruct this operation by booby trapping with multiple and huge explosive devices many, if not most, the buildings in the security perimeter before it withdrew. In one incident, three soldiers were killed upon entering a booby-trapped building. Noteworthy, much of the destruction inflicted in these areas is a direct result of explosives that Hamas itself planted. In addition, Hamas has been targeting with sniper and mortar fire the soldiers operating in the security perimeter and along the border. In many cases, Hamas terrorists targeted the soldiers from within civilian and UN facilities, using them as human shields. In one incident, Hamas terrorists ambushed soldiers through a concealed tunnel and attempted to kidnap an Israeli soldier. The attempt was foiled, but in the combat exchange two Israeli soldiers were killed.

The flurry of international diplomacy that picked up with the arrival of both UN Secretary General Ban and US Secretary of State Kerry on July 21 to the region had no direct impact on the operational features of the ongoing hostilities between Israel and Hamas. Only when Secretary Kerry’s proposal for a ceasefire fell through on Friday night (July 25), the concept of “humanitarian pauses” was introduced for the first time. Over the weekend through July 28, Israel effectively ceased initiating land and aerial attacks in the Gaza Strip. The first 12-hour humanitarian pause (Saturday July 26) was honored by all parties. Following pressure of the US and the UN, Israeli unilaterally extended the humanitarian pause, however Hamas repeatedly violated the understanding and continued to fire rockets at Israel and to engage Israeli servicemen in the Gaza Strip. Hamas even violated a humanitarian pause it requested through the good offices of the UN on Sunday, July 27. Following a telephone conversation late that evening between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, the latter committed to restraint and not to initiate attacks on Gaza Strip. This understanding unraveled within less than 24 hours as Hamas launched multiple attacks on Israel – firing mortar fire and 61 mid- and long-range missiles, and staging yet another tunnel attack. Ten Israeli servicemen were killed during the day of Eid al-Fitr: five in the terror tunnel attack and four by mortar fire that has no early warning. In total, and as this report is edited 53 Israeli servicemen were killed throughout OPE.

Consequently, Israel resumed its active military engagement late on July 28 targeting Hamas’s infrastructure and expanded the ground operation into additional neighborhoods surrounding Gaza. In resuming military operations, Prime Minister Netanyahu continues to face considerable domestic – public and political pressure – to continue the military operation and not to heed to international efforts to install a ceasefire. According to opinion polls, a vast majority of the Israeli public (across the political spectrum) support the continuation of the military operation. A not insignificant majority even support a full-fledged and lengthy operation to uproot the Hamas regime.


However in repeated public statements – and as evident in the military operations – Prime Minister Netanyahu remains committed to a limited operation focused on the destruction of Hamas terror tunnels and its reachable terrorist infrastructure. To date, Israeli forces have uncovered 31 terror tunnels leading from the Gaza Strip to Israel, 20 of which have been already thoroughly demolished. IDF is in a position to complete the mission within several days, acknowledging that it might have to demolish the remaining tunnels in very short notice due to international pressure or to the emergence of an agreeable ceasefire.

The humanitarian situation in Gaza continues to deteriorate. Nearly 1,100 people have been killed since the onset of OPE and more than 150,000 people have been displaced. The humanitarian pauses allowed the Palestinians to see much of the destruction, go through the ruins, and discover some 100 bodies. Although Israel permits the transfer of foods, fuel, and medicine into the Gaza Strip, most of the population in Gaza is subject to severe difficulties, including electricity shortages.

Undoubtedly, much of the suffering stems from the continued resort of Hamas’s terrorists to launch attacks from within densely populated areas. The incident at the Beit Hanoun UN School on July 24 resulted in 16 Palestinian fatalities and more than 100 people injured. While IDF is still examining the direct cause of the explosion that claimed so many lives, IDF has already established that Hamas terrorists targeted IDF soldiers with anti-tank rockets within the vicinity of the school and that IDF asked the UN to evacuate the school. IDF has been unable so far to verify that the explosion was a direct cause of Hamas firing of rockets. This tragedy will most likely play a major role in the post-OPE period.

Assessment: The Prospects for Ceasefire following the Debacle of US-led Efforts

Following up on the previous updates, Hamas – from its perspective – continues to benefit from the continued military operations despite the high toll of casualties and considerable damage inflicted by Israel. That even after 21 days of the Israeli military offensive, there is no direct threat to its grip on the Gaza Strip and that it still retains considerable resources to terrorize Israeli citizens, is in itself considered by Hamas’s leadership a huge success. Furthermore, Hamas has successfully generated regional and international sympathy. The US decision to effectively sideline Egypt and embrace the positions of Hamas’s state sponsors – Qatar and Turkey – further emboldens its position and wherewithal. As noted in the previous update, as long as Qatar’s support leads Hamas’s 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 a ceasefire proposal. However, the debacle of the US-led efforts to secure a ceasefire by engaging Qatar and Turkey has effectively left Hamas with no viable exit strategy. As Saudi Arabia moderately enhances its involvement, it seems that the Egyptian track is back and might yield a ceasefire arrangement in the coming days.

The US strategy to secure a ceasefire as soon as possible led it to embrace the direct involvement of Qatar and Turkey. The fierce opposition of Hamas to the Egyptian proposal and the apparently coordinated efforts of Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and Israel to take advantage of the day-after the operation to weaken Hamas’s hold in Gaza, led the US to lose its patience in belief that the Egyptian track will not yield a ceasefire. The US believed that by engaging Qatar and Turkey, whom wield influence over Hamas, it has a better chance in securing a swift ceasefire. In so doing however, US officials were willing to go “the extra mile” to accommodate Hamas and effectively (if not deliberately) secure Hamas’s continued grip on Gaza. The US however, underestimated the fury it would encounter from all of its other allies in the region, including Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.


To put the record straight and in contrary to trivialized media reports, it is important to note however, that the US draft communicated to the Israeli government on July 25 did not preclude Israel’s continued operation to destruct the tunnel network even under a ceasefire. The draft proposal referred to “conducting any security of military targeting of each other.” However, the Israeli government, as its Egyptian counterparts, was infuriated that the US actually held Israel on par with the Hamas, did not acknowledge any role for the Palestinian Authority, downgraded Egypt’s role (to inviting the parties to negotiate), upgraded the standing of Qatar and Turkey, and recognized the legitimacy of Hamas demands. From an Israeli perspective, the document was telling in the sense that it listed Hamas demanded items to be on the ceasefire agenda, but failed to list those required by Israel, namely the disarmament of Hamas and Palestinian factions in Gaza Strip. The draft proposal was unanimously rejected by the Israeli cabinet.

The follow-up informal international meeting of sorts convened in Paris on July 27 further enraged Israel and US allies in the Middle East. At the invitation of Secretary Kerry, the foreign ministers of several European countries together with the foreign ministers of Qatar and Turkey met at the French foreign ministry and at the US Ambassador’s residence. President Abbas later stated that he declined the US invitation because Egypt was not invited. At best, it was an odd meeting that produced no results, short of a series of photo-ops featuring Secretary Kerry casually strolling in the garden of the US Ambassador’s residence together with his Qatari and Turkish counterparts.

Secretary Kerry’s public embrace of Qatar and Turkey – starting with the draft Friday ceasefire proposal and culminating in the Paris meeting – created a rift between Israel and the US. Not only did it frustrate any possibility of reaching a ceasefire arrangement that would effectively check Hamas’s power and influence, it elevated the standing of two Israeli adversaries. Turkish Prime Minister (and presidential hopeful) Erdogan took every public opportunity to slander Israel to the point of alleging that Israeli actions in Gaza acceded the brutality of Nazi Germany. In addition, Qatar is considered by Israel and many others in the region as the bankroller of Hamas’s terrorist infrastructure. Israeli politicians and commentators (including several well-known critics of the Netanyahu government) harshly criticized Secretary Kerry’s conduct. The US, on its part, made it publicly clear that it was offended by the Israeli allegations. In attempt to contain the crisis, Israel’s Ambassador to the US publicly stated that Israel has full confidence in Secretary Kerry and appreciates his efforts.


Taking into consideration Israeli criticism, Secretary Kerry stated on July 28 that any ceasefire arrangement would allow Israel to pursue and continue the destruction of the terror tunnel network. In his public remarks, he reiterated his commitment to remain engaged in securing a ceasefire and alluded to a possible ceasefire formula in which Israel would continue destructing tunnels while Egypt and Israel would ease the restrictions on the crossings and permit greater access of food and medicine into Gaza Strip.

With the failure of the US-led effort to secure a ceasefire via Qatar and Turkey, it now appears that Saudi Arabia is becoming more engaged in resolving the crisis. The Saudi King hosted on July 24 the Qatari Emir for their first meeting since Saudi Arabia removed its ambassador (along with several other GCC members) from Doha. Much did not publicly emerge from the meeting, however the Saudi decision to release a photo depicting the Saudi monarch hosting by his side the Emir of Qatar indicated that Saudi Arabia was attempting to improve their relations and cordially seek Qatari support for Egypt’s role in resolving the conflict. The Saudi cordial approach however, did not yield any substantial results, particularly since the US sought to embrace Qatar and offer it a major role in resolving the crisis.

In an interesting turn of events, Palestinian President Abbas flew to Saudi Arabia on the day of Eid al-Fitr, July 28, to meet with the Saudi King. Sending a clear message to Qatar, Saudi Arabia committed USD 500 million to rebuilding Gaza and providing medical equipment. The Saudi pledge seems to have topped Qatari equivalent pledge. Furthermore, and shortly after the meeting held in Jeddah, Palestinian officials announced that a joint Palestinian delegation comprising of representatives of Fatah, Hamas, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad would arrive later in the week to Cairo to hold talks on a ceasefire proposal. While it is too early judge, these events might indicate that Saudi Arabia has stepped up its pressure on Qatar and is exerting its influence to resolve the crisis through the Egyptian track.

As these developments might herald long-anticipated effective negotiations on a ceasefire framework, the agreement on setting up a joint delegation might indicate a certain compromise among the Palestinian factions – mainly between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. This might curtail Israeli and Egyptian ambitions to leverage the ceasefire agreement to weaken Hamas grip on Gaza and to install arrangements and guarantees that will effectively disable Hamas to restore its stockpile of rockets and mortars and to rebuild its terror tunnels. To that end, Prime Minister Netanyahu has stated (July 28) that Israel will demand in any final ceasefire arrangement the establishment of effective measures that will monitor the use of funds and materiel entering Gaza Strip so that the Hamas will not be able to use these resources to rebuild its terrorist infrastructure. For instance, as the international community will wish rightfully to ship cement and other construction materials to Gaza for civilian reconstruction purposes, it will be necessary to guarantee that these materials will not be used to dig and rebuild terror tunnels.

Securing a final ceasefire arrangement that will preclude Hamas’s ability to restore its terrorist infrastructure will not be the only major challenge facing Israel the day after OPE. Israel will most likely face mounting international criticism and allegations concerning its military operations in Gaza. This will most likely include a new round of de-legitimizations efforts that might even exceed the post-Cast Lead round.

The tragedy at the Beit Hanoun UN School, dubbed by the international media as a massacre, has become a focal point for accusations that Israeli forces have committed war crimes. Referring to the incident as an “outrageous crime”, UN Secretary General Ban noted on July 28: “Ongoing hostilities have prevented establishing conclusive responsibility.” He added however a highly problematic assertion: “Indeed, there must be accountability and justice for crimes committed by all sides.” Not only did Secretary General Ban equate Hamas’s terrorist activities with IDF’s operations, he baselessly stated that IDF forces had in fact committed war crimes, should be held accountable, and brought to justice. Even during the 2009 Operation Cast Lead no senior international official publicly leveled such accusations at Israel. The gathering storm could potentially be even more vitriolic than the international campaign Israel faced following Operation Cast Lead.


Learning from the lessons of Operation Cast Lead and to withstand international legal scrutiny, IDF has been careful to document the operations and has set up investigating teams that operate alongside the combatants and collect evidence. This however may not suffice. The UNHRC decision to establish an international commission of inquiry (July 23) on human rights and international law violations will most likely be championed by the Palestinian Authority as a political leverage against the Israeli government. President Abbas took upon himself to secure the funding for the commission of inquiry and obtained Saudi Arabia’s commitment to fund the inquiry (July 28).


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