War without end in Gaza: Why Israeli army is battling the government

Why We Wrote This

Civilian control over the military is essential in democracy, but what happens when the military’s expertise is ignored for political reasons? The Israeli military’s frustration over the costly Gaza conflict is coming to the surface.

Amir Cohen/Reuters
Israelis in the southern city of Ashkelon take cover as a siren sounds a warning of incoming rockets from Gaza during cross-border hostilities May 5.

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The burst of fighting between Israel and Hamas, the most intense since 2014, left 29 people dead, 25 in Gaza and four in Israel. “Until the Next Round” read a headline Tuesday in a leading Israeli daily, summing up post-cease-fire sentiment on both sides: The quiet will only be temporary.

Often obscured by that feeling of inevitability is a dispute between Israel’s military and political leaders over how to halt the Gaza rocket attacks. Army officials have repeatedly made the case that the best strategy includes easing the Israeli blockade that has crippled Gaza’s economy and left it near a humanitarian collapse.

Their approach, however, has been consistently rebuffed by the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose allies fear concessions will be seen as giving in to terrorism. On Monday, the military’s frustration burst into the open. At a press briefing, an army official said fighting could resume within days if Israel did not ease conditions in Gaza soon.

“We are in the worst kind of situation in which there are sane people inside the government who cannot put into action sane policies because of political considerations,” says Shlomo Brom, a researcher and retired general.

It’s being described now as Israel’s longest war of attrition.

Israel and Hamas, the militant Islamic group that has controlled Gaza since 2007, have been locked in conflict, punctuated with outbursts of violence, for more than a decade now.

Within 48 hours this weekend, Israeli television reports lurched from updates on incoming rocket barrages that kept tens of thousands inside bomb shelters, to images of black smoke floating over the Gaza Strip from retaliatory bombings, to announcements of a cease-fire.

The burst of fighting, the most intense since the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, left 29 people dead – 25 in Gaza, both militants and civilians, including children; and four civilians in Israel.

Even before the cease-fire was called and it was considered safe to be outside, the first funerals were held, thronged by large crowds of mourners.

“Until the Next Round” read a headline Tuesday in the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot, efficiently summing up the sentiment on both sides: The quiet between Gaza and Israel will only be temporary. Many are suggesting this lull might be an especially short one.

Yet often obscured by the bellicose statements and feeling of inevitability that hangs over both sides is a long-running dispute in Israel between the military and intelligence establishment and the political echelon over how to halt the rocket attacks from Gaza.

Top army officials have repeatedly made their case that the best strategy is to ease the situation on the ground in Gaza while still maintaining military deterrence. That means, they say, responding to the rocket fire, but also significantly easing the blockade Israel imposed on Gaza in 2007 that has crippled its economy and left it on the precipice of a humanitarian collapse.

If Gaza continues to suffer, the security officials argue, so will Israel.

The military’s approach, however, has been consistently rebuffed by the increasingly right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose coalition partners fear that any concessions to Hamas will be seen by the voters who just reelected them last month as giving in to terrorism. The Netanyahu government has already come under withering criticism for agreeing to the latest cease-fire too quickly.

Frustration goes public

But on Monday, the military’s frustration with its political masters burst uncharacteristically into the open. At a press briefing with Israeli military affairs reporters, an army official named only as an “unidentified security source” criticized the government, saying fighting could break out again within days if Israel did not ease conditions in Gaza soon, and urging diplomatic efforts to make that happen.

Army officials, in remarks in the same briefing that contradicted comments by government members, said the army was ordered to “achieve the necessary operational goals” before Israel’s Independence Day, which starts Wednesday evening, and before Israel hosts the high-profile Eurovision Song Contest, which starts in Tel Aviv next week.

Meanwhile the Israeli blockade has all but smothered Gaza’s economy. Conditions in the narrow sandy strip of 2 million people are dire, with shortages of electricity, food, medical supplies, and hope.

For the past year there have been weekly marches to Israel’s border area with Gaza by Palestinian protesters trying to draw attention to how difficult life has become inside. Scores have died in face-offs with Israeli forces.

From the military’s standpoint, that reality has to change.

Mohammed Salem/Reuters
Palestinian students are seen inside their damaged school next to a building destroyed by Israeli airstrikes in Gaza City May 7.

“I am completely frustrated because we are in the worst kind of situation in which there are sane people inside the government who cannot put into action sane policies because of political considerations,” says Shlomo Brom, a retired general who has served as the director of the army’s strategic planning and is now a senior research associate at the independent Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv.

In the past, there would at least be one or two voices within Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet voicing support for economic development, but no longer.

The view from the base

“The perceived view of [Mr. Netanyahu’s] political base is that they essentially are not interested in betterment of the humanitarian or economic situation in Gaza,” says Eran Etzion, former deputy director of Israel’s National Security Council. “They have a deep sense of victimhood and even a desire for vengeance among some, and understandably so – it’s not easy living under rocket fire, and addressing it is not an easy task for a far right-wing politician.”

Mr. Netanyahu built his career in part on saying “that we are the victims and the Gazans are the bad guys [for electing Hamas],” says Mr. Etzion. “So it’s hard to explain now why they should care for or take care of the Gazans. ... There’s a great degree of desperation and apathy vis-à-vis the Palestinian issue in general. The rocket firing from Gaza has gone on for the last 18 years, and people have basically become numb about Palestinians.”

Most Israelis view the country’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 as the end of Israel’s control of the overcrowded strip of land wedged between Israel and Egypt. They also tend to underplay the impact of the blockade and Israel’s ongoing control of Gaza’s borders, seafront, and airspace on Gaza’s high levels of unemployment and poverty.

This is the political narrative that the security establishment is up against, but as advisers who are charged with making assessments regardless of political factors, they see a deteriorating situation that needs to be addressed.

“So they are looking for ways to optimize the system, if you will, and the way to do it is to apply military pressure on the so called rogue organizations and differentiate between terrorists and innocent civilians,” says Mr. Etzion. What the military is advocating, he says, is to build “a system of carrots and sticks with both segments in the interest of stabilization.”

What Hamas wants, says Khalil Shikaki, a political scientist and director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, is to build up a political economy again in Gaza. “This would give them the ability to properly govern Gaza, to provide jobs, to have exports and imports,” he says.

Specifically, Mr. Shikaki says, Hamas wants “to see some fundamental changes in the Israeli position that would for example let it gain access to cement, iron, or wood that Israel is refusing to allow into Gaza. They want access to a seaport, to an airport, so they can access exports to markets, and they want the ability to travel.”

The Hamas strategy

It’s a tricky game, blocked from all sides – including Hamas’ own Palestinian rivals in the West Bank, Fatah, who want to keep Hamas in a place of economic dependence. Currently the only official way for goods to get in or out of Gaza is through the border crossing with Israel, which wants to ensure it is not smuggling arms or bringing in materials that could be used to create weapons or more attack tunnels under the border.

But, argues Kobi Michael, a senior researcher at the INSS, Hamas is seeing their low-intensity warfare strategy work. After rockets were fired in a recent round of fighting, Israel green-lighted an increase of funds from Qatar to Gaza, enlarged the fishing zone for Gaza fishermen, and approved additional civilian relief. It was Israel’s alleged foot-dragging on delivering these steps that is said to have contributed to this week’s fighting.

“Hamas is setting the rules of the game, they are composing the music, and at least for now seeing some real achievements,” Mr. Michael says.

Tania Hary, executive director of Gisha, an Israeli nonprofit that advocates for freedom of movement of Palestinians, especially Gaza residents, sees the Israeli government’s lack of a cohesive policy as reflective of Mr. Netanyahu’s preference for managing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather than solving it.

But this, she argues, is treading water between dangerous eruptions – ones that can easily spiral beyond what Israel or Hamas intends.

“What has characterized the last year is people [in Gaza] have lost hope. In the past people thought that reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, negotiations, or the United States or the international community might help. But things have now crystalized that no one is coming – no one is looking out for their interests.”

Waiting for ‘deal of the century’

Analysts say Mr. Netanyahu’s approach to Gaza should be seen within what they say is his wider strategy to eliminate the prospect of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mr. Netanyahu does not appear to want to end Hamas rule in Gaza since it helps Israel avoid peacemaking measures that could pose political and security risks, analysts say.

When the Muslim holy month of Ramadan ends in June, President Donald Trump is expected to unveil his long-awaited Middle East plan.

Eran Zinger, Arab affairs correspondent for Israel’s Kaan network, says he hopes it contains financial investment in Gaza and a road map to make Hamas accountable for an economically thriving Gaza. In a similar way, Hezbollah feels accountable for the welfare of Lebanon, he argues, which has seemed to be a powerful deterrent against attacking Israel.

“Hamas currently feels it has nothing to lose by attacking Israel” – a dangerous prospect for an Israel whose front against Hamas is its civilians.

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