Netanyahu hopes to avoid Gaza ground operation. Why he might order one anyway.
To understand whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intends to send ground troops into Gaza, it might help to scrutinize one of his decisions from this week.
While the Islamic Hamas group pummeled Israel with rockets and took deadly hits from Israeli warplanes, the cabinet announced that it had authorized the army to mobilize 40,000 reservists – a huge force by any measure.
A large operation against Hamas would certainly involve reservists. But when Israel genuinely prepares for military campaigns, it does so quietly, often censoring information about call ups and imposing gag orders on journalists.
Announcements, by contrast, are made when Israel is trying to send a message – to quell Hamas without having to put its own troops at risk. In reality, the army has called up only a few hundred soldiers to date.
In his long political career, Netanyahu has shown little appetite for ground campaigns and for the right reasons. Gaza is a messy place to wage war, with two million people crammed cheek-by-jowl into a tiny space.
But for all his reluctance, the Israeli leader could well find himself ordering an incursion anyway – mainly because there seems to be no effective mediator available to broker a ceasefire.
The latest flare-up with the Islamic group is the worst since 2012. It started with the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teens last month, which Netanyahu blamed on Hamas. Israel responded with a broad sweep of the West Bank that left at least five Palestinians dead.
The tension level rose again when a 16-year-old Palestinian was burned to death on July 2, apparently by Jewish extremists. Hamas began targeting Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities with its long-range rockets – hardware it had been smuggling into Gaza for years.
Though Israel has managed to intercept most of the rockets with its “Iron Dome” missile shield, Netanyahu now faces pressure from hardliners in his coalition to go beyond the airstrikes, which have killed more than 70 people in Gaza. At a cabinet meeting earlier in the week, they urged him to deploy infantry units that can engage Hamas fighters directly and locate the group’s arsenals.
But ground campaigns never go the way they’re planned in Gaza, which Hamas has controlled since 2007. Netanyahu would likely face a domestic backlash if significant numbers of soldiers died in the operation.
If Palestinians died in large numbers, Netanyahu would risk international criticism and further isolation of Israel. The last time Israel invaded Gaza, in 2008, it killed more than 1,400 Palestinians and drew war crimes charges from the U.N.
So for now Netanyahu prefers to continue the air assault on Gaza until Hamas agrees to a long-term ceasefire – like the one the two sides reached after a week of intensive bombardments in late 2012.
The problem is that ceasefires require mediators – Israel and Hamas have no direct channels of communication. And Egypt, which brokered the 2012 truce, seems uninterested.
Egypt shares a border with Gaza and a peace accord with Israel, making it a natural candidate. But recently elected President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi views Hamas as an ally of the Egyptian movement he ousted from government last summer, the Muslim Brotherhood. His regime has been largely antagonistic towards Hamas, shutting down the group’s smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Sinai and restricting the transit of Palestinians at the border.
Other countries, including Turkey, might be willing to step forward. But Israeli military officials believe that only Egypt has the kind of relationship with Israel — and leverage with Hamas – required to broker a deal.
“Hamas wants greater openness at the border and only Egypt can deliver that,” says Itamar Yaar, a retired Israeli colonel who served on Israel’s National Security Council from 2003 to 2008.
“Unless Egypt gets involved, there’s a chance it will be a relatively long operation.”
Yaar predicted that Netanyahu would stick with air strikes as long as Hamas rockets were being deflected. But the longer the bombardments persist, the greater the chances are that one will get through and kill Israelis, raising pressure on Netanyahu to invade Gaza.
For its part, Hamas is unlikely to initiate a ceasefire. The group was in bad shape before the latest round of fighting – so bad that it may have nothing to lose.
Much of Hamas’s revenue had come from taxing the smuggling tunnels. Since Egypt shut them down, the group has had trouble paying the salaries of civil servants and in Gaza. Though the casualties are rising in the Strip, the rocket attacks have at least restored Hamas’s status as a pillar of resistance against Israel.
PHOTO: An Israeli soldier rests atop a tank stationed on a field outside the central Gaza Strip July 10, 2014. REUTERS/Baz Ratner