It Isn't About the Tunnels. So What Is the Gaza Conflict Really About?


(AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

Smoke from flares rises in the sky in Gaza City, in the northern Gaza Strip, Thursday, July 17, 2014.

Update: August 8, 4:00 p.m. Israel time (9 a.m. EDT): Hopes for an end to the Gaza War evaporated after indirect Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in Cairo stalled. Hamas rejected an extension of the three-day ceasefire that began on Tuesday. Moments after the ceasefire ended, rocket fire from Gaza into Israel resumed this morning. Israeli artillery fire and air strikes followed, and the Israeli negotiators left Cairo.


At four o'clock after the war—which is to say, 4 p.m. Tuesday—a Hebrew news site carried a telegraphic bulletin: The head of the Israeli army's Southern Command announced that residents of the area bordering Gaza could return to their homes and feel safe. The reassuring message was undercut by the bulletin that appeared on the same site one minute earlier: "IDF assessment: Hamas still has at least two to three tunnels reaching into Israel."

At the end, if Gaza War of 2014 has ended, if the ceasefire holds, it was about tunnels—some as deep as forty meters (130 feet) below the surface, dug from inside the Gaza Strip and reaching hundreds of meters into Israel, into farming villages and to the edge of the town of Sderot —tunnels from which Hamas fighters could suddenly surface to attack civilians or soldiers. To be precise, this is how the war is most immediately remembered in Israel: as an offensive aimed at removing the subterranean threat. In the rubble of Gaza, where nearly 1,900 people were killed by Israeli fire, where 460,000 are homeless, the presumed purpose of the war will surely be remembered very differently.

Let's return, though, to the Israeli perception: People remember backwards, viewing earlier events through the lens of later ones. The Israeli government's announced goal in fighting since the ground invasion of Gaza on July 17 was finding and destroying attack tunnels. This, therefore, is remembered as an original purpose of the war. A friend, left of center politically, asked me the afternoon after the war why Israel had earlier accepted an Egyptian proposal for a ceasefire that was set to start before the ground invasion, since the government obviously knew it would need to invade Gaza to get rid of the tunnels.

But the crisis wasn't about tunnels when it started. The Israeli government's tactical goals shifted repeatedly. At no point, it appears, has Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a strategic political vision. Yet the story of the tunnels leads inevitably to the need for a political resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The crisis started with the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers by a Palestinian cell in early June. Reacting with a roundup of Hamas activists, Netanyahu's goal was to cripple the Islamic organization in the West Bank and to discredit Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's new unity government, which had Hamas support.

That's when Palestinian factions in Gaza—first Hamas's more radical rivals, then Hamas itself—broke a semi-armistice and began launching rockets at Israeli cities. Israel's Operation Protective Edge began an air offensive, aimed at stopping the rocket fire. Only after Hamas rejected the Egyptian ceasefire proposal and a squad of gunmen surfaced from a tunnel in Israeli territory did the government order the invasion. From that point the central goal was to eliminate the tunnels.



Put differently, the army and government only upgraded the status of tunnels as a threat in the midst of the war. The complacence until then was a major military blunder. It has been eight years since Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was taken captive by Palestinian gunmen who surfaced from a tunnel behind Israeli lines near Gaza. In the couple of years, the Israeli army twice discovered attack tunnels.

Actually, there have been discussions within the Defense Ministry for a decade on developing defensive technology to detect tunnels. Geophysicist Yossi Langotsky, an ex-colonel, wrote this week that as an adviser to the general staff in 2005, he proposed building a "fence" of seismic sensors around Gaza that would have identified underground passages. Army sources quoted in the media claim that detection methods have been tried and failed. But from the information available to the public, the main reasons for failure are underinvestment and neglect.

Given the success of Iron Dome, Israel's anti-missile system, failure to put similar effort into underground defenses seems surprising. But the generals didn't want to invest in Iron Dome, either. Their objections were overruled by Amir Peretz, who served as defense minister in 2006-2007. Peretz was the rare defense chief who hadn't been a general. During the Gaza War, via a cooperative journalist, an unnamed senior officer voiced the same objection to tunnel defenses that nearly stopped Iron Dome: Money is better spent on weapons for offense.

This fits old Israeli military doctrine: A small country must make sure to fight its battles on the enemy's territory. The Gaza War and Iron Dome's success suggest a different idea: In an asymmetric war, defense may be much more valuable than offense.

Any democratic government that chooses to go to war in our time faces a dilemma: In principle, it is committed to international laws meant to reduce harm to civilians. Yet high casualties among its own soldiers will be the most potent cause of domestic criticism. The military means of reducing losses to your own army - such as aerial and artillery bombardment - are likely to cause more civilian deaths, especially when fighting a densely populated area such as Gaza.

For a group like Hamas, the suffering in Gaza translated into political gains: greater support among Palestinians for its uncompromising positions, and harm to Israel's international position and alliances.

To my sorrow, the moral and legal arguments against the way the war was fought in Gaza do not seem to move Netanyahu and his ministers. But the cold strategic argument should make sense: They have damaged the essential assets of support for Israel in the United States and Europe.

Under such circumstances, the better Israel's defenses are, the more capable it should be of avoiding the kind of massive military response that plays into Hamas's hands.



Why has public support for the war been so high in Israel?

I'll give only brief answers. When missiles are being fired at people, when they have between 15 and 90 seconds after the siren starts to reach shelter, they want their government to make it stop. The success of Iron Dome definitely muted this feeling; it couldn't eliminate it.

An American colleague asked me during the war if there were figures on how many Israelis and Palestinians suffer from post-traumatic stress. My immediate answer was, "All of them. The question is how many have trouble functioning because of it." That's on the individual level. On the collective level, both nations function poorly.

For Israelis, explosions—even of rockets intercepted in the air—are reminders of suicide bombings during the Second Intifada and before, of seeing parts of bodies on the street. The outsider can reasonably say that Palestinians, especially in Gaza, have much more reason to be traumatized. This is true. But suffering is like air, like smoke; it expands to fill all the space inside you. The fact that someone elsewhere is more afraid does not reduce your own fear. At the moment of fear, it is very easy to divide the world into those who are with you and those who are against you.

Nonetheless, a leader with political discernment and a strong character might have been able to tell Israel that given its defenses, it could allow itself a much more careful response to the rocket fire from Gaza. Netanyahu was not that leader.

At the moment a war starts, people tend to rally around their government. Think back to America in 2003, when support rose for the invasion of Iraq as  took place. The reaction is much stronger when rockets are fired at you. Later doubts grow. The Israeli protests in 1982 began in earnest weeks into the war, which was much quicker than serious protests in America against the Vietnam War.

I run out of words in trying to express how much I disagree with things done in Gaza in the name of defending Israel, defending me. I believe the large majority of Israelis who supported the war are mistaken. I also think that people from elsewhere who profess not to understand this support suffer from either a shortage of empathy or a surfeit of dogmatism.



Many years ago, Palestinian terror groups hijacked airplanes. Airport security improved, especially in Israel. Terrorists left bombs in shopping bags in Israeli cities. Israelis learned to report every suspicious object, and the police bought robots to disarm bombs.

It was harder to stop suicide bombers, but a fence around Gaza stopped them coming from there. The factions in Gaza responded by firing rockets over the fence. Israelis invented the Iron Dome.

Even before Iron Dome, Palestinian groups in Gaza began building tunnels to go under the fence. Israel may now invest in a way to detect tunnels. In the post-war negotiations, Israel is demanding to demilitarize Gaza, and to make sure that imported cement is used for reconstruction rather than tunnels.

Yet something else, I am very scared to say, will come in place of tunnels, because Gaza is not going away. Neither are the Palestinians of the West Bank. The occupation continues. So will the cycle of attacks and counterattacks and new defenses and new ways to attack, until a political outcome is reached that allows Jews and Palestinians to live in a small piece of land more justly and more peacefully than today.

Hamas's refusal to come to terms with the fact that the Jews are also not going away is an obstacle to such an outcome. But the trauma of the war of Gaza is likely to make more Palestinians regard the word "peace" as obscene.

The war makes a two-state agreement even more difficult to achieve, and even more obviously necessary. Peace between two damaged, angry peoples will not happen without international and especially American involvement. Peace is the only outcome that will make the ground quiet beneath our feet, that will make it safe to be at home.

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