Israel was on verge of yet another futile war against Gaza last week

Israel’s biggest newspaper has the story. And what will be the global reaction to this? Silence, because after all, if Israel would have attacked Gaza it would have been seen as “defensive” even if white phosphorus was used, like during Operation Cast Lead. This is the Holocaust excuse, used time and time again, and yet many citizens globally simply no longer accept Israeli violence:

When Defense Minister Ehud Barak arrived at the Defense Ministry Headquarters’ meeting room last Saturday, a thick war book titled “Operation South” was already awaiting his approval on his desk. In those hours, Israel was on the verge of embarking on war in the Gaza Strip.

The book did not pertain to a limited operation. The selected targets would have certainly prompted a major flare-up, including difficult regional implications. Just like in Operation Cast Lead, the political leadership granted immunity to no one in the Strip, regardless of his position or stature.

The detailed plans – the targets, scope, power and timing – would have left Hamas no breathing space and time to debate its response. It would have gone for the jackpot, right away. Indeed, Israel’s war plan included preparations for massive rocket fire from Gaza, including long-range missiles aimed at central Israel in general, and at Tel Aviv in particular.

Last weekend, the General Staff Headquarters looked like on the eve of war. Officials were working around the clock and sleeping in their offices. While formulating the plans, top officials recalled the curse of arrogance of the Second Lebanon War. Back then, the decision to launch a war was taken without sufficient preparation. The military and political leadership decided to deliver a blow, immediately, without taking into account the implications, the enemy’s response, the home front’s condition and the ability to counter rocket barrages. This time around, a full, detailed plan was drafted; it also included the IDF Home Front Command’s deployment. Only then was the scheme presented to the political echelon.

Another lesson learned from the miserable confrontation vis-à-vis Hezbollah is to start such assaults with great fire power, in order to minimize as much as is possible the home front’s suffering. This lesson was already implemented in Operation Cast Lead; in other words, the power utilized during Cast Lead was to constitute the starting point of the next operation.

Most of Israel’s regular army was to be enlisted, at one point or another, for the operation. Hence, last Saturday all regular army units were placed on alert. Air Force squadrons undertook their final preparations. The time given to the army for preparations also gave international parties – namely the United States and Egypt– time to examine alternatives to the war.

Thursday afternoon, a few hours after the terror offensive on the road leading to Eilat, officials started to formulate the operational doctrine. At that point, the targets were only Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC.) Hamas was not yet a clear target, with the exception of several symbolic hits meant to signal to the group that it holds the responsibility to prevent attacks from the Strip.

A short while after the PRC’s top brass was eliminated by the IDF in a surgical strike, Hamas’ entire leadership, both military and political, disappeared to various hideouts. They quickly realized where Israel’s response was headed to; hence, junior spokesmen were sent to address the cameras.

The next phase of Israel’s operation included the extension of the assault to Hamas as well. The assumption was that Hamas’ chiefs must have been aware of the PRC terror cell that headed to the Sinai to carry out attacks from there. A week before the Eilat offensive, PRC terrorists fired Grad Missiles at Kiryat Gat, and Hamas proceeded to detain the shooters, further demonstrating that it is deeply familiar with what goes on among “rogue groups” in Gaza.

In retrospect it turned out that not everything works by the book: To the great amazement of Israel’s experts, Hamas was truly surprised by the Eilat-area attacks.

Zero hour for the large, comprehensive facet of the operation was set. The countdown began. The manpower numbers at some units were complemented with reservists. Less than 24 hours remained before a war broke out. Yet then, Saturday night, a diplomatic opportunity to end the escalation emerged. Hamas initiated a ceasefire.

Officials quickly discovered that Hamas was embarrassed and confused by the fact that someone in the organization assumed responsibility for ending the lull and firing rockets at Ofakim and Beersheba that caused casualties. As it turned out, Hamas did not fire the rockets, and even sent police officers in an attempt to curb the shooters. Hamas heads directly approached the Americans and Egyptians and sought a ceasefire. Israel was aware of these inquiries virtually in real time.

Hamas chiefs did not plan or want this confrontation; not now. They were concerned about being blamed that they are pulling the rug from under Mahmoud Abbas ahead of the September independence bid. Moreover, the economic situation in Gaza is worsening. The government is having trouble paying salaries, with the amount of money pouring into the Strip at this time being a fraction of past fund transfers.

At this time, officials in the Strip need calm and support from Cairo in the contacts on the Gilad Shalitswap. Hamas also fears that Egypt would close the Rafah Crossing. Furthermore, Hamas leaders in Gaza realized that what Israel characterized as a “disproportional response” to the rocket fire was merely the groundwork for a large-scale operation.

Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh dared leave his hideout only on Tuesday, some 24 hours after the ceasefire. Top Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders are still huddled in bomb shelters, for good reason apparently. On Wednesday, an Islamic Jihad member was killed. Another one was assassinated early Thursday. This pattern will continue. The message in the wake of the Eilat-area offensive is unequivocal: Pinpoint eliminations are back, even if the price of each surgical strike is a night of mortar shells and Grad rockets aimed at southern Israel.

As September approaches, the IDF is being stretched beyond its means, and there will apparently be no escaping the need to call up reservists. Our leadership is navigating through a minefield. Just like we were on the verge of war Saturday night, with most of the public being completely oblivious to the unfolding drama, it can happen again tomorrow morning. The war book is ready.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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