Military Evaluations of the Gaza Conflict/ Current Diplomatic Opportunities
Jan 30, 2009 | AIJAC staff
January 30, 2009
Number 01/09 #09
Today’s Update leads with a couple of evaluations of Israel’s Gaza operation, which ended a week and a half ago, from military and strategic specialists.
First up, Canadian strategic studies expert David Bercuson looks at what the Gaza operation appeared to have accomplished. He takes on those who argue that it achieved little, pointing out that both militarily and diplomatically, Israel has changed the “facts on the ground.”He says Hamas’ military forces have been seriously beaten down, while Hamas was shown that neither the Arab street nor European opinion can save it if it provokes Israel, thus providing hopes for a more durable ceasefire. For his full analysis, CLICK HERE. More good analysis of what the operation accomplished militarily and the diplomatic opportunities now opened up come from Jerusalem Post Editor David Horovitz, and Efraim Halevy, former head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency.
Next up, a British military officer who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan evaluates the accusation of war crimes against Israeli soldiers. He says while no soldier should be above the law, many criticisms seem based on ignoring the circumstances of Israeli actions – including Hamas deliberate policy of hiding among civilians – and the realities of war. He also points out that, on the white phosphorous issue, this is used daily by British forces in Afghanistan, and any commander would use it if faced with “overwhelming enemy fire and wounded comrades”. For the authors’ complete discussion, CLICK HERE. Making some similar points is retired British colonel Richard Kemp in a BBC interview. More reponses to the allegations of “war crimes” from Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, while both foreign policy analyst Max Boot and blogger J.F. Beck provide additional information on the specific complaints about white phosphorus. Boot also pointed out an antidote in the New York Times to incorrect popular perceptions that much of Gaza has been reduced to ruins.
Finally, Washington Institute for Near East Policy Executive Director Dr. Robert Satloff offers some advice about what can be done diplomatically at the moment, in the Gaza battle’s aftermath, by the Obama Administration’s new Middle East envoy, George Mitchell. In particular, Satloff stresses the need for what he calls “pre-diplomacy” – including stabilising the current truce, directing re-construction aid to Gaza in a way that avoids Hamas taking the credit, building on security and economic progress on the West Bank, and attempting to adapt the Arab peace initiative so that Arab states become more involved throughout the diplomatic process. He also praises the fact that no one from the Obama Administration has hinted at any attempt to “engage” Hamas diplomatically before it meets the conditions set by the international community. For Dr. Satloff’s full diplomatic prescription, CLICK HERE. More on post-war diplomatic opportunities comes from Israeli commentator Emmanuel Navon, and Palestinian analyst Muhammed Yaghi.
Readers may also be interested in:
- A good debate has been occurring at the Middle East Strategy at Harvard (MESH) blog about claims that Hamas “won” the conflict by surviving and winning sympathy points. Particularly interesting entries come from Alan Dowty, Mark Katz and Martin Kramer.
- Two authors, Germany intellectual and magazine editor Josef Joffe and American journalist Michael Totten, both suggest that a Palestinian-Israeli peace looks virtually impossible in the short-term and efforts should be dedicated to managing the conflict.
- Under-reported comments by top EU and UN aid experts attribute much of the blame for the Gaza conflict to Hamas.
- Some interesting reporting about what Gazans who had their homes used for military purposes by Hamas without their permission think of the claim that Hamas “won” the conflict.
- Contrary to what one often hears in the media, there is considerable dispute about how many people were killed in the recent Gaza conflict, with Israel rejecting the widely reported claim by Hamas’ health department that 1,300 people died, and one Italian report (based on Palestinian medical sources) alleging that no more than 500-600 people died. Israel says no more than 250 civilians died in the conflict, and is compiling a list of Hamas fighters killed. For more detail on this controversy, and the role of NGOs in spreading the higher number, see this dispatch from NGO-Monitor.
- Some details on divided and confused Arab diplomacy post-conflict, by Washington Institute scholars Andrew Tabler and Simon Henderson, plus more on this subject from the New York Times.
- The Egyptian Foreign Minister blames Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran for working together to provoke conflict during the Gaza fighting.
- Meanwhile, an Egyptian cleric on Egyptian-TV shows images of the Holocaust and then says, “This is what we hope will happen but, Allah willing, at the hands of the Muslims.”
- A Palestinian Authority official says Israel made a “grave mistake” – not finishing Hamas off completely.
- Hamas seeks sympathy with video of destruction at the Gaza zoo, but Israel has video of Hamas fighters booby trapping the zoo.
- Some renewal of the fighting over the last two days, with a roadside bombing which killed an Israeli soldier, followed by a rocket attack, prompting Israeli military responses.
- The UN agency UNWRA is accused of employing terrorists in a new report by one of its former employees. Plus, an UNWRA teacher in Gaza was filmed teaching 8-year-olds that Palestinians have to “wage war against them (Israelis) until they leave their land.” Finally, a question for the UN about the different ways its aid agencies react to the fighting in Sri Lanka compared to Gaza.
Globe and Mail (Canada)
January 20, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
On Sunday morning, Israel declared a unilateral ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and halted military operations – at least temporarily. After the ceasefire began at 2 a.m. local time, Hamas fired several more rockets into Israel, then declared a ceasefire of its own. The Israelis have said they will pull back into Israel if the ceasefire holds. Hamas says the ceasefire won’t hold until the last “Zionist” soldier is gone.
Liberal Israeli pundits have already concluded that Israel gained almost nothing militarily: Hamas continues to rule Gaza and retains military capabilities and the loyalty of Gazans, and breakaway jihadi factions such as Islamic Jihad will relaunch rockets after a short lull. The small gains Israel achieved, they believe, are more than balanced by the huge diplomatic price Israel paid as daily pictures of Palestinian deaths drew widespread condemnation throughout the world and alienated Israel’s few “friends” in the Muslim world, most notably Turkey.
Are they right?
When Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defence Minister Ehud Barak said from the very start of the air offensive on Dec. 27 that the aim of the Israeli incursion was to put an end to the rocket fire, they also stressed their goal to change the “situation on the ground.” Before Dec. 27, Hamas’s military capabilities – its command and control systems, its rocket smuggling and launching abilities, its 15,000 regular/irregular ground forces – were intact. Hamas leaders had repeatedly threatened that if a single Israeli entered Gaza, it would become an Israeli cemetery. Three weeks of fighting proved that to be an empty boast. The reality is that Hamas’s forces have been seriously beaten down.
Some analysts may claim that the core of Hamas’s military capability has survived in the bunkers and tunnels of Gaza City. Possibly. But the military initiative is now Israel’s. The Israel Defence Forces set the agenda, drove the fight, kept the enemy on its heels, destroyed significant enemy capability (including many of the smuggling tunnels) and showed Hamas that IDF soldiers are now highly skilled in urban insurgent war. Israel now has the military initiative in the south and will set the terms. It is no longer merely Hamas’s antagonist; it is its unquestioned military superior. The lesson will not be lost on Iran or Hezbollah.
Strategically, the “situation on the ground” has clearly changed. But the Gaza fight was not just a military demonstration — it had political objectives as well.
Israel taught Hamas that future provocation will be painfully costly. It also taught Hamas in Gaza that it is very easy for its titular leader, Khaled Meshaal, and his entourage in Damascus to call for a fight to the last breath against the Zionists. After all, he is protected by Syria. But he has clearly lost touch with the reality of Gaza. Signs of a split are obvious. Hamas in Gaza is certainly not about to sign a peace treaty with Israel, but if the crossings are open and foreign aid is on its way, the split will most assuredly widen. If both Israel and Hamas can agree to a long-term, monitored truce, Mr. Meshaal will lose all relevancy.
Israel taught Hamas that no one but the Arab street really cares about the plight of Gaza under Hamas rule and, though noisy, the Arab street doesn’t matter. No other country attacked Israel. Jordan maintained diplomatic relations. Iran fulminated but did nothing. Egypt, which once openly tolerated the tunnels, will no doubt clamp down hard on Hamas’s smuggling. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was especially shrill in condemning Israel, but the $141-million Christmas deal between Israeli firms and the Turkish air force to upgrade Turkey’s F-4 Phantoms remains intact.
Israel also taught Hamas that the streets of Europe may be crowded with pro-Hamas demonstrators for a few days or a few weeks, but that European countries, the United States and even Russia and China have no love for Hamas and view it, rightly, as Iran’s proxy. And that is not likely to change.
Israel changed the facts on the ground diplomatically as it did militarily. It imposed its will on Hamas. And it has gained greater diplomatic leverage. Hamas has been humbled and with it, Hezbollah and Iran.
It is, of course, tragic that hundreds of Gazans were killed. But it is hard to understand how Hamas did not see that this would happen. Maybe it doesn’t really care about Gazans, either.
David Bercuson is director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.
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Daniel Yates 12:10pm
The Spectator “Coffee House” blog
Saturday, 24th January 2009
Many thanks to Daniel Yates for contributing this article to Coffee House. Daniel was a British soldier with the Intelligence Corps in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is writing under a pseudonym.
– Pete Hoskin
Having completed numerous combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, I watched the television footage of Israeli soldiers deploying on Operation Cast Lead with a jolt of familiarity. I saw the emotions that I have felt in the past. I was eager to do my job properly, I had confidence in my abilities and those of my comrades, but I was also apprehensive. That apprehension was not just the fear of what harm may have come to me or my mates, but also the worry that my judgement would fail if I was called upon to make the snap decision to take another’s life. The pressure of these conflicting emotions coupled with the stress of battle is immense. The majority of us called upon to withstand them are young men, some as young as 18.
That is why the casual bandying around of terms like ‘war crimes’ so enraged me when I heard it directed at British soldiers during protest in London. I feel no different when it is levelled at Israeli soldiers. I accept that soldiers enjoy no immunity from the law and that our actions must be scrutinised but that judgement must be a measured weighing of factors, not a knee jerk emotive statement such as that made by Ban Ki-Moon nor a trial by media. I believe that I and other soldiers understand the stress, friction and confusion that combat brings in a way that media commentators and UN bureaucrats never can.
Urban warfare is complicated, disorientating and utterly confusing even in conventional operations. When an enemy, such as Hamas, is willing to dress in civilian clothing, attack from legally protected sites and use civilians as human shields it becomes fiendishly difficult.
The destruction of the UN School, cited by Ban Ki-Moon, is a case in point. The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) maintains that its soldiers came under fire from that position. They returned fire; that is what soldiers under contact do. It would appear that light artillery guns or mortars were used. These are emphatically not the ‘smart’ weapons that civilians fondly imagine all war to be fought with. It is commonplace fact of war that such munitions do not always land were they are supposed to.
The urban environment can seriously hinder even the most sophisticated of radio communications, leading to command and control becoming fractured. The assertion by the UN that they provided the IDF with the grid references of their locations is valid. However, it is a fact that often information is not always passed down the chain of command, this is more likely to occur due to the fog of war rather than any malicious intent.
The IDF have also faced accusations that they have attacked ambulances. Again, I cannot speak for the veracity of these claims nor do I seek to diminish the serious nature of such attacks. The British Army’s enemy in Iraq, Jaish Al Mahdi routinely used vehicles marked as ambulances to transport arms, ammunition and fighters around Basra. Like Hamas, Jaish Al Mahdi received training and equipment from Iran.
During the course of Israeli operations in Gaza the whole of the media seems to have become expert in the use of white phosphorous. Most commentators either do not know, or have refused to acknowledge, that the use of white phosphorous is not illegal. The Geneva conventions do restrict the use of white phosphorous in certain circumstances, but it is used almost daily by British forces in Afghanistan.
The IDF have stated that, during this operation, they fired a total of 200 shells containing phosphorous. 20 of these shells were fired in urban areas and the use of those 20 is being investigated in line with these restrictions.
White phosphorous is used because it provides an instant smokescreen, other munitions can provide a smokescreen but the effect is not instant. Faced with overwhelming enemy fire and wounded comrades, every commander would choose to screen his men instantly, to do otherwise would be negligent.
Much has been made of Israel’s ‘disproportionate and excessive’ use of force in Gaza. Footage of Gaza released today does show devastating damage to individual buildings, but this is no Stalingrad. A fact often unappreciated by those with no military experience is that the selective use of overwhelming force, aimed at key targets, actually shortens conflict and saves lives. In Basra in 2003 the USA and the UK chose to use extreme force against locations that had been fortified by the Ba’ath Party, in order to spare our troops and the people of Basra the horror of a drawn-out street battle. It appears that the IDF made the same choice in Gaza.
I do not argue that any soldier should be outside of the law, any army that allows such a thing is not worthy of the name. I do believe, however, that the least the world can do for young men returning from combat is to offer them the basic right to have their actions considered on the basis of events and the context in which they occurred.
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Policywatch, January 26, 2009
Inheriting an uneasy truce in the Gaza Strip presents the Obama-Clinton-Mitchell team with an early set of critical Middle East tests. Before they can begin to address core issues in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, they will have to focus over the next several weeks on an agenda of “prediplomacy” issues. How they handle these issues will reverberate beyond the Arab-Israeli arena and set the tone for the new administration’s regional diplomacy for the foreseeable future.
The Mitchell Appointment
President Obama came to office promising swift action on the Arab-Israeli peace process as part of an overhaul of U.S. Middle East policy that includes a pivot toward military withdrawal from Iraq and “tough diplomacy” toward Iran. The appointment of former Senator George Mitchell as special envoy has already given substance to the new president’s commitment.
Mitchell brings several important qualities to his position. First, he survived his previous foray into Middle East diplomacy relatively unscathed as chairman of a 2000-2001 commission that investigated the origins of the second Palestinian uprising. The confidence-building measures he offered in spring 2001 as a way to deescalate the conflict were accepted in principle by Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) but were not implemented; along the way, Mitchell escaped without earning lasting rancor from either side. Interestingly, during his previous experience, Mitchell witnessed a move to the right in terms of Israeli prime ministers (from Labor’s Ehud Barak to Likud’s Ariel Sharon) that closely foreshadows the expected, although by no means certain, outcome of Israel’s February 10 election. The difference is that U.S. politics also shifted to the right during that period, from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush; in contrast, in just the past week, U.S. politics has shifted to the left.
Second, outwardly at least, Mitchell seems not to be infected with the “Nobel virus” that plagues so many former politicians engaged in high-stakes diplomacy. In his previous Middle East stint and in his Northern Ireland diplomacy, Mitchell was consensual in style and pragmatic in substance, eschewing the histrionics and hectoring that often accompanies professional political do-gooders. This augurs well for Arab-Israeli diplomacy, since conventional wisdom — which, in this case, is almost surely correct — holds that major concessions by the parties are reserved for delivery to the president or at least the secretary of state. Mitchell’s principal early task is to personify urgent, high-level engagement and set in motion a very detailed process of what can be called prediplomacy, laying the necessary building blocks with uncertain leaderships in Israel and the PA, and with Arab and European capitals, for the possibility of more meaningful engagement down the road.
Third, it should not be lost on the parties that Mitchell has not endorsed the view of some other veterans of the Northern Ireland peace process, including former Bush administration envoy Richard Haass, about the importance of finding ways to engage Hamas in diplomacy. In a December 2008 presentation at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, a careful Mitchell had only critical words for a Hamas that “continues both its rocket attacks and its refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist.” He gave no hint of equating the urgency of engaging Hamas with the importance of including Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland negotiations, saying “No two countries, no two conflicts are the same. So what happened in Northern Ireland cannot be precisely replicated here or anywhere else.” And with specific reference to how the United States and Israel need to coordinate their approach on critical issues, he made the following important comment: “As our two countries confront these challenges in a region filled with both peril and opportunity, it is essential that our president and your prime minister have a relationship of trust and confidence. Matters of tactics and timing are often subjects of disagreement, debate, of give-and-take between sovereign countries. This is inevitable, understandable, and should trouble no one. But on the major issues, including a comprehensive and sustainable peace between Israel and its neighbors, and turning Iran away from nuclear weapons, it is important that our leaders work together and agree on objectives and strategy.”
A Non-Hamas Strategy
The administration’s view on whether to engage Hamas will be the key signal of its approach on Arab-Israeli matters. So far, the decision seems clear: there is no hint — neither in statements nor in personnel appointments — that the Obama-Clinton team intends on dipping its toes in the Hamas waters without Hamas first meeting stiff international conditions for dialogue. The president himself reiterated those conditions in his State Department remarks introducing Mitchell.
This position has implications for U.S. policy toward the issue of Palestinian national unity. The United States has no particular interest in Palestinian unity except if it strengthens the PA and weakens Hamas; indeed, in the Arab-Israeli arena there is traditionally an inverse relationship between national unity and diplomatic progress that current diplomats buck at their own peril. (On the Israeli side, in contrast, Washington has never viewed Israeli political unity as a precondition for diplomatic progress — quite the opposite!) It is one thing if PA president Mahmoud Abbas engineers a national unity agreement in which Hamas accepts Abbas’s legitimacy and supremacy; it is quite another for the United States to urge national unity on the Palestinians as a way to ease Hamas’s isolation and open the path to dialogue. The latter is manifestly not in the U.S. national interest.
Instead, the administration has the potential to develop and implement a four-pronged prediplomacy strategy on the Israeli-Palestinian front that includes the following elements:
1. Stabilize the truce by securing broad international contribution to and support of Egyptian-Israeli countersmuggling efforts. Nothing is more likely to erode the truce than the rearmament of Hamas. For its part, Egypt seems to have changed its view on the issue. In the past, Cairo countenanced at least a certain level of smuggling as a way to ensure that the Islamist extremists of Hamas focused their energies eastward, not westward. During the recent crisis, however, fear of Hamas’s adventurism trumped Cairo’s satisfaction at Hamas’s ability to annoy Israel; the result was that Egypt withstood severe popular criticism for its laudable refusal to accede to Hamas demands to open the Gaza crossings. In this context, chances are better than ever that the United States, Israel, and other interested parties will work out effective mechanisms with Egyptian security and intelligence forces for a strategy of in-depth countersmuggling efforts; these would encompass not just the narrow confines of the Rafah border but a much wider area and would include initiatives to prevent the Iran-Somalia-Sinai arms trade.
2. Use the funds and process of Gaza reconstruction to further erode Hamas’s standing. While Hamas suffered a substantial military blow in the Gaza conflict, shortsighted post-conflict decisions could have the result of restoring much of Hamas’s tarnished luster. Apart from the question of direct political engagement — which would have a hugely destabilizing impact on all other core parties in the peace process (Israel, the PA, Egypt, and Jordan) — the most important issue concerns the vehicle for international reconstruction efforts in Gaza. The goal is simple — Hamas cannot be allowed to serve as the agent for reconstruction, lest it reap political dividends from its role as indispensible provider of funds and services. The means to achieve this goal are complicated but not impossible. A key task for Mitchell is to work with Quartet envoy Tony Blair and other responsible international actors to create a system for funding and executing reconstruction efforts that has three paths — through the PA, through PA-approved Palestinian charities and nongovernmental organizations operating in Gaza, and through international and UN aid agencies, working administratively with the PA. While the preference is for as much reconstruction aid to pass through the hands of the PA as possible, the real priority is negative, that is, to ensure that as little as possible passes through the hands of Hamas. This will inevitably mean a certain sacrifice of efficiency for the sake of rigidity and will also mean loosening rules on international civilians inside Gaza, on the principle of the greater good of cutting Hamas out of the reconstruction pie. But it is essential that every actor who wants to play a role in the reconstruction effort — including UN agencies (like UNRWA) and international humanitarian organizations, many of which have heretofore displayed a disturbing level of sympathy for Hamas’s political situation — sign up to this principle.
3. Invest quickly and robustly in the Dayton and Blair agendas in the West Bank. Here, there is not a moment to lose. The Abbas-Fayyad government extended itself throughout the Gaza conflict and faces a very real threat to its existence. Despite implementing security, administrative, and economic policies that have resulted in substantial growth in the West Bank for the first time in years, there is a serious risk that the political reverberations from Gaza could undermine those important achievements and even threaten the PA regime. Working closely with Israel, the Obama administration has the opportunity now to change the rules that have hampered the operation of the U.S.-led “train and equip” mission for Palestinian security forces, headed by Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, and ramp up that program to new levels. Similarly, the administration should channel Arab and European support into the shovel-ready projects prepared by the Blair mission. And, as this is happening, it could inject a dose of much needed coordination (translation: leadership) in making sure that Dayton, Blair, and the European Union’s various initiatives on judicial, police, and administrative reforms are harmonized and working in tandem with each other.
4. Work to adapt, not merely adopt, the Arab Peace Initiative to provide a regional context to Israeli-PA cooperation. If nothing else, the Gaza conflict exposed the fundamental flaw in the Saudi-inspired Arab Peace Initiative, which is that Arab states cannot simply offer peace with Israel as the pot at the end of the diplomatic rainbow after Israel reaches final peace settlements with the Palestinians and the Syrians; rather, a truly constructive role would have Arab states contributing to a peacemaking environment at every stage of this process. Senator Mitchell has wide latitude in working with Arab leaders to add both substantive elements and a timetable for incremental action to the Arab Peace Initiative. This could include what Arab states do with Palestinians (for example, specific disbursements of aid and changes of national policies on the status of Palestinian refugees) as well as what Arab states do with Israel (for example, trade relations, escalating diplomatic ties, interfaith and cultural exchanges). Here, President Obama himself is uniquely placed to build on the message of his inaugural address, especially his call to end “childish things,” by having Arab leaders end their sufferance of vile anti-Jewish incitement, which many Arab leaders may erroneously believe insulates them from popular criticism within their countries. (In this regard, recent editorializing by former Saudi ambassador to the United States Turki al-Faisal is particularly galling, since at the height of the Gaza fighting, official Saudi press extolled Turki’s outrageous and incendiary statement that he only wished he could lead a “jihad” against Israel and be a shahid — martyr — for the cause of Palestine.)
This agenda would constitute the first phase of an Obama-Clinton-Mitchell effort, well before the administration begins addressing issues of Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic negotiation. In even the best of circumstances, that diplomacy would have to await the establishment of a new Israeli government, which is not likely until mid-March at the earliest. And the administration does not inherit the best of circumstances. Unless it acts now to shore up the ceasefire, create a template for disbursement of Gaza reconstruction efforts through non-Hamas vehicles, bolster the PA in the West Bank, and redirect Arab efforts into tangible, constructive, near-term contributions to build an environment for peacemaking, the chances for an eventual successful reengagement in peace diplomacy are next to nil.
Robert Satloff is executive director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.