Updated Aug. 6, 2014
There were a number of articles circulating that noted with some satisfaction that the Israeli government believed the likelihood that the kidnappers of Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali were not acting on Gaza based Hamas’ orders, though certainly they were acting in line with a general directive expressed repeatedly over years. These articles then argued that the war being fought was therefore entered unnecessarily (maybe) and that therefore the current fighting and all of the dying going on has no justification (hardly). They claimed that the war was all the fault of Netanyahu for misrepresenting the facts in the kidnapping. [It turned out, after the war was pretty much over, that in fact Hamas did arrange and pay for the kidnapping, but of course the critics of Netanyahu didn’t bother to print that information when it came out]. Additionally, they argued that since the Israeli government had reason to believe that the teens had been killed, both gunshots heard on the emergency call and bullet holes in the vehicle that was recovered, the events between the kidnapping and murder of the three teens and the recovery of their bodies should not have played out as it did. Why they believed that reporting the execution of three innocent teens would have elicited less of a reaction than reporting their kidnapping, I am not certain.
All of these articles missed vitally important points that are revealed in the timeline of events below and have been completely being ignored by the mainstream media. Here’s the timeline as it really played out with accompanying concerns.
On June 12, 2014, three Israeli teens were kidnapped and murdered. Israelis immediately suspected Hamas militants operating in the Hebron area because Hamas has constantly been calling for the abduction of Israelis. Hamas organized a campaign to have people give a three finger salute in support of the kidnapping, while at the same time denying responsibility for it. Israeli authorities found the vehicle used in the kidnapping and identified two suspects associated with Hamas in the West Bank as the primary suspects.
For 18 days, large numbers of Israeli troops searched for the kidnappers and the teens, alive or dead. The border as well as known tunnels from Gaza (Israel had known of the existence of such tunnels since 2006 and certainly should have been more concerned) were heavily monitored. This is of significant importance, but that was not known at the time. Continue reading and you’ll understand why.
On June 30, 2014, the bodies of the three teens were discovered and sixteen rockets were fired from Gaza. Over the next week, Israel began limited response airstrikes, mostly against rocket squads and an increasing number of rockets were launched against Israel.
By July 13, the IDF had struck 1,300 targets, mostly launchers or unoccupied buildings, and Hamas had launched 800 rockets. Almost all of this occurred between July 6 and July 13. Casualties remained extremely low relative to the number of attacks by the two sides.
On July 14, Egypt proposed an unconditional ceasefire supported by the Palestinian Authority, the United States, and the United Nations which was accepted by Israel, but rejected by Hamas. At this point, the conflict was almost totally focused on Hamas’ rocket attacks against Israeli cities and Israeli attempts to prevent them.
On July 17, everything changed. Israel entered Sharijah, a Hamas stronghold in Gaza, in an attempt to halt the rocket fire there. Rockets were stored in homes, apartments, basements, mosques and other civilian locations and fire against Israeli troops was done from civilian locations with civilians present as shields or intentional casualties. As death totals began to rise on both sides, Hamas launched a commando attack on Kibbutz Sufa through an offensive tunnel unknown to Israel. Thirteen commandos exited the tunnel into Israel under the cover of darkness and headed toward the Kibbutz. Israeli surveillance, which was on high alert for any evidence of activity near the border, happened to see them and an airstrikes were called in. The fact that no Israelis died in this event led it to be largely ignored in the media, but it was not at all ignored by the Israeli military. All of a sudden, the context of the tunnels changed from ways to kidnap soldiers to ways to launch commando raids and the advanced tunnel discovered in October, 2013 which was thought to be one of few that Hamas had constructed came to be seen in a new light. Suddenly the threat from unknown tunnels began to rise rapidly on the list of Israeli concerns.
On July 20, ten Hamas commandos exited a tunnel in the middle of a mosque and were killed by Israeli commandos who were looking for rockets that they believed Hamas to have stored there. Now, Israel became focused on the tunnel systems within the neighborhoods bordering Israel and what they found scared them. On July 21, IDF forces discovered a tunnel leading from Gaza and ending in the middle of the dining hall of Kissufim Kibbutz.
On July 23, 150 Hamas gunmen surrendered to IDF forces operating in Khan Younis and Rafiyah. When interrogated these fighters independently revealed details of a plan that continues to shake the Israeli defense and intelligence establishments to the core. They learned that Hamas planned to use its tunnel network, much more extensive than Israel had theretofore understood it to be, to launch a mega attack against Israeli kibbutzim on Rosh Hashanah of this year. Evidently, according to the testimony, two hundred fighters at minimum were to be sent through dozens of tunnels into Israel to assault the kibbutzim and kill or kidnap the residents.
While this seems like a plot from the mind of a paranoid and may well turn out to be a rumor, the unfortunate reality for Israelis is that the tunnel system dug by Hamas seems to align itself with the type of plot described. Consider that Israel aby July 24 already knew of the tunnels going to Kibbutz Sufa, the one going to the dining hall of Kissufim Kibbutz, and others going to Ein Hashlosha, Nativ Haasarah, Kibbutz Erz and Kibbutz Nir Am, some of which had been used by Hamas commandos to attack Israeli forces. The New York Times published an excellent article on the tunnel to Nir Am on July 25 that includes a video. Now, the context of the tunnel discovered in October 2013 from Khan Younis, the place where the Hamas gunman were taken captive, needed to be seen with a new understanding as well. Israeli leaders began to blanch at the thought of what could have happened. Since the start of Operation Protective Edge, Israel has uncovered more than 30 distinct tunnels originating in Gaza with over 60 openings in Israel.
So on July 26, those who understand the real threat Israel faces from Gaza look back at events and shudder at what might have been. It is sad to say this, but the horrendous kidnapping and murder of Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali may have ended up saving many hundreds of lives by beginning a chain of events that alerted Israel to a much greater threat and resulted in its dismantling. The presence of large numbers of troops near the Gaza border looking for the kidnappers and at the time, trying to prevent the boys from being taken into Gaza, may have discouraged Hamas from attempting to conduct tunnel based operations from June 12 all the way through to June 30. Then the ramping up of operations against Gaza kept the focus on the border and possible infiltration.
Hamas may have decided to hold off from using the major terror tunnels all the way until IDF troops entered Gaza because it still wanted to preserve the possibility of using them later.
Here Hamas’ assumptions become important. It is likely that Hamas expected Israel to conduct Operation Protective Edge similarly to Operation Pillar of Cloud in 2012 and not to enter Gaza with a ground incursion; thereby enabling Hamas to preserve the secrecy of the tunnel network and to enable it to use most of its tunnels in a more coordinated offensive strike. Bibi Netanyahu had never committed ground troops to battle before and Hamas did not expect that to change, especially not with the international community pressuring Israel not to enter Gaza.
So Hamas waited, Israel discovered tunnel after tunnel and has stopped the few incursions that have been attempted to this point. Yes, there was skill involved in discovering the tunnels and stopping the incursions, but luck played an enormous role in saving Israeli lives.
In the aftermath of this conflict, Israel will devote much greater attention to tunnels. It will develop intelligence gathering techniques, likely a new department in Shabak and a new focus for the Mossad, and a return to a military balance using ground forces in addition to aerial ones in combating terror infrastructure. As the price of failure is increasing, so will the urgency of success and with it the cost involved, in all the meanings of that term.
By constructing these tunnels amid densely populated civilian areas and even inside normally protected civilian facilities, Hamas has turned entire neighborhoods into military bases protected from bombing by above-ground civilian infrastructure and the blood of Palestinian civilians. In Gaza, half of such civilians are under 14, meaning that Hamas systematically placed children amid military targets. Hamas’ entire strategy at this point is force Israel to confront it amid, behind, or even beneath civilians, to create blood and death, to parade bodies before the world’s cameras and to blame an Israel acting without recourse for what Hamas itself engineered deliberately.
Israel will do what it needs to do to defend its people. That is what Israelis always say. In this case, that means destroying existing tunnels from Gaza into Israel, stopping the rocket fire, and making sure that neither become worse threats in the future. The last of those three items means that relaxation of border security and controls on imports are going to be impossible while Hamas is in control of Gaza. Once it feels secure that it has destroyed what tunnels it can, Israel will be willing to accept an unconditional ceasefire. The longer term question is “What will it take to get Hamas to stop trying to attack Israel with which Israel could agree?” and if the answer is nothing, then the question becomes, “Can Israel and the rest of the world stomach what it will cost to remove Hamas from power in Gaza?”
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