The current discussion concerning Israel’s conflict in Gaza centers on the end game. Is it time for Israel’s operation to cease? Should Israel agree to an unconditional ceasefire? To a ceasefire that eases life for Gazans and Hamas on Hamas’ terms? Or should it continue its operations to disarm or even remove Hamas from power? At what cost?
It is now coming to light that Israel has been increasingly worried about tunnels between Gaza and Israel since 2006. They may not have realized the full extent of the threat until the past few weeks, but Israeli military intelligence has been warning of a significant threat for years now and probably should have been more concerned. There are those who would argue based on this that this conflict did not need to develop as it has, while others would argue that it would have been better to have happened during Operation Pillar of Cloud in 2012 or that Operation Cast Lead in 2009 should have been allowed to move forward to remove Hamas from power entirely.
Regardless of how Israel got to this point, there are many disagreements as to what to do now and about what appear to be two basic options for Israel, IF Hamas agrees to an unconditional ceasefire, which is in and of itself not likely. Here are Israel’s basic options:
- Disarm or even remove Hamas from power now and deal with whatever level of pain, suffering, and loss of life on both sides will result.
- Take the risk that the international community will be able to disarm Hamas, much less prevent it from strengthening considerably and to engage Israel in another fight in a couple of years that would almost certainly be more damaging to Israel than this one has been both in terms of loss of life and in terms of disruption of daily life.
The international community prioritizes limiting Gazan casualties. This is simply because of the numbers, as offensive as that is. The international community cannot deal with death ratios of 20 or 30 on the Gazan side to 1 on the Israeli side. No matter what Israel does, that will not change. Statements of “Israel has a right to defend itself” are simply overwhelmed with the impact of death totals in Gaza. There are those who would argue that facing the level of international condemnation that it would face that Israel cannot engage in any sustained fight in Gaza. Yet, others would argue and do argue that Israel cannot avoid this fight and that whenever it comes, Israel will be condemned for fighting it, so why wait for it to be worse for Israel? This is all the more true if you see this fight as simply a continuation of 2009 and 2012.
It is this calculus that is governing decisions today. President Obama and Sec. State Kerry are trying to negotiate a ceasefire to save lives on both sides while perhaps now understanding that the aftermath of such a ceasefire cannot see Hamas maintain its capabilities, much less grow in strength. For a fuller understanding of the background of the development of this conflict, see my articles on “What you need to know” and “The Timeline.”
In this context, diplomacy is extremely difficult. It is very easy for rumors and outright falsehoods to spread. Sec. State Kerry seems to have misread the Israeli side of the discussion over the weekend, either not understanding the positions of Israel’s leadership (perhaps especially those of the left-most cabinet members Livni and Lapid whom he may have wrongly thought would have preferred a rapid ceasefire) or failing to grasp the broader political situation where roughly 90% of Israeli Jews supported ongoing military operations, and ran into a buzz saw of criticism from traditional allies in the media on the Israeli political left.
It currently appears that Hamas insists on demanding concessions from Israel and Egypt (opening the Rafah border crossing) that will allow Hamas to grow in strength dramatically as well as positioning it to conduct much more effective military operations against Israel in the future in exchange for a ceasefire. Israel cannot allow that to occur in the aftermath of this operation.
So the question now is “Disarmament at what cost?” But that question is now not being asked with the force of “Do we really want to do this?” as it has been in the past, so much as with the force of “Which cost?”, the near term cost or the long term cost. For either answer, the cost will be very high.