There were non-lethal ways to preempt Hamas’ underground attacks, but the Netanyahu government rejected them all.
Here is the current, ostensibly airtight rationale for whatever the IDF chooses to do in Gaza: armed Hamas militats are coming up out of tunnels that start in Gaza and end not far from kibbutz and moshav communities on the Israeli side. So if the IDF doesn’t go as far into Gaza as necessary to destroy the last of these underground passages, sooner or later Hamas will succeed in carrying out “catastrophic” terror attacks, as Netanyahu puts it. The army has stopped several of them since Thursday night’s ground invasion of the Strip; today (Monday) soldiers were wounded in Israeli territory stopping another one.
An unnamed IDF commander put the case very well to Yedioth Ahronoth’s Nahum Barnea:
The IDF’s war to wipe out the threat from the tunnels is not an aggressive operation. It’s a preemptive attack, a completely defensive operation. … Imagine if someone in Hamas makes the decision to send out on some dark night, by surprise, teams of commandos through all the tunnels, and they go on a killing spree in the communities near the Gazan border. …
It’s true that many soldiers [13 – L.D.] were killed tonight. It’s likely that more will be killed. But think of the alternative. How could we look kibbutz or moshav members near Gaza in the eye if a commando unit were to infiltrate and kill dozens of their people? Now that we know the tunnels are there, we can’t allow ourselves the luxury of doing nothing about them.
It sounds entirely reasonable – Hamas is using tunnels to try to kill Israelis on Israeli territory, so the IDF has to go into Hamas’ territory and wipe out those tunnels. And it might be reasonable – if there were no other way Israel could avoid being attacked through those tunnels. It might be reasonable if Israel wasn’t choking Gaza and the West Bank for 47 years. It might be reasonable if Israel hadn’t provoked the war that led to these underground attacks (after a year-and-a-half in which Hamas not only didn’t lift a finger at Israel, but also reined in, to varying degrees, rocket attacks by other Gazan armed groups). Going after the “terror tunnels,” even at the cost of Gazan and Israeli lives, might be reasonable if Israel wasn’t rejecting any cease-fire terms that would allow the 1.8 million people of Gaza to breathe for once.
Israel could have preempted the tunnel attacks by ending the occupation; and failing that, by not provoking this war; and failing that, by accepting a ceasefire on humane terms. But Israel’s answer is no, no and no, so truly, the only choice it leaves itself if it wants to protect its citizens near the Gazan border is to send Israeli soldiers charging into Gaza, killing and getting killed.
Israel provokes Hamas into a war that escalates to the point where Hamas is fighting a war of survival, using everything it’s got, including tunnels for attempted terror attacks in Israeli territory – and Israel says, “Look what they’re using! My God! We can’t let them have that kind of capability – they’ll use it to kill dozens of people!”
If somebody hasn’t said it already, I don’t think it will be long before we hear, “Lucky for us that Hamas forced us to invade; otherwise we wouldn’t have known about all those tunnels.”
Israel can play this game with any of its enemies. Hezbollah has 100,000 rockets and missiles pointed at this country; they haven’t fired a single one in eight years, since the Second Lebanon War. But let’s go provoke a war with Hezbollah, they’ll start firing thousands of rockets at us – Iron Dome can’t shoot them all down – and we’ll say, “You see? They’re firing thousands of rockets at us, we have to go into Lebanon and destroy them all.” We can play the same game with Syria, with Iran, with anybody.
Instead, why don’t Israelis ask themselves: if Hamas has this network of tunnels that leads into Israel, and which took them years to build, why didn’t they use them before? For that matter, why didn’t they use their long-range rockets before? Why were they sitting on 10,000 rockets and not firing any of them?
Could it be that they weren’t so eager to use everything they’ve got, to invite Israel’s wrath, to fight a war of survival?
But very few Israelis have any interest in questioning Operation Protective Edge. Israelis generally don’t ask a lot of questions about matters like these even between the wars, so they’re certainly not going to ask them now.