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The Gaza War: Mission Creep and Tunnel Vision

Commentary, 30 July 2014
Middle East and North Africa
The war in Gaza is within touching distance of 2008–09’s Operation <em>Cast Lead</em>, in intensity, lethality and destructiveness. Yet expanding Israeli objectives and Hamas’ obstinacy are preventing a ceasefire.

The war in Gaza is within touching distance of 2008–09’s Operation Cast Lead, in intensity, lethality and destructiveness. Yet expanding Israeli objectives and Hamas’ obstinacy are preventing a ceasefire.

Kerry and foreign ministers of Turkey and Qatar

The Gaza war, poised to enter its second month, demonstrates a classic instance of mission creep. Israel has just rejected a ceasefire, proposed by US Secretary of State John Kerry, which is extremely similar to that brokered by Egypt which it accepted two weeks ago. Hamas insists that it will not agree to a longer humanitarian truce – let alone a ceasefire – unless the blockade on Gaza is eased, a position that is tantamount to rejecting a return to the status quo.

Both sides, rhetorically at least, have now trapped themselves in a revisionist war, embracing objectives that they have acquired during the fighting itself, and are now fighting on grounds that are quite different to those that prompted them to enter into hostilities.   

Who Can Mediate?

Over the weekend of 26 and 27 July, Kerry, who has been heavily criticised by both Israel and Egypt – both major beneficiaries of US aid – tried to engage Qatar and Turkey as go-betweens to Hamas, in order to come up with a fresh ceasefire proposal. Ankara’s role was especially contentious; Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan had declared in the previous week that Israel had ‘surpassed Hitler in barbarism’. Yet Kerry was only turning to Doha and Ankara because earlier efforts by Egypt, the traditional mediator in these conflicts, had failed to yield fruit. This was unsurprising, given that Egypt’s leadership is unprecedentedly hostile to Hamas, to the point where Cairo failed even to consult Hamas at first.

The Israeli outrage at Qatari and Turkish involvement is therefore misplaced. In the Times of Israel, one writer declared that ‘the US administration gambled on the camp that supports Hamas, bankrolls it and pushes it to go on shooting’; another argued that ‘the preference for the Muslim Brotherhood axis, over the moderate axis, is a problem that begins in the White House’. These are absurd criticisms. There is no evidence that Qatar or Turkey have encouraged Hamas to ‘go on shooting’, nor that the White House is aligning itself with these countries more broadly. In fact, it would have been a dereliction of diplomatic duty if Kerry had not closely consulted with those nations with connections to, and leverage over, Hamas. Kerry didn’t ‘undercut’ Egypt, as the Washington Post’s David Ignatius suggests – Egypt was doing a perfectly good job of undercutting itself.

Nor was Kerry’s plan, first proposed on 25 July, and which involved a Qatari role in paying public employees’ salaries in Gaza, especially objectionable. Reportedly, it ‘explicitly did not include a call for the IDF to withdraw from Gaza during the ceasefire’, and ‘U.S. officials told the Israeli government that tunnel work would be able to continue during the ceasefire’. Given that Hamas fighters are hiding in these tunnels, using them extensively for military purposes, this would be a curious sort of ceasefire. But that makes it all the more puzzling why Israel should respond so vituperatively to Kerry.

Israeli Strategy

If Netanyahu was willing to accept the Egyptian ceasefire two weeks ago – before the IDF went into Gaza, and before the destruction of the tunnels was even a military objective – then why should his cabinet turn down a ceasefire that would give Israel considerably more?

The answer is that Israel’s objectives are expanding, both for reasons of opportunism (the IDF may not get another opportunity to target tunnel entrances and interiors for a long time) and domestic politics (Netanyahu’s cabinet ministers are calling for wildly ambitious goals, like the demilitarisation of Gaza). Obama’s former senior Middle East adviser, Dennis Ross, argues that the tunnels were a ‘strategic surprise’, implying that this might account for the shift in goals, but this is being disputed in the Israeli press.

What is clear is that the tunnels have now acquired such salience that they will shape not just the military campaign, but the overall strategy. A successful Hamas attack in Israel through a tunnel on 28 July will have reinforced this tendency. On Monday night, Netanyahu promised: ‘we will continue to act with force and discretion until our mission is accomplished’. But how many tunnels have to be destroyed before it is ‘mission accomplished’? It is doubtful that even the prime minister has any clear sense of this. The IDF has said it needs a week to complete the tunnel-destruction mission, but such timelines are unreliable and hostage to further shocks, such as another tunnel attack.

What is clear is that the Israeli campaign enjoys popular support. A Tel Aviv University poll on 29 July showed that 95 per cent of Jewish Israelis (three-quarters of the population) ‘felt the offensive was justified’, with just 4 per cent believing that too much force had been used. This domestic response will be ultimately more important than international pressure. As one senior Israeli official declared, ‘time is on our side more than theirs’.

Yet, this could also contain the seeds of further mission creep. A senior Israeli official told the Wall Street Journal that, in the newspaper’s words, ‘the military escalation was meant to force Hamas to choose between losing control of Gaza and yielding to Israel's terms for a sweeping disarmament of the territory’. The official was quoted as saying: ‘bringing them to a point of breaking is not a target, but if they break we don't feel sorry … we don't want to rule the Gaza Strip, but we want less to see rockets fall on our citizens’. This indicates that Hamas has some say in how long the IDF stays and how deeply it is pulled into Gaza.

Hamas’ Approach

Hamas, too, have rejected ceasefire after ceasefire, most recently on 29 and 30 July. Gazans undoubtedly want a change to their desperate conditions, and a complete lifting of all economic and other restrictions on movement in and out of Gaza. But do they, as Hamas insist, want to see a continued war – and the ongoing devastation of civilian infrastructure – to that uncertain end?

We have no way of knowing, because Hamas are authoritarian actors who intimidate and restrict the population on whose behalf they claim to ‘resist’. Gaza’s situation is unsustainable, and restrictions must be eased – but in ways that allow Israeli and Egyptian confidence that weapons are not getting through (Israeli authors suggest, for instance, ‘an international expert monitoring mechanism with Arab League guarantees’).

But the imperative of easing conditions in Gaza is no reason for Hamas to reject twenty-four-hour ceasefires that would immediately ease humanitarian suffering and, importantly, buy crucial time for further diplomacy. Even then, as Egypt revises the terms of its very first proposal, Hamas – in a relatively weak financial and diplomatic position, and with a declining military position – are unlikely to be able to negotiate more than modest changes to the blockade.

Nevertheless, if diplomacy fails to gain traction, this war could, within a matter of a week or two, outstrip 2008–09’s Operation Cast Lead in lethality, destructiveness and duration; the worst violence between Israelis and Palestinians since the second intifada at the turn of the century.


Shashank Joshi
Senior Research Fellow

Shashank Joshi is a Senior Research Fellow at RUSI. He specialises in international security in South Asia and the Middle East, with a... read more

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