After Destroying 100,000 Homes, Netanyahu Threatens Even More Destruction in Gaza
Less than 12 hours before the announcement of the ceasefire that would end Israel’s 51-day war on Gaza, and after the deal’s terms had been agreed upon, Israel decided to unleash its most ferocious display of firepower, with warplanes launching American-supplied bunker busters at Gaza’s landmark buildings, instantly collapsing two residential high-rise towers in Gaza and a shopping mall in Rafah.
The official Israeli line claimed that the buildings housed “Hamas command centers,” though provided no evidence to back up the dubious claim. I wrote at the time that the buildings had no military value and were an attack on Gaza’s economy. This was later corroborated by Israeli General Gershon Hacohen when he favorably compared the bombings to Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers.
Just as Israel’s military brass intended, the attacks sent an unmistakable message: When the time came, that level of violence is where Israel would resume.
It appears that time may be approaching.
“If we are attacked by tunnels from Gaza our response against Hamas will be more powerful than in the last war,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the Foreign Ministry last week. It was the strongest threat from the Israeli government yet.
For all of Netanyahu’s bluster, the Israeli military has done little—or has been unable—to counter Hamas’ construction of new tunnels, which are used for both civilian and offensive military purposes. According to an Al Jazeera Arabic report from last September, the official Israeli narrative that the military “achieved the maximum” damage to the tunnel network is false, rendering Netanyahu’s claim akin to George W. Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” declaration.
The report indicates that the damage to tunnels was minor, referring to them as “malfunctions” that Al-Qassam was able to repair on the spot.
Israel’s State Comptroller undermined Netanyahu’s claim in a recently drafted report that “indicates gaps and failures, some of them serious, in preparations to meet the threat of the tunnels and in dealing with them.” The draft notes that this was also the situation prior to the 2014 war on Gaza.
During the commemoration of the seven members of Hamas’s armed wing—the Al-Qassam Brigades—who died in a tunnel collapse last month, Al-Qassam spokesman Abu Obeida reiterated that tunnel construction is ongoing. “Thousands of the sons of Al-Qassam Brigades continue working above the ground as well as underneath in preparation for jihad,” he said.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh boasted that the tunnel network is more extensive than the apparatus maintained by the Viet Cong guerilla forces during the U.S. war in Vietnam.
Israeli drilling machines are working along the Gaza border in attempts to locate and destroy tunnels, but the government has remained tight-lipped about it. The Obama administration has earmarked $120 million for Israeli weapons firms Elbit Systems and Rafael Advanced Defence Systems to develop a tunnel detection system. But no amount of technology seems to be able to suppress the willpower of Gaza’s plucky armed factions.
The tunnels proved to be a gamechanger in 2014. Guerilla teams from the besieged Gaza Strip were able to emerge from tunnels behind the Israeli military’s frontlines, rendering the traditional model of battlefields irrelevant. The Nahal Oz operation (see the video embedded below), in which a group of Palestinian fighters attacked a military outpost and killed at least five Israeli soldiers, came as a shock to both sides, boosting morale among Gaza’s beleaguered population and shaking the confidence of Israelis in their high-tech, up-armored military.
Panic spread among Israelis, with some reporting to authorities that they could hear digging from their homes even when there was none. One settler told me she could hear digging in her home all the way in the West Bank settlement of Gush Etzion, a virtual impossibility. The tunnels had popped the Israeli public’s fragile bubble of security.
But Israel’s Operation Protective Edge was not carried out because of tunnels or rockets. In fact, tunnels and rockets do not present any existential threat to the Israeli government or its citizens; only 44 Israelis have died in the history of rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza, and more soldiers have died from suicide than from tunnel operations.
When Netanyahu attacked Gaza in 2014, his true target was the unity deal rival Palestinian political parties Hamas and Fatah had just inked. Creating and maintaining divisions among factions has long been a key strategy for Israel, even as successive Israeli governments complain they can’t negotiate with a divided Palestinian polity.
Netanyahu’s latest threats arrive as Hamas and Fatah officials prepare to meet in Doha to discuss implementation of the 2014 reconciliation agreement, however unlikely that remains.
While Netanyahu publicly threatens Gaza, far-right Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett is attempting to outflank him from the right, suggesting that Israel launch an operation on Gaza’s tunnels now. Officials close to Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon accused Bennett of “deceiving the [sic] cheating the public” and being “willing to drag the country to war out of cynical political motives.” Netanyahu is guilty of this too, placing a gag order to conceal the deaths of the three Israeli teenagers killed in the occupied West Bank from the public in order to launch Operation Brother’s Keeper, which ultimately led to Operation Protective Edge.
For the residents of Gaza, the periods between what have become regular Israeli mega-assaults—typically referred to as times of “calm”—are anything but. The rebuilding process never materialized despite lofty promises of world leaders in Cairo. Only 20% of the funds have been received.
A long-term ceasefire agreement between Hamas and Israel mediated by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair never came to fruition. This is hardly a surprise given his record of dealings with various leaders, including advising Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi who has been zealous in tightening the siege on Gaza.
Those who have managed to obtain building supplies live in constant fear of another Israeli attack.
“I’m not happy no matter how much I build,” Nidal Al-Areer lamented in September during my last visit to Gaza. “I expect that there might be another war and they might destroy my house again.”
Only a few hundred meters from the border, in an area still covered in the ruins of the last war, Al-Areer’s home lies within what the Israeli military calls the “hard shell,” where networks of tunnels emerge and where the Israeli military will likely focus its next military campaign.
As always, support for armed confrontation reigns in Gaza. A crippling eight-year siege makes daily life a struggle and leaves the traumatized population without any hope for any other solution.
If Netanyahu carries out his threat, the scale of destruction he will unleash is almost unfathomable. With 100,000 homes damaged or destroyed in 2014, a “more powerful” response can only mean that the violence will consume more of Gaza than ever before. As they ready for an Israeli assault that seems inevitable, residents in Gaza must wonder what new horrors await them.