Why Israel Didn't Want to Invade Gaza

Israeli soldiers work on their a tanks in a staging ground near the border with Gaza Strip, southern Israel, Friday, Nov. 16,
Israeli soldiers work on their a tanks in a staging ground near the border with Gaza Strip, southern Israel, Friday, Nov. 16, 2012. Fierce clashes between Israeli forces and Gaza militants are continuing for the third day.(AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

A former commander-in-chief of Israel's Navy said Israel was hesitant to launch a ground war in Gaza after learning a painful lesson four years ago about the diplomatic consequences of killing Palestinian civilians.

Ami Ayalon said the harsh international reaction to Israel's military conduct in Gaza in Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009 led chastised Israeli leaders to reevaluate how to conduct the present offensive.

"I believe that we learned something from Operation Cast Lead," Ayalon told me in an interview. "The war of today is not won on the battlefield but victory is achieved in the eyes of spectators all over the world."

This is why Israel is being more careful to avoid civilian casualties this time and why he believes ground forces shouldn't be used because civilian deaths would then "obviously" increase. He said there's a political reason too. "If we use our ground forces, we are perceived as invaders and once we are invaders Hamas becomes the national liberator... and not a terrorist organization. This is not in our interests."

So far more than 150 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since Operation Pillar of Defence began on Nov. 14.

A U.N. report following Cast Lead accused Israel of committing war crimes in Gaza. Israel angrily rejected the report and the lead author, South African jurist Richard Goldstone, later disavowed it. But its three other authors did not.

Israel readied 75,000 troops to invade Gaza and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened to send them in. Khaled Meshal, the Hamas leader, at a press conference in Cairo on Monday dared Israel to do it, vowing heavy casualties for Israeli soldiers.

President Barack Obama and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon both pressed Netanyahu not to launch a ground war.

More than 1,000 civilians in Gaza were killed in Cast Lead, which included an Israeli ground invasion. Similar numbers could be expected if Israel Defense Forces went in again, said Ayalon, who is also a former Labour Party MP and ex-director of Shin Bet, Israel's domestic security service.

Ayalon says Israel's air war was justified because of Hamas' rocket attacks. But he said military action and Israel's blockade of the territory are ultimately failed strategies because so many new Hamas weapons replaced those destroyed four years ago.

"The blockade doesn't work," Ayalon said. "Hamas, as of at least a week ago, was much more powerful than they were four years ago so I'm not sure the blockade is the right way to deal with this threat."

Ayalon believes Israel's attack on Gaza was a just war that any Israeli government would prosecute to protect its citizens in the south.

"But I think finally we will never win a war only by using our military capabilities," he said. "Yes we know how to fight, but this is not the only language we speak. We must speak the language of diplomacy and there is a huge opportunity here."

The Palestinian Authority's bid to become a non-member state of the United Nations in a vote slated for Nov. 29 is that opportunity, Ayalon said. The Palestinians have more than the 97 votes required in the General Assembly to win the U.N. upgrade.

But Israel has threatened to withhold tax revenue from the PA if they go ahead with the vote. Ayalon instead has a radical idea: Israel, on two conditions, should support the U.N. bid.

One condition is that PA President Mahmoud Abbas begin on Nov. 30 for six months to negotiate borders based on the 1967 lines with land swaps. The other is that during the talks Abbas promises not to bring war crimes charges against Israel in the International Criminal Court, which the Palestinians could join as a U.N. non-member state.

A separate peace with the PA-ruled West Bank would isolate Hamas, Ayalon said. "We are fighting Hamas, not Palestinian society," he said. Once Palestinians in Gaza see the benefits of a West Bank deal with Israel, their support for Hamas will erode, he believes.

"When the Palestinians elected Hamas it was not because they believe in fundamentalism," he said, but because of Fatah's corruption and a belief that Israel only understands force.

"To separate the Palestinian people and Hamas, in the long run if we show a viable [peace] process I believe the Palestinians in their next elections would vote against Hamas," he said. Abbas, who has renounced violence, can only gain if the process is active, he said.

Whether Netanyahu is willing to negotiate is a different matter, Ayalon acknowledged, but said he had compromised in the past. "If it is clear to Netanyahu that in order to face Iran Israel will have to pay in Palestinian coin, I am not naïve, but I believe Bibi Netanyahu would do it."

Ayalon conceded that Israel was today paying a price for a misguided policy of supporting Hamas two decades ago at the beginnings of the radical Islamic group as a counterweight to the secular Palestine Liberation Organization.

"The idea was that religious people couldn't care less about a nation-state and might be the opposition to the national movement of the PLO, which we saw then as our major threat," Ayalon said. "This is why we saw this element within the Palestinian society as a positive element."

"Of course, we could not predict history and shape history by ourselves," he said. Hamas later also turned to national independence as a priority over Islamism, he said.

Ayalon, in step with the official Israeli position, blamed Hamas for starting the present conflict. He said the trigger for Israel's aerial and naval bombardment came after a steady build up of rocket fire into southern Israel led to a missile striking an Israeli Jeep on Nov. 10, wounding four soldiers.

But the cause of the conflict is in dispute. Two days before, on Nov. 8, Israeli helicopter gunships made an incursion into the Gazan village of al-Qarara, northeast of Khan Yunis, killing 13-year old Ahmed Abu Daqqa, who was playing football in front of his house, according to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights.

The rocket that wounded the Israeli soldiers was in apparent retaliation.

"Of course I know all these events, but the idea that we should try to find what was the exact event that created this wave of violence ... it's beyond a specific case," Ayalon said.

Gershon Baskin, a negotiator who won the release from Hamas of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, says that on the morning of Nov. 14 he had a ceasefire agreement sent to Ahmed Jaabari, commander of Ezedin al Qassam, Hamas' military wing. Baskin says Israeli officials were waiting for Hamas' response.

But later that day Israel assassinated Jaabari as he rode in a civilian car in Gaza City. Israel's fierce bombardments then ensued.

"I know nothing but what Gershon Baskin told me," Ayalon said. "I think Gershon probably has very good information about a piece of paper as it was submitted to Jaabari." But he said he had no idea whether Jaabari was serious about a deal. "I don't think we see it as whether Jaabari will or will not accept some ideas," he said. "It is hypothetical."

The timing of Israel's operation Pillar of Defense has also called into question whether it was ordered by Netanyahu to bolster his chances of reelection on Jan. 22. Cast Lead took place after the Nov. 2008 U.S. presidential election and just before Feb. 2009 Israeli elections. Likewise Pillar of Defense occurred between a U.S. and Israeli general election.

"The whole idea of these conspiracy theories are too sophisticated," Ayalon said. "Usually what we see is stupidity and coincidence."

But he added: "The timing probably is a factor, but I'm not in a position to tell [if it] was because of the American and Israeli elections."