It’s Not About Tunnels. So What Is the Gaza Conflict About?

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at The American Prospect. Since the article went up last night, Hamas rejected extending the ceasefire and resumed rocket fire less than one minute after it ended. Israel has resumed missile and artillery fire. Alas.


At four o’clock after the war—which is to say, 4 p.m. Tuesday—a Hebrew news site carried a telegraphic bulletin: The head of the Israeli army’s Southern Command announced that residents of the area bordering Gaza could return to their homes and feel safe. The reassuring message was undercut by the bulletin that appeared on the same site one minute earlier: “IDF assessment: Hamas still has at least two to three tunnels reaching into Israel.”

At the end, if Gaza War of 2014 has ended, if the ceasefire holds, it was about tunnels—some as deep as forty meters (130 feet) below the surface, dug from inside the Gaza Strip and reaching hundreds of meters into Israel, into farming villages and to the edge of the town of Sderot —tunnels from which Hamas fighters could suddenly surface to attack civilians or soldiers. To be precise, this is how the war is most immediately remembered in Israel: as an offensive aimed at removing the subterranean threat. In the rubble of Gaza, where nearly 1,900 people were killed by Israeli fire, where 460,000 are homeless, the presumed purpose of the war will surely be remembered very differently.

Let’s return, though, to the Israeli perception: People remember backwards, viewing earlier events through the lens of later ones. The Israeli government’s announced goal in fighting since the ground invasion of Gaza on July 17 was finding and destroying attack tunnels. This, therefore, is remembered as an original purpose of the war. A friend, left of center politically, asked me the afternoon after the war why Israel had earlier accepted an Egyptian proposal for a ceasefire that was set to start before the ground invasion, since the government obviously knew it would need to invade Gaza to get rid of the tunnels.

But the crisis wasn’t about tunnels when it started. The Israeli government’s tactical goals shifted repeatedly. At no point, it appears, has Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a strategic political vision. Yet the story of the tunnels leads inevitably to the need for a political resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The crisis started with the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers by a Palestinian cell in early June. Reacting with a roundup of Hamas activists, Netanyahu’s goal was to cripple the Islamic organization in the West Bank and to discredit Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s new unity government, which had Hamas support.

That’s when Palestinian factions in Gaza—first Hamas’s more radical rivals, then Hamas itself—broke a semi-armistice and began launching rockets at Israeli cities. Israel’s Operation Protective Edge began an air offensive, aimed at stopping the rocket fire. Only after Hamas rejected the Egyptian ceasefire proposal and a squad of gunmen surfaced from a tunnel in Israeli territory did the government order the invasion. From that point the central goal was to eliminate the tunnels.


Put differently, the army and government only upgraded the status of tunnels as a threat in the midst of the war. The complacence until then was a major military blunder. It has been eight years since Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was taken captive by Palestinian gunmen who surfaced from a tunnel behind Israeli lines near Gaza. In the couple of years, the Israeli army twice discovered attack tunnels.

Actually, there have been discussions within the Defense Ministry for a decade on developing defensive technology to detect tunnels. Geophysicist Yossi Langotsky, an ex-colonel, wrote this week that as an adviser to the general staff in 2005, he proposed building a “fence” of seismic sensors around Gaza that would have identified underground passages. Army sources quoted in the media claim that detection methods have been tried and failed. But from the information available to the public, the main reasons for failure are underinvestment and neglect.

Given the success of Iron Dome, Israel’s anti-missile system, failure to put similar effort into underground defenses seems surprising. But the generals didn’t want to invest in Iron Dome, either. Their objections were overruled by Amir Peretz, who served as defense minister in 2006-2007. Peretz was the rare defense chief who hadn’t been a general. During the Gaza War, via a cooperative journalist, an unnamed senior officer voiced the same objection to tunnel defenses that nearly stopped Iron Dome: Money is better spent on weapons for offense.

In an asymmetric war, defense may be much more valuable than offense.

This fits old Israeli military doctrine: A small country must make sure to fight its battles on the enemy’s territory. The Gaza War and Iron Dome’s success suggest a different idea: In an asymmetric war, defense may be much more valuable than offense. …

Read the rest here.