Michael Bell served as Canada’s ambassador to Jordan, Egypt and Israel
Is the persistence of Palestinian-built tunnels in Gaza driving Israel’s invasion? The answer is yes, and the Israeli government, albeit late in the day, is determined to deal with what it increasingly sees as an existential threat to its long-term well-being.
The persistence of the bloody Israel/Hamas confrontation in Gaza is difficult to accept. Yet, that is the reality. The toll of death, dismemberment and disfigurement is massive, if largely undocumented. Surely numbering in the many thousands.
Israeli troops continue to sustain casualties, far fewer in number than the Palestinians. But the losses and the sense of vulnerability are deeply felt within the Israeli political culture. Neither party to the conflict is prepared to accommodate what the other passionately believes are its basic needs.
In the long term, only a fair-minded, comprehensive and sustainable peace will obviate the kind of too-frequent bloodletting we are witnessing today. Only the kind of ideas propagated by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry – involving far-reaching accommodation – are likely to meet the requirements for a lasting peace. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the Kerry proposals are off the table. In Gaza, therefore, all we can hope for is conflict management, a second and temporary best. There will be no long-term resolution, only a short-term fix.
Many forecast, as late as last week, that the fighting in Gaza would be over in hours through an Egyptian/American-brokered ceasefire. The predictions were based on a seeming drop in Palestinian resistance due to declining stores, and Israeli ground action directed against the tunnels. The prognosticators got it wrong because they underestimated the iron determination imprisoning both sides. Why?
It is becoming obvious that Israel, for its part, did not pay sufficient attention to the growing capabilities of Hamas and terror groups like Islamic Jihad. Not that there was not ample warning. The widespread digging had been known for years. Tunnelling is perhaps the most significant mechanism Hamas has in countering Israel’s overwhelming determination, technology and air power. The tunnels give Hamas sustainability. They shield its forces from the Israeli high technology that threatens them.
The network of tunnels conceals militant activity, enables the movement of fighters, protects command and control centres and stores hardware. They are simple constructions: concrete, wood and steel. Hence, for example, Israeli prohibitions on the importation of cement to the Gaza Strip.
Aerial bombing is insufficient to destroy a tunnel system entirely. It takes heavy drilling equipment; explosives must be set along the entire length of any given tunnel. This is a risky task, involving sizable numbers of ground troops.
Yet, barring a comprehensive two-state peace agreement or an Israeli reoccupation of Gaza, both of which are off the table, it seems the destruction of the tunnels was the only alternative for the effective degradation of Hamas’s capabilities. For some time, Israeli cabinet hardliners have been advocating going in heavy and doing that job.
Mr. Netanyahu has also been criticized by those who say his preoccupation with Iran has diverted his focus from the growing threat in Gaza. He was ultimately convinced that the tunnel option was his only viable alternative. We can expect a severe and ongoing confrontation with no early end in sight.