This summer’s war in Gaza was a conflict neither side wanted nor knew how to disengage from, a conflict that remains unresolved although the fighting has stopped, said a seasoned American-Jewish journalist.
J.J. Goldberg, The Forward’s editor-at-large, told a local synagogue audience that both Israel and Hamas “stumbled” into the war through a series of missteps beginning with the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens in June.
“Israel knew the teens were dead by day two,” said Goldberg, yet its forces continued to search for them as a cover for going in and dismantling Hamas’s infrastructure in the West Bank with barely a shot being fired.
While neutralizing an enemy whose mission is to destroy Israel may have been a good move, the prolonged search whipped up passions in Jewish communities both in Israel and abroad that intensified after the bodies were found, said Goldberg. He pointed to the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had said, “Hamas killed those boys; Hamas will pay.”
Goldberg, the Jewish newspaper’s former editor-in-chief, spoke Oct. 27 at the Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth. Fluent in Hebrew and in frequent contact with sources in Israel’s security establishment, Goldberg offered an assessment of the war sometimes at odds with that of mainstream Jewish organizations.
He described how, as Israeli troops rounded up militants in the West Bank, it set off a wave of panic among Hamas leaders in Gaza, who assumed they would be next and went underground.
Ironically, that same Hamas leadership had been abiding by a 2012 cease-fire with Israel.
“Hamas had been arresting hundreds of jihadi terrorists,” said Goldberg. “There was a drip of rockets coming into Israel, but they weren’t coming from Hamas.”
Without Hamas to stop them, “every jihadi nut job” was now free to fire rockets into Israel, said Goldberg, as Israel retaliated.
“Israel has a policy of responding to rocket fire,” Goldberg said. On the night of June 30, Israel fired a rocket that accidentally hit a car carrying a Hamas leader.
“The next day Hamas retaliated, and from June 1-8 there was a slowly rising level of retaliation,” said Goldberg. “By July we had what we would consider a war.”
What followed became a public relations nightmare as Hamas military operations were hidden among civilian targets such as hospitals and schools.
“Israel did an extraordinary job militarily,” said Goldberg. “Hamas was done. But the civilian toll was very high and Israel was losing friends in the West.”
Operation Protective Edge also allowed Israel to destroy the underground tunnels used by Hamas to smuggle in explosives and weapons, although Goldberg claimed Israel has known about their existence for 10 years.
Goldberg said because the tunnels were rarely used and Israel had no means of surveying them from above ground, the country’s military budget was instead focused on preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power. “There’s long been a cat-and-mouse game” between Netanyahu and his security personnel over Iran, he said.
“Netanyahu has gone several times to ask for permission to attack Iran,” said Goldberg. “Each time the military intelligence — Shin Bet, Mossad — have unanimously urged, ‘Don’t do it. It won’t work.’”
However, when the military was presented with “an opportunity to destroy the tunnels at the open end, they took it.”
As the war gained steam, both sides found themselves in a conflict no one knew how to get out of, said Goldberg. While normally Egypt would step in as a broker, its leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, “hates Hamas even more than Israel” because they are aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, which he considers his biggest threat.
Under pressure from the Americans and from other Arab states, Egypt reluctantly stepped in. Although the fighting has ceased, negotiations are at a standstill.
“Israel has had it with Hamas,” said Goldberg. “Any deal now will include disarming Hamas. Each side has a minimum bottom line that is utterly impossible for the other to meet. They’re going nowhere because there’s nowhere to go.”
The one bright spot is Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
“The one person who was the loser was Abbas because he was irrelevant,” said Goldberg. “But now that the war is over, he is the winner.”
A Hamas that is seriously weakened militarily and financially might be more willing to form a unity government with Abbas’s Fatah party, a move that may lead to a lasting peace agreement and begin the work of forming a Palestinian state.
“Fatah can begin to take over bit by bit the government in Gaza and put Hamas under control,” said Goldberg.