Diplomacy & defense

Israeli soldiers celebrate on their Merkava tank as they pull out of the Gaza Strip, on August 3, 2014
Newly forged special relationship with Egypt, weakening of Hamas are two of Israel's achievements in Gaza op

After 27 days and 63 Israeli Defense Forces fatalities, the war is over. At least as far as Israel is concerned. The unilateral withdrawal is a political decision informed by military considerations. The IDF has set up a line of defense within the buffer zone of three kilometers from the Gaza border, parallel with moving its troops out of the Hamas-controlled enclave. Granted, should Hamas keep firing rockets, the IDF will return to operational mode and bomb Gaza from air, with the repeat of the ground incursion very much on the table.

All these moves are coordinated with Egypt. Israel's security coordination with Egypt during the operation has been unprecedentedly close; from Israel's viewpoint, the special relation with the north-African ally is its most important strategic asset in the region, and the main achievement from this war.

The IDF is set to demolish the last of the tunnels on Sunday, meaning 31 Hamas tunnels leading into Israel were uncovered and decommissioned during the operation. These were tunnels intended for attacking Israel, and a huge amount of military equipment was found inside, including motorcycles, bulletproof vests, munitions and rocket launchers, as well as provisions that could last the fighters some time.

The destruction of the tunnels was the stated goal of the IDF at the start of the ground incursion 17 days ago; prior to that, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's motto was "quiet shall be reciprocated with quiet."

What cemented the decision of the members of the government's security cabinet to go ahead with the unilateral retreat was the Friday morning incident, which resulted in the death of Lt. Hadar Goldin and two other soldiers; Thursday night, after consulting with Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen and talks with the Egyptians and the Americans, Israel agreed to the 72-hour humanitarian ceasefire during which talks aimed to restore quiet were slated to start. Hamas leadership announced it was prepared to accept the truce that went into effect at 8 AM and lasted 80 minutes. At 9.20 the incident where the IDF soldiers lost their lives had already played out.

That was the straw the broke the back of the camel. Israel realized there's no point in talks, including mediated ones, after the group broke the previous truces. In the cabinet meeting that lasted until 2 AM on Saturday night it was decided to start the unilateral withdrawal, in coordination with Egypt.

A factor that contributed to the decision was the news that tunnels Hamas put five years of work and tens of millions of dollars into were destroyed within two weeks of accelerated activity of the IDF. Additionally, the terror group's rocket stockpiles dwindled from some nine thousand to about 2500. Over four thousand rockets were destroyed in addition to some 2800 that were fired at Israel.

This marks the start of disarmament of Hamas, in the knowledge that in the future Egypt will closely monitor and destroy the tunnels when and if the Rafah border crossing is reopened. According to IDF estimates between 700 and 800 Hamas terrorists and operatives were killed - about 45% of the total Gaza toll. Yet that's a small consolation. A "mere" 800 civilians were killed, including many children. Despite the IDF's efforts to prevent casualties among the civilian population, Israel should be very unhappy with this figure.

The bottom line is that Hamas was severely battered and humiliated, and the heavy toll to the civilian population of Gaza could hurt the organization's image further. No wonder Hamas pleaded for a ceasefire a few days ago, which it then violated. IDF is hoping that this will serve as deterrence to Hamas and bring several years of quiet to Israel's south. One should mention here the Second Lebanon War and its aftermath. What seemed at first like a tactical failure and a Hezbollah victory was a huge strategic achievement by Israel that brought eight years of quiet to its north.

Yossi Melman is an Israeli intelligence and security commentator and co-author of “Spies Against Armageddon, inside Israel’s secret wars."​ He tweets @yossi_melman.

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