By Richard C. Gross
“If we have to choose between being dead and pitied, and being alive with a bad image, we’d rather be alive and have a bad image.”
— Golda Meir, 1898–1978, Israeli prime minister 1969–1974
Israel has paused its planned major offensive into Gaza, benefitting Palestinians fleeing Sunday from potential targets as America added to its military power in the region amid a mounting humanitarian crisis in the besieged area.
The pause appeared to be the result of bad weather that would ground warplanes and drones covering for ground forcesadvancing in Gaza.
Tens of thousands of civilians have heeded Israel’s orders posted on social media and dropped from leaflets to evacuate northern Gaza, including its capital city, and to go south to escape announced Israeli intentions of a tank-led infantry push to eliminate the Hamas terrorist group that invaded the Jewish state Oct. 7.
The unknown, of course, is how many of the terrorists will flee south wearing civilian clothes hidden among the civilian Palestinians. Hamas has urged people not to leave Gaza City.
The Israelis have been deploying armor and troops outside Gaza for the past week, since Hamas killed up to 1,400 Israelis, including 30 Americans. Another 13 Americans are missing and are thought to be among the estimated 150 people captured by Hamas.
Concerns for the welfare of Palestinian civilians was good news for Palestinian refugees in the face of Israel’s plans for a “complete siege” of the narrow 25-mile-long Gaza Strip, population 2.3 million. About half of them would be expected to make their exit south toward the Egyptian border.
Israeli air strikes into Gaza already killed 2,670 people and wounded 9,600, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.
Though the United Nations has been warning of a humanitarian crisis for a week after Israel cut off electricity, food, fuel and water to the Palestinians, the Americans stepped forward Sunday to support U.N. demands for Israelis to show restraint in attacking Hamas.
As a first step, Israel turned water back on but only to southern Gaza, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told CNN’s “State of the Union.”
In an allied move, the State Department announced that it has appointed an experienced diplomat, David Satterfield, as a special envoy for “Middle East humanitarian issues” to “facilitate the provision of life-saving assistance to the most vulnerable people and promote the safety of civilians.”
It didn’t outline his authority or identify how he would carry out his mission.
This followed Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s move to dispatch a second aircraft carrier, the Dwight D. Eisenhower, and its battle group to the Israeli region to deter others from joining the war against Israel. The carrier Gerald R. Ford and its group of warships already was in the eastern Mediterranean.
The American firepower being sent to back up Israel is enormous. The two carriers alone are armed with four squadrons of F/A-18 attack aircraft, with each squadron composed of 58 planes. Further, the Air Force is doubling the number of F-16, F-15 and A-10 squadrons on the ground in the region.
“We can’t rule out that Iran would choose to get directly engaged some way,” Sullivan said on CNN.
“We have to prepare for every possible contingency,” he said. “That’s exactly what the president has done. That is part of what has motivated the president’s movement of these assets, to send that clear message of deterrence to make clear that this war should not escalate.”
President Joe Biden, who has been extremely supportive of Israeli plans for retaliation, weighed in on the humanitarian side of the conflict, telling CBS’ “60 Minutes,” that an Israeli reoccupation of Gaza would be “a big mistake.” He added, “Hamas and the extreme elements of Hamas don’t represent all the Palestinian people.”
Israel doesn’t seem to have plans to reoccupy Gaza, which would be a monumental burden financially and militarily.
Israel captured the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six-Day War in June, 1967. It surrendered it to the West Bank’s Palestinian Authority in 2005, pulling out Jewish settlements there. Hamas took control of it in 2007.
Israel’s stated goal is to wipe Hamas’ military division off the planet and possibly leave its social activities intact. Israelis know that most Palestinians want what Israelis want: peace and the chance it provides to live fruitful lives.
It seems from my experience as a journalist in Israel for seven years in the 1970s, a time of repeated small-scale terrorist penetrations into the Jewish state by Yasser Arafat’s Fatah and, later, the Palestine Liberation Organization, that Israel knows not to go charging angrily and blindly into Gaza seeking revenge for the bloodiest attack in its 75-year history.
There’s precedent among Israelis for a calculated mission to go after terrorists: the 1972 Munich massacre in which 11 Israeli Olympic athletes were killed by eight members of the Palestinian Black September outfit and PLO operatives. The Mossad, in Operation Wrath of God, hunted down and killed all but three of the terrorists. It took years, ending in 1979. The Mossad is equivalent to our CIA.
I’m merely suggesting there are other, stealthier ways of meting out justice beyond arrest and trial by jury, which surely would be innovative in reprisal for terrorist killings.
In the 1973 October War, Israel didn’t have the luxury of a leisurely military buildup to counteract the coordinated surprise Yom Kippur invasion by Egypt and Syria; their mobilization was immediate. This is Israel’s second surprise October war on another Jewish holiday, Sukkot, which celebrates the fall harvest.
If Israel does undertake a full-fledged assault into Gaza, possibly backed with jet fighters and helicopter gunships as air cover for tanks and infantry, the battles could be bigger than the invasion of the area in 2008 and against Hezbollah in the month-long war in Lebanon in 2006.
But surgical attacks by special operations forces would be best to avoid Hamas killing its hostages and Hezbollah, which is far bigger and more powerful than Hamas, opening a second front. Iran backs both terrorist organizations.
But surgery may not be the option chosen by Israel’s new unity government of right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his temporary equal, former defense minister Benny Gantz. Israelis, fed up, have been demanding an end to terrorism.
Richard C. Gross covered war and peace in the Middle East, was the Pentagon correspondent and foreign editor for United Press International and was the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.