A Palestinian family looks at the remains of homes that were destroyed in Jabalia, the Gaza Strip, where numerous cease-fires have failed. (Roberto Schmidt / AFP)
TEL AVIV — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is confronting conflicting pressures at home and abroad over his government’s prosecution of Operation Protective Edge, now in its 35th day.
Internationally, Netanyahu is answering outrage over the more than 1,800 Gazans killed and 250,000 displaced through unprecedented release of photos, seized documents and other evidence to support claims that Hamas is to blame for a war-fighting doctrine that intentionally puts its people at risk.
At the same time, Netanyahu’s acceptance of 10 cease-fire proposals — all of them violated by Hamas — aims to underscore that Israel is not averse to a diplomatic solution for eventual demilitarization of the Gaza Strip.
But at home, Netanyahu faces a restive public increasingly wary of the salvo attacks that have preceded and immediately followed each of the nine previous, short-lived lulls.
At the time, Israel was heady at the prospect of ending the war.
Israeli media was awash with images and interviews of troops exiting Gaza.
Israel’s Government Press Office proclaimed “conclusion of the operation” and promised testimonials by Gaza-based reporters who had experienced Hamas’ use of so-called human shields.
Netanyahu declared the anti-tunnel phase of the ground war accomplished and recalled most of the 82,000 reservists tapped for the fight.
In anticipation of Hamas’ acceptance of Egyptian-brokered cease-fire terms, Israel rescinded civilian safety procedures against Gaza-launched rockets. Lt. Gen. Beni Gantz, Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, urged residents of besieged communities in the south to exit the shelters and return to their daily routines.
On Aug. 6, a day after that defunct cease-fire took effect, Netanyahu told international media that most casualties in Gaza could have been spared had Hamas agreed to honor a July 15 cease-fire, before Israel’s ground invasion.
“Now I want you to know that at that time, the conflict had claimed some 185 lives. ... That means that 90 percent, a full 90 percent of the fatalities in this conflict could have been avoided had Hamas not rejected then the cease-fire that it accepts now,” he said.
But again, Israel underestimated the staying power of Hamas. As summer camps reopened, business picked up and residents slowly returned to their homes, residents of the south again found themselves targets for rocket and mortar strikes.
“The IDF didn’t truly know how to correctly assess Hamas’ intentions; not before the war, during the operation and apparently not even now,” wrote Yossi Yehoshua in Sunday editions of Yediot Ahronot, Israel’s largest daily newspaper.
Netanyahu accepted the latest 72-hour ceasefire late Saturday evening, just hours after vowing to continue the campaign until its goals were attained.
“Operation Protective Edge is continuing. At no stage did we declare its conclusion,” Netanyahu said at the start of a Saturday Cabinet meeting.
In a terse and unusually defensive statement, the Israeli premier said the operation would continue “until its goal is met.” On Saturday, he defined operational goals as “restoration of a quiet for a long period.”
On Sunday, he amended the goal to include significant strikes at Gaza-based terror organizations.
“We are determined to achieve the goal of Operation Protective Edge — the restoration of quiet for the residents of Israel for a lengthy period while striking significantly at the terrorist organizations,” Netanyahu told reporters in Jerusalem.
He added, “We will achieve this either militarily or diplomatically, or by a combination of both.”
But 35 days into the ongoing campaign, there is increasing confusion here over how, exactly, Netanyahu aims to secure those goals and how he aims to exit the fight.
While public approval for the war remains high, Netanyahu is facing a crescendo of criticism and calls for an investigation of his wartime stewardship.
After more than a month of shifting tactics and mixed messages, an increasingly impatient Israeli public is demanding decisive action — either through renewed high-intensity combat or a clear exit strategy — for ending the asymmetrical attrition war.
“If this cease-fire doesn’t hold, I think he’ll have to reassess his strategy, which was very limited up until now,” said Efraim Inbar, director of Bar Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
In a Monday interview, Inbar said the majority of the Israeli public is ready to resume and expand the ground operation “not for the purpose of reoccupying Gaza, but for extracting more direct pain on Hamas,” he said.
Inbar said a clearer outcome to the current fight is essential for bolstering deterrence not only against Hamas, but Hezbollah “and other fanatics in the region.”
He noted, however, Netanyahu’s need to balance domestic and external interests, which lessens the likelihood for a more assertive war strategy.
“It’s almost impossible to achieve decisive results in an asymmetric war without jeopardizing international legitimacy,” Inbar said. ■