Harsh Tactics: These pictures show an apartment building being hit by missiles before it collapses during an Israeli airstrike in the heart of Gaza City on Aug. 23. Israeli military officials say such tactics brought about the most recent cease-fire. (MOHAMMED OTHMAN/ / AFP/Getty Images)
TEL AVIV — After 11 collapsed cease-fires in 50 days of war, Israel had to employ “extraordinary escalation,” a general officer here said, to force Hamas to accept the latest Egyptian-brokered truce that promises to end Operation Protective Edge.
The officer, a member of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) General Staff, said Israel may never know what event or convergence of factors compelled Hamas to accept an Aug. 26 truce whose terms were “virtually identical” to those offered in the first days of the war.
Operationally, he surmised it was a string of “spectacular airstrikes” leveling at least three luxury towers that followed “high-value” killings of senior Hamas leaders that triggered the turning point in Israel’s longest single operation since the 1948 war of independence.
“We were able to document in real time how these people or places were used to wage terror attacks against us,” the officer said. “The enemy eventually understood that nothing is off-limits, not schools, not mosques. Nothing. As the prime minister said, ‘No one is immune.’ ”
He was referring to warnings by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following the Aug. 23 destruction of a Gaza City high-rise that Israel claimed housed a Hamas command center. “I call on the inhabitants of Gaza to evacuate immediately from every site from which Hamas is carrying out terrorist activity. Every one of these places is a target for us,” Netanyahu warned.
Officers here attribute critical Hamas setbacks to the apparent Aug. 19 killing of Mohammed Deif, the elusive leader of Hamas’ military wing. Airstrikes two days later killed three top commanders, including the architect of Gaza’s underground network of tunnels.
But it was only after that Aug. 23 strike, on top of the cumulative effects of six weeks of war, that Hamas began to waver on cease-fire demands, officers here say.
Two days later, on Aug. 25, the IDF destroyed two other towers, along with more than 50 targets throughout the coastal strip.
Within 24 hours, the latest cease-fire took effect.
In its Aug. 26 report, the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Gaza assailed the staggering psychological effects of the high intensity strikes by the IDF.
“The IDF continues to destroy selected residential and commercial properties across the Gaza Strip,” it wrote. “The strikes follow warnings through leaflets, text messages or phone calls, some of them pre-recorded, others reportedly sent from mobile phone numbers abroad to Gaza residents just minutes before an attack... The psychological impact of this practice is enormous.”
“They should have taken the gloves off much sooner,” said retired Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, the IDF chief of staff who commanded Israel’s 2008-2009 Cast Lead operation in Gaza.
“If they fought in the first two weeks the way they did in the last two weeks, Protective Edge would not have extended into 50 long days,” he said.
In an Aug. 27 interview, Ashkenazi credited Netanyahu for his belated embrace of the tough, unapologetic tactics that hastened the latest indefinite lapse in fighting.
He said Hamas was unaffected by Netanyahu’s repeated promises over the first six weeks of warfare to halt combat in exchange for a halt in Gaza-launched attacks.
“Quiet in exchange for quiet doesn’t work with this enemy. The only way you can negate the enemy’s asymmetric advantage is to apply reverse asymmetry. Nothing is off-limits,” he said. “And it should be demonstrated at the beginning to maximum effect.”
Brig. Gen. Moti Almoz, IDF spokesman, said the enemy was hurting from the cumulative effect of IDF operations over 50 days, but that escalation leading up to the latest cease-fire may have hastened what all here hope marks the end of the war.
“We struck a large number of targets that they didn’t expect,” Almoz told Israel’s Channel 10. “I don’t think Hamas ever thought or planned that we would embark on such significant action.”
As of the Aug. 26 cease-fire, UNRWA counts 2,086 Palestinians killed in the current campaign, 1,454 of whom — some 70 percent — “are believed to be civilians.” The agency said it is caring for 289,109 displaced people.
Israel disputes those figures and claims nearly half of all Protective Edge fatalities were armed militants or those otherwise classified as so-called legitimate targets.
According to the IDF, Israel attacked 5,222 targets during the operation. It counted 4,791 Gaza-launched rockets and mortars, 3,823 of which landed in Israel, 772 of them intercepted by Iron Dome systems. ■