We are ready for two options in the south. If the fire toward our towns in the south ceases, then so shall our actions and the calm in the south since Operation Pillar of Defense [November 2012] will continue. The second option is that fire toward our residents in the south continues and then our reinforced troops there will act forcefully. The security of our citizens comes first.
Pillar of Defense included an intensive air campaign, which seriously degraded Hamas’ capabilities. While preparations were made for a massive ground invasion including a very expensive call-up of reserves, in the end the troops did not go in. It is difficult to believe that so much money would have been spent on a bluff, so it’s reasonable to speculate that the operation was aborted due to international pressure.
Operation Cast Lead, which began in December 2008 and ended in January 2009, also included air operations followed by a ground invasion of peripheral parts of the Gaza Strip. The third phase of Cast Lead, which was not carried out — after officials of the incoming Obama Administration almost certainly ordered then-Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to have the IDF out of Gaza before the inauguration of the President — would have had the army entering Gaza City and rooting out Hamas from its warren of tunnels under mosques, hospitals, schools, etc.
In each case the operations ended in a truce in which Hamas promised to maintain quiet in return for being left in peace. And in each case Hamas used the peace to rebuild its fortifications (with cement imported for ‘humanitarian’ purposes) and command/control systems, build more underground rocket launchers and of course stock up on bigger and better missiles. Now, as before, Hamas has found it profitable to ramp up its rocket fire on southern Israel.
What is different today is that Hamas believes that it has acquired a deterrent capability of its own in the form of long-range missiles which can theoretically cause significant damage and casualties in Israel’s population centers. Hamas thinks that this threat will prevent Israel from taking more serious steps like assassinating Hamas leaders, heavily bombing its facilities (which, you will recall, are surrounded by human shields), or entering the Strip with ground troops.
On the other hand, Israel sees that Hamas has emerged stronger from each of the previous truces. Sooner or later its long-range missiles will either be destroyed or used. They will not rust away. It’s always better to have a war on your terms than on the enemy’s. If they are getting stronger, fight them sooner. And so forth.
If Israel has allowed Hamas to develop a true deterrent capability, that would constitute a very serious failure of the government and military. One hopes that there is good intelligence concerning the types, locations and numbers of these missiles, and that in the event the conflict escalates, it would be possible to limit the damage that they could do to an ‘acceptable’ amount.
I think the missile threat can’t be ignored, but on the other hand the capability demonstrated in 2012 was very rudimentary. I believe that Hamas’ bragging is just that.
My guess is that an air campaign combined with incursions by special operations troops targeting underground installations could end Hamas’ dream of a deterrent.
This could be a limited operation or it could expand to the point of overthrowing the Hamas government, even including killing top officials. In that case, there would have to be a prior agreement with the Palestinian Authority or Egypt to take control, something that would be complicated to arrange (and who knows if they would want it). For this reason, I don’t expect this.
There would certainly be IDF casualties from any operation and probably casualties on the home front from missiles that do get through. And thanks to Hamas’ use of human shields, civilian Arab casualties are certain. On the other hand, a future confrontation — perhaps after Iran has achieved nuclear status — could be worse.
The best option seems to be to attack Hamas now, while Hizballah and the various factions fighting in Syria and Iraq are otherwise occupied, before Iran acquires nuclear weapons, and while the regimes in Egypt and Jordan are if not friendly at least not openly hostile.
The greatest obstacle is the Obama Administration, which would try to prevent Israel from seriously hurting Hamas (I know, it is hard to understand, but there it is).
Bibi has given Hamas a couple of days to stop rocket attacks. Either Hamas will back down and the uneasy truce will continue until the pressure builds up again, or — and I’m expecting this — there will a limited operation which will not overthrow Hamas, but will seriously weaken it. And then the cycle will repeat.