ישראל נאמן | Lectures, Articles, Tours: Israel | Mideast onTarget | Elliot Chodoff & Yisrael Ne'eman | Another Round in Gaza

Another Round in Gaza

12 December 2012

By Elliot Chodoff.

The smoke has cleared, the dust has settled, and the latest in an endless list of cease fires has taken effect. The latest round of fighting with Hamas looked a lot like the last round, but there were significant differences in context, tactics, strategy, and outcome. As usual, the pundits and populists have declared the Israeli operation a failure with Israel shying away from a ground assault, leaving Hamas in place to declare victory and re-arm for another round. The facts are very different from these assessments.


This escalation, initiated by Hamas with a cross-border anti-tank missile attack on an IDF vehicle that wounded four soldiers, coincided with dramatic events around the region: Iran’s progress in its nuclear weapons program, the Syrian civil war, and the strengthening of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, to name a few.


The key to understanding Israel’s strategy in this operation is Iran, and the key to understanding the tactics is Egypt.


Let’s start with strategy. The Israeli government under Netanyahu is thoroughly (and correctly) focused on the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons development. With that in mind, 2013 may be the critical year of decision, including the option of a military strike against Iran’s facilities. In that context, the threat of missile attacks against the Israeli population, either as a pre-emptive or retaliatory act, must be considered seriously. Hizbullah has amassed an arsenal of tens of thousands of rockets, capable of reaching targets as far south as Dimona. Additionally, Hamas is reported to have acquired rocket capabilities that rivaled those of Hizbullah at the outset of the Second Lebanon War of 2006. These, combined with Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities, threatened to overwhelm Israel’s anti-missile and rocket defenses, as well as putting intolerable strain on Home Front Command’s civil defense abilities. Removing Hamas’ rocket threat, if only for one or two years, significantly alters the equation. To be clear, it was not only the quantity and quality of Hamas rockets that needed to be reduced, but, more importantly, the elimination of a third front from which attacks could originate.


Tactically, this operation comes on the heels of the failing Assad regime in Syria coupled with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. These two phenomena have prompted a shift in Hamas’ allegiance from Shiite Iran to its more natural patron, Sunni Egypt. Proximity counts here, as well, as Egypt is much better placed to support Hamas in Gaza than is Iran. Furthermore, the Brotherhood-led regime is a natural ally for Hamas, which describes itself as the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood.


Following Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in January 2009, Israel assumed that a certain level of deterrence had been established vis a vis Hamas. Rocket and other attacks were reduced, and, significantly, Hamas refused to take credit for attacks out of Gaza, even those launched by its members. Israel correctly viewed these facts as signs of Hamas vulnerability, and refrained from major initiatives, including the targeting of Hamas leaders, restricting its military operations to pre-emption and retaliation.

With the establishment of a Muslim Brotherhood-led regime in Egypt, Hamas changed its approach. Attacks increased in frequency and intensity, more groups were given the “green light” to strike from Gaza, and Hamas returned to credit-taking for attacks. Shortly after this occurred, the Israeli leadership decided to reinstate the policy of targeting Hamas leaders in Gaza


The missile attack against an IDF patrol began the escalation that became “Operation Defensive Pillar.” A number of requirements had to be achieved simultaneously to initiate the operation: a high profile Hamas leader had to be targetable, IDF intelligence had to have located the majority of Hamas’ long range missiles and the IAF had to be able to eliminate them. When these three criteria were met, the operation was launched.


The reserve call-up was an elaborate bluff, but one that was prepared to act if the bluff was called. One important lesson learned after the 2006 war with Hizbullah was that ground forces need to be ready if and when they are needed, not a week or two later. In addition, the threat of ground attack had an important impact on Hamas, Hizbullah, the region, and the West. Blustery propaganda aside, the terrorist organizations are well aware that an IDF ground incursion would cost them dearly. So the reserve forces, ready to go, helped Hamas accept a cease fire and keep it, made Hizbullah a little more conservative in their approach to the conflict than they might have been otherwise (recalling that the 2006 war began with the Gilad Shalit capture and the subsequent IDF operation in Gaza), and leant urgency to the efforts by local and distant governments to achieve a cease fire.


The operation ended when the IAF had destroyed essentially all its pre-set targets. Munitions, tunnels, Hamas infrastructure, and terrorist groups’ leaders were all targeted and hit. Rocket fire was declining, although not stopped, and the two key questions, often overlooked in real-time decision making, were asked: what more can reasonably be gained by continuing or further escalating the operation? What are the risks and potential costs?


Given the original strategic objectives, a ground operation, or even a continuation of the air campaign, would have risked more than they would have achieved. Israel’s leaders were careful to frame objectives in attainable terms: weaken Hamas, restore deterrence, and reduce rocket fire. Keeping the Iranian issue in mind, and not wanting to divert world opinion from that issue, a ground invasion of Gaza would have been counterproductive. Eliminating Hamas requires conquest of the area, occupation, and a painstaking search for low level leaders and operatives in addition to the higher echelons. IDF casualties could be heavy, and inadvertent noncombatant casualties could skyrocket as well. While all of this would be going on, Iran would be free to continue to work on its weapons in the shadow of world and Israeli preoccupation with the Gaza situation.


So, what was achieved? Hamas was seriously set back in terms of its arsenal, infrastructure, and leadership. The joy with which the organization received the cease fire was not a reflection of victory, but of relief. It will take a while before Hamas is ready to return to the battlefield. Egypt (and Turkey) openly supported Hamas, but with little more than lip service. The Arab and Muslim world demonstrated, once again, that they are not overly willing to risk life, limb, or treasure to fight for Hamas. Hizbullah also read the situation as not terribly conducive to troublemaking from Lebanon. They will most likely participate in an Iranian-instigated operation, but they are not looking forward to it.


Perhaps most important, Israel demonstrated its superiority in intelligence, planning, and execution as hundreds of targets were hit and noncombatant casualties were kept to a minimum. This serves not only the ethical aspects of IDF operations (important as they are) but also testifies to the precision accuracy of IDF air and ground fire capabilities. The willingness to call up ground forces, if not to use them, adds additional weight to any military threats that Israel will have to make in the future. Civil defense preparedness and operations, combined with the Iron Dome anti-rocket system, helped minimize civilian casualties and maintain high morale. There were certainly foul-ups and there remains room for improvement, but given that no military operation is ever executed perfectly, Pillar of Defense gets high grades in all the subjects that count.