IDF soldiers - Getty Images - January 2012
IDF soldiers returning from the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead. Could they be back there in 2012? Photo by Getty Images
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Last Tuesday was the third anniversary of Operation Cast Lead. In the evening hours, the Israel Air Force killed a Palestinian activist and wounded two others in the course of two attacks on the Gaza Strip designed to preempt a planned terror strike launched from the Egyptian border. In response, three rockets were fired at open spaces in the Negev; fears of a further escalation turned out to be unfounded.

That morning, IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz said on Army Radio that "Operation Cast Lead was carried out in a professional, determined manner, and significantly strengthened Israel's deterrent strength."

He added, however, that as time passed, cracks opened in this deterrent vis-a-vis Hamas, and it won't be possible to bypass another round of fighting in the Gaza Strip in the future.

Apparently, Gantz was right in both respects. The three years which ensued after Cast Lead were the quietest witnessed over the past decade in the south; and yet the operation's effect is starting to fade. Neither Israel nor Hamas is currently interested in another military showdown, but a few gunshots could spark a major flare-up during the coming year.

Major General Yoav Galant, the GOC Southern Command three years ago, was responsible for planning Operation Cast Lead. He thoroughly trained forces for two years prior to the operation; and he ceaselessly pressured the General Staff and the political leadership, demanding that the operation be undertaken; and, assisted by two brigadier generals, Moshe Tamir and Eyal Eisenberg, he led the operation after the green light was given.

That senior officials were hesitant about engaging in a wide-scale operation is no secret. They feared that the operation would culminate with many IDF casualties. Yet the virtually incessant rocket attacks on the south, following the Gaza pullout, led to the decision to take action; but the operation was delayed for several months after another unofficial cease-fire was worked out between the sides in summer 2008. When this truce collapsed in November, the leadership equivocated on three counts: whether or not to undertake the operation; whether to rely solely on air attacks, without ground maneuvers; and whether to engage a wide-scale operation in Gaza, attacking not only the northern part of the strip but also surrounding Rafah in an effort to impede the smuggling of arms from the Sinai peninsula.

In the end, the operation got the go-ahead in late December. The Southern Command's position, demanding that the operation not be confined to air attacks, was accepted. Defense Minister Ehud Barak and IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi were not thrilled about a sweeping land attack, and ultimately approved a limited ground action concentrated around Gaza City.

On January 10 2009, two weeks into the operation and a week after the land attacks began, the Southern Command reissued its request for operations around Rafah. The proposal was rejected, due to fears of entanglement. Today, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert claims that had Barak not sabotaged the operation in this middle stage, a mortal blow could have been delivered to Hamas. The reality is more complex. It's hard to determine how many casualties Israel would have endured had its troops entered Rafah, and how such an operation might have hurt Hamas. Had Operation Cast Lead , Hlasted beyond January 20, Olmert would have faced a full confrontation with U.S. President Barack Obama. In retrospect, Galant admitted that the opposition to a wider operation can be understood.

During Cast Lead, the IDF used a massive amount of resources, in proportion to the Gaza Strip's small dimensions. Hamas pulled away from the IDF, hoping to limit its losses; and the Islamic organization fired fewer rockets at southern Israel than had been anticipated at the start of the operation. The limited number of Israeli casualties (13 dead, four of them from friendly fire ), along with the speed by which the IDF seized a large swath of land in northern Gaza, rehabilitated not only Israel's deterrence after the failures of the Second Lebanon War, but also the IDF's image in Israel's public.

Hamas is weaker and less proficient than Hezbollah, but there's no doubt that the IDF operated more successfully in Gaza than it had in Lebanon. The number of rockets fired from Gaza during the past two years, some 1,100, is a sixth of the number fired two years before the operation. The brunt of these rockets fell in open spaces; meantime two or three "Iron Dome" anti-missile batteries are now in operation, defending the Negev. The quality of life and real estate values of communities near the Gaza border have improved accordingly.

Hamas remains hesitant about engaging a direct confrontation against Israel, but the same cannot really be said about Islamic Jihad and other fringe Palestinian movements. Particularly worrisome is the scale of weapons smuggling into the Gaza Strip. Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives have in their possession many thousands of rockets; hundreds of these could apparently reach central Israel. Relative stability in the south remains in effect, but the IDF is preparing itself for the possibility of a land operation in another few months.

The balance of forces continues to be disrupted by positions taken by the Egyptians. The interim government in Cairo will not respond to an Israeli move in Gaza with the same type of assent demonstrated by Mubarak's regime. Operation Cast Lead stirred a barrage of legal controversy, reaching a peak with the September 2009 Goldstone Report. The UN committee's main allegation was that the IDF deployed an unofficial policy, directed from the top, of causing direct harm to the Palestinian civilian population, and particularly to infrastructure that services the Palestinian public. Damage caused to flour mills, water wells, a sewage purification plant and chicken coops was used as evidence of this contention.

Goldstone rejected Israel's explanation that this was collateral, unintended damage caused by warfare. His committee also claimed that Israel's legal system does not operate adequately with regard to transgressions in the territories, and basically provides cover for the country's political and military spheres.

Were the UN committee's allegations to be accepted, it would mean that Israel committed outright war crimes, and that in the lack of any Israeli intention to prosecute its offenders, the international community has to intervene. Up to the present, the Palestinian Authority has not abandoned its effort to bring Operation Cast Lead war crime accusations to the International Court of Justice.

Israel responded in two ways: Belatedly, it took up an examination of the accusations, and it conducted an explanation campaign among jurists in the West. Gradually, its claims won sympathy. For example, it was proven that a Gaza flour mill was damaged by a tank shell that destroyed the first floor of the building - this was not a precision strike from a plane, as the UN committee claimed. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon blocked anti-Israeli moves in response to the report's issuance. The UN Human Rights Council, a blatantly pro-Palestinian body, appointed two committees in an effort to examine the extent to which Israel enforces rules of engagement and international law. Much to the council's surprise, the committees concluded that Israel's law enforcement system functions. In an article published this year in The New York Times, Goldstone retracted a portion of his major claims.

Meanwhile, the IDF completed its legal inquiry into the affair: Some 50 military police investigations were carried out, and a few indictments were issued. The trial of a Givati soldier accused of killing a Palestinian woman is still underway. Two other soldiers from this infantry brigade were convicted of having forced a 9-year-old boy to open a bag, due to a suspicion that it had an explosive inside.

A battalion commander and a brigade commander were censured for the dangerous use of artillery fire in civilian areas. The gravest suspicion, pertaining to the alleged negligence of a Givati brigade commander, Colonel Ilan Malka, in an incident involving the deaths of 20 Palestinian civilians as a result of aerial bombing, ended with a whimper: The case will be closed, and the suspension of Malka's promotion process will be lifted, even though he will be promoted only to a desk job.

In comparison to the situation two years ago, Israel seems to have acquitted itself reasonably in the Goldstone affair. Yet alongside the successes registered by Operation Cast Lead, it would be wrong to overlook the accumulated damage. The IDF's unwritten rule of thumb in the Gaza Strip, holding that minimum casualties should be inflicted to our own troops, set the stage for a notably aggressive assault on a populated area. True, neither the Americans nor the British operated in a more restrained manner in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the world monitors every step the IDF takes. Even though the West was convinced in the end that the Goldstone report's claims were exaggerated, the level of international credit to be extended to the IDF in the next round of conflict will be constrained. Facing threats posed to its own civilian population, Israel will be forced to operate under heavy restraints.

Shalit's deal-broker

Two and a half months after Gilad Shalit returned home, the various conspiracy theories surrounding the prisoner exchange deal can be assessed. The release of prisoners was not a "desk cleaning" exercise undertaken by Israel prior to an operation in Iran (this possibility was apparently taken off the discussion table in two meetings held between U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Defense Minister Ehud Barak in weeks preceding the Shalit deal ).

Three factors led to the deal's finalization in mid-October: the broad public support in Israel for the deal, the successful media campaign waged by the Shalit family, and Netanyahu's political situation. Alongside the feeling that Shalit's return was the right thing to arrange, in humanitarian terms, it is impossible to ignore the public's addiction to emotional climaxes. At times it appeared that a clear line could be drawn between record viewing ratings for the "Master Chef" finale and television broadcasts of the tear-filled Shalit family reunion. The heads of the Shalit lobbying campaign had a firm grasp of these links.

With regard to Netanyahu, the authorization given to David Meidan to make headway on the exchange deal, and to accept several terms Israel had hitherto regarded as deal-breakers, occurred during the social protest ferment. It seems that the social protests sparked by demonstrators such as Daphni Leef exerted an influence leading to Shalit's release comparable to the effect of the media blitz campaign led by consultant Tami Sheinkman on behalf of the Shalit family. (Both the social protest movement and the free Shalit campaign appealed to the same emotional impulses of the same public sector ).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who knows how to read public opinion polls, understood these facts very well. The finalization of the deal was delayed somewhat following the terror attack on the Eilat highway on August 18. But Shalit's return, together with the fumbling report prepared by the Trajtenberg committee, delivered a mortal blow to the protest movement; and Netanyahu's position in the opinion polls soared.

Riding this crest of popularity, the prime minister proceeded to call for early Likud primaries. That aides close to Netanyahu spoke mockingly of the medical interns strike ("who will remember them, anyway?" ) immediately after the Shalit release is no coincidence.

The nature of Netanyahu's changed position can be assessed if we return to December 2009. At that time, a year after Operation Cast Lead, German mediator Gerhard Conrad offered a "Christmas proposal," demanding that Israel show more flexibility than it had in the previous round of negotiations, which culminated toward the end of Olmert's term as prime minister, in March 2009. Discussions with several security-related individuals who were involved in these contacts indicate that in December 2009 Netanyahu initially assented to Conrad's proposal, but later retracted this position.

Thereafter, the prisoner release negotiations stalled. All entreaties made by mediator Hagai Hadas, calling for the release of five top Hamas prisoners on the roster of persons defined by the sides as "VIPs," were rebuffed.

Disappointed, this mediator quit his post last April. His replacement, Meidan, received much wider latitude from the prime minister this summer. In the October 2011 deal, more than 30 "VIPs" were released. True, the most prominent prisoners (Abdullah Barghouti, Ibrahim Hamad, Marwan Barghouti, Abbas al-Sayed ) remained in jail, but persons close to the negotiations report that Hamas understood throughout the course of the affair that there was no chance these figures would be freed.

In July 2011, a breakthrough occurred in the talks thanks to the intervention of a private individual, Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin, who corresponded with the Hamas government's deputy foreign minister, Razi Hamed. From that point, Meidan pushed forward the negotiations while keeping a distance from professionals in the Shin Bet security service, IDF intelligence and top cabinet ministers. With just a few exceptions, most of the people who had earlier been involved in the contacts learned of the deal just a few hours before the cabinet met to approve the release, on the night of October 11.

The ministers' vote in favor of the exchange deal was assisted by a forceful stamp of approval given by the new Shin Bet head, Yoram Cohen. Cohen's actions deviated significantly from the uncompromising stance upheld by his predecessor, Yuval Diskin, which was supported strongly by his subordinates. It will be interesting to hear Diskin's opinion of the Shalit release, when he chooses to talk about it.

Netanyahu's final decision was, of course, legitimate (to my own mind, it was also just; personally, I believed that the state's obligation to a soldier kidnapped when performing his duty enjoined the finalization of the release deal, once efforts on all other channels failed ). Those who criticize Netanyahu are not primarily worried about security threats posed to the state by the released prisoners; instead, their main concern is the deal's strategic implications, centered on the probability that top Hamas figures will now feel that their course of violent opposition, and their philosophy of persistent clinging to their positions, has been justified. As they see it, with sufficient patience even the most hawkish Israeli prime minister will bow down in the end, and accept most of the terms dictated by Hamas in order to free a kidnapped soldier - particularly when doing so happens to help him in public opinion polls.