Israeli Leaders Should Think Twice Before Launching a Gaza Ground Offensive

A tour along the border with the Gaza Strip, and a series of conversations with commanders on the ground and retired senior officers with knowledge of the situation, raises disturbing questions over the logic of a major ground operation at the current time.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

While Cairo is still applying pressure on Hamas to agree to a quick cease-fire with Israel, and while in Israel an airlift of diplomats has been landing seeking to stop a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, the Israel Defense Force is continuing its intensive preparations for the ground phase of Operation Pillar of Defense.

The buildup of forces on the perimeter of the Gaza Strip is being carried out amid nagging mortar and Qassam rocket fire, but the preparations are in full swing. It appears that relatively little additional time remains before the operation is carried out.

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It should be kept in mind that the buildup of capacity, which is essential in the event that it is indeed decided to embark on land-based steps, might be designed to coax Hamas into accepting a cease-fire, ultimately without the need to put the troops into action. It is also worth remembering that this is not an "all or nothing" situation. There is a wide range of possibilities in deploying units on the ground, and there are many degrees of force short of full occupation of the Gaza Strip, a prospect that it seems no one on the Israeli side is interested in.

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In any event, a tour along the border with the Gaza Strip on Sunday and a series of conversations with commanders on the ground and with retired senior officers with knowledge of the situation there raises disturbing questions over the logic of a major ground operation at the current time. The threat of acting, with the goal of forcing an arrangement upon Hamas under favorable terms for Israel, is reasonable and necessary. The danger is inherent in being swept up in the rhetoric being expressed by a few politicians and "talking heads" on television in a way that risks ending in a serious strategic mishap.

The situation on the border prompts the following thoughts:

Loss of relative advantage: The first stage of Operation Pillar of Defense has met with success because Israel took advantage in the process of its advantages in the war against terrorism - improved technology, absolute air superiority and mastery from the intelligence standpoint. Currently the aerial phase is close to running its course. A large portion of the significant targets have already been attacked and now effort is being made to "hunt down" rocket-launching cells from the air.

In addition to pinpoint successes, this operation is being carried out in highly dense territory under major time pressures. The more this phase is drawn out, unfortunate mishaps such as the killing of 12 civilians in an attack in Gaza yesterday become almost unavoidable and in turn reduce the international legitimacy of the continuation of the operation. Friction on the ground would intensify with the entry of ground forces. The need to protect them from the many risks in the Gaza Strip will require a highly aggressive policy on the use of fire, which would steeply increase the number of civilian deaths on the Palestinian side and increase the pressure on Israel to end the operation.

Policy on the use of fire power: On the instructions of IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, a conservative use of fire power has been applied in the current operation in an effort to reduce the harm to innocent people as much as possible. For the first time, 100 percent of the ammunition being used by the Israel Air Force in the operation is precision ammunition. Foreign reporters who left Gaza on Sunday said the aerial fire power that Israel is employing is much more accurate and less destructive than that used in Israel's last major operation in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead in December 2008 and January 2009, when Israel managed to get mired down in the controversy over the United Nations' Goldstone Commission report.

But a by-product of this current achievement is another result that could be problematic. The force with which Hamas and its activists are being hit is much smaller. At least until the harsh wave of attacks yesterday, it seems that not enough has been done to hit at the defensive network of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. If a large number of Hamas activists remain at their positions, the resistance that IDF forces would encounter on entering the strip would be greater and the number of casualties among the Israeli soldiers could rise accordingly. At the moment, at least, Hamas is projecting confidence, despite the fact that its actual achievements have been meager.

The purpose of the operation: At the moment, it appears this issue is a major question mark, shared by the forces on the ground themselves. The first step by the IDF, the killing of Hamas military wing leader Ahmed Jabari and wiping out most of the long-range Fajr missiles, surprised Hamas and hit at its capacities. But it's hard to understand what a limited ground operation would serve now, and how it would further restore Israel's deterrent power, even if the number of Hamas dead increases by several dozen or by hundreds (when at the same time there will be losses on our side).

No doubt if it is ultimately decided to go in on the ground, the Palestinian factions will pay a steeper price than Israel. Hamas and the smaller organizations are no match for Israel. But it has to be asked whether, under the current circumstances, a continuation of the confrontation is necessary (in the hope that a quick diplomatic exit is possible ), and whether additional blows at Hamas would improve the balance of deterrence on the Gaza border.

It is very possible that the answer is actually that it would be better to wrap it up now and leverage the gains that have already been racked up, instead of a gamble on twice the reward.

Raising such issues is done out of concern, taking the safety of our forces into consideration. It's not a question of right or left, of patriots and those less patriotic. It seems worth listening at the moment to people like retired Brig. Gen. Chico Tamir, who recently warned against going into a ground operation without sufficiently thinking it through. Tamir, like others, has expressed the concern that despite all the improvements made in the army in recent years, hasty decisions would present the IDF with a rerun on the southern front of the 2006 Second Lebanon War.

Palestinians search for victims under the rubble of the destroyed house of a Hamas official after an Israeli air strike in Jabalya, northern Gaza Strip, November 17, 2012.Credit: Reuters
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Israeli military ambulances drive outside the northern Gaza Strip (seen in the background) November 21, 2012.Credit: Reuters
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Police arriving on the scene on Nov. 21, 2012 after an attack on a bus in central Tel Aviv. The attacker disembarked, leaving behind a bag that later exploded.Credit: Daniel Bar-On
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A Palestinian walks past the Islamic National Bank after it was destroyed in what witnesses said was an Israeli air strike in Gaza City November 20, 2012. Credit: Reuters

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