No End in Sight for Operation Protective Edge

With Israel and Hamas behaving as if time is on their side, an agreement seems unlikely, for now.

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The missile and the damage done: A car in Ashdod damaged by a rocket that was fired from Gaza, July 8, 2014.
The missile and the damage done: A car in Ashdod damaged by a rocket that was fired from Gaza, July 8, 2014.Credit: Ilan Assayag

As Operation Protective Edge came to the end of its second day, it didn’t appear that any senior Israeli officials had any idea yet about how or when the operation would end. The Israel Defense Forces is gradually intensifying its air strikes on the Gaza Strip, hunting down rocket launchers and preparing its soldiers for a possible ground operation. The army, however, doesn’t seem to have a trump card up its sleeve that could force Hamas to halt its rocket barrages.

Hamas is firing its rockets over a broad range, reaching far deeper into Israel than ever before, but the overwhelming majority have been intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system; so far there have been no Israeli casualties.

The surprises prepared by the terror organization – sending armed frogmen to infiltrate Israel from the sea at Zikim Beach, readying cross-border attacks from tunnels dug under the fence and into Israel – were foiled by the IDF. In the absence of any real gains to boast of, Hamas is trying to celebrate the increase in its range of fire. On Tuesday its rockets reached Hadera, some 100 kilometers north of the Gaza Strip, while Wednesday Zichron Yaakov, some 120 kilometers from the Strip, was hit.

For most Israelis, the most troubling surprise so far has been the use of these long-range rockets. They are thought to be Syrian M-302 rockets or a variation thereof, which has a range of slightly more than 110 kilometers and warheads weighing dozens of kilograms, with much greater damage potential.

In June, Military Intelligence said Hamas and Islamic Jihad have hundreds of rockets with a range of 80 kilometers (which can reach from Gaza to the Dan Region, and in numbers 10 times larger than two years ago, during Operation Pillar of Defense). Now it emerges that MI had reached the conclusion back in December that these longer-range rockets had also been smuggled into the Strip, but the IDF refrained from publicizing this.

Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior Hamas official, has said the organization can hit any target within Israel. But there’s no reason to exaggerate Hamas’ achievements — beyond their symbolic value, as it were the Palestinian version of Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah’s declaration during the Second Lebanon War that the Lebanese organization was capable of reaching “beyond Haifa.” The fact is that most of the rockets fired, as of this writing, have fallen in open areas or were successfully intercepted, with the Iron Dome system exhibiting impressive abilities.

Hamas’ only comfort is that it has managed to drive several million Israelis into shelters.

On the negative side of this interim balance sheet we can identify several problems. In contrast to previous operations, Israel did not surprise Hamas with an opening blow, but was dragged into a campaign against the organization without causing it serious damage at the start. It’s clear that there is an intelligence gap here; Hamas has a large number of rockets and launchers with varying ranges and the IDF has only partial information on the location of the longer-range launchers. And it is worth noting that in previous operations, in both Lebanon and Gaza, as the operation drags on, the quality and number of targets that military intelligence brings to the IAF’s attention drops, rather than improve.

Given this weak point, Israel has been intensifying its air strikes. Since Hamas deliberately situates its command posts in the homes of operatives in the midst of residential areas, the expected result is a relatively large number of civilian casualties. During Operation Pillar of Defense the strikes were relatively minor and more accurate, and the number of noncombatants who were injured was low.

The past 24 hours were characterized by massive air strikes that are certain to draw international criticism. That’s almost unavoidable during a campaign like this, but neither Europe nor even the United States will show understanding for very long, despite the Netanyahu government’s blatant restraint before it launched the operation.

If we understand the IDF officers’ explanations correctly, in the absence of a way to bring Hamas to its knees, we can expect an additional intensifying of the air strikes that the army hopes will lead the organization to take stock of its damage (which is considerable, and growing) and ask for a cease-fire. Such a confrontation could be long, harsh, and ugly. Palestinian civilians are already being killed, despite the army’s caution. Sooner or later, there are liable to be Israeli deaths, too, because Iron Dome cannot provide hermitic protection for very long.

The air force is speaking of Hamas’ “map of pain,” increasingly severe attacks on the organization, until it cries “uncle.” This seems like a contrived attempt to retroactively justify an operational plan that developed with restrictions. It’s not certain that Hamas will play along; the speech made Wednesday by top Hamas official Khaled Meshal was belligerent and aggressive, as if he was daring Israel to hit his organization even harder. One can assume the group will be unleashing more surprises.

These circumstances, alongside the concern that Israel is being perceived in the Arab world as being afraid to use ground forces because it fears casualties, may lead to a decision to send troops into Gaza somewhere down the line. The government and the General Staff will have to make sure that this is a limited operation whose objective is to exercise pinpoint pressure on Hamas and restore calm, and not a pretentious attempt to bring down Hamas’ rule in Gaza, which is doomed to failure.

This military pressure will have to be complemented by a diplomatic process that will lead to a cease-fire. This, as has already been noted, is dependent on Egypt’s good will. Israel’s growing alliance of interests with Cairo will continue to serve Israel over the long term – for example, to fight smuggling after the operation is over – but in the short term there’s an inherent problem. The Egyptians so despise Hamas that the idea that the group might absorb more hits from Israel (even if this means a longer operation and Israeli casualties) is liable to appeal to them.

Meanwhile, we may be seeing Hamas blink first, as it has publicly announced its terms for stopping the rockets: opening the border crossing at Rafah (a demand that Egypt must address), easing the economic restrictions, a release of the Shalit-deal prisoners who were rearrested (which Israel is likely to refuse) and returning to the understandings reached after Operation Pillar of Defense. There are those in Israel who see this move as the beginning of Hamas’ willingness to back down, even though Hamas has not presented it as such.

Egypt is trying to add a new component to the formula: Hamas is asking to open the Rafah crossing on the Egyptian border in a more orderly fashion. Cairo is suggesting that this be done on condition that the Palestinian Authority is permitted to resume its involvement in running the crossing. Hamas, as expected, isn’t pleased with the idea.

It seems as if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is approaching the point of having to decide between two rather unpleasant options: Further intensifying the air strikes and risking another Goldstone Report, or sending a mass of ground forces into the Strip without being certain of what their objective is.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, who served as Netanyahu’s security adviser until last year, says that a military operation that will defeat Hamas is possible, but will require that Israel reoccupy Gaza and leave the IDF there for at least a year.

Amidror suggested that every citizen consider whether such a deal is worth it. It’s clear that isn’t what Netanyahu wants, but he may end up dragged into it against his will.

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