At the Crossroads of a Gaza Ground Operation

Dealing with Hamas' rocket infrastructure will take weeks, if not months. Israel's government doesn't look like it has the stamina required for this.

Reuters

Toward the end of this week, is looked like Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip had reached a tipping point. Does Israel really intend to send ground troops to Gaza? Or is Israel just making the necessary noises in order to deter the Hamas government, and force it to return, at the last minute, to a cease-fire agreement?

The security cabinet's seven-hour meeting on Thursday, the invitation of media to document training exercises of troops on the Gaza border ahead of a possible ground operation, the Israeli army's phone message to Palestinian residents in north Gaza asking people to leave their homes- all these would seem to indicate that Israel seriously intends to send in ground troops. 

As in previous Israel Defense Forces operations, the acceleration of ground deployment has slightly sped up the diplomatic clock, which, until now, had tick-tocked at a slower pace. For a few days, unfulfilled expectations hung in the air in Israel that Egypt would manage to convince Hamas to stop firing rockets.

Whether Egypt is procrastinating because it doesn't care that Hamas continues to be pummeled by Israeli strikes, or whether the delay reflects how suspicious Gaza is of the Egyptians, it looks like other channels of communication are necessary.

This is why Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is talking with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry about a compromise. This is also why European states that made do until now with expressing a general understanding of Israel's right to defend itself, have commenced mulling involvement after seeing photographs of Palestinian children killed by Israeli strikes. By the end of the weekend, it will become clear which ticking clock will win. 

The security cabinet announced the operation on Monday night, after a number of weeks of clashes that started on a low flame and gradually escalated. At the outset, the military got approval to greatly increase airstrikes and to start preparing brigade teams for a ground operation. At the same time, Hamas increased its fire, which reached record heights with rockets across the country, from Zichron Yaakov in the north, the Judean Desert in the east, and Dimona in the south.

By Thursday evening, however, Hamas had almost totally failed to break Israel's defenses. Even compared to previous rounds of fighting, the Iron Dome missile defense system turned out to be the most significant card in Israel's hands, and its success rate improves with long-range projectiles. Rockets fired 70-kilometers toward Tel Aviv or Ben Gurion International Airport give Iron Dome plenty of time to target and intercept them.

For years, Israel was stumped by the issue of how to deal with the rocket threat, which began when the first hit the southern city of Sderot in 2001. Veterans of that time recall the pointless raids sites of rocket production in Gaza, where locally-made Qassams were produced. The current defensive response, with seven Iron Dome batteries covering the south and center of Israel, is far from being perfect. But in the meantime, it has managed to minimize Israeli casualties. In the end, it’s a numbers game and there will most probably be more severe damage (especially while hubris-filled citizens climb rooftops to get a better shot of rockets being intercepted). In the meantime, the feeling is that Israeli citizens feel that they are almost completely insulated from security threats.

The government's problem- and the IDF's, too- is the difficulty of marketing high Iron Dome interception rates to the Israeli public as a winning image. The Israeli public has gotten used to viewing a harsh military response as the most appropriate one.

A look at common headlines over the past few days gives us insight into this. The Israel Hayom newspaper, which is seen as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's mouthpiece, actually looked like it wasn't completely in synch with the Prime Minister's Office (which is hesitant about a ground invasion) a few days ago, when it called to return Gaza "to the Stone Age." Yedioth Aharonoth, meanwhile, always more proficient in reading the zeitgeist, dedicated one long article to Major Revital, the female commander of the seventh Iron Dome battery, who received training for the job during the current round of escalation. Major Revital is protecting us from rocket fire –  this, for the moment, is the story of the battle.

On the offensive side, things are wearier. The IDF's biggest difficulty is striking medium-range rocket launchers; that is, anything that lands between Ashdod and Zichron Yaakov. The lessons of the Second Lebanon War and earlier Gaza operations have been well absorbed, on the Palestinian side as well: Most of the rockets are loaded underground and launched through narrow slits. The launchers are spread out in the yards of houses that are built densely together, and the operatives come to prepare them for action through underground tunnels that emerge out of houses. The window of time for striking the target is very short. This is the embodiment of an asymmetrical war:  Israel's superior strength is not necessarily helpful, as using unrestrained force use will result in a larger number of civilian casualties on the Palestinian side.

The frustration created by this situation sparked an internal front between two leading major generals in the air force: Air Force commander Amir Eshel and the head of Military Intelligence, Major-General Aviv Kochavi. Military Intelligence claims that intelligence coverage is steadily improving. By Thursday afternoon, some 500 rocket-launch pits were bombed. These contained, according to intelligence estimates, close to 2,000 rockets. On Wednesday and Thursday it looked like there was a marked change for the better in Israel's ability to square the circle – that is, in identifying people linked to rocket launch systems and targeting them.

The number of Hamas losses certainly sped up on Thursday, although there were also no small number of civilian casualties. Intelligence officials were slightly hurt by claims that there was a lack of accurate intelligence enabling them to make direct hits on rockets. Some 90 percent of the outlined targets were in fact collected over the past year-and-a-half since the end of Operation Pillar of Defense.

Those in Military Intelligence think media skepticism is unwarranted. "We built a system that is like a Lexus, and you describe it as a Sussita (the now defunct Israeli car brand)," we were told.

Israel's cabinet did not publish a detailed message at the end of its long meeting Thursday night. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once again showered citizens with a volley of clichés in his brief performance in front of the cameras, in which he surrounded himself with officers in uniform and didn't say anything very new. In Ramallah, however, Abbas already knew how to evaluate the results of the meeting.

Israel is facing a massive ground operation in the Strip, Abbas said. A senior security source told Haaretz on Thursday, "We find ourselves at a crossroads from which we can enter the Strip." The reasoning is nothing new: "Israel held back for a long time, Hamas continues the rocket fire, and even increased the amount, and the organization is still holding some two thirds of medium-range rockets that were in their possession at the start of the campaign" (Meaning, Hamas is likely to keep firing them if the IDF does not act more forcefully to stop the barrages).

A ground operation is looking more likely. This assessment is strengthened by the impression that Hamas has rejected various mediation efforts so far, and has relayed the message to whoever they speak to that currenty there is nothing to be discussed. The question of how deep Israel's ground maneuver will go is still open, however. The numbers are interesting: In Operation Pillar of Defense, which didn't see a ground operation in the end, some 75,000 IDF reservists were called up. This time the cabinet approved calling up 40,000 reservists, but the army has still not called up more than half that number. Those who were called up don't belong to the reserve divisions that will be deployed in the Strip. They are mainly soldiers in different roles in the 'Gaza envelope' (logistics, intelligence and other non-combat roles) from regular divisions, the Home Front Command, and in infantry battalions that replaced regular battalions that were sent from the West Bank and the northern border to the south.

A broad campaign really also requires deploying reserve divisions, but sending such units out on campaign takes time. A considerable period of time passes between the automatic call that tells reservists to leave their homes and them being ready for action in Gaza. In other words, the government has acted so far as if it has time. Even if a ground operation is approved, it is not clear what scope it will have.

Two significant differences exist between a ground invasion of Gaza today, and the one during Operation Cast Lead in 2009. The first lies in Iron Dome, which gives the government a secure home front buffer, and prevents heavy losses. The second is that Hamas' rockets already cover two-thirds of Israel. Pushing back the launch squads into the depths of the densely built up areas of Gaza won’t take many Israelis out of the firing line. Dealing with Hamas' rocket infrastructure will take weeks, if not months.

The government doesn't look like it has the stamina required for this. This complex reality is the cause of tensions between the military and political leaderships, surfacing after weeks of close coordination and a good atmosphere. Netanyahu's circle is starting to complain about IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, and the major-generals who aren't suggesting original solutions to the situation. Within the IDF, particularly in divisions on the ground, they don't entirely understand what the politicians want and why they aren't giving clearer orders.

In the absence of decisive achievements, Hamas and Israel are waging an image battle. Their moves are the subject of constant media coverage, and, more than in the past, they are using information and photos from civilians, through smart phones and social media. It is clear that the IDF is trying very hard not to let Hamas win the media battle. 

On Wednesday, Major-General Eshel, the air force commander, travelled to the air force base in the Negev, south Israel, as rocket alert sirens sounded in the background. Eshel's first thought, as he travelled on Route 6, was to stop the car by the side of the road, like other citizens, to get out of the car and find shelter. After all, that's what the Home Front Command advises citizens to do. But he changed his mind. That's just what I need, he thought to himself, for someone to photograph me crouching, in uniform and with my rank, behind a shelter. The pictures would be distributed everywhere and the General Staff will be described as being scared of Hamas. Instead, Eshel sped up and drove away. In the circumstances, it looks like he did the right thing.  

Alon Ron